How America’s Frontier myth got its start and quickly lost the faith of its own author

In Smithsonian Magazine, Nationhood Lab Director Colin Woodard shares the backstory of one of the United States’s misguided national origin stories.

Credit: Smithsonian Magazine

In the current issue of Smithsonian, Nationhood Lab Director Colin Woodard writes on one of the cul de sac’s of American nationhood building, Frederick Jackson Turner’s massively influential and deeply flawed Frontier Thesis, which dominated the teaching and public understanding of American history for half a century after it was first presented at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Here’s what Woodard had to say about the article in a recent blog post introducing it:

“Until a few years ago I didn’t know much about Frederick Jackson Turner beyond his having authored the ‘Frontier Thesis,’ which convinced at least four generations of Americans that their country’s unique identity had been forged on the frontier, when Euro-American settlers confronted the Darwinian environmental forces of the alleged Eden in the Trans-Appalachian west. This thesis was disseminated in Hollywood westerns, mid-century ‘Cowboy and Indian’ television series, and countless novels, essays, and political speeches.

What I didn’t know until researching Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood was that Turner very quickly realized his Thesis was wrong. And he spent the last two decades of his life on a magnum opus that argued the American experience was best understood as a struggle between rival sections of the country which themselves resembled European nation states. The book — which remained uncompleted at Turner’s death — would draw on county-level maps of election returns and a variety of other phenomena to illustrate the differences between these sections, including in ‘the West.’ In a certain sense it seems he was trying to write something similar to American Nations.”

The piece is in the January/February 2023 issue of the magazine. Woodard’s last contribution to Smithsonian was this online piece on the struggle over the U.S. national narrative.