A paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, July
12. 1893. It first appeared in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of
Wisconsin, December 14, 1893, with the following note: "The foundation of this
paper is my article entitled 'Problems in American History' which appeared in The
gis, a publication of the students of the University of Wisconsin, November 2,
1892.... It is gratifying to find that Professor Woodrow Wilson--whose volume on 'Division
and Reunion' in the Epochs of American History Series has an appreciative estimate of the
importance of the West as a factor in American History--accepts some of the views set
forth in the paper above mentioned, and enhances their value by his lucid and suggestive
treatment of them in his article in The Forum, December, 1893, reviewing Coldwin Smith's
'History of the United States'"
The present text is that of the Report of the American Historical Association for
1893, 199-227. It was printed with additions in the Fifth Year Book of the National
Herbart Society, and in various other publications
This is the introductory section of Turner's famous paper.
In a recent Bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890 appear these
significant words: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of
settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies
of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of
its extent, its westward movement, etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in
the census reports," This brief official statement marks the closing of a great
historic movement. Up to our own day 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, ex- plain American
development. Behind institutions, behind constitutional forms and modifications, lie the
vital forces that call these organs into life and shape them to meet changing conditions.
The peculiarity of American institutions is the fact that they have been compelled to
adapt themselves to the changes of an expanding people--to the changes involved in
crossing a continent, in winning a wilderness, and in developing at each area of this
progress out of the primitive economic and political conditions of the frontier into the
complexity of city life. Said Calhoun in 1817, "We are great, and rapidly--I was
about to say fearfully- growing!"  So saying, he touched the distinguishing
feature of American life. All peoples show development; the germ theory of politics has
been sufficiently emphasized. In the case of most nations, however, the development has
occurred in a limited area; and if the nation has expanded, it has met other growing
peoples whom it has conquered. But in the case of the United States we have a different
phenomenon. Limiting our attention to the Atlantic coast, we have the familiar phenomenon
of the evolution of institutions in a limited area, such as the rise of representative
government; the differentiation of simple colonial governments into complex organs; the
progress from primitive industrial society, without division of labor, up to manufacturing
civilization. But we have in addition to this a recurrence of the process of evolution in
each western area reached in the process of expansion. Thus American development has
exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on
a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American
social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This
perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new
opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the
forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation
is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West. Even the slavery struggle, which is made
so exclusive an object of attention by writers like Professor von Holst, occupies its
important place in American history because of its relation to westward expansion.
2 Abridgment of Debates of Congress," v, p. 706.
In this advance, the frontier is the outer edge of the wave--the meeting point between
savagery and civilization. Much has been written about the frontier from the point of view
of border warfare and the chase, but as a field for the serious study of the economist and
the historian it has been neglected.
The American frontier is sharply distinguished from the European frontier-a fortified
boundary line running through dense populations. The most significant thing about the
American frontier is, that it lies at the hither edge of free land. In the census reports
it is treated as the margin of that settlement which has a density of two or more to the
square mile. The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp
definition. We shall consider the whole frontier belt, including the Indian country and
the outer margin of the "settled area" of the census reports. This paper will
make no attempt to treat the subject exhaustively: its aim is simply to call attention to
the frontier as a fertile field for investigation, and to suggest some of the problems
which arise in connection with it.
In the settlement of America we have to observe how European life entered the
continent, and how America modified and devel- oped that life and reacted on Europe. Our
early history is the study of European germs developing in an American environment. Too
exclusive attention has been paid by institutional students to the Germanic origins, too
little to the American factors. The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective
Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress,
industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and
puts him in the birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in
the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and
Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. Before long he has gone to planting
Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick; he shouts the war cry and takes the scalp in
orthodox Indian fashion. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong
for the man. He must accept the conditions which it furnishes, or perish, and so he fits
him-self into the Indian clearings and follows the Indian trails. Little by little he
transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the
development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion
to the Germanic mark. The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. At first,
the frontier was the Atlantic coast. It was the frontier of Europe in a very real sense.
Moving westward, the frontier became more and more American. As successive terminal
moraines result from successive glaciations, so each frontier leaves its traces behind it,
and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier
characteristics. Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from
the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines. And to study
this advance, the men who grew up under these conditions, and the political, economic, and
social results of it, is to study the really American part of our history.
