Excising the Ghost of Frederick Jackson Turner

In 1893, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America, a young Wisconsin professor, with only one academic essay to his name, confidently strode up to the lectern. Frederick Jackson Turner knew, or thought he knew, he had something important to say — he had even spurned an invitation to attend William Cody’s world famous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show the night before, telling a friend that he was “in the final agonies of getting out a belated paper.”[1] It was here, in Turner’s remarks titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” where the frontier thesis, which shaped the interpretation — and even the shape — of American history thereafter, was born.

“The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward,” Turner argued, “explain American development.”[2] Each successive frontier, from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains, inspired Americans to make their way into the wilderness. The westering of these pioneers had a two-pronged effect: It shaped the people themselves as well as the area surrounding them. On the one hand, those who advanced into the unknown frontier came to exemplify what it meant to be an American. “In the crucible of the frontier,” Turner wrote, “the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”[3] Forced to go it alone, these former Europeans developed the American virtues of self-reliance and rugged individualism that were thrust upon them by the frontier.

On the other hand, the land on which these burgeoning Americans now lived underwent massive change as well. “Little by little,” Turner wrote, the pioneer “transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe… The fact is, that here is a new product that is American.”[4] The frontier, which was once used wastefully by the savages that inhabited it, was now a part of civilization, a new civilization, one that was a beacon of light to all those around — a “city on a hill,” to take John Winthrop’s phrase. What was once only a part of John O’Sullivan’s wildest dreams was now reality: democracy, freedom, and liberty would be spread throughout the continent, justice would reign, and the values of hard work, self-reliance, and a can-do spirit would transform the wilderness into something that was distinctly American — it was, indeed, our Manifest Destiny. And now, nearly 50 years after O’Sullivan first coined the term, Frederick Jackson Turner was announcing not only that this Manifest Destiny was realized, but that it was this spirit that embodied the American ideal and drove the country to its inevitable greatness.

He was also announcing the end of the frontier as he, and the rest of the country, knew it. The frontier, Turner posited, ended in 1890, thus ending one era of American history and beginning another. Without this idea to spur on American growth and ingenuity, Americans would need something else to explain their development thereafter. To the days of old, Turner looked back with great sentiment; to the days to come, Turner and others of his ilk looked with dread.

Turner’s thesis quickly became a national sensation. Generations of students memorized Turner’s account of the frontier’s significance in American history. Theodore Roosevelt, himself the author of a four-volume history of the West, greatly admired the Wisconsin professor, congratulating Turner on his “first class ideas” and saying that he “put into shape a good deal of thought that has been floating around rather loosely.”[5] Another future president, Woodrow Wilson, credited Turner with influencing all of his ideas about expansion, saying that the frontier was “the central and determining fact of our national history”.[6] Turner was rewarded with two Pulitzer Prizes for his work in history, one of them posthumously. As Western historian John Mack Faragher put it, “Turner’s essay is the single most influential piece of writing in the history of American history.”[7]

Though Turner’s thesis initially enjoyed widespread acceptance, during the 1920s and into the Great Depression, more and more critics rose up. Historians Charles Beard and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. offered competing explanations of American development, and after World War II and into the 1960s, historians who increasingly began studying ethnic, racial, gender, and environmental histories hammered the Turner thesis for its lack of acknowledgement of any of these areas.[8] By 1964, William N. Davis had concluded, “Such is the force of the anti-, un-, and non-Turnerian groups that it would appear only a matter of time until they attain majority status.”[9]

By the 1980s, Davis’s prediction came to pass. In the early 1990s, this group of historians that more or less rejected the Turner thesis coalesced under the banner of “New Western Historians.” The New Western Historians, Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote to a participant of a symposium on the American West, “define ‘the West’ primarily as a place;” they reject the term “frontier” because it is “nationalistic and often racist” — it is simply the area where white people get scarce; they also “reject the notion of a clear cut ‘end to the frontier’” and “face up to the possibility that some roads of western development led directly to failure and to injury.”[10] The New Western Historians have made it their duty to tear down old shibboleths and break down old myths, starting with, but not limited to, the Turner thesis. The seminal work of this interpretation is Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. Limerick took the gobs of existing work criticizing Turner from every angle and synthesized it. Turner was wrong, she argued: The existence of an area of free land to the west was not the defining explanation of the development of America; the West was an actual place, filled not just with frontiersmen trying to make their way in the world, but with would-be conquerors looking to establish their domain over anything that stood in their way, be it Indians, Mexicans, Mormons, or the environment around them. “Turner’s frontier was a process, not a place,” Limerick writes. “When ‘civilization’ had conquered ‘savagery’ at any one location, the process — and the historian’s attention — moved on. In rethinking Western history, we gain the freedom to think of the West as a place — as many complicated environments occupied by natives who considered their homelands to be the center, not the edge.”[11]

