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.

Historical Document

This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development. Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications lie the vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. 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.

Said Calhoun in 1817, “We are great, and rapidly—I was about to say fearfully—growing!” So saying, he touched the distinguishing feature of American life. All peoples show development: the germ theory of politics has been sufficiently emphasized. In the case of most nations, however, the development has occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a different phenomenon.

Limiting our attention to the Atlantic Coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise of representative government; the differentiation of simple colonial governments into complex organs; the progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area.

American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. 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. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic Coast, it is the Great West. Even the slavery struggle, which is made so exclusive an object of attention by writers like Professor von Holst, occupies its important place in American history because of its relation to westward expansion.

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.

What is the frontier? It is not the European frontier—a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about it is that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt, including the Indian country and the outer margin of the “settled area” of the census reports. This paper will make no attempt to treat the subject exhaustively; its aim is simply to call attention to the frontier as a fertile field for investigation, and to suggest some of the problems which arise in connection with it.

But with all these similarities there are essential differences, due to the place element and the time element. It is evident that the farming frontier of the Mississippi Valley presents different conditions from the mining frontier of the Rocky Mountains. The frontier reached by the Pacific Railroad, surveyed into rectangles, guarded by the United States Army, and recruited by the daily immigrant ship, moves forward at a swifter pace and in a different way than the frontier reached by the birch canoe or the pack horse. The geologist traces patiently the shores of ancient seas, maps their areas, and compares the older and the newer. It would be a work worth the historian's labors to mark these various frontiers and in detail compare one with another. Not only would there result a more adequate conception of American development and characteristics, but invaluable additions would be made to the history of society.

Loria, the Italian economist, has urged the study of colonial life as an aid in understanding the stages of European development, affirming that colonial settlement is for economic science what the mountain is for geology, bringing to light primitive stratifications. “America,” he says, “has the key to the historical enigma which Europe has sought for centuries in vain, and the land which has no history reveals luminously the course of universal history.” He is right. The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read from west to east we find the record of social evolution.

It would not be possible in the limits of this paper to trace the other frontiers across the continent. Travelers of the eighteenth century found the “cowpens” among the canebrakes and pea-vine pastures of the South, and the “cow drivers” took their droves to Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York. Travelers at the close of the War of 1812 met droves of more than a thousand cattle and swine from the interior of Ohio going to Pennsylvania to fatten for the Philadelphia market. The ranges of the Great Plains, with ranch and cowboy and nomadic life, are things of yesterday and of to-day. The experience of the Carolina cowpens guided the ranchers of Texas. One element favoring the rapid extension of the rancher's frontier is the fact that in a remote country lacking transportation facilities the product must be in small bulk, or must be able to transport itself, and the cattle raiser could easily drive his product to market. The effect of these great ranches on the subsequent agrarian history of the localities in which they existed should be studied.

The maps of the census reports show an uneven advance of the farmer's frontier, with tongues of settlement pushed forward and with indentations of wilderness. In part this is due to Indian resistance, in part to the location of river valleys and passes, in part to the unequal force of the centers of frontier attraction. Among the important centers of attraction may be mentioned the following: fertile and favorably situated soils, salt springs, mines, and army posts.

The frontier army post, serving to protect the settlers from the Indians, has also acted as a wedge to open the Indian country, and has been a nucleus for settlement. In this connection, mention should also be made of the government military and exploring expeditions in determining the lines of settlement. But all the more important expeditions were greatly indebted to the earliest pathmakers, the Indian guides, the traders and trappers, and the French voyageurs, who were inevitable parts of governmental expeditions from the days of Lewis and Clark. Each expedition was an epitome of the previous factors in western advance.

In an interesting monograph, Victor Hehn has traced the effect of salt upon early European development, and has pointed out how it affected the lines of settlement and the form of administration. A similar study might be made for the salt springs of the United States. The early settlers were tied to the coast by the need of salt, without which they could not preserve their meats or live in comfort. Writing in 1752, Bishop Spangenburg says of a colony for which he was seeking lands in North Carolina,

They will require salt & other necessaries which they can neither manufacture nor raise. Either they must go to Charleston, which is 300 miles distant…Or else they must go to Boling's Point in Va on a branch of the James & is also 300 miles from here…Or else they must go down the Roanoke—I know not how many miles—where salt is brought up from the Cape Fear. This may serve as a typical illustration.

