From the Turner Thesis to New Western History: A Comparative Historiographical Study of the US Frontier
This essay examines Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis, highlighting how he identified the frontier as a process that created the uniquely American character. Through the views of the urban industrial school, this essay critiques Turner’s fostering of an agrarian conception of American development, giving scope to the role of industry in American history. Furthermore, Turner’s belief that the frontier was responsible for the democratic values and institutions of the US is revised to illuminate the fact that it only played a part in the mentality and dynamics of American politics. Moreover, the confluence of historical circumstances that led to Turner’s thesis establishing a historical precedent is explored, while also arguing that the frontier must be understood from a psychological level and not just factual accounts.
This essay appraises the recent historical school – the New Western Historians. It provides a clear overview of the basic tenets of New Western History and the variations amongst it that have reshaped frontier history as they present more inclusive and nuanced versions of the frontier. Their approaches are contrasted against Turner and used to reveal many of the flaws in his arguments, namely how he principally only told an Anglo-Saxon story. This essay also explores the Indian history of the frontier through an examination of the National Museum of the American Indian, discussing the role and methods of the museum in documenting history and the emergence of a more multicultural history that is in part redefining the traditional image of the frontier.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s statement that “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development” has precipitated an ongoing historiographical debate on the frontier of the United States. Turner’s thesis was the first American focused explanation of US national history and identity, becoming central to the American character’s individualism, self-sufficiency and democratic principles. However, Turner’s thesis has fallen victim to criticism, notably for it’s mythologising of the frontier experience, agrarian focus and predominant Anglo-Saxon account that fails to recognise the other social groups on the frontier. Emerging from this conflict is a history that draws upon the experiences and perspectives of various cultural groups, leading to a broader and more universally informed history of the frontier.
Turner’s famous paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” that he presented in 1893 to the “American History Association” in Chicago defined the frontier as an evolutionary process, where in a meeting of the “primitive and civilised” the wilderness “masters the colonist”; essentially the characteristics of the frontiersmen were hewn from the trials and demands of the free, open frontier land, which acted as the most “rapid and effective [line] of Americanisation.” This process bestowed in the new American a coarse strength, self-sufficiency, ingenuity with all material objects and a restless, rugged individualism. Moreover, Turner stated that democracy “came out of the American forest and gained strength each time it touched a new frontier,” arguing the individualism encouraged by the frontier, the lack of a landed aristocracy, and abundance of free land was the key factor in nurturing an ambience congenial to democracy and in shaping the democratic institutions of America.1 However, Turner doesn’t elaborate on the reasons why the frontier developed American democracy, providing only a vague and nebulous description, with no mention of what characterises a democracy.
Joshua Dernam alleges Turner fails to acknowledge the extent to which the founding fathers modelled American democracy around the political theory and history of Europe, Ancient Greece and Rome. Dernam posits the Founding Fathers merely drew upon ideologies from European civilisations when framing the constitution and Bill of Rights.2 This foregrounds the vital importance of intellectual thought in developing the structure of democracy rather than environmental factors alone. In essence, it eschews Turner’s belief that the frontier played the primary role in shaping the democratic principles of the US. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise the considerable impact the frontier had upon the mentality and dynamics of American democracy, which Dernam overlooks. While not exclusively designing the ideological architecture of American democracy, the frontier was important in that it breathed life into the constitution; it meant liberty was firmly in the grasp of the individual and that they could seek unhindered opportunity by “heading West.” Dernam fails to realise that Turner in his paper noted that public works projects pursued in the frontier, like the transcontinental railroad, had deeply nationalising effects, serving to enhance the federalism of the national government. The increasing power of the Federal Government is identified in Turner’s quotation from a speech at Calhoun monument: “In 1789 the states were the creators of the Federal Government; in 1861 the Federal Government was the creator of a large majority of states.” Turner believed this increased the “presence” of the US government and its jurisdictional role, playing a critical part in the development of Federalist philosophy in American democracy.3 The impact of the frontier upon the mentality of American politics is further evident in Jeffersonian democracy, which gave priority to the yeoman farmer, planters, and the common man, and was distrustful of aristocratic elites.4 In addition, the spark that ignited the Civil War was struck in the West. Westward expansion forced the US to face the issue of slavery in the new settlements, notably Kansas, which was engulfed in a bloody factional war as pro-slavery settlers from Missouri and abolitionists from New England swept into the area to determine the political fate of Kansas, becoming the “breeding ground” for the larger conflict that would inevitably settle over the nation.5 As such, while the frontier was not the paramount reason for the development of democracy it no doubt played an integral role in shaping the mentality and dynamics of a fledgling nation and its burgeoning values, philosophies and institutions.
