Why was the Turner Thesis abandoned by historians?

Frederick Jackson Turner, 1902

Fredrick Jackson Turner’s thesis of the American frontier defined the study of the American West during the 20th century. In 1893, Turner argued that “American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” (The Frontier in American History, Turner, p. 1.) Jackson believed that westward expansion allowed America to move away from the influence of Europe and gain “independence on American lines.” (Turner, p. 4.) The conquest of the frontier forced Americans to become smart, resourceful, and democratic. By focusing his analysis on people in the periphery, Turner de-emphasized the importance of everyone else. Additionally, many people who lived on the “frontier” were not part of his thesis because they did not fit his model of the democratizing American. The closing of the frontier in 1890 by the Superintendent of the census prompted Turner’s thesis.

Despite its faults, his thesis proved powerful because it succinctly summed up the concerns of Turner and his contemporaries. More importantly, it created an appealing grand narrative for American history. Many Americans were concerned that American freedom would be diminished by the end of colonization of the West. Not only did his thesis give voice to these Americans’ concerns, but it also represented how Americans wanted to see themselves. Unfortunately, the history of the American West became the history of westward expansion and the history of the region of the American West was disregarded. The grand tapestry of western history was essentially ignored. During the mid-twentieth century, most people lost interest in the history of the American West.

While appealing, the Turner thesis stultified scholarship on the West. In 1984, colonial historian James Henretta even stated, “[f]or, in our role as scholars, we must recognize that the subject of westward expansion in itself longer engages the attention of many perhaps most, historians of the United States.” (Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Limerick, p. 21.) Turner’s thesis had effectively shaped popular opinion and historical scholarship of the American West, but the thesis slowed continued academic interest in the field.

Reassessment of Western History

In the last half of the twentieth century, a new wave of western historians rebelled against the Turner thesis and defined themselves by their opposition to it. Historians began to approach the field from different perspectives and investigated the lives of Women, miners, Chicanos, Indians, Asians, and African Americans. Additionally, historians studied regions that would not have been relevant to Turner. In 1987, Patricia Limerick tried to redefine the study of the American West for a new generation of western scholars. In Legacy of Conquest, she attempted to synthesize the scholarship on the West to that point and provide a new approach for re-examining the West. First, she asked historians to think of the America West as a place and not as a movement. Second, she emphasized that the history of the American West was defined by conquest; “[c]onquest forms the historical bedrock of the whole nation, and the American West is a preeminent case study in conquest and its consequences.” (Limerick, p. 22.)

Finally, she asked historians to eliminate the stereotypes from Western history and try to understand the complex relations between the people of the West. Even before Limerick’s manifesto, scholars were re-evaluating the west and its people, and its pace has only quickened. Whether or not scholars agree with Limerick, they have explored new depths of Western American history. While these new works are not easy to categorize, they do fit into some loose categories: gender (Relations of Rescue by Peggy Pascoe), ethnicity (The Roots of Dependency by Richard White, and Lewis and Clark Among the Indians by James P. Rhonda), immigration (Impossible Subjects by Ming Ngai), and environmental (Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster) history. These are just a few of the topics that have been examined by American West scholars. This paper will examine how these new histories of the American West resemble or diverge from Limerick’s outline.

Defining America or a Threat to America's Moral Standing

Peggy Pascoe’s Relations of Rescue described the creation and operation of Rescue Homes in Salt Lake City, the Sioux Reservation, Denver and San Francisco by missionary women for abused, neglected and exploited women. By focusing on the missionaries and the tenants of these homes, Pascoe depicted not just relations between women, but provided examples of how missionaries responded to issues which they believed were unique in the West. Issues that not only challenged the Victorian moral authority but threatened America’s moral standing. Unlike Turner, the missionary women did not believe that the West was an engine for democracy; instead, they envisioned a place where immoral practice such as polygamy, prostitution, premarital pregnancy, and religious superstition thrived and threatened women’s moral authority. Instead of attempting to portray a prototypical frontier or missionary woman, Pascoe reveals complicated women who defy easy categorization. Instead of re-enforcing stereotypes that women civilized (a dubious term at best) the American West, she instead focused on three aspects of the search for female moral authority: “its benefits and liabilities for women’s empowerment; its relationship to systems of social control; and its implication for intercultural relations among women.” (Pascoe, p. xvii.) Pascoe used a study of intercultural relations between women to better understand each of the sub-cultures (missionaries, unmarried mothers, Chinese prostitutes, Mormon women, and Sioux women) and their relations with governmental authorities and men.

Unlike Limerick, Pascoe did not find it necessary to define the west or the frontier. She did not have to because the Protestant missionaries in her story defined it for her. While Turner may have believed that the West was no longer the frontier in 1890, the missionaries certainly would have disagreed. In fact, the rescue missions were placed in the communities that the Victorian Protestant missionary judged to be the least “civilized” parts of America (Lakota Territory, San Francisco’s Chinatown, rough and tumble Denver and Salt Lake City.) Instead of being a story of conquest by Victorian or western morality, it was a story of how that morality was often challenged and its terms were negotiated by culturally different communities. Pascoe’s primary goal in this work was not only to eliminate stereotypes but to challenge the notion that white women civilized the west. While conquest may be a component of other histories, no one group in Pascoe’s story successfully dominated any other.

