Frontier Social History
ANNE M. BUTLER
"One of the most serious gaps in American historical writing is that of accounts of the social thought of the country," lamented the father of frontier history, Frederick Jackson Turner, in the fall of 1908.1 Four months later, still preoccupied with his thoughts about cultural history, Turner confided to Carl Becker, "Thank God there will be something left for the next generation of historical seekers."2Turner, with his proper Anglo-Saxon notions, envisioned a rather constrained definition of "social thought" if his comment, "a valuable study might be made of the pioneer woman and her place in history," is indicative of his hopes for the future of frontier social history.3
Nonetheless, the next several generations responded to Turner's concerns and cultivated some interest in social research. Scholars, however, often translated "social thought" into literature or fashioned their topics under the rubric of the increasingly popular American intellectual history.4 Accordingly, analysis of the cultural aspects of the frontier tended to be confined to a solitary chapter within a larger study of American literature or political discourse.5 This approach, although obviously providing the bases for many important publications, helped to retard the formulation of clear definitions of the meaning and scope of frontier social history.
The configuration of American history ultimately changed, and "social history" emerged as its own area of inquiry. It arrived, however, somewhat late to the academic arena and did not descend fully matured on the scene. Even as scholars struggled to articulate orderly definitions of social history, it slithered beyond their grasp, changed its form, acquired unexpected subtleties, or fragmented into new historical topics.6
This drama of commencement, transformation, and explication appealed to frontier scholars. They quickly perceived that the trend toward social history could prove to be the mother lode for their scholarship. Since the pronouncement of the Turnerian thesis in 1893, students of the West had labored under the ill-