Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Turner's Frontier Thesis and the "New Western" History
The story of moving to, settling, and trying to eke out a living on the Great Plains has been a story central to the American experience. At least that has been so since the appearance of Frederick Jackson Turner's famous essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," in 1893.
In 1890, the commissioner of the Bureau of the Census stated that a frontier line of settlement (defined as having fewer than 2 persons per square mile) could no longer be found and would henceforth not be used in Census reports. "This brief official statement," Turner argued, "marks the closing of a great historic movement." Turner continued:
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… 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.
Turner saw the story of the United States as the story of people moving from west to east, peopling an empty continent. The need to be practical and inventive in each successive frontier created a unique American culture and way of thinking. For over a half century, Turner's interpretation of the West especially and of American history generally held sway in historical scholarship. In the past two or three decades, however, Turner's frontier thesis has undergone thoroughgoing challenge and revision by such historians as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Donald Wooster, and Richard White. These "New Western" historians see the west as a "crossroads of culture" where people from Latin America, Asia, Native America, and the eastern states of the United States. These groups struggled over land, economic success, and cultural dominance.
Being introduced to these interpretive frameworks will not only help students understand that history is constructed but also may provide an interesting point of departure for helping students grapple with the "stuff" of history (the primary sources of daily life on the Great Plains).
Many resources on Turner and the frontier thesis are available online; two good starting points for students include a collection of his essays and a brief biography written to accompany a PBS series on the west. The Association of American Historians provides a readable introduction to the "New Western" history. After becoming familiar with the core ideas of both interpretations of western history, consider the documents you have read from Prairie Settlement.
- What evidence from the letters seems to support the Turner thesis?
- What evidence seems to support the new interpretations of western history?
- What are the limitations of the collection in terms of drawing a conclusion about these two interpretations of western history? What are kinds of evidence would you need to decide which interpretation you think best explains the history of the American west?