Seeing the West as a place, one also gains the understanding that the frontier did not close in 1890 — there is an “unbroken past” connecting the West of Frederick Jackson Turner to the West of today, with similar themes, issues, and problems. “Mobility and the transformation of populations never ceased in Western America,” Limerick argued, citing a bevy of population movements to bolster her case.[12] To say that the frontier drove American development, and that it ended in 1890, is an incredibly ethnocentric view: It completely ignores the plight of the Indians, the movements of the Mexicans, and the forays of blacks into the West. The true West is a place, not an idea, and it is filled with a diverse population, each group having its own distinct set of interests, some that are the conquerors and some that are the conquered.

Legacy of Conquest is very much representative of the New Western Historians as a whole: Limerick views the West as a place and despises the term “frontier.”[13] She clearly rejects the notion that the frontier has ended, and she tears down some of the classic myths of the people of the West: Being a prostitute in the West was in fact not a glamorous thing; it actually was a lot of work to go West; the government played a large role in the development and survival of the West; racism did exist in the West; far from simply adapting to the environment, settlers of the West nigh destroyed it. In rejecting Turner wholesale, Limerick is largely representative of an interpretation of Western history that has become dominant and has been applied to many areas and ideas within and about the region.

Donald Worster, in his book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, applied the principles of the New Western History to what he termed the “darkest moment in the twentieth-century life of the southern plains.”[14] The Dust Bowl, Worster argued, was not the cause simply of the natural geography of the region or “acts of God,” conditions independent from human influence — overwhelming wind or a prolonged drought, for instance. These things played a role in the severity of the disaster, certainly, but they were not the principal cause. To that role, Worster left man and his insatiable appetite for destruction. “Some environmental catastrophes are nature’s work, others are the slowly accumulating effects of ignorance or poverty,” Worster wrote. “The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth.”[15] The Dust Bowl was “primarily the work of man, not nature.”[16] Along with applying the interpretation of the New Western History, Worster also analyzed the Dust Bowl through an explicitly Marxist lens: He opened his book with an epigraph citing Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which says, “All progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil.”[17] The greed of men, inherent in a capitalistic society, led them to cast off any attachment to ideas like community and conservation in favor of pursuing methods that would only add to their material success. As a result, plains were plowed, large-scale commercial farming thrived, and the machine-driven agriculture of the era proceeded unabated. In the end, however, the effects of this culture took its toll: The land was devastated and the actions of these farmers led to one of the biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century. The way to prevent such a disaster, he argued in a final clarion call to his readers, is not by fulfilling society’s capitalistic impulses; it is through conservation and working in concert with the surrounding environment, not through exploiting it. “Capitalism cannot fill that need,” Worster wrote. “All its drives and motives tend to push the other way, toward overrunning a fragile earth. Man, therefore, needs another kind of farming by which he can satisfy his needs without making a wasteland.”[18]

Elliot West, in The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains, is another historian who applied this New Western approach to his study of the region. “These essays,” West wrote, “argue the wrongheadedness of the tendency to separate and categorize too cleanly the elements of that history — people and nature, whites and Indians, and the West of prehistory, the frontier, and the modern day.”[19] In connecting all of these elements, West ascribed agency to many of the groups that have been neglected throughout much of Western history. His biggest contribution in doing so is by way of the environment, bison, and Indians. Much as Worster did in Dust Bowl, West argued that an environment interacts with everything around it, and, through the way that environment evolved, has a certain equilibrium that, if upset, will lead to drastic ecological change. “In short,” he argues, “every part of an environment interacts with whatever is around it, setting limits for other life and having limits set for itself.”[20] The Central Plains, with its tall grasses, had a distinctive ecological framework that had been set from many years of evolution. However, the twin migrations of white settlers from the East and the Plains Indians that came through the area greatly affected the environment of the Central Plains. “Taken together,” West wrote, “this wave of new arrivals created one of the greatest potential forces of environmental change in the region’s recorded history.”[21] The Plains, with its fragile ecosystem of grasses, was nearly destroyed.

