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frontier thesis

  The claim proposed by the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932) that \'the existence of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development\' (Turner, 1894). For Turner, the frontier was \'the line of most rapid and most effective Americanization\': as it moved westward, so the successive \'primitive\' engagements between the colonist and the \'wilderness\' entailed \'a steady movement away from the influence of Europe\'. That movement could be mapped as a series of settlement \'waves\' which corresponded to identifiable evolutionary stages:

Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file — the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle raiser, the pioneer farmer — and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between.Through these movements, the frontier was supposed to have provided a \'safety valve\' for the relief of poverty outside the West and, in doing so, to have encouraged a rugged individualism which \'promoted democracy\'.With the closing of the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century, Turner proclaimed the end of \'the first period of American history\': a claim which prompted scholars to describe his thesis — like Mackinder\'s heartland thesis — as a \'closed-space doctrine\' pregnant with political implications (see Kearns, 1984).

Its intellectual influence was no less powerful. At the turn of the century, from the perspective of his own anthropogeography, Ratzel regarded Turner\'s thesis as an important organic theory, conjoining biology and geography to treat the \'struggle for space\' as a requirement of the \'social organism\'. With the much later emergence of a more clearly defined spatial perspective in geography, Meinig (1960) could still claim that the frontier thesis contained four embryonic concepts — areal differentiation, connectivity, cultural succession, and spatial interaction — which were \'undoubtedly the most influential of their type ever to come from American scholarship\'; and twenty years later Block (1980) hailed it as \'the classic American essay in speculative historical geography\'.

But the frontier thesis was also subject to serious criticism. Within geography, Turner\'s foremost opponent was C.O. Sauer, who dismissed his thesis as both \'easy and wrong\' and reversed its conjectures at virtually every point. Succeeding frontiers were \'a series of secondary culture hearths\', Sauer insisted, so \'there was no single type of frontier, neither was there a uniform series of stages\'. Insofar as there had been any convergence in frontier development, Sauer believed this to have been the result of \'a growing common political consciousness radiating from the older sections of the country\' (reprinted in Leighly, 1963). Other geographers have emphasized similar spatial complications: the economic barriers to frontier settlement, the discontinuous movement of the frontier, and the significance of reverse flows of migration.

But the most sustained politico-intellectual challenge to the frontier thesis came from scholars who were sharply critical of Turner\'s studied indifference to the harsh realities of power or, more accurately, of his championing of the perspectives of the powerful. Their central charge was that Turner\'s so-called \'free land\' could \'explain\' American history only by erasing the claims of native Americans: the frontier thesis was exposed as a rationalization, even a glorification, of conquest and colonial dispossession. Other charges radiated from this core objection. Hofstadter\'s passionate (1968) indictment censured Turner for his neglect of \'the careless, wasteful and exploitative methods of American agriculture\', \'the rapacity and meanness to be found in the petty capitalism of the new towns\', the violence and ruthlessness \'to which Indians, Spaniards and Mexicans could testify\', and the \'arrogant, flimsy and self-righteous justifications of Manifest Destiny engendered by American expansionism\'.

These arguments have been pursued with even greater vigour by proponents of what has come to be called the new Western history. Thus Limerick (1987) argues that Turner\'s thesis is \'entirely irrelevant\' to the history of the Trans-Mississippi West. And instead of Turner\'s teleological model of a linear, singular frontier process proceeding in lock-step across the continent, three other historians have identified no fewer than six \'frontier processes\' that are intended to capture a more complex and more open interplay between productions of power, space and nature in the American West. They are: species-shifting; market-making; land-taking; boundary-setting; state-forming; self-shaping (Cronon, Miles and Gitlin, 1992). (DG)

References Block, R. 1980: Frederick Jackson Turner and American geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70: 31-42. Cronon, W., Miles, G. and Gitlin, J. 1992: Becoming West: toward a new meaning for Western history. In W. Cronon, G. Miles and J. Gitlin, eds, Under an Open Sky: rethinking America\'s western past. New York: Norton. Hofstadter, R. 1968: The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington. New York: Knopf. Kearns, G.P. 1984: Closed space and political practice: Frederick Jackson Turner and Halford Mackinder. Environment and planning D: Society and Space 2: 23-34. Leighly, J., ed., 1963: Land and life: a selection from the writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Limerick, P. 1987: Legacy of Conquest: the unbroken past of the American West. New York: Norton; Meinig, D.W. 1960: Commentary on W.P. Webb, \'Geographical-historical concepts in American history\'. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 50: 95-6. Turner, F.J. 1894: The significance of the frontier in American history. Annual Report of the American Historical Association, Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office

Suggested Reading Block (1980). Cronon, Miles and Gitlin (1992).



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