Turner’s thesis has remained a constant frame of reference for historiographical inquiry into the frontier. When Turner’s thesis was published, the nation at large was focused on the frontier region and their views coloured by a belief in “Manifest Destiny.”6 By embellishing the similar geographical determinism and uniquely American values espoused by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper and the wealth of frontier literature, Turner’s thesis corresponded to and validated the legitimacy of popular opinion on the frontier.7 Thus, Turner’s ability to weave a cohesive and unified history of American development, and the thesis’s alignment with the historical consensus of public opinion, saw it become widely accepted and part of national sentiment.8 The validity of his thesis still resided well into the 1950s, as Ray Billington’s definitive textbook “Westward Expansion (1949)” and Walter Webb’s “The Great Frontier (1952)” continued to revise Western history around the parameters of Turner’s thesis.9 Hence, Turner established a historical precedent that defines the study of the frontier to this day, forming the basis of each academic inquiry.
While not refuting the entirety of the Turner thesis, urban industrial historians were the first to refine his thesis, correcting the agrarian myth of American development that it advocated. The growing disillusionment of many Americans with the traditional capitalist system, coupled with the rapid increase in urban population and subsequent importance of cities in American life acted as a conduit to an urban industrial history emerging.10 Urban-industrial historians like Charles Beard and Arthur M. Schlesinger believed Turner over emphasised geographical factors. Rather, they focused on the relationship between labour and capital, identifying cities, industrial capitalism and class struggle as more significant upon American life.11 Schlesinger attacked Turner’s thesis as fostering an agrarian conception of American development, stating that by 1820 the migration to cities was faster than to the frontier and that between 1790-1890 urban population growth had grown 139-fold, while the nation as a whole only grew 16-fold.12 However, frontier cities were markedly different to the industrial behemoths of the 1930s that Schlesinger was used to, generally constituting of 200 000 people while, on another note, much of the rapid urban population growth occurred in the latter years of the 1800s. Emphasising this, Avery Craven, a former student of Turner’s, acknowledges that to take a completely urban-industrial viewpoint denies over two hundred years of rural dominance.13 Moreover, the frontier cannot be examined on a purely factual basis. The frontier itself had an enormous psychological influence on the nation at large, whether it was the opportunity for escape it provided or the myths, such as Daniel Boone’s heroics and “Custer’s Last Stand” that it generated.14 As Jospeh Schafer, another of Turner’s students insisted, the fact people thought they could always “head west” was as potent a force as actually migrating to the frontier region.15 In many ways, the frontier was on omnipresent in the American psyche for the period up to 1893, and it could be argued remained so for many years on. Thus, it is necessary to observe the frontier from a psychological as well as factual level.
