Compares the views of Turner and Limerick about the American frontier



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American Frontier

‘The American frontier’ is a historical concept that gives a detailed explanation of the movement of European settlers in America and the formation of the American culture during the colonial and post-colonial period, through wanderlust, grit, war and diplomacy (Turner 45). Fredrick Jackson Turner’s Frontier thesis submitted in 1893 to the American Historical Association offers one of the most influential versions of the frontier. More recently, in the 1980s, scholars developed new, different versions of the frontier. In the volume Trails: Toward a New Western History, Patricia Limerick describes the characteristics of the American Frontier. Although Limerick agrees with Turner’s view about the source of western expansion, she rejects most of the views advanced by Turner and comes up with new features of the frontier. The paper compares the views of Turner and Limerick about the American frontier.


According to Turner, the American frontier started during the colonial period, with the massive movement of white settlers from Europe to America. Turner came up with several definitions of the term ‘frontier.’ To him, the term did not have a clear-cut definition. On one hand, he defined the frontier as “the zones on the peripheries of regions having a population density (of settlers) of two or more people per squire mile” (Rose and Davis 24). In this definition, Turner referred to the strips of land that were largely uninhabited by the indigenous Indians. In 1962, during the period of civil war, American government passed the U.S. Congress of the Homestead Act, which allowed the European settlers to own free land. The settlers were required to settle on the land offered and mark it up, regardless of ownership claims by the indigenous population. However, Turner did not perceive frontier as a specific place. Rather, he considered it as moving zone. In his thesis, Turner argued that the European settlers landed initially on the East side of America. With time, they moved towards the west. Precisely, Turner argued that the frontier was in the Atlantic coast in the early days of settlement. In the 1980s, the settlers had pushed the frontier beyond Mississippi. It had already moved to the region with Great Lakes. By the 1980s, the frontier had moved further to the west, into the Great Plains.

Secondly, turner perceived the frontier as a process of encounter. He perceived it as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” (Rose and Davis 25). In other words, Turner perceived the frontier as the meeting point between the settler and the indigenous Indian. As the settlers moved westward, they interacted with more indigenous Indians, who had a unique culture. The Europeans moved to America mainly to expand their business ventures. Most of the white settlers were groups of wealthy merchants who sought raw materials for their industries. Although their main aim was to expand their business ventures, they brought civilization to America. According to Turner, the frontier was characterized by intensive social reformation and devolution. As they interacted with more Indians, the white settlers were stripped off their European identities. They were reborn into new social forms, traditions and values. The settlers reduced their intellectual and economic dependence on Europe. For instance, the settlers reduced their reliance on machines for cultivation and started using a sharp stick. In addition, the settlers from Britain stopped focusing on the textile industry and started plowing the Indian cone. As well, the settlers acquired new intellectual traits, such as inquisitiveness and acuteness, strength and coarseness, high speed in finding expedients and masterful grasp of material things. In the view of Turner, the settlers could not resist the natural force that led to the change. Eventually, the settlers developed new identities, which are uniquely American (Rose and Davis 26). In other words, the frontier marked the line of Americanization.

Unlike the borders in Europe, which marked areas where different groups of people with different social identities lived, the borders of the frontier marked areas where people from different social and cultural backgrounds interacted and transformed to form a single culture. In other words, the white settlers from different European nations such as Britain, Germany and Finland interacted with the indigenous population within the American frontier boundaries and transformed from British-Americans, German-Americans and Finnish-Americans into Americans. The new American culture was less conscious, less authoritarian and more democratic (Rose and Davis 27). By the time when Turner submitted his thesis in 1893, he stated that the frontier had already ended.

Limerick’s version supports Turner’s idea that the American frontier started during the colonial period and that it was steered by the white settlers from Europe. In addition, Limerick supported Turner’s perspective that the frontier started from the Atlantic coast. However, Limerick rejects the use of the word frontier. According to Limerick, the term frontier is too ethnocentric, ‘racist’ and ‘nationalistic’ to be useful. Limerick focuses on the west as a distinct place, unlike Turner, who viewed the frontier as a moving line of encounter (Hyser and Arndt 314). According to Limerick, the west is the region between the Pacific and Mississippi. Unlike Turner who argued that the American Frontier ended in the 1890s, Limerick argues that there is no such discontinuity. According to Limerick, the west has always been a distinctive region. Limerick is interested in understanding the impact that the frontier had on indigenous populations and other immigrants, such as the Indians, blacks, Chinese and Hispanics. As such, Limerick’s approach contrasts the Turner’s approach that only focused on the impact of the frontier on the white settlers and the generic Indians only. Further, Limerick is interested in looking at the environment as a component that changes as people interact, and not as a barrier to the Western expansion. On top of the impact of human interaction, Limerick argues that ecological factors such as climate, as well as the interaction between human beings and the natural environment, influenced the development of the western culture (Hyser and Arndt 314). Unlike Turner, Limerick examines the negative impacts of the Western expansion, such as disappointments and difficulties of the settler’s lives, massacres and displacements of the indigenous populations, the ambiguities and destruction of the environment (Hyser and Arndt 314).


In conclusion, both Turner and Limerick give important explanations of the American frontier, although they take different approaches. Turner’s perspective helps to understand how the frontier paved way to the formation of a composite nationality in America. In addition, his perspectives explain the source of the complex society, individualism and democracy in America. On the other hand, Limerick’s perspective helps to understand the negative impacts that the western expansion has on human beings and the natural environment. Although the two authors have some differences in their approach, their perspectives influence the contemporary understanding of the development of the America as a nation. For instance, the Little House on the Prairie is a recent story of a pioneer family that was trying to build a new home in America in the 1870s. The story describes the hardships that the family went through, including the lack of building facilities, encountering dangers of the untamed wilderness and being forced out of their land by government decree (Rose and Davis 52).


Hyser, Raymond and J. Arndt . Voices of the American Past: Documents in U.S. History, Volume

2. New York: Cengage Learning, 2007. Print.

Rose, Deborah and Bird Richard Davis. Dislocating the Frontier: Essaying the Mystique of theOutback. The Australian National University: ANU E Press, 2005. Print.

Turner, Frederick J. The Frontier in American History. Erscheinungsort: BoD – Books onDemand, 2006. Print.