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The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893)

By Frederick J. Turner, 1893

Editor's Note: Please note, this is a short version of the essay subsequently published in Turner's essay collection, The Frontier in American History (1920). This text is closer to the original version delivered at the 1893 meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, published in Annual Report of the American Historical Association , 1893, pp. 197-227.

In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” 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. 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!” [1] 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 Prof. 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.

The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier—a fortified boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier 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.

In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, and how America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment. Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too little to the American factors. The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness; but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. 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.

Stages of Frontier Advance

In the course of the seventeenth century the frontier was advanced up the Atlantic river courses, just beyond the “fall line,” and the tidewater region became the settled area. In the first half of the eighteenth century another advance occurred. Traders followed the Delaware and Shawnese Indians to the Ohio as early as the end of the first quarter of the century. [2] Gov. Spotswood, of Virginia, made an expedition in 1714 across the Blue Ridge. The end of the first quarter of the century saw the advance of the Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans up the Shenandoah Valley into the western part of Virginia, and along the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. [3] The Germans in New York pushed the frontier of settlement up the Mohawk to German Flats. [4] In Pennsylvania the town of Bedford indicates the line of settlement. Settlements had begun on New River, a branch of the Kanawha, and on the sources of the Yadkin and French Broad. [5] The King attempted to arrest the advance by his proclamation of 1763, [6] forbidding settlements beyond the sources of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic; but in vain. In the period of the Revolution the frontier crossed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, and the upper waters of the Ohio were settled. [7] When the first census was taken in 1790, the continuous settled area was bounded by a line which ran near the coast of Maine, and included New England except a portion of Vermont and New Hampshire, New York along the Hudson and up the Mohawk about Schenectady, eastern and southern Pennsylvania, Virginia well across the Shenandoah Valley, and the Carolinas and eastern Georgia. [8] Beyond this region of continuous settlement were the small settled areas of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Ohio, with the mountains intervening between them and the Atlantic area, thus giving a new and important character to the frontier. The isolation of the region increased its peculiarly American tendencies, and the need of transportation facilities to connect it with the East called out important schemes of internal improvement, which will be noted farther on. The “West,” as a self-conscious section, began to evolve.

From decade to decade distinct advances of the frontier occurred. By the census of 1820, [9] the settled area included Ohio, southern Indiana and Illinois, southeastern Missouri, and about one-half of Louisiana. This settled area had surrounded Indian areas, and the management of these tribes became an object of political concern. The frontier region of the time lay along the Great Lakes, where Astor’s American Fur Company operated in the Indian trade, [10] and beyond the Mississippi, where Indian traders extended their activity even to the Rocky Mountains; Florida also furnished frontier conditions. The Mississippi River region was the scene of typical frontier settlements. [11]

The rising steam navigation [12] on western waters, the opening of the Erie Canal, and the westward extension of cotton [13] culture added five frontier states to the Union in this period. Grund, writing in 1836, declares: “It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them, and which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State, in order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a new State or Territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress.” [14]

In the middle of this century the line indicated by the present eastern boundary of Indian Territory, Nebraska, and Kansas marked the frontier of the Indian country. [15] Minnesota and Wisconsin still exhibited frontier conditions, [16] but the distinctive frontier of the period is found in California, where the gold discoveries had sent a sudden tide of adventurous miners, and in Oregon, and the settlements in Utah. [17] As the frontier has leaped over the Alleghanies, so now it skipped the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains; and in the same way that the advance of the frontiersmen beyond the Alleghanies had caused the rise of important questions of transportation and internal improvement, so now the settlers beyond the Rocky Mountains needed means of communication with the East, and in the furnishing of these arose the settlement of the Great Plains and the development of still another kind of frontier life. Railroads, fostered by land grants, sent an increasing tide of immigrants into the far West. The United States Army fought a series of Indian wars in Minnesota, Dakota, and the Indian Territory.

By 1880 the settled area had been pushed into northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, along Dakota rivers, and in the Black Hills region, and was ascending the rivers of Kansas and Nebraska. The development of mines in Colorado had drawn isolated frontier settlements into that region, and Montana and Idaho were receiving settlers. The frontier was found in these mining camps and the ranches of the Great Plains. The superintendent of the census for 1890 reports, as previously stated, that the settlements of the West lie so scattered over the region that there can no longer be said to be a frontier line.

In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark and to affect the characteristics of the frontiers, namely: The “fall line;” the Alleghany Mountains; the Mississippi; the Missouri, where its direction approximates north and south; the line of the arid lands, approximately the ninety-ninth meridian; and the Rocky Mountains. The fall line marked the frontier of the seventeenth century; the Alleghanies that of the eighteenth; the Mississippi that of the first quarter of the nineteenth; the Missouri that of the middle of this century (omitting the California movement); and the belt of the Rocky Mountains and the arid tract, the present frontier. Each was won by a series of Indian wars.

The Frontier Furnishes a Field for Comparative Study of Social Development

At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each successive frontier. We have the complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions. The first frontier had to meet its Indian question, its question of the disposition of the public domain, of the means of intercourse with older settlements, of the extension of political organization, of religious and educational activity. And the settlement of these and similar questions for one frontier served as a guide for the next. The American student needs not to go to the “prim little townships of Sleswick” for illustrations of the law of continuity and development. For example, he may study the origin of our land policies in the colonial land policy; he may see how the system grew by adapting the statutes to the customs of the successive frontiers. [18] He may see how the mining experience in the lead regions of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa was applied to the mining laws of the Rockies, [19] and how our Indian policy has been a series of experimentations on successive frontiers. Each tier of new States has found in the older ones material for its constitutions. [20] Each frontier has made similar contributions to American character, as will be discussed farther on.

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, [21] 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.” There is much truth in this. The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this continental page from west to east we find the record of social evolution. It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system. [22] This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern States this page is a palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the “range” had attracted the cattle-herder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State with varied agricultural interests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time.

Each of these areas has had an influence in our economic and political history; the evolution of each into a higher stage has worked political transformations. But what constitutional historian has made any adequate attempt to interpret political facts by the light of these social areas and changes? [23]

The Atlantic frontier was compounded of fisherman, far trader, miner, cattle-raiser, and farmer. Excepting the fisherman, each type of industry was on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction. Each passed in successive waves across the continent. 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. The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader’s frontier, the rancher’s frontier, or the miner’s frontier, and the farmer’s frontier. When the mines and the cow pens were still near the fall line the traders’ pack trains were tinkling across the Alleghanies, and the French on the Great Lakes were fortifying their posts, alarmed by the British trader’s birch canoe. When the trappers scaled the Rockies, the farmer was still near the mouth of the Missouri.

The Indian Trader’s Frontier

Why was it that the Indian trader passed so rapidly across the continent? What effects followed from the trader’s frontier? The trade was coeval with American discovery, The Norsemen, Vespuccius, Verrazani, Hudson, John Smith, all trafficked for furs. The Plymouth pilgrims settled in Indian cornfields, and their first return cargo was of beaver and lumber. The records of the various New England colonies show how steadily exploration was carried into the wilderness by this trade. What is true for New England is, as would be expected, even plainer for the rest of the colonies. All along the coast from Maine to Georgia the Indian trade opened up the river courses. Steadily the trader passed westward, utilizing the older lines of French trade. The Ohio, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Platte, the lines of western advance, were ascended by traders. They found the passes in the Rocky Mountains and guided Lewis and Clarke, [24] Fremont, and Bidwell. The explanation of the rapidity of this advance is connected with the effects of the trader on the Indian. The trading post left the unarmed tribes at the mercy of those that had purchased fire-arms—a truth which the Iroquois Indians wrote in blood, and so the remote and unvisited tribes gave eager welcome to the trader. “The savages,” wrote La Salle, “take better care of us French than of their own children; from us only can they get guns and goods.” This accounts for the trader’s power and the rapidity of his advance. Thus the disintegrating forces of civilization entered the wilderness. Every river valley and Indian trail became a fissure in Indian society, and so that society became honeycombed. Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene, primitive Indian life had passed away. The farmers met Indians armed with guns. The trading frontier, while steadily undermining Indian power by making the tribes ultimately dependent on the whites, yet, through its sale of guns, gave to the Indians increased power of resistance to the farming frontier. French colonization was dominated by its trading frontier; English colonization by its farming frontier. There was an antagonism between the two frontiers as between the two nations. Said Duquesne to the Iroquois, “Are you ignorant of the difference between the king of England and the king of France? Go see the forts that our king has established and you will see that you can still hunt under their very walls. They have been placed for your advantage in places which you frequent. The English, on the contrary, are no sooner in possession of a place than the game is driven away. The forest falls before them as they advance, and the soil is laid bare so that you can scarce find the wherewithal to erect a shelter for the night.”

