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Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893

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Frederick Jackson Turner was an American historian based at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, and then Harvard University. Turner is best known for his “Frontier Thesis,” an idea put forth in the essay excerpted. This essay was presented to a special meeting of the American Historical Association during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. In this essay, Turner argued that the frontier shaped key elements of the American experience. Turner’s Frontier Thesis stimulated an intense debate among historians about the American character in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

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Vocabulary Text
Census: an official count of the U.S. population that occurs every ten years, mandated by the Constitution to inform taxation and representation in Congress In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.” This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development. . . .
perennial(adj): enduring or continuously recurring

fluidity(n): the physical property of a substance that enables it to flow
American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.. . .
palisade (n): fence made of wooden stakes 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. . . .
composite (adj): made up of various parts or elements

preponderantly (adv): dominantly
First, we note that the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. The coast was preponderantly English, but the later tides of continental immigration flowed across to the free lands. This was the case from the early colonial days. . . .
antipathy (n): a deep-seated feeling of dislike But the most important effect of the frontier has been in the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. As has been indicated, the frontier is productive of individualism. Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family. The tendency is anti-social. It produces antipathy to control, and particularly to any direct control. The tax-gatherer is viewed as a representative of oppression. . . .
inquisitiveness (n): the quality of being inquisitive; curiosity

buoyancy (n): an optimistic and cheerful disposition

exuberance (n): the quality of being full of energy
From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in 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 traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. . . .
But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is not tabula rasa. The stubborn American environment is there with its imperious summons to accept its conditions; the inherited ways of doing things are also there; and yet, in spite of environment, and in spite of custom, each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier. . . . And 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.

Comprehension Questions

  1. What did Turner say was officially closed?
  2. According to the author, American history had been the history of what process? Why?
  3. In your own words, describe what the author meant in this quote.
  4. Turner said Americans “must accept the conditions which it [the frontier] furnishes, or perish.” What did he mean?
  5. What did the frontier promote for the American people?
  6. Turner said the frontier was productive of what?
  7. To what did American intellect owe its striking characteristics?
  8. With the closing of the frontier, what else closed?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. Summarize the Turner Frontier Thesis in one or two sentences in your own words. Discuss the validity of the author’s argument.
  2. In what ways do you agree or disagree with Turner’s thesis, on the basis of what you have learned about U.S. history thus far?

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History”