In the course of the seventeenth century the frontier was advanced up the Atlantic
river courses, just beyond the "fall line," and the tide water region became the
settled area. In the first half of the eighteenth century another advance occurred.
Traders followed the Delaware and Shawnee Indians to the Ohio as early as the end of the
first quarter of the century. Gov. Spotswood, of Virginia, made an expedition in 1714
across the Blue Ridge. The end of the first quarter of the century saw the advance of the
Scotch-Irish and the Palatine Germans up the Shenandoah Valley into the western part of
Virginia, and along the Piedmont region of the Carolinas. The Germans in New York
pushed the frontier of settlement up the Mohawk to German Flats. In Pennsylvania the
town of Bedford indicates the line of settlement. Settlements soon began on the New River
or the Great Kanawha, and on the sources of the Yadkin and French Broad. The King
attempted to arrest the advance by his proclamation of 1763, forbidding settlements
beyond the sources of the rivers flowing into the Atlantic; but in vain. In the period of
the Revolution the frontier crossed the Alleghanies into Kentucky and Tennessee, and the
upper waters of the Ohio were settled. When the first census was taken in 1790, the
continuous settled area was bounded by a line which ran near the coast of Maine, and
included New England except a portion of Vermont and New Hampshire, New York along the
Hudson and up the Mohawk about Schenectady, eastern and southern Pennsylvania, Virginia
well across the Shenandoah Valley, and the Carolinas and eastern Georgia. Beyond this
region of continuous settlement were the small settled areas of Kentucky and Tennessee,
and the Ohio , with the mountains intervening between them and the Atlantic area thus
giving a new and important character to the frontier. The isolation of the region
increased its peculiarly American tendencies, and the need of transportation facilities to
connect it with the East called out important schemes of internal improvement, which will
be noted farther on. The "West," as a self-conscious section, began to evolve.
3 Bancroft (1860 ed.), iii, pp. 344, 345, citing Logan MSS.; [Mitchell)
"Contest in America," etc. (1752), p.237.
4 Kercheval, "History of the Valley'.: Bernheim, "German Settlement in
the Carolinas"; Winsor, "Narrative and Critical History of America," v, p.
304; Colonial Records of North Carolina, iv. p. xx: Weston, "Documents Connected with
the History of South Carolina," p. 82; Ellis and Evans, "History of Lancaster
County, Pa.," chs. iii, xxvi.
5 Parkman, "Pontiac," ii; Griffis, "Sir William Johnson," p. 6;
Simms's "Frontiersmen of New York."
6 Monette..'Mississippi Valley,.' i, p.311.
7 Wis. Hist. Cols. xi, p. 50; Hinsdale, "Old Northwest," p. 121; Burke,
"Oration on Conciliation," Works (1872 ed.), i, p.473.
8 Roosevelt, "Winning of the West," and citations there given; Cutler's
"Life of Cutler."
9 Scribner's Statistical Atlas, xxviii, pl. 13: McMaster, "Hist. of People of
U.S.," i. pp. 4,60,61; Imlay and Filson, "Western Territory of America"
(London, 1793); Rochefoucault-Liancourt, "Travels Through the United States of North
America" (London, 1799); Michaux's "Journal," in Proceedings American
Philosophical Society, xxvi, No. 129: Forman, "Narrative of a Journey Down the Ohio
and Mississippi in 1780'90" (Cincinnati, 1888); Bartram, "Travels Through North
Carolina," etc. (London, 1792); Pope, "Tour Through the Southern and Western
Territories," etc. (Richmond. 1792); Weld, "Travel Through the States of North
America" (London, 1799); Baily, "Journal of a Tour in the Unsettled States of
North America, 1796-'97" (London, 1856); Pennsylvania Magazine of History, July.
1886; Winsor, "Narrative and Critical History of America," vii, pp. 491,492,
From decade to decade distinct advances of the frontier occurred. By the census of 1870
 the settled area included Ohio, southern Indiana and Illinois, southeastern Missouri,
and about one-half of Louisiana. This settled area had surrounded Indian areas, and the
management of these tribes became an object of political concern. The frontier region of
the time lay along the Great Lakes, where Astor's American Fur Company operated in the
Indian trade, and beyond the Mississippi, where Indian traders extended their activity
to the Rocky Mountains; Florida also furnished frontier conditions. The Mississippi River
region was the scene of typical frontier settlements.
