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Actually reading Frederick Jackson Turner


There is an old trope in scholarship of the work that is "cited more often than read", usually meaning that it has got so baked into the literature of a subject that it gets taught as a subject in its own right or is referred to by so many works that people gain the impression of knowing what it says and don't actually check. The most obvious of these for this early medieval historian is probably Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which (full disclosure) I haven't myself read, because the full version is seven volumes and a hundred and fifty years out of date. But lots of people who do read it read the abridged single-volume version, which deletes firstly all the polemic against Christianity bringing down the empire, thus arguably also removing the weight of Gibbon's argument, and secondly all his scholarship on what we would now, but he did not, call the Byzantine Empire as an example of what happened to the remaining empire once it caught Christianity fatally.1 Or, at least, you know, so I understand. But the thing is you can do that with Decline and Fall and never read it, because so much has been written about it that sounding expert is not difficult.2

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton

Henry Walton, Edward Gibbon, 1773, oil on mahogany panel, 229 x 165 mm, London, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 1443, public domain claimed via Wikimedia Commons

Another of these works is Henri Pirenne's famous or infamous Mahomet et Charlemagne, and here it's less obvious why it is so little read, as it's a single fairly ordinary-sized volume with very little apparatus, because of being published posthumously, and long available in a nice clear English translation.3 And plenty of people do in fact read it, but I can't be alone in occasionally reading things which reference it and going, "but that's not what he actually said!" And again, I think the problem here is that so very much has been written about it that it's easy never quite to find the time to read the old work itself, and quite easy to believe one doesn't really need to.4

Photograph of Henri Pirenne circa 1910

Henri Pirenne, 1910‒20, source unclear, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But if you're a scholar of frontiers, the work that comes up again and again is "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" by Frederick Jackson Turner, and when I was able earlier this summer at last to build in some frontiers reading by way of help with the next stages of our project here, I thought that I really ought to get back to some of the classic stuff and put Turner right at the top of my list.5 Because I never had read it, you see, though I thought I had a pretty good idea what it said. And then when I had read it I realised it was another of these works, and wondered just how many of the many people I'd seen cite it had made the same crucial final step of seeing the words themselves. (One might also add the question: how many people then went on to read Turner's much longer and later essay, "The Old West", where he worked out many of the processes in "Significance of the Frontier" in more nuance and detail, and which is arguably much more useful?6 And I'll add citation where "The Old West" helps do better justice to Turner's arguments below; but it's possible to mount my critique from "Significance of the Frontier" by itself, and the post was already long enough when I considered covering "The Old West" as well...)

Portrait photograph of Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner, from Charles Rounds, 'Frederick Jackson Turner', in Wisconsin Authors and Their Works, ed. by Charles Ralph Rounds (Madison, WI: Parker Educational Co., 1918), pp. 302-307 (p. 303)

What I mean is, in writing about Turner he gets blamed for two things, which inter-connect. Firstly, he gets blamed for erasing the Native American population from the history of the frontier; To him, the Indian was a savage whose way of life was vastly inferior to whites.7 Concomitantly, he is credited with the idea of the 'open frontier', an undefended space for expansion beyond settled and civilised territory which perpetually deflates and unbalances Foucauldian attempts at developing governmental control in that territory. On this continual access to an alternative of liberty and independence, Turner then based his theory of the development of American society and its political ideology. And these have been powerful concepts; the latter has been extensively taken up in the study of the medieval Iberian peninsula, for example, and I'm sure elsewhere.8 And of course you can't have it without the erasure of the Native Americans or the frontier wasn't open. But the thing is, only the last of these three concepts, what I suppose we might call the origins of American libertarianism, is actually there in the open.

