Turner, Frederick Jackson

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Turner, Frederick Jackson,

1861–1932, American historian, b. Portage, Wis. He taught at the Univ. of Wisconsin from 1885 to 1910 except for a year spent in graduate study at Johns Hopkins. From 1910 to 1924 he taught at Harvard, and later he was research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library. At first he taught rhetoric and oratory but turned to U.S. history, soon focusing on Western history. His doctoral dissertation, The Character and Influence of the Indian Trade in Wisconsin (1891; an enlargement of his master's essay), showed the trend of his interest. In 1893, at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, he delivered an address, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which outlined brilliantly the history of the receding frontier and its effect in creating American democracy. Little noticed at the time, it was to prove epoch-making in American history writing. It supplied a large part of a generation of historians with a theme to investigate. Turner's ideas are now generally incorporated in some form in most American history texts; although a historical controversy has raged for decades over the validity of his frontier thesis, few critics reject it entirely. The address and various short papers were reprinted in The Frontier in American History (1920). He collaborated with Edward Channing and Albert Bushnell Hart in the revision of Guide to the Study and Reading of American History (1912). Though he produced few books—The Rise of the New West ("American Nation" series, 1906) and two studies in sectionalism, The Significance of Sections in American History (1932) and the posthumously published The United States, 1830–1850 (1935)—his influence as a teacher and proponent of a new and important theory made him one of the most renowned of all American historians.


See The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner (1938, repr. 1969); R. Hofstadter, Progressive Historians (1968); R. A. Billington, Frederick Jackson Turner (1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Turner, Frederick Jackson


Born Nov. 14, 1861, in Portage, Wis.; died Mar. 14, 1932, in Pasadena, Calif. American historian.

Turner was a professor at the University of Wisconsin from 1892 to 1910 and at Harvard University from 1910 to 1924. In the early 1890’s he advanced the idea that the history of the USA is above all the history of “the Great West” and of its colonization. In Turner’s view, the country’s development owed its special character to the availability of free land and the advancing American frontier. As the leader of what came to be known as the “frontier school,” Turner had an immense influence on many historians. In the mid-1930’s, however, some historians challenged Turner’s interpretation, which was in effect an attempt to demonstrate the uniqueness of the USA’s historical development and the absence of objective conditions for the emergence of class conflicts. While Turner was one of the first to develop an economic orientation in US historiography, he ignored the crucial role played by the mode of production—a definitive influence in the colonization of the West.


The Frontier in American History. New York, 1962.
The Significance of Sections in American History. New York, 1932.
The United States, 1830–1850: The Nation and Its Sections. New York, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Turner, Frederick Jackson

(1861–1932) historian; born in Portage, Wis. Taking his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins (1890), he taught at the University of Wisconsin (1889–1910) and at Harvard (1910–24). When he read a paper, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," at the American Historical Association's meeting at Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (1893), he gained almost overnight prominence among his colleagues as well as the subject of his life's work. His paper was printed in 1894, and after he had spent his career developing and supporting it, he presented its final form in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Significance of Sections in American History (1932). His thesis, simply stated, is that Americans' history, culture and psychology derived less from their European heritage and more from their distinctive frontier—the free land and its resources that allowed for new kinds of interactions among the emerging nation's inhabitants. He spent the next 40 years exploring and teaching his thesis and won several generations of specialists and observers over to it; although it would eventually come under attack from revisionists, "the frontier" remains one of the touchstones of American history and indissolubly associated with Turner.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.