“The Significance of the Frontier in American History” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In his seminal 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner presents his frontier thesis, a framework through which many historians would study and understand the American West and its effect on American democracy and national character for the next century. In this essay, Turner argues that the availability of free, unsettled land beyond the western edge of settlement in the United States and the accommodations that settlers needed to make once they arrived on that frontier were the factors that have made the United States distinct from Europe. This unique frontier heritage explained not only the American love of freedom, but also the freedom that characterized American political, economic, and social structures. The challenges of settling the frontier fostered a strong sense of individualism and practicality that were not found in the same form under European hierarchical class structures or traditional customs. Turner’s thesis gave the identification of Americans with the West a degree of intellectual legitimacy. There were, however, historians in Turner’s day–most notably Charles Beard–who disputed the idea that the frontier was the formative factor in the development of the American national character and political culture. However, even today, popular historians still reference Turner’s moving frontier, where free, unsettled land acts as the principal Americanizing force.

Summary Overview

In his seminal 1893 essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner presents his frontier thesis, a framework through which many historians would study and understand the American West and its effect on American democracy and national character for the next century. In this essay, Turner argues that the availability of free, unsettled land beyond the western edge of settlement in the United States and the accommodations that settlers needed to make once they arrived on that frontier were the factors that have made the United States distinct from Europe. This unique frontier heritage explained not only the American love of freedom, but also the freedom that characterized American political, economic, and social structures. The challenges of settling the frontier fostered a strong sense of individualism and practicality that were not found in the same form under European hierarchical class structures or traditional customs. Turner’s thesis gave the identification of Americans with the West a degree of intellectual legitimacy. There were, however, historians in Turner’s day–most notably Charles Beard–who disputed the idea that the frontier was the formative factor in the development of the American national character and political culture. However, even today, popular historians still reference Turner’s moving frontier, where free, unsettled land acts as the principal Americanizing force.

Defining Moment

The United States was undergoing a number of significant transformations at the time that Frederick Jackson Turner presented “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” at a meeting of the American Historical Association at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Industrial Revolution was rapidly changing the ratio of rural to urban dwellers, as well as the nature of the work that the average American performed. Large waves of immigration, mostly from southern and eastern Europe, were changing many people’s perceptions of what it meant to be an American. The large-scale migration to the American West that began in earnest after the Civil War had been changing the nation in many important ways over three decades.

When Turner stepped to the podium on July 12, 1893, at the world fair held in Chicago to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the New World, it is doubtful that many in the audience expected him to deliver an address that would become a defining paradigm for the study of US history. His was the last of five lengthy presentations given that evening, mostly on rather mundane topics. Up to that point, the so-called germ theory of politics was one common hypothesis used to explain the historical and cultural development of the United States, positing antecedents for American institutions in the ancient Teutonic tribes of central Europe. But what the germ theory could not explain was the changes that were reshaping American society in the late nineteenth century. What had made the United States unique, and why was it now becoming more like Europe (urban, industrial, and ethnically diverse)?

The answer, to Turner, lay in the 1890 US Census Bureau report. In 1890, for the first time, settlements in the West were so numerous and widely distributed that there was no “frontier line”–a line on the map to the east of which there was a population of more than two people per square mile, and to the west of which there were fewer than two people per square mile. Now that the United States no longer had an open and unsettled frontier, Turner took the opportunity to examine the role the frontier had played in US history up until that point. It was a simple idea and a simple framework for examining an entire era of American history, but Turner’s frontier thesis had a profound effect, both on how historians talked about the nation and on how Americans thought of themselves, the vibrancy of American democracy, and what was going to come next for the nation.

Author Biography

Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, on November 14, 1861. His father was a journalist and amateur local historian, who sparked Turner’s interest in history. Turner attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1884, and went on to graduate school under the mentorship of the well-known historian Herbert Baxter Adams at Johns Hopkins University, where Turner received his PhD in history in 1890. At that time, he was teaching at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin.

Although the response to Turner’s 1893 address was less than enthusiastic both inside and outside of the historical profession, Turner’s perseverance gradually won acceptance of his ideas. His notoriety was so great that in 1910 he left the University of Wisconsin for a position at Harvard University, where he remained until 1924. He then worked as a research associate at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, until his death on March 14, 1932.