In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark and to affect the characteristics of the frontiers... The fall line marked the frontier of the seventeenth century; the Alleghanies that of the eighteenth; the Mississippi that of the first quarter of the nineteenth; the Missouri that of the middle of this century (omitting the California movement); and the belt of the Rocky Mountains and the arid tract, the present frontier. Each was won by a series of Indian wars.9

How can this be, you may ask? How do you get the libertarianism without the escape valve of the frontier? And the answer is, you still have that, it's just not empty. Firstly, he doesn't miss out the Native Americans. The article (because it is only an article) repeatedly mentions them as the opponents in a war of conquest which the settlers, among whom he unapologetically but not blindly numbered himself, had as he wrote more or less won, but really only just.10 Perhaps he thought God had given the white man the victory, but if so he kept the thought to himself. The nature of the enemy in that war, however, being nomadic and not agriculturalist, left a lot of scope for the four stages of settler expansion he delineates, basically trappers and traders, ranchers, farmers then at last towns, but his towns are fortresses and some of his other work covers their defensive arrangements, and the danger of undertaking them, in considerable detail.11

The effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important. From the close of the seventeenth century various intercolonial congresses have been called to treat with Indians and establish common measures of defense. Particularism was strongest in colonies with no Indian frontier. This frontier stretched along the western border like a cord of union. The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action. Most celebrated of these conferences was the Albany congress of 1754, called to treat with the Six Nations, and to consider plans of union. Even a cursory reading of the plan proposed by the congress reveals the importance of the frontier. The powers of the general council and the officers were, chiefly, the determination of peace and war with the Indians, the regulation of Indian trade, the purchase of Indian lands, and the creation and government of new settlements as a security against the Indians.12

Y'see, that is not a picture with no 'Indians' in it. Everything there is told from the settler perspective, absolutely; there's no consideration of Native American rights, ideology or suffering, or anything like that; it's even arguable that treating the Six Nations or indeed 'the Indian', singular, as somehow an equivalent player in the game of international diplomacy is colonialism at work (as it was when it was done, I guess).13 He was also quite happy to break out the word 'savagery' to describe Native American lifestyles, including when adopted by white settlers, but it is, I think, illustrative of something that the only places his article calls Native Americans 'savages' are quotes from other people; otherwise, it is 'savagery' as lifestyle and economy which he discusses.14 Obviously that terminology isn't neutral, especially when you find it put like: In this progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist.15 But one cannot say that he pretended there were no people there or that they didn't matter to the process as he saw it.16 The people whom he saw mattering most were white men, for sure (and we do mean men), but even that is clever as a bit of social theory, with a lot of give-and-take between different social pressures and interests, and not at all the kind of 'manifest destiny' history that white men with English accents were writing at the same time.17 The actual sophistication of his understanding of the processes of settler occupation is thus maybe not often recognised behind the fact that he counted himself as a more-or-less virtuous beneficiary of the process. Neither is the fact that he didn't necessarily stand as champion of the results, although again, it's the consequences for the white settler which he was concerned about:

... the democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience and education, and pressing individual liberty beyond its proper bounds, has its dangers as well as its benefits. Individualism in America has allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs which has rendered possible the spoils system and all the manifest evils that follow from the lack of a highly developed civic spirit. In this connection may be noted also the influence of frontier conditions in permitting lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking. The colonial and revolutionary frontier was the region whence emanated many of the worst forms of an evil currency. The West in the War of 1812 repeated the phenomenon on the frontier of that day, while the speculation and wild-cat banking of the period of the crisis of 1837 occurred on the new frontier belt of the next tier of States. Thus each one of the periods of lax financial integrity coincides with periods when a new set of frontier communities had arisen, and coincides in area with these successive frontiers, for the most part.18

Still, it's funny how no-one ever goes to him for that bit, isn't it? Anyway. If all this is so, is probably your next question, how did he come up with the idea of the open frontier, then? And you may by now have guessed the answer: he didn't, at least not as we invoke it. The closest he got to the actual term is in his belief that he and his audience had lived to see the closing of the American frontier. By this he meant that settlement had now, in places, reached the west coast of North America and so the zones of confrontation, still ongoing, were now broken up and separate; there was no longer a single 'frontier'.19 But that he ever invokes the opposite, the frontier that was 'open', I can't see. Instead, the demon in the piece is the idea of 'free land'.20 By this, he meant, obviously enough, land that no-one would stop settlers taking over or that they were able to defend – land to which the community to which the settlers adhered recognised no rights, basically.21 As far as I can see this comes pretty much straight down to a notion that as the Native Americans did not themselves farm or ranch, they did not need allocations of land for their economy. Even at the time, I guess, people thought differently, most obviously Native Americans themselves. But there is a danger of conflation between Turner's concept of 'free land' and the actual legal doctrine of public domain, justly critiqued by Native American scholars to this day, but regarded as something of a sorry legal joke by Turner, invented by authorities to charge settlers subsequently for land whose occupation they could not in fact prevent at the time.22 Of course, the consequences of this legal joke have not been very funny for those whose rights to the use of the land were erased by them, and it is just to point out that this concerned Turner not at all; but neither did he see it as right or even defensible, though as seen above he preferred government to lack of it, overall. And most importantly, although all this does more or less lay out the mechanisms by which it would work and obviously sources the concept, it's not the 'open frontier' as it was later to be characterised.

