The Frontier Debate


Over the course of American history, many historians have ventured to answer the question: What makes America—and it’s people—exceptional? Historians have endeavored to answer this in many ways. Institutions of slavery, Puritanism, "equality of classes", and democratic institutions have all been used as an answer to this question. In 1893, a 31-year-old historian by the name of Frederick Jackson Turner would lay the foundation for future discussion of this topic—he posed his belief that the American frontier was at the root of American exceptionalism. He sought to prove wrong those who clung to the "European germ theory".

In order to understand Turner’s thesis, one must be able to identify his definition of frontier. Turner’s frontier can be summed up well in a selection from his essay—it was the "existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advancement of American settlers westward". At the edge of this "free land" was the massive—yet rapidly receding—western American frontier.

According to Turner, this frontier had a unanimous effect on those who would venture into its midst. The settler who had once been European in quality and culture was thrown into the wilderness, and would find himself devolved into a buckskin-wearing, hooting and hollering backwoodsman. Over time, however, he would learn to tame the wilderness—with methods and skills that were not European—but new, fresh, and innovative, and ultimately "American".

Turner divides this frontier process into three "sub-frontiers", the fur-trader and Indian scout frontier, the rancher’s frontier, and the farmer’s frontier. Each of these played a vital role in the eventual mastering of the frontier wilderness; each would make provisions for those who would follow. If the continent could be viewed as a map from above, he said, one could see the "stages of social evolution, from west to east" displayed by these three stages, from "savagery to civilization". These stages would be characterized by vertical "belts" of land arranged from west to east, each in one of Turner’s stages of development. Although these stages weren’t all happening at the same pace in every part of the country, Turner uses them as a general model for which to describe the progression of the frontier.

The fur-traders were the first wave that swept westward across the nation in this pioneer progression, starting as early as the 17th century. What brought these men to the west? The "exploitation of the beast", proclaims Turner. These pioneer scouts opened up vital travel routes, explored passes and trails that would eventually become roads and railways, and established trading posts that would one day develop into the nation’s major cities. These scouts also played a role in the disintegration of Native American strongholds in the western lands. "Primitive Indian life had passed away" and they became "dependent on the whites", boasts Turner.

Next was the rancher’s frontier. The ranchers proceeded the fur-traders—they were as nomads, wandering with their mobile herds in search of grassy land in which to graze. They advanced further and further westward as their herds would fully exploit the grassy pastures—traveling on the ground and trails that the trader scouts had trod several decades preceding them. The fleeting nature of these ranchers and their predecessors (the fur-traders), being as they were not prone to stay put for very long, made way for the third frontier wave- the farmer’s frontier. To Turner, the epitome of being a pioneer was to be a farmer.

He discussed the factors that allowed the farmers to advance to the western frontier, or the "centers of attraction" as he called them. Army posts provided protection from the constant threat of the "savages" that existed constantly on the periphery of civilization. Salt was a staple in the lives of these settlers, as well as something that had still tied them to the East up until this point. The discovery of salt springs in western locales made it possible to now be independent of eastern connections, and as Turner argues, let the settlers advance past the mountains. And most importantly, the beckon of arable land—affordable and there for the taking—brought the farmers westward.

He further subdivides, placing the farmers frontier into three distinct waves: first came subsistence farmers, then small rural villages, then more advanced capitalistic agricultural ventures. As the first farmers became crowded by more and more new immigrants, they packed up and took to moving further west. Those, Turner felt, were the settlers with the most truly exceptional American outlook. This progression continued, until the frontier was finally gobbled up by such restless, westward-moving settlers. Turner displayed this by reiterating that the U.S. census had declared the frontier closed because of this mass depletion of "free land", which in his mind brought to close an era of American history. It was for this reason that he sought to explain the ways the frontier had been an influential part of this history.

The influences of the frontier on American history were extensive. Turner tried to prove that American "institutions adapt to changes of expanding people", or in the case of the frontier, the settlers. The "composite nationality" ("melting-pot" ethnicity of many immigrants and cultures merging together); growing economic autonomy as a result of new domestic merchants who rose to rival foreign importation of goods; proceedings of lawmaking of the national government that utilized a more loose construction of the constitution to facilitate growth and expansion as well as internal improvements for the frontier; the emergence of an American democracy resulting from the emerging individualistic attitudes of settlers as the became more and more secluded from the Eastern civilization; and a new "American intellect" that was pragmatic and individualistic; were all direct results, in some shape or form, of the frontier process. These resulting institutions, Turner proclaims, are what made America an exceptional, independent, and unique nation.

