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Frederick Jackson Turner

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Frederick Jackson Turner

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Frederick Jackson Turner , (born November 14, 1861, Portage , Wisconsin , U.S.—died March 14, 1932, San Marino , California), American historian best known for the “ frontier thesis.” The single most influential interpretation of the American past, it proposed that the distinctiveness of the United States was attributable to its long history of “westering.” Despite the fame of this monocausal interpretation, as the teacher and mentor of dozens of young historians, Turner insisted on a multicausal model of history , with a recognition of the interaction of politics, economics , culture , and geography. Turner’s penetrating analyses of American history and culture were powerfully influential and changed the direction of much American historical writing.

Born in frontier Wisconsin and educated at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Turner did graduate work at Johns Hopkins University under Herbert Baxter Adams . Awarded a doctorate in 1891, Turner was one of the first historians professionally trained in the United States rather than in Europe. He began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1889. He began to make his mark with his first professional paper, “ The Significance of History” (1891), which contains the famous line “Each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time.” The controversial notion that there was no fixed historical truth, and that all historical interpretation should be shaped by present concerns, would become the hallmark of the so-called “New History,” a movement that called for studies illuminating the historical development of the political and cultural controversies of the day. Turner should be counted among the “progressive historians,” though, with the political temperament of a small-town Midwesterner, his progressivism was rather timid. Nevertheless, he made it clear that his historical writing was shaped by a contemporary agenda.

Temple ruins of columns and statures at Karnak, Egypt (Egyptian architecture; Egyptian archaelogy; Egyptian history)

Turner first detailed his own interpretation of American history in his justly famous paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered at a meeting of historians in Chicago in 1893 and published many times thereafter. Adams, his mentor at Johns Hopkins , had argued that all significant American institutions derived from German and English antecedents . Rebelling against this view, Turner argued instead that Europeans had been transformed by the process of settling the American continent and that what was unique about the United States was its frontier history . (Ironically, Turner passed up an opportunity to attend Buffalo Bill ’s Wild West show so that he could complete “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” on the morning that he presented it.) He traced the social evolution of frontier life as it continually developed across the continent from the primitive conditions experienced by the explorer, trapper, and trader, through maturing agricultural stages, finally reaching the complexity of city and factory. Turner held that the American character was decisively shaped by conditions on the frontier, in particular the abundance of free land, the settling of which engendered such traits as self-reliance, individualism , inventiveness, restless energy, mobility, materialism, and optimism. Turner’s “frontier thesis ” rose to become the dominant interpretation of American history for the next half-century and longer. In the words of historian William Appleman Williams, it “rolled through the universities and into popular literature like a tidal wave.” While today’s professional historians tend to reject such sweeping theories, emphasizing instead a variety of factors in their interpretations of the past, Turner’s frontier thesis remains the most popular explanation of American development among the literate public.

For a scholar of such wide influence, Turner wrote relatively few books. His Rise of the New West, 1819–1829 (1906) was published as a volume in The American Nation series, which included contributions from the nation’s leading historians. The follow-up to that study, The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935), would not be published until after his death. Turner may have had difficulty writing books, but he was a brilliant master of the historical essay. The winner of an oratorical medal as an undergraduate, he also was a gifted and active public speaker. His deep, melodious voice commanded attention whether he was addressing a teachers group, an audience of alumni, or a branch of the Chautauqua movement . His writing, too, bore the stamp of oratory; indeed, he reworked his lectures into articles that appeared in the nation’s most influential popular and scholarly journals.

Many of Turner’s best essays were collected in The Frontier in American History (1920) and The Significance of Sections in American History (1932), for which he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. In these writings Turner promoted new methods in historical research, including the techniques of the newly founded social sciences , and urged his colleagues to study new topics such as immigration , urbanization , economic development , and social and cultural history . He also commented directly on the connections he saw between the past and the present.

The end of the frontier era of continental expansion, Turner reasoned, had thrown the nation “back upon itself.” Writing that “imperious will and force” had to be replaced by social reorganization, he called for an expanded system of educational opportunity that would supplant the geographic mobility of the frontier. “The test tube and the microscope are needed rather than ax and rifle,” he wrote; “in place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.” Pioneer ideals were to be maintained by American universities through the training of new leaders who would strive “to reconcile popular government and culture with the huge industrial society of the modern world.”

Whereas in his 1893 essay he celebrated the pioneers for the spirit of individualism that spurred migration westward, 25 years later Turner castigated “these slashers of the forest, these self-sufficing pioneers, raising the corn and livestock for their own need, living scattered and apart.” For Turner the national problem was “no longer how to cut and burn away the vast screen of the dense and daunting forest” but “how to save and wisely use the remaining timber.” At the end of his career, he stressed the vital role that regionalism would play in counteracting the atomization brought about by the frontier experience. Turner hoped that stability would replace mobility as a defining factor in the development of American society and that communities would become stronger as a result. What the world needed now, he argued, was “a highly organized provincial life to serve as a check upon mob psychology on a national scale, and to furnish that variety which is essential to vital growth and originality.” Turner never ceased to treat history as contemporary knowledge, seeking to explore the ways that the nation might rechannel its expansionist impulses into the development of community life.

Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, when he accepted an appointment to a distinguished chair of history at Harvard University . At these two institutions he helped build two of the great university history departments of the 20th century and trained many distinguished historians, including Carl Becker , Merle Curti, Herbert Bolton , and Frederick Merk, who became Turner’s successor at Harvard. He was an early leader of the American Historical Association , serving as its president in 1910 and on the editorial board of the association’s American Historical Review from 1910 to 1915. Poor health forced his early retirement from Harvard in 1924. Turner moved to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California , where he remained as senior research associate until his death.

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Turner's Frontier Thesis

The New Deal

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Americans have long mythologized the frontier. It isn't just about stories of past deeds but how Americans connect their history to today. From technology to social ideas, the leading edge of any field is typically referred to as a "frontier," a symbol of settlers creating something entirely new. Frederick Turner Jackson was a historian who looked not just at what had happened in the past but what it meant for people in his time and how it had shaped his present society. How did Frederick Jackson Turner interpret the Frontier in a way that resonated so strongly with other Americans of the late nineteenth century and beyond?

Turner's Frontier Thesis line drawing illustration from The Life and Adventures of Daniel Boone StudySmarter

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis 1893

From the 1851 exhibition in London through 1938, the World's Fair was an installation where advances in science and technology from around the world were shown to the public, while later fairs focused more on cultural issues. The fairs were highly influential, giving the public glimpses of new technologies such as the telephone. It was among one of these expositions, the World's Columbian Exposition, marking the 400th anniversary of Christoper Columbus's arrival, that Jackson delivered his thesis.

Turner's Frontier Thesis A black and white photograph of the 1893 World's Columbia Exposition in Chicago Illinois  StudySmarter

1893 World's Columbia Exposition

From the middle of the country, the city of Chicago, Jackson described what he felt the frontier meant to America. Twenty-seven million people attended the fair to see innovations such as the Ferris Wheel before the fair closed two days ahead of its planned six-month run due to the mayor of Chicago's assassination. Turner delivered his speech on the frontier to the American Historical Society gathering. Although his speech had a minor impact at the time, the society reprinted it where it lived on to gain its later stature.

Did you know?

While Turner was delivering his speech, another creator of the mythic western frontier, Buffalo Bill Cody, performed his famous Wild West Show outside the fair.

Turner's Frontier Thesis Summary

Turner viewed the frontier as the essential element in defining the American character. His work began by noting that the bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 had recently stated that there was no longer a frontier line and closed by saying that after 400 years of frontier activity, the first period of American history had ended. With the frontier intertwined with the American past, Turner interpreted it as having shaped America.

The central idea of Frederick Turner Jackson's Frontier Thesis is that as families went west into undeveloped lands, liberty, equality, and democracy arose from a condition where the highly developed society to the East was left behind and with it the old culture. At first, this East was Europe and later the East coast of the United States. As urbanization took hold and further moved west with successive waves,

Waves of the Frontier

He viewed the movement into the frontier as occurring in waves, and each waving furthering democracy and equality. As Europeans moved to the East coast of the United States, their struggles for survival and reliance on individual ability gave rise to a spirit of democracy that resulted in the American Revolution. When Americans continued west with the Louisiana Purchase in the early nineteenth century, democracy increased from the Jeffersonian to the Jacksonian periods. The new American culture came not from the high civilizations of Europe, the mixing of various peoples, and the uncivilized influence of the frontier.


Individualism has been viewed as the most central piece of American identity. Turner connected that individualism with the necessary development of self-reliance among settlers in the sparsely populated frontier. He believed that the frontier conditions were anti-social, and the representatives of foreign governments coming to assert authority were largely viewed as oppressors by the frontier settlers.

Turner picked out the tax collector in particular as a symbol of oppression to the frontier settlers.

Previous Theories

Turner broke with previous theories about the frontier and American culture by placing the emphasis, not on race but on land. Many American academics at the time believed that as Germanic people conquered the forests of Europe, they were uniquely capable of developing the most excellent forms of society and political thought. Once the Germanic peoples ran out of land, they stagnated until they reached the forests of the Americas, which reawakened German and Anglo-Saxon ingenuity. Others, such as Theodore Roosevelt, held to racial theories based upon the unifying and innovative pressures of racial warfare, as White colonizers battled back Indigenous peoples to take the western land.

Turner's Frontier Thesis A black and white photograph of Frederick Jackson Turner StudySmarter

Impact of Turner's Frontier Thesis Main Points

The impact of Turner's Frontier Thesis was consequential. Not just academics and historians latched on to the ideas, but politicians and many other American thinkers used Turner's interpretations. The core idea that the American character had been built around the frontier, which was now closed, left the question of how America would continue to grow and evolve in the future without new western land open. Those searching for a new frontier to conquer used Turner's Frontier Thesis to claim their goals as a recent sort of frontier.


With settlers having reached the end of the North American landmass, some wished to continue moving westward across the Pacific Ocean. Asia was a potential location for U.S. territorial expansion in the twentieth century. Scholars of the Wisconsin school studied American diplomacy during the early Cold War. They were influenced by Turner when they saw American diplomacy as primarily being motivated by economic expansion through the frontier and beyond into economic imperialism of the late nineteenth through twentieth centuries.

Historians' theories don't develop in isolation. Thinkers influence and criticize each other. Even more importantly, they build and expand on their colleagues' ideas. One such case is Turner and William Appleman Williams.

Although separated by decades, Turner taught at the University of Wisconsin, where the history faculty later came together around Williams' diplomacy and foreign policy theory. Turner's Frontier Thesis heavily influenced Wiliams's approaches.

