Wednesday, May 26, 2010

2a Turner's Frontier Thesis

This week's reading is Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis" (1893).

Turner delivered his thesis lecture at the Chicago World's Fair Columbian Exposition of 1893, at one of the early meetings of the American Historical Association. Outside the gates of this fair, Buffalo Bill re-enacted his Wild West Show, in a piece of pop-culture entertainment that was also part of the frontier myth. That is not to denigrate Turner: he was a great writer and promoter. But like all historians, he was also drawing from the larger culture, including the Leatherstocking, Boone, and Buffalo Bill myths that preceded him. Turner's frontier thesis helped him become a professor at Harvard, the president of the American Historical Association, and the leading trainer of at least a generation of American historians.

"Turner's essay is the single most influential piece of writing in American history," John Mack Faragher wrote in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner. "The frontier thesis became the most familiar model of American history, the one learned in school, extolled by politicians, and screened each Saturday afternoon at the Bijou." So what is Turner's frontier thesis?
“The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization," Turner declared. “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....

“Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by....

“And to study this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history."
Before Turner, many history students had memorized European monarchs. Many Americans did not think there was much American history to study. Turner proposed a framework for studying the uniqueness of America through examining the character of America's pioneers.

Here is Turner, photographed next to his books. He had grown up in Wisconsin as it turned from a place for hunting and logging into a place for farming, and that experience affected his views. 

As the quotes above show, Turner believed there was a sort of evolution, visible at Cumberland Gap: from the buffalo to the Indian to the fur-trader, cowboy, and then farmer. He believed that the force of westward expansion forged the American character. He believed there was such a thing as an American character, and that that character was individualistic, practical, militarily-skilled, and formed by economic opportunity and social mobility. He believed that westering American character helped secure our democracy.

“In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics...." By "race," here, Turner means a general white American, instead of a British-American, French-American, or Irish-American. Turner lived at a time when "Irish" and "French" were considered races. Turner doesn't seem to be speaking about Asian-Americans or Mexican-Americans or African-Americans, only about what we would now call Ethnic European Americans.

In 1893, Turner was worried because the 1890 census had declared the frontier closed. What would now provide the character-forming melting-pot of Americans? What would now provide that "opportunity for a competency" that had kept Americans from having many poor people? "So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power," Turner wrote, in another important sentence. 1893 was the beginning of a depression, it was a time of immense immigration, it was a time to worry about the closing of the frontier. Turner hints that we might need to find new frontiers:

“Movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise.”

In some ways, Turner's theory is an extended prose caption to the painting we saw in post 1b, George Bingham's "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap" -- except that Bingham included women, and Turner doesn't.

There is much that Turner didn't see:
* He didn't consider the perspective of anyone not crossing Cumberland Gap; anyone for whom the west was actually the east (as it was for Asians) or the north (as it was for Mexicans) or the south (as it was for Canadians and some Russians), or just home (as it was for Native Americans).
* He didn't see that it was groups who settled the west, more than individuals: families, religious sects (especially Mormons, but also various utopians), and especially corporations (especially railroads).
* He didn't see that America's west relied on government subsidies for irrigation, transportation, and other infrastructure.
* He didn't see that cities were such an integral part of western expansion that Chicago and San Francisco came first, before the pioneer cowboy.
* He didn't notice women, children, or racial minorities
* And he didn't know (he couldn't know in 1893) that the government actually gave away more free land after 1890 than before.

Why am I assigning you something that has been subject to almost a century of debunking? Because Turner’s thesis still matters. Even if you had never read Turner’s thesis, you are probably familiar with the general story he tells: the nobility of the cowboy, the adventure of settlement, the importance of open space to the American character. It’s in every Marlboro Man ad, every western movie, every Boy Scouts meeting, every wilderness campground.

The myth is still with us, whether we are fans of John Wayne, fans of the anti-Wayne “Deadwood,” or bored by our culture's continual re-creation of westerns. The myth is with us in our assumptions about who is an average American, what is noble, who is trusted, how much government is good, what is our relationship to the environment. It is one of our founding myths and versions of it can be found everywhere from Disneyland to the daily newspaper.

It is a myth that has had powerful consequences, as we can see by considering Teddy Roosevelt, our 26th president -- the subject of the next blog post.


  1. Dear Elaine,
    I am a student in an American Studies seminar at the University of W├╝rzburg, Germany, and my term paper titles "The Frontier in American Ideology". Thank you for your analysis of the Turner Essay, it is quite helpful to me.

  2. so i have to answer this question; Dr. Lewinnek ends her piece by saying, "Turner's Thesis still matters." do you agree or disagree with this statement? explain in a complete paragraph why or why not

  3. Helpful ideas - I am thankful for the specifics . Does anyone know where I might be able to acquire a fillable IRS 1098 document to work with ?

  4. Hello Kathrina . my colleague worked with a template Personal Financial Statement form here