Much as the grasses were changed, so were the many bison that inhabited the area. The migrating whites certainly played a large part in the demise of the buffalo, but Indians also played a role: The newfound peace between rival tribes led to an unprecedented amount of cooperation between the separate Indian groups, resulting in the rapid decline of the Plains bison. By revealing just how much of an effect animals, white settlers, and Plains Indians had on the environment, and vice versa, West was able to make the stories of the most neglected of these groups more dominant in the history of the West. Where Turner ignored these groups, West brought them up to their proper place in Western historiography. “The way to understanding the West,” he wrote, “is never by clean lines but by indirection and by webs of changing connections among people, plants, institutions, animals, politics, soil, weather, ambitions, and perceptions.”[22] The story of the West is not a simple one whereby American democracy developed: It is a complicated one involving people of many different cultures, even including animals and the environment.

Another very influential book that makes use of several themes of the New Western History is William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Cronon explained the growth of Chicago, and what impact that had on the West as a whole. He argued that, contrary to Turner’s idea that the frontier drove Western expansion (and expansion ended the existence of the frontier), cities played a crucial role in the development of the West, and the frontier — the country — still existed and continued to interact with the city. “Although the persistent rural bias of western history has often prevented us from acknowledging this fact,” Cronon argued, “the central story of the nineteenth-century West is that of an expanding metropolitan economy creating ever more elaborate and intimate linkages between city and country.”[23] “The history of the Great West is a long dialogue between the place we call city and the place we call country,” Cronon continued. “Viewed from the banks of the Chicago River, the Great West is both an urban empire and a countryside transformed.”[24]

Mixed with this interplay between city and country is the environment. He distinguished between first nature (prehuman nature) and second nature (nature as it is transformed by humans) not to pillory humans, but to acknowledge how connected people are to the environment around them. “If we wish to understand the ecological consequences of our own lives — if we wish to take political and moral responsibility for those consequences — we must reconstruct the linkages between the commodities of our economy and the resources of our ecosystem.”[25] Thus, Cronon explained how human involvement in the Great West led to beneficial developments — the ways grain, lumber, and beef have been used to house, feed, and sustain a large number of people in an efficient way — but also to detrimental ones — the devastation of many ecosystems.

While Cronon would certainly be termed a New Western Historian, he deviates from the consensus in a few ways. His focus on Chicago and the Great West is one way. New Western Historians explicitly argue that the West is a geographic place that exists on a map. What that map looks like can vary, but it is usually what Limerick proposed in The Legacy of Conquest: “California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, and South Dakota and, more changeably, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.”[26] Cronon’s work belies that description by focusing on a city in Illinois through the lens of a historian of the West. In a quote apt for the Frederick Jackson Turner professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, Cronon writes,

Much as I may be uncomfortable with the shifting definitions that have plagued scholarly readings of frontier history since the days of Frederick Jackson Turner, I am convinced that regional definitions are not much better, since I am quite confident that for much of the nineteenth century the West began in Chicago, not in Denver or San Francisco. To try to redefine the West to fit our modern vocabulary is to do violence to the way Americans in the past understood that term, since for them it was intimately tied to that other, now problematic word — “frontier.”[27]

Nevertheless, Nature’s Metropolis is still largely representative of the work that’s being done under the mantle of New Western History. Trails: Toward a New Western History, edited by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, is perhaps more representative still. The panel exhibit and subsequent book is a culmination of several essays that exemplify what New Western History is all about, including contributions from Worster, Richard White, Peggy Pascoe, and Limerick, among others. It is largely a historiographical analysis of the impact of New Western History. Worster dispensed first with the myth of the independent farmer going West for free land. “We have had many myths about the West,” he wrote, “but the principal one was a story about a simple, rural people coming into a western country — an ordinary people moving into an extraordinary land… and creating there a peaceful, productive life.”[28] He provided a historiographical basis for how and why the West was perceived this way, and proceeded to explain how the New Western Historians dismantled it: by showing that conquered peoples needed a voice, that the country’s capitalistic ethos led to devastation of the Western environment, and that the West was ruled by concentrated power.[29] White wrote on the environment, contrasting how Old and New Western Historians have viewed it, and Pascoe examined the contributions of women to the West, calling for a multicultural approach to Western history. Trails helps show just how dominant this interpretation of Western history has become, and the ways it has convinced the public at large.

