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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY By Frederick Jackson Turner, University of Wisconsin Address delivered at Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
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  THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FRONTIER IN AMERICAN HISTORY  1 By Frederick Jackson Turner, University of WisconsinAddress delivered at Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these significant words: Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettledarea has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be afrontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, anylonger have a place in the census reports. This brief official statement marks the closing of agreat historic movement. Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree thehistory of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuousrecession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the vital forces that callthese organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions. The peculiarity of Americaninstitutions is, the fact that they have been compelled to adapt themselves to the changes of anexpanding people--to the changes involved in crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, andin developing at each area of this progress out of the primitive economic and political conditionsof the frontier into the complexity of city life. Said Calhoun in 1817, We are great, and rapidly--Iwas about to say fearfully--growing! ,   2So saying, he touched the distinguishing feature of American life. All peoples show development; the germ theory of politics has been sufficientlyemphasized. In the case of most nations, however, the development has occurred in a limitedarea; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing peoples whom it has conquered.But in the case of the United States we have a different phenomenon. Limiting our attention to theAtlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon of the evolution of institutions in a limited area,such as the rise of representative government; into complex organs; the progress from primitiveindustrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing civilization. But we have inaddition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along asingle line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a newdevelopment for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansionwestward 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 thisnation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. Even the slavery struggle, which is made soexclusive an object of attention by writers like Professor von Holst, occupies its important placein American history because of its relation to westward expansion.In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave-- the meeting point between savageryand civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian it has been neglected.The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier--a fortified boundaryline running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the American frontier is, 1  that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports it is treated as the margin of thatsettlement which has a density of two or more to the square mile. The term is an elastic one, andfor our purposes does not need sharp definition. We shall consider the whole frontier beltincluding the Indian country and the outer margin of the settled area of the census reports. This paper will make no attempt to treat the subject exhaustively; its aim is simply to call attention tothe frontier as a fertile field for investigation, and to suggest some of the problems which arise inconnection with it.In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the continent, andhow America modified and developed that life and reacted on Europe. Our early history is thestudy of European germs developing in an American environment. Too exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic srcins, too little to the American factors. Thefrontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters thecolonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takeshim from the railroad car and puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilizationand arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokeeand Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting Indiancorn and plowing with a sharp stick, he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in orthodox Indianfashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. He must acceptthe conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits himself into the Indian clearings andfollows the Indian trails. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not theold Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenonwas a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that isAmerican. At first, the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very realsense. Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminalmoraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and whenit becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics. Thus the advanceof the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growthof independence on American lines. And to study this advance, the men who grew up under theseconditions, and the political, economic, and social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history.In the course of the seventeenth century the frontier was advanced up the Atlantic river courses, just beyond the fall line, and the tidewater region became the settled area. In the first half of theeighteenth century another advance occurred. Traders followed the Delaware and ShawneeIndians to the Ohio as early as the end of the first quarter of the century.3Gov. Spotswood, of  Virginia, made an expedition in 1714 across the Blue Ridge. The end of the first quarter of thecentury saw the advance of the Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans up the Shenandoah Valleyinto the western part of Virginia, and along the Piedmont region of the Carolinas.4 The Germans in New York pushed the frontier of settlement up the Mohawk to German Flats.5 In Pennsylvania the town of Bedford indicates the line of settlement. Settlements had begun on New River, a branch of the Kanawha, and on the sources of the Yadkin and French Broad.6The King attempted to arrest the advance by his proclamation of 1763,7forbidding settlements beyond the sources of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic, but in vain. In the period of the Revolution the frontier crossed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, and the upper waters of the Ohio weresettled.8When the first census was taken in 1790, the continuous settled area was bounded by a line which ran near the coast of Maine, and included New England except a portion of Vermontand New Hampshire, New York along the Hudson and up the Mohawk about Schenectady,eastern and southern Pennsylvania, Virginia well across the Shenandoah Valley, and the Carolinasand eastern Georgia.   