When we consider the public domain from the point of view of the sale and disposal of the public lands we are again brought face to face with the frontier. The policy of the United States in dealing with its lands is in sharp contrast with the European system of scientific administration. Efforts to make this domain a source of revenue, and to withhold it from emigrants in order that settlement might be compact, were in vain. The jealousy and the fears of the East were powerless in the face of the demands of the frontiersmen. John Quincy Adams was obliged to confess: My own system of administration, which was to make the national domain the inexhaustible fund for progressive and unceasing internal improvement, has failed. The reason is obvious; a system of administration was not what the West demanded; it wanted land.23

Of course the problem for us as scholars of other frontiers is that the idea of the 'open frontier' has been, as I say, very influential. So what does it do for that idea if its supposed originator actually didn't originate it? Well, probably nothing; we could all imagine it clearly enough without reading Turner that it's not as if actually reading him and not finding it removes it as a tool. You'd still have a chisel in your toolkit even if a philologist should some day uncover evidence that the word had been a translation error for something else that the Normans had then popularised into generality. But one still might like to be able to use the right word, or in the case of this concept credit it where credit is due. Where credit really is due, I don't yet know; but my next guess, having of course not read it yet and thus committing the same sin as I condemn, that the source of both the idea and the attribution to Turner come from Walter Prescott Webb...24 When I get to him, I'll let you know!

1. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 7 vols (London: W. Strahan & T. Cadell, 1776‒88 and Basil: J. Tourniesen, 1788), many reprints inc. Chandos edn (London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1872); most commonly found now ed. J. B. Bury, 7 vols (London: Methuen, 1898, 1st of 7 edns up till 1925, repr. New York City, NY: AMS Press, 1974); actually best now accessed, if you feel that you must, ed. David Womersley, 2nd edn, 3 vols (London: Allen Lane, 2005), which copes with all Gibbon's updates and adds his A Vindication of some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (London: W. Strahan & T. Cadell, 1779), originally written alongside the ongoing work whose first volumes were already by then in their 3rd edn... It takes a man like Gibbon to prove that the Internet did not, in fact, invent the living edition, I guess. Project Gutenberg chooses an 1845 edition by Henry Millman, 'in American from the last London edition', which doesn't include the seventh volume or the Vindication, but is here. The history of the single-volume abridgement is not much less complex; there are about seven goes at the job and, in the word of Arlo Guthrie, "that's not what I came here to talk about"...

2. This, also, is not my purpose, so illustrative cites only, but, try any of: Peter Brown, 'In Gibbon's Shade', New York Review of Books, 23 (1976), 14-18, repr. in Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity, by Peter Brown (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1982), pp. 49–62; Edward Gibbon and Empire, ed. by Rosamond McKitterick and Roland Quinault (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Tamara Lewit Gibbon, ‘Changing Concepts of Late Antiquity: The Rise and Fall of Gibbonism’, Bulletin de l'Association pour l'Antiquité Tardive, 10, 2001, 33–37; or Willem M. Jongman, ‘Gibbon Was Right: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Economy’, in Crises and the Roman Empire: Proceedings, ed. by Olivier Hekster, Gerda de Kleijn and Daniëlle Slootjes, Impact of Empire 7 (presented at the Seventh Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Nijmegen, June 20-24, 2006), Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 183–99.