With the New Deal, FDR expanded the role of government in Americans' lives. The frontier became an essential metaphor for these changes in the Roosevelt administration, and they often appealed the Turner's Frontier Thesis. FDR described the want and economic insecurity of the Great Depression as a frontier to be conquered.

Criticism of Turner's Frontier Thesis

Although some earlier historians appealed directly to the myth of Germanic peoples, during WWII, Turner's theory was criticized as being too similar to the "Blood and Soil" ideas of Adolf Hitler. Others asked why former Spanish colonies and indigenous populations did not go through the same transformations of thought. Turner's original speech made mention of indigenous people only as symbols representing the brutality of untamed nature and a sort of uncivilized degeneration. He believed the white settlers reverted before developing their democratic and individualist ideas.

Turner's Frontier Thesis - Key Takeaways

Frequently Asked Questions about Turner's Frontier Thesis

--> what was frederick jackson turner's frontier thesis.

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis was that settlers moved west across the frontier in waves, each with increasing individualism and democracy. 

--> How did advocates of Expansionism react to Turner's Frontier Thesis

Advocates for expansion viewed Turner's Frontier Thesis as reinforcing their idea that America must keep expanding. 

--> What year was Fredrick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis

Fredrick Jackson Turner delivered the Frontier Thesis in an 1893 speech in Chicago, Illinois. 

--> How did Turner's Frontier Thesis differ from the Safety-Valve Theory

The Safety-Valve Theory is that the frontier acted as a "safety valve" to relieve social pressure by giving the unemplyed in the East somewhere to go and pursue their economic well being.  The idea does not necessarily contradict the Frontier Thesis but addresses a more specific issue about urban social tensions. It was later adopted by Turner himself into his Frontier Thesis.

--> What problem did Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis expose

Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis exposed that American had been defined by the frontier, which was now closed. 

Final Turner's Frontier Thesis Quiz

Who was Frederick Jackson Turner?

Show answer

A historian

Show question

What did Frederick Jackson Turner say was the status of the frontier?

It was closed 

Where did Frederick Jackson Turner first present his Frontier Thesis?

What frontier did Franklin Delano Roosevelt say that the New Deal was trying to conquer?

Economic insecurity 

What audience did Frederick Jackson Turner deliver his frontier thesis to?

The American Historical Society 

What central part of the American character did Frederick Jackson Turner tie to the frontier?


How did theorists before Frederick Jackson Turner use the frontier to explain the development of American society?

They believed that when Germanic people encountered the forests, their ingenuity returned. 

What did Frederick Turner Jackson believed increased with each wave of the frontier?

What did Frederick Jackson Turner had to be lost in the frontier to develop something new?


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Frontier Thesis, Turner's

Frontier thesis, turner's.

FRONTIER THESIS, TURNER'S. Frederick Jackson Turner 's "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" is arguably one of the most influential interpretations of the American past ever espoused. Delivered in Chicago before two hundred historians at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, Turner's thesis discounted the then-dominant "germ theory" of American history, which argued that American political and social character evolved directly from European antecedents. Turner instead contended that Europeans had been transformed by the settlement of North America , a process that produced a distinct American mentality and culture far different from European precedents. Turner outlined progressive stages of settlement, dominated by the taming of the frontier from exploration through urban development, all the while maintaining that the experience of westward movement across the American continent was responsible for creating the independence and resourcefulness that comprised the heart of American character. The Turner thesis became the dominant interpretation of American history for the next century, although after the early 1980s "new western historians," who rejected Turner's grand theory for its lack of racial inclusiveness and overly triumphant paradigm, emphasized a more inclusive approach to frontier history. Nonetheless, the Turner thesis remained a popular albeit widely debated assessment of American development.


Billington, Ray Allen. The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis: A Study in Historical Creativity. San Marino , Calif.: Huntington Library, 1971.

Faragher, John Mack, ed. Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner : "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and Other Essays. New York : Henry Holt , 1994.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds. Trails: Toward a New Western History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Daniel P. Barr

See also Frontier ; Historiography, American .

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Why was the Turner Thesis abandoned by historians

what's the turner thesis

While appealing, the Turner thesis stultified scholarship on the West. In 1984, colonial historian James Henretta even stated, “[f]or, in our role as scholars, we must recognize that the subject of westward expansion in itself longer engages the attention of many perhaps most, historians of the United States.” ( Legacy of Conquest , Patricia Limerick, p. 21.) Turner’s thesis had effectively shaped popular opinion and historical scholarship of the American West, but the thesis slowed continued academic interest in the field.

Reassessment of Western History

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Defining America or a Threat to America's Moral Standing

Changing the narrative of native americans in the west.

Two books were written before Legacy was published, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (James Rhonda) and The Roots of Dependency (Richard White) both provide a window into the world of Native Americans. Both books took new approaches to Native American histories. Rhonda’s book looked at the familiar Lewis and Clark expedition but from an entirely different angle. Rhonda described the interactions between the expedition and the various Native American tribes they encountered. White’s book also sought to describe the interactions between the United States and the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, but he sought to explain why the economies of these tribes broke down after contact. Each of these books covers new ground by addressing the impact of these interactions between the United States and the Native Americans.

