May 26, 2024


One weird trick for understanding U.S. history

All the way back in 1893, at a conference in Chicago, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner introduced what’s become one of the single most influential theories of U.S. history.

Reading from a paper he’d only just finished that morning — as rumor has it — Turner argued that American history had always taken shape around an expanding “western wilderness.” Our fledgling east-coast democracy never governed this frontier, he said. Instead, the frontier governed us, molding key institutions and our overall culture in its image. Think of a man-bites-dog joke, only with Stetsons and stallions. Turner called this his “Frontier Thesis.” Nowadays, it’s also called “frontierism” and “frontier theory.”

There’s no single explanation of history, of course. Turner himself disavowed monocausal thinking, while critics have decried his Eurocentric bias. Still, Turner’s thesis remains a compelling narrative of our nation’s past and a useful framework for understanding the present day. Once you begin to conceive of U.S. history in terms of an ever-shifting frontier — be it physical, sociological, or technological — then you’ve got a framework for understanding some very complex realities.

So, get along little doggies. We’re gonna hit the dusty trail, applying Turner’s thesis to all 250 years of American history, below.


By the digits 

60%: Number of U.S college history departments teaching frontier theory by the time of Frederick Jackson Turner’s death in 1932

160: Acres of land awarded to individual homesteaders under the Homestead Act of 1862

300,000: Approximate number of people who journeyed to California to take part in the Gold Rush of 1849

$15 million: Amount the U.S. spent on the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country

270 million: Total acres of land distributed to homesteaders as a whole under the Homestead Act


Origin story

It’s a little wild and a little strange

The U.S. has always had a problem with boundaries. From the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century to the 19th-century concept of Manifest Destiny, the push westward represented an opportunity for exploration and fortune-seeking. But this colonization came at a grave cost to indigenous peoples, erasing native territories and cultures. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, for instance, forcibly relocated thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to make way for white settlement.

As the physical frontier of the American West began to close in the late 19th century with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, new frontiers emerged. The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of industrialization and urbanization, with cities — ironically or not —representing both civilization and frontiers because they offered new opportunities and possibilities for individuals and society.

Later, the exploration of space became a new frontier of American endeavor, culminating in the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969. The advent of the internet in the 1990s introduced yet another frontier, revolutionizing communication and commerce. This digital frontier continues to emerge with the rise of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and altered reality, where deep fakes and disinformation allow for what the Stanford-based researcher Renée DiResta calls an “Information World War.”

Today, Americans stand at the threshold of fresh frontiers, navigating the complexities of climate change and the potential of biotechnology. Like ye olde pioneers, or Captain Kirk more recently, we must confront these uncharted spaces with courage, curiosity, and a pinch of skepticism about what exactly constitutes progress.


Quotable

“The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”  Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History


Pop quiz

What frontier emerged after the closing of the Western frontier in the late 19th century?

A. The Space Frontier

B. The Internet Frontier

C. The Frontier of Artificial Intelligence

D. All of the above

Journey onward through the rest of this email to find the answer.


Brief history

 15,000 years ago: Some of the earliest inhabitants of North America form communities, cultivate plants, and hunt animals.

1607: Some 100 men arrive at Jamestown, Virginia, founding the first permanent European settlement in America.

1830: The Indian Removal Act authorizes the forced relocation of Native American tribes from their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. to territories west of the Mississippi River, leading to the Trail of Tears.

1890: The U.S. Census Bureau officially declares the frontier closed.

1893: Frederick Jackson Turner delivers a paper on his “Frontier Thesis” at a history conference.

2020: Greg Grandin wins a Pulitzer for his book, The End of the Myth, which uses frontier theory to explain the struggle for civil rights and present-day political turmoil.


Fun fact!

The “golden spike,” symbolizing the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, was driven by Leland Stanford, the president of the Central Pacific Railroad, on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. This event marked the culmination of a monumental engineering feat that connected the eastern and western halves of the U.S. by rail for the first time.


Watch this!

Turner’s thesis as a… pickup line?

This funny TikTok suggests a knowledge of frontier theory could help your dating life.


Take me down this 🐰 hole!

In this article, writers Nathan Sanders and Bruce Schneier explore how frontier theory offers a lens through which we can envision the vast potential of AI as a new frontier of human exploration — and, at the same time, how this framing also prompts us to confront its ethical implications, exploitative tendencies, downsides, and drawbacks.


Poll 

Which frontier theory would you like to study?

  • AI love: Exploring digital dating with our bot-based soulmates.
  • Mars or bust: Riding shotgun in Elon Musk’s Tesla to the red planet.
  • Eternal youth: Entering the realm of ageless beauty via juice and surgery.
  • TikTok stardom: Conquering the entertainment frontier one viral dance move at a time.

Give us your thoughts!


💬 Let’s talk!

In last week’s obsession poll on pollen, 37% of you said you have Benadryl on speed dial this allergy season; 35% of you don’t have allergies; and 28% of you only get an itch or two.

🐤 X/Tweet this!

🤔 What did you think of today’s email?

💡 What should we obsess over next?


Today’s email was written by Catherine Baab-Muguira (died of dysentery on the Oregon Trail) and edited and produced by Morgan Haefner (is looking for the next frontier in kickball skills).

The correct answer to the pop quiz is D., All of the above.





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