3. Henri Pirenne, Mahomet et Charlemagne (Paris: Felix Alcan, 1937), in English as Pirenne, Mohammed and Charlemagne, trans. Bernard Miall (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1939); many subsequent reprints, copyright apparently still protected somehow but a limited-access version is on the Internet Archive here.

4. The bibliography on Pirenne is immense, not least because his thesis still provides fuel for modern-day Islamophobia but also because it is, essentially, a book about the pre-conditions of the rise of capitalism and the so-called 'Great Divergence'; see, respectively, Bonnie Effros, ‘The Enduring Attraction of the Pirenne Thesis’, Speculum, 92.1 (2017), 184–208 <> and Richard W. Unger, ‘Commerce, Communication, and Empire: Economy, Technology and Cultural Encounters’, Speculum, 90.1 (2015), 1–27 <>, with Emmet Scott, Mohammed & Charlemagne Revisited: The History of a Controversy (Nashville, TN: New English Review Press, 2012) and Gene William Heck, Charlemagne, Muhammad, and the Arab Roots of Capitalism, Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients, neue Folge, 18 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008), as examples of each tendency. To these one might add, as significant engagements, The Pirenne Thesis: Analysis, Criticism, and Revision, ed. by Alfred F. Havighurst, Problems in European Civilization (Boston, MA: D. C. Heath & Co., 1958, repr. 1976), <>; Peter Brown, ‘Mohammed and Charlemagne, by Henri Pirenne’, Daedalus, Twentieth-Century Classics Revisited, 103.1 (1974), 25–33, repr. in Brown, Society and the Holy, pp. 63‒79; Richard Hodges and David Whitehouse, Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe: Archaeology and the Pirenne Thesis (London: Duckworth, 1983); Michael McCormick, Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce, A.D. 300-900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400‒800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); and Mark Whittow, ‘Pirenne, Muhammad, and Bohemond: Before Orientalism’, in Crusading Europe: Essays in Honour of Christopher Tyerman, ed. by G. E. M. Lippiatt and Jessalynn L. Bird, Outremer: Studies in the Crusades and the Latin East, 8 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2019), pp. 17–49 <>.

5. Frederick Jackson Turner, 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', Proceedings of the State Historical Association of Wisconsin, 14 December 1893, 79-112 <>; reprinted Report of the American Historical Association (1893), 197-227 <>, supposedy reprinted in The Frontier In American History, by Frederick Jackson Turner (New York City, NY: Henry Holt, 1921), pp. 1–38 <>, but the version printed there is clearly longer than the 1893 one and may actually be Turner's revision in Fifth Year Book of the National Herbart Society (1899) [non vidi]; the original subsequently reprinted in The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, by Frederick Jackson Turner, ed. by Everett E. Edwards (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1938), pp. 183-229 <>, where find also Edwards, 'A Comparison of Differing Versions of the "The Significance of the Frontier"', pp. 275-292! I think lastly there is also Frederick Jackson Turner, ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893)’, in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’ and Other Essays, by Frederick Jackson Turner, ed. by John Mack Faragher (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994), pp. 31–60 <>. I'm here using the 1921 version because it's most conveniently associated with the other piece of his I find useful here, on which see n. 6 below.

6. Frederick Jackson Turner, 'The Old West', Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (1908), 184‒203, repr. separatim (Madison WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1909), repr. in The Frontier in American History, by Turner, pp. 67‒125, whence cited here.

7. Steven Crum, ‘Making Indians Disappear: A Native American Historian’s Views Regarding the Treatment of Indians in American History’, Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education, 4.3 (1993), 28–31 <>, quoted here from the unpaginated online version. A white man's defence of Turner on this count in not dissimilar terms to my own, cited by Crum with conditioned approval, is David A. Nichols, ‘Civilization Over Savage: Frederick Jackson Turner and the Indian’, South Dakota History, 2.4 (1972), 383–405 <>.