Whilst the Urban-Industrial School sought to refine the Turner Thesis, New Western Historians were the first to direct a serious restructuring of the Turner thesis, and as a consequence, removing Turner’s thesis as the guiding force of American development. Emerging from the social forces of the 1960s-70s, namely feminism, multiculturalism, and environmental concerns, New Western Historians focused on the voices of “ordinary people,” recognising the variety of historical experience and broad segments of the population, like Native Americans, that had previously been neglected by macrohistorical conceptions – in particular, the Turner thesis.16 Preeminent amongst the New Western Historians were Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White and Donald Worster. Limerick summarised the basic features of New Western Historians in her unofficial manifesto at the Santa Fe symposium “Trails: Towards a New Western History” in September 1989. In her summation, Limerick stressed the importance of “place” over “process.”17 Rather than Turner’s term of the frontier as a shifting boundary, New Western Historians viewed the “West” as a distinct region from the Mississippi to the Pacific, perceiving it as just a regional variation of the national experience, like the distinctive characterisations of the Antebellum South and puritanism of New England.18 They still identified a process as occurring, but rejected the use of the frontier model. The term frontier they believed was an Anglo-centered concept that pushed Indian people, Hispanic people and Asian people to the margins as it engendered where “white people get scarce.”19 Instead, Limerick states New Western Historians in the broadest terms discerned the process that occurred as the “convergence of diverse people – women as well as men, Indians, Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians, Afro-Americans – in the region, and their encounters with each other and with the natural environment.” She insists this process is more aptly characterised by “invasion, conquest … [and] the expansion of the world market.”20 This was in line with efforts to sympathise with the conquered, recovering the voices of the various social groups that settled the West and were not afforded the same attention as white Anglo-Saxon settlers.21 In this way, New Western History strongly contrasts with Turner’s two-dimensional version of the frontier, which provided only the story of the white male and dealt with the Indians as objects of the frontier and not active participants or people for that matter, constantly referring to them as a “problem” and more resemblant to the geographical obstacles the frontiersmen had to overcome.22 Rather, there has been an increased focus by New Western Historians on the perspective of other social groups and an attempt to dispel myths about the ennoblement of the American character i.e. his triumph over adversity, as they draw attention to the fact “heroism and villainy, virtue and vice, nobility and shoddiness appear in roughly the same proportions.”23 Lastly, New Western Historians refute Turner’s assertion that the frontier ended in 1890 states Limerick. The interaction between different cultural groups still continues to this present day, evident in the fact Westward migration was far greater than in the 19th century and that Western America is still a teeming nation of ethnic groups and not a uniform whole. In this way, Western history is presented foremost as regionalism – “a history of place and its people,” where the West has remained a distinctive region into the present.24
Similar to the New Western Historians, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) forms part of an institutional recalibration of frontier history in recent years that gives increasing scope to the Indian story, allowing Native Americans to regain control of their popular identity and history that was lost early in the 20th century when their population levels diminished to around 250000.25 Initially, critics like Marc Fisher of the “Washington Post” attacked the NMAI for not providing “nearly enough fact or narrative to give us the foundation we need to judge the Indians’ version of their story.”26 It was believed the NMAI only presented miscellaneous Native American histories that served to ricochet around the broader narrative of the frontier.27 However, the anniversary exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties between the United States and the American Indian Nations,” appears to signal a shift in the way the NMAI proceeds in recovering the Indian voice, aligning with NMAI director Kevin Gover’s attempts to correct the “imaginary” version of history taught at schools, like the episodes of Pocahontas and Little Bighorn that portray Indians as helpful companions of the colonists and then formidable warriors in the next.28 The exhibit juxtaposes the Native view against the non-native one on “divided” display panels, establishing the contrasting social world of the Indians and Americans.29 For example, it highlights how oral agreements were more binding than written contracts for Native Americans, as their cultures were structured around oral traditions30 – words being the “denominators of experience.”31 This is essential not only in providing the Indian story, but also in understanding how the frontier was in many ways a conflict between two divergent social worlds. Furthermore, the exhibit explores how the Federal Government recurrently broke treaties and betrayed the trust of the Indians, presenting a history that is underscored by iniquity, villainy and the acknowledgement that the frontier was not unoccupied land waiting to be occupied as Turner’s thesis presupposed.32 The panoramic image of the triumphalist expansion of the West offered by Turner is undermined by the Indian story, which doesn’t recognise the frontier as a vast expanse of free land but as an event that dispossessed them from their ties to the land. This conflict has resulted in a new appreciation of frontier history, accounting for the diversity and ambivalence of the West, as critical history emerges that increasingly encapsulates the manifold experiences and perspectives of the epoch.
