Image of Frederick Jackson Turner


Lifetime: 1861 - 1932 Passed: ≈ 92 years ago




United States

Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner was an American historian during the early 20th century, based at the University of Wisconsin until 1910, and then Harvard University. He was known primarily for his "Frontier Thesis." He trained many PhDs who became well-known historians. He promoted interdisciplinary and quantitative methods, often with an emphasis on the Midwest. His best known publication is his essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," the ideas of which formed the Frontier Thesis. He argued that the moving western frontier exerted a strong influence on American democracy and the American character from the colonial era until 1890. He is also known for his theories of geographical sectionalism. During recent years historians and academics have argued frequently over Turner's work; however, all agree that the Frontier Thesis has had an enormous effect on historical scholarship.

Born in Portage, Wisconsin, the son of Andrew Jackson Turner and Mary Olivia Hanford Turner, Turner grew up in a middle-class family. His father was active in Republican politics, an investor in a railroad, and was a newspaper editor and publisher. His mother taught school. Turner was very much influenced by the writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poet known for his emphasis on nature; so too was Turner influenced by scientists such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Julian Huxley, and the development of Cartography. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1884, where he was a member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity.

He earned his PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 1890 with a thesis on the Wisconsin fur trade, titled "The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin", directed by Herbert Baxter Adams. Turner did not publish extensively; his influence came from tersely expressed interpretive theories which influenced his hundreds of disciples. Two theories, in particular, were influential, the "Frontier Thesis" and the "Sectional Hypothesis".

Although he published little, he had an encyclopedic knowledge of American history, earning a reputation by 1910 as one of the two or three most influential historians in the country. He proved adept at promoting his ideas and his students, for whom he obtained jobs in major universities, including Merle Curti and Marcus Lee Hansen. He circulated copies of his essays and lectures to important scholars and literary people, published extensively in magazines, recycled favorite material, attaining the largest possible audience for major concepts, and wielded considerable influence within the American Historical Association as an officer and advisor for the American Historical Review. His emphasis on the importance of the frontier in shaping American character influenced the interpretation found in thousands of scholarly histories. By the time Turner died in 1932, 60% of the major history departments in the U.S. were teaching courses in frontier history compatible with Turner's theories.

Annoyed by the university regents who demanded less research and more teaching and state service, Turner sought an environment that would permit him to do more research. Declining offers from California, he accepted an offer from Harvard in 1910 and remained a professor there until 1922, being succeeded in 1924 by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr. In 1907 Turner was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society, and in 1911 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Turner was never comfortable at Harvard; when he retired in 1922 he became a visiting scholar at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, where his note cards and files continued to accumulate, although few monographs got published. His The Frontier in American History was a collection of older essays.

Turner married Caroline Mae Sherwood in Chicago in November 1889. They had three children: only one survived childhood. Dorothy Kinsley Turner was the mother of the historian Jackson Turner Main, a scholar of Revolutionary America who married a fellow scholar.

Frederick Jackson Turner died in 1932 in Pasadena, California, where he had been a research associate at the Huntington Library.

Books by Frederick Jackson Turner

The Frontier in American History  Cover image

The Frontier in American History

Politics Economy America Policies Economics Historical Democracy United States

American democracy was profoundly shaped by the existence of an undeveloped frontier area from the founding through the 1880s. These essays try to convey how the frontier drove American history and shaped it. Turner relates the histories of the Ameri...