Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History



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Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1893.

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” . . . . This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. . . .

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. . . .

In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization. . . .

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.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, “The Adventures of the Frontier in the 20th Century,” in Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West, 2001.


The year 1988 signified the fortieth anniversary of humanity’s escape from zippers and buttons. In May 1988, a journal of science and technology called Discover published an article commemorating this occasion. “Velcro,” the headline read: “The Final Frontier.”

To the specialist in Western American history, this is a title to ponder. In what sense might Velcro constitute a frontier? In his 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner left his central term curiously befogged . . . . But Turner did join the United States census director in offering one clear and concrete definition: the frontier was a place occupied by fewer than two people per square mile. Thus, if the headline writer were a strict follower of Turner’s quantitative definition, then the Velcro frontier would be a place where fewer than two people per square mile used Velcro. The writer, on the other hand, might have been following one of the more poetic and less precise Turnerian definitions, finding in a society’s choice of fasteners a symbolic line of division between wilderness and human culture, backwardness and progress, savagery and civilization. The habitbound users of zippers would now represent the primitive and backward people of North America, with the hardy, adventurous users of Velcro living on the cutting edge of progress.

Historians of the American West might puzzle over the shifting definitions of the word “frontier,” but few readers experience any confusion when they see this headline. To them, the frontier analogy says simply that makers, marketers, and users of Velcro stand on the edge of exciting possibilities. Velcro is a frontier because Velcro has thousands of still-to-be-imagined uses. No normal reader, if one defines “normal reader” as a person who is not a Western American historian, would even notice the peculiar implications of the analogy. For most Americans in the twentieth century, the term “frontier” is perfectly clear, reliable, and simple in its meanings.

Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, 1987.


Turner, in 1893, seemed to have the field of Western American history fully corralled, unified under the concept “frontier.” Exploration, fur trade, overland travel, farming, mining, town founding, merchandising, grazing, logging—the diverse activities in the 19th century West were all supposed to fit into the category. In fact, the apparently unifying concept of the frontier had arbitrary limits that excluded more than they contained. Turner was, to put it mildly, ethnocentric and nationalistic. English-speaking white men were the stars of his story; Indians, Hispanics, French Canadians, and Asians were at best supporting actors and at worst invisible. Nearly as invisible were women, of all ethnicities. . . . Deserts, mountains, mines, towns, cities, railroads, territorial government, and the institutions of commerce and finance never found much of a home in his model. . . .

What did Turner and the director of the census mean by the “end of the frontier”? “Population in the West,” Harold Simonson write, “had reached the figure of at least two persons per square mile, the basis for calling an area settled.” This is an odd definition. If population density is the measure of a frontier condition, then the existence of a city, a town, or even a small mining camp closes the frontier for that site. One could easily argue the opposite—that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening sate and that a population lowered through, for instance, the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities. . . .

Frontier, then is an unsubtle concept in a subtle world. Even so, the idea of the frontier is obviously worth studying as a historical artifact. The idea played an enormous role in national behavior, but so did the ideas of savagery and civilization, concepts that are currently not well respected as analytic terms. I certainly do not discount the power of the concept “frontier” in American history. My point is that the historian is obligated to understand how people saw their own times, but not obligated to adopt their terminology and point of view.

Robert V. Hine & John Mack Faragher, The American West: A New Interpretive History, 2000.


[M]any eyewitness participants had noted the importance of cities in the westward movement. “Without transition you pass from a wilderness into the streets of a city, from the wildest scenes to the most smiling pictures of civilized life,” remarked Alexis de Tocqueville after traveling through the trans-Appalachian West in the early 1830s. A Scots farmer in Illinois wrote to his family, “Here it is not uncommon to have large cities spring up in a few years.” The urban character of westering intensified in the trans-Mississippi West, where the aridity dictated a low density of rural population, and the extractive economy encouraged the development of industrial urban centers. It all confirmed an old American pioneer proverb: “Give me a rich country, and I’ll soon give you a large city!”

