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Frederick Jackson Turner's Argument on American Democracy

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3329 words Published: 16th Mar 2021

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The Native American Borderland

 Frederick Jackson Turner advanced the argument in 1893 that American democracy was an ideal that was formed because of the American frontier. The idea he argued was that when the line for the American frontier continued to move westward from the thirteen colonies and more and more people pushed what was considered the frontier farther and farther west that this process of doing so had an impact on the people doing it. He argued that the idea of what is American democracy was a result of this ever-pushing westward process.

"American democracy was born of no theorist's dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”[1]

For Turner this American frontier allowed Americans to shake off old European mindsets and allow for old and dysfunctional customs to slowly die off allowing for a purely American mindset to flourish out west and eventually the whole country. Since there were no old, elite landowners out west holding huge amounts of land for themselves he argued and the fact that the land that was out west was practically free for the taking this allowed people moving out west to shape themselves and the land around them to their own liking, again giving free rein to a new American identity. Turner believed that the people moving out west were spurred not by any type of governmental incentives, but instead some inherent need to dominate nature. A believe that is purely an Anglo-European mindset and not one shared by indigenous tribes of the American continent. He argued that it was the frontier that transformed Jeffersonian democracy into Jacksonian democracy. Jacksonian democracy promoted more power to the president at the expense of Congress. Under Jacksonian democracy there was little progress for African Americans or Native Americans, under Jackson legislation was passed that was purely racist such as the Indian Removal Act that sought to drive Native Americans off their ancestral lands in the east to uncharted territories out west. For Turner the frontier’s wilderness caused settlers to embrace individualism and that in turned created a purely American democratic ideal. All of these ideas Turner stressed have merit on their own, but when combined together to say the west is what made America because it was a land of empty expanses dotted with small bands of savage, primitive peoples who did not know the value of the land they resided in is false. One of the major issues with Turner’s thesis is the fact that he never examined any individual, town or region to substantiate his claims, instead all his evidence it seems came from other people’s generalizations of the events which he then generalized. Today there is a new resurgence of interest in the frontier history of North America, including what is known as borderland history. Turner did not account for borderlands or consider of Native Americans has major players in the history of America. Instead Turner simply put them as the antagonist to the great colonial efforts of the English and then later to the Americans who wished to move out west. For Turner the frontier was something purely American and never mentions the fact that there were other players in the frontier on the North American continent such as the Spanish and French long before the English ever arrived. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis is flawed and outdated, it does not take into account the fact there were multiple foreign players for many years before Anglo-Europeans arrived and the fact that the lands out west were empty and free for the taking.

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 The lands of the frontier were never so empty nor as free for the taking as Turner indicated in his frontier thesis. Long before the concept of any type of frontier or borderlands, there existed the New World as Europeans called it. In 1491 there were in many aspects truly two different worlds, completely separate from each other and one unlike the other. Flora and fauna that was able to be found in one was not on the other, even large animals used for transportation or food in the Old World was not found in the New. When Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Caribbean Islands in 1492 in his search for India, he irrevocably changed the course of not only human history but that of the planet as well. From that moment onward the two worlds would be forever linked, connected by the exchanged of native animals, plants, and diseases. These all moved back and forth across the oceans from that moment in history even to today. A little over two centuries later two Americans would set out into the western frontier to discover what this continent truly had to offer. When asked about the history of the American West most automatically think of the famous 1804-1806 expedition of Lewis and Clark as the starting point to find out about the west. Unbeknownst to most those two men were not the cornerstone to Western American history, the history of the west did not start with them, indeed they were arriving in a land at a turbulent time. In Elliott West’s, The West Before Lewis and Clark: Three Lives West recalls a quote that Lewis wrote as they broke their winter camp with the Mandans that first winter, he said “on which the foot of civilized man had never trod.”[2]  The definition of civilized is someone or something which is at an advanced stage of cultural or social development. This though is strictly an Anglo-European statement. Lewis believed the people they had encountered thus far on their journey were not civilized, but the terms he was using were those of whites. They were not civilized by their terms, not the terms of the people they encountered. This was simply not the case, as Pekka Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire clearly shows the reader it is not so easy to place groups into easy categories such as white, black, or Native American. In Comanche Empire Hamalainen shows how complex and wide reaching some of the Native American tribes really were, how the Comanche hegemony over the Great Plains brought all who fell within it under their control. From the 1750s to the 1850s the Comanches aggressively expanded their territory until eventually they controlled all modern-day Southwestern United States. It is true they never had one chief that ruled the entire nation, nor did they ever have a central government. None the less the Comanche Empire did exist, if for no other reason then to use the definition of empire to support the claim, the definition clearly states that an empire is any extensive territory under a single domination of control. If one were to go off that alone then the argument where there was or was not a Comanche Empire is mute. The Comanche were raiding Spanish and French settlers even before the British Colonies declared their independence, long before Lewis and Clark set out westward or declared the land to have never seen a civilized foot the Comanche had built a huge economic powerhouse that would touch Spanish, French, and American before it was all said and done. Lastly Hämäläinen speaks of “The unanthropocentric barrier metaphor”,[3] when he spoke of this it is in a direct coalition to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis categorizing the Comanche as simply part of the western landscape, some nonhuman impediment to Manifest Destiny of the United States. This was not a land empty and ripe for the plucking, this was the heart of a continent that was full of diverse peoples with a long and rich history. 

