Frederick Jackson Turner: Deposed King Of The Wild Frontier

by Gregory H. Nobles

Volume XII, Number 1, 2
Fall, 1992, Winter, 1993

Most Baby Boom era historians heard a lot about the frontier long before they heard anything about Frederick Jackson Turner.  On December 5, 1954, Walt Disney, one of the true pioneers of American popular culture, took them into a wonderful new territory on network television.  His Sunday night series, “Disneyland,” premiered the first episode of “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.”  Over the course of a few weeks, the three-part series – “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter,” “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress,” and “Davy Crockett at the Alamo” – captured a huge viewing audience and became, literally overnight, one of the most significant events in the early history of television.  In addition to being what one critic called a “well-constructed, fast-moving adventure story,” the show offered a catchy theme song, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”  Played or sung as background music for the screen action, the song could be as light and jaunty as the canter of Day’s horse or, in more serious moments, as slow and solemn as a hymn.  “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” quickly reached the top of television’s “Hit Parade,” where it stayed for thirteen weeks, and it sold over ten million records.1  

In fact, virtually everything connected to Crockett sold in the millions.  Children all across the country (including, no doubt, more than a few future historians, among them the author of this essay) begged their parents to buy them clothing and toys from the Davy Crockett product line: jeans, t-shirts, lunch boxes, coloring books, cap pistols, flintlock rifles, and, above all, coonskin hats.  Some department stores established Davy Crockett clubs for children, with special sections devoted to Davy Crockett merchandise.  Within six months of the start of the television series, sales of Davy Crockett products had reached $100 million.  As one buyer for a Detroit department store put it, “Why, Davy Crockett is bigger even than Mickey Mouse.”  Walt Disney could hardly worry that one of his creations had been surpassed by another: he claimed ownership of the “Davy Crockett” trademark and had already licensed over fifty firms to produce consumer items.  Disney may have anointed Davy Crockett “King of the Wild Frontier,” but he kept the title of treasurer for himself.2

As the frontier became a fad, it was clear that Disney’s “Davy Crockett” had touched a national nerve – and not just among children, bur among adults as well.  On one level, it was simply a good adventure show starring appealing, if hitherto largely unknown, actors.3 Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett, was a tall, good-looking actor who played the frontiersman as a classic example of nature’s nobleman: simply yet dignified, a brave, straightforward, and invariably honorable hero.  Buddy Ebsen, who played sidekick George Russel, was the perfect Crockett companion, shorter in stature and a sure-fire source of comic relief.  While Russel always stood beside Crockett, he also stood in his shadow.  He was Crockett’s equal as a woodsman, a skilled tracker, and imitator of animal calls, bur he deferred to Davy kin all decisions, even the decision to go fight at the Alamo, where both of them died.  Long before Hollywood coined the term “buddy movie,” Davy and George were the consummate backwoods buddies – funny, fearless, and loyal unto death.

But “Davy Crockett” was more than an above-average adventure show; it was the epitome of Eisenhower-era entertainment.  Coming on the air in the context of the Cold War, just following the unsatisfying stalemate of the Korean War and the unsettling accusations of Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunt, the show offered comfort and renewed confidence.  Davy Crockett’s apocryphal but oft-repeated motto – “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead” – was an especially reassuring message.

Disney’s Davy always seemed to know he was tight, and therefore he was always ready to go ahead and fight his country’s enemies, whether foreign or domestic.  Davy Crockett’s early role as “Indian Fighter” took him to Florida, where, according to the show’s musical narrative, “In 1813, the Creeks uprose/Addin’ redskin arrows to the country’s woes.”  In the climactic struggle, Davy single-handedly defeated the Creek chieftain, Red Stick.  “You made war on us,” Crockett explained.  Instead of killing him, though, Crockett convinced the obviously relieved Red Stick that their respective peoples could live together in peace.