This thesis has become one of the most widely discussed and disputed ways of viewing American exceptionalism as it relates to the frontier. Some historians love Turner’s ideas, others hate them, and others are stuck somewhere in between—probably each having things they like and dislike about his famous (or infamous depending on point of view) essay. Many historians have put their opinions of Turner into writing— with books, essays, and theses of their own, all on this heated frontier debate.

One such historian who felt that Turner’s ideas were important and influential was Richard White, author of the essay "When Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody Both Played Chicago, 1893". He began his essay by describing the consequential circumstances that surrounded Turner’s presentation of his frontier thesis at the Colombia Exposition in 1893. As it turned out, a different view of the frontier was being presented in Chicago the very same day by another prominent Western figure, Buffalo Bill Cody. He and his "Wild West" show rolled into town, drawing large audiences of up to 18,000 people.

Turner represented the frontier view of academia, while Cody sought to entertain the public. White feels, however, that some historians are to quick to dismiss Cody’s view of a "Wild West" to be just for pure entertainment. White tends to believe that each of the men, Turner and Cody, have ideas of the frontier that when combined paint the big picture of what the west really was.

Turner and Cody had their differences and their similarities, according to White. While Turner viewed the frontier as a peaceful conquering of the wilderness, Cody saw it as a violent conquest of savages. Turner’s frontier hero was the farmer, and Cody’s was the indian scout. The "tools of civilization" in the Turnerian frontier were the axe and the plow, while for Cody they were the rifle and the bullet. Indians played a minor, peripheral role in the frontier thesis—simply wanderers with no rights or ties to the massive "free land". Cody places Indians in the spotlight—they were brutal, savage, and the obstacle that stood between the pioneers and their land.

This differences aside, they both painted a picture of white victimization—of violent savages that ravaged the poor, defenseless whites, the "badly abused conquerors". They also agreed that the "frontier" was over, and that a new page in history was about to begin. Both of these men used iconography—popular cultural images that, when seen by Americans, would incite certain ideas and feelings, especially of patriotism and nationalism.

These iconographic images used by the two men were stage coaches, log cabins, wagon trains, and other popular symbols of western life. These things, especially White’s example of the log cabin, brought to mind a sense of progress, and a retreat to a more simplistic and primitive time. Their use of iconography may explain how there ideas became so popular in the public eye.

White concluded his essay by restating the importance of both Cody’s and Turner’s west. They had divided up the existing narratives of frontier importance, both telling part of the story. Since both men left out something of importance—Turner the Indians, and Cody the wilderness—White felt it essential to combine both narratives to gain a broader picture of what the frontier had been.

Another western historian, Glenda Riley, was not as enthralled with Turner as Richard White had been. She criticized him openly in her essay, "Frederick Jackson Turner Overlooked the Ladies". Her main criticism of Turner was that, whether consciously or unconsciously, he had left out any mention of women on the frontier. In her essay, she aimed to analyze Turner to find why he may have done this.

Through her research, she came up with four reasons that she believed made Turner exclude women from the frontier. Most of his intellectual colleagues had been male. The sources he drew from at the time were from earlier historians who had ignored women. His specialty was political and economic history, not social history. Finally, he was from a school of progressive historians who liked to evaluate history analytically and systematically, on a grand scale and not focus on individuals.

To Riley, his exclusion of women was still inexcusable. Even though he had drawn on sources that had ignored women, she felt that the women’s movement was in such full swing that Turner should have recognized this. Also, she pointed to the fact that Turner had many female friends, and even some female students, and he should have paid homage to women in light of this fact. Instead, according to Riley, Turner had only mentioned female contribution to the frontier as members of a family group, not individuals. Women had simply been "lumped" into one of Turners larger frontier categories.

This was a dangerous hole to leave in the history of the frontier, Riley warned. It was cause for the many popular, unrealistic portrayals of frontier women to emerge- either as helpless, fragile beings who needed their cowboy to come and rescue them, or the other extreme, a rough, tough, gun-toting wildcat like Annie Oakley. Riley felt that Turner’s frontier had been the cause of further misinterpretation of women’s contribution to the American frontier.

