Imagine a time when a historian, of all obscure scribblers, was so famous school children knew his name by heart. I know. It boggles the mind. Yet that was the fate of Frederick Jackson Turner who as a young professor at the University of Wisconsin published in 1893 a single article that so revolutionized the way that American expansionism was viewed that the Turner Thesis was explicitly taught and dwelled on in American history text books down to the high school level. At least when I was growing up in the mid-60’s.
Much of American history before Turner was written along the lines of the Great Man theory—that great men moved and shaped history almost by the strength of their will. That was heavily leavened by doses of hagiography and patriotic myth building. A good deal of work was done in political history, and the academic discipline was often a battleground for apologists for various parties and philosophies. Little if any attention was paid to the experiences of the so-called common man, minority and marginal populations, sociological or economic forces.
Turner, in a mild, scholarly way, changed that. He was a believer in digging deeper. He scoured public records of all sorts for demographic and economic data. Who lived where and where did they come from. What did they produce, consume, and how did they obtain their raw materials. He believed in documentary evidence, but discounted memory or individual narrative story. He understood engrained bias, including his own, so believed that documentary mining of original source material combined with a multi-disciplinary approach was the best way to uncover historical truth.
That was how after tedious examination of census records, practically track by track, Federal land sale and homesteading records, production statistics for food and raw materials, and rail way expansion, he came to a startling conclusion. From the time of the earliest English settlements on the continent, there had been a relatively easy to define frontier line west of which was “unclaimed” wilderness inhabited by native tribes and mostly unexploited or unavailable to the settled populations. In the first two hundred years of settlement, that line was slowly pushed back to roughly the Allegany and Appalachian Mountains and stubbornly remained there from the conclusion of the French and Indian Wars until after the American Revolution.
Then in the scant 100 years from 1790 to 1890 that frontier line was pushed steadily west at an average rate of about 100 miles per generation—and eventually also east from the Pacific Coast. But by 1890 that unbroken line had ceased to exist. To be sure, in the vastness of the trans-Mississippi West, there were still by-passed, isolated pockets devoid of settlement or exploitation. But those were mostly inhospitable dessert, or rugged and remote mountain areas. Some places were thinly populated, but stitched together by miles of railroad and telegraph lines and integrated into the American economy. Armed opposition to expansion by remnant native populations had virtually vanished.
It must be noted here, before going on, that Turner’s understanding of the frontier ignored the experiences of French and Spanish settlement in North America, both of which pushed far into the interior of the continent early while the English were still clinging to the seaboard and both of which had different experiences with the natives they encountered. The French chose trade, military alliance, and even intermarriage and absorption. The Spanish took the road of conquest, enslavement, and exploitation of the natives. The English would always prefer displacement, replacement, and annihilation.
But the Americans moving west had largely swept aside the French and Spanish along with the native peoples. Turner took no particular note of them.
For Turner the question was what did his announced closing of the frontier mean? This is where he turned from statistical analysis to philosophic interpretation. The frontier and its promise of cheap or free land, adventure, and opportunity had provided a safety valve to exploding populations in the east. Younger sons who could not inherit the family farm, the always landless, laboring populations, and immigrants found the west an attractive alternative to stacking up in increasingly dirty and crowded cities to be exploited for low wages.
In addition the frontier lightly held by central government authority and not yet dominated by old aristocrats or new plutocrats provided a kind of rough equality and operated as a “laboratory for democracy.” He paid scant or no attention to the rights of indigenous people, minorities of all sorts, and women that were excluded from the democratic experiment.
The frontier experience, Turner argued, had come to define the recognizable American character—informality, violence, crudeness, democracy, self-reliance, and innovation in solving problems and adapting to conditions.
Without the safety valve, how would American civilization be changed? Turner was less explicit about this, but hints that rising inequality and population pressures would probably lead to rechanneled energies in some areas—scientific and industrial innovation, for instance—and greater class conflict on the other.
Turner published his Thesis in a scholarly article in 1890. Within three decades, thanks in no small part to Turner’s relentless promotion of the idea and his growing prestige in academia, it was central to teaching American history in most universities and by the 1950’s was prominently ensconced in high school texts along with the name Fredrick Jackson Turner.
Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin on November 14, 1861. The name of his father, Andrew Jackson Turner was indicative of the family’s devotion to democracy. The elder Turner, while not a pioneer farmer, had shown similar restlessness and initiative by relocating to Portage from Up State New York in 1855, just a few short years after the conclusion of the Black Hawk War opened the region to settlement. The elder Jackson was owner and publisher of the local newspaper and a devotee of a new kind of democracy as represented in the Republican Party. He served in the state legislature and as mayor of the city.
Young Fredrick Jackson early showed a scholarly bent. He read and was deeply influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as by Charles Darwin and other scientist/philosophers like Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley.
While studying at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, young Turner became attracted to the forward thinking, non-dogmatic Unitarianism that flourished on and around campus. He graduated from the University with high honors in History in 1884. He went on to the new and progressive Johns Hopkins University for graduate studies and earned his PhD in 1890. His doctoral thesis was The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin was glad to have him back as a professor of history that fall. Shortly after returning he began the research that would lead to his publication of the Turner Thesis which was published in 1893 and immediately drew attention.
Turner was not the kind of historian to turn out a magnum opus. Indeed his only books were compilations of articles. He preferred to publish articles in scholarly magazines and journals. He often reiterated his ideas in articles posted to several journals with different specialties or interests to spread his ideas. Still, he conducted relentless research, the results of which were kept on meticulously maintained index cards. Much of that original research never resulted in any kind of publication, but has been mined by disciples and subsequent scholars.
Much of Turner’s influence came from his long career as a teacher. At Wisconsin from 1890 to 1910 and then at Harvard from 1910 to 1922 he trained hundreds of historians, many of whom came to those institutions just to study with him. He was a gifted teacher and a fine mentor. He personally helped place his students in almost all of the top universities in the country, thus spreading his ideas and methodologies.
Turner was also exerted influence as a leading member and officer in the American Historical Society and as an active advisor to the editors of the American Historical Review. He was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1911.
After retirement from Harvard, Turner became a visiting scholar at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles where most of his archives, including all of those note cards, are preserved.
Turner died on March 14, 1932 in San Mateo, California at the age of 70, the acknowledged dean of American historians.
Today Turner’s Frontier Thesis is much in dispute, attacked especially by a generation of scholars who want to look at the marginalized and excluded and among those who now distrust a purely documentary approach that does not account for the experiences of ordinary people. But it is still the model largely used, with modifications, in studying American expansion and is useful at least in describing the effects on the victors.
But a second, lesser known, proposition put forward by Turner may now be even more important. His essays collected and published as The Significance of Sections in American History and which won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1933 broke dramatic new ground. His Sectional Hypothesis argued that different ethno-cultural groups had distinct settlement patterns which played out in politics, economics and society. That has become the basis of much further and continuing research combining linguistics, anthropology, sociology, religious history, and other disciplines to explain persisting regional differences in attitudes and values.