Frederick Jackson Turner

American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) is regarded as one of the greatest writers of United States history. Several of his concepts caused a virtual rewriting of American history in the early 20th century.

Frederick Jackson Turner was born on Nov. 14, 1861, in Portage, Wis., a rural town populated by a variety of European immigrants. In Turner's youth Portage was still visited by Indians living in the nearby wilderness. Turner's autobiographical notes, preserved among his papers at the Henry E. Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., relate that he attended Portage High School and won a prize for a graduation address that was printed in his father's newspaper. He worked in his father's office as a typesetter.

In 1880, Turner entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he fell under the influence of Professor William F. Allen, who taught him how to understand historical institutions such as the medieval church and the feudal monarchy. Turner later claimed that Allen showed him the importance of institutional history, a theme that appeared in Turner's writings on the origins of American democracy. Following his graduation in 1884 and the later completion of his master's degree at Wisconsin, Turner went to Johns Hopkins University to study for his doctorate in 1888. He married Caroline Mae Sherwood of Chicago in 1889.


Teaching Career

Turner's doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891), portrayed the trading post as an institution of the early American frontier. At the University of Wisconsin, where Turner taught from 1889 to 1910, he emphasized frontier history in his lectures and in his writings. His most important publication, a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History, " which he read in 1893, set forth his frontier hypothesis. His first major book, Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 (1906), was followed by a volume of essays, The Frontier in American History (1920). These volumes provided a wide audience for his ideas.

Turner moved to Harvard University in 1910 and retired in 1924 to southern California, where he continued his investigations as research associate at the Huntington Library. After his death on March 4, 1932, his last two books were published: The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize; The United States 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections (1935) was partly dictated and lacks the literary finesse of his other writings.


Frontier Theory

Turner's frontier theory (often called his frontier hypothesis) has been applied to Latin American nations, to Australia, and to Russia to explain the origin of national characteristics. Turner believed that the particular tone of American democracy, the nature of American institutions of government, and the uniqueness of the American character could be traced to America's frontier experience. In his writings Turner stressed the changes that took place in colonial American society when a European civilization was transplanted to a wilderness environment. Frontier individualism, stimulated by the presence of free (or virtually free) land in the West, left its imprint upon Americans of modern times.

In Turner's view a restless energy, a self-reliance, and a love of freedom are part of the American heritage, which is also symbolized by great leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln. Turner wrote that the lives of these presidents illustrate the influence of western democracy in American life. The original raw frontier areas of America were eventually transformed by generations of a new society. Social change caused by the modifying influence of geographical, economic, social, and political forces created a new nationality in America. American society developed with sectional or regional variations, the largest and most powerful sections being the North and the South.

Turner's most significant contribution to historical thinking has been to encourage a better understanding of the origins of American democracy. His theories have been thoroughly debated and criticized, yet he remains one of the most original and provocative historians that America has produced. Even though Turner admitted that he perhaps exaggerated when he "hammered hard" on the subject of the frontier in promoting democracy, his thesis that the westward movement greatly influenced American history and the growth of the American traits of character is generally accepted as valid.


Further Reading on Frederick Jackson Turner

Wilbur R. Jacobs, The Historical World of Frederick Jackson Turner (1968), traces Turner's professional career and includes excerpts from his correspondence. Jacobs edited America's Great Frontiers and Sections (1969), which includes Turner's unpublished essays and contains the best short biography of him. Critical essays on Turner's frontier theory are in George Rogers Taylor, ed., The Role of the Frontier in American History (1949; rev. ed. 1956), and R. A. Billington, ed., The Frontier Thesis: Valid Interpretation of American History? (1966). Billington's America's Frontier Heritage (1966) has an excellent evaluation of the frontier theory. Wilbur R. Jacobs and others, Turner, Bolton and Webb (1965), shows Turner's influence on two other leading American writers, and Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians (1968), discusses the affinities among Turner, Beard, and Vernon Parrington. Turner figures prominently in John Higham's work on historiography, Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship (1970). For a superb history of the United States that emphasizes Turnerean themes of interpretation see R. A. Billington, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier (1967).


Additional Biography Sources

Bennett, James D., Frederick Jackson Turner, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1975.

Carpenter, Ronald H., The eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner, San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1983.

Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin's historian of the frontier, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986.