Moving on to Congress, Crockett became a staunch friend of the Indians, making a ringing appeal for their rights in the face of the government’s attempt to remove them from their tribal lands.  After being done in by devious politicians, however, Crockett left Washington and politics for good, returning once again to the wild frontier – in this case, Texas.  There, as the theme song explained, “freedom was fightin’ another foe,” and Davy took his stand against the Mexican menace.  He met his death at the Alamo (off-camera, to be sure) “fightin’ for liberty.”  In general, the “Davy Crockett” series did not concern itself too much with moral complexity or historical accuracy, but focused on a figure who made both the questions and answers seem comparatively simple.  “As biography,” one student of Disney’s films has observed, “the plot may be a bit oversimplified, but it remains essentially faithful to the spirit of the legend.”4

In that regard Walt Disney followed a long tradition in depicting the history of the American frontier.  Remaining faithful to the “spirit of the legend” has always been more common than remaining faithful to the truth.  Davy Crockett was only one example among many.  For well over a century, and certainly in the first two decades of the Cold War era, mainstream American culture maintained a fascination with the frontier.  Through popular paintings, pulp novels, plays, movies, and television series, white Americans had long received repeated infusions of highly fictionalized images of the frontiersman as the quintessential American hero, the rugged individualist who braved the dangers of the Western wilderness to help conquer the continent.  By the 1950s, Disney’s “Davy Crockett” built upon a long-standing tradition of blending fact and fiction into a national myth about the American frontier.5

Even historians – perhaps especially historians – might find it difficult to resist the allure of such mythical material.  The appeal is understandable.  The process of westward expansion is one of the central events in the history of the United States, and there are many good stories to tell along the way.  The whole cast of characters – explorers, adventurers, soldiers, settlers, ranchers, cowboys, and, always, Indians – make for great drama.  They are certainly more exciting, if not more significant, than some of the other figures – the Puritan ministers, Jacksonian political hacks, or Cold War diplomats – who also populate the pages of history books.  Even the scenery of the frontier – the dark forests of the East and , further west, the stark plains, deserts, and mountain ranges – is both rugged and t=romantic, always an inspiring image to an academic locked away in a library.

Yet the dramatic, romantic image of the frontier, the very quality that makes it so appealing, has also created problems for historians.  One of the main tasks now is to unlearn the legend, to try to distinguish myth from history.  That is not an easy task, especially since many of the myths have been created and perpetuated not just by cultural hucksters like Walt Disney, but also by professional historians themselves.  Above all, no student of the frontier can move too far away from Disney’s “Frontierland” without soon coming to terms with the most prominent and persuasive of the myth-making historians, Frederick Jackson Turner.

Turner was by no means the first historian to write about the frontier, but he was certainly the first to bring it to the forefront of historical scholarship.  On July 12, 1893, when he was a young professor at the University of Wisconsin, Turner delivered perhaps the most famous paper ever to be presented to an annual, meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA), “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  At the time, however, Turner’s paper failed to generate much immediate interest even among the small audience of his fellow historians.  The AHA held their annual meeting in Chicago that year in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, a grand display of the cultural and technological wonders of the age.  No doubt many of Turner’s fellow historians were, like their present-day counterparts at professional meetings, too busy exploring the exhibits and restaurants to bother attending an evening session featuring a paper by a young colleague.  But after the AHA meeting was over, Turner began to circulate his paper among prominent scholars – including Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, two future presidents not just of the United States but of the AHA – and he published it in the Proceedings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.  The essay gradually gained attention, and by the early decades of the twentieth century it had established Turner’s reputation as a formidable figure in the historical profession.6

Turner’s essay is a familiar staple to scholars, but for the purposes of this special issue of the Hayes Historical Journal, it still merits a brief summary.  “The Significance of the Frontier” began by pointing to the significance of a seemingly bland bureaucratic statement.  In 1890, the Superintendent of the Census had observed that there were scarcely any substantial unsettled areas in the United States, and for that reason, he declared, the discussion of the American frontier “can not . . . any longer have a place in the census reports.”  To Turner, those words were momentous:

This brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement.  Up to our own day American history has been in large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.  The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.