10 Scribner's Statistical Atlas, xxxix.
11 Turner, "Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin"
(Johns Hopkins University Studies, Series ix), pp. 61 ff.
12 Monette, "History of the Mississippi Valley," ii; Flint,
"Geography and History of the Western States," "Abridgment of Debates of
Congress," vii, pp. 397, 398, 404: Holmes, "Account of the U.S."; Kingdom,
"America and the British Colonies" (London, 1820); Grund, "Americans"
ii, chs. i. iii, vi (although writing in 1836, he treats of conditions that grew out of
western advance from the era of 1820 to that time); Peck, "Guide for Emigrants"
(Boston, 1831); Darby, "Emigrants Guide to Southwestern States and Territories";
Dana, "Geographical Sketches in the Western Country"; Kinzie,
"Waubun"; Keating,.'Narrative of Long's Expedition"; Schoolcraft,
"Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi River," Travels in the Central
Portions of the Mississippi Valley," and "Lead Mines of the Missouri";
Andreas, "History of Illinois," i, 86-99; Hurlbut, "Chicago
Antiquities"; McKenney, "Tour to the Lakes"; Thomas, "Travels Through
the Western Country," etc. (Auburn, N.Y.,1819).
The rising steam navigation  on western waters, the opening of the Erie Canal, and
westward extension of cotton  culture added five frontier states to the Union in this
period. Grund, writing in 1836, declares: "lt appears then that the universal
disposition of Americans to emigrate to the western wilderness, in order to enlarge their
dominion over inanimate nature, is the actual result of an expansive power which is
inherent in them, and which by continually agitating all classes of society is constantly
throwing a large portion of the whole population on the extreme confines of the State, in
order to gain space for its development. Hardly is a new State or Territory formed before
the same principle manifests itself again and gives rise to a further emigration; and so
is it destined to go on until a physical barrier must finally obstruct its
13Darby, "Emigrants' Guide," pp. 272 ff; Benton. "Abridgment of
Debates," vii, p. 397.
14Debow's Review, iv, p. 254: xvii, p. 428.
15Grund, "Americans" ii, p. 8.
In the middle of this century the line indicated by the present eastern boundary of
Indian Territory, Nebraska, and Kansas marked the frontier of the Indian country.
Minnesota and Wisconsin still exhibited frontier conditions, but the distinctive
frontier of the period is found in California, where the gold discoveries had sent a
sudden tide of adventurous miners, and in Oregon, and the settlement in Utah. As the
frontier had leaped over the Alleghanies, so now it skipped the Great Plains and the Rocky
Mountains; and in the same way that the advance of the frontiersmen beyond the Alleghanies
had caused the rise of important questions of transportation and internal improvement, so
now the settlers beyond the Rocky Mountains needed means of communication with the East,
and in the furnishing of these arose the settlement of the Great Plains and the
development of still another kind of frontier life. Railroads, fostered by land grants,
sent an increasing tide of immigrants into the Far West. The United States Army fought a
series of Indian wars in Minnesota, Dakota, and the Indian Territory.
16 Peck, "New Guide to the West" (Cincinnati, 1848), ch. iv; Parkman,
"Oregon Trail"; Hall, "The West" (Cincinnati, 1848); Pierce,
"Incidents of Western Travel"; Murray, 'Travels in North America": Lloyd,
"Steamboat Directory" (Cincinnati, 1856); "Forty Days in a Western
Hotel" (Chicago), in Putnam's Magazine, December, 1894: Mackay, "The Western
World," ii, ch. ii, iii: Meeker, "Life in the West"; Bogen, "German in
America" (Boston, 1851); Olmstead, "Texas Journey"; Greeley,
"Recollections of a Busy Life"; Schouler, "History of the United
States," v, 261-267; Peyton, "Over the Alleghanies and Across the
Prairies". (London, 1870); Loughborough, "The Pacific Telegraph and
Railway" (St. Louis,1849); Whitney, "Project for a Railroad to the Pacific"
(New York, 1849); Peyton, "Suggestions on Railroad Communication with the Pacific,
and the Trade of China and the Indian Islands"; Benton, "Highway to the
Pacific" (a speech delivered in the U.S. Senate, December 16, 1850).
17 A writer in The Home Missionary (1850), p. 239, reporting Wisconsin conditions
exclaims: "Think of this, people of the enlightened East. What an example, to come
from the very frontier of civilization!" But one of the missionaries writes: "In
a few year Wisconsin will no longer be considered as the West, or as an outpost of
civilization, any more than Western New York, or the Western Reserve."