Even though White book was published a few years before Legacy, The Roots of Dependency certainly satisfies some of Limerick’s stated goals. Conquest and its consequences are at the heart of White’s story. White details the problems these societies developed after they became dependant on American trade goods and handouts. White also dissuaded anyone from believing that the Native American economies were inefficient. The Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos economies were successful. The Choctaws and Pawnees had thriving economies and their food supplies were more than sufficient. While the Navajos were not as successful as the other two tribes, their story was remarkable because they learned how to survive in some of the most inhospitable lands in the American West. These stories exploded the myths that the Native Americans subsistence economies were somehow insufficient.

The Impact of Immigrants to the West

Impossible Subjects is not a book on the American West, but it is a book that is very much about the American West. While Ngai’s story primarily takes place in the American West she does not appear to have any interest in defining the West because her story has national implications. The American West is relevant to her study only because it was where most of the illegal immigrants described in her story lived and worked. Additionally, it is not a story of conquest and its consequences, but it introduced the American public and scholars to members of the American society that are silent. Limerick even stated that while “Indians, Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Anglos, businesspeople, workers, politicians, bureaucrats, natives and newcomers” all shared the same region, they still needed to be introduced to one another. In addition to being a sophisticated policy debate on immigration law, Ngai’s work introduced Americans to these people. (Limerick, p. 349.)

The Rise of Western Environmental History

According to Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, economics played an equally important role in the economic and environmental development of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Slope states. Worster argued that the United States wanted to continue creating family farms for Americans in the West. Unfortunately, the aridity of the west made that impossible. The land in the West simply could not be farmed without water. Instead of adapting to the natural environment, the United States government embarked on the largest dam building project in human history. The government built thousands of dams to irrigate millions of acres of land. Unfortunately, the cost of these numerous irrigation projects was enormous. The federal government passed the cost on to the buyers of the land which prevented family farmers from buying it. Therefore, instead of family farms, massive commercial farms were created. The only people who could afford to buy the land were wealthy citizens. The massive irrigation also permitted the creation of cities which never would have been possible without it. Worster argues that the ensuing ecological damage to the West has been extraordinary. The natural environment throughout the region was dramatically altered. The west is now the home of oversized commercial farms, artificial reservoirs which stretch for hundreds of miles, rivers that run only on command and sprawling cities which depend on irrigation.

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Frontier Thesis

The Frontier thesis was formulated 1893, when American historian Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that the availability of unsettled land throughout much of American history was the most important factor determining national development. Frontier experiences and new opportunities forced old traditions to change, institutions to adapt and society to become more democratic as class distinctions collapsed. The result was a unique American society, distinct from the European societies from which it originated. In Canada the frontier thesis was popular between the world wars with historians such as A.R.M. LOWER and Frank UNDERHILL and sociologist S.D. CLARK , partly because of a new sense of Canada's North American character.

Since WWII the frontier thesis has declined in popularity because of recognition of important social and cultural distinctions between Canada and the US. In its place a "metropolitan school" has developed, emphasizing Canada's much closer historical ties with Europe. Moreover, centres such as Montréal, Toronto and Ottawa had a profound influence on the settlement of the Canadian frontier. Whichever argument is emphasized, however, any realistic conclusion cannot deny that both the frontier and the ties to established centres were formative in Canada's development.




Creighton, Donald Grant

Laurentian Thesis

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Metropolitan-Hinterland Thesis

The Significance of the Frontier in American History

by Frederick Jackson Turner

What was Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" and what are the criticisms of it?

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"What was Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" and what are the criticisms of it?" eNotes Editorial , 11 Nov. 2019, https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-was-frederick-jackson-turner-s-frontier-294868. Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.

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Turner's frontier thesis, perhaps the most famous theory in American history, argued that the closing of the American frontier in the 1890 census, which stated that there no longer was a frontier boundary line in the US, marked the end of the first phase of United States' history. More importantly, this thesis argued that the frontier was the single defining element in the development of the US spirit or character. Turner described this character, formed he argued by the existence of a frontier wilderness into which white Americans could throw their energies and talents, as one of

strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness ... practical inventive turn of mind ... restless, nervous energy ... [and] dominant individualism.

Without the outlet of the frontier for restless individuals, Turner worried about what the future of the country would hold.

Most historians now reject Turner's thesis that conquering the frontier was the master narrative defining the US experience up until 1890. Historians argue that we are defined by slavery, the huge and successive waves of immigration that populated this country largely with Europeans, and/or the rise of a powerful industrial machine in the last half of the nineteenth century. Others argue that the various "frontiers" in the American experience are so disparate that they don't cohere into a meaningful whole.

Many historians argue that it was community, not individualism, that made survival possible in the frontier. Almost all historians today also reject the triumphalist narrative that the spread of white culture represented "progress" over "savagery" and point to the genocide and suffering frontier expansion cost native peoples, as well as women and Asians brought to the frontier.

1,898 answers

Turner's "Frontier Thesis" stated that westward expansion was important to the American psyche in that conquering these uninhabited lands made United States's citizens more self-reliant and industrious. Turner wrote this thesis in 1893, three years after the West was declared "settled" in 1890. Turner was concerned that by ending westward expansion, Americans would grow soft and lose their pioneer spirit. To Turner, this pioneer spirit and attitude made the United States into the growing commercial and industrial giant that it was becoming during the late 1890s.

While many historians and politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt became fans of Turner. later historians criticize the Turner thesis as being only concerned with the Anglo-Saxon view of American expansion. The Turner thesis does not take Mexican and Native American claims to the land into account. The Turner thesis can also be viewed as justification for imperialistic actions—by the end of the 1890's, the United States would expand its holdings beyond North America. Turner's took the view that the United States was morally justified in taking control of the West; this view has been criticized by recent historians as they view it as biased.

