What Was The Thesis Of Frederick Jackson Turner Essay

The Frontier Thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner

"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, 1999)


  • Turner thesis text
  • Turner biography from The West by PBS
  • Shane and the Turner Thesis from David Daly and Joel Persky, "The Western: Myth and Reality," Journal of the West, April 1990.
  • The Problem of the West is Frederick Jackson Turner's 1896 Atlantic Monthly article
  • Derman, Josua. "Frederick Jackson Turner and the Gospel of Wealth," Concord Review, Jan. 3, 1997
  • McClintock, Thomas C. "The Turner Thesis: After Ninety Years it Still 'Lives On'," The Journal of the American West 25, July 1986, p. 75-82.

The Turner Theses

The central thesis about the frontier coined by Frederick Jackson Turner, commonly called the frontier thesis, has to do with the origins of the American national character. Related concepts are the safety valve and successive frontiers. All these ideas were contained in the essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which Turner presented as a lecture at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Turner's point of departure for the essay was that in the published report of the 1890 federal census, it was reported that the United States no longer had a discernible frontier--a line of demarcation dividing, as they said then, "civilization" from "savagery." This led the historian to muse upon the importance of the frontier in American history.

There are two good reasons for us to give serious attention to Turner's ideas. The first has to do with national history. If Turner was right, then the American national character is a product of the frontier; we talk and behave the way we do because of the frontier experience. The second reason has to do with regional history. In Turner's conception, our region, the Great Plains, is important because it was the last frontier.

If you want to get Turner's ideas in his own words, he's available on-line from University of Virginia Hypertexts.

The Turner Theses
ThesisSynopsisTurner Quote
The FrontierThe frontier thesis is the assertion that the American character, including such traits as democracy and materialism, derived from the frontier experience."The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement, explain American development."
The Safety ValveThe safety valve thesis is the assertion that the frontier, as a place of opportunity and escape, defused social discontent in America."So long as free land exists, the opportunity for a competency exists, and economic power secures political power."
Successive FrontiersTurner said that in the development of any frontier area, one phase of economic and social development followed another in distinct stages. This is the concept of successive frontiers."Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file--the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer--and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between."

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