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The Significance of the Frontier in American History by Frederick Jackson Turner

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        American West        

In the year 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote a thesis titled The Significance of the Frontier in American History. In his thesis Turner believed that America would not be the country that it is today without the frontier. Turner believed that the Western mentality was a form of society rather than an area, stating that the West started on the Atlantic Coast and slowly progressed westward. As Westward expansion progressed, the wilderness changed not only the way people dressed, but also the way people thought and governed themselves. The wilderness took civilized people and forced them to return to primitive economic and political conditions. This was how the frontiersman adapted to the American wilderness and learned how to survive. This social reorganization of our European rooted society began on the Atlantic coast, and each time the frontier moved, the people became less like Europeans and more like Americans.

On the frontier, social development was continually beginning over and over again. This continual rebirth of American life was what changed the traits of the colonist. Turner stated “From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance.” Turner further stated that “the frontier was the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The frontier created an independent, self reliant individual that formed the beginning of Western influenced democracy. The frontier was considered the margin between dense population and the open expanse of land labeled “free land,” opening up opportunities for all who had the desire, energy, and strength to take it.

Turner’s theory asserts that not only did the frontier create individualism in America, it also allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs. With the fear of an unregulated advance of the frontier and the loss of control over the colonists, the English authorities tried to stop settlement at the headwaters of the Atlantic tributaries. However, the people would not have it. They continued to push farther and farther out into the free land. (Turner)

 I agree with Turner that the Europeans needed to return to primitive ways in order to master the wilderness, which then affected the way that the colonist lived and the way that they governed themselves. The requirements of living on the frontier nurtured individualism as well as equality among all genders and races. If you were a land owner, the potential existed for you to become equal in social status. On the frontier there was no one to assist you but your closest neighbor which could be over 30 miles away. Because of the great distance between homesteads, they became self reliant and self governing. Furthermore, without the presence of law and order, they had to protect their own homesteads from hostile forces of all kinds, through violence if the need arose.

The extreme conditions in the early colonial days changed the way the English colonists viewed and eventually forged, their social, economic and political identities. Whether male or female, black or white, these changes had to be embraced by all. This was especially applicable to Colonial, frontier women. With no one to rely on but themselves and their families, women took a more aggressive role. Assisting in the farming, building, and other business matters, in order for the family to survive. They even became proficient with the firearms of the day, so as to hunt and be able to protect their homes and families. As our social dynamics slowly began to change, out of the frontier came the new thought that all people were created equal.

The first colonists who came to this continent needed to create their own governing system when they arrived. Being so far away from the sociopolitical influences of England, this system became more of a democracy than the system they had left behind. Furthermore, the crown had refused to be involved in the first colonial towns of America. It was the European business investors that initiated the settlement of America. These investors did not settle America for religious freedom or political liberty, or even to expand the English empire, they did it for land and wealth. (Grymes, 1998-2017)

According to Grymes, “the beginning of the American Democracy as we know it did not arrive full-blown on ships filled with colonists, it was forged in the wilderness and on the frontiers of America” (Grymes, 1998-2017). Just like forging a knife, you start with the raw material and put it through numerous extremes, slowly shaping it with manual labor into your final product. This is what the wilderness did to the colonist through the trials of colonial life. A new democracy was being forged. To understand this, you only have to look to the life of George Washington. As a teenager he lived far from home, fending for himself while working as a surveyor. At the age of 21 he traveled over a thousand miles in winter, on an expedition from Williamsburg to Fort Le Beuf near Lake Erie. Grymes stated that it was colonial gentlemen like Washington who were the former frontiersmen and revolutionaries that conceived the Declaration of Independence and shaped the Constitution. (Grymes, 1998-2017)

        Another aspect of Turner’s thesis that I support, is that the opportunity existed to acquire free land in America. This implies that anyone could own this land, men, women, African Americans, and immigrants alike. To dig further into the use of the term “free land”, we need to look at Europe in the 1600’s. Grymes points out that “The basis for English wealth was the use of land for producing crops, wool, meat, and wood products.” This land was “controlled by hereditary aristocracy”. Grymes also informs us that the only way to become a land owner and climb the social ladder was to inherit it. Over half of England’s population did not own land, they lived and worked on land belonging to someone else. (Grymes, 1998-2017) In fact, all land, water, and resources in England, ultimately belonged “to the Crown.” No matter how hard they worked they would never have the opportunity to get ahead. Furthermore, the population lived in fear of losing everything through eviction.

        In the year 1650, there were five million people living in England. Because of the lack of acquirable land and the regulations and laws of the country, peasants were prevented from being allowed to purchase land and better themselves. This ultimately led to the fracturing of the English social system and resulted in civil war. It became harder and harder for an English man or woman to get ahead or even survive. With high unemployment and no hope for their future in England, the only alternative was to emigrate to America. There, men and women alike had the opportunity to acquire land (free land), and climb the social ranks as a landowner. (Grymes, 1998-2017)



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