Turner was one of the most influential historians of his time; however, his thesis concerning the American West has been criticized by most modern historians for its bias.

4,241 answers

Frederick Jackson Turner produced the "Turner Thesis" in 1893 shortly after the 1890 Census had determined that the American frontier had closed. Jackson argued that the frontier was a vital part of American democracy, as it allowed for continual reinvention and for limitless new opportunities for Americans (by which he meant white Americans) to achieve what he defined as progress. His thesis helped instigate an interest in American imperialism so that Americans would have access to new opportunities and markets abroad after the closing of the American frontier.

Many recent Western historians, such as Patricia Nelson Limerick in her Legacy of Conquest , published in 1987, questioned Turner's narrative of celebratory white progress on the frontier (see the source below). Instead, she looked at the experience of other groups on the frontier, including Mexicans, Native Americans, and Asians, and at their exploitation and suffering at the hands of white western pioneers. She argued that these groups were pushed aside by white settlers. Historians have questioned whether the white western movement represented unalloyed progress or instead imposed suffering and limitations on other groups.

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In his paper " The Significance of the Frontier in American History ," presented in 1893 in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner glorified westward expansion as demonstrating the virtues of the American spirit. This American spirit consisted of crossing continents and winning wilderness . He outlined the importance of civilization meeting savagery and emphasized the strength, power, and energy of the settlers who traveled westward. He also proposed that there were three waves to settling the West. First, the pioneers built the cabins and tamed the land. Next, the emigrants purchased the land, forming towns resulting in democracy and civilization. Lastly, men of capital and enterprise arrived and developed towns into bustling cities. Turner also discussed the importance of free land and equated this free land with opportunity.

Critics of this paper emphasize that this "free land" was not free. Prior to westward expansion, Native Americans, Hispanics, and mixed race people inhabited the West and had their own cultures. Instead of being "settled," critics argue the land was conquered, forcing many peoples out of their homes and into reservations. The result of this wave of expansion also resulted in oppression and greed. Towns sprang up as people flooded the West to search for gold. Later, these settlements became ghost towns. Instead of Turner's view of westward expansion as glorious, critics believe it inglorious and corrupt.

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Turner argued that the frontier impacted the development of American democracy. Americans have an independent spirit characterized by self-reliance, strength, ingenuity and practicality. These traits were the basis of American culture and democracy. He was the frontier as an outlet for the restless American spirit.  Many critics feel the development of the uniquely American character and democracy is much more complex and cannot be explained so simply. Additionally settlers in the West often relied on others to be successful - wagon trains, barn raisings etc. Conquering the West was far from the romantic ideal seen in literature and movies. While this may be seen as a great opportunity for white settlers, it involved the destruction of Native American culture.

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Turner Thesis Summary

what's the turner thesis

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American Democracy’ History: Turner’s Thesis Essay

The Turner Thesis claimed that American democracy was formed out of the American Frontier, whereby the process had a great impact on the natives. The interaction with the people at the frontier resulted in the adoption of moderate culture, democracy, and violence towards the people of color. In his analysis of Turner’s article, Ridge observed that American democracy was never brought in the country, but instead, it developed in the forests; and every time the locals interacted with the foreigners in the frontier, new ideals were acquired.

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The “principle function” of the frontier in American history was that through the American frontier, liberty was established since Americans were freed from the hands of Europeans who had taken over all major societal activities, especially in economics and politics.

Additionally, the American frontier did away with dysfunctional customs and traditions that had threatened the American Dream. There was no need for the militias, religion, aristocrats, and the rich in the frontiers because they simply played a negative role since they interfered with individual fulfillment in the sense that they threatened individual liberty and security. In this regard, the frontier land was expected to be free for anybody, and the idea of charging taxes was against societal ideals.

Americans had to forge a unique identity for them to achieve the much-needed civilization that would spark economic and political development. Through this, citizens would be given full power and authority to domesticate the wild animals. With time, many people moved from the exterior to the interior, making some people move to towns, but the conflicts between man and nature existed. As the generations became more American, they built autonomy and intolerance to oppression. Unfortunately, these developments never had a good effect on the community because people became more violent, individualistic, and distrustful of the authority, which is a characteristic of the American culture.

The frontier served a great purpose of transforming the American culture from the animalistic nature to what it currently presents. For instance, people were able to adapt to new things in society, leading to the domestication of plants and animals. Through this, people learned to be independent, whereby they were expected to be self-sufficient in the sense that they produced goods that satisfied their needs. Instead of subscribing to the ideas of scientists, Americans decided to live their lives without forming the government.

However, community-based organizations were formed to resolve the local problems that faced the locals. In this case, no person was supposed to be superior, but instead, people were considered equal, and both genders were allowed to enjoy their lives. Through the frontier, the current democratic ideas were developed, and the idea of egalitarianism was established whereby people were expected to be provided with certain inherent rights and freedoms. In modern society, human rights organizations are always concerned with the government’s attempt to deny individuals their basic rights, such as the right to free will.

Additionally, the process of selecting leaders is always based on democracy whereby the majority should have their way, but the minorities must be represented. Turner’s thesis had a great impact on the lives of many Americans in the sense that they started demanding for their rights when the regime mistreated people based on their race, social positions, and ethnicity. It was clear that an individual had the right to do as he or she wishes, and the only role of the government was to provide an enabling environment to ensure individual fulfillment.

