Frederick Jackson Turner was born on the rapidly diminishing Wisconsin frontier on November 14, 1861. He grew up in Portage, Wisconsin, and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, then a small institution of 500 students, in 1878. Turner studied the Ancient Classical Course but became interested in western history while researching the land holdings of early French settlers in Wisconsin as part of an assignment. After graduating in 1884, Turner joined the faculty and taught rhetoric and oratory. He decided to pursue graduate work in history and received his doctorate in 1890 after a year of residence at Johns Hopkins University. His thesis pertained to the early French fur trade in Wisconsin. Turner returned to Wisconsin and was named the head of the history program at his alma mater.
Turner came to prominence in 1893 after presenting a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” laid out what would become known as the frontier thesis and would dominate American history for decades. Turner examined the long term significance of frontier life on the nation’s development and emphasized the peculiar frontier factors that influenced American democracy and character. Theodore Roosevelt described the paper as containing “some first class ideas” and it set Turner on the path to success. He continued to teach at the University of Wisconsin until 1909 while expanding the frontier thesis and emphasizing western history to his many, and eventually very influential, graduate students. Turner went on to teach at Harvard University, become president of the American Historical Association, and spent the last years of his life as a research associate at the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Museum in San Marino, California.
Although chiefly remembered for his frontier thesis, sectionalism was Turner’s main focus after 1901. Sectionalism was the topic of the only book he published during his lifetime, The Rise of the New West, 1819-1829. Turner was professionally active, but his perfectionism and tendency to procrastinate prevented him from completing the “big book” that was expected of an eminent historian. For example, Turner had signed nine book contracts at one point in 1901 and never completed any of the books. After his death in 1932, Turner’s secretary and two colleagues completed the book Turner had been working on for twenty-five years; The United States, 1830-1850: The Nation and Its Sections was published in 1935. Turner’s essays on sectionalism were collected by his friends and published in 1932 as The Significance of Sections on American History. The collection won the Pulitzer Prize in history for 1932.
Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to Frederick Jackson Turner, February 10, 1894. Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University. Electronic copy sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University. For reproduction or publication permission, contact the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Houghton Library.
Bogue, Allan G. “Turner, Frederick Jackson.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 22. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.
Miller, John E. Small-town Dreams: Stories of Midwestern Boys Who Shaped America. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2014. Print.