Frederick Jackson Turner

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Frederick Jackson Turner (November 14, 1861 – March 14 1932) was, with Charles A. Beard, the most influential American historian of the early 20th century. He is best known for his Frontier Thesis announced in his 1893 paper on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," his theories of geographical sectionalism, his many PhD students, and his leadership of the history profession. In recent years western history has seen pitched battles among "Turnerians," "anti-Turnerians," "neo-Turnerians," and "post-Turnerians," with the only point of agreement being his enormous impact on historical scholarship and the American mind.


Frederick Jackson Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin into a middle class Yankee family. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1884, where he studied history with William F. Allen, a brilliant intellectual who rarely published. Turner earned his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1890 with a thesis on the Wisconsin fur trade directed by Herbert Baxter Adams. He returned to the University of Wisconsin as a professor at a time when the small college was transforming into a major international university. Turner became one of the most influential scholars there, taking a prominent role in the intellectual life of the state, which itself was a pace-setter in the Progressive Era (See Wisconsin Idea). Although Turner published little, he did more research than almost anyone else and had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history.

Turner proved adept at promoting his ideas and his students, who he systematically placed in leading universities. He circulated copies of his essays and lectures to important scholars and literary figures; he published extensively in highbrow magazines; he recycled favorite material, attaining the largest possible audience for key concepts; and he wielded considerable influence within the American Historical Association as an officer and adviser for the American Historical Review. So successful was this promotion that by 1930 a majority of leading American universities offered courses on the History of the West patterned after Turner's models.

Annoyed by the state regents who demanded less research and more teaching and state service, Turner sought out an environment that would support research.[1]Declining offers from California, he accepted a call to Harvard in 1910. Turner was never comfortable at Harvard; when he retired in 1922 he became a visiting scholar at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, where his note cards and files continued to pile up, but few monographs got published. His Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Frontier in American History (1920) was a collection of older essays.

As a professor of history at Wisconsin (1890–1910) and Harvard (1910–1922), Turner trained scores of disciples who in turn dominated American history programs throughout the country. At the American Historical Association, he collaborated with J. Franklin Jameson on major projects.

Turner wrote few books or articles; his influence came from tersely-expressed interpretive theories (published in articles), which gripped the American imagination by their self-evidentiary conclusions and by his dedication to his hundreds of disciples. Two theories in particular were influential, the "Frontier Thesis" and the "Sectional Hypothesis." His emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation of U.S. history for decades. His model of sectionalism as a composite of social forces, such as ethnicity and land ownership, gave historians the tools to use social history as the foundation of all social, economic, and political developments in American history.

Frontier Thesis

Prior to the Frontier Thesis, the germ theory of American history advocated by his mentor Herbert Baxtor Adams was the dominant interpretative framework for the development of the American people and character. This theory held that the genesis of American democracy, law, character, society, and culture (indeed everything that was distinctively American) came from European, and more specifically, Anglo-Saxon, origins. The English experience in North America, the reproduction of English society de novo but in a much more multicultural situation, accordingly contributed little or nothing towards developing a distinct American society or culture. Turner's frontier thesis turned this interpretation on its head.

Turner announced the frontier thesis is a scholarly paper in 1893, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" read to the American Historical Association in Chicago. Turner expounded an evolutionary model; he had been influenced by work with geologists at Wisconsin. On the westward-moving frontier, and not in the staid and established cities of the East, was where distinctively American characteristics emerged. As each generation of pioneers moved 50 to 100 miles west, they abandoned useless European practices, institutions, and ideas, and instead found new solutions to new problems created by their new environment. The frontier, over multiple generations, produced characteristics of informality, violence, crudeness, democracy and initiative that the world recognized as "American."

Turner's ideas impacted many areas of historiography. In the history of religion, for example Boles (1993) notes that William Warren Sweet at the University of Chicago Divinity School, argued that churches adapted to the characteristics of the frontier, creating new denominations such as the Mormons, the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and the Cumberland Presbyterians. The frontier, Boles and Sweet argued, shaped uniquely American institutions such as revivals, camp meetings, and itinerant preaching. This view dominated religious historiography for decades. Moos (2002) shows that 1910s to 1940s black filmmaker and novelist Oscar Micheaux incorporated Turner's frontier thesis into his work. Micheaux promoted the West as a place where blacks could transcend race and earn economic success through hard work and perseverance. Slatta (2001) argues that the widespread popularization of Turner's frontier thesis impacted popular histories, motion pictures, and novels. These popular mediums characterize the West in terms of individualism, frontier violence, and rough justice. Disneyland's Frontierland of the late 20th century reflected the myth of rugged individualism that celebrated what was perceived to be the American heritage. Turner's thesis about the frontier grafted itself tightly to an American mythical self-image of rugged individualists (cowboys) on the edge of civilization.

Conversely, the public has ignored academic historians' anti-Turnerian models, largely because they conflict with and often destroy the icons of Western heritage. However, the work of historians during the 1980s-1990s, some of whom sought to bury Turner's conception of the frontier and others who have sought to spare the concept while presenting a more balanced and nuanced view, have done much to place Western myths in context and rescue Western history from them.[2]

Turner ignored gender and race, downplayed class, and left no room for victims. His values presented a challenge to historians of the 1960s and later who stressed that race, class, and gender are powerful explanatory tools. The new generation of historians have stressed gender, ethnicity, professional categorization, and the contrasting victor and victim legacies of Manifest Destiny and imperialist expansion. Some criticized Turner's frontier thesis and the theme of American exceptionalism. The disunity of the concept of the West, the similarity of American expansion to European colonialism, U.S. imperialism in the late 19th century, and the realities of minority group oppression revealed the limits of Turnerian and exceptionalist paradigms.[3]


His sectionalism essays are collected in The Significance of Sections in American History, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1933. Turner's sectionalism thesis had almost as much influence among historians as his frontier thesis, but never became widely known to the general public as did the frontier thesis. He argued that different ethno-cultural groups had distinct settlement patterns, and this revealed itself in politics, economics, and society. Turner argued that these separate geographical societies (East, South, West) conflicted with each other (in much the same way that separate nations of Europe did) ultimately resulting in the American Civil War. Sections was a trope by which U.S. history could have the dynamism of international European history.

Turner's theories came under attack in the 1970s, as critics complained, unfairly, that he neglected regionalism (differences within sections). Their approach rejected the frontier process all together and looked at the West as simply a place. Critics complained that Turner celebrated too much the egalitarianism and democracy of a frontier that was hard on women and minorities. The attacks on Turner by the "new western historians" had the unexpected result of energizing his supporters and made Turnerian approaches even better known to the public.[4] Indeed, Turnerian ideas influenced the rapidly growing new field of environmental history.[5] Turner gave a strong impetus to quantitative methods, and scholars using new statistical techniques and data sets have, for example, confirmed many of Turner's suggestions about population movements.[6]

Further reading

See the Bibliography for a much longer guide.


  1. Allan G. Bogue, "'Not by Bread Alone': The Emergence of the Wisconsin Idea and the Departure of Frederick Jackson Turner." Wisconsin Magazine of History 2002 86(1): 10-23. online edition
  2. Richard W. Slatta, "Taking Our Myths Seriously." Journal of the West 40, no. 3 (2001): 3-5.
  3. Scharf et al., 2000.
  4. Limerick, the chief critic, concluded, "The campaign to declare Turner irrelevant revitalized Turner's reputation." Limerick (1995), 698.
  5. Hutton (2002).
  6. Hall and Ruggles (2004).