Thus Turner found in the frontier “a factor in American history of the highest significance,” the critical variable that could not only help define the character of the nation, but also make it truly distinctive.7

Indeed, it was Turner’s emphasis on the distinctiveness of American history as much as his focus on the frontier that made his essay seem such a significant departure from the morms of contemporary scholarship.  At the time Turner wrote his essay, the historical profession in the United States was still in its infancy; when Turner presented his paper to the AHA, the organization had only 631 members.  Many historians from the United States still did their graduate work in European universities, and even those who received the Ph.D. in this country worked under mentors who had been trained, or certainly strongly influenced, by European historians.  (In fact, Turner’s own mentors – William Allen at the University of Wisconsin, where Turner received his B.A. and M.A. degrees, and Herbert Baxter Adams at Johns Hopkins University, where he earned his doctorate – were both products of German graduate education.)8

Among these German-trained historians, the dominant line of analysis used to explain the history of the United States was the so-called “germ theory,” the notion that American institutions had evolved from European, specifically Teutonic, origins.  Deep in the forests of medieval Germany, so the theory went, the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons developed forms of social and political organization that influenced the development of England and, by extension, the American colonies.9  In an era of increasing immigration – especially from southern and eastern Europe and Asia – this sort of historical explanation had a certain appeal to those Americans who could trace their own roots back beyond the colonial era to England and northern Europe: What was truly American was, at its root, truly Anglo-Saxon.  But in that sense, of course, nothing was truly American.

To Turner, the frontier was.  Like the germ theorists, Turner had a fascination with forests as the source of social evolution, but what he saw in the forests of the American frontier was an environment where European antecedents could not survive.  “Complex society is precipitated by the wilderness into a kind of primitive organization based on the family,” Turner explained.  The settler’s reversion to primitivism allows for the growth of a wholly new form of life:

Little by little he transforms the wilderness, but the outcome is not the old Europe, not simply the development of Germanic germs…The fact it, here is a new product that is American…Thus the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe, a steady growth of independence on American lines.  And to study this advance…is to study the really American part of our history.10

In short, the frontier became the breeding ground of a culture unique to the North American continent, an antidote to the European germ.

Even Turner’s definition of the frontier differed from the earlier European and American norms.11 In Europe, the term “frontier” referred to the border zone between two nations.  In North America, Turner explained, the frontier was not a fixed boundary but a moving line, “the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization.”  More to the point, there was no single line, but a succession of frontiers that followed upon each other:

Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file – the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer – and the frontier has passed by.  Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between.  The unequal rate of advance compels us to distinguish the frontier into the trader’s frontier, the rancher’s frontier, or the miner’s frontier, and the farmer’s frontier.12

In this regard, the frontier was not simply a place; it was a recurring process that moved across the continent in stages, leaving different sorts of society in its wake.

But most important of all, Turner argued, this process promoted freedom, opportunity, and democracy.  The very people he identified as the agents of frontier advance – the fur-traders, farmers, and so forth – were ordinary people, not members of the European or even American elite.  The farther these common folk pushed westward, the greater they distanced themselves from elite influence.  The frontier opened to them “agate of escape from the bondage of the past” and encouraged the growth of “freshness, and confidence, and scorn of older society, impatience of its restraints and its ideas.”  On the frontier, common people were thus free to fashion new social and political relationships that reflected their own desires and aspirations.  Those relationships not only affected life in frontier settlements, but they also ultimately shaped the very character of the whole nation.  “The growth of nationalism and the evolution of American political institutions were dependent on the advance of the frontier.”13

In general, Turner’s 1893 essay brought remarkably innovative insights to the study of American history.  In the minds of many people, it was Turner who finally put the “American” in American history, who told the story in a way that emphasized the exceptionalism, even uniqueness, of the national experience.  The freshness of the frontier provided an upbeat, positive perspective on the past that soon attracted a loyal following among historians.  To be sure, Turner took the self-effacing stance that his essay made “no attempt to treat the subject exhaustively; its aim is simply to call attention to the frontier as a fertile field for investigation…[that] can be isolated and studied as a factor in American history of the highest importance.”14

And this is certainly what he and his disciples did.  Turner was not a prolific writer by scholarly standards – in fact, one can argue that “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” was the most significant piece he ever published.  But he was by all accounts a superb teacher, a supportive promoter of his students and their work.  They returned the favor by spreading the gospel of the frontier throughout major universities across the country, especially in the West.  As one of Turner’s followers, Avery Craven, observed, “Frederick Jackson Turner wrote less and influenced his own generation more than any other important historian.”15 For almost three decades after the publication of his original essay, Turner had an ever-expanding circle of supporters and only a handful of critics.  By the time of his death in 1932, the so-called “Turner school” of historians had secured a prominent place in the profession, and the “Turner thesis” on the significance of the frontier stood squarely at the center of American historiography.

