Public Lands and the Frontier Thesis

At first glance, the seven maps showing relative areas of public and private lands in the United States from 1790 to 1910 seem like they could be among the worst published in the Atlas.  These maps drew longitudinal lines through each state or territory with the yellow area west of the line representing the amount of land in the public domain at that moment and the blue area east that which was in private hands “or otherwise disposed of.”

Looking at these maps, one can easily imagine Edward Tufte ridiculing them.  On the one hand, as representations of space they show nothing about where public and private lands clustered within each individual state or territory.   On the other, as a presentation of quantitative information they obscure the underlying data, often making it extremely difficult to visually gauge the relative proportions of public and private lands in many states.  Arguably it’s not too tough to come up with a reasonably decent guess for square-shaped states like Colorado or Wyoming.  But Idaho or California or Florida?  Good luck.

Public Lands of the United States, 1890

The very different map of public lands in 1929 that completes this series suggests that geographer John K. Wright, the editor of the Atlas, himself found these earlier maps less than impressive.  The maps of public lands to 1910 were designed and produced by Charles O. Paullin and his colleagues at the Department of Historical Research at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.  In 1927 the Carnegie Institution shuttered that department and eventually enlisted the American Geographical Society and its librarian, Wright, to complete the Atlas.  To complete this series on public lands, Wright dispensed with Paullin’s cartograms and instead chose to represent public lands in 1929 using a choropleth map.  (Wright, incidentally, later coined the term “choropleth” to describe maps that use patterns or shading to map proportions.)
Distribution of Public Lands of United States, 1929
Contrasting Wright’s completely different map with those of Paullin, you can almost sense the geographer’s disdain for the historian’s maps.   As a snapshot of public lands at a given moment, Wright’s map unquestionably presents more spatial and statistical information more accurately than any of Paullin’s maps.  (Though given the inaccuracy and imprecision of the data that Paullin and his colleagues had available for their maps of the nineteenth century, they no doubt couldn’t have produced maps like Wright’s if they’d wanted to.)

But whatever Paullin’s maps lack as representations of space or presentations of quantitative information, taken together they do a spectacular job of telling a story.  Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say of evoking or illustrating an extraordinarily influential account of American history that is still familiar today: Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis.  First offered in 1893 in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner’s frontier thesis proposed that the settlement of the West by Europeans and then white Americans was a, perhaps the, central driver of American history, invigorating democratic institutions, catalyzing economic development, and imparting individualism as a core element of American “character.”   In Turner’s account, American history was less a linear and more of a cyclical story where first Europeans and later white Americans pushed against and eventually overcame geographic obstacles that stood in the way of westward settlement—the fall line in the seventeenth century, the Appalachians in the eighteenth, the Rockies in the nineteenth.  For him, what had produced America as both a people and a nation-state was the process of overcoming those obstacles and transforming the “savagery” of the frontier into “civilization.”  Over and over again throughout American history white settlers pushed west, first trading with but soon displacing Native Americans, planting family farms that later evolved into market-oriented agricultural operations, and establishing towns that would eventually evolve into manufacturing cities.  American history was shaped by this “recurrence of the process of evolution in each western area.”  When he spoke, Turner proposed that this reoccurring cycle had recently reached its end.  Referring to a reading of the 1890 census that claimed that settlement of the West has progressed to the point where there was no longer an identifiable frontier, Turner concluded that “the first period of American history,” nearly three centuries of recurring frontier settlement, had just closed.

Taken individually, none of Paullin’s maps of public lands are impressive.  But considered together as series, particularly when animated, they very effectively evoke Turner’s account of American history.  More than that, it seems almost certain that Turner’s argument was the inspiration for this series.  Turner argued that the disposition of public lands was one of the key points of contention that shaped national politics during the nineteenth century.   Whigs who hoped to sell the land to fund internal improvement projects fought against western and southern Democrats who wanted it to be given away to settlers.  The latter triumphed, not only speeding the process of frontier settlement but ensuring that that it had democratic, egalitarian implications—free lands meant that western settlement could be a means of upward mobility for countless small yeoman farmers.  (That is, democratic, egalitarian implications for white settlers. The implications were anything but democratic and egalitarian for tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans transported to the lower South and Native Americans displaced by western settlement.) However much Paullin’s cartograms obscured the underlying data, that method of visually representing the transfer of lands from the public domain into private hands as an east to west process was an ideal way to spatially illustrate the frontier thesis.

In the animated map above you can see key elements of Turner’s frontier thesis: the inexorable retreat of the frontier ever westward (public lands being taken as a proxy for the frontier), the recurring nature of the frontier process that Turner proposed (Ohio in 1810 looks much like Missouri in 1850 and South Dakota or Washington in 1890), and the supposed closing of the frontier in 1890 (unlike the preceding maps, no state or territory on the 1890 map is entirely yellow, devoid of settlement).

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