 For Turner the frontier made Americans, but those experiences and transformations were limited to only a select few as far as he was concerned. Those men who were of Anglo-European descent, Native Americans, Spanish, African, and other settlers that struck out across the wide expanse of the American heartland were not include in Turners thoughts and women were completely left out. Yet that is not the case, these men and women forged their own paths across America and had just as much to do with the creating of this country as another. During the 1770s and 1780s the eastern seaboard of this country saw the struggles for independence, the seeds of this nation were planted there and yet when students learn of the American Revolution they forget or simply are unaware that there were other colonies at the same time that saw the revolution from a different point of view. The Gulf Coast was an area rich in diversity, inhabitants there included Spanish, African, French, British, as well as a rather large number of Native Americans. [4]  DuVal argues in her book Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution that while nearly half of the North American population was female there is hardly ever any mentions of their accounts during war or what contribution they had in building this country. The same she says can be said for people of African decent as was the case of Petit Jean who was enslaved in Mobile yet became an entrusted spy who held great responsibilities in moving information back and forth. [5] In Daniel K. Richter Facing East from Indian Country Richter faced full on the challenge most scholars have when dealing with Native American viewpoints of the early history in North America. He took the issues of trying to piece together and create a fuller understanding of Native peoples from what we do know which is unfortunately incomplete and often tainted with bias, and hostility from the original writers. Richter argues that one must use a certain degree of imagination when trying to reconstruct the Indians’ understands of the European newcomers who were beginning to reshape their world from the moment they landed in the sixteenth century. [6] In Richter’s book he argues for the complexity of Indian responses to the European invaders, and a new outlook on understanding the nations past by instead of looking at it as a westward expansion by white settlers and the Natives either fought for their way of life and eventually lost to white society or they completely  assimilated into the culture and lost their own along the way instead Richter argues that is was more complex then this, that Native Americans responded in different ways which were based of a system of values and beliefs. Those believes were then treated with contempt and scorn by the Europeans, which only fueled more complex response on behalf of the Natives. The ideas that Turner had of westward expansion left no room for the complexities of interactions between Natives and whites and the contributions of women and minorities during the early formulation of this country. It was not just the formal frontier that saw these interactions, but sometimes in the heart of a large population such as it was in the Gulf Coast region. It wasn’t just the ambitions of white men that began to forge this uniquely American identity, but everyone that found themselves in this new land away from large cosmopolitan cities.