An annual pilgrimage to the coast for salt thus became essential. Taking flocks or furs and ginseng root, the early settlers sent their pack trains after seeding time each year to the coast. This proved to be an important educational influence, since it was almost the only way in which the pioneer learned what was going on in the East. But when discovery was made of the salt springs of the Kanawha, and the Holston, and Kentucky, and central New York, the West began to be freed from dependence on the coast. It was in part the effect of finding these salt springs that enabled settlement to cross the mountains.

From the time the mountains rose between the pioneer and the seaboard, a new order of Americanism arose. The West and the East began to get out of touch of each other. The settlements from the sea to the mountains kept connection with the rear and had a certain solidarity. But the over-mountain men grew more and more independent. The East took a narrow view of American advance, and nearly lost these men. Kentucky and Tennessee history bears abundant witness to the truth of this statement. The East began to try to hedge and limit westward expansion. Though Webster could declare that there were no Alleghenies in his politics, yet in politics in general they were a very solid factor.

Good soils have been the most continuous attraction to the farmer's frontier. The land hunger of the Virginians drew them down the rivers into Carolina, in early colonial days; the search for soils took the Massachusetts men to Pennsylvania and to New York. The exploitation of the beasts took hunter and trader to the West, the exploitation of the grasses took the rancher west, and the exploitation of the virgin soil of the river valleys and prairies attracted the farmer. As the eastern lands were taken up, migration flowed across them to the west. Daniel Boone, the great backwoodsman, who combined the occupations of hunter, trader, cattle-raiser, farmer, and surveyor—learning, probably from the traders, of the fertility of the lands of the upper Yadkin, where the traders were wont to rest as they took their way to the Indians, left his Pennsylvania home with his father, and passed down the Great Valley road to that stream.

Learning from a trader whose posts were on the Red River in Kentucky of its game and rich pastures, he pioneered the way for the farmers to that region. Thence he passed to the frontier of Missouri, where his settlement was long a landmark on the frontier. Here again he helped to open the way for civilization, finding salt licks, and trails, and land. His son was among the earliest trappers in the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and his party are said to have been the first to camp on the present site of Denver. His grandson, Col. A. J. Boone, of Colorado, was a power among the Indians of the Rocky Mountains, and was appointed an agent by the government. “Kit” Carson's mother was a Boone. Thus this family epitomizes the backwoodsman's advance across the continent.

The farmer's advance came in a distinct series of waves. In Peck's New Guide to the West, published in Cincinnati in 1848, occurs this suggestive passage:

Generally, in all the western settlements, three classes, like the waves of the ocean, have rolled one after the other. First comes the pioneer, who depends for the subsistence of his family chiefly upon the natural growth of vegetation, called the “range,” and the proceeds of hunting. His implements of agriculture are rude, chiefly of his own make, and his efforts directed mainly to a crop of corn and a “truck patch.” The last is a rude garden for growing cabbage, beans, corn for roasting ears, cucumbers, and potatoes. A log cabin, and, occasionally, a stable and corn-crib, and a field of a dozen acres, the timber girdled or “deadened,” and fenced, are enough for his occupancy. It is quite immaterial whether he ever becomes the owner of the soil. He is the occupant for the time being, pays no rent, and feels as independent as the “lord of the manor.”

With a horse, cow, and one or two breeders of swine, he strikes into the woods with his family, and becomes the founder of a new county, or perhaps state. He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits, and occupies till range is somewhat subdued, and hunting a little precarious, or, which is more frequently the case, till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The Preemption Law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he “breaks for the high timber, clears out for the New Purchase,” or migrates to Arkansas or Texas to work the same process over.

The next class of emigrants purchase the lands, add field to field, clear out the roads, throw rough bridges over the streams, put up hewn log houses, with glass windows and brick or stone chimneys, occasionally plant orchards, build mills, school-houses, courthouses, etc., and exhibit the picture and forms of plain, frugal, civilized life.

Another wave rolls on. The men of capital and enterprise come. The settler is ready to sell out and take the advantage of the rise in property, push farther into the interior and become, himself, a man of capital and enterprise in turn. The small village rises to a spacious town or city; substantial edifices of brick, extensive fields, orchards, gardens, colleges, and churches are seen. Broad-cloths, silks, leghorns, crepes, and all the refinements, luxuries, elegancies, frivolities, and fashions are in vogue. Thus wave after wave is rolling westward—the real Eldorado is still farther on.