Every thesis, of course, eventually has an antithesis, and so did Turner’s, many times over.  Despite the generally positive response to Turner’s work in the early part of the century, scholars gradually began to raise challenges, ranging from mild revision to outright (and often outraged) rejection.16 In some cases, Turner’s critics have picked on petty particular he never pretended to defend; others have created an oversimplified caricature of his argument that showed little appreciation for the tentativeness, much less the subtlety, of his argument.  Still, the more skillful critics have found substantial flaws in both the details of the argument and the overall approach, and their work has steadily undermined the Turnerian foundations of frontier history.  Despite numerous attempts on the part of Turner’s disciples to defend the faith, the “Turner thesis” is now regarded as little more than an academic antiquity.  In a sense, it has become part of the myth of the frontier itself.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the first major argument against the Turner thesis pointed to the overemphasis on the frontier as the critical force in American history.  Most historians were willing to concede to Turner that west-ward movement of the highest importance,” but not all were able to accept his notion the “American history has been in large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.”  Charles A. Beard, for instance, was not altogether unsympathetic to Turner’s work, which he found refreshing, especially compared to the narrow and often turgid work of other historians.  But he considered Turner’s emphasis on the western frontier inadequate to explain the ongoing development of an industrializing nation.

Other historians of Turner’s generation, most notably Arthur M. Schlesinger, pointed out that westward migration was not the only significant form of human movement in the United States in the nineteenth century.  Waves of immigrants from Europe and other parts of the world made a major contribution not just to the nation’s population, but to its very character.  Turner’s emphasis on American exceptionalism overlooked or obscured the continuing significance of international influence on American culture.  Moreover, scholars also noted that internal migration within the United States did not always move in one direction, toward open land in the West.  People also moved from farm to city and, in many cases, from west to east.  Thus the factories of eastern cities were as much a part of the American experience as the farms of the western frontier.  Turner’s picture of the independent frontiersman suggested an engaging, even comforting image, but it was hardly the portrait of the quintessential American.17

In general, within a generation of its creation, Turner’s argument for the significance of the frontier had been severely (and successfully) challenged by alternative interpretations based on class, ethnicity, urbanization, and a host of other factors.  The “Turner thesis” was on its way to becoming, if not a ruin, then certainly a relic.  To be sure, it still stands as an impressive monument to an important academic achievement, but, to all but a few of Turner’s die-hard devotees, it no longer provides an adequate explanation of the complexity of the American experience.

More recently, even those historians who, like Turner, focus on the frontier and the West have raised serious challenges to Turner’s definition of what the frontier was, where it was, when it ended, and what is all meant.  Many of them first watched Walt Disney’s frontier on television as children but later came of age politically and intellectually when John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” policies led the United States deeper into was in Vietnam.  For them as for many other historians, the experiences of the 1960s shaped their approach to writing history in the 1980s and 1990s.  The so-called “New Western Historians” have tried to free their field from what one has called “the dead hand of Frederick Jackson Turner” by rejecting his rather narrow notion of the significance of the frontier.18 According to Patricia Limerick, one of the most prominent promoters of the New Western History, “ ‘frontier’ is one of the most difficult concepts in the world to pin down, and its value for analysis is further compromised by the heavy load of ethnocentric, nationalistic, white-centered associations that it has to carry around.”19

The New Western Historians have by no means dismissed the notion of the frontier out-of-hand.  They have, however, forced other historians not just to take the Turnerian definition seriously, but to take it apart.  At the very least, most historians must now agree (and the die-hards, perhaps, must now reluctantly admit) that Turner’s notion of the term “frontier” was an ethnocentric, or Eurocentric, concept that had meaning only from the perspective of the colonizing culture.  His description of the frontier as “the outer edge of the wave – the meeting point between savagery and civilization” made clear his preconceptions, even prejudices.  It was European “civilization” that met Indian “savagery” at the farthest point of European penetration in the New World wilderness.  The land beyond was uncharted, uncontrolled, and therefore threatening.

