Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement but at present the unsettled area had been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." So reported the U.S. census bureau. This fact inspired one of the most significant and controversial papers in American studies: The Frontier in America History, by Frederick Jackson Turner -- setting forth an analysis of history referred to ever since as, simply, the Turner thesis.

Historians search for cause and effect relationships, seeking to understand the past and the factors that have been woven together to make the present. Frederick Turner had often been puzzled when foreign visitors commented on the distinct traits of Americans. Was there an American character, and, if so, what were the historical influences that formed it? After considerable research, Turner believed he had come up with a clear answer. Yes, there was a distinct American character, shaped by our ever-changing frontier. Because of our unlimited resources, the American was nurtured, educated and molded by the promise the frontier offered. But the experience of the frontier was not easy, and the rugged self-reliance it demanded became a defining American characteristic.

The frontier was gradually pushed westward, and as this happened Americans became more and more divorced from the European way of life. The fall line (the eastern piedmont region where rushing water was a convenient source of power) marked the frontier of the 17th century. Settlement in the 18th century moved as far as the Alleghenies. It reached the Mississippi by the first quarter of the 19th century; the Missouri in some thirty more years, and the belt of the Rocky Mountains and the arid tract, by turn of the century. Traders, farmers, cattlemen, miners and city builders -- each successive wave claimed as much of the land for themselves as they could hold until, at last, the frontier disappeared.

The changing frontier shaped the American social and economic character and molded our historical, social, and economic development. The "American character" enshrined in endless literature and folklore, was coarse and strong, but inquisitive -- intelligent in a practical way but not book-learned. It exhibited the masterful grasp of material things of a Thomas Edison or a George Washington Carver. It was individualistic and freedom-loving. And it could be violent, fighting for what it believed in -- and what it claimed as its own. All these characteristics were born in aspects of that frontier experience. As a people, we were molded not by our European heritage but by this unprecedented experience.

As long as there was ample free land, there was unlimited opportunity. According to Turner, free land was the key to the economic growth of this country, and hence responsible for changing people's cultural traits. This relationship between land and societal development was recognized by others during this period, but it was Turner who masterfully assimilated facts to support this thesis. And now, at the end of the 19th century, the frontier was closed, and thus ended a significant chapter in the history of this nation and of the world.

As a result of the closing of the frontier, several significant changes occurred. As the availability of free land was basically exhausted, the Great West diminished as a factor in American development. Free land had always acted as an economic safety valve, providing all with a chance to get a living. Free land also meant higher wages, because employers had to induce their workers not to seek better opportunities in the West. At the closing of the frontier, we entered a period of concentration -- of capital, as with monopolies and trusts -- and of labor, responding with unions and cooperation. Connected with both of these changes was an impetus for expansion beyond the continental limits of the United States -- expansion that was both political and social. And lastly, according to Turner, it was the beginning of political parties in the United States which divided on issues that involved the question of socialism. Without the safety valve of the frontier, the lot of the average workers got worse and worse, and political debate turned increasingly to what should be done about it. As the old frontiers closed, America embarked on a new journey, seeking a political frontier. Americans had, however, inherited that frontier spirit of individualism and democratic idealism.

Background Questions:

  1. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, what historical factor was most important in developing the American character? Explain
  2. What were the various frontiers during our history?
  3. Explain some of the characteristics, according to Turner, that became distinctively "American."
  4. Explain some of the relationships between land and social development.
  5. What economic changes resulted from the closing of the frontier?

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