Frontier thesis frederick turner

Since he was young, Turner began cultivating under the influence and example of his father a passionate interest in history. In , he received his Ph. Within his lifetime, Turner witnessed a drastic exodus out of the agrarian republic of the nineteenth century, which found a new home in the urban jungles.

Longing for that source of distinctiveness, Turner came upon the frontier. Much more than a mere geographical category, the frontier, for Turner, was the outer edge of a wave of progressive advancement moving from east to west that gave birth to the American spirit.

Thoughts on Historical Maps and Mapmaking

Thomas C. 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 ravel, 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[…] 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 […] 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.

Frontier Thesis - Wikipedia

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.

Turner, Frederick Jackson The Frontier in American History pp. Kindle Edition. Engaging the full force of his notably powerful rhetoric, Turner presented these ideas in a discourse titled The Significance of the Frontier in American History to the American Historical Association in Chicago, 12 July The thesis represented a new approach to explaining social, institutional, and cultural development. David J. Weber, Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands, p. In the following years, especially in the s and s, the thesis underwent fierce attacks.

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From Wisconsin Turner journeyed to Johns Hopkins University, as did many eager young scholars of that day, only to meet stubborn opposition for the historical theories already taking shape in his mind. To Turner this explanation was unsatisfactory. This problem was still much in his mind when he returned to the University of Wisconsin as an instructor in In two remarkable papers prepared during the next few years he set forth his answer.

The differences between European and American civilization, Turner stated in that monumental work, were in part the product of the distinctive environment of the New World. They came as Europeans or easterners, but they soon realized that the wilderness environment was ill-adapted to the habits, institutions, and cultural baggage of the stratified societies they had left behind.

The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Frontier in American History, by Frederick Jackson Turner

Complex political institutions were unnecessary in a tiny frontier outpost; traditional economic practices were useless in an isolated community geared to an economy of self-sufficiency; rigid social customs were outmoded in a land where prestige depended on skill with the axe or rifle rather than on hereditary glories; cultural pursuits were unessential in a land where so many material tasks awaited doing. Hence in each pioneer settlement there occurred a rapid reversion to the primitive.

What little government was necessary was provided by simple associations of settlers; each man looked after his family without reliance on his fellows; social hierarchies disintegrated, and cultural progress came to a halt. As the newcomers moved backward along the scale of civilization, the habits and customs of their traditional cultures were forgotten.


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Gradually, however, newcomers drifted in, and as the man-land ratio increased, the community began a slow climb back toward civiliz. Governmental controls were tightened and extended, economic specialization began, social stratification set in, and cultural activities quickened.

But the new society that eventually emerged differed from the old from which it had sprung. The abandonment of cultural baggage during the migrations, the borrowings from the many cultures represented in each pioneer settlement, the deviations natural in separate evolutions, and the impact of the environment all played their parts in creating a unique social organism similar to but differing from those in the East. Similarly, he traced the exaggerated nationalism of the United States to its roots among frontiersmen who looked to the national government for land, transportation outlets, and protection against the Indians.

He pointed out that these characteristics, prominent among frontiersmen, had persisted long after the frontier itself was no more. His theories, critics said, were contradictory, his generalizations unsupported, his assumptions inadequately based; what empirical proof could he advance, they asked, to prove that the Irontier experience was responsible for American individualism, mobility, or wastefulness?

He was damned as a romanticist lor his claim that democracy sprang from the forest environment of the United States and as an isolationist for tailing to recognize the continuing impact of Europe on America. During the past decade, however, a healthy reaction has slowly and unspectacularly gained momentum. They have directed their efforts primarily toward re-examining his hypothesis in the light of criticisms directed against it and applying it to frontier areas beyond the borders of the United States.

Public Lands and the Frontier Thesis

Their findings have modified many of the views expressed by Turner but have gone far toward proving that the frontier hypothesis remains one essential tool—albeit not the only one—for interpreting American history. That Turner was guilty of oversimplifying both the nature and the causes of the migration process was certainly true. He pictured settlers as moving westward in an orderly procession—fur trappers, cattlemen, miners, pioneer farmers, and equipped fanners—with each group playing its part in the transmutation of a wilderness into a civilization.

No one of these assumptions can be substantiated in the simplified form in which Turner stated it. All played their role, and all contributed to a complex Iron tier social order that bore little resemblance to the primitive societies Turner pictured. This was especially the case with the early town builders. In these villages, too, the equalitarian influence of the West was reflected in thoroughly democratic governments, with popularly elected councils supreme and the mayor reduced to a mere figurehead. Turner failed to recognize the presence in the procession to the frontier of that omnipresent profit-seeker, the speculator.

Jobbers were always ahead of farmers in the advance westward, buying up likely town sites or appropriating the best farm lands, where the soil was good and transportation outlets available. Even the Homestead Act tailed to lessen speculative activity. As a result, for every newcomer who obtained a homestead from the government, six or seven purchased farms from speculators.


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  6. Those who made these purchases were not, as Turner believed, displaced eastern workers fleeing periodic industrial depressions. Few city-dwelling artisans had the skills or inclination, and almost none the capital, to escape to the frontier. Instead, the American frontiers were pushed westward largely by younger sons from adjacent farm areas who migrated in periods of prosperity.

    During that period the major population shifts were from country to city rather than vice versa; for every worker who left the factory to move to the farm, twenty persons moved from farm to factory. If a safety valve did exist at that time, it was a rural safety valve, drawing off surplus farm labor and thus lessening agrarian discontent during the Granger and Populist eras. Admitting that the procession to the frontier was more complex than Turner realized, that good lands were seldom free, and that a safety valve never operated to drain the dispossessed and the malcontented from industrial centers, does this mean that his conclusions concerning the migration process have been completely discredited?

    The opposite is emphatically true.