But for the New World natives – the people the Europeans called Indians – there was no such notion of a frontier.  To them the lad was not a howling wilderness, but home.  In the same way, they were not savages, but civilized people.  They had well-established territories, stable social systems, and extensive trade networks.  Like Europeans, they often made war on their enemies, but they never set to annihilate other tribes.  It was only with the arrival – or Europeans that Native Americans faced a threat to their very existence.  The advance of the newcomers ultimately forced natives into long-term retreat.  Indeed, when seen from the perspective of Native Americans, the westward movement of Europeans was hardly the positive process Turner described.  Rather than freedom, opportunity, and democracy, it brought displacement, destruction, and death.

Yet, long after Europeans had established control of parts of the continent, Indians still remained the representatives of an alternative, and often quite appealing, culture on the fringes of white society.  If nothing else, the record of Indian-European relations in North America has rendered terms like “savagery” and “civilization” essentially meaningless, or certainly made it impossible to apply either term exclusively to one culture or the other.  At best, one might revise Turner’s definition to describe the frontier as the meeting point where otherwise civilized people often exhibited savage behavior.  A better approach is to define “frontier” in terms that are less loaded in favor of Euro-American culture.  In recent years, post-Turnerian scholars have begun to use terms like “contact zone,” “zone of interpenetration,” or “middle ground.”  This suggests an area of interaction between two or more cultures in which the reader assumes neither culture to have an altogether superior position.20 The recognition of this interaction helps us redefine the frontier not just as a place, or even as a frequently repeated, one-dimensional process of conquest, settlement, and development.  It involves, rather, a much more complex process of mutual exchange in which neither culture, Native American or Euro-American, could remain unchanged.

Turner’s definition of the frontier was not only Eurocentric but, more specifically, Anglocentric.  In looking to the frontier for the essence of the American character, he focused primarily on the experience of those Euro-Americans who moved westward from the original British-American colonies.  On one level, of course, such an emphasis might seem somewhat justified.  After all, the colonies that formed the United States gained their political identity from Great Britain long before they gained their political independence.  Moreover, the westward expansion of the United States to the Pacific eventually overcame all other Euro-American claimants to the continent – the Dutch, French, Spanish, and, later, Mexicans.  Still, the history of the political and cultural descendants of the British-American colonists cannot convey the full history of Europeans as explorers and settlers in North America.  Those other groups had their frontier experience, too, but they moved north, south, and east, as well as west.  In a sense, there was not just one American frontier, but several.21

Above all, the point is not to reduce the history of the frontier to a morality play about cultural monoliths, the “civilized” Europeans and “savage” Indians (or, as one might just as easily argue, vice versa).  Neither side was that simple.  Euro-Americans fought among themselves for control of the continent, and they often enlisted Indian allies to help them defeat fellow Europeans.  Equally important, there was considerable conflict even within individual European culture groups.  Anglo-Americans, for instance, were divided by lines of gender, class, religion, and a host of other factors, and those differences became the source of recurring intracultural struggles over the course of several centuries.

Furthermore, the natives the Europeans lumped together as Indians were in reality a remarkably diverse people encompassing many different belief systems, different ways of life, and different relationships with Europeans.  Like Europeans, they could be honorable allies or vicious enemies, equally capable of creating beauty and committing atrocity.  And like Europeans, they deserve respect both for the integrity of their own culture and for their contributions to the broader synthesis we now call “American” culture.  In fact, the first step to understanding the significance of the frontier in American history is to appreciate how many different sorts of Americans there were on the frontier – not just native Americans and Euro-Americans, but also African-Americans – and how important each group was to making of history.

Finally, no matter what the ethnic group, Turner’s picture of the frontier still overlooked women.  The “Turner school” allowed no room for women’s studies in the curriculum.  Neither, for that matter, did Turner’s early critics.  For years the debate about the history and the nature of the frontier was carried on largely by men and about men.  In 1944, Nancy Wilson Ross, and anthropologist, published a comprehensive account of white women on the frontier, Westward the Women, but her work stood virtually alone for over two decades.22 Beginning in the early 1970s, with the increasing scholarly interest in the history of women, new studies began to ask important questions about the opportunities for equality open to women on the frontier.  There was no single answer, in fact, because there was no single type of frontier woman.  A farm wife on the Great Plains, for instance, lived a different life from a prostitute in the Rocky Mountain mining camp.  More to the point, both of them lived different lives from the men around them.  As several studies of migrant families have shown, wives often went west with much less enthusiasm than did their husbands, and even their perception of the land itself suggested a distinct perspective on their new environment.  No doubt prostitutes and their clients likewise had different outlooks on their respective prospects in frontier society.23