A portion of the two first classes remain stationary amidst the general movement, improve their habits and condition, and rise in the scale of society.

The writer has traveled much amongst the first class—the real pioneers. He has lived many years in connection with the second grade; and now the third wave is sweeping over large districts of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. Migration has become almost a habit in the West. Hundreds of men can be found, not over 50 years of age, who have settled for the fourth, fifth, or sixth time on a new spot. To sell out and remove only a few hundred miles makes up a portion of the variety of backwoods life and manners.

Omitting the pioneer farmer who moves from the love of adventure, the advance of the more steady farmer is easy to understand. Obviously the immigrant was attracted by the cheap lands of the frontier, and even the native farmer felt their influence strongly. Year by year the farmers who lived on soil, whose returns were diminished by unrotated crops were offered the virgin soil of the frontier at nominal prices. Their growing families demanded more lands, and these were dear. The competition of the unexhausted, cheap, and easily tilled prairie lands compelled the farmer either to go west and continue the exhaustion of the soil on a new frontier, or to adopt intensive culture. Thus the census of 1890 shows, in the Northwest, many counties in which there is an absolute or a relative decrease of population. These States have been sending farmers to advance the frontier on the Plains, and have themselves begun to turn to intensive farming and to manufacture. A decade before this, Ohio had shown the same transition stage. Thus the demand for land and the love of wilderness freedom drew the frontier ever onward.

Having now roughly outlined the various kinds of frontiers and their modes of advance, chiefly from the point of view of the frontier itself, we may next inquire what were the influences on the East and on the Old World. A rapid enumeration of some of the more noteworthy effects is all that I have time for.

First, we note that the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. The Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans, or “Pennsylvania Dutch,” furnished the dominant element in the stock of the colonial frontier. With these peoples were also the freed indented servants, or redemptioners, who at the expiration of their time of service passed to the frontier. Governor Spotswood of Virginia writes in 1717, “The inhabitants of our frontiers are composed generally of such as have been transported hither as servants, and, being out of their time, settle themselves where land is to be taken up and that will produce the necessaries of life with little labor.” Very generally these redemptioners were of non-English stock.

In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics. The process has gone on from the early days to our own. Burke and other writers in the middle of the eighteenth century believed that Pennsylvania was “threatened with the danger of being wholly foreign in language, manners, and perhaps even inclinations.” The German and Scotch-Irish elements in the frontier of the South were only less great. In the middle of the present century the German element in Wisconsin was already so considerable that leading publicists looked to the creation of a German state out of the commonwealth by concentrating their colonization. Such examples teach us to beware of misinterpreting the fact that there is a common English speech in America into a belief that the stock is also English.

In another way the advance of the frontier decreased our dependence on England. The coast, particularly of the South, lacked diversified industries, and was dependent on England for the bulk of its supplies. In the South there was even a dependence on the Northern colonies for articles of food. Governor Glenn of South Carolina writes in the middle of the eighteenth century:

Our trade with New York and Philadelphia was of this sort, draining us of all the little money and bills we could gather from other places for their bread, flour, beer, hams, bacon, and other things of their produce; all which, except beer, our new townships begin to supply us with, which are settled with very industrious and thriving Germans. This no doubt diminishes the number of shipping and the appearance of our trade, but it is far from being a detriment to us.

Before long the frontier created a demand for merchants. As it retreated from the coast it became less and less possible for England to bring her supplies directly to the consumer's wharfs and carry away staple crops, and staple crops began to give way to diversified agriculture for a time. The effect of this phase of the frontier action upon the northern section is perceived when we realize how the advance of the frontier aroused seaboard cities like Boston, New York, and Baltimore, to engage in rivalry for what Washington called “the extensive and valuable trade of a rising empire.”

The legislation which most developed the powers of the national government, and played the largest part in its activity, was conditioned on the frontier….

So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power. But the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit….

From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that, to the frontier, the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.…

For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier.

What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.

Glossary

girdled or “deadened”: a process by which a tree's circumference is cut into or “ringed” in order to kill and dry the tree, thus improving its flotation qualities for river transport

salt lick: a natural surface deposit of salt or other minerals, used by animals for nutritional purposes

Webster: Daniel Webster (1782—1852), US senator from Massachusetts; the quote about “no Alleghenies” refers to Webster's view that state concerns are often national concerns—there are no barriers in that regard

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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