And yet, in spite of this opposition of the interests of the trader and the farmer, the Indian trade pioneered the way for civilization. The buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this because the trader’s “trace;” the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads. The same origin can be shown for the railroads of the South, the far West, and the Dominion of Canada. [25] The trading posts reached by these trails were on the sites of Indian villages which had been placed in positions suggested by nature; and these trading posts, situated so as to command the water systems of the country, have grown into such cities as Albany, Pittsburg, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Council Bluffs, and Kansas City. Thus civilization in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country. In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist. [26]

The effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important. From the close of the seventeenth century various intercolonial congresses have been called to treat with Indians and establish common measures of defense. Particularism was strongest in colonies with no Indian frontier. This frontier stretched along the western border like a cord of union. The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action. Most celebrated of these conferences was the Albany congress of 1754, called to treat with the Six Nations, and to consider plans of union. Even a cursory reading of the plan proposed by the congress reveals the importance of the frontier. The powers of the general council and the officers were, chiefly, the determination of peace and war with the Indians, the regulation of Indian trade, the purchase of Indian lands, and the creation and government of new settlements as a security against the Indians. It is evident that the unifying tendencies of the Revolutionary period were facilitated by the previous cooperation in the regulation of the frontier. In this connection may be mentioned the importance of the frontier, from that day to this, as a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman.

The Rancher’s Frontier

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 peavine pastures of the South, and the “cow drivers” took their droves to Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York. [27] 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. [28] 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 Farmer’s Frontier

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. [29] 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 Clarke. [30] Each expedition was an epitome of the previous factors in western advance.

Salt Springs

In an interesting monograph, Victor Hehn [31] 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.” [32] 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. [33] 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 overmountain 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 Alleghanies in his politics, yet in politics in general they were a very solid factor.

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. 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. 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 on 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. [34] 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 Boston in 1837, 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 the 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, schoolhouses, court-houses, 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. Broadcloths, silks, leghorns, crapes, 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. [35]

Omitting those of the pioneer farmers who move 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.

Composite Nationality

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 Spottswood 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 laud is to be taken up and that will produce the necessarys of life with little labour.”36 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 or 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 [37] 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. [38] 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.

Industrial Independence

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.” [39] 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.”

Effects on National Legislation

The legislation which most developed the powers of the National Government, and played the largest part in its activity, was conditioned on the frontier. Writers have discussed the subjects of tariff, land, and internal improvement, as subsidiary to the slavery question. But when American history comes to be rightly viewed it will be seen that the slavery question is an incident. In the period from the end of the first half of the present century to the close of the civil war slavery rose to primary, but far from exclusive, importance. But this does not justify Dr. von Holst (to take an example) in treating our constitutional history in its formative period down to 1828 in a single volume, giving six volumes chiefly to the history of slavery from 1828 to 1861, under the title “Constitutional History of the United States.” The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier. Even so recent a writer as Rhodes, in his History of the United States since the compromise of 1850, has treated the legislation called out by the western advance as incidental to the slavery struggle.

This is a wrong perspective. The pioneer needed the goods of the coast, and so the grand series of internal improvement and railroad legislation began, with potent nationalizing effects. Over internal improvements occurred great debates, in which grave constitutional questions were discussed. Sectional groupings appear in the votes, profoundly significant for the historian. Loose construction increased as the nation marched westward. [40] But the West was not content with bringing the farm to the factory. Under the lead of Clay—“Harry of the West”—protective tariffs were passed, with the cry of bringing the factory to the farm. The disposition of the public lands was a third important subject of national legislation influenced by the frontier.

The Public Domain

The public domain has been a force of profound importance in the nationalization and development of the Government. The effects of the struggle of the landed and the landless States, and of the ordinance of 1787, need no discussion. [41] Administratively the frontier called out some of the highest and most vitalizing activities of the General Government. The purchase of Louisiana was perhaps the constitutional turning point in the history of the Republic, inasmuch as it afforded both a new area for national legislation and the occasion of the downfall of the policy of strict construction. But the purchase of Louisiana was called out by frontier needs and demands. As frontier States accrued to the Union the national power grew. In a speech on the dedication of the Calhoun monument Mr. Lamar explained: “In 1789 the States were the creators of the Federal Government; in 1861 the Federal Government was the creator of a large majority of the States.”

When we consider the public domain from the point of view of the sale and disposal of the public lands we are again brought face to face with the frontier. The policy of the United States in dealing with its lands is in sharp contrast with the European system of scientific administration. Efforts to make this domain a source of revenue, and to withhold it from emigrants in order that settlement might be compact, were in vain. The jealousy and the fears of the East were powerless in the face of the demands of the frontiersmen. John Quincy Adams was obliged to confess: “My own system of administration, which was to make the national domain the inexhaustible fund for progressive and unceasing internal improvement, has failed.” The reason is obvious; a system of administration was not what the West demanded; it wanted land. Adams states the situation as follows: “The slaveholders of the South have bought the cooperation of the western country by the bribe of the western lands, abandoning to the new Western States their own proportion of the public property and aiding them in the design of grasping all the lands into their own hands.” Thomas H. Benton was the author of this system, which he brought forward as a substitute for the American system of Mr. Clay, and to supplant him as the leading statesman of the West. Mr. Clay, by his tariff compromise with Mr. Calhoun, abandoned his own American system. At the same time he brought forward a plan for distributing among all the States of the Union the proceeds of the sales of the public lands. His bill for that purpose passed both Houses of Congress, but was vetoed by President Jackson, who, in his annual message of December, 1832, formally recommended that all public lands should be gratuitously given away to individual adventurers and to the States in which the lands are situated. [42]

“No subject,” said Henry Clay, “which has presented itself to the present, or perhaps any preceding, Congress, is of greater magnitude than that of the public lands.” When we consider the far-reaching effects of the Government’s land policy upon political, economic, and social aspects of American life, we are disposed to agree with him. But this legislation was framed under frontier influences, and under the lead of Western statesmen like Benton and Jackson. Said Senator Scott of Indiana in 1841: “I consider the preemption law merely declaratory of the custom or common law of the settlers.”

National Tendencies of the Frontier

It is safe to say that the legislation with regard to land, tariff, and internal improvements—the American system of the nationalizing Whig party—was conditioned on frontier ideas and needs. But it was not merely in legislative action that the frontier worked against the sectionalism of the coast. The economic and social characteristics of the frontier worked against sectionalism. The men of the frontier had closer resemblances to the Middle region than to either of the other sections. Pennsylvania had been the seed-plot of frontier emigration, and, although she passed on her settlers along the Great Valley into the west of Virginia and the Carolinas, yet the industrial society of these Southern frontiersmen was always more like that of the Middle region than like that of the tide-water portion of the South, which later came to spread its industrial type throughout the South.

The Middle region, entered by New York harbor, was an open door to all Europe. The tide-water part of the South represented typical Englishmen, modified by a warm climate and servile labor, and living in baronial fashion on great plantations; New England stood for a special English movement—Puritanism. The Middle region was less English than the other sections. It had a wide mixture of nationalities, a varied society, the mixed town and county system of local government, a varied economic life, many religious sects. In short, it was a region mediating between New England and the South, and the East and the West. It represented that composite nationality which the contemporary United States exhibits, that juxtaposition of non-English groups, occupying a valley or a little settlement, and presenting reflections of the map of Europe in their variety. It was democratic and nonsectional, if not national; “easy, tolerant, and contented;” rooted strongly in material prosperity. It was typical of the modern United States. It was least sectional, not only because it lay between North and South, but also because with no barriers to shut out its frontiers from its settled region, and with a system of connecting waterways, the Middle region mediated between East and West as well as between North and South. Thus it became the typically American region. Even the New Englander, who was shut out from the frontier by the Middle region, tarrying in New York or Pennsylvania on his westward march, lost the acuteness of his sectionalism on the way. [43]

The spread of cotton culture into the interior of the South finally broke down the contrast between the “tide-water” region and the rest of the State, and based Southern interests on slavery. Before this process revealed its results the western portion of the South, which was akin to Pennsylvania in stock, society, and industry, showed tendencies to fall away from the faith of the fathers into internal improvement legislation and nationalism. In the Virginia convention of 1829–30, called to revise the constitution, Mr. Leigh, of Chesterfield, one of the tide-water counties, declared:

One of the main causes of discontent which led to this convention, that which had the strongest influence in overcoming our veneration for the work of our fathers, which taught us to contemn the sentiments of Henry and Mason and Pendleton, which weaned us from our reverence for the constituted authorities of the State, was an overweening passion for internal improvement. I say this with perfect knowledge, for it has been avowed to me by gentlemen from the West over and over again. And let me tell the gentleman from Albemarle (Mr. Gordon) that it has been another principal object of those who set this ball of revolution in motion, to overturn the doctrine of State rights, of which Virginia has been the very pillar, and to remove the barrier she has interposed to the interference of the Federal Government in that same work of internal improvement, by so reorganizing the legislature that Virginia, too, may be hitched to the Federal car.

It was this nationalizing tendency of the West that transformed the democracy of Jefferson into the national republicanism of Monroe and the democracy of Andrew Jackson. The West of the war of 1812, the West of Clay, and Benton, and Harrison, and Andrew Jackson, shut off by the Middle States and the mountains from the coast sections, had a solidarity of its own with national tendencies. [44] On the tide of the Father of Waters, North and South met and mingled into a nation. Interstate migration went steadily on—a process of cross-fertilization of ideas and institutions. The fierce struggle of the sections over slavery on the western frontier does not diminish the truth of this statement; it proves the truth of it. Slavery was a sectional trait that would not down, but in the West it could not remain sectional. It was the greatest of frontiersmen who declared: “I believe this Government can not endure permanently half slave and half free. It will become all of one thing or all of the other.” Nothing works for nationalism like intercourse within the nation. Mobility of population is death to localism, and the western frontier worked irresistibly in unsettling population. The effects reached back from the frontier and affected profoundly the Atlantic coast and even the Old World.

