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Frederick Jackson Turner: The Revolutionary Frontier

In "Lives of Red Stone River," WID's director writes about influential Wisconsinites. The first essay in the series focuses on historian Frederick Jackson Turner and lessons learned from physical and metaphorical frontiers.

Frederick Jackson Turner illustration from Wisconsin Historical Society

Lives of Red Stone River is a profile series by WID Director David Krakauer examining the people, places and ideas that exemplify creative life in the state of Wisconsin. The series searches for the “imaginative center of gravity in a local constellation of creative lives and places,” Krakauer says.

“In 1935, native Ojibwe speakers recognized the three syllables [in Wisconsin] as phonetic equivalents of ‘Misko’ (red), ‘Ahsin’ (stone) and ‘Sin,’ an ending that signifies a location or place. By this reasoning, Mesconsing / Ouisconsin / Wisconsin meant, ‘Red Stone River.’ Glossaries of Algonquian languages, including Ojibwe and Sauk, confirm that these syllables had the same meanings 300 years ago as they do today.” — Wisconsin Historical Society


Frederick Jackson Turner put the Frontier on the map of North America: working at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the late 19th century, Turner introduced the idea of a physical, metaphysical and socioeconomic frontier as a defining feature of North American culture.

What is now called Turner’s thesis, or the “Frontier Thesis,” is the claim that the Westward movement across the American continent, confronting a partly imaginary geographical boundary dividing the known and “unknown” world, has been the great promoter of democracy — “democracy born of free land, strong in selfishness and individualism, intolerant of administrative experience…” (Turner 1921). A movement that Turner observes has “dangers as well as benefits.” For Turner, “The problem of the West is nothing less than the problem of American development.” And the same has been said of the development and expansion of European powers, pushing West into the New World across their Empires of the Atlantic.

Turner was born in Portage, Wisconsin, in 1861 and graduated from UW–Madison in 1884. Turner wrote his Ph.D. thesis at Johns Hopkins on the topic of the Wisconsin fur trade, and returned to UW as a professor of history in 1890. It was during his tenure at UW that Turner wrote his influential book, The Frontier in American History published in 1921, promoting the thesis that dominated historical thinking about North America for decades to follow.

“Every researcher shares with the explorer a motivating desire to discover and then to cross frontiers.”

— David Krakauer

In this book, Turner went on to argue that the university should play a key role in the development of the nation, “Its mission is to create tendencies and to direct them… Its efficiency is not the efficiency which the business engineer is fitted to appraise. If it is a training ship, it is a training ship bound on a voyage of discovery, seeking new horizons.”

True to his individualistic and exploratory thesis, Turner was a man who execrated meetings and bureaucracy. It is fair to declare that he deplored them with a passion. In 1910, despairing of the university’s reduced emphasis on research, he left UW for Harvard where he remained until 1922.

Every researcher shares with the explorer a motivating desire to discover and then to cross frontiers. The great philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn described science in two phases, ordinary science and revolutionary science (Kuhn 1962). During periods of ordinary science, we accumulate new data and ideas that support our existing theories — we solve puzzles. During revolutions, we cross the frontiers of our understanding, we foment revolutions in thought and thereby come to discover radical new frameworks, or paradigms, to explain our experience.

This scientific ideal was never so eloquently stated than by the Historian Turner when he spoke of the Frontier of the nation, “First of all, there was the ideal of discovery, the courageous determination to break new paths, indifference to the dogma that because an institution of a condition exists, it must remain. All American experience has gone to making of the spirit of innovation; it is in the blood and will not be repressed.”

This is what is meant by innovation. We learn it from our former colleague, one of the most eloquent expositors of Discovery, and in this capacity, a spokesperson for the transdisciplinary mind and the future ambitions of the university.

— David Krakauer 



Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Holt, 1921.

Kuhn, T.S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.


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