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Frontier Thesis

"The emergence of western history as an important field of scholarship can best be traced to the famous paper Frederick Jackson Turner delivered at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893. It was entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." The "Turner thesis" or "frontier thesis," as his argument quickly became known, shaped both popular and scholarly views of the West (and of much else) for two generations. Turner stated his thesis simply. The settlement of the West by white people - "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward" - was the central story of American history. The process of westward expansion had transformed a desolate and savage land into modem civilization. It had also continually renewed American ideas of democracy and individualism and had, therefore, shaped not just the West but the nation as a whole. "What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States." The Turner thesis shaped the writing of American history for a generation, and it shaped the writing of western American history for even longer. " (quoted from "Where Historians Disagree: The 'Frontier' and the West" in Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, Chapter 16)


Turner's thesis can be considered:

what's the turner thesis

Was Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis Myth or Reality?

what's the turner thesis

Two scholars debate this question.

Written by: (Claim A) Andrew Fisher, William & Mary; (Claim B) Bradley J. Birzer, Hillsdale College

Suggested sequencing.

Issue on the Table

Was Turner’s thesis a myth about the individualism of the American character and the influence of the West or was it essentially correct in explaining how the West and the advancing frontier contributed to the shaping of individualism in the American character?


Read the two arguments in response to the question, paying close attention to the supporting evidence and reasoning used for each. Then, complete the comparison questions that follow. Note that the arguments in this essay are not the personal views of the scholars but are illustrative of larger historical debates.

Every nation has a creation myth, a simple yet satisfying story that inspires pride in its people. The United States is no exception, but our creation myth is all about exceptionalism. In his famous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the process of westward expansion had transformed our European ancestors into a new breed of people endowed with distinctively American values and virtues. In particular, the frontier experience had supposedly fostered democracy and individualism, underpinned by the abundance of “free land” out West. “So long as free land exists,” Turner wrote, “the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power.” It was a compelling articulation of the old Jeffersonian Dream. Like Jefferson’s vision, however, Turner’s thesis excluded much of the nation’s population and ignored certain historical realities concerning American society.

Very much a man of his times, Turner filtered his interpretation of history through the lens of racial nationalism. The people who counted in his thesis, literally and figuratively, were those with European ancestry—and especially those of Anglo-Saxon origins. His definition of the frontier, following that of the U.S. Census, was wherever population density fell below two people per square mile. That effectively meant “where white people were scarce,” in the words of historian Richard White; or, as Patricia Limerick puts it, “where white people got scared because they were scarce.” American Indians only mattered to Turner as symbols of the “savagery” that white pioneers had to beat back along the advancing frontier line. Most of the “free land” they acquired in the process came from the continent’s vast indigenous estate, which, by 1890, had been reduced to scattered reservations rapidly being eroded by the Dawes Act. Likewise, Mexican Americans in the Southwest saw their land base and economic status whittled away after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that nominally made them citizens of the United States. Chinese immigrants, defined as perpetual aliens under federal law, could not obtain free land through the Homestead Act. For all these groups, Euro-American expansion and opportunity meant the contraction or denial of their own ability to achieve individual advancement and communal stability.

Turner also exaggerated the degree of social mobility open to white contemporaries, not to mention their level of commitment to an ideology of rugged individualism. Although plenty of Euro-Americans used the homestead laws to get their piece of free land, they often struggled to make that land pay and to keep it in the family. During the late nineteenth century, the commoditization and industrialization of American agriculture caught southern and western farmers in a crushing cost-price squeeze that left many wrecked by debt. To combat this situation, they turned to cooperative associations such as the Grange and the National Farmers’ Alliance, which blossomed into the Populist Party at the very moment Turner was writing about the frontier as the engine of American democracy. Perhaps it was, but not in the sense he understood. Populists railed against the excess of individualism that bred corruption and inequality in Gilded Age America. Even cowboys, a pillar of the frontier myth, occasionally tried to organize unions to improve their wages and working conditions. Those seeking a small stake of their own—what Turner called a “competency”— in the form of their own land or herds sometimes ran afoul of concentrated capital, as during the Johnson County War of 1892. The big cattlemen of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association had no intention of sharing the range with pesky sodbusters and former cowboys they accused of rustling. Their brand of individualism had no place for small producers who might become competitors.

Turner took such troubles as a sign that his prediction had come true. With the closing of the frontier, he said, the United States would begin to see greater class conflict in the form of strikes and radical politics. There was lots of free land left in 1890, though; in fact, approximately 1 million people filed homestead claims between 1901 and 1913, compared with 1.4 million between 1862 and 1900. That did not prevent the country from experiencing serious clashes between organized labor and the corporations that had come to dominate many industries. Out west, socialistic unions such as the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World challenged not only the control that companies had over their employees but also their influence in the press and politics. For them, Turner’s dictum that “economic power secures political power” would have held a more sinister meaning. It was the rise of the modern corporation, not the supposed fading of the frontier, that narrowed the meanings of individualism and opportunity as Americans had previously understood them.

Young historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his academic paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago on July 12, 1893. He was the final presenter of that hot and humid day, but his essay ranks among the most influential arguments ever made regarding American history.

