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Closing the American Frontier Previous Next
Digital History ID 3154

 

In 1890 the superintendent of the U.S. Census announced that rapid western settlement meant that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." In just a quarter century, the far western frontier had been settled. Three million families started farms on the Great Plains during these years.

Contrary to the popular image of the West as a rural region, by 1890 most of the West's population lived in cities. Not only was the Trans-Mississippi West the country's most culturally diverse region, it was also by 1890, the most urbanized.

The Turner Thesis

In 1893, three years after the superintendent of the Census announced that the western frontier was closed, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, advanced a thesis that the conquest of the western frontier had given American society its special character. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, Turner argued that the conquest of the western frontier as the nation's formative experience, which had shaped the nation's character and values. Western expansion accounted for Americans' optimism, their rugged independence, and their stress on adaptability, ingenuity, and self reliance.

In actuality, however, the settlement of the West had depended, to a surprising degree, on intervention by the federal government. The federal government had dispatched explorers to survey the region and cavalry units to confine Native Americans on reservations. It also provided land grants that funded railroad building, and, in the 20th century, support for dams and other waterworks.

In his address on the significance of the frontier in American history, Turner referred to the Census Bureau's announcement that the frontier was now closed. He speculated that now that the frontier was settled, a crucial epoch in American history was over.

When John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic presidential election in 1960, he called on the country to enter a new frontier. Since that time, Americans have repeatedly searched for new frontiers--in outer space and cyberspace and even below the ocean's surface. The frontier remains a potent symbol more than a century after it physically disappeared.

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