Understanding the Western Frontier in North American culture.
The allure of the open landscapes, untamed wildernesses, and DIY attitudes of “The West” remains as strong today as it ever has before in North American culture. Evidence of that allure can be found all over the multitudes of Instagram accounts that regularly romanticize the rugged Pacific Northwest (#PNW if your looking), in our language (lumbersexual) and in fashion (beards and flannel anyone?). The subject of The West has tugged at my curiosity for years, and one book written by Historian Frederick Jackson Turner over 100 years ago attempts to explain this long-standing allure. Turner’s The Significance of the Frontier in American History was originally presented to the American Historical Association in Chicago, Illinois, Frederick tells the tale of how the draw, mystery, and opportunity of the Western Frontier was responsible for the entrepreneurial inspiration that influenced American culture.
“American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier,” – Turner
Turner’s essay essentially depicts his views on how the near constant availability of new frontier territories reinforced American cultural values which helped build America into what it is today. Turner reflects on America’s past before the 1893 publishing to illustrate his point by noting how repeated expansions into the American West influenced people’s views of their culture. The American frontier continually reaffirmed the notions of personal liberty by distancing Americans from the European mindset of the day – eroding old, dysfunctional customs. The frontier had no need for standing armies, established churches, aristocrats or nobles, nor for the political elite who controlled most of the European landscape and charged heavy rents to everyday citizens, farmers & etc. In America’s “Frontier,” the land was unspoken for and free for the taking.
Turner’s thesis paid particular attention to the geographical space of the land that became the United States. With that view, he saw the first settlers who arrived on the east coast in the 17th century as essentially Europeans because of how they organized their culture. It didn’t take long however for these early settlers to adapt to the new physical, economic and political environment in the Americas — the cumulative effect of these adaptations resulted in the Americanization of the culture. As successive generations of people moved further inland and shifted the lines of settlement and wilderness, they unknowingly preserved that essential tension between the Old World and New. Every generation that moved further West became more “American,” more democratic, and more intolerant of hierarchy.
There are some cultural limitations to Turner’s Frontier Thesis when viewed in the modern context. For instance, in the years following his publication, there were other historians who wanted to focus historical scholarship on America’s minorities, especially Native Americans and Hispanics. Starting in the 1970s these historians criticized Turner’s Frontier Thesis because it did not attempt to explain the evolution of those groups. Turner also glosses over the impacts this westward expansion had on each region’s Native American population. The clashes and conflicts that resulted from the comingling of anglo-settlers and local populations were often times violent and rarely tilted in favor of the indigenous cultures. It also ignores the many other avenues American immigrants took to settle the nation – be it eastward from California, Oregon & Washington, northward from Mexico, or via the Caribbean… Turner also neglects to take into account how America’s various war efforts impacted the culture (especially that of the Civil War).
That said, The Significance of the Frontier in American History provides an interesting lens with which to view the influence our North American West has had on our culture. Reading Turner’s work allows you to look at The West from the view of a historical historian’s view of history. It’s a foundational piece of work – and impacted American’s view of it’s own identity for decades after being published. That influence can be found in everything from Hollywood cinema to the modern interpretation of the “Digital Frontier” of the internet.
Whether or not Turner’s view of westward expansion is fundamentally correct, people have flocked “West” across America’s many frontiers for thousand of reasons. Many of those early road trippers went in search of unrestricted opportunity, others looked for untouched farmland, others sought after the Earth’s interior riches, and yet others simply seek the Sunset Country in the name of personal discovery.