Even more recently, historians have begun to look beyond the experiences of white migrant women to examine the lives of Indian, Hispanic, and Asian women in the West.  Indeed, as Peggy Pascoe has noted, historians of Western women have been among the leaders in rethinking the notion of the frontier as “a frontier of interactions among the various cultural groups who lived ion or passed through the area…a cultural crossroads rather than a geographic freeway to theWest.”24 This expansion of the multicultural perspective in Western women’s history is still in its early stages, but already it has helped make the study of women one of the most innovative and enlightening topics in the history of the frontier.

By now, a century after the publication of Turner’s essay, the point is clear – Turner was an insightful, innovative historian, but his notion of the frontier was seriously flawed.  Some of the standard terms once taken almost for granted – not just “frontier,” but “expansion,” “settlement,” and even “freedom” – now seem loaded, skewed to the particular perspective of Euro- or Anglo-Americans.  The history of the frontier is not a clear-cut account of westward migration by white people.  It is a story of continuing encounter that must be told from many perspectives, from the standpoint of “losers” as well as “winners,” native inhabitants as well as Anglo-American invaders, immigrants as well and emigrants, women as well as men, even land and animals as well as people.  Clearly, no one can now write about “How the West was One.”

Moreover, that notion of the frontier as a process of encounter raises another difficult problem of definition.  When does the process end, or, put differently, when does a frontier stop being a frontier?  For Turner, of course, the end came in 1890, when the Superintendent of the Census assessed the spread of white settlement and declared the American frontier “closed.”  But as Patrick Limerick has recently argued, it is impossible to bring the process to such a neat conclusion.  Many of the issues that formed the history of the frontier up to 1890 – knew towns and territories, land sales and settlement, gold rushes and oil booms, and, above all, the ongoing struggles between Indians and whites, speculators and settlers, ranchers and farmers, bureaucrats and taxpayers – remain unresolved.  Over a century after the official closing of the frontier, people are still struggling over many of those issues, from Maine to California, and even farther west to Alaska and Hawaii.25

And that, ultimately, is the most important point.  As both a phenomenon in American life and a field of study in American history, the frontier has not stayed closed.  Turner’s particular notion of the frontier may now be discredited, but the broader subject he brought to the center of scholarly attention is not.  Questions of cultural contact, territorial conquest, settlement patterns, and social relations are at the heart of historical study.  The frontier – this important, albeit imprecise, zone of initial interaction between cultures – represents an excellent setting in which to examine them.

It is in that sense that the frontier still stands as a central focus of historical research.  The goal is not to replace the “Turner thesis” with a new thesis that offers a single, overarching explanation of “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”  That is no longer possible, and probably not even desirable.  The point, rather, is to analyze the history of the frontier from a number of perspectives, to make the story more complex but also more inclusive – and therefore closer to the reality of human experience.

Does this concern for different perspectives and cultural diversity mean that Frederick Jackson Turner, like Davy Crockett, can no longer be “King of the Wild Frontier?”  Probably so, and it is probably just as well.  To be sure, Turner still has a well-deserved place in the pantheon of the historical profession.  And even if Davy Crockett has been dethroned in Disneyland, he has not been driven from the frontier scene altogether.  There is still room for the Turnerian frontiersman, the restless adventurer always ready to live at the fringes of “civilized” society.  There is even a place for the bluster and braggadocio, the outrageous exaggerations that add such color and humor to the legend.  Both are important parts of the pioneer persona.

But this persona is only one of many that contribute to the historical whole.  To understand the fuller context of the frontier, we must also look into the experience of others who lived there.  When Davy Crockett went off deeper into the wilderness, for instance, what were his wife and children doing back at home?  Compared to the celebrated independence of the individual frontiersman, what can we say about the interdependence of families, particularly female-headed families, in frontier settlements?  Or when Crockett went to fight against the Creek Indians in Florida and the Mexicans in Texas, what did these indigenous inhabitants think about the Anglo intruders in their respective territories?  Could they not say to Crockett, as he said to Red Stick, “You made war on us?”  And in that sense, were the Creeks and Mexicans not also “fightin’ for liberty?”