Just because it has become dominant, however, does not mean that it does not have its critics. John Mack Faragher, though not a Turnerian, is slightly critical of the New Western History. In Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, the volume of Turner’s essays that Faragher edited with an introduction and historiographical essay, Faragher strikes a decidedly moderate tone. While he acknowledges the important work being done by New Western Historians, he is not as quick as them to disparage Turner. Faragher praised Turner’s “historical vision” and expressed shock that it has taken this long — to the credit of the Wisconsin professor — to dismantle his thesis. “In a world,” he wrote, “of dizzying intellectual fashion changes — from modernism to postmodernism to claims of an end of history itself — it may come as something of a surprise that it has taken so long for historians of the American West to overturn the interpretation of a century-old conference paper.”[30] Along with Cronon, he refused to give up the use of the term “frontier.” “By refusing to contest its meaning with our new understanding of the past,” he argued, “historians simply concede its uses to others who continue to believe in, or perhaps long for, imperialist chronicles.”[31] In an article for The American Historical Review entitled “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West,” he also disputed how groundbreaking these New Western Historians have been. “Whether they realize it or not,” Faragher wrote, “most of today’s western historians build on the contributions of their anti-, un-, or non-Turnerian predecessors.”[32]

Faragher, however, at least sided with the New Western Historians on the validity of the frontier thesis. Others are not as ready to toss out Turner’s paradigm just yet. Gerald Nash, in Creating the West: Historical Interpretations, 1890-1990, heavily criticized the New Western Historians. Nash argued that the reason the New Western Historians are so set on deconstructing myths is because of the trappings of the era they grew up in. They are so negative, he argued, because they are children of the 1960s, and their scholarship reflects that turbulent time. “Many in this generation,” he wrote, “openly abandoned any effort to retain a measure of historical objectivity.”

They became relativists with a vengeance, although they did not always regard themselves as such. In their view, the main role of historians was to be social critics whose task it was to espouse social causes. Ignoring the experiences of Fascist, Nazi, or Stalinist eras earlier in the century — before they had been born — they became devotees of moral missions. This was the position not only of those on the New Left, but also of those who followed in their path without an explicit ideological commitment.[33]

Elsewhere, Nash criticized the New Western Historians for their “profound pessimism about the American Westering experience,” and furthered his critique of their devotion to “moral missions” by comparing their arguments to the “modus operandi of Nazi Fascists and Communist academicians in their heyday.”[34] Nash is perhaps their most influential critic.

There are others. Martin Ridge, the coauthor with Ray Allen Billington of the preeminent Turnerian textbook Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, is a modern-day Turnerian, praising the conference paper that introduced his frontier thesis as a “masterpiece.”[35] He also criticized New Western Historians, accusing them of having made a “career choice” of attacking Turner, challenging them to “explain what is new about their work other than their personal assumptions and value judgments.”[36] Gerald Thompson also emerged as a slight critic of this interpretation. He pointed out that there have been some significant advantages to the way Americans responded to the frontier, and that the existence of capitalism in the West, contra Donald Worster, cannot allow historians to “argue that the West’s economic history has been largely negative because of it.”[37] Thompson saw a certain hopelessness in pining to rid the culture of the idea of the frontier. “Critics might rail that the frontier myth is dangerous and destructive, but based upon the history of other nations and cultures we would seem to be stuck with it. Like an unsavory relative, it’s ours for better or worse.”[38]

In spite of these critics, the New Western History remains prevalent, and Frederick Jackson Turner remains a relic of the past. However, though the New Western Historians dominate academia, they still have not been able to escape Turner’s shadow. In her essay “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” Limerick noted that “the New Western History’s campaign to declare Turner irrelevant revitalized Turner’s reputation.”[39] Indeed, Ridge had previously boasted that historians like Limerick “may find that it is exceedingly difficult to bury [Turner’s] ghost.”[40]