Turner’s thesis still continues to define the study of the frontier, being the starting point for many academics, however, its simplistic formulations of American society diminishes its historical accuracy and interpretive power. The Urban industrial school crucially incorporates an industrial perspective into frontier history, minimising an agrarian myth of US development, while re-contextualising the frontier within the schema of broader historical phenomena. Contrastingly, New Western Historians along with the NMAI have completely reconceptualised the frontier, recovering histories that were long left untold as they provide a more detailed and comprehensive picture that includes Indian, African-American, environmental and many other histories, displacing Turner’s thesis as the primary historical model through a broadening of the historical factors involved. Nevertheless, whilst the Turner thesis has come under increased criticism it still retains its relevance as a means of understanding American history, managing to cohesively articulate and unify the process that created the mythic link between a land and its people.
1 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, 1893.
2 Joshua Dernam, “Frederick Jackson Turner And The Gospel Of Wealth”, The Concord Review, Inc. 1995.
3 Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, op. cit.
5 Geoffrey C. Ward, The West: An Illustrated History, 1996.
6 Gressley, “The Turner Thesis…,” Agricultural
History, op. cit.
Manifest Destiny is the belief that Americans were destined to expand across the American continent. Historians have largely agreed that the three themes to Manifest Destiny are: the unique virtues of the American people and their institutions, the mission to shape the West in an image of agrarian America, and an inexorable destiny to realise this duty.
7 Elizabeth Furniss (edited by Deborah Bird Rose and Richard Harding Davis), “Chapter 2: Imagining the frontier: comparative perspectives from Canada and Australia,” Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of the Outback, March, 2006, pp. 25.
8 Gene M. Gressley, “The Turner Thesis: A Problem In Historiography,” Agricultural History, Vol. 32, No. 4, October, 1958, pp. 227 – 228.
9 Glencoe/McGraw Hill Education, “Chapter 16: The Conquest of the Far West,” American History: A Survey (Brinkley) 13th Edition http://glencoe.mheducation.com/sites/0012122005/student_view0/chapter16/where_historians_disagree.html (accessed 10/07/15).
10 Gressley, “The Turner Thesis…,” Agricultural History, op. cit.
12 Arthur M. Schlesinger, “The City in American History
,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review
, Vol. 27, June, 1940, pp. 43-67.
14 Richard Slotkin, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800 – 1890, April 15th, 1998.
15 Joseph Schafer, "Some Facts Bearing on the Safety Valve," Wisconsin Magazine of History
, Vol. 20, December
, 1936, pp. 216-232; Joseph Schafer, "Concerning the Frontier as a Safety-Valve," Political Science Quarterly
, Vol. 102, September, 1937, pp. 407-420; Joseph Schafer, "Was the West a Safety-Valve for Labor?" Mississippi Valley Historical Review
, Vol. 24, December, 1937, pp. 299-314.
16 Lawrence Stone, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present, 1979; Furniss, “Chapter 2: Imagining the frontier:…,” Dislocating the Frontier:…, pp. 27-28, op. cit.
17 Patricia Nelson Limerick, “What on Earth is the New Western History?” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 40, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 61-61.
18 Donald Worster, Susan Armitage, Michael P. Malone, David J. Weber and Patricia Nelson Limerick, “‘The Legacy of Conquest’, by Patricia Nelson Limerick: A Panel of Appraisal,” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3, August, 1989, pp. 303-322.
19 Limerick, “What on Earth…,” Montana:…, opp. cit.
22 Turner, The Significance of…, opp. cit.
23 Limerick; Walter Nugent, “Western History, New and Not So New,” The Organisation of American Historians
, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1994.
24 Worster, Armitage… “‘The Legacy of Conquest’, by Patricia Nelson Limerick: A Panel of Appraisal,” The Western Historical Quarterly, opp. cit.
25 Indian Country Today Media Network Staff, “No More 'Imaginary Indians'! NMAI Director Seeks to Tell the Real Story,” Indian Country Today Media Network, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/10/15/no-more-imaginary-indians-nmai-director-seeks-tell-real-story-157370 (accessed 10/07/15).
