The Significance of the Frontier in American History

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"The Significance of the Frontier in American History" is a seminal essay by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner which advanced the Frontier Thesis of American history. It was presented to a special meeting of the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois in 1893, and published later that year first in Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, then in the Annual Report of the American Historical Association. It has been subsequently reprinted and anthologized many times, and was incorporated into Turner's 1921 book, The Frontier in American History, as Chapter I.

The thesis shares his views on how the idea of the frontier shaped the American being and characteristics. He writes how the frontier drove American history and why America is what it is today. Turner reflects on the past to illustrate his point by noting human fascination with the frontier and how expansion to the American West changed people's views on their culture. It is a thesis that has been respected in the historical circle for many years.

Opposition to the Turner Thesis[edit]

In 1942, in "The Frontier and American Institutions: A Criticism of the Turner Thesis," Professor George Wilson Pierson debated the validity of the Turner thesis, stating that many factors influenced American culture besides the looming frontier. Although he respected Turner, Pierson strongly argues his point by looking beyond the frontier and acknowledging other factors in American development.

The Turner Thesis was also critiqued by Patricia Nelson Limerick in her 1987 book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. Limerick asserts the notion of a "New Western History" in which the American West is treated as a place and not a process of finite expansion. Limerick pushes for a continuation of study within the historical and social atmosphere of the American West, which she believes did not end in 1890, but rather continues on to this very day.

Urban historian Richard C. Wade challenged the Frontier Thesis in his first asset, The Urban Frontier (1959), asserting that western cities such as Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Cincinnati, not the farmer pioneers, were the catalysts for western expansion.

More recently Glenda Riley has argued that Turner’s thesis ignored women. She argues that his context and upbringing led him to ignore the female portion of society, which directly led to the frontier becoming an exclusively male phenomenon.[1] The exclusion of women is one of the central debates around his work, particularly referred to by New Western Historians.


  1. ^ Riley, Glenda. "Frederick Jackson Turner Overlooked the Ladies." Journal of the Early Republic 13.2 (1993): 216–30.

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