Exploring the Western Frontier with the Records of Congress
Students will use facsimiles of historical records from the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate to investigate whether the frontier shaped America or if America—through Congress—shaped the Western frontier of the contiguous 48 states from 1789 – 1890.
Using their analysis of congressional records as primary sources, students will assess historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic thesis about the influence of the frontier in American history and consider the role of Congress in shaping the West.
In what ways did the frontier shape America, and in what ways did America—through Congress—shape the frontier?
Recommended Grade Levels:
Grades 9 – 12
American History; U.S. Government; Civics
Topics included in this lesson:
Congress, the frontier, the Turner Thesis
1. The continuing influence of the frontier on America
Organize the class into six groups of students. Using Worksheet 1, direct students to brainstorm a categorized list to assess the nature and extent of the frontier’s influence on modern American life. When all groups have completed the worksheet, invite each group to contribute to a full class brainstorm about the influence of the frontier. Select a scribe to record contributions on the board for the whole class.
2. Did the frontier shape America or did America shape the frontier?
Student groups will consider one of the most famous statements about the influence of the frontier on American life by analyzing the following excerpt from historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”
“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 new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West."
Distribute Worksheet 2, and instruct each group to use it as they assess the meaning of the passage from Turner’s essay. Hold a class discussion in which each group shares its analysis of the Turner thesis.
3. Analyzing Congressional Documents Related to the Western Frontier
Students will analyze six congressional documents to determine the extent to which they confirm or challenge the Turner thesis. Distribute to each group Worksheet 3 and one document from the list below. Direct the students to collaborate as they answer the questions on the worksheet. Instruct each group to appoint a spokesperson to report to the class. These documents are available online from the National Archives National Archives Catalog.
- Petition and map from John Muir and other founders of Sierra Club protesting a bill to reduce the size of Yosemite National Park, 01/02/1893, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, NAID 306674
- A Petition for a Pacific Railroad from Residents of Tennessee, 4/2/1856, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, NAID 6884109
- H.R. 125, An Act to Secure Homesteads to Actual Settlers on the Public Domain (first page), 3/25/1862, Records of the U.S. Senate, NAID 6883912
- S. 298, A Bill Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories which may Provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (the Morrill Act), 5/16/1862, Records of the U.S. Senate, NAID 6883889
- Petition from Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins for Land Rights for Piute Indians and for the Reunion of that Portion of the Tribe Forcibly Separated during the Bannock War, 1/4/1884, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, NAID 6883899
- Proclamation to the People of New Orleans, 12/20/1803, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, NAID 593571
Reflecting on their work in the previous activities, students will consider the significance of the frontier, its influence on America, and the extent to which the frontier was shaped by Congress. Ask students to consider the following questions:
- Is there a frontier in America today? If so, is it a place or a concept? How does it influence America?
- If the frontier is not a place, what is it? How does it influence America, and how do you know it does?
- If there is not a frontier today, how does its absence affect America?
- To what extent and in what ways has America required a frontier in the past, and does it need one today to remain true to a fundamentally American ideal?
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