Turner was trained at the University of Wisconsin (his home state) and Johns Hopkins University, then the center of Germanic-type graduate studies—that is, it was scientific and objectivist rather than idealist or liberal. Turner rebelled against that purely scientific approach, but not by much. In 1890, the U.S. Census revealed that the frontier (defined as fewer than two people per square mile) was closed. There was no longer an unbroken frontier line in the United States, although frontier conditions lasted in certain parts of the American West until 1920. Turner lamented this, believing the most important phase of American history was over.

No one publicly commented on the essay at the time, but the American Historical Association reprinted it in its annual report the following year, and within a decade, it became known as the “Turner Thesis.”

What is most prominent in the Turner Thesis is the proposition that the United States is unique in its heritage; it is not a European clone, but a vital mixture of European and American Indian. Or, as he put it, the American character emerged through an intermixing of “savagery and civilization.” Turner attributed the American character to the expansion to the West, where, he said, American settlers set up farms to tame the frontier. “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” As people moved west in a “perennial rebirth,” they extended the American frontier, the boundary “between savagery and civilization.”

The frontier shaped the American character because the settlers who went there had to conquer a land difficult for farming and devoid of any of the comforts of life in urban parts of the East: “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 travel, 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. Before long he has gone to planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indian fashion. 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, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails.”

Politically and socially, according to Turner, the American character—including traits that prioritized equality, individualism, and democracy—was shaped by moving west and settling the frontier. “The tendency,” Turner wrote, “is anti-social. [The frontier] produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control.” Those hardy pioneers on the frontier spread the ideas and practice of democracy as well as modern civilization. By conquering the wilderness, Turner stressed, they learned that resources and opportunity were seemingly boundless, meant to bring the ruggedness out of each individual. The farther west the process took them, the less European the Americans as a whole became. Turner saw the frontier as the  progenitor  of the American practical and innovative character: “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom – these are trains of the frontier.”

Turner’s thesis, to be sure, viewed American Indians as uncivilized. In his vision, they cannot compete with European technology, and they fall by the wayside, serving as little more than a catalyst for the expansion of white Americans. This near-absence of Indians from Turner’s argument gave rise to a number of critiques of his thesis, most prominently from the New Western Historians beginning in the 1980s. These more recent historians sought to correct Turner’s “triumphal” myth of the American West by examining it as a region rather than as a process. For Turner, the American West is a progressive process, not a static place. There were many Wests, as the process of conquering the land, changing the European into the American, happened over and over again. What would happen to the American character, Turner wondered, now that its ability to expand and conquer was over?

Historical Reasoning Questions

Use  Handout A: Point-Counterpoint Graphic Organizer  to answer historical reasoning questions about this point-counterpoint.

Primary Sources (Claim A)

Cooper, James Fenimore.  Last of the Mohicans (A Leatherstocking Tale) . New York: Penguin, 1986.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  http://sunnycv.com/steve/text/civ/turner.html

Primary Sources (Claim B)

Suggested resources (claim a).

Cronon, William, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds.  Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Faragher, John Mack.  Women and Men on the Overland Trail . New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Grossman, Richard R, ed.  The Frontier in American Culture: Essays by Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick . Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson.  The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds.  Trails: Toward a New Western History . Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Milner II, Clyde A.  A New Significance: Re-envisioning the History of the American West . New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Nugent, Walter.  Into the West: The Story of Its People . New York: Knopf, 1991.

Slotkin, Richard.  The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890 . Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Suggested Resources (Claim B)

Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge.  Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier . Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

Etulain, Richard, ed.  Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional?  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999.

Mondi. Megan. “’Connected and Unified?’: A More Critical Look at Frederick Jackson Turner’s America.”  Constructing the Past , 7 no. 1:Article 7.  http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol7/iss1/7

Nelson, Robert. “Public Lands and the Frontier Thesis.”  Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States , Digital Scholarship Lab, University of Richmond, 2014.  http://dsl.richmond.edu/fartherafield/public-lands-and-the-frontier-thesis/

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Assignment: The Turner Thesis

HIS 211 - U.S. History: Reconstruction to the Present

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Frederick Jackson Turner was a famous American historian in the 1890s. He wrote a very influential article called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It quickly became known as the “Turner Thesis.”  Read the Turner Thesis and in a paragraph or two (250-300 words) answer the following:


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Conquering the West

Assignment: the turner thesis.

Frederick Jackson Turner was a famous American historian in the 1890s. He wrote a very influential article called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” It quickly became known as the “ Turner Thesis. ”  Read the Turner Thesis and in a paragraph or two (250-300 words) answer the following:


  1. The Turner Thesis: George Rogers Taylor: Amazon.com: Books

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  2. The Turner Thesis Concerning the Role of the Frontier in American History by George Rogers

    what's the turner thesis

  3. What Is The Turner Thesis Quizlet

    what's the turner thesis

  4. What Is The Turner Thesis Quizlet

    what's the turner thesis

  5. The Turner Thesis Worksheet

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  6. Turner’s Frontier Thesis and the Internet

    what's the turner thesis


  1. Frontier thesis

    The Frontier Thesis or Turner's Thesis (also American frontierism) is the argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that a settler colonial exceptionalism, under the guise of American democracy, was formed by the appropriation of the rugged American frontier.

  2. Frederick Jackson Turner

    Turner's "frontier thesis " rose to become the dominant interpretation of American history for the next half-century and longer. In the words of historian William Appleman Williams, it "rolled through the universities and into popular literature like a tidal wave."