9Beyond this region of continuous settlement were the small settled areas of Kentucky and Tennessee, and the Ohio, with the mountains intervening between them and the 2  Atlantic area, thus giving a new and important character to the frontier. The isolation of the regionincreased its peculiarly American tendencies, and the need of transportation facilities to connect itwith the East called out important schemes of internal improvement, which will be noted farther on. The West, as a self-conscious section, began to evolve.From decade to decade distinct advances of the frontier occurred. By the census of 1820   10thesettled area included Ohio, southern Indiana and Illinois, southeastern Missouri, and about one-half of Louisiana. This settled area had surrounded Indian areas, and the management of thesetribes became an object of political concern. The frontier region of the time lay along the GreatLakes, where Astor's American Fur Company operated in the Indian trade,   11 and beyond theMississippi, where Indian traders extended their activity even to the Rocky Mountains; Floridaalso furnished frontier conditions. The Mississippi River region was the scene of typical frontier settlements.12The rising steam navigationl3on western waters, the opening of the Erie Canal, and thewestward extension of cotton   14culture added five frontier states to the Union in this period.Grund, writing in 1836, declares: It appears then that the universal disposition of Americans toemigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their dominion over inanimate nature, isthe actual result of an expansive power which is inherent in them, and which by continuallyagitating all classes of society is constantly throwing a large portion of the whole population onthe extreme confines of the State, in order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a newState of Territory formed before the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to afurther emigration; and so is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its progress. 15In the middle of this century the line indicated by the present eastern boundary of IndianTerritory, Nebraska, and Kansas marked the frontier of the Indian country.l6Minnesota andWisconsin still exhibited frontier conditions,17but the distinctive frontier of the period is foundin California, where the gold discoveries had sent a sudden tide of adventurous miners, and inOregon, and the settlements in Utah.18As the frontier had leaped over the Alleghanies, so now itskipped the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains; and in the same way that the advance of thefrontiersmen beyond the Alleghanies had caused the rise of important questions of transportationand internal improvement, so now the settlers beyond the Rocky Mountains needed means of communication with the East, and in the furnishing of these arose the settlement of the GreatPlains and the development of still another kind of frontier life. Railroads, fostered by landgrants, sent an increasing tide of immigrants into the Far West. The United States Army fought aseries of Indian wars in Minnesota, Dakota, and the Indian Territory.By 1880 the settled area had been pushed into northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota,along Dakota rivers, and in the Black Hills region, and was ascending the rivers of Kansas and Nebraska. The development of mines in Colorado had drawn isolated frontier settlements intothat region, and Montana and Idaho were receiving settlers. The frontier was found in thesemining camps and the ranches of the Great Plains. The superintendent of the census for 1890reports, as previously stated, that the settlements of the West lie so scattered over the region thatthere can no longer be said to be a frontier line.In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark and toaffect the characteristics of the frontiers, namely: the fall line; the Alleghany Mountains; theMississippi; the Missouri where its direction approximates north and south; the line of the aridlands, approximately the ninety-ninth meridian; and the Rocky Mountains. The fall line markedthe frontier of the seventeenth century; the Alleghanies that of the eighteenth; the Mississippi that 3  of the first quarter of the nineteenth; the Missouri that of the middle of this century (omitting theCalifornia movement); and the belt of the Rocky Mountains and the arid tract, the presentfrontier. Each was won by a series of Indian wars.At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each successive frontier.We have the complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of  primitive conditions. The first frontier had to meet its Indian question, its question of thedisposition of the public domain, of the means of intercourse with older settlements, of theextension of political organization, of religious and educational activity. And the settlement of these and similar questions for one frontier served as a guide for the next. The American studentneeds not to go to the prim little townships of Sleswick for illustrations of the law of continuityand development. For example, he may study the srcin of our land policies in the colonial land policy; he may see how the system grew by adapting the statutes to the customs of the successivefrontiers.19He may see how the mining experience in the lead regions of Wisconsin, Illinois, andIowa was applied to the mining laws of the Sierras,20 and how our Indian policy has been a series of experimentations on successive frontiers. Each tier of new States has found in the older ones material for its constitutions.   21Each frontier has made similar contributions to Americancharacter, as will be discussed farther on.But with all these similarities there are essential differences, due to the place element and the timeelement. It is evident that the farming frontier of the Mississippi Valley presents differentconditions from the mining frontier of the Rocky Mountains. The frontier reached by the PacificRailroad, surveyed into rectangles, guarded by the United States Army, and recruited by the dailyimmigrant ship, moves forward at a swifter pace and in a different way than the frontier reached by the birch canoe or the pack horse. The geologist traces patiently the shores of ancient seas,maps their areas, and compares the older and the newer. It would be a work worth the historian'slabors to mark these various frontiers and in detail compare one with another. Not only wouldthere result a more adequate conception of American development and characteristics, butinvaluable additions would be made to the history of society.Loria,22the Italian economist, has urged the study of colonial life as an aid in understanding the stages of European development, affirming that colonial settlement is for economic science whatthe mountain is for geology, bringing to light primitive stratifications. America, he says, hasthe key to the historical enigma which Europe has sought for centuries in vain, and the landwhich has no history reveals luminously the course of universal history. There is much truth inthis. The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read thiscontinental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with theIndian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of thetrader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; theexploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settledfarming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally themanufacturing organization with city and factory system.23This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern Statesthis page is a palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the range had attractedthe cattleherder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State with varied agriculturalinterests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive grain-raising, like North Dakota at the present time.Each of these areas has had an influence in our economic and political history; the evolution of each into a higher stage has worked political transformations. But what constitutional historian 4
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