8. Most obviously Paul Freedman, The Origins of Peasant Servitude in Medieval Catalonia, Cambridge Iberian and Latin American Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) <>, with a clear and open debt to Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, Despoblación y repoblación del Valle del Duero (Buenos Aires: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Instituto de Historia de España, 1966). This similarity between the thoughts of Sánchez-Albornoz and Turner is also noted in Eduardo Manzano Moreno, ‘The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, Eighth to Twelfth Centuries’, in Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands, 700-1700, ed. by Daniel Power and Naomi Standen, Themes in Focus (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 32–52, but as is pointed out by Peter Linehan, ‘At the Spanish Frontier’, in The Medieval World, ed. by Peter Linehan and Janet L. Nelson, Routledge Worlds, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 37–59, it's not actually evident that the Spanish scholar ever read Turner; he appears nowhere in Sánchez-Albornoz's citation. Cf. the sharp discussion in Juan Carlos Arriaga-Rodríguez, ‘Tres tesis del concepto frontera en la historiografía’, in Tres miradas a la historia contemporánea, ed. by Gerardo Gurza Lavalle (San Juan Mixcoac: Instituto de Investigaciones Dr. José María Luis Mora, 2013), pp. 9–47 (pp. 21–28).

9. Turner, 'Significance', p. 9.

10. Ibid., pp. 11, 13, 14, 15 & 16; as Crum, 'Making Indians Disappear', says, "He mentions the word 'Indian' 35 times". The problem is how. Nichols, 'Civilization over Savage', probably had it right when he said, p. 387:

the Indian becomes much like the trees and the animals of the frontier. The Indians do not constitute a significant human society with cultural patterns of importance. They are simply part of the inanimate (though strangely powerful) 'forces dominating the American character.'

11. Turner, 'The Old West', pp. 73‒105.

12. Turner, 'Significance', p. 15.

13. On which score, as well as Crum, 'Making Indians Disappear', see Matthew M. Palus, Mark P. Leone and Matthew D. Cochrane, ‘Critical Archaeology: Politics Past and Present’, in historical archaeology, ed. by Martin Hall and Stephen W. Silliman, Blackwell Studies in Global Archaeology, 9 (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 84–104, or Kurt A. Jordan, ‘Colonies, Colonialism, and Cultural Entanglement: The Archaeology of Postcolumbian Intercultural Relations’, in International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, ed. by David Gaimster and Teresita Majewski (New York, NY: Springer New York, 2009), pp. 31–49 <>.

14. Turner, 'Significance', pp. 13 (quoting La Salle) & 33 (apparently quoting Burke), neither with clear citation; 'savagery' pp. 3, 11 (again here descriptive of another scholar's work); 'savage conditions', p. 15.

15. Ibid. For some account of where evolution sat in Turner's thought, see Nichols, 'Civilization over Savage', pp. 391‒96.

16. This is even clearer in Turner, 'The Old West', where the agency of 'the Indians' as diplomatic and military agents is repeatedly mentioned; I count pp. 69-70, 73, 80, 84-85 and 107. Over these pages the Native Americans are exactly as much, and indeed exactly the same kind, of a force on English actions as are the French, and while that may itself be a problem, as noted above, it's at least a second order of one from where we started. Cf. Nichols, 'Civilization over Savage', pp. 400‒03.

17. On the fact that women are also very obviously missing from Turner's picture, see Glenda Riley, ‘Frederick Jackson Turner Overlooked the Ladies’, Journal of the Early Republic, 13.2 (1993), 216–30 [non vidi], or Margaret Walsh, ‘Women’s Place on the American Frontier’, Journal of American Studies, 29.2 (1995), 241–55. A more twenty-first-century version of this story in at least its early part is Ann M. Little, Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) <>.

18. Turner, 'Significance', p. 32.

19. Ibid., pp. 1 & 38.

20. Ibid., pp. 1, 3, 22, 32 (several times) & 37‒38.

21. Cf. Nichols, 'Civilization over Savage', p. 387, whose similar formation I found only after writing this (honest).

22. Turner, 'The Old West', pp. 111‒19, with the case built up state-by-state over the preceding pages; the same question is addressed in Turner, 'Significance', but much more briefly as it wasn't his point there; see pp. 25‒30, where the idea peeps through a broader thesis of democratization by the frontier.

23. Turner, 'Significance', p. 26.

24. Walter Prescott Webb, The Great Frontier (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1951).