Document Analysis

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis begins with a simple statement of fact: the frontier, the line between densely populated and sparsely populated land, was gone as of 1890, according to the US Census report. In this essay, Turner seizes upon that simple fact to reflect upon and argue a whole host of points about the development and unique aspects of American society. Whereas many historians have criticized Turner’s thesis, arguing against his assertions about American exceptionalism in regard to egalitarianism, many others have used Turner’s thesis as the basis for their fundamental views on what defines and distinguishes the United States and Americans. In the most sweeping of statements, Turner asserted that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development. . . . Now, the peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people–to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the complexity of city life.” Turner clearly saw the frontier’s influence as foundational to the development of a distinct American national character, as well American political and social institutions and customs. He contrasts the United States with most other countries, where “development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing people whom it has conquered.”

What Turner describes as the frontier line was less a specific location than a process that was repeated time after time as Americans pushed ever further west. Americans, entering a new territory, had to create new institutions out of a raw, unsettled, and primitive setting. These institutions had to serve the needs of a population made up of people who typically did not own the property they tilled and were roughly equal with one another. Turner believed that the availability of free land to be tamed by American settlers was what ensured the independence of thought that many foreign commentators, such as Alexis de Tocqueville and J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur, had written about as a distinguishing feature of the American people. That independence filtered up to the national government, and Turner argues that the central ideas about the role of the government in the United States were first created on the frontier.

In terms of the development of American society, Turner argued that “this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.” Whereas the East Coast was the great commercial and cultural center of the nation at the time, Turner asserts that the forces that created American society were not furnished by immigrants from Europe but from the harsh experiences of settlers in the West. Turner argues that the West was where savagery met civilization, and the interaction between the two provided continual vitality to the progress of American society.

Turner’s thesis asserts that the frontier process explains what he calls the “the first period of American history,” but the unspoken corollary of Turner’s thesis was that there was uncertainty at best as to what would happen during the next century, now that the availability of unsettled land in the West had been exhausted. His implicit conclusion is that, with the disappearance of the frontier, the United States could become more susceptible to the class tensions and social ills that he associated with Europe.

Essential Themes

Turner had his critics, even among his contemporaries. Another prominent historian of the time, Charles Beard, asserted that while the availability of free land was an important factor, that alone could not explain American development, but needed to be combined with the spread of agriculture and the presence of slavery, common labor, and capitalism. However, throughout the early twentieth century, it seemed that Turner’s disciples outnumbered his critics. Some of Turner’s most prominent adherents were Ray Allen Billington, whose book Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1949) relied heavily on the Turner thesis, and Walter Prescott Webb, who used the Turner thesis to explain the development of white American populations in various locations from the Great Plains to the Southwest.

Beginning in the 1960s, many historians began to turn away from Turner’s triumphalist celebration of western individualism and egalitarianism. With the emergence of the field of new western history in the 1980s, Turner’s frontier thesis fell further out of favor. The work of new western historians concentrate on aspects of America’s frontier past that Turner and his disciples had never considered adequately in their work, arguing that factors other than the process of settling the frontier make the history of the American West distinctive. Further, new western historians have sought to illuminate the experiences of those not included in Turner’s West, namely women, American Indians, and other minority groups. New western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick challenges many elements of the Turner thesis in her 1987 book The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West; for example, Limerick highlights the cultural diversity of the West and the competition for resources among various ethnic groups as critical to the historical development of the region.

However, Turner’s ideas have not been done away with completely. Contemporary adherents of the Turner thesis have accepted the fact that the new western historians added the experiences of previously overlooked groups to the historical study of the American West but assert that the Turner thesis is still useful as a tool to explain the progressive development of the United States through the advance of the frontier line. Furthermore, Turner’s ideas have had a significant influence on the field of environmental history, which emerged in the 1980s and examines the influence of the regional environment on societal development in cultures worldwide. Well over a century after its initial presentation, Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis still looms large in both historical discussions as well as dialogues over whether there is an exceptional nature to the American character.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cronon, William. “Turner’s First Stand: The Significance of Significance in American History.” Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians. Ed. R. W. Etulain. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1991. 73–101. Print.
  • Gressley, Gene M. “The Turner Thesis: A Problem in Historiography.” Agricultural History 32.4 (1958): 227–49. Print.
  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds. Trails: Toward a New Western History. Lawrence: UP of Kansas, 1991. Print.
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. Rev. ed. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1994. Print
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