The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Turner: Summary

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Margaret English

Meg has taught language arts in middle school, high school and college. She has a doctorate in Educational leadership

What was so important about the frontier in American history? In this lesson, you'll learn about Frederick Jackson Turner's idea that the American frontier experience not only shaped the American character but also determined the course of history.

Frederick Jackson Turner

Born in 1861, in Portage, Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner was destined to become a historian. His father was also a historian and a journalist who taught his son to love history, too. The younger Turner earned an undergraduate degree in history from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, and a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1890.

Turner was only 32 years old when he presented his historic thesis, 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History' to a group of fellow historians in Chicago in 1893. Although Turner's thesis was largely overlooked initially, it soon became a center of scholarship and controversy. One historian deemed it, 'The single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history.' Turner passed away in 1932.

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  • 0:00 Frederick Jackson Turner
  • 0:51 The Frontier: Open & Free
  • 1:39 The Frontier: Stages…
  • 2:42 The Frontier: American…
  • 3:59 End of the Frontier
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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The Frontier: Open & Free

According to Turner, the frontier was a vast area of free land. The demarcation of the frontier was a boundary line that was continuously being moved farther and farther west with each generation. In fact, it is the frontier, and subsequently its demarcation line, that determined the path of history more than other events.

Turner describes the need for westward expansion in terms of 'centers of attraction.' Salt was an attraction because it was needed to preserve food for storage and so that people could more easily travel. Mines and better soil were attractions that provided wealth and/or food. Army posts became necessary centers of attraction for protection. With all the wide-open space that was available, it was natural that people would move west to claim the land and the benefits it reaped.

The Frontier: Stages of Settlement

Turner discusses three stages or waves of frontier settlement in his thesis. The first wave he refers to as the pioneers. These are the settlers who simply found a piece of land to live on. Pioneers might own a few animals and have a family but did not necessarily own the land. For survival, they relied on their own ingenuity, farming, and hunting. Eventually, these first wave settlers might feel too closed in by neighbors and want to move on to do it all over again.

The pioneers passed the homestead on to new emigrants, who Turner refers to as the second wave of settlers. The emigrants 'put glass in the windows and bridges over streams.' They wanted to make improvements and were more likely to stay put. This group wanted to create villages with schools, roads, and courthouses.

Turner's third wave of settlers were the men of capital, the capitalists. These were the men who used the foundations of the previous settlers to create great cities and giant enterprises. Turner explained that with each expansion or migration of the frontier, this process was repeated and, thus, became generational.

The Frontier: American Identity

According to Turner, the history of America up until 1890, had been unique. In Europe, boundaries were fortified divisions separating large populations. In America, there was no large population beyond the frontier other than a few native tribes who were not numerous enough to prevent the migration west. Turner explained it this way, '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.'

On the American frontier, on the other hand, people who moved west were forced to adapt. They had to fight Native Americans, learn to forage for food in the wilderness, and create tools and household implements from what they could find. The environment of the American frontier was so strong that it replaced European tradition, and from it arose the tradition of self-sufficiency that Turner says is distinctly American.

The frontier promoted a composite American nationality. People from many countries emigrated and moved west, resulting in a melting pot of cultures. Turner suggests that these people became 'fused into a mixed race.' Although Turner knew that there were pockets of the nation that were wholly German or English, he recognized them as a part of the emerging multicultural American identity.

End of the Frontier

In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau stated that all land in the United States had been claimed. Turner declared that this seemingly unimportant event represented a critical turning point in American history. Turner wrote, 'Now four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history'. Turner argued that the existence of the ever-shifting frontier was a major influence that has profoundly shaped the American character and history.

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