Growth of Democracy

But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. Prof. Osgood, in an able article, [45] has pointed out that the frontier conditions prevalent in the colonies are important factors in the explanation of the American Revolution, where individual liberty was sometimes confused with absence of all effective government. The same conditions aid in explaining the difficulty of instituting a strong government in the period of the confederacy. The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy.

The frontier States that came into the Union in the first quarter of a century of its existence came in with democratic suffrage provisions, and had reactive effects of the highest importance upon the older States whose peoples were being attracted there. An extension of the franchise became essential. It was western New York that forced an extension of suffrage in the constitutional convention of that State in 1821; and it was western Virginia that compelled the tide-water region to put a more liberal suffrage provision in the constitution framed in 1830, and to give to the frontier region a more nearly proportionate representation with the tide-water aristocracy. The rise of democracy as an effective force in the nation came in with western preponderance under Jackson and William Henry Harrison, and it meant the triumph of the frontier—with all of its good and with all of its evil elements. [46] An interesting illustration of the tone of frontier democracy in 1830 comes from the same debates in the Virginia convention already referred to. A representative from western Virginia declared:

But, sir, it is not the increase of population in the West which this gentleman ought to fear. It is the energy which the mountain breeze and western habits impart to those emigrants. They are regenerated, politically I mean, sir. They soon become working politicians; and the difference, sir, between a talking and a working politician is immense. The Old Dominion has long been celebrated for producing great orators; the ablest metaphysicians in policy; men that can split hairs in all abstruse questions of political economy. But at home, or when they return from Congress, they have negroes to fan them asleep. But a Pennsylvania, a New York, an Ohio, or a western Virginia statesman, though far inferior in logic, metaphysics, and rhetoric to an old Virginia statesman, has this advantage, that when he returns home he takes off his coat and takes hold of the plow. This gives him bone and muscle, sir, and preserves his republican principles pure and uncontaminated.

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 it 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. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking. The colonial and revolutionary frontier was the region whence emanated many of the worst forms of an evil currency. [47] The West in the war of 1812 repeated the phenomenon on the frontier of that day, while the speculation and wild-cat banking of the period of the crisis of 1837 occurred on the new frontier belt of the next tier of States. Thus each one of the periods of lax financial integrity coincides with periods when a new set of frontier communities had arisen, and coincides in area with these successive frontiers, for the most part. The recent Populist agitation is a case in point. Many a State that now declines any connection with the tenets of the Populists, itself adhered to such ideas in an earlier stage of the development of the State. A primitive society can hardly be expected to show the intelligent appreciation of the complexity of business interests in a developed society. The continual recurrence of these areas of paper-money agitation is another evidence that the frontier can be isolated and studied as a factor in American history of the highest importance. [48]

Attempts to Check and Regulate the Frontier

The East has always feared the result of an unregulated advance of the frontier, and has tried to check and guide it. The English authorities would have checked settlement at the headwaters of the Atlantic tributaries and allowed the “savages to enjoy their deserts in quiet lest the peltry trade should decrease.” This called out Burke’s splendid protest:

If you stopped your grants, what would be the consequence? The people would occupy without grants. They have already so occupied in many places. You cannot station garrisons in every part of these deserts. If you drive the people from one place, they will carry on their annual tillage and remove with their flocks and herds to another. Many of the people in the back settlements are already little attached to particular situations. Already they have topped the Appalachian mountains. From thence they behold before them an immense plain, one vast, rich, level meadow; a square of five hundred miles. Over this they would wander without a possibility of restraint; they would change their manners with their habits of life; would soon forget a government by which they were disowned; would become hordes of English Tartars; and, pouring down upon your unfortified frontiers a fierce and irresistible cavalry, become masters of your governors and your counselers, your collectors and comptrollers, and of all the slaves that adhered to them. Such would, and in no long time must, be the effect of attempting to forbid as a crime and to suppress as an evil the command and blessing of Providence, “Increase and multiply.” Such would be the happy result of an endeavor to keep as a lair of wild beasts that earth which God, by an express charter, has given to the children of men.

But the English Government was not alone in its desire to limit the advance of the frontier and guide its destinies. Tidewater Virginia [49] and South Carolina [50] gerrymandered those colonies to insure the dominance of the coast in their legislatures. Washington desired to settle a State at a time in the Northwest; Jefferson would reserve from settlement the territory of his Louisiana purchase north of the thirty-second parallel, in order to offer it to the Indians in exchange for their settlements east of the Mississippi. “When we shall be full on this side,” he writes, “we may lay off a range of States on the western bank from the head to the mouth, and so range after range, advancing compactly as we multiply.” Madison went so far as to argue to the French minister that the United States had no interest in seeing population extend itself on the right bank of the Mississippi, but should rather fear it. When the Oregon question was under debate, in 1824, Smyth, of Virginia, would draw an unchangeable line for the limits of the United States at the outer limit of two tiers of States beyond the Mississippi, complaining that the seaboard States were being drained of the flower of their population by the bringing of too much land into market. Even Thomas Becton, the man of widest views of the destiny of the West, at this stage of his career declared that along the ridge of the Rocky mountains “the western limits of the Republic should be drawn, and the statue of the fabled god Terminus should be raised upon its highest peak, never to be thrown down.” [51] But the attempts to limit the boundaries, to restrict land sales and settlement, and to deprive the West of its share of political power were all in vain. Steadily the frontier of settlement advanced and carried with it individualism, democracy, and nationalism, and powerfully affected the East and the Old World.

Missionary Activity

The most effective efforts of the East to regulate the frontier came through its educational and religious activity, exerted by interstate migration and by organized societies. Speaking in 1835, Dr. Lyman Beecher declared: “It is equally plain that the religious and political destiny of our nation is to be decided in the West,” and he pointed out that the population of the West “is assembled from all the States of the Union and from all the nations of Europe, and is rushing in like the waters of the flood, demanding for its moral preservation the immediate and universal action of those institutions which discipline the mind and arm the conscience, and the heart. And so various are the opinions and habits, and so recent and imperfect is the acquaintance, and so sparse are the settlements of the West, that no homogeneous public sentiment can be formed to legislate immediately into being the requisite institutions. And yet they are all needed immediately in their utmost perfection and power. A nation is being ‘born in a day.’ * * * But what will become of the West if her prosperity rushes up to such a majesty of power, while those great institutions linger which are necessary to form the mind and the conscience and the heart of that vast world. It must not be permitted. * * * Let no man at the East quiet himself and dream of liberty, whatever may become of the West. * * * Her destiny is our destiny.” [52]

With the appeal to the conscience of New England, he adds appeals to her fears lest other religious sects anticipate her own. The New England preacher and school-teacher left their mark on the West. The dread of Western emancipation from New England’s political and economic control was paralleled by her fears lest the West cut loose from her religion. Commenting in 1850 on reports that settlement was rapidly extending northward in Wisconsin, the editor of the Home Missionary writes: “We scarcely know whether to rejoice or mourn over this extension of our settlements. While we sympathize in whatever tends to increase the physical resources and prosperity of our country, we can not forget that with all these dispersions into remote and still remoter corners of the land the supply of the means of grace is becoming relatively less and less.” Acting in accordance with such ideas, home missions were established and Western colleges were erected. As seaboard cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore strove for the mastery of Western trade, so the various denominations strove for the possession of the West. Thus an intellectual stream from New England sources fertilized the West. Other sections sent their missionaries; but the real struggle was between sects. The contest for power and the expansive tendency furnished to the various sects by the existence of a moving frontier must have had important results on the character of religious organization in the United States. The multiplication of rival churches in the little frontier towns had deep and lasting social effects. The religious aspects of the frontier make a chapter in our history which needs study.

Intellectual Traits

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; [53] 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. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them. He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. 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. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. 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.

Since the meeting of the American Historical Association, this paper has also been given as an address to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893. I have to thank the Secretary of the Society, Mr. Reuben G. Thwaites, for securing valuable material for my use in the preparation of the paper.

1. Abridgment of Debates of Congress, v., p. 706.

2. Bancroft (1860 ed.), III, pp. 344, 345, citing Logan MSS.; [Mitchell] Contest in America, etc. (1752), p. 237.

3. Kercheval, History of the Valley; Bernheim, German Settlements in the Carolinas; Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, V, p. 304; Colonial Records of North Carolina, IV, p. xx; Weston, Documents Connected with the History of South Carolina, p. 82; Ellis and Evans, History of Lancaster County, Pa., chs. iii, xxvi.

4. Parkman, Pontiac, II; Griffis, Sir William Johnson, p. 6; Simms’s Frontiersmen of New York.

5. Monette, Mississippi Valley, I, p. 311.

6. Wis. Hist. Cols., XI, p. 50; Hinsdale, Old Northwest, p. 121; Burke, “Oration on Conciliation,” Works (1872 ed.), I, p. 473.

7. Roosevelt, Winning of the West, and citations there given; Cutler’s Life of Cutler.

8. Scribner’s Statistical Atlas, xxxviii, pl. 13; MacMaster, Hist. of People of U. S., I, pp. 4, 60, 61; Imlay and Filson, Western Territory of America (London, 1793); Rochefoucault-Liancourt, Travels Through the United States of North America (London, 1799); Michaux’s “Journal,” in Proceedings American Philosophical Society, XXVI, No. 129; Forman, Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio and Mississippi in 1780–‘90 (Cincinnati, 1888); Bartram, Travels Through North Carolina, etc. (London, 1792); Pope, Tour Through the Southern and Western Territories, etc. (Richmond, 1792); Weld, Travels Through the States of North America (London, 1799); Baily, Journal of a Tour in the Unsettled States of North America, 1796–‘97 (London, 1856); Pennsylvania Magazine of History, July, 1886; Winsor, Narrative and Critical History of America, VII, pp. 491, 492, citations.

