A TURNING POINT IN WESTERN HISTORY?
When the young American Historical Association met in Chicago in 1893 as part of the World Columbian Exposition celebrating the discovery of the New World, little did that small gathering of historians realize that a paper presented to them would launch a new discovery of another kind. An exuberant young professor of history from the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, read on that hot July 12 evening his momentous essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Although the paper neither startled his audience that evening nor immediately stunned the historical profession, it did within a few years dramatically change the way historians looked at both the American past and the American West. Turner had, in fact, presented the most significant and influential interpretation yet advanced concerning American history and culture.
The “frontier thesis,” or “Turner thesis” as it became known, frontally challenged established views of American civilization that pointed to European legacies as the most notable formative influences in American history. Turner asserted, to the contrary, that the American frontier—not European traditions—had done the most to spawn the democracy, individualism, and nationalism he saw and celebrated in American society. In one of the boldest sentences of