Frederick Jackson Turner and the Frontier Thesis

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Frederick Jackson Turner and the
Frontier Thesis

Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, written in 1893 in an essay called, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” offered a new theory for explaining American History. It began:

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 areas 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 cannot 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.

One of the biggest problems with the Turner thesis is that Turner attributed a variety of traits to the frontier, but it is not always clear what he meant by the term frontier. Sometimes the frontier was a line of settlement, a zone where civilization and forest met. At other times it was the western part of the U.S., an abundance of natural resources, and a process or way of life for those actually participating in the settling of western lands.

The American frontier existed, for Turner, from the days of the earliest colonial settlements through the year 1890. Turner’s essay is over twenty pages long. The major points are:

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