Changing the Narrative of Native Americans in the West

Two books were written before Legacy was published, Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (James Rhonda) and The Roots of Dependency (Richard White) both provide a window into the world of Native Americans. Both books took new approaches to Native American histories. Rhonda’s book looked at the familiar Lewis and Clark expedition but from an entirely different angle. Rhonda described the interactions between the expedition and the various Native American tribes they encountered. White’s book also sought to describe the interactions between the United States and the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, but he sought to explain why the economies of these tribes broke down after contact. Each of these books covers new ground by addressing the impact of these interactions between the United States and the Native Americans.

Whether or not Rhonda’s work is an example of the New Western History is debatable, but he sought to eliminate racial stereotypes of Native Americans and describe the first governmental attempt to conquer the western landscape by traversing it. Rhonda described the interactions between the expedition and the various Indians who encountered it. While Rhonda’s book may resemble a classic Lewis and Clark history, it provides a much more nuanced examination of the limitations and effectiveness of the diplomatic aspects of the Lewis and Clark expedition. He took a great of time to describe each of the interactions with the Indian tribes in detail. Rhonda recognized that the interactions between the expedition and the various tribes were nuanced and complex. Rhonda’s work clarified that Native Americans had differing views of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Any stereotypes the reader may have regarding the Native Americans with would have shattered. Additionally, Rhonda described how the expedition persevered despite its clumsy attempts at diplomacy.

Instead of describing the initial interactions of the United States government with the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, White explained how the self-sufficient economies of these people were destroyed. White described how the United States government turned these successful native people into wards of the American state. His story explained how the United States conquered these tribes without firing a shot. The consequence of this conquest was the creation of weak, dependent nations that could not survive without handouts from the federal government. Like Rhonda, White also sought to shatter long-standing stereotypes and myths regarding Native Americans. White verified that each of these tribes had self-sufficient economies which permitted prosperous lifestyles for their people before the devastating interactions with the United States government occurred. The United States in each case fundamentally altered the tribes’ economies and environments. These alterations threatened the survival of the tribes. In some cases, the United States sought to trade with these tribes in an effort put the tribes in debt. After the tribes were in debt, the United States then forced the tribes to sell their land. In other situations, the government damaged the tribes’ economies even when they sought to help them.

Even though White book was published a few years before Legacy, The Roots of Dependency certainly satisfies some of Limerick’s stated goals. Conquest and its consequences are at the heart of White’s story. White details the problems these societies developed after they became dependant on American trade goods and handouts. White also dissuaded anyone from believing that the Native American economies were inefficient. The Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos economies were successful. The Choctaws and Pawnees had thriving economies and their food supplies were more than sufficient. While the Navajos were not as successful as the other two tribes, their story was remarkable because they learned how to survive in some of the most inhospitable lands in the American West. These stories exploded the myths that the Native Americans subsistence economies were somehow insufficient.

The Impact of Immigrants to the West

The American West was both a borderland and a destination for a multitude of immigrants. Native Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Anglos, and Asians have all immigrated into the American West. The American West has seen waves of immigration. These immigrants have constantly changed the complexion of its people. Starting with the Native Americans who first moved into the region and the most recent tide of undocumented Mexican immigrants, the West has always been a place where immigrants seeking their fortunes. The California gold rush brought in a number of immigrants who did not fit their American ideal. When non-whites started immigrating to California, the United States was faced with a new problem, the introduction of people who could not become citizens. Chinese immigrants troubled the Anglo majority because they could not be easily assimilated into American society. Additionally, many Americans were perplexed by their substantially different appearances, clothing, religions, and cultures. Anglos became concerned that the new immigrants differed too much from them. In 1924, after 150 years of unregulated immigration, the United States Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, the most restrictionist immigration law in US history. The Johnson-Reed Act was specifically designed to keep the most undesirable races out of America, but immigrants continued to arrive in America without documents. Ming Ngai’s Impossible Subjects addresses this new class of immigrants: illegal immigrants. Illegal immigrants began to flow into the United States soon after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act.

While illegal immigration is not an issue isolated to the history of the American West, the immigrants moved predominantly into California, Texas and the American Southwest. Like Anglo settlers who were attracted to the West for the potential for new life in the nineteenth century, illegal immigrants continued to move in during the twentieth. The illegal immigrants were welcomed, despite their status, because California’s large commercial farms needed inexpensive labor to harvest their crops. Impossible Subjects describes four groups of illegal immigrants (Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican braceros) who were created by the United States immigration policy. Ngai specifically examines the role that the government played in defining, controlling and disciplining these groups for their allegedly illegal misconduct.

