History Essay, Research Paper
Frederick Jackson Turner’s text “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, was and still is an important American document. In this article Turner discusses all aspects of the frontier, and what it means to many different types of people. He explains American development as the movement westward, and how we used, and what we did with the “free land” that was available beyond the frontier line. One of the main points that I extracted from this article is the fact that a distinguishing feature of Americans, is that we are always growing, expanding, and developing new things.
Turner speaks about the process of evolution that takes place in each settlement beyond the frontier line. He says that each new settlement begins as a primitive society, and gradually begins to develop into something more complex, and might eventually take on the complexity of a big city.
As the East coast of America was the frontier for Europe, Americans needed somewhere that they could consider their frontier. The West became that frontier, and to Americans it was their place to take hold of and develop communities based on American values and beliefs. The West was a place to get farther away from the influence of Europe on the East coast. The West is the best case of Americanization. “The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization. The wilderness masters the colonist. It finds him a European in dress, industries, tools, modes of travel, and thought. It takes him from the railroad car and puts him in a birch canoe. It strips off the garments of civilization and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. It puts him in the log cabin of the Cherokee and Iroquois and runs an Indian palisade around him. In short, at the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the man. Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs, any more than the first phenomenon was a case of reversion to the Germanic mark. The fact is that here is a new product that is completely American (Turner, 1154,155).”
In general the west was considered a wild place, an untamed wilderness that has not seen the work of human beings. The people on the East coast generally looked to the west and thought of it as empty and vacant at first. They had the idea that the only people that would be able to survive out there would be primitive, uncivilized, and barbaric people. The idea for many people to move west was mostly given to them by the fact that there was a lot, and I mean a lot, of free land to be taken. The West represented a vast number of ideas and goals that may be accomplished there. A goal for some of the people was that by going west they would be getting closer to the fabulous wealth that was know to be in Asia. The wealth of Asia probably would not have much effect on those men and women who traveled west for this reason, but they thought that it would.
For most Americans the west was considered to be a test of their strength to survive. Since the west was thought to be a wild, uncivilized place, Americans believed that if they were able to survive out there, they would be able to survive almost any conditions or problems. Moving West was thought to be a great morale builder. Many people really believed that if they were to overcome the West, they would be powerful enough to do most things. Thus, the west was a place to prove oneself.
Immigration was a very large part in settling the West. Since much of the eastern lands were being taken up by men and women in search of fertile lands, that would always be productive, immigrants didn’t have much of a choice in where they wanted to start their lives. Some might have taken their chances and tried to make a living on the Atlantic coast, but for many there were no opportunities to make a healthy living there. Because the Atlantic coast was very populated and complex, most of the immigrants were encouraged to move west. The greatest influence for the immigrants, as well as other farmers, to move west was the availability of so much cheap land. The land that these immigrants and farmers used for their crops was not even close in production of crops as the land in the East. The types of crops that were grown in the soil in the West needed to be rotated in order for the soil to continue to be productive. The men and women who neglected to do this, always had that option to move, yet again, to another part of the country farther West.
A major effect of the frontier and the settlements in the West was the development and growing appreciation of a democracy. Not everyone was likely to move west. Only the people that felt they were capable or strong enough to possibly survive out in the West were the ones to leave the Atlantic coast. This type of selection promoted individualism greatly. Overtaking the West was mostly done by individuals or small groups of people. Instead of dealing with the complex society of the Atlantic coast, the people in the west had a more primitive society that was based on the family. These people didn’t always have to worry about the person who was higher up in the chain of command. They were only concerned with their family or the few other members in their community. The aspect of direct control on their actions was not an option in the West as it was in the East. Turner identified the frontier as ” the outlet through which the pressure of urban populations was eased. (Green, 215)”
Since the West was mostly about individualism, democracy was the only possible solution to some form of government. In a society of individuals, everyone wants to have a say in what happens to the way that they live their lives. With the amount of individualism on the frontier there is bound to be some bad aspects. The influence of frontier conditions permitted ” lax business honor, inflated paper currency and wild-cat banking. (Green, 161).” The primitive societies of the West should not be expected to follow the same rules and procedures that the complex society of the Eastern cities followed. The values and beliefs of these two areas were completely different. “The attempts to limit the boundaries, to restrict land sales and settlement, and to deprive the West of its share of political power were all in vain. Steadily the frontier of settlement advanced and carried with it individualism, democracy, and nationalism, and powerfully affected the East and the Old World(Green, 161).” Because the West seemed to have a good deal of radical ways and a type of “freedom”, that the East didn’t have, the East felt the need to regulate the frontier in some way, shape, or form. The way that the East tried to do this was through educational and religious activity practiced by people migrating from the East, and other established societies. The men and women from the East believed that they needed to regulate the religion of the West, and try to make all the settlements practice the same religion. The biggest problem was the fact that there were just so many different kinds of religions in the West because of the vast diversity of people. With the great number of immigrants that moved to the West they carried with them all the many religions of the world, not just the religions of Europe. Eventually there remained many different religions being practiced throughout the West, and those religions were involved in feuds with rival churches. The effect of this rivalry was seen in many ways, and for a very long time.
In the beginning of the final paragraph of Turner’s essay it states, “From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial day onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded (Turner, 162).” Strength and inquisitiveness are two characteristics that I believe came directly from settling the West. The strength came from the travelers having to move right in into undeveloped land and do very hard labor in order to make the settlement look like a settlement. The inquisitiveness came from thinking how they would settle an area and with what materials. The settlers of the West needed to use these two characteristics almost everyday. These people were experiencing new things all the time, and they needed to know whether or not to utilize these new things and to what degree. In order to settle somewhere totally new, one needs to be able to picture in ones mind exactly what needs to be done, this is where the inquisitiveness jumps in. Having restless and nervous energy is also something that most of the settlers possessed. How could they not have when they were constantly moving farther and farther west, into new and mysterious territory? ” Each frontier did indeed furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past; and freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and it’s ideas, and indifference to its lessons, have accompanied the frontier (Turner, 163).” To me this quote says that in order for us to be considered Americans, expansion into the Great West was a necessary thing. The West provided a place to express individual beliefs and ideas. It was a “society” where the restraints of Europe had little or no effect. In order for this country to be what it is today, the “freedom” of the West was necessary.