Frederick Jackson Turner:
An Examination of His "Frontier Thesis" and American History

In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his now-famous "frontier thesis" at the Chicago World's Fair. According to Turner, "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."1 This thesis proved to be remarkably durable, and despite numerous scholarly rebuttals and counter-theses in the century that followed, Turner's interpretation of American history still enjoys the acceptance of large numbers of ordinary Americans.

Many of Turner's arguments, however, exhibit serious shortcomings when they are examined more closely. One of the most critical is his failure to take account of the First Nations as a major player in colonial history and instead reducing their role to that of mere resistance to English settlement. He also brushes aside the importance of the fur trade, even though it was a catalyst for intense commercial rivalry for the New England colonies, New France, and the Indians themselves. Finally, Turner's characterization of the frontier as a purely western and English phenomenon completely ignores the frontier faced by the French colonists on their western and southern borders, as well as the northern frontier of English colonies like New York and Massachusetts.

Turner's dismissal of the First Nations as an important element in early American history is never explicitly stated. Instead he uses vague terms such as "savagery" and "Indian country" that add subtle support to his assertion that settlers were moving into "free land," land presumably free of other people. In reality, the land was anything but free when the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived in the 1620s and 1630s, and by 1637 Massachusetts had already fought its first major war with the land's non-existent inhabitants.2

For France and England, the Indians were a vital source of military and diplomatic power throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Both empires forged alliances with the various tribes and enlisted their warriors to take part in a long series of colonial wars that ended only with the American Revolution. The French, for instance, established a longstanding alliance with the Abenakis, who used their position south of the Saint Lawrence River to launch devastating attacks on New England towns and settlements. They also gained numerous allies in the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region, who were sufficiently powerful to push English settlement back over the Appalachians and thereby reverse the "continuous recession" of the frontier.

It is also clear that France feared the power of First Nations, especially the Iroquois League. An ally of England since the expulsion of the Dutch from what is now New York, the Iroquois had engaged in a long series of wars with France and its Indian allies. In 1701 the French finally made peace with the League as part of a diplomatic maneuver to prepare for an imminent war with England, giving the Iroquois the right "to come to Montreal to obtain your necessities and the right to hunt without being disturbed by the Savages allies of Onnontio [the French King]."3

As for the English, their alliance with the Iroquois became an indispensable part of colonial policy. It was Iroquois Mohawks who lent important military aid to Massachusetts after the outbreak of Metacom's War (1675-76), as a result of which local Indian resistance to English rule dissipated. In the following century the Iroquois also acted as a vehicle by which English authority could be extended over France's former Indian allies in the Ohio Valley. With the Iroquois having been recognized by the Treaty of Utrecht as subjects of the British Crown, the alliance gave England the opportunity to convert traditional Iroquois authority over First Nations such as the Delawares into acknowledgement of English sovereignty over Indian lands.4

One of the main reasons for the intense colonial rivalry that created the need for Indian allies was the fur trade. However, Turner downplays the importance of the trade, seeing it as only as a momentary phase in the development of the English colonies. He even goes so far as to argue that "French colonization was dominated by its trading frontier; English colonization by its farming frontier." The history of the French and English colonies argues otherwise.5

For instance, the Dutch colony of New Netherlands that later became New York was founded for the specific purpose of participating in the Indian fur trade, and the outpost of Fort Orange (now Albany) evolved to become the most important link of the trade. After conquering New Netherlands, the English continued what the Dutch had started, thereby making the fur trade into one of the most important elements of New York's colonial economy. Even as late as the mid-18th century, New York and its southern rival, Pennsylvania, considered the fur trade important enough to make determined efforts to direct the trade into their respective territories.6

In the case of Massachusetts, the colonists of Plymouth and Boston competed with each other for the fur trade as well. They did so because of the need to make their colonies financially profitable, a goal that made farming less of an economic priority then the acquisition of a lucrative commodity like furs. Thus the Plymouth colonists began trading in furs from the Abenakis within five years of the establishment of their settlement and set up the so-called "Undertakers" to carry out the trade. Turner's characterization of the fur trade as a purely French activity can therefore be seen to be highly inaccurate.7

Finally, there is also the issue of the nature of the frontier itself. In Turner's thesis, the American frontier is portrayed as the line between settled and Indian lands, which runs roughly north to south and which continually recedes westward. Apart from his self-contradicting idea of Indian lands being unsettled yet inhabited, Turner greatly oversimplifies the character of the frontier in several important ways. There were actually at least three frontiers that played a critical role in American history. While it is true that one frontier line ran from the north to the south, the New England colonies had a northern frontier running from east to west. It was across this frontier that French troops and their Indian allies put pressure on colonial Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, which ended only with the defeat of France in the Seven Years War. English settlement along this frontier was uncertain at best, and Indians like the Abenakis used their alliance with the French to restrain England's land-hungry colonists. Far from receding, this frontier remained a permanent feature of New England until the 1760s.8

Turner also neglects the western and southern frontiers of New France, which had a direct bearing on the course of colonial American history. The southern border, of course, brushed against the New England colonies, but the western frontier lay against the territories making up the Iroquois League. As England's main Indian ally, the Iroquois posed a unique threat to New France, and the French felt obliged to try to neutralize Iroquois military power during much of the 17th century. Doing so necessarily involved going to war with the English as well, and the course of these wars helped shape the development of all the European colonies, both French and English.

The most enduring frontier was one that Turner's thesis never addresses - the cultural frontier between Europeans and the First Nations. This frontier lingered on long after its geographical counterparts in the colonies had vanished, and in some cases it hardened into deep-seated animosity. This could be seen in Massachusetts during Metacom's War, when colonial authorities detained its loyal Christian Indians for fear that they would follow the example of other "praying Indians" by joining the forces led by Metacom. Almost a century later, Indians living in cities like Lancaster and Philadelphia, which were far-removed from the western frontier, found themselves attacked and murdered by groups like the Paxton Boys as a reaction to the outbreak of Pontiac's War. In both cases, colonists and Indians lived on opposite sides of a cultural divide that led the colonists to take repressive or violent measures against the Indians.9

It can thus be seen that Turner's "frontier thesis" is incomplete in its scope and inaccurate in its depiction of the many types of frontiers that made up colonial America. Along with denying the importance of the First Nations and the central role played by the fur trade in stimulating the colonial economies and Anglo-French rivalry, Turner also fails to acknowledge the complexity of the frontier itself. As a result, Turner's thesis is an inadequate explanation of the underlying forces that shaped American history.

1 Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," coursepack, 112.
2 Turner, 113; Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of North America (New York: Oxford University, 1994), 90-94.
3 "Peace With the Iroquois," coursepack, 95.
4 Neal Salisbury, ed., The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (Boston: Bedford Book, 1997), 24, 89; "Treaty of Utrecht," coursepack, 95; "Canasatego: Response to the Delawares' Complaint," in Colin G. Calloway, ed., The World Turned Upside Down: Indian Voices from Early America (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), 98-99.
5 Turner, 115-116.
6 Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1992), 87-104.
7 Steele, 88-89.
8 "Atiwaneto: Speech Resisting Colonial Expansion," in Colin G. Calloway, ed., The World Turned Upside Down: Indian Voices from Early America (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994), 127-28.
9 Salisbury, 23; Steele, 241.