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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," "antiTurnerians," "neoTurnerians," and "postTurnerians," with the only point of agreement being his enormous impact on historical scholarship and the American mind.


Born in Portage, Wisconsin into a middle class Yankee family, Turner 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 became a professor at the University of Wisconsin, which was being transformed from a small college to 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 was a leader in the Progressive Movement. Although he published little, he did more research than almost anyone and had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history, earning a reputation by 1910 as one of the two or three most influential historians in the country. 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 advisor for the American Historical Review. 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 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. His emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. 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. 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 influenced his hundreds of disciples. Two theories in particular were influential, the "Frontier Thesis" and the "Sectional Hypotheses."

Frontier thesis

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. The West, not 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 proves 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, they 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. They 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. 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 represented a challenge to historians of the 1960s and later who stressed that race, class and gender were all-powerful explanatory tools. The new generation has 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 and imperialism in the 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's theories slipped out of fashion in the 1960s, as critics complained, unfairly, that he neglected regionalism. They complained that he celebrated too much the equalitarianism and democracy of a frontier that was rough on women and minorities. His ideas never disappeared; indeed they influenced the new field of environmental history.[4] 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.[5]

Further reading

See the much longer guide at the Bibliography subpage

  • Billington, Ray Allen. "Why Some Historians Rarely Write History: A Case Study of Frederick Jackson Turner," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 50, No. 1. (Jun., 1963), pp. 3-27. in JSTOR
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: historian, scholar, teacher. (1973). full-scale biography; online at ACLS e-books
  • Billington, Ray Allen. ed,. The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966). The major attacks and defenses of Turner.
  • Billington, Ray Allen. America's Frontier Heritage (1984). detailed analysis of Turner's theories from social science perspective
  • Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. (1988) along with Billington (1973), the leading full-scale biography
  • Bogue, Allan G. "Frederick Jackson Turner Reconsidered," The History Teacher, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Feb., 1994), pp. 195-221 in JSTOR
  • Cronon, William. "Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner," The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Apr., 1987), pp. 157-176 online at JSTOR
  • Faragher, John Mack, ed.Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and other essays, (1999) excerpt and text search
  • Hofstadter, Richard. The Progressive Historians—Turner, Beard, Parrington. (1979), highly influential critique
  • Jacobs, Wilbur R. On Turner's Trail: 100 Years of Writing Western History (1994).
  • Jensen, Richard. "On Modernizing Frederick Jackson Turner: The Historiography of Regionalism," The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Jul., 1980), pp. 307-322 in JSTOR
  • Limerick, Patricia N. "Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World," American Historical Review 100 (June 1995):697-716 in JSTOR
  • Steiner, Michael C. "From Frontier to Region: Frederick Jackson Turner and the New Western History," Pacific Historical Review 64 (November 1995): 479-501 in JSTOR
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. "Is Sectionalism in America Dying Away?" (1908). American Journal of Sociology, 13: 661-75, in JSTOR
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. "Social Forces in American History," presidential address before the American Historical Association American Historical Review, 16: 217-33 online edition
  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. 375 pp. (1920), Pulitzer prize online edition


  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 2001 40(3): 3-5. Issn: 0022-5169
  3. Scharf et al, 2000
  4. Hutton (2002)
  5. Hall and Ruggles, 2004