18 Bancroft (H. H.), "History of California," "History of
Oregon," and "Popular Tribunals": Shinn. "Mining Camps"
By 1880 the settled area had been pushed into northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and
Minnesota, along Dakota rivers and in the Black Hills region, and was ascending the rivers
of Kansas and Nebraska. The development of mines in Colorado had drawn isolated frontier
settlements into that region, and Montana and Idaho were receiving settlers. The frontier
was found in these mining camps and the ranches of the Great Plains. The superintendent of
the census for 1890 reports, as previously stated, that the settlements of the West lie so
scattered over the region that there can no longer be said to be a frontier line.
In these successive frontiers we find natural boundary lines which have served to mark
and to affect the characteristic of the frontiers, namely: the "fall line;" the
Alleghany Mountains; the Mississippi: the Missouri where its direction approximates north
and south: the line of the arid lands, approximately the ninety-ninth meridian: and the
Rocky Mountains. 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.
At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each
successive frontier. We have the complex European life sharply precipitated by the
wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions. The first frontier had to meet its
Indian question, its question of the disposition of the public domain, of the means of
intercourse with older settlements, of the extension of political organization, of
religious and educational activity. And the settlement of these and similar questions for
one frontier served as a guide for the next. The American student needs not to go to the
"prim little townships of Sleswick" for illustrations of the law of continuity
and development. For example, he may study the origin of our land policies in the colonial
land policy: he may see how the system grew by adapting the statutes to the customs of the
successive frontier. He may see how the mining experience in the lead regions of
Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa was applied to the mining laws of the Sierras, and how
our Indian policy has been a series of experimentation on successive frontiers. Each tier
of new States has found in the older ones material for its constitutions. Each
frontier has made similar contributions to American character, as will be discussed
19 See the suggestive paper by Prof. Jesse Macy, "The Institutional Beginnings
of a Western State."
20 Shinn, "Mining Camps"
21 Compare Thorpe, in Annals American Academy or Political and Social Science,
September, 1891; Bryce, "American Commonwealth'. (1888), ii, p. 689.
But with all these similarities there are essential differences, due to the place
element and the time element. It is evident that the farming frontier of the Mississippi
Valley presents different conditions from the mining frontier of the Rocky Mountains. The
frontier reached by the Pacific Railroad, surveyed into rectangles, guarded by the United
States Army, and recruited by the daily immigrant ship, moves forward at a swifter pace
and in a different way than the frontier reached by the birch canoe or the pack horse. The
geologist traces patiently the shores of ancient seas, maps their areas, and compares the
older and the newer. It would be a work worth the historian's labors to mark these various
frontiers and in detail compare one with another. Not only would there result a more
adequate conception of American development and characteristics, but invaluable additions
would be made to the history of society.
Loria, the Italian economist, has urged the study of colonial life as an aid in
understanding the stages of European development, affirming that colonial settlement is
for economic science what the mountain is for geology, bringing to light primitive
stratifications. "America," he says, "has the key to the historical enigma
which Europe has sought for centuries in vain, and the land which has no history reveals
luminously the course of universal history." There is much truth in this. The United
States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read this
continental page from West to East we find the record of social evolution. It begins with
the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the
entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral
stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of
corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the
denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory
system. This page is familiar to the student of census statistics, but how little of
it has been used by our historians. Particularly in eastern State this page is a
palimpsest. What is now a manufacturing State was in an earlier decade an area of
intensive farming. Earlier yet it had been a wheat area, and still earlier the "range
had attracted the cattleherder. Thus Wisconsin, now developing manufacture, is a State
with varied agricultural in- terests. But earlier it was given over to almost exclusive
grain.raising, like North Dakota at the present time.
22 Loria, Analisi della Proprieta Capitalista, ii, p. 15.
23 Compare "Observations on the North American Land Company," London,
1796. pp. xv, 144; Logan. "History of Upper South Carolina," i. pp. 149-151;
Turner, "Character and Influence of Indian Trade in Wisconsin," p. 18; Peck,
"New Guide for Emigrants" (Boston, 1837), ch. iv; "Compendium Eleventh
Census" i, p. xi.
