© 2024
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

July 11: The Frontier Thesis

Ways To Subscribe

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner came to Chicago not for the World’s Fair like thousands of other people, but for the annual conference of the American Historical Association. On this date in 1893, Turner put the finishing touches on his Frontier Thesis, a speech he would give to the conference the following evening. Turner argued that the settlement of the American frontier was the foundation of a uniquely American culture.

With the Homestead Act enticing settlers out to the Great Plains, North Dakota played an important role in that cultural foundation. Turner said the taming of the American wilderness and the settlement of the Great Plains explained the evolution of an exceptional American culture. Turner said American democracy “came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.” He said: “In the crucible of the frontier, the immigrants were Americanized, liberated and fused into a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics.”

Americans embraced the vision of the bold pioneer taming the wilderness. In 1893 Americans of European descent considered their culture to be the height of human accomplishment.

Like, Turner’s address, the World’s Fair embodied an attitude that marginalized some groups. Civil rights leader Frederick Douglass was ridiculed when he tried to organize a Colored People’s Day at the fair. Native Americans were also left out. When a staff member complained that Native American exhibits were “used to work up sentiment against the Indian by showing that he is either savage or can be educated only by Government agencies,” she was fired.

Turner later backed away from his thesis. Although he never acknowledged the role played by non-whites, he recognized that settlers like the Norwegians and Germans from Russia brought their culture with them, creating a country that was more patchwork quilt than a single bedspread.

Even as Turner found more nuance in the development of the country, Americans embraced the Old West as a symbol of American exceptionalism. It has been romanticized in novels, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, movies, and television. John Kennedy evoked the pioneers who tamed the West in his New Frontier speech. In 1982, Ronald Reagan said the conquest of new frontiers “is a crucial part of our national character.”

The frontier may be gone as a reality, but the romanticized interpretation, right or wrong, remains embedded in the American psyche.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Related Content