Impossible Subjects is not a book on the American West, but it is a book that is very much about the American West. While Ngai’s story primarily takes place in the American West she does not appear to have any interest in defining the West because her story has national implications. The American West is relevant to her study only because it was where most of the illegal immigrants described in her story lived and worked. Additionally, it is not a story of conquest and its consequences, but it introduced the American public and scholars to members of the American society that are silent. Limerick even stated that while “Indians, Hispanics, Asians, blacks, Anglos, businesspeople, workers, politicians, bureaucrats, natives and newcomers” all shared the same region, they still needed to be introduced to one another. In addition to being a sophisticated policy debate on immigration law, Ngai’s work introduced Americans to these people. (Limerick, p. 349.)

The Rise of Western Environmental History

Environmental history has become an increasingly important component of the history of the American West. Originally, the American West was seen as an untamed wilderness, but over time that description has changed. Two conceptually different, but nonetheless important books on environmental history discussed the American West and its importance in America. Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon and Rivers of Empire by Donald Worster each explored the environment and the economy of the American West. Cronon examined the formation of Chicago and the importance of its commodities market for the development of the American West. Alternatively, Worster focuses on the creation of an extensive network of government subsidized dams in the early twentieth century. Rivers of Empire describes that despite the aridity of the natural landscape the American West became home to massive commercial farms and enormous swaths of urban sprawl.

In Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon, used the central place theory to analyze the economic and ecological development of Chicago. Johann Heinrich von Thunen developed the central place theory to explain the development of cities. Essentially, geographically different economic zones form in concentric circles the farther you went from the city. These different zones form because of the time it takes to get the different types of goods to market. Closest to the city and then moving away you would have the following zones: first, intensive agriculture, second, extensive agriculture, third, livestock raising, fourth, trading, hunting and Indian trade and finally, you would have the wilderness. While the landscape of the Mid-West was more complicated than this, Cronon posits that the “city and country are inextricably connected and that market relations profoundly mediate between them.” (Cronon, p. 52.) By emphasizing the connection between the city of Chicago and the rural lands that surrounded it, Cronon was able to explain how the land, including the West, developed. Cronon argued that the development of Chicago had a profound influence on the development and appearance of the Great West. Essentially Cronon used the creation of the Chicago commodities and trading markets to explain how different parts of the Mid-West and West produced different types of resources and fundamentally altered their ecology.

According to Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire, economics played an equally important role in the economic and environmental development of the Rocky Mountain and Pacific Slope states. Worster argued that the United States wanted to continue creating family farms for Americans in the West. Unfortunately, the aridity of the west made that impossible. The land in the West simply could not be farmed without water. Instead of adapting to the natural environment, the United States government embarked on the largest dam building project in human history. The government built thousands of dams to irrigate millions of acres of land. Unfortunately, the cost of these numerous irrigation projects was enormous. The federal government passed the cost on to the buyers of the land which prevented family farmers from buying it. Therefore, instead of family farms, massive commercial farms were created. The only people who could afford to buy the land were wealthy citizens. The massive irrigation also permitted the creation of cities which never would have been possible without it. Worster argues that the ensuing ecological damage to the West has been extraordinary. The natural environment throughout the region was dramatically altered. The west is now the home of oversized commercial farms, artificial reservoirs which stretch for hundreds of miles, rivers that run only on command and sprawling cities which depend on irrigation.

Both Cronon and Worster described how commercial interests shaped the landscape and ecology of the American West, but their approaches were very different. Still, each work fits comfortably into the new western history. Both Cronon and Worster see the West as a place and not as a movement of westward expansion. Cronon re-orders the typical understanding of the sequence of westward expansion. Instead of describing the steady growth of rural communities which transformed into cities, he argued that cities and rural areas formed at the same time. Often the cities developed first and that only after markets were created could land be converted profitable into farms. This development fits westward development much more closely than paradigms that emphasized the creation of family farms. Worster defines the West by its aridity. While these definitions differ from Limerick’s, they reflect new approaches. Conquest plays a critical role in each of these books. Instead of conquering people, the authors describe efforts to conquer western lands. In Cronon, westerners forever altered the landscape of the west. Agricultural activities dominated the zones closest to Chicago, cattle production took over lands previously occupied by the buffalo, and even the wilderness was changed by people to satisfy the markets in Chicago. The extensive damming of the West’s rivers described by Worster required the United States government to conquer, control and discipline nature. While this conquest was somewhat illusory, the United States government was committed to reshaping the West and ecology to fit its vision.

Conclusion

Each of these books demonstrates that the Turner thesis no longer holds a predominant position in the scholarship of the American West. The history of the American West has been revitalized by its demise. While westward expansion plays an important role in the history of the United States, it did not define the west. Turner’s thesis was fundamentally undermined because it did not provide an accurate description of how the West was peopled. The nineteenth century of the west is not composed primarily of family farmers. Instead, it is a story of a region peopled by a diverse group of people: Native Americans, Asians, Chicanos, Anglos, African Americans, women, merchants, immigrants, prostitutes, swindlers, doctors, lawyers, farmers are just a few of the characters who inhabit western history.

Suggested Readings

  • Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History
  • Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest
  • Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue
  • Richard White, The Roots of Dependency
  • Nature's Metropolis, William Cronon
  • Rivers of Empire, Donald Worster

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