Turner had a supporter in Martin Ridge, author of "The Life of an Idea: The Significance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis". He held yet another point of view, differing from both White and Riley. He ventures to say that Turner’s thesis was "the most influential piece of historical writing". He also calls it a masterpiece, in the sense that it broke new ground, and drew a flurry of both positive and negative attention; much the way that George Braque had done with his Cubist masterpiece paintings.

He continues his essay to give a brief background of Turner’s life: his childhood, his schooling, the influence of his professors, and his growing skepticism to the germ theory. His "genius" and "divergent thinking" allowed Turner to break new ground with the presentation of his frontier thesis at the World Colombian Exposition.

Ridge continues his essay with a summary of Turner’s thesis—that he likes to call a "radical manifesto for historians", because Turner had called for a change in the way historians viewed the frontier.

Ridge goes on to describe the process by which Turner made his thesis known. At first, he didn’t make any waves; historians of the time thought it to be just another nice idea. But as Turner mailed copies to fellow historians, he began to receive positive reviews, and eventually become well known among his most prominent contemporaries. It gained further acceptance among those who were of the same background as Turner, children of the closing frontier.

Another point of Ridges essay is to show how Turner’s ideas have infiltrated every aspect of American life, including popular media. It has used and twisted Turner’s ideas of American exceptionalism, drawing on his references to the individualism of the pioneers, the conquest of nature, and the distinct western American that emerges. This is just an example, Ridge feels, of the widespread impact that the frontier thesis has had on American life.

Thanks to Turner, he says, Americans even have a distinct use of the word "frontier"—where other countries use it simply to describe boundary lines, Americans use it to describe any unexplored or new idea or place, that is waiting to be conquered by human hands. This widespread impact that Ridge describes supports his idea that Turner’s work was a true masterpiece.

The final grouping of essays posed by Donald Worster, Patricia Limerick, Michael Malone, Gerald Thomson, and Elliot West all discuss the new interpretations of the west, the "New West" as opposed to Turner’s aging ideas.

Worster, in his essay "New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History" , called for the end of viewing the frontier as a process or progression like Turner had, but to evaluate its history and significance on the basis that it is an evolving place, or region. His view was more focused on categorizing the West as having an environment, as a whole, that was arid—this puts Worster into the school another famous western historian, second only to Turner, Walter Prescott Webb. This meant that old practices of agriculture that the pioneers had brought with them were no longer effective, and that the frontiersman was one who learned to master the environment through new agricultural innovation. Instead of the processes of Turners frontier, the successive movements of differing groups of people, he likes to stress the different "ecological modes" that were first the herdsman (the "pastoral" west) and then the "water engineers and irrigators" (the "hydraulic" west). In Worster’s eyes, the west was not a bountiful wilderness as Turner had claimed, but an arid land where life was an everyday struggle for existence.

The next four, shorter essays by Limerick, Malone, Thompson and West continue this "New Western" history assessment of the frontier.

Limerick expressed similar views in her essay, "What on Earth is New Western History". She sought to prove a few things with this piece. First, she said that Turner’s idea of the "west" didn’t apply to the entire west, drawing from her own experience of living in a part of the west- California. She said that his attention shied away from this "far west". Another criticism she held was of the loaded terms Turner had used, namely "progress". She also expressed that the "new west" was a place, not a process as Turner had claimed.

Malone is less critical of Turner than Limerick and Worster in his essay "The New Western History: An Assessment". While he agrees that the frontier was a place, not a process, he feels that Turner should not be as openly criticized as he has been by recent historians. He concludes that many different views must be taken into account—including Turner’s—to produce the "multi-faceted" new history of the west as a region.

Thompson sees the New West a bit differently. He felt that since the West did not have one characteristic that unified it as a region, that many factors must be combined to see the big picture of western history. Elliot West’s view is similar, saying that an understanding of the entire history of the west is what New West history was all about.

As all of these articles display, there is no right or wrong answer to this "frontier debate", or whether or not Turner was correct in saying that the frontier is where American exceptionalism evolved. In analyzing this set of articles, one finds many differing views that must be sorted through and filtered for valuable information. Perhaps one, all, or none of the past evaluations of the west have been correct, but Turner’s thesis still stands as an example for western historians to agree or disagree with.