26 Marc Fisher, “Indian Museum’s Appeal, Sadly, Only Skin Deep,” Washington Post, September 21st, 2004.
27 Gwyneira Isaac, What Are Our Expectations Telling Us? Encounters with the NMAI, The American Indian Quarterly, Volume 30, Number 3&4, Summer/Fall 2006, pp. 574-596 (Article)
28 Indian Country…, “No More 'Imaginary Indians”!…,” Indian Country Today Media Network, opp. cit.
29 Philip Kennicott, “‘Nation to Nation’: Full of the intriguing
, often maddening details of history,” Washington Post
31 N. Scott Momaday, “The American West and the Burden of Belief,” The West (1st ed.), 1996, pp. 377 – 383.
32 Kennicott, “‘Nation to Nation’:…,” Washington Post
, opp. cit.
Birzer, Bradley J., “Reflections on the New “Western History” of the 1990s,” The Imaginative Conservative,
Dernam, Joshua, “Frederick Jackson Turner And The Gospel Of Wealth”, The Concord Review, Inc.
Craven, Avery, “Frederick Jackson Turner,” The Marcus W. Jernegan Essays in American Historiography, October, 1937.
Fisher, Marc, “Indian Museum’s Appeal, Sadly, Only Skin Deep,” Washington Post
, September 21st
Furniss, Elizabeth (edited by Deborah Bird Rose and Richard Harding Davis)
, “Chapter 2: Imagining the frontier: comparative perspectives from Canada and Australia,” Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of the Outback
, March, 2006, pp. 25.
Gabriel, Ralph Henry, The Course of American Democratic Thought
Glencoe/McGraw Hill Education, “Chapter 16: The Conquest of the Far West,” American History: A Survey (Brinkley) 13th Edition http://glencoe.mheducation.com/sites/0012122005/student_view0/chapter16/where_historians_disagree.html
Gressley, Gene M., “The Turner Thesis: A Problem In Historiography,” Agricultural History
, Vol. 32, No. 4, October, 1958, pp. 227 – 228.
Isaac, Gwyneira, What Are Our Expectations Telling Us? Encounters with the NMAI, The American Indian Quarterly, Volume 30, Number 3&4, Summer/Fall 2006, pp. 574-596 (Article)
Kennicott, Philip, “‘Nation to Nation’: Full of the intriguing, often maddening details of history,” Washington Post
Limerick, Patricia Nelson
, “What on Earth is the New Western History?” Montana: The Magazine of Western History
, Vol. 40, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 61-61.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson and Nugent, Walter, “Western History, New and Not So New,” The Organisation of American Historians
, Vol. 9, No. 1, Fall 1994.
Martin, Linda R., “A Song for the Horse Nation: Typecast Indians (excerpt),” A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Cultures
Momaday, N. Scott, “The American West and the Burden of Belief,” The West
ed.), 1996, pp. 377 – 383.
Black, Sherry Salway, “Lincoln: No Hero to Native Americans,” Washington Monthly
Schafer, Joseph, "Some Facts Bearing on the Safety Valve," Wisconsin Magazine of History
, Vol. 20, December, 1936, pp. 216-232; Joseph Schafer, "Concerning the Frontier as a Safety-Valve," Political Science Quarterly
, Vol. 102, September, 1937, pp. 407-420; Joseph Schafer, "Was the West a Safety-Valve for Labor?" Mississippi Valley Historical Review
, Vol. 24, December, 1937, pp. 299-314
Schlesinger, Arthur M., “The City in American History,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review
, Vol. 27, June, 1940, pp. 43-67.
Slotkin, Richard, The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization
, 1800 – 1890, April 15th
Stone, Lawrence, “The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History,” Past and Present, 1979; Furniss, “Chapter 2: Imagining the frontier:…,” Dislocating the Frontier:…, pp. 27-28, op. cit.
Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Significance of the Frontier in American History
Ward, Geoffrey C., The West: An Illustrated History
Worster, Donald and Armitage, Susan and Malone, Michael P. and Weber, David J. and Limerick, Patricia Nelson, “‘The Legacy of Conquest’, by Patricia Nelson Limerick: A Panel of Appraisal,” The Western Historical Quarterly
, Vol. 20, No. 3, August, 1989, pp. 303-322.