The Theory of Frederick Jackson Turner

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Once set aside for the use of Native Americans, The Oklahoma Territory became open for settlement starting in 1889. Hundreds of prospective homesteaders took part in the last great land rush in the West. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the entire frontier, except for a few set aside pockets, had been settled. As a reaction to the announcement of the close of the frontier, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote an essay in 1893, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." He argued that 300 years of frontier experience had played a fundamental role in shaping the unique character of American society. According to Turner's thesis, the frontier experience had promoted a habit of independence and individualism. The frontier had also promoted a powerful social leveler, breaking down class distinctions and thus fostering social and political democracy. The challenges of frontier life caused Americans to be not only inventive and practical minded, but also wasteful in their attitude towards natural resources.

Turner was troubled by the closing of the frontier. He viewed the availability of free land on the frontier as a safety valve for harmlessly releasing discontent in American society. The frontier had always been the branch for the promise of a fresh start. Once the frontier was gone, would the United States be condemned to follow the patterns of class division and social conflict that troubled the nations of Europe? Historians acknowledge that by the 1890s, the largest movement of Americans was to the cities and industrialized areas. Not only was the era of the western frontier coming to a close, but the dominance of rural farming America was also on a decline.

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Though movies and media portrayed the frontier with images of "hearty" cowboys and gory battles with Indians, the frontier was a lot less of an interesting film scene than it was imagined to be. By 1900, great buffalo herds had been wiped out. The open western lands were now fenced in by homesteads and ranches, crisscrossed by steel rails, and modernized by new towns. By the turn of the century, ten new western states had already been carved out of the last frontier, leaving Arizona, New Mexican, and Oklahoma as territories awaiting statehood. The frenzied rush for the West's natural resources caused the near extermination of the buffalo. The Native Americans who were in the way of development payed a large price. The settlement of the last frontier was achieved by three groups of pioneers: miners, cattlemen and cowboys, as well as farmers.

When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the first flood of newcomers were headed West. However, the California gold rush was only the beginning of a feverish quest for gold and silver that would extent well into the 1890s and help to settle much of the West. A series of gold and silver strikes were hit in Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and South Dakota and kept a steady flow of hopeful young prospectors pushing into the western mountains. When gold was discovered near Pike's Peak in 1859, nearly 100,000 miners were pulled into Colorado. During the same year, the Comstock Lode was responsible for Nevada's admittance to the Union in 1864. Idaho and Montana were also granted early statehood due to the mining boom. Rich strikes created boomtowns, towns that became infamous for their saloons, dance-hall gals, and vigilante justice, were created almost overnight. Most mining towns that
endured and grew were more like industrial cities than frontier towns that had been depicted in western films. As mines developed, mining companies employed experienced miners from Europe, Latin America, and China. Mining not only stimulated the settlement of the West but also had an impact on the economics and polictics of the nation. a vast increase in the supply of silver created a crisis over the relative value of gold and silver backed currency, which became a leading political issue for both westerners and the nation in the 1880s and 1890s. Mining in the West had a disastrous effect on Native Americans, who lost their lands to the miners in pursuit of instant riches.


The economic potential of the vast open grasslands that had reached from Texas to Canada was realized by cattlemen and ranchers in the decades after the Civil War known as the Cattle Kingdom. Traditions and techniques of the cattle buisness in the late 1800s were borrowed from the Mexicans. The Texas longhorns had originally come from Mexico. During the Civil War, after the Union army cut off Texas from the rest of the Confederacy, wild herds of cattle roamed freely over the Texas grasslands. When the war ended, the Texas cattle buisness was easy to get into because both cattle and grass were free. Eastern markets were opened for Texas cattle after the construction of railroads. Dodge City, as well as other towns, were established as cow towns along railroads, in order to handle the millions of cattle driven up the Chisholm and the Goodnight-Loving trails out of Texas during the 1860s and 1870s. Cowboys recieved about a dollar a day for their risky work. Cattle drives began to come to an end in the 1880s when problems such as overgrazing destroyed the grass and droughts killed high percentages of cattle. The arrival of homesteaders, who used barbed wire fencing to cut off access to the formerly open range, was another devestating factor. Wealthy cattlemen turned to developing huge ranches and using scientific ranching techniques to raise more tender breeds of cattle by feading them hay and grains. The Wild West was largely tamed by the 1890s, but the era changed America's eating habbits from pork to beef and created the legend of the rugged, self-reliant American Cowboy.

The Homestead Act of 1862 provoked farming on the Great Plains, as it offered 160 acres of public land to any family that settled on it for a period of five years. The promotions of railroads and land speculators also induced hundreds of thousands of native-born and immigrant families to attempt to farm the Great Plains between the years 1870 and 1900. The first sodbusters on the plains often built their homes of sod briks. Extremes of hot and cold weather, plagues of insects such as grasshoppers, and the lonely life living on the plains challenged even the most resourceful of the pioneer families. Wood was almost non-existant, and water was incredibly limited. In 1874, Joseph Glidden helped farmers to fence in their lands on the lumber-scare plains by inventing barbed wire. People started to use mail-order windmills to drill deep wells and to provide water. Many homesteaders discovered too late that 160 acres of land was not adequate for farming on the Great Plins. Severe weather, falling prices for crops, and the high costs of new machinery caused the failure of 2/3 of the homesteaders' farms on the Great Plains by 1900. Those who managed to survive adopted the idea of "dry farming" and deep-plowing techniques to use the limited moisture available. They also began to plant hardy strains of Russian wheat that withstood the extreme weather. Dams and irrigation saved many western farmers, as humans reshaped the rivers and physical environmnt of the West to provide water for agriculture.