This seems to be the central problem of today’s New Western Historians. In academia, Turner is on the out and New Western History is on the rise. All of the most distinguished Western historians are from the new school: Worster, White, Limerick, and Cronon among them. The idea of the frontier has even slowly begun to change in the contemporary culture — more and more are willing to accept these new histories, the prominence of women, blacks, Hispanics, and Indians in the West, and acknowledge some of the mistakes of the American past. However, nothing has replaced that which gave the frontier thesis such staying power: its relevance to contemporary culture, its unifying theme, its cry for reform, and its ability to capture the imagination. Said Richard White, “One reason the New Western History has failed to displace the Old Western History in the popular imagination is that it lacks an equally gripping and ultimately satisfying narrative.”[41] Along the same lines, Faragher argued that “the power of Turner’s frontier thesis derived from its commitment to the study of what it has meant to be American. That is part of the Turnerian view we would do well to preserve.”[42]

Though Turner has largely been proven wrong, the New Western History will continue to struggle to capture the public imagination without that overarching narrative. Rather than seeing its mission in destroying old myths, New Western Historians must seek to form Western history into a cohesive framework that can be embraced by the masses — not merely to satiate the simple minded, but because the history of the West is important in understanding who we are as a people and where we can go as a nation. Works like Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest are a start, but the work of a Western historian must be more than simply disparaging our old heroes. It must reimagine the West in a new way that is both objectively true and something we as a people can rally around.

[1] Faragher, John Mack, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner (New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1994), 2.

[2] Ibid, 31.

[3] Ibid, 47.

[4] Ibid, 33-34.

[5] Kasson, Joy S., Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York: Hill and Wang, 2000), 117.

[6] Faragher. Rereading. 7; Nash, Gerald D., Creating the West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 8.

[7] Faragher. Rereading, 1.

[8] Nash, Creating, 23-99.

[9] Faragher, Rereading, 228.

[10] Limerick, Patricia Nelson, Milner II, Clyde A., and Rankin, Charles E. ed., Trails: Toward a New Western History (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 85-87.

[11] Limerick, Patricia Nelson, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1987), 26.

[12] Ibid, 348.

[13] Limerick, though, has written that her position on the use of the word has softened because of the word’s usefulness in a classroom setting when referring, for instance, to “white people living at the edge of colonial Pennsylvanian settlement.” Grossman, James R. ed., The Frontier in American Culture: Essays by Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 78.

[14] Worster, Donald, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 4.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 13.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] Ibid, 243.

[19] West, Elliot, The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997), 12.

[20] Ibid, 14.

[21] Ibid, 19

[22] Ibid, 166.

[23] Cronon, William, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), xv.

[24] Ibid, 54.

[25] Ibid, xvii.

[26] Limerick, Legacy, 26.

[27] Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis, xviii.

[28] Limerick, Trails, 7.

[29] Ibid, 16-21.

[30] Faragher, Rereading, 225-226.

[31] Ibid, 241.

[32] Faragher, John Mack, “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Feb., 1993), 111.

[33] Nash, Creating, 276.

[34] Faragher, Rereading, 226.

[35] Ridge, Martin, “The Life of an Idea: The Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Winter, 1991), 3.

[36] Ibid, 13; Faragher, Rereading, 226.

[37] Limerick, Trails, 93.

[38] Ibid, 94.

[39] Limerick, Patricia Nelson, “Turnerians All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 3 (Jun., 1995), 698.

[40] Faragher, Rereading, 226.

[41] Limerick, Trails, 32.

[42] Faragher, “The Frontier Trail,” 117.

3 thoughts on “Excising the Ghost of Frederick Jackson Turner

  1. The effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important. From the close of the seventeenth century various intercolonial congresses have been called to treat with Indians and establish common measures of defense. Particularism was strongest in colonies with no Indian frontier. This frontier stretched along the western border like a cord of union. The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action. Most celebrated of these conferences was the Albany congress of 1754, called to treat with the Six Nations, and to consider plans of union. Even a cursory reading of the plan proposed by the congress reveals the importance of the frontier. The powers of the general council and the officers were, chiefly, the determination of peace and war with the Indians, the regulation of Indian trade, the purchase of Indian lands, and the creation and government of new settlements as a security against the Indians. It is evident that the unifying tendencies of the Revolutionary period were facilitated by the previous coö in the regulation of the frontier. In this connection may be mentioned the importance of the frontier, from that day to this, as a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman. It would not be possible in the limits of this paper to trace the other frontiers across the continent. Travelers of the eighteenth century found the “cowpens” among the canebrakes and peavine pastures of the South, and the “cow drivers” took their droves to Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York.

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