Patrick O’Neil response to Turner

In his “Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Frederick Jackson Turner divides American into two distinct spheres. Turner sees the Atlantic coast (the “European Frontier”), as sharply different from the “really American part of our history,” the Western frontier, the isolation of which increased its “peculiarly American tendencies.” Although he may not admit it outright, Turner also implies that expansion into Indian territory made settlers more like Indians, “planting Indian corn and plowing with a sharp stick.” Turner’s theory is one of “transforming” the wilderness into something distinctly American, but he does not give enough credit to the influence of Indian culture on settlers. In moving away from the “European frontier,” the Americans adopted the ways of the Indian not as a phase in the development of a new American culture, but as a way of life in order to survive in the wilderness. They had no existing infrastructure or network of cities to fall back on during expeditions, so out of necessity they provided solely for themselves, lived off the land, and simply attempted to survive, a lifestyle much more closely related to the Indians than their fellow Americans east of the Appalachians.

This is not to say that most settlers treated the Indians as equals: the settlers used Indian land as hunting grounds, train routes, and farmland. Turner argues that Americans “[poured] an ever-richer tide” through the “arteries made by geology,” perhaps implying that Indian culture wasn’t rich enough to adequately fill this vast wilderness between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. This theory made it easier to justify taking Indians lands for western use, and I would also argue that this was a necessary step, if one assumes that Manifest Destiny was a foregone conclusion. The American land system was based on private property rights, a concept that did not exist within Indian civilization. Thus, the two systems were incompatible, and one needed to win out over the other. Americans were not going to respect property rights that didn’t exist, so making the lands their own private property was the only solution.

Turner’s description of how the frontier changed America’s nationalism is puzzling. He claims that “the West and the East began to get out of touch with each other.” However, in the postbellum period, a movement extolling the virtues of American citizenship united the country in a way that this collection of states linked by a federal system had never been united before. This led to the imperialist mindset that Europe had long ago adopted, partially fueled by the “White Man’s Burden,” giving America the moral authority not only to achieve Manifest Destiny, but to acquire land outside of America, such as Hawaii and the Philippines. It would seem to be a paradox that the states were becoming “out of touch” with each other at the same time that America was beginning a nationalist, and some would argue imperialist, expansion policy.

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