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In 1890 the U.S. Census Bureau proclaimed the American frontier closed. Frederick Jackson Turner, a University of Wisconsin historian, saw great significance in this event, and in 1893 propounded his now-famous "frontier thesis" in a speech entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which he presented before the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago:

Up to our own day American history has been in a 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.

For Turner, the existence of the frontier was crucial to understanding American identity. In Turner's view, the frontier Americanized Americans. The American individual had been transformed, he argued, as part of a contiuous process lasting 300 years. Cheap or free land provided a "safety valve" which protected the nation against uprisings of the poverty-striken and malcontent. The frontier forged a unique type of person, producing a man

of coarseness and strength...acuteness and inquisitiveness, (of) that practical and inventive turn of mind...(full of) restless and nervous energy... that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom....

According to Turner, this was something entirely new, something wholely different from European experience. The hinterland would not allow for Old World habits of deference to authority and its premium on social organization, and while social conditions fossilized back East, the West produced the world's first authentically free man. Turner was idealistic about the West. In his "Contributions of the West to American Democracy," he wrote,

The paths of the pioneers have widened into broad highways. The forest clearing has expanded into affluent commonwealths. Let us see to it that the ideals of the pioneer in his log cabin shall enlarge into the spiritual life of a democracy where civic power shall dominate and utilize individual achievement for the common good.

The Turner thesis contrasted sharply with a historical orthodoxy that predominated in universities of the Eastern Seaboard. This consensus viewed America's European past as its defining characteristic: America was Europe transplanted. Turner's rebuttal "clothed the frontier experience in a new dignity." The closing of the frontier marked the end of the first chapter of American history, Turner claimed. Democracy, nationalism and individualism had been birthed.

Other historians have faulted the thesis, which attempted to structure a historical domain which has often lacked conceptual or chronological scheme. Successive rounds of criticism in the 1960s left Western history without a center, and Western history risked marginalization after abandoning Turner's ideas. For example revisionist historian Patricia Limerick, while acknowledging the thesis' tremendous influence, criticized the absence of women and minorities in Turner's story pointing out that Turner was ethnocentric and nationalistic. Yale historian Howard Lamar believed the frontier thesis emphasized a discontinuity between a rural past and an urban-industrial future that may not have reflected reality and and thus, it was unsuitable as a guide to the present or future.

Some scholars also discounted the safety-value proposition. It may have applied to antebellum America, when many did "go West," but failed to hold after the Civil War as the prospect of out-migration was put beyond the reach of urban slum-dwellers and others because of a lack of funds for farming equipment and transportation. In fact, most later settlers arrived from the fringes of existing settlements, states like Kansas and Missouri.

Moreover, the United States government gave away more homestead land in the forty years following the Turner thesis than in the years leading up to it, according to historian Alan Brinkley. Public land was still abundant. Nevertheless, the idea of the passing of the frontier remains a powerful statement of one historian's perspective, and continues to have lasting appeal.

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