From Maps to Myth: The Census, Turner, and the Idea of the Frontier

Article excerpt

One thing you will discover

When you get next to one another

Is everybody needs some elbow room.

Elbow room!

Oh elbow room, elbow room,

Gotta, gotta get us some elbow room.

It's the West or bust, in God we trust.

There's a new land out there.

-Ahrens 1973

"Elbow Room," an early 1970s animated musical short in the ABC children's television series Schoolhouse Rock, tells the story of America's settlement in under four hundred words and four minutes. Schoolhouse Rock first ran from 1973 to 1985. It aired between popular Saturday-morning cartoons and helped teach millions of children the basics of Western history. Popular demand recently revived it, and it has become part of twenty- and thirtysomething culture. Time Warner made it available for sale in 1996. As an electronic fable, "Elbow Room" concisely narrates Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. It depicts America's westward expansion as fated:

The way was opened up for folks with bravery.

There were plenty of fights to win land rights,

But the West was meant to be.

Even Turner's Victorian-era concept of inevitably advancing civilization appears in "Elbow Room." One sequence shows foot trails becoming wagon tracks, railroads and then highways. A national map emerges, webbed with Interstates.1 "Elbow Room" voices a similarly Turnerian succession:

The trappers, traders and the peddlers,

The politicians and the settlers,

They got there by any way they could,

Any way they could.

The gold rush trampled down the wilderness,

The railroads spread across from east to west

And soon the West was opened up,

Opened up for good.

Turner's master narrative of Western history lives on in Schoolhouse Rock. Few other major historical works or historians reach so deep into popular culture. It is hard to imagine, say, a cartoon version of Charles Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. But how exactly did Turner's frontier thesis, initially an academic address, become part of America's mythology? What made it eventually the stuff of Saturday-morning cartoons?2 Historians have by now pored over such questions (see, for example, White, Frontier, or the classic Smith 250-60). Yet the answer remains elusive.

The New Western Historians, for instance, the contemporary intellectual group perhaps most deeply engaged with Turner's legacy-and frustrated by it-- for a time challenged the frontier thesis directly. Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the most prominent of the group, described the frontier as "an unsubtle concept in a subtle world" (Legacy 25). She called the frontier "the other f-word" and avoided its use in the classroom (Frontier 72, 78). Even so, one could arguably read her Legacy of Conquest as an extended essay on the frontier and its impact on American life simply by substituting the word "frontier" for her term conquest. Similarly, Richard White ("It's Your Misfortune") wrote a major text on Western history without mentioning Turner. According to Donald Worster, "Turner presides over western history like a Holy Ghost . . . [h]eads still bowed dutifully at the name Frederick Jackson Turner, and a few still crossed themselves in reverence" (quoted in Faragher 107). The New Western Historians demonstrate Turner's extraordinary grip and persistence for American history. (See Steiner and Flores for a discussion of their positions.)

We believe the explanation for Turner's power lies in the way in which he joined apparently divergent traditions of knowledge to simultaneously invigorate, modernize, and mythologize the concept of the frontier. In particular, he tied the Census Office's carefully empirical frontier to a more Durkheimian interpretive collective concept. This essay traces the intellectual and social links between the Census's use of the frontier as a specific bureaucratic land category and Turner's broader approach to the concept. …