Turner accomplished what he set out to do, which can be summarized another selection from his essay: "This paper will make no attempt to treat the subject exhaustively; its aim is simply to call attention to the frontier as a fertile field for investigation, and to suggest some of the problems that arise in connection with it." Since he made this perfectly clear from the start, it let the reader know that he was not looking to do an in-depth social, political, economical, or cultural study of the frontier. It seems that many historians have overlooked this, causing them to jump to conclusions or assume that Turner was intentionally excluding any class, culture, gender, or ethnic group of which they might accuse him.

Of course, Turner’s views are not entirely politically correct in light of this centuries great move towards civil rights and equality. We now know that Indians—now more correctly "native Americans"—were not savage, less-than-human, beasts that wandered aimlessly looking to antagonize white settlers. We also know now that the area of "free land" that Turner claimed for his white pioneers was not free at all, but a complex map of native American nations, as well as Spanish influence that reached up from Mexico into the southwest. In light of these developments made by revisionists, it is important that we are not to quick to condemn Turner’s thesis, for many of his ideas made sense, if viewed through the lens of a white American at the time of its publication.

Whether or not the frontier process was "progress" as Turner had claimed it to be, if stripped of loaded terms like "savage", "progress", "civilized", and "primitive", it can be used objectively to gain a general knowledge about the history and process of western expansion. Even more importantly, it does successfully give justification to the idea of American exceptionalism. The U.S. government over the years has had to fashion legislation to accommodate a growing nation. Individualism and love of liberty did bear the beginnings of American democracy (whether or not these traits evolved of the frontier can be questioned, but Turner is highly convincing of this point). These examples go to prove that Turner was right in saying that the frontier created a new, exceptional person- an American.

Richard White’s essay was a good representation of what Turner was about and how he can be used as a model for frontier exceptionalism. White acknowledges that Turner left out certain elements—such as the Indians—but he does not use this as a reason to just dismiss what Turner had to say. While he admits that Turner’s ideas were not entirely the product of his own research (similar views of frontier exceptionalism had been circulating in the years prior to Turner), he does give him credit for popularizing them. Turner’s ideas must not be taken by themselves, but in conjunction with other views on the history and significance of the frontier.

Riley is an example of a historian who ignored Turner’s beginning disclaimer- that he was only offering an overview of the frontier, not an in-depth social analysis. Riley wants too much of Turner. Since he expressly said that he was not putting a specific focus on any part of the frontier experience, this automatically discredits any of her reasons for why he left out the ladies. While these may have applied if Turner had not issued this disclaimer, the simple reason why Turner "left out the ladies" is because he stated from the beginning that it was not his intention to bring any particular group into his thesis. Turner was not gender-conscious at all—a "settler" could have been man, woman, boy, girl, grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunt, dog… and the list goes on. Instead of complaining of the absence of women in Turner’s essay, she should have simply appreciated it for what it was, and if she had anything to add, publish her own frontier thesis.

On the other end of the spectrum, Ridge also went to extremes in describing Turner’s thesis. His description of it as a "masterpiece" is probably not entirely accurate as Riley’s complete dismissal of its significance was not accurate. Since Turner had simply cultivated and refined these ideas of American exceptionalism, since they had been floating around for many years prior to him, he had not broke new ground, but found an effective way to make them accessible to scholars and the public alike. His point that Turner’s views reach even our institutions today was one with some merit—the west is a reoccurring theme in our culture, with its music that has evolved into popular country music, images seen in movies, television, and advertisements, and nationalistic feelings that it evokes.

In response to the next essays, Worster’s, Limericks, Malone, Thompson’s, and West, who assumed the point of view of a new western historian saying that the frontier is a place not a process: why can’t frontier be used to describe both? Turner’s frontier process could be occurring in the land that Worster calls the frontier. I can not see why the frontier can not be both. With due credit to Thompson, I believe that this is a part of the "multi-faceted" western history that he called for.

These historians, and many more, are all enraged in the ongoing frontier debate. Whether they hold the Turnerian belief system or the "New Western" history, they all try to prove the importance and function that the frontier served this country. Perhaps American exceptionality can be placed within the frontier, or perhaps it relates to something much larger. American exceptionality could be placed in the hands of most any American institution, or even all the institutions together that made America a separate and unique nation. There will never be a correct answer to this frontier debate, so one may venture to say that Turner’s frontier thesis was as credible a response as any in trying to prove American exceptionalism.