9. Scribner’s Statistical Atlas, xxxix.

10. Turner, Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (Johns Hopkins University Studies, Series IX), pp. 61 ff.

11. Monette, History of the Mississippi Valley, II; Flint, Travels and Residence in Mississippi; Flint, Geography and History of the Western States; Abridgment of Debates of Congress, VII, pp. 397, 398, 404; Holmes, Account of the U. S.; Kingdom, America and the British Colonies (London, 1820); Grund, Americans, II, chs. i, iii, vi (although writing, in 1836, he treats of conditions that grew out of western advance from the era of 1820 to that time); Peck, Guide for Emigrants (Boston, 1831); Darby, Emigrants’ Guide to Western and Southwestern States and Territories; Dana, Geographical Sketches in the Western Country; Kinzie, Waubun; Keating, Narrative of Long’s Expedition; Schoolcraft, Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi River, Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley, and Lead Mines of the Missouri; Andreas, History of Illinois, I, 86-99; Hurlbut, Chicago Antiquities; McKenney, Tour to the Lakes; Thomas, Travels through the Western Country, etc. (Auburn, N. Y., 1819).

12. Darby, Emigrants’ Guide, pp. 272 ff.; Benton, Abridgment of Debates, VII, p, 397.

13. De Bow’s Review, IV, p. 254; XVII, p. 428.

14. Grund, Americans, II, p. 8.

15. Peck, New Guide to the West (Cincinnati, 1848), ch. IV; Parkman, Oregon Trail; Hall, The West (Cincinnati, 1848); Pierce, Incidents of Western Travel; Murray, Travels in North America; Lloyd, Steamboat Directory (Cincinnati, 1856); “Forty Days in a Western Hotel” (Chicago), in Putnam’s Magazine, December, 1894; Mackay, The Western World, II, ch. II, III; Meeker, Life in the West; Bogen, German in America (Boston, 1851); Olmstead, Texas Journey; Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life; Schouler, History of the United States, V, 261–267; Peyton, Over the Alleghanies and Across the Prairies (London, 1870); Loughborough, The Pacific Telegraph and Railway (St. Louis, 1849); Whitney, Project for a Railroad to the Pacific (New York, 1849); Peyton, Suggestions on Railroad Communication with the Pacific, and the Trade of China and the Indian Islands; Benton, Highway to the Pacific (a speech delivered in the U. S, Senate, December 16, 1850).

16. A writer in The Home Missionary (1850), p. 239, reporting Wisconsin conditions, exclaims: “Think of this, people of the enlightened East. What an example, to come from the very frontiers of civilization!” But one of the missionaries writes: “In a few years Wisconsin will no longer be considered as the West, or as an outpost of civilization, any more than western New York, or the Western Reserve.”

17. Bancroft (H. H.), History of California, History of Oregon, and Popular Tribunals; Shinn, Mining Camps.

18. See the suggestive paper by Prof. Jesse Macy, The Institutional Beginnings of a Western State.

19. Shinn, Mining Camps.

20. Compare Thorpe, in Annals American Academy of Political and Social Science, September, 1891; Bryce, American Commonwealth (1888), II, p. 689.

21. Loria, Analisi della Proprieta Capitalista, II., p. 15.

22. Compare Observations on the North American Land Company, London, 1796, pp. xv,144; Logan, History of Upper South Carolina, I, pp, 149–151; Turner, Character and Influence of Indian Trade in Wisconsin, p. 18; Peck, New Guide for Emigrants (Boston, 1837), ch. iv; Compendium Eleventh Census, I, p. xl.

23. See pages 220, 221, 223, post, for illustrations of the political accompaniments of changed industrial conditions.

24. But Lewis and Clarke were the first to explore the route from the Missouri to the Columbia.

25. Narrative and Critical History of America, VIII, p.10; Sparks’ Washington Works, IX, pp. 303, 327; Logan, History of Upper South Carolina, I; McDonald, Life of Kenton, p. 72; Cong. Record, XXIII, p. 57.

26. On the effect of the fur trade in opening the routes of migration, see the author’s Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin.

27. Lodge, English Colonies, p. 152 and citations; Logan, Hist. of Upper South Carolina, I, p. 151.

28. Flint, Recollections, p. 9.

29. See Monette, Mississippi, I, p. 344.

30. Cones’, Lewis and Clarke’s Expedition, I, pp. 2, 253–259; Benton, in Cong. Record, XXIII, p. 57.

31. Hehn, Das Salz (Berlin, 1873).

32. Col. Records of N. C., V, p. 3.

33. Findley, History of the Insurrection in the Four Western Counties of Pennsylvania in the Year 1,794 (Philadelphia, 1796), p. 35.

34. Hale, Daniel Boone (pamphlet).

35. Compare Baily, Tour in the Unsettled Parts of North America (London, 1856), pp. 217–219, where a similar analysis is made for 1796. See also Collot, Journey in North America (Paris, 1826), p. 109; Observations on the North American Land Company (London, 1796), pp. XV, 144; Logan, History of Upper South Carolina.

36. “Spottswood Papers,” in Collections of Virginia Historical Society, I, II.

37. [Burke], European Settlements, etc. (1765 ed.), II, p. 200.

38. Everest, in Wisconsin Historical Collections, XII, pp. 7 ff.

39. Weston, Documents connected with History of South Carolina, p. 61.

40. See, for example, the speech of Clay, in the House of Representatives, January 30, 1824.

41. See the admirable monograph by Prof. H. B. Adams, Maryland’s Influence on the Land Cessions; and also President Welling, in Papers American Historical Association, III, p. 411.

42. Adams Memoirs, IX, pp. 247, 248.

43. Author’s article in The Ægis (Madison, Wis.), November 4, 1892.

44. Compare Roosevelt, Thomas Benton, ch. i.

45. Political Science Quarterly, II, p. 457. Compare Sumner, Alexander Hamilton, Chs. ii–vii.

46. Compare Wilson, Division and Reunion, pp. 15, 24.

47. On the relation of frontier conditions to Revolutionary taxation, see Sumner, Alexander Hamilton, Ch. iii.

48. I have refrained from dwelling on the lawless characteristics of the frontier, because they are sufficiently well known. The gambler and desperado, the regulators of the Carolinas and the vigilantes of California, are types of that line of scum that the waves of advancing civilization bore before them, and of the growth of spontaneous organs of authority where legal authority was absent. Compare Barrows, United States of Yesterday and To-morrow; Shinn, Mining Camps; and Bancroft, Popular Tribunals. The humor, bravery, and rude strength, as well as the vices of the frontier in its worst aspect, have left traces on American character, language, and literature, not soon to be effaced.

49. Debates in the Constitutional Convention, 1829–1830.

50. [McCrady] Eminent and Representative Men of the Carolinas, I, p.43; Calhoun’s Works, I, pp. 401–406.

51. Speech in the Senate, March 1, 1825; Register of Debates, I, 721.

52. Plea for the West (Cincinnati, 1835), pp. 11 ff.

53. Colonial travelers agree in remarking on the phlegmatic characteristics of the colonists. It has frequently been asked how such a people could have developed that strained nervous energy now characteristic of them. Compare Sumner, Alexander Hamilton, p. 98, and Adams’s History of the United States, I, p. 60; IX, pp. 240, 241. The transition appears to become marked at the close of the war of 1812, a period when interest centered upon the development of the West, and the West was noted for restless energy. Grund, Americans, II., ch. i.

How the Myth of the American Frontier Got Its Start

Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis informed decades of scholarship and culture. Then he realized he was wrong

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard

Illustration of people on horseback looking at an open landscape

On the evening of   July 12, 1893, in the hall of a massive new Beaux-Arts building that would soon house the Art Institute of Chicago, a young professor named Frederick Jackson Turner rose to present what would become the most influential essay in the study of U.S. history.

It was getting late. The lecture hall was stifling from a day of blazing sun, which had tormented the throngs visiting the nearby Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, a carnival of never-before-seen wonders, like a fully illuminated electric city and George Ferris’ 264-foot-tall rotating observation wheel. Many of the hundred or so historians attending the conference, a meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), were dazed and dusty from an afternoon spent watching Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show at a stadium near the fairground’s gates. They had already sat through three other speeches. Some may have been dozing off as the thin, 31-year-old associate professor from the University of Wisconsin in nearby Madison began his remarks.

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Turner told them the force that had forged Americans into one people was the frontier of the Midwest and Far West. In this virgin world, settlers had finally been relieved of the European baggage of feudalism that their ancestors had brought across the Atlantic, freeing them to find their true selves: self-sufficient, pragmatic, egalitarian and civic-minded. “The frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people,” he told the audience. “In the crucible of the frontier, the immigrants were Americanized, liberated and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”

The audience was unmoved.

In their dispatches the following morning, most of the newspaper reporters covering the conference didn’t even mention Turner’s talk. Nor did the official account of the proceedings prepared by the librarian William F. Poole for The Dial , an influential literary journal. Turner’s own father, writing to relatives a few days later, praised Turner’s skills as the family’s guide at the fair, but he said nothing at all about the speech that had brought them there.

