Turner's Empty Continent

Across the Continent
Across the ContinentCurrier, Charles, 1818-1887
The March of Destiny
The March of Destiny
Railroad building on the Great Plains
Railroad building on the Great PlainsWaud, Alfred R. (Alfred Rudolph), 1828-1891

When Frederick Jackson Turner walked to the podium in 1893 to deliver his paper on the “Significance of the Frontier in American History,” he might have hoped that his words would be influential beyond his audience of fellow members of the American Historical Association gathered at the Worlds Fair. Little did he know that his talk would become one of the most influential interpretations of Western history, and that generations of American high school history students would read and memorize his words.

“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, explain American development.”

Turning away from the story of famous leaders, the stories of New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, Turner focused on common people who moved their families into the vast territories west of the Alleghenies in the years after 1800. The story of the frontier—of settlers moving west, building towns, and establishing local government—was the central drama of American history.

The magnet of “free land” drew European Americans into what they considered an empty wilderness. Once there, the demands of the frontier drove them to abandon or modify their European ways. Slowly but surely they developed a new American culture, and became a new American race. The land remade them even as they claimed the land as their own.

Looking around his native Wisconsin, Turner could see that the Midwest was full of immigrants. The frontier had allowed the United States to absorb millions of German and Scandinavian farmers in the nineteenth century, and he called it “the line of most rapid and effective Americanization.”

But from the 1890s, the sources of immigration shifted from Northern Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe. Fewer of these so-called “New Immigrants” would become farmers or experience what Turner believed were the assimilating effects of the frontier. Would these immigrants remain forever alien to the institutions Turner considered the most American? If they could not be assimilated, Turner and others worried, they would pose a threat to American democracy.