These and a host of other questions confront us as we continue to explore the American frontiers.  Just as there was no single frontier, neither was there a single frontier experience.  If Davy Crockett is to get his due, then so should everyone else.  One can only hope that the historians who give them their due can do so with the skill, insight, and simple eloquence of Frederick Jackson Turner.

Notes


1 For the background of the Davy Crockett series, see Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney, from Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom (New York: Harry W. Abrams, 1973), 362, from which the quotation is taken; Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, and Art of Walt Disney (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 300; and Bob Thomas, Walt Disney, An American Original (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976), 256-258.  All three works tend to be more celebratory than critical.

2 “The Wild Frontier,” Time, May 23, 1955, 90-91; see also Thomas, Walt Disney, An American Original, 257-258.

3 The following reflections on the “Davy Crockett” series have been enhanced by a recent re-viewing of “Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier” (Walt Disney Home Video).

4 Finch, The Art of Walt Disney, 362.

5 The standard work on the myth of the West is Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1950); see also the more recent works of Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973) and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization 18900-1890 (New York: Atheneum, 1985).

6 The story of Turner’s essay has been told many times.  See, for instance, Ray Allen Billington, America’s Frontier Heritage (New York: Holt Rinehart, and Winston, 1966), 1-22; Richard Hofstadter, The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 47-83; and James D. Bennett, Frederick Jackson Turner (Boston: Twayne Publishing Co., 1975), 35-55.

7 Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1920), 1, 32.

8 Hofstadter, Progressive Historians, 64-67; Bennett, Frederick Jackson Turner, 21-28.

9 Hofstadter, Progressive Historians, 67-68.

10 Turner, “Significance of the Frontier,” 4.

11 For both the background of the term “frontier” and a critique of Turner’s use of it, see John T. Juicek, “American Usage of the Word ‘Frontier’ from Colonial Times to Frederick Jackson Turner,” American Philosophical Society, Proceedings, CX (February, 1966), 10-34.

12 Turner, “Significance of the Frontier,” 3, 12.

13 Ibid., 38, 24.

14 Ibid., 3, 32.

15 Quoted in Nash, Creating the American West, 44.

16 For overviews of the scholarly reaction to Turner’s ideas, see Bennett, Frederick Jackson Turner, 81-100, and Nash, Creating the West, 3-99.

17 Nash, Creating the West, 34-38.

18 Susan Armitage, in Donald Worster et al., “The Legacy of Conquest, by Patricia Nelson Limerick: A Panel of Appraisal,” Western Historical Quarterly XX (November, 1989), 307.

19 Ibid., 320.  Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1987) is generally considered the best synthesis of Western history using the approach of the New Western Historians.  For a more general introduction to their work, see Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds., Trails Toward a New Western History, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991); William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds., Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992); and John Mack Faragher, “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West,” American Historical Review 98 (February, 1993), 106-117.

20 See, for instance, Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar, “Comparative Frontier History,” in Thompson and Lamar, eds., The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 6-10, and Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

21 For recent works on other European frontier regions, see Donna Merwick, Possessing Albany, 1630-1710: The Dutch and English Experiences (Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Daniel Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1992); and David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

22 Nancy Wilson Ross, Westward the Women (New York: Random House, 1944 [reprint, San Francisco: North Point Press, 1985]).

23 Among the leading books on the experience of white women in the west are Julie Roy Jeffrey, Frontier Women: The Trans-Mississippi West,1840-1880 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1979); John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979); Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (New York: Schocken Books, 1982); and Annette Kolodny, The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North /Carolina Press, 1984).

24 Peggy Pascoe, “Western Women at the Cultural Crossroads,” in Limerick, et al., eds., Trails Toward a New Western History, 46.  Two recent works dealing with the experience of Hispanic women are Ramon Gutierrez, When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away: Power and Sexuality in New Mexico, 1580-1846 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), and Sarah Deutsch, No Separate Refuge: Culture, Class, and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American Southwest, 1880-1940 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

25 Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, 23-24.