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Frederick Jackson Turner is perhaps most well-known for his famous essay, "The Significance of the Frontier on American History." In this essay, Turner defines and supports his thesis that the history of the American West is the history of America. This theory directly correlates to the concept of Manifest Destiny put forth by Monroe in which the push westward and the subsequent development, it was believed, was man's God-given right.
One of the key components to Turner's work is the theory that this development does not take place along a single line, but rather, takes place in a series of "rebirths." Turner says
Thus American development has exhibited not merely advance along a single line, but a return to primitive conditions on a continually advancing frontier line, and a new development for that area. American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its few opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating the American character.
However, this is not to say that each new rebirth obliterated or made null the events that came before it. Rather, each rebirth built on the events that preceded it; these events served as a guide of sorts, in fact, for the events that followed. Again, to quote from Turner: "Each tier of new States has found in the older ones material for its constitutions."
For Turner, the social evolution that is the development of America takes place in six distinct stages. First is the stage pertaining to the Indian and the hunter. In this stage, the European is "stripped of the garments of civilization and arrayed in the hunting shirt and moccasin." The second stage is that of the traders, the "pathfinders of civilization." The third stage belongs to the ranchers and farmers. The fourth stage consists of a period of intensive farming wherein dense farm settlements are developed. The last stage according to Turner is that of manufacturing. At this point, what was at first the purview of Indians and hunters has evolved into a bona fide city.
Turner's essay spends a great deal of time supporting his thesis by pointing to models in the development of America whereby his thesis is proved. For the most part, this pattern of development is true in the "Middle Region" of the country, to use Turner' phrase. Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, Ohio -- the development of these areas does follow rather closely Turner's stages.
What is interesting, however, is that Turner calls California "the distinctive frontier of the period." It is hard to tell in reading the essay if Turner meant "distinctive" as exemplary or as unique, but in tracing the development of California, and of Southern California in particular, it is evident that, while Turner's steps do occur, they do not occur precisely in the order he outlines in his essay. The development of California does not mirror the development of the United States as a whole so much as it complements it. It is one page in the story of the development of this country; it cannot, as Turner would have it, be used to tell the entire story.
In the essay, Turner seems to understand that the frontier was not the same everywhere, yet he still seems to be trying to impose the model of the "Middle Region" -- especially of the history of the development of Wisconsin -- on to the development of America and its frontier as whole. This is simply not possible to do, and as this paper will show, the development of California does not tend to support Turner's thesis. Turner is not wrong, exactly; he is simply limited in his scope.
In his essay, Turner says, "It would not be possible in the limits of this paper to trace the other frontiers across the continent." Nor is it possible in this paper to trace the entire development of California, Southern California in particular. What this paper will do, however, is briefly outline the development of California as a whole and discuss events in the development of Southern California and show how these two things diverge from Turner's model to the point that it simply no longer applies.
The development of California, while certainly reflecting some of the stages that Turner describes, does not follow his model according to those exact steps and in that exact order. Furthermore, the stages very often overlap. While one area of California was experiencing a boom in agriculture, another was experiencing a boom in manufacturing.
According to author Don E. Fehrenbacher, "The permanent occupation of California did not begin until the eve of the American Revolution" (p. 10). The first stage in California's development was not that of the Indian and the hunter so much as it was that of the Spanish explorers. The first to the region was Cortes, and he was followed by such explorers as Coronado and Sir Francis Drake.
This is the first point at which California's development diverges from Turner's model. According to Turner, the American expansion is only in one direction: a movement from east to west. California, however, like many other states, including those on the Pacific coast, were explored and inhabited in a movement from west to east. For example, Sir Francis Drake landed on the coast of California and made his way into the interior rather than the other way around.
Granted, the expansion and development of California, especially as it pertained to the movements from west to east or from south to north (as in the case of Mexican expansion), was not exclusively American development per se. There was exploration and conquest on the part of the British, the Spanish, the Mexicans, and the French. However, this supports the contention that Turner's thesis was not an accurate model for California. Turner's primary focus was on the expansion of Western European peoples (in particular, those peoples of Germanic stock) from east to west. California was a state whose development was strongly influenced by Spanish, Mexican, French, and even Chinese cultures.
While Spain had had designs on California for quite some time, "the Spanish occupation of California became a reality in 1769" (Fehrenbacher, p. 13). Thus, the next stage in California's development was that of the mission and the small colonies. In fact, "for some 60 years, the Catholic mission remained the dominant institution in Californian life" (Fehrenbacher, p. 15).
However, there is a significant point in California history that does perfectly match Turner's thesis, and that is the treatment that native peoples suffered at the hands of their conquerors. Whether Spanish, French, or "established" American, native peoples were treated primarily as an obstacle that stood in the way of American expansion and development. In the guise of supposedly helping the native peoples, systems were established that were supposed to benefit them. However, the reality was that native peoples were slaves to these systems.
For example, in California, native peoples were strongly "encouraged" -- sometimes by force -- to "voluntarily" convert to Catholicism. After their conversion, they were expected to renounce their "old" way of life and adopt the missionaries' "new" way of life. This new way of life was whatever the missionaries dictated it to be, and as a result, the missionaries dictated that the new converts would work on behalf of God. This often resulted in the native peoples being treated as little more than slaves. It was their manual labor that built the missions, not the Spanish themselves.
The California experience in this case reflected that of the American continent as a whole. When native peoples were encountered, they were, for the most part, exploited and overrun. This is according to the nature of things as Turner (and the majority of white Americans at this time) would have it. These people are "primitive"; furthermore, they are destined to remain primitive. Americans, in the course of expanding across the frontier and developing the west, do revert to the primitive state, but this is only so that they may understand it and then rise above it. "In this advance," Turner writes, "the frontier is the outer edge of the wave of the meeting point between savagery and civilization." The understanding implicit here is that the Indians were the "savages" and the Americans represented "civilization."
In Turner's evolutionary model, "the effect of the Indian frontier as a consolidating agent in our history is important." It established a "common measure of defense" and brought together the "various intercolonial congresses" to deal with the "common danger" presented by the Indians. Turner says, "the Indian trade pioneered the way for civilization." In another series of steps, he outlines how "the buffalo trail became the Indian trail, and this became the trader's 'traces': the trails widened into roads, and the roads into turnpikes, and these in turn were transformed into railroads."
In the mid-1800s, the drive for American expansion across the West, and…[continue]
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