Fredrick Jackson Turner was an American Historian who examined the unique characteristics that defined American Culture. Turner was a well educated man receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884 and his Masters Degree in 1888. He continued his education at John Hopkins University and received a PhD in history. He taught most of his professional life at the University of Wisconsin and then Harvard in 1910. Rise of the West, and Significance of Sections in American History for which he received the Pulitzer Prize have become standards in the study of American History.
He is most well known for his “Frontier Thesis” which he developed in 1893. Shortly, after the United States Census Bureau in 1890 declared the American Frontier officially closed, Jackson’s interest was peaked and he set out to study and analyze America’s relationship with it’s own frontier. In 1893 he publicly spoke about this thesis in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
He stated “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.
” In 1921, Fredrick Jackson Turner published a full length text titled The Frontier in American History. In it he explores his thesis which stated “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” (Turner 1)
Turner’s fascination with the frontier and probably his inspiration for studying and understanding the importance of the American Frontier in American History stems back to his childhood. He grew up in in Portage, Wisconsin. His backyard bumped right against the meeting of two bodies of water – Fox River and Wisconsin River. The small town had many characteristics that would have been found in frontier town. When he describes his childhood he tells of the Native American teepees where he fished as a boy. Native Americans were often in town to sell various pieces of craft and jewelry to the local stores.
To understand America and its culture it was extremely important to understand the frontier and America’s connection to it. Turner believed that the frontier “Americanized Americans“. This Americanization lasted close to 300 years, starting at the colonization of the New England coast and continuing until the west was completely settled. The free land offered in the west, the frontier, was a safety net which offered property ownership opportunities to people who traditionally could no afford to own anything. In the text of The Frontier of American History, he comments “”So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power” (Turner 32).
Discontent and poverty revolts were almost unheard in those 300 years. He argues that the frontier produces and shapes a particular type of man who is full “of coarseness and strength…acuteness and inquisitiveness, (of) that practical and inventive turn of mind…(full of) restless and nervous energy… that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.…” (Turner 37). Turner’s believed that the western movement was the main factor contributing to the basis of American’s institutions and culture. Conditions of living and conquering the wilderness permanently altered the European settlers of the New England coastline to a new national breed.
Turner goes on to compare the American Frontier to Europe. In explaining their similarities, he states” What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, the ever-retreating frontier has been to the United States directly“ (Turner 38). Turner continues to explain that to the while Europe had it’s own frontiers, it effected them “more remotely“. Turner believed that the frontier shaped the American character and the closing of the Western Frontier signified the United States graduating from it’s initial development into something much more mature.
Turner summaries by commenting “ 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” (Turner 38). In The Frontier of American History, while he writes about America as an example he gives a detailed general explanation that he believes could be used in understanding other nation’s cultural growth patterns. Fredrick Turner believes that the growth and settlement is the first period of progress in any nation’s development. This expansion is followed by followed by periods of social and economic development. Each of which is frontier all it’s own. Turner explains with an example:
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. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between (Turner 12)
He believed that the American West created the first truly free man. The European Frontier was nothing more than people recreating Old World values and deferring to authority. The frontier in America had no law, no authority, and men lived by their wits. America thinks of it’s frontier as being within the country not at the edge. There is no line which separates the frontier from settled land. America’s frontier is transient and terrestrial. However, the European frontier is fixed, and completely permanent.
Turner’s research and thesis contrasted strikingly with his historic contemporaries who believed that America was based on Europe. And it was the European historical legacy brought over with the colonists that gave America it’s uniqueness. Fredrick Turner believed that the American Frontier and the surrounding experiences should be respected and spoke about of with dignity.
Of course there are several flaws in his thesis. He failed to speak about the effect of the American Frontier on women and minorities. Turner’s theory was deemed ethnocentric and nationalistic. His premise also showed a large separation between rural American and the future urban or city culture. Another problem with his safety net proposal is that it is not true for anything after the Civil War. In the slavery ridden South many blacks sought refuge in the frontier before the Civil War. However, after the Civl War, the poverty stricken south it was impossible for people to have enough money for transportation, and setting up homesteads in the West.
It is important to note that Turner’s Frontier Thesis goes head to head with the theory that slavery was the defining factor in American history. The government actually gave away more free land after the official closing of the American Frontier than in all the years preceding 1890. Turner’s thesis and research were not, at the time of it’s original, publication embraced.
Much of that coldness he received from his peers was due to his blunt, forceful nature and writing style. When he spoke about his “Frontier Thesis”, he commanded his fellow historians to turn their mindset from European history to the American West. He comments often that American Historians ‘had it all wrong’ and he was right. His aggressive preaching may have turned other researchers off to even considering his thesis.
Fredrick Jackson Turner does a good job of fleshing out his thesis. I do agree that the American Frontier had a huge effect on defining what America is and who Americans are. I do think that Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” has it’s problems which I stated above. I think it is important to point out that understanding the birth of truly American Ideals you must look at several different theories developed by various Historians. I agree with the points that Fredrick Turner makes. Especially concerning how settlers of the frontier needed to be self sufficient and self governing.
Regardless, if historians agree with Turner or agree to disagree the impact of his “Frontier Thesis, is indisputable. He introduced the idea that daily events of regular people make up history – that is it is true history. He nurtured and detailed his belief that the physical land can be a major factor in defining and shaping a culture, particularly the American Culture. Fredrick Jackson Turner breathed life into the American Western landscape, letting the Frontier transform from a mere setting to a powerful tool in chiseling the America’s historical and cultural legacy.
Hutton, T.R.C. “Beating a Dead Horse?: The Continuing Presence of Frederick Jackson Turner in Environmental and Western History.” International Social Science Review (2002): 47+. Questia. 10 Dec. 2005 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5000838961>.
Ritchie, Robert C., and Paul Andrew Hutton, eds. Frontier and Region: Essays in Honor of Martin Ridge. 1st ed. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1997. Questia. 10 Dec. 2005 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=10400476>.
Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1921. Questia. 10 Dec. 2005 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=10376565>.
White, Richard, and Richard White. “Chapter Ten When Frederick Jackson TurnerAnd Buffalo Bill Cody BothPlayed Chicago in 1893.” Frontier and Region: Essays in Honor of Martin Ridge. Ed. Robert C. Ritchie and Paul Andrew Hutton. 1st ed. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1997. 201-211. Questia. 10 Dec. 2005 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=10400690>.