 As settlers pushed farther and farther out west, they began to run into tribes more and more frequently, the idea that Turner argued in his thesis that the land was empty and practically free was false. The land with which the settlers found themselves encroaching on was ancestral land for some and hard-won domains for others. In Pekka Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire Hamalainen argues that when the white settlers pushed into the great plains Spanish and French had been dealing with the Comanches for generations. There is strong evidence to point out that if it was not for the Comanches parts of what Americans call the west might still belong to Mexico. This argument only further brings validity to the notion that Turner’s thesis was flawed and not completely thought out, though it must be said that Turner was a product of his time and more then likely would not have seen the Camanche as powerful players in the American west. What Turner does not take into account either is what these large numbers of settlers did to the environment as they pushed westward. Again in Hamalainen’s book he points out that as settlers and military moved out west they would strip the land bare of its natural resources, both flora and fauna forcing the Natives to move on, adapt or struggle to survive which only weakened them further and allowed for White supremacy to flourish. By the 1850s a major discovery would farther transform the plains and bring a rush of people into the west. In Elliott West’s The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado West shows how the influx of settlers and gold seekers even further forced Native Americans farther and farther onto the outskirts of society and caused them to further adapt to a new way of life where their lands were constantly being taken. By the end of the book West argues that for the Plains Indians the great upheaval of the many different powers that played out on the Plains since gold had been found in Colorado was often catastrophic. For West there were two viewpoints of the plains, that of the whites and Native Americans, both trying to live out irreconcilable images of what the plains were for them each. [7]  Then in 1864 after years of clashing between Natives and settlers, both seeing atrocities carried out on the other a group of Colorado Cavalry rode into the encampment of Arapaho and Cheyenne on the banks of the Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. When they rode out again over 150 men, women, and children lay dead, it would take 144 years before the site was turned again into another site, that of memory. Turner fails again in his thesis to account for the Native American players in the west and the parts they played. Or the atrocities the settlers carried out on anyone they saw as in their way. For Turner the Native Americans were simply obstacles to overcome, just another part of the savage west landscape. In truth they at times played a part in their downfall just as much as anyone else. While the arrival of Anglo-Americans did herald the eventual destruction of most traditional Native American economies, they also adopted certain European and American ideas and made them uniquely their own. Some tribes even flourished by embracing Old World ideas and means, one of the best examples is that of the horse. Yet for even the tribes that did adapt to Euro-American ways the economic shift from self-sufficiency to reliance on whites ultimately undermined the traditional Native American economies as well as the ones they had adopted for themselves from either interactions or necessity. The Comanche are well known horsemen, it is interesting to think that the idea of the Native American as a skilled equestrian was not something they had been practicing for millennia but was fairly recent. When the horse was introduced onto the plains it irrevocably altered most native economies in the area, it allowed them to move over greater distances in the pursuit of bison and opened new trade opportunities. The Comanche built their empire around the horse, it allowed them to travel longer distances, hunt more effectively, was a source of wealth and when the times called for it the horse provided substance for the people. Yet as white settlers began their trek across Native lands those self-sufficient economies began to disappear. Settlers found traditional campsites ideal for settlements, grasses became scarce from the grazing of the livestock the whites brought with them but also too the mega herds of horses that the Comanche held also helped bring about the grazing issues. Wood became scarce as settlements and forts began to spring up along the wagon trails. To make matters even worse on the plains the large herds of bison began to vanish, the Comanche had their own hand in this as well as they over hunted them for meat and fur.

 Turner argued for the idea that the American idea came from the frontier, that as the frontier moved westward and the hardships people encountered there changed them from being Anglo-Europeans to a purely American mindset. That it was the frontier that shaped what we consider American intuition and spirit. Turner does not account for the other players in the history of this country, the men and women that were not white. They all had leading roles in the struggle that played out in the west to build this country into what it is today. Natives played as big of a part in the expansion of the frontier as anyone, women held their own and helped forge their own place out west. People of African decent played parts in the independence of this nation and helped steer the war in the direction it went. White settlers pushed farther and farther west, destroying Native lands and economies as they went giving Native Americans little choice but to again adapt or suffer. The land itself was forever altered as the frontier pushed from the east coast to the west. Out of Turners idea of the frontier there emerged a new line of study, that of environmental and borderlands history that sought to fill in the gaps that Turner’s thesis left. While the Frontier Thesis is a good starting point it is by no means a polished end result of what the west was really like or a clear representation of the multitude of people who saw epic that was the west being played out on a grand and minute scale.

Works Cited

  • Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th Anniversary Edition (1972; New York: Praeger, 2003)
  • Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998)
  • Pekka Hamalainen, Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)
  • Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)
  • Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1999): 814-841.
  • Elliott West, “The West Before Lewis and Clark: Three Lives,” in Elliott West, The Essential West: Collected Essays (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012): 129-153.
  • Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992)
  • Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015)

[1] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)

[2] Elliott West, “The West Before Lewis and Clark: Three Lives,” in Elliott West, The Essential West: Collected Essays (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012)

[3] Pekka Hamalainen, Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008)

[4] Kathleen DuVal, Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution (New York: Random House, 2015)

[5] IBID

[6] Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 2001)

[7] Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998)


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