The Turner Thesis: After Ninety Years it Still Lives On
The legal status of women in the 19th century trans-Mississippi West has drawn the attention of numerous interpreters, whose analyses fall into three types: 1) the Turnerian Frontier Thesis, which argues that the West was, among other things, a liberating experience for women and men; 2) the reactionists, who view the West as a place of drudgery for women, who reacted unfavorably to the isolation and the work in the West; and 3) those writers who claim the West had no effect on women's lives, that it was a static, neutral frontier. The history of Montana shows that the Turner thesis best explains the improvement in women's status in Montana and the achievement of suffrage in 1914.
The Turner Thesis: An Annotated Bibliography for Students
Since the 1970s the "new western historians" have attacjed Turner's model. They have condemned the frontier thesis for its Euro-centric and racist assumptions, ridiculing Turner for his depiction of enlightened whites and savage natives and for discounting Indian agency. They assailed Turner's argument that the frontier created America character and ideology by revealing how Americans drew upon European antecedents and their own experiences in urban settings. Other maintain that the frontier was neither especially democratic nor equal. Nevertheless, the Turnerians have counterattacked, saying that the critics confuse 21st century moralistic sensibilities with historical reality. Turner's model, they note, was not about the Indians (who Turner wrote about elsewhere), but rather about the impact of the frontier on the frontiersmen and all Americans. Agreeing that the frontiersmen did not jettison all European ideas, the Turnerians argue they decisively remoulded and reshaped them to meet American conditions. The critics who suggest that democracy emerged from boss-ridden urban machines like Tammany Hall have surely misunderstood what American democracy means.
Another important characteristic of this collection of essays, however, as Paul points out, is thefact that 'criticism of Turner is especially prevalent." Although, as he goes on to report, the authors of these essaysdo not regard Turner "with the scorn shown by some critics of a generation ago, most find serious lacks nowthat western history has produced a whole congeries of subfields that seem to demand attention." Certainly the major criticism of Turner in these essays is his failure to mention, or at least adequately to discuss important featuresof or influences on frontier and Western history. Among those specifically mentioned are mining, territorialadministration, frontier politics, conflict and violence within the West, urbanization, women, racial and ethnicminorities, and culture. Although this particular criticism of Turner is not a new one. it appears especiallyconvincing in these essays because of their purpose and scope.
IN less than ten years, American historians undoubtedly will be observing in an appropriatemanner the centennial of the "Turner Thesis." It was on 12 luly 1893, at an annual meeting of the American HistoricalAssociation, that Frederick Jackson Turner first presented his frontier thesis in the now-famous paper on "TheSignificance of the Frontier in American History.'' During the following two decades, in a series of articles, papers,and addresses, he elaborated on and refined the thesis, and in 1920 selected thirteen of these essays for republicationin one volume.'."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, 1999) Historian Frederick Jackson Turner believed that the strength and the vitality of the America identity lay in its land and vast frontier. In 1893, Turner spoke at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, where millions of Americans had flocked to Chicago for this 1893 multi-month event to experience displays of new technologies, new products, and new tastes. In the pavilions and halls of the Exposition, the electric light bulb, the moveable sidewalk, the Ferris wheel, diet carbonated soda, and Cream of Wheat were a few of the many exciting things unveiled. Amidst the excitement, Frederick Jackson Turner offered his listeners at a American historians seminar, a new idea. His thesis "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" mournfully proclaimed that the once vast American western frontier was closed. "American energy," Turner maintained, "will continually demand a wider field for its exercise." In a discussion of the Spanish-American War and the birth of U.S. imperialism, Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis is significant because it connects two important forces of the 1890s. 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 policyone that led the United Stated into Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam during the Spanish-American War.
More recently, two books have been published which, in their assessments of the Turner Thesis,confirm that, indeed, it is still very much alive. Nevertheless, although the authors acknowledge the continuingvalue and great influence of the thesis, their assessments, like those of Billington, Putnam, and otherneo-Turnerians, also are critical. Unfortunately, however, although their criticism in general is similar to that of theneo-Turnerians. several of their criticisms at best seem rather misplaced and at worst are characterized by what WilburJacobs has called the "needless bickering'" and by misinterpretations or distortionsthat are reminiscent of the attacks on the thesis in the 1930s and 1940s."The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development." With these words, Frederick Jackson Turner laid the foundation for modern historical study of the American West and presented a "frontier thesis" that continues to influence historical thinking even today. As part of an address to the American Historical Association in 1893 Turner, then a young professor, announced that according to the 1890 census the frontier was now closed; there was no longer a clear line beyond which settlement had not begun. Turner then proceeded to explain the effect of this now closed area of open land on the nation for the preceding century.