Yet in less than a decade, Turner would be the most influential living historian in the United States, and his Frontier Thesis would become the dominant lens through which Americans understood their character, origins and destiny. Soon, Jackson’s theme was prevalent in political speech, in the way high schools taught history, in patriotic paintings—in short, everywhere. Perfectly timed to meet the needs of a country experiencing dramatic and destabilizing change, Turner’s thesis was swiftly embraced by academic and political institutions, just as railroads, manufacturing machines and telegraph systems were rapidly reshaping American life.

By that time, Turner himself had realized that his theory was almost entirely wrong.

American historians had long believed that Providence had chosen their people to spread Anglo-Saxon freedom across the continent. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, Turner was introduced to a different argument by his mentor, the classical scholar William Francis Allen. Extrapolating from Darwinism, Allen believed societies evolved like organisms, adapting themselves to the environments they encountered. Scientific laws, not divine will, he advised his mentee, guided the course of nations. After graduating, Turner pursued a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, where he impressed the history program’s leader, Herbert Baxter Adams, and formed a lifelong friendship with one of his teachers, an ambitious young professor named Woodrow Wilson. The connections were useful: When Allen died in 1889, Adams and Wilson aided Turner in his quest to take Allen’s place as head of Wisconsin’s history department. And on the strength of Turner’s early work, Adams invited him to present a paper at the 1893 meeting of the AHA, to be held in conjunction with the World’s Congress Auxiliary of the World’s Columbian Exposition.

a painting depicting the idea of Manifest Destiny

The resulting essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” offered a vivid evocation of life in the American West. Stripped of “the garments of civilization,” settlers between the 1780s and the 1830s found themselves “in the birch canoe” wearing “the hunting shirt and the moccasin.” Soon, they were “planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick” and even shouting war cries. Faced with Native American resistance—Turner largely overlooked what the ethnic cleansing campaign that created all that “free land” might say about the American character—the settlers looked to the federal government for protection from Native enemies and foreign empires, including during the War of 1812, thus fostering a loyalty to the nation rather than to their half-forgotten nations of origin.

He warned that with the disappearance of the force that had shaped them—in 1890, the head of the Census Bureau concluded there was no longer a frontier line between areas that had been settled by European Americans and those that had not—Americans would no longer be able to flee west for an easy escape from responsibility, failure or oppression. “Each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past,” Turner concluded. “Now … the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”

When he left the podium on that sweltering night, he could not have known how fervently the nation would embrace his thesis.

a head and shoulders portrait of a man with parted hair and a mustache wearing a bowtie

Like so many young scholars, Turner worked hard to bring attention to his thesis. He incorporated it into the graduate seminars he taught, lectured about it across the Midwest and wrote the entry for “Frontier” in the widely read Johnson’s Universal Cyclopædia. He arranged to have the thesis reprinted in the journal of the Wisconsin Historical Society and in the AHA’s 1893 annual report. Wilson championed it in his own writings, and the essay was read by hundreds of schoolteachers who found it reprinted in the popular pedagogical journal of the Herbart Society, a group devoted to the scientific study of teaching. Turner’s big break came when the Atlantic Monthly ’s editors asked him to use his novel viewpoint to explain the sudden rise of populists in the rural Midwest, and how they had managed to seize control of the Democratic Party to make their candidate, William Jennings Bryan, its nominee for president. Turner’s 1896 Atlantic Monthly essay , which tied the populists’ agitation to the social pressures allegedly caused by the closing of the frontier—soil depletion, debt, rising land prices—was promptly picked up by newspapers and popular journals across the country.

Meanwhile, Turner’s graduate students became tenured professors and disseminated his ideas to the up-and-coming generation of academics. The thrust of the thesis appeared in political speeches, dime-store western novels and even the new popular medium of film, where it fueled the work of a young director named John Ford who would become the master of the Hollywood western. In 1911, Columbia University’s David Muzzey incorporated it into a textbook—initially titled History of the American People —that would be used by most of the nation’s secondary schools for half a century.

Americans embraced Turner’s argument because it provided a fresh and credible explanation for the nation’s exceptionalism—the notion that the U.S. follows a path soaring above those of other countries—one that relied not on earlier Calvinist notions of being “the elect,” but rather on the scientific (and fashionable) observations of Charles Darwin. In a rapidly diversifying country, the Frontier Thesis denied a special role to the Eastern colonies’ British heritage; we were instead a “composite nation,” birthed in the Mississippi watershed. Turner’s emphasis on mobility, progress and individualism echoed the values of the Gilded Age—when readers devoured Horatio Alger’s rags-to-riches stories—and lent them credibility for the generations to follow.

a still from the television The Lone Ranger with the main characters on horseback

But as a researcher, Turner himself turned away from the Frontier Thesis in the years after the 1890s. He never wrote it down in book form or even in academic articles. He declined invitations to defend it, and before long he himself lost faith in it.

For one thing, he had been relying too narrowly on the experiences in his own region of the Upper Midwest, which had been colonized by a settlement stream originating in New England. In fact, he found, the values he had ascribed to the frontier’s environmental conditioning were actually those of this Greater New England settlement culture, one his family and most of his fellow citizens in Portage, Wisconsin, remained part of, with their commitment to strong village and town governments, taxpayer-financed public schools and the direct democracy of the town meeting. He saw that other parts of the frontier had been colonized by other settlement streams anchored in Scots-Irish Appalachia or in the slave plantations of the Southern lowlands, and he noted that their populations continued to behave completely differently from one another, both politically and culturally, even when they lived in similar physical environments. Somehow settlers moving west from these distinct regional cultures were resisting the Darwinian environmental and cultural forces that had supposedly forged, as Turner’s biographer, Ray Allen Billington, put it, “a new political species” of human, the American. Instead, they were stubbornly remaining themselves. “Men are not absolutely dictated to by climate, geography, soils or economic interests,” Turner wrote in 1922. “The influence of the stock from which they sprang, the inherited ideals, the spiritual factors, often triumph over the material interests.”

Turner spent the last decades of his life working on what he intended to be his magnum opus, a book not about American unity but rather about the abiding differences between its regions, or “sections,” as he called them. “In respect to problems of common action, we are like what a United States of Europe would be,” he wrote in 1922, at the age of 60. For example, the Scots-Irish and German small farmers and herders who settled the uplands of the southeastern states had long clashed with nearby English enslavers over education spending, tax policy and political representation. Turner saw the whole history of the country as a wrestling match between these smaller quasi-nations, albeit a largely peaceful one guided by rules, laws and shared American ideals: “When we think of the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as steps in the marking off of spheres of influence and the assignment of mandates [between nations] … we see a resemblance to what has gone on in the Old World,” Turner explained. He hoped shared ideals—and federal institutions—would prove cohesive for a nation suddenly coming of age, its frontier closed, its people having to steward their lands rather than striking out for someplace new.

a man in a suit at a podium gives a speech

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Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard | | READ MORE

Colin Woodard is a journalist and historian, and the author of six books including Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood . He lives in Maine.

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2 The Making of a National Identity: The Frontier Thesis

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Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis became a significant force in shaping the national identity of the U.S. The ideologies incorporated into Turner's frontier thesis were not only meant to provide a historical interpretation of how the U.S. came into being but also satisfied the national need for a “usable past.” This frontier thesis was able to transmit a series of symbols that became imbedded in the nation's self‐perception and self‐understanding: Virgin land, wilderness, land and democracy, Manifest Destiny, chosen race. Race must be understood as an important piece of this developing national identity because the idea of “purity” of race was used as a rationalization to colonize, exclude, devalue, and even exterminate the native borderlands people.

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  • Owram, D.R.. "Frontier Thesis". The Canadian Encyclopedia , 16 December 2013, Historica Canada . www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/frontier-thesis. Accessed 17 February 2024.
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Frontier Thesis

Article by D.R. Owram

Published Online February 7, 2006

Last Edited December 16, 2013

The Frontier thesis was formulated 1893, when American historian Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that the availability of unsettled land throughout much of American history was the most important factor determining national development. Frontier experiences and new opportunities forced old traditions to change, institutions to adapt and society to become more democratic as class distinctions collapsed. The result was a unique American society, distinct from the European societies from which it originated. In Canada the frontier thesis was popular between the world wars with historians such as A.R.M. LOWER and Frank UNDERHILL and sociologist S.D. CLARK , partly because of a new sense of Canada's North American character.

Since WWII the frontier thesis has declined in popularity because of recognition of important social and cultural distinctions between Canada and the US. In its place a "metropolitan school" has developed, emphasizing Canada's much closer historical ties with Europe. Moreover, centres such as Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa had a profound influence on the settlement of the Canadian frontier. Whichever argument is emphasized, however, any realistic conclusion cannot deny that both the frontier and the ties to established centres were formative in Canada's development.




Laurentian thesis.

why is the frontier thesis important in united states historiography

Metropolitan-Hinterland Thesis


Frontier Thesis

The Frontier Thesis or Turner Thesis , is the argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American frontier. He stressed the process—the moving frontier line—and the impact it had on pioneers going through the process. He also stressed results, especially that American democracy was the primary result, along with egalitarianism , a lack of interest in high culture , and violence. "American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Sarah Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier," said Turner. In the thesis, the American frontier established liberty by releasing Americans from European mindsets and eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for landed gentry who controlled most of the land and charged heavy rents. Frontier land was free for the taking. Turner first announced his thesis in a paper entitled " The Significance of the Frontier in American History ", delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago. He won wide acclaim among historians and intellectuals. Turner elaborated on the theme in his advanced history lectures and in a series of essays published over the next 25 years, published along with his initial paper as The Frontier in American History.

