Beating a Dead Horse?: The Continuing Presence of Frederick Jackson Turner in Environmental and Western History

Article excerpt

In a 1992 review of William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West Roderick Frazier Nash observed that "as the centennial of his controversial essay on the American frontier approaches in 1993, Frederick Jackson Turner has apparently become the whipping boy of every western historian." (1) Whether or not Nash was intimating a sympathy with Turner's Frontier Thesis or pointing out an inordinate amount of critical attention paid to an old essay, his remark borders on understatement; for a long time, classes in U.S. history (especially the history of the American West) have begun with the express intention of refuting Frederick Jackson Turner. In most cases, historical scholarship that is more than a century old would have long ago been either roundly accepted or rejected. Yet, Turner's Frontier thesis is a curious anomaly in that it has continued to be a target of debate and continued criticism more than any other American historical work. Turner, whether for his impact on American self-perception or his unprecedented application of the scientific method to history has remained an unshakable presence (or problem) in American scholarship.

The "Frontier thesis" promoted the role of western movement as the chief factor in the foundation of American political institutions and culture. Turner credited life in the wilderness with transforming European immigrants into a peculiar national breed. The wilderness necessitated a reversion to primitivism, thereby encouraging individualism and self-government and provided an "escape valve" for the jobless and landless to escape poverty and obtain free land. Moreover, he described the country's history as a process of settlement and civilization moving westward and always on the eastern edge of open land. Turner's impetus for the thesis was the 1890 census that had announced the official end of frontier conditions in the United States.

   What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bonds of custom, 
   offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, the 
   ever-retreating frontier has been to the United States directly, and to the 
   nations of Europe more remotely. And now, four centuries from the discovery 
   of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, 
   the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of 
   American history. (2) 

The "freedom of unexploited wilderness," as Turner would refer to it in an essay, changed Old World institutions (particularly British institutions which are invariably what Turner refers to) into distinctly American ones. Those institutions would have to be modified to deal with the recently closed supply of wilderness. Turner warned, "... the free lands are gone, and with conditions comparable to those of Europe, we have to reshape the ideals and institutions fashioned in the age of wilderness-winning to the new conditions of an occupied country." (3)

The bold claims made by Turner more than a century ago have since fallen into disfavor with American historians, particularly among western historians. Among the more notable proponents of the "new western history" is Patricia Nelson Limerick, a historian whose work embodies the primary departures from Turner. Limerick suggests that western historians focus on a geographically specific area rather than interpreting the West according to a uniform column of western movement. In The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick suggests that the frontier process has kept historians from viewing the West as a particular region, as with the South or the Midwest. Also, Limerick points out Turner's failure to criticize the violence and depravity involved in the saga of white, Anglo-Saxon westward encroachment. In describing Euro American westward expansion Turner described a closing rift between "civilization" and "savagery;" in contrast, Limerick prefers words like "imperialism" and "conquest. …