Towns and cities were a critical part of the first frontier of the United States, the trans-Appalachian West. . . . These towns “were the spearheads of the frontier,” writes historian Richard Wade. “Planted far in advance of the line of settlement, they held the West for the approaching population.” A great deal of ink has been spilt debating Wade’s “spearhead” thesis, and the controversy has devolved into one of those tiresome chicken-or-egg arguments. Less important than whether the settlement of town or country came first is an acknowledgement of the essential role of cities in westering from the beginning of our national history. “Urbanization was a development correlative with the expansion of the frontier,” writes the distinguished urban historian Bayard Still, and was “often an integral part of it.”

James H. Merrell, “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience,” William and Mary Quarterly (1984).


In August 1608, John Smith and his band of explorers captured an Indian named Amoroleck during a skirmish along the Rappahannock River. Asked why his men—a hunting party from towns upstream—had attacked the English, Amoroleck replied that they had heard the strangers were “a people come from under the world, to take their world from them.” Smith’s prisoner grasped a simple yet important truth that students of colonial America have overlooked: after 1492 native Americans lived in a world every bit as new as that confronting transplanted Africans or Europeans.

The failure to explore the Indians’ new world helps explain why, despite many excellent studies of the native American past, colonial history often remains “a history of those men and women—English, European, and African—who transformed America from a geographical expression into a new nation” . . . .

The natives’ segregation persists, in no small degree, because historians still tend to think only of the new world as the New World, a geographic entity bound by the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Pacific on the other. Recent research suggests that process was as important as place. . . . If the Atlantic was not a barrier between one world and another, if what happened to people was more a matter of subtle cultural processes than mere physical displacements, perhaps we should set aside the maps and think instead of a “world” as the physical and cultural milieu within which people live and a “new world” as a dramatically different milieu demanding basic changes in ways of life. Considered in these terms, the experience of natives was more closely akin to that of immigrants and slaves, and the idea of an encounter between worlds can—indeed, must—include the aboriginal inhabitants of America.

Declaration of Sentiments, adopted by the First Woman’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, 1848 (excerpts).

. . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . . The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men--both natives and foreigners. . . .

He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.

He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns. . . .

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her. . . .

Now, in view of this entire disfranchisement of one-half the people of this country, their social and religious degradation--in view of the unjust laws above mentioned, and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

Micmac chief’s observations of the French, reported by Chrestien Le Clercq, in New Relation of Gaspesia, with the Customs and Religion of the Gaspesian Indians (1691).


I am greatly astonished that the French have so little cleverness, as they seem to exhibit in the matter of which thou hast just told me on their behalf, in the effort to persuade us to convert our poles, our barks, and our wigwams into those houses of stone and of wood which are tall and lofty, according to their account, as these trees. Very well! But why now do men of five to six feet in height need houses which are sixty to eighty? . . . hast thou as much ingenuity and cleverness as the Indians, who carry their houses and their wigwams with them so they may lodge wheresoever they please, independently of any seignior whatsoever? . . . Thou sayest of us also that we are the most miserable and most unhappy of all men, living without religion, without manners, without honour, without social order, and, in a word, without any rules, like the beasts in our woods and our forests, lacking bread, wine, and a thousand other comforts which thou hast in superfluity in Europe. . . . I beg thee now to believe that, all miserable as we seem in thine eyes, we consider ourselves nevertheless much happier than thou in this, that we are very content with the little that we have; and believe also once for all, I pray, that thou deceivest thyself greatly if thou thinkest to persuade us that thy country is better than ours. For if France, as thou sayest, is a little terrestrial paradise, art thou sensible to leave it? . . . Now tell me this one thing, if thou hast any sense: Which of these two is the wisest and happiest—he who labours without ceasing and only obtains, and that with great trouble, enough to live on, or he who rests in comfort and finds all that he needs in the pleasure of hunting and fishing?


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