Frederick Jackson Turner,
"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893)
Frederick Jackson Turner's essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," written in 1893, is perhaps the most influential essay ever read at the American Historical Association's annual conference. In the years since it was delivered, it has become part of the standard historiography of American History, spawned a massive following of "Turnerians" both in and out of the academy, and several "anti-Turnerian" revolutions, including the movement called "The New Western History." In this course, we will be reading Turner's essay in several manners: as a reflection of the 1890s, as a statement of American expansionism, as an idea in American thought, as an historical philosophy, and as the site of debate over the meaning of the "frontier" in American culture.
- Questions to Consider:
- 1) What is The Frontier Thesis? What role does Turner argue the frontier has played in American history?
- 2) What does Turner say about American distinctiveness (or "exceptionalism") in the essay? What evidence does he provide for his argument?
- 3) Trace the process which Turner identifies as "Americanization." How does that process proceed? What are the steps and stages along the way?
- 4) Turner is often identified as a "Progressive" historian, meaning that he views history as the inevitable process from chaos to improvement, with the underlying assumption that change is usually for the better. What "Progressive" assessments of history appear in Turner's thesis? Does he identify any threats to that progress?
- 5) Think about America in the 1890s. What are the major social changes shaping peoples' lives during this era? How does Turner's thesis reflect these changes, try to make sense of them, or sound a warning call for ways in which America might be losing its way as a result of the changes?
- 6) What makes it possible for Turner to argue that the land on the other side of the "frontier" is "empty," despite Native American and Spanish settlement in the region?
- 7) Examine the language used by Turner. What does his use of such terms as "savagery" reveal about his social philosophy? How is he a product of his times?
- 8) Patricia Nelson Limerick has argued that Turner's "West" is his own hometown of Portage, Wisconsin, and that this fact shapes his assessment of the "frontier process." Do you agree with this assessment of Turner's essay? Why or why not?
- 9) Who is Turner's "normative" American? What activities, identities, geographic locations, etc., reveal that American's normative status? In what ways is Turner's thesis a statement of American hegemony at the moment of the 1890s, both with regards to that normative American and American territorial expansion?
- Further Readings:
- John Mack Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: The Significance of the Frontier in American History, and Other Essays (New York, N.Y.: H. Holt, 1994).
- Allan G. Bogue, Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998).
- Martin Ridge, Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin's Historian of the Frontier (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986).
- Ray Allen Billington, The Genesis of the Frontier Thesis: A Study in Historical Creativity (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1971).
- Ray Allen Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
- Wilbur R. Jacobs, The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner, with Selections from his Correspondence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).
- Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Knopf, 1968).
- Wilbur R. Jacobs, Turner, Bolton, and Webb: Three Historians of the American Frontier (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965).
- George Rogers Taylor, The Turner Thesis (Boston: Heath, 1949).
- Dixon Ryan Fox, Sources of Culture in the Middle West: Backgrounds Versus Frontier (New York: Russell & Russell, 1964).
- Ronald H Carpenter, The Eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983).
- James D. Bennett, Frederick Jackson Turner (Boston : Twayne Publishers, 1975).
- Further Resources:
- Frederick Jackson Turner's "The Problem of the West," Atlantic Monthly, September 1896.
- Frederick Jackson Turner's AHA Presidential Address, "Social Forces in American History," December 28, 1910; from the American Historical Review, Volume 16, No. 2, p. 217-233.
- A look at Turner and Theodore Roosevelt as historians of their time.
- The Columbia Encyclopedia's Brief Biography of Turner (Sixth Edition, 2000).
- Jeffrey B. Flagg's "Frederick Jackson Turner, 1861-1932"
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for Honors 502 (American Frontiers and Borderlands), Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Last modified: Tuesday 5 September 2000.