Turner's emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.

Full article ...


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Why Was the Frontier So Important in American History?

The American frontier was a significant period in the history of America. It represented a time when American pioneers pushed westward and established new communities, creating a vast and diverse country that we know today. The frontier was so important because it shaped the American identity and created a unique culture that is still celebrated to this day.

Manifest Destiny

The idea of Manifest Destiny was the driving force behind American expansionism in the 19th century. Americans believed that it was their divine right to expand westward and claim new territory. This belief led to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which doubled the size of the United States, as well as other land acquisitions such as Florida, Texas, and California.

Pioneers were people who traveled westward to settle new areas. They were often seeking new opportunities or looking for a better life. These pioneers faced many challenges, including harsh weather conditions, disease, and attacks from Native Americans.


Homesteading allowed people to claim land in the West and make it their own. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided settlers with up to 160 acres of land for free if they could live on it for five years and make improvements to it.

In 1848 gold was discovered in California which led to one of America’s biggest migration periods where miners rushed westward hoping to strike gold and become rich.

Native Americans

Native Americans had been living on these lands long before settlers arrived. The settlers’ arrival led to tension between Native Americans and newcomers; sometimes this tension resulted in violence.

The Dawes Act of 1887 aimed at assimilating Native Americans into white culture by dividing up tribal lands into individual plots for each family. This led to further conflict and the loss of Native American land.

Cultural Impact

The frontier had a significant impact on American culture. It created a sense of individualism and self-reliance that is still celebrated today. The cowboy, for example, is an iconic figure in American culture that came out of the frontier era.

Western Movies

Western movies have played an important role in shaping American culture. They celebrate the rugged individualism of the frontier era and often feature cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws.

Cowboy Culture

Cowboy culture has had a lasting impact on American fashion with cowboy hats, boots, and jeans being popular items of clothing today.

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Teaching American History

How Did an Expanding Frontier Shape American Culture?

During the summer of 1893, a young historian presented a paper to the American Historical Society on the site of the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” pointedly noted an announcement by the Census Bureau in 1890 that a western frontier as such no longer existed in the United States, since the entire continent had now been settled. Turner went on to explore what the fact of an expanding frontier had meant in the first century of the republic’s development, drawing large conclusions about the frontier’s effect in shaping a distinctly American individualism. Turner argued that the virtually free land of the west had provided opportunity and diffused social discontent; that in traveling west, Americans had shed many European cultural traits and shaped new ones, partly borrowed from native Americans;  and that the necessary self-sufficiency of westward-moving settlers inclined them to devalue central governmental authority. He left open the question of how the nation would adapt to the closing of this frontier.

Turner’s essay—published in the Report of the American Historical Association for 1893 and later incorporated in his 1920 book, the Frontier in American History —profoundly influenced American historiography in the early 20 th century.  Many of Turner’s claims are currently disputed (for example, his claim that the long struggle to resolve the problem of slavery did less to shape the nation than did the frontier). Nevertheless, the essay still provides an informative summary of the process of western settlement, while raising interesting questions about American self-understanding.

It is interesting to compare Turner’s retrospective view of westward expansion with the prospective view of Jefferson, an early and active proponent of western settlement. In 1783, two decades before pushing through the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson had broached the idea of an exploratory party into the west with George Rogers Clark. He would eventually recruit Clark’s younger brother William to make the trek with Meriwether Lewis, secretly requesting funding from Congress for the expedition in January 1803–three months before he would learn that the ambassadors he had sent to France (James Monroe and Robert Livingston) had been able to negotiate purchase of the entire Louisiana territory.

Seeing in America “an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman,” Jefferson rejoiced in Query 19 of Notes on the State of Virginia that the majority of American citizens could live for generations as small yeoman farmers, not as artisans crowded into cities. Jefferson thought the “manners and spirit” of the small farmer best suited to “preserve a republic in vigour.” The speed with which the continent was peopled surely would have surprised him. But Jefferson correctly anticipated the hunger of Americans for western lands, as well as the importance of the trans-Mississippi lands for American strength and security, as seen in his letter to John Breckinridge on August 12, 1803, where he describes his aims in purchasing the Louisiana territory.

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Frontier Thesis

"The emergence of western history as an important field of scholarship can best be traced to the famous paper Frederick Jackson Turner delivered at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893. It was entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The "Turner thesis" or "frontier thesis," as his argument quickly became known, shaped both popular and scholarly views of the West (and of much else) for two generations. Turner stated his thesis simply. The settlement of the West by white people - "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward" - was the central story of American history. The process of westward expansion had transformed a desolate and savage land into modem civilization. It had also continually renewed American ideas of democracy and individualism and had, therefore, shaped not just the West but the nation as a whole. "What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States." The Turner thesis shaped the writing of American history for a generation, and it shaped the writing of western American history for even longer. " (quoted from "Where Historians Disagree: The 'Frontier' and the West" in Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, Chapter 16)

  • Turner thesis text
  • Turner biography from The West by PBS


Turner's thesis can be considered:

  • as a reflection of the 1890s,
  • as a statement of American expansionism,
  • as an idea in American thought,
  • as an historical philosophy, and
  • as the site of debate over the meaning of the "frontier" in American culture.  

why is the frontier thesis important in united states historiography

Was Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis Myth or Reality?

why is the frontier thesis important in united states historiography

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) Andrew Fisher, William & Mary; (Claim B) Bradley J. Birzer, Hillsdale College

Suggested sequencing.

  • Use this Point-Counterpoint with the  Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893  Primary Source to give students more background on individualism and western expansion.

Issue on the Table

Was Turner’s thesis a myth about the individualism of the American character and the influence of the West or was it essentially correct in explaining how the West and the advancing frontier contributed to the shaping of individualism in the American character?


Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Every nation has a creation myth, a simple yet satisfying story that inspires pride in its people. The United States is no exception, but our creation myth is all about exceptionalism. In his famous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the process of westward expansion had transformed our European ancestors into a new breed of people endowed with distinctively American values and virtues. In particular, the frontier experience had supposedly fostered democracy and individualism, underpinned by the abundance of “free land” out West. “So long as free land exists,” Turner wrote, “the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.” It was a compelling articulation of the old Jeffersonian Dream. Like Jefferson’s vision, however, Turner’s thesis excluded much of the nation’s population and ignored certain historical realities concerning American society.

Very much a man of his times, Turner filtered his interpretation of history through the lens of racial nationalism. The people who counted in his thesis, literally and figuratively, were those with European ancestry—and especially those of Anglo-Saxon origins. His definition of the frontier, following that of the U.S. Census, was wherever population density fell below two people per square mile. That effectively meant “where white people were scarce,” in the words of historian Richard White; or, as Patricia Limerick puts it, “where white people got scared because they were scarce.” American Indians only mattered to Turner as symbols of the “savagery” that white pioneers had to beat back along the advancing frontier line. Most of the “free land” they acquired in the process came from the continent’s vast indigenous estate, which, by 1890, had been reduced to scattered reservations rapidly being eroded by the Dawes Act. Likewise, Mexican Americans in the Southwest saw their land base and economic status whittled away after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that nominally made them citizens of the United States. Chinese immigrants, defined as perpetual aliens under federal law, could not obtain free land through the Homestead Act. For all these groups, Euro-American expansion and opportunity meant the contraction or denial of their own ability to achieve individual advancement and communal stability.

Turner also exaggerated the degree of social mobility open to white contemporaries, not to mention their level of commitment to an ideology of rugged individualism. Although plenty of Euro-Americans used the homestead laws to get their piece of free land, they often struggled to make that land pay and to keep it in the family. During the late nineteenth century, the commoditization and industrialization of American agriculture caught southern and western farmers in a crushing cost-price squeeze that left many wrecked by debt. To combat this situation, they turned to cooperative associations such as the Grange and the National Farmers’ Alliance, which blossomed into the Populist Party at the very moment Turner was writing about the frontier as the engine of American democracy. Perhaps it was, but not in the sense he understood. Populists railed against the excess of individualism that bred corruption and inequality in Gilded Age America. Even cowboys, a pillar of the frontier myth, occasionally tried to organize unions to improve their wages and working conditions. Those seeking a small stake of their own—what Turner called a “competency”— in the form of their own land or herds sometimes ran afoul of concentrated capital, as during the Johnson County War of 1892. The big cattlemen of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association had no intention of sharing the range with pesky sodbusters and former cowboys they accused of rustling. Their brand of individualism had no place for small producers who might become competitors.

Turner took such troubles as a sign that his prediction had come true. With the closing of the frontier, he said, the United States would begin to see greater class conflict in the form of strikes and radical politics. There was lots of free land left in 1890, though; in fact, approximately 1 million people filed homestead claims between 1901 and 1913, compared with 1.4 million between 1862 and 1900. That did not prevent the country from experiencing serious clashes between organized labor and the corporations that had come to dominate many industries. Out west, socialistic unions such as the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World challenged not only the control that companies had over their employees but also their influence in the press and politics. For them, Turner’s dictum that “economic power secures political power” would have held a more sinister meaning. It was the rise of the modern corporation, not the supposed fading of the frontier, that narrowed the meanings of individualism and opportunity as Americans had previously understood them.

Young historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his academic paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on July 12, 1893. He was the final presenter of that hot and humid day, but his essay ranks among the most influential arguments ever made regarding American history.

Turner was trained at the University of Wisconsin (his home state) and Johns Hopkins University, then the center of Germanic-type graduate studies—that is, it was scientific and objectivist rather than idealist or liberal. Turner rebelled against that purely scientific approach, but not by much. In 1890, the U.S. Census revealed that the frontier (defined as fewer than two people per square mile) was closed. There was no longer an unbroken frontier line in the United States, although frontier conditions lasted in certain parts of the American West until 1920. Turner lamented this, believing the most important phase of American history was over.

No one publicly commented on the essay at the time, but the American Historical Association reprinted it in its annual report the following year, and within a decade, it became known as the “Turner Thesis.”

What is most prominent in the Turner Thesis is the proposition that the United States is unique in its heritage; it is not a European clone, but a vital mixture of European and American Indian. Or, as he put it, the American character emerged through an intermixing of “savagery and civilization.” Turner attributed the American character to the expansion to the West, where, he said, American settlers set up farms to tame the frontier. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” As people moved west in a “perennial rebirth,” they extended the American frontier, the boundary “between savagery and civilization.”

The frontier shaped the American character because the settlers who went there had to conquer a land difficult for farming and devoid of any of the comforts of life in urban parts of the East: “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.”

Politically and socially, according to Turner, the American character—including traits that prioritized equality, individualism, and democracy—was shaped by moving west and settling the frontier. “The tendency,” Turner wrote, “is anti-social. [The frontier] produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control.” Those hardy pioneers on the frontier spread the ideas and practice of democracy as well as modern civilization. By conquering the wilderness, Turner stressed, they learned that resources and opportunity were seemingly boundless, meant to bring the ruggedness out of each individual. The farther west the process took them, the less European the Americans as a whole became. Turner saw the frontier as the  progenitor  of the American practical and innovative character: “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking 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 trains of the frontier.”

Turner’s thesis, to be sure, viewed American Indians as uncivilized. In his vision, they cannot compete with European technology, and they fall by the wayside, serving as little more than a catalyst for the expansion of white Americans. This near-absence of Indians from Turner’s argument gave rise to a number of critiques of his thesis, most prominently from the New Western Historians beginning in the 1980s. These more recent historians sought to correct Turner’s “triumphal” myth of the American West by examining it as a region rather than as a process. For Turner, the American West is a progressive process, not a static place. There were many Wests, as the process of conquering the land, changing the European into the American, happened over and over again. What would happen to the American character, Turner wondered, now that its ability to expand and conquer was over?

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use  Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer  to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

Cooper, James Fenimore.  Last of the Mohicans (A Leatherstocking Tale) . New York: Penguin, 1986.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  http://sunnycv.com/steve/text/civ/turner.html

Primary Sources (Claim B)

Suggested resources (claim a).

Cronon, William, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds.  Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Faragher, John Mack.  Women and Men on the Overland Trail . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Grossman, Richard R, ed.  The Frontier in American Culture: Essays by Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson.  The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds.  Trails: Toward a New Western History . Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Milner II, Clyde A.  A New Significance: Re-envisioning the History of the American West . New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Nugent, Walter.  Into the West: The Story of Its People . New York: Knopf, 1991.

Slotkin, Richard.  The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 . Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge.  Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier . Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

Etulain, Richard, ed.  Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Mondi. Megan. “’Connected and Unified?’: A More Critical Look at Frederick Jackson Turner’s America.”  Constructing the Past , 7 no. 1:Article 7.  http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol7/iss1/7

Nelson, Robert. “Public Lands and the Frontier Thesis.”  Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States , Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond, 2014.  http://dsl.richmond.edu/fartherafield/public-lands-and-the-frontier-thesis/

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Why was the Turner Thesis abandoned by historians

why is the frontier thesis important in united states historiography

Fredrick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the American frontier defined the study of the American West during the 20th century. In 1893, Turner argued that “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.” ( The Frontier in American History , Turner, p. 1.) Jackson believed that westward expansion allowed America to move away from the influence of Europe and gain “independence on American lines.” (Turner, p. 4.) The conquest of the frontier forced Americans to become smart, resourceful, and democratic. By focusing his analysis on people in the periphery, Turner de-emphasized the importance of everyone else. Additionally, many people who lived on the “frontier” were not part of his thesis because they did not fit his model of the democratizing American. The closing of the frontier in 1890 by the Superintendent of the census prompted Turner’s thesis.

Despite its faults, his thesis proved powerful because it succinctly summed up the concerns of Turner and his contemporaries. More importantly, it created an appealing grand narrative for American history. Many Americans were concerned that American freedom would be diminished by the end of colonization of the West. Not only did his thesis give voice to these Americans’ concerns, but it also represented how Americans wanted to see themselves. Unfortunately, the history of the American West became the history of westward expansion and the history of the region of the American West was disregarded. The grand tapestry of western history was essentially ignored. During the mid-twentieth century, most people lost interest in the history of the American West.

While appealing, the Turner thesis stultified scholarship on the West. In 1984, colonial historian James Henretta even stated, “[f]or, in our role as scholars, we must recognize that the subject of westward expansion in itself longer engages the attention of many perhaps most, historians of the United States.” ( Legacy of Conquest , Patricia Limerick, p. 21.) Turner’s thesis had effectively shaped popular opinion and historical scholarship of the American West, but the thesis slowed continued academic interest in the field.

Reassessment of Western History

In the last half of the twentieth century, a new wave of western historians rebelled against the Turner thesis and defined themselves by their opposition to it. Historians began to approach the field from different perspectives and investigated the lives of Women, miners, Chicanos, Indians, Asians, and African Americans. Additionally, historians studied regions that would not have been relevant to Turner. In 1987, Patricia Limerick tried to redefine the study of the American West for a new generation of western scholars. In Legacy of Conquest, she attempted to synthesize the scholarship on the West to that point and provide a new approach for re-examining the West. First, she asked historians to think of the America West as a place and not as a movement. Second, she emphasized that the history of the American West was defined by conquest; “[c]onquest forms the historical bedrock of the whole nation, and the American West is a preeminent case study in conquest and its consequences.” (Limerick, p. 22.)

Finally, she asked historians to eliminate the stereotypes from Western history and try to understand the complex relations between the people of the West. Even before Limerick’s manifesto, scholars were re-evaluating the west and its people, and its pace has only quickened. Whether or not scholars agree with Limerick, they have explored new depths of Western American history. While these new works are not easy to categorize, they do fit into some loose categories: gender ( Relations of Rescue by Peggy Pascoe), ethnicity ( The Roots of Dependency by Richard White, and Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Rhonda), immigration (Impossible Subjects by Ming Ngai), and environmental (Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster) history. These are just a few of the topics that have been examined by American West scholars. This paper will examine how these new histories of the American West resemble or diverge from Limerick’s outline.

Defining America or a Threat to America's Moral Standing

Peggy Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue described the creation and operation of Rescue Homes in Salt Lake City, the Sioux Reservation, Denver and San Francisco by missionary women for abused, neglected and exploited women. By focusing on the missionaries and the tenants of these homes, Pascoe depicted not just relations between women, but provided examples of how missionaries responded to issues which they believed were unique in the West. Issues that not only challenged the Victorian moral authority but threatened America’s moral standing. Unlike Turner, the missionary women did not believe that the West was an engine for democracy; instead, they envisioned a place where immoral practice such as polygamy, prostitution, premarital pregnancy, and religious superstition thrived and threatened women’s moral authority. Instead of attempting to portray a prototypical frontier or missionary woman, Pascoe reveals complicated women who defy easy categorization. Instead of re-enforcing stereotypes that women civilized (a dubious term at best) the American West, she instead focused on three aspects of the search for female moral authority: “its benefits and liabilities for women’s empowerment; its relationship to systems of social control; and its implication for intercultural relations among women.” (Pascoe, p. xvii.) Pascoe used a study of intercultural relations between women to better understand each of the sub-cultures (missionaries, unmarried mothers, Chinese prostitutes, Mormon women, and Sioux women) and their relations with governmental authorities and men.

Unlike Limerick, Pascoe did not find it necessary to define the west or the frontier. She did not have to because the Protestant missionaries in her story defined it for her. While Turner may have believed that the West was no longer the frontier in 1890, the missionaries certainly would have disagreed. In fact, the rescue missions were placed in the communities that the Victorian Protestant missionary judged to be the least “civilized” parts of America (Lakota Territory, San Francisco’s Chinatown, rough and tumble Denver and Salt Lake City.) Instead of being a story of conquest by Victorian or western morality, it was a story of how that morality was often challenged and its terms were negotiated by culturally different communities. Pascoe’s primary goal in this work was not only to eliminate stereotypes but to challenge the notion that white women civilized the west. While conquest may be a component of other histories, no one group in Pascoe’s story successfully dominated any other.

Changing the Narrative of Native Americans in the West

Two books were written before Legacy was published, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (James Rhonda) and The Roots of Dependency (Richard White) both provide a window into the world of Native Americans. Both books took new approaches to Native American histories. Rhonda’s book looked at the familiar Lewis and Clark expedition but from an entirely different angle. Rhonda described the interactions between the expedition and the various Native American tribes they encountered. White’s book also sought to describe the interactions between the United States and the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, but he sought to explain why the economies of these tribes broke down after contact. Each of these books covers new ground by addressing the impact of these interactions between the United States and the Native Americans.

why is the frontier thesis important in united states historiography

Whether or not Rhonda’s work is an example of the New Western History is debatable, but he sought to eliminate racial stereotypes of Native Americans and describe the first governmental attempt to conquer the western landscape by traversing it. Rhonda described the interactions between the expedition and the various Indians who encountered it. While Rhonda’s book may resemble a classic Lewis and Clark history, it provides a much more nuanced examination of the limitations and effectiveness of the diplomatic aspects of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He took a great of time to describe each of the interactions with the Indian tribes in detail. Rhonda recognized that the interactions between the expedition and the various tribes were nuanced and complex. Rhonda’s work clarified that Native Americans had differing views of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Any stereotypes the reader may have regarding the Native Americans with would have shattered. Additionally, Rhonda described how the expedition persevered despite its clumsy attempts at diplomacy.

Instead of describing the initial interactions of the United States government with the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, White explained how the self-sufficient economies of these people were destroyed. White described how the United States government turned these successful native people into wards of the American state. His story explained how the United States conquered these tribes without firing a shot. The consequence of this conquest was the creation of weak, dependent nations that could not survive without handouts from the federal government. Like Rhonda, White also sought to shatter long-standing stereotypes and myths regarding Native Americans. White verified that each of these tribes had self-sufficient economies which permitted prosperous lifestyles for their people before the devastating interactions with the United States government occurred. The United States in each case fundamentally altered the tribes’ economies and environments. These alterations threatened the survival of the tribes. In some cases, the United States sought to trade with these tribes in an effort put the tribes in debt. After the tribes were in debt, the United States then forced the tribes to sell their land. In other situations, the government damaged the tribes’ economies even when they sought to help them.

Even though White book was published a few years before Legacy, The Roots of Dependency certainly satisfies some of Limerick’s stated goals. Conquest and its consequences are at the heart of White’s story. White details the problems these societies developed after they became dependant on American trade goods and handouts. White also dissuaded anyone from believing that the Native American economies were inefficient. The Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos economies were successful. The Choctaws and Pawnees had thriving economies and their food supplies were more than sufficient. While the Navajos were not as successful as the other two tribes, their story was remarkable because they learned how to survive in some of the most inhospitable lands in the American West. These stories exploded the myths that the Native Americans subsistence economies were somehow insufficient.

The Impact of Immigrants to the West

The American West was both a borderland and a destination for a multitude of immigrants. Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglos, and Asians have all immigrated into the American West. The American West has seen waves of immigration. These immigrants have constantly changed the complexion of its people. Starting with the Native Americans who first moved into the region and the most recent tide of undocumented Mexican immigrants, the West has always been a place where immigrants seeking their fortunes. The California gold rush brought in a number of immigrants who did not fit their American ideal. When non-whites started immigrating to California, the United States was faced with a new problem, the introduction of people who could not become citizens. Chinese immigrants troubled the Anglo majority because they could not be easily assimilated into American society. Additionally, many Americans were perplexed by their substantially different appearances, clothing, religions, and cultures. Anglos became concerned that the new immigrants differed too much from them. In 1924, after 150 years of unregulated immigration, the United States Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most restrictionist immigration law in US history. The Johnson-Reed Act was specifically designed to keep the most undesirable races out of America, but immigrants continued to arrive in America without documents. Ming Ngai’s Impossible Subjects addresses this new class of immigrants: illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants began to flow into the United States soon after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act.

While illegal immigration is not an issue isolated to the history of the American West, the immigrants moved predominantly into California, Texas and the American Southwest. Like Anglo settlers who were attracted to the West for the potential for new life in the nineteenth century, illegal immigrants continued to move in during the twentieth. The illegal immigrants were welcomed, despite their status, because California’s large commercial farms needed inexpensive labor to harvest their crops. Impossible Subjects describes four groups of illegal immigrants (Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican braceros) who were created by the United States immigration policy. Ngai specifically examines the role that the government played in defining, controlling and disciplining these groups for their allegedly illegal misconduct.

Impossible Subjects is not a book on the American West, but it is a book that is very much about the American West. While Ngai’s story primarily takes place in the American West she does not appear to have any interest in defining the West because her story has national implications. The American West is relevant to her study only because it was where most of the illegal immigrants described in her story lived and worked. Additionally, it is not a story of conquest and its consequences, but it introduced the American public and scholars to members of the American society that are silent. Limerick even stated that while “Indians, Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Anglos, businesspeople, workers, politicians, bureaucrats, natives and newcomers” all shared the same region, they still needed to be introduced to one another. In addition to being a sophisticated policy debate on immigration law, Ngai’s work introduced Americans to these people. (Limerick, p. 349.)

The Rise of Western Environmental History

Environmental history has become an increasingly important component of the history of the American West. Originally, the American West was seen as an untamed wilderness, but over time that description has changed. Two conceptually different, but nonetheless important books on environmental history discussed the American West and its importance in America. Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon and Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster each explored the environment and the economy of the American West. Cronon examined the formation of Chicago and the importance of its commodities market for the development of the American West. Alternatively, Worster focuses on the creation of an extensive network of government subsidized dams in the early twentieth century. Rivers of Empire describes that despite the aridity of the natural landscape the American West became home to massive commercial farms and enormous swaths of urban sprawl.

In Nature’s Metropolis , Cronon, used the central place theory to analyze the economic and ecological development of Chicago. Johann Heinrich von Thunen developed the central place theory to explain the development of cities. Essentially, geographically different economic zones form in concentric circles the farther you went from the city. These different zones form because of the time it takes to get the different types of goods to market. Closest to the city and then moving away you would have the following zones: first, intensive agriculture, second, extensive agriculture, third, livestock raising, fourth, trading, hunting and Indian trade and finally, you would have the wilderness. While the landscape of the Mid-West was more complicated than this, Cronon posits that the “city and country are inextricably connected and that market relations profoundly mediate between them.” (Cronon, p. 52.) By emphasizing the connection between the city of Chicago and the rural lands that surrounded it, Cronon was able to explain how the land, including the West, developed. Cronon argued that the development of Chicago had a profound influence on the development and appearance of the Great West. Essentially Cronon used the creation of the Chicago commodities and trading markets to explain how different parts of the Mid-West and West produced different types of resources and fundamentally altered their ecology.

According to Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, economics played an equally important role in the economic and environmental development of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Slope states. Worster argued that the United States wanted to continue creating family farms for Americans in the West. Unfortunately, the aridity of the west made that impossible. The land in the West simply could not be farmed without water. Instead of adapting to the natural environment, the United States government embarked on the largest dam building project in human history. The government built thousands of dams to irrigate millions of acres of land. Unfortunately, the cost of these numerous irrigation projects was enormous. The federal government passed the cost on to the buyers of the land which prevented family farmers from buying it. Therefore, instead of family farms, massive commercial farms were created. The only people who could afford to buy the land were wealthy citizens. The massive irrigation also permitted the creation of cities which never would have been possible without it. Worster argues that the ensuing ecological damage to the West has been extraordinary. The natural environment throughout the region was dramatically altered. The west is now the home of oversized commercial farms, artificial reservoirs which stretch for hundreds of miles, rivers that run only on command and sprawling cities which depend on irrigation.

Both Cronon and Worster described how commercial interests shaped the landscape and ecology of the American West, but their approaches were very different. Still, each work fits comfortably into the new western history. Both Cronon and Worster see the West as a place and not as a movement of westward expansion. Cronon re-orders the typical understanding of the sequence of westward expansion. Instead of describing the steady growth of rural communities which transformed into cities, he argued that cities and rural areas formed at the same time. Often the cities developed first and that only after markets were created could land be converted profitable into farms. This development fits westward development much more closely than paradigms that emphasized the creation of family farms. Worster defines the West by its aridity. While these definitions differ from Limerick’s, they reflect new approaches. Conquest plays a critical role in each of these books. Instead of conquering people, the authors describe efforts to conquer western lands. In Cronon, westerners forever altered the landscape of the west. Agricultural activities dominated the zones closest to Chicago, cattle production took over lands previously occupied by the buffalo, and even the wilderness was changed by people to satisfy the markets in Chicago. The extensive damming of the West’s rivers described by Worster required the United States government to conquer, control and discipline nature. While this conquest was somewhat illusory, the United States government was committed to reshaping the West and ecology to fit its vision.

Each of these books demonstrates that the Turner thesis no longer holds a predominant position in the scholarship of the American West. The history of the American West has been revitalized by its demise. While westward expansion plays an important role in the history of the United States, it did not define the west. Turner’s thesis was fundamentally undermined because it did not provide an accurate description of how the West was peopled. The nineteenth century of the west is not composed primarily of family farmers. Instead, it is a story of a region peopled by a diverse group of people: Native Americans, Asians, Chicanos, Anglos, African Americans, women, merchants, immigrants, prostitutes, swindlers, doctors, lawyers, farmers are just a few of the characters who inhabit western history.

Suggested Readings

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History
  • Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest
  • Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue
  • Richard White, The Roots of Dependency
  • Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon
  • Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster
  • Historiography
  • Book Review
  • This page was last edited on 5 October 2021, at 01:36.
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  1. The Frontier Thesis in History of America Free Essay Example

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