Frederick Jackson Turner

For other people of this same name, see Frederick Jackson (disambiguation) and Frederick Turner (disambiguation).
Frederick Jackson Turner
Born ( 1861 -11-14)November 14, 1861
Portage, Wisconsin
Died March 14, 1932(1932-03-14) (aged 70)
San Marino, California
Citizenship United States
Fields Historian
Institutions University of Wisconsin
Harvard University
Huntington Library
Alma mater University of Wisconsin (A.B.)
Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D.)
Thesis The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891)
Doctoral advisor Herbert Baxter Adams
Known for Frontier Thesis, Sectional Hypothesis
Spouse Caroline Mae Sherwood
Children Dorothy Kinsley Turner (later Main),
Jackson Allen Turner,
Mae Sherwood Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner (November 14, 1861 – March 14, 1932) was an American historian in the early 20th century, based at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, and then at Harvard. He trained many PhDs who came to occupy prominent places in the history profession. He promoted interdisciplinary and quantitative methods, often with a focus on the Midwest. He is best known for his essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", whose ideas formed the Frontier Thesis. He argued that the moving western frontier shaped American democracy and the American character from the colonial era until 1890. He is also known for his theories of geographical sectionalism. In recent years historians and academics have argued strenuously over Turner's work; all agree that the Frontier Thesis has had an enormous impact on historical scholarship and the American mind.

Early life, education, and career

Born in Portage, Wisconsin, the son of Andrew Jackson Turner and Mary Olivia Hanford Turner, Turner grew up in a middle-class family. His father was active in Republican politics, an investor in the railroad, and was a newspaper editor and publisher. His mother taught school.[1] Turner was very much influenced by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet known for his focus on nature; so too was Turner influenced by scientists such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Julian Huxley, and the development of Cartography.[2] He graduated from the University of Wisconsin (now University of Wisconsin–Madison) in 1884, where he was a member of Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity.

He earned his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1890 with a thesis on the Wisconsin fur trade, titled "The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin", directed by Herbert Baxter Adams. As a professor of history at Wisconsin (1890–1910), and later Harvard (1910–1922), Turner trained scores of students, who in turn dominated American history programs throughout the country. Turner did not publish extensively; 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 Hypothesis".

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. He proved adept at promoting his ideas and his students, whom he systematically placed in leading universities, including Merle Curti and Marcus Lee Hansen. He circulated copies of his essays and lectures to important scholars and literary figures, published extensively in highbrow magazines, recycled favorite material, attaining the largest possible audience for key concepts, and wielded considerable influence within the American Historical Association as an officer and advisor for the American Historical Review. His emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the leading history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history along Turnerian lines.[3]

Annoyed by the university regents who demanded less research and more teaching and state service, Turner sought out an environment that would support research.[4] Declining offers from California, he accepted a call to Harvard in 1910 and remained a professor there until 1922, being succeeded in 1924 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.. In 1911 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[5] 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, although few monographs got published. His 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 numerous major projects.[6]

Turner's theories slipped out of fashion in the 1960s, as critics complained that he neglected regionalism. They complained that he celebrated too much the egalitarianism and democracy of a frontier that was rough on women and minorities. After Turner's death his former colleague Isaiah Bowman had this to say of his work: "Turner's ideas were curiously wanting in evidence from field studies...He represents a type of historian who rests his case on documents and general impression rather than a scientist who goes out for to see." [7] His ideas never disappeared; indeed they influenced the new field of environmental history.[8] 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.[9] Turner believed that because of his own biases and the amount of conflicting historical evidence surrounding topics was so vast that any one approach to historical interpretation would be insufficient, that an interdisciplinary approach was the most accurate way to write history.[10]


Frontier thesis

Turner's "Frontier Thesis", was put forth in a scholarly paper in 1893, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History", read before the American Historical Association in Chicago during the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair). He believed the spirit and success of the United States was directly tied to the country's westward expansion. 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. The forging of the unique and rugged American identity occurred at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness. This produced a new type of citizen – one with the power to tame the wild and one upon whom the wild had conferred strength and individuality.[11] 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. Over multiple generations, the frontier produced characteristics of informality, violence, crudeness, democracy and initiative that the world recognized as "American".

Turner ignored gender and race, downplayed class, and left no room for victims. Historians of the 1960s and later stressed that race, class and gender were powerful explanatory tools. The new generation 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.[12]


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 ethnocultural groups had distinct settlement patterns, and this revealed itself in politics, economics and society.


Turner's ideas influenced 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 LDS Church, 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.[13] Moos (2002) shows that the 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.[14]

Slatta (2001) argues that the widespread popularization of Turner's frontier thesis influenced popular histories, motion pictures, and novels, which 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.[15]

Marriage, family, and death

Turner married Caroline Mae Sherwood in Chicago in November 1889. They had three children: only one survived childhood. Dorothy Kinsley Turner (later Main) was the mother of the historian Jackson Turner Main (1917–2003), a scholar of Revolutionary America who married a fellow scholar.

He died in 1932 in San Marino, California, where he had been a research associate at the Huntington Library.

See also



  1. Martin Ridge. 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), p. 4. Published by: Montana Historical Society. Article Stable URL:
  2. Robert H. Block. "Frederick Jackson Turner And American Geography." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 70, No.1 (Mar., 1980), p. 32. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor/org/stable/2562823
  3. Allan G. Bogue, "Frederick Jackson Turner Reconsidered," The History Teacher, (1994), p. 195
  4. 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.
  5. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 13 April 2011.
  6. Alfred F. Young and Gregory H. Nobles, eds. (2011). Whose American Revolution Was It?: Historians Interpret the Founding. NYU Press. p. 25.
  7. Robert H. Block. "Frederick Jackson Turner And American Geography." Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 70, No.1 (Mar., 1980), p. 40. Article Stable URL:
  8. Hutton (2002)
  9. Hall and Ruggles, 2004.
  10. Wilbur R. Jacobs. "Wider Frontiers: Questions of War and Conflict in American History: The Strange Solution by Frederick Jackson Turner." California Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Sep. 1968), p. 230. Article Stable URL:
  11. Alan Taylor, "The Old Frontiers" The New Republic, May 7, 2008.
  12. Scharf et al, 2000.
  13. John B. Boles, "Turner, The Frontier, and the Study of Religion in America," Journal of the Early Republic (1993) 13#2 pp. 205–16. in JSTOR
  14. Dan Moos, "Reclaiming the Frontier: Oscar Micheaux as Black Turnerian," African American Review (2002) 36#3 pp. 357–81 in JSTOR
  15. Richard W. Slatta, "Taking Our Myths Seriously." Journal of the West (2001) 40#3 pp. 3–5.
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