Each of these areas has had an influence in our economic and political history; the
evolution of each into a higher stage has worked political transformations. But what
constitutional historian has made any adequate attempt to interpret political facts by the
light of these social areas and changes?  The Atlantic frontier was compounded of
fisherman, fur-trader, miner, cattle-raiser, and farmer. Excepting the fisherman, each
type of industry was on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction.
Each passed in successive waves across the continent. Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch
the procession of civilization, marching single file-the buffalo following the trail to
the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer
farmer-and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later
and see the same procession with wider intervals between. The unequal rate of advance
compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader's frontier, the rancher's frontier,
or the miner's frontier, and the farmer's frontier. When the mines and the cow pens were
still near the fall line the traders' pack trains were tinkling across the Alleghanies,
and the French on the Great Lakes were fortifying their posts, alarmed by the British
trader's birch canoe. When the trappers scaled the Rockies, the farmer was still near the
mouth of the Missouri.
24 See post, for illustrations of the political accompaniments of changed
Why was it that the Indian trader passed so rapidly across the continent? What effects
followed from the trader's frontier? The trade was coeval with American discovery. The
Norsemen, Vespuccius, Verrazani, Hudson, John Smith, all trafficked for furs. The Plymouth
pilgrims settled in Indian cornfields, and their first return cargo was of beaver and
lumber. The records of the various New England colonies show how steadily exploration was
carried into the wilderness by this trade. What is true for New England is, as would be
expected, even plainer for the rest of the colonies. All along the coast from Maine to
Georgia the Indian trade opened up the river courses. Steadily the trader passed westward,
utilizing the older lines of French trade. The Ohio, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi, the
Missouri, and the Platte, the lines of western advance, were ascended by traders. They
found the passes in the Rocky Mountains and guided Lewis and Clark,  Fremont, and
Bidwell. The explanation of the rapidity of this advance is connected with the effects of
the trader on the Indian. The trading post left the unarmed tribes at the mercy of those
that had purchased fire.arms--a truth which the Iroquois Indians wrote in blood, and so
the remote and unvisited tribes gave eager welcome to the trader. "The savages"
wrote La Salle, "take better care of us French than of their own children; from us
only can they get guns and goods." This accounts for the trader's power and the
rapidity of his advance. Thus the disintegrating forces of civilization entered the
wilderness. Every river valley and Indian trail became a fissure in Indian society, and so
that society became honeycombed. Long before the pioneer farmer appeared on the scene,
primitive Indian life had passed away. The farmers met Indians armed with guns. The
trading frontier, while steadily undermining Indian power by making the tribes ultimately
dependent on the whites, yet, through its sale of guns, gave to the Indian increased power
of resistance to the farming frontier. French colonization was dominated by its trading
frontier; English colonization by its farming frontier. There was an antagonism between
the two frontiers as between the two nations. Said Duquesne to the Iroquois, "Are you
ignorant of the difference between the king of England and the king of France? Go see the
forts that our king has established and you will see that you can still hunt under their
very walls. They have been placed for your advantage in places which you frequent. The
English, on the contrary, are no sooner in possession of a place than the game is driven
away. The forest falls before them as they advance, and the soil is laid bare so that you
can scarce find the wherewithal to erect a shelter for the night"
25 But Lewis and Clark were the first to explore the route from the Missouri to the
And yet, in spite of this opposition of the interests of the trader and the farmer, the
Indian trade pioneered the way for civilization. The buffalo trail became the Indian
trail, and this became the trader's "trace:', the trails widened into roads, and the
roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads. The same origin
can be shown for the railroads of the South, the Far West, and the Dominion of Canada.
The trading posts reached by these trails were on the sites of Indian villages which had
been placed in positions suggested by nature; and these trading posts, situated so as to
command the water systems of the country, have grown into such cities as Albany,
Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Council Bluffs and Kansas City. Thus civilization
in America has followed the arteries made by geology, pouring an ever richer tide through
them, until at last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and
interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been
interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady
growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent. If one
would understand why we are to-day one nation, rather than a collection of isolated
states, he must study this economic and social consolidation of the country In this
progress from savage conditions lie topics for the evolutionist.
26 "Narrative and Critical History of America," viii, p. 10; Sparks'
"Washington Works" ix, pp. 303, 327; Logan, "History of Upper South
Carolina," i; McDonald, "Life of Kenton," p. 72; Cong. Record, xxiii, p.57.
27 On the effect of the fur trade in opening the routes of migration, see the
authors "Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin."