Frontier Thesis

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The Frontier Thesis or Turner Thesis is the conclusion of Frederick Jackson Turner that the wellsprings of American character and vitality have always been the American frontier, the region between civilized society and the untamed wilderness. In the thesis, the frontier created freedom, "breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, [and] calling out new institutions and activities."

Turner's frontier made for democracy


Benjamin Franklin can be compared favorably with Turner as a promoter of the idea of the significance of the West in the shaping of American character. Franklin used the words frontier and West interchangeably and generally equated both of them with free land. He believed that the West was decisive in producing the phenomenal population growth of the society of his day and its "middle-class agrarianism." His frontier-inspired ideas had a demonstrable effect on public events and contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. Americans eagerly gave wide currency to Franklin's ideas. His political and diplomatic exertions contributed considerably to insure that the West would be a part of the new nation he was helping to create.[1]

Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson had speculated on the importance of the west, and Theodore Roosevelt wrote a full-scale history of the Tennessee frontier that argued the experience formed a new "race"—the American people. Turner drew on his knowledge of evolution, and his own research into the fur trade frontier. He first announced his thesis in a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The thesis dominated much of scholarship until the 1960s. It was then challenged by the "New Western Historians," who ignored its valid conclusions but instead charged that it ignored ethnic minorities and women and was too praiseworthy of the pioneers.

Evolutionary model

Turner set up an evolutionary model (he had studied evolution with a leading geologist), using the time dimension of American history, and the geographical space of the land that became the United States. His argument was that the new environment had caused a rapid evolution of social and political characteristics, thereby creating the true "American." The first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century acted and thought like Europeans. They encountered a new environmental challenge that was quite different from what they had known. The most important difference was vast amounts of unused high quality farmland (some of which was used by a few thousand Indians for hunting grounds.) They adapted to the new environment in certain ways — the sum of all the adaptations over the years would make them Americans. The next generation moved further inland. It discarded more European aspects that were no longer useful, for example established churches, established aristocracies, intrusive government, and control of the best land by a small gentry class. Every generation moved further west and became more American, and the settlers became more democratic and less tolerant of hierarchy. They became more violent, more individualistic, more distrustful of authority, less artistic, less scientific, and more dependent on ad-hoc organizations they formed themselves. In broad terms, the further west, the more American the community.

Merle Curti, one of Turner's last students in 1944 won the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Growth of American Thought. Curti adapted Turner's frontier thesis to intellectual history, arguing, "Because the American environment, physical and social, differed from that of Europe, Americans, confronted by different needs and problems, adapted the European intellectual heritage in their own way. And because American life came increasingly to differ from European life, American ideas, American agencies of intellectual life, and the use made of knowledge likewise came to differ in America from their European counterparts." (p vi) His book was not so much a history of American thought as a social history of American thought, with strong attention to the social and economic forces that shaped that thought.


The legal status of women in the 19th century trans-Mississippi West has drawn the attention of numerous interpreters, whose analyses fall into three types: 1) the Turnerian Frontier Thesis, which argues that the West was, among other things, a liberating experience for women and men; 2) the reactionists, who view the West as a place of drudgery for women, who reacted unfavorably to the isolation and the work in the West; and 3) those writers who claim the West had no effect on women's lives, that it was a static, neutral frontier. The history of Montana shows that the Turner thesis best explains the improvement in women's status in Montana and the achievement of suffrage in 1914.[2]

Impact of thesis

Turner's thesis quickly became popular among intellectuals, as well as spokesmen for the west. It explained why the American people and American government were so different from Europeans. It sounded an alarming note about the future, since the U.S. Census of 1890 had officially stated that the American frontier line (separating the more-settled and lighty settled zones) had broken up. The idea that the source of America's power and uniqueness was gone was a distressing concept for some intellectuals. Some talked about overseas expansion as a new frontier; others (like John F. Kennedy) called for a "new frontier" of achievement. Despite criticism, Turner's theory entered its second century "in remarkably good shape."[3]


  • Ray Allen Billington. The American Frontier (1958) 35 page essay on the historiography
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: historian, scholar, teacher. (1973). full-scale biography; online at ACLS e-books
  • Billington, Ray Allen. ed,. The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966). The major attacks and defenses of Turner.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage (1984). detailed analysis of Turner's theories from social science perspective
  • Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage (1984), an analysis of Turner's theories in relation to social sciences and historiography
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Land of Savagery / Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century (1981)
  • Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. (1988) along with Billington (1973), the leading full-scale biography
  • Bogue, Allan G. "Frederick Jackson Turner Reconsidered," The History Teacher, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Feb., 1994), pp. 195–221 in JSTOR
  • Cronon, William. "Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner," The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), pp. 157–176 online at JSTOR
  • Cronon, William, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds. Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past (1992)
  • Etulain, Richard W. Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (1999)
  • Etulain, Richard W. Writing Western History: Essays on Major Western Historians (2002)
  • Etulain, Richard W. and Gerald D. Nash, eds. Researching Western History: Topics in the Twentieth Century (1997) online edition
  • Faragher, John Mack, ed.Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and other essays, (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Faragher, John Mack. "The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West," The American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (February, 1993) in JSTOR
  • Hine, Robert V. and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), deals with events, not historiography
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians—Turner, Beard, Parrington. (1979), highly influential critique
  • Hutton, T.R.C. "Beating a Dead Horse?: The Continuing Presence of Frederick Jackson Turner in Environmental and Western History." International Social Science Review. (2002) pp 47+. online edition
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. On Turner's Trail: 100 Years of Writing Western History (1994).
  • Jensen, Richard. "On Modernizing Frederick Jackson Turner," Western Historical Quarterly 11 (1980), 307-20. in JSTOR
  • Lamar, Howard R. ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West (1998), 1000+ pages of articles by scholars
  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson. "Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World," The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 3 (Jun., 1995), pp. 697–716 online at JSTOR
  • Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner, and Charles E. Rankin, eds. Trails: Toward a New Western History (1991)
  • Milner, Clyde A., II ed. Major Problems in the History of the American West 2nd ed (1997), primary sources and essays by scholars
  • Nash, Gerald D. Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890-1990 (1991)
  • Nichols, Roger L. ed. American Frontier and Western Issues: An Historiographical Review (1986) essays by 14 scholars
  • Paxson, Frederic/ History of the American Frontier, 1763-1893 (1924), textbook
  • Paxson, Frederic. The Last American Frontier (1910) full text online
  • Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1800 (1973), complex literary reinterpretation of the frontier myth from its origins in Europe to Daniel Boone excerpt and text search
  • Slotkin, Richard. The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 (1998) excerpt and text search
  • Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1998), images of the west excerpt and text search
  • Steiner, Michael C. "From Frontier to Region: Frederick Jackson Turner and the New Western History," Pacific Historical Review 64 (November 1995): 479-501 in JSTOR
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. 375 pp. (1920), Pulitzer prize online edition
  • White, Richard, and Patricia Nelson Limerick. The Frontier in American Culture (1995), critique by advocates of the "New Western History"

See also


  1. James H. Hutson, "Benjamin Franklin and the West". Western Historical Quarterly 1973 4(4): 425-434. 0043-3810
  2. Judith K. Cole, "A Wide Field for Usefulness: Women's Civil Status and the Evolution of Women's Suffrage on the Montana Frontier, 1864-1914". American Journal of Legal History 1990 34(3): 262-294
  3. Limerick (1995) p 697