  3. Turner's Frontier Thesis: Summary & Impact

    Turner's Frontier Thesis Birth of the USA American Constitution American Independence War Causes of the American Revolution Democratic Republican Party General Thomas Gage biography Intolerable Acts Loyalists Powers of the President Quebec Act Seven Years' War Stamp Act Tea Party Cold War Battle of Dien Bien Phu Brezhnev Doctrine Brezhnev Era

  4. Frontier Thesis, Turner's

    The Turner thesis became the dominant interpretation of American history for the next century, although after the early 1980s "new western historians," who rejected Turner's grand theory for its lack of racial inclusiveness and overly triumphant paradigm, emphasized a more inclusive approach to frontier history.

  5. Crucible of Empire

    By articulating the end of the American frontier and calling for new frontier abroad, Turner laid the intellectual groundwork for a new kind of U.S. foreign policy—one that led the United Stated...

  6. Turner Thesis Flashcards

    what is the Turner Thesis? The idea that the frontier created a unique American character and government. what is the impact of the frontier on the government? It made it more democratic. What is the impact of the frontier on the American character?

  7. Why was the Turner Thesis abandoned by historians

    Fredrick Jackson Turner's thesis of the American frontier defined the study of the American West during the 20th century. In 1893, Turner argued that "American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.

  8. Frontier Thesis

    The Frontier thesis was formulated 1893, when American historian Frederick Jackson Turner theorized that the availability of unsettled land throughout much of American history was the most important factor determining national development.

  9. What was Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis" and what ...

    Turner's frontier thesis, perhaps the most famous theory in American history, argued that the closing of the American frontier in the 1890 census, which stated that there no longer was a frontier ...

  10. The West as History: The Turner Thesis

    Still, Turner's thesis held an almost canonical position among historians for much of the twentieth century and, more importantly, captured Americans' enduring romanticization of the West and the simplification of a long and complicated story into a march of progress.

  11. Turner Thesis Summary

    The main point of Fredrick Jackson Turner's thesis is what the real essence of America is, and how we're all influenced by the many changes we have to go through. He believes that American history should not be focused on the extension of European enterprise.

  12. History Flashcards

    The Frontier Thesis or Turner Thesis, is the argument advanced by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 that American democracy was formed by the American frontier. He stressed the process—the moving frontier line—and the impact it had on pioneers going through the process. Frederick Jackson Turner

  13. 17.9: The West as History- the Turner Thesis

    Turner's thesis was rife with faults, not only in its bald Anglo-Saxon chauvinism—in which nonwhites fell before the march of "civilization" and Chinese and Mexican immigrants were invisible—but in its utter inability to appreciate the impact of technology and government subsidies and large-scale economic enterprises alongside the ...

  14. American Democracy' History: Turner's Thesis Essay

    The Turner Thesis claimed that American democracy was formed out of the American Frontier, whereby the process had a great impact on the natives. The interaction with the people at the frontier resulted in the adoption of moderate culture, democracy, and violence towards the people of color.

  15. Frederick Jackson Turner

    The Turner thesis shaped the writing of American history for a generation, and it shaped the writing of western American history for even longer. " (quoted from "Where Historians Disagree: The 'Frontier' and the West" in Alan Brinkley, American History: A Survey, Chapter 16) Turner thesis text Turner biography from The West by PBS

  16. PDF Frederick Jackson Turner, 'The Significance of the Frontier in American

    [Footnote in Turner, Frontier, 1920] At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each successive frontier. We have the complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions. The first frontier had to meet its Indian question, its question of the disposition of

  17. Was Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis Myth or Reality?

    Turner's thesis, to be sure, viewed American Indians as uncivilized. In his vision, they cannot compete with European technology, and they fall by the wayside, serving as little more than a catalyst for the expansion of white Americans.

  18. The Significance of the Frontier in American History

    Opposition to the Turner Thesis. In 1942, in "The Frontier and American Institutions: A Criticism of the Turner Thesis," Professor George Wilson Pierson debated the validity of the Turner thesis, stating that many factors influenced American culture besides the looming frontier. Although he respected Turner, Pierson strongly argues his point by looking beyond the frontier and acknowledging ...

  19. Module 4 Assignment: Frederick Turner's Thesis and U.S. Imperialism

    Turner's thesis asserted that the "closing" of the American Frontier, as demonstrated by the 1890 Census data, was the end of the most important era of American history. The Frontier, both the physical land and the ideological idea of it, Turner said, had infused American society with a unique blend of European refinement and untamed coarseness.

  20. What is the Turner Thesis?

    The Turner Thesis is a historical argument made by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. He contended that the frontier had made Americans a distinctive... See full answer below. Become a member...

  21. Assignment: The Turner Thesis

    Frederick Jackson Turner was a famous American historian in the 1890s. He wrote a very influential article called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." It quickly became known as the "Turner Thesis." Read the Turner Thesis and in a paragraph or two (250-300 words) answer the following: What is the Turner Thesis?

  22. Assignment: The Turner Thesis

    Frederick Jackson Turner was a famous American historian in the 1890s. He wrote a very influential article called "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." It quickly became known as the "Turner Thesis." Read the Turner Thesis and in a paragraph or two (250-300 words) answer the following: What is the Turner Thesis?

  23. Turner's Thesis by Grace Spasic

    Turner's Thesis. Turner presented in Chicago; the site of the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition. He conveyed the expansion to be the most important factor in American history. He claimed that "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.".