Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1995


Published in Great Plains Research 5:1 (February 1995). Copyright © 1995 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


The addition of another study assessing the legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner will surely elicit a few groans among western scholars. This is too bad, for Wilbur Jacobs' On Turner's Trail is a detailed, insightful, and richly rewarding trek that should be undertaken by all western historians.

Jacobs' book mixes the best of biography, historiography, and institutional history, while adding a good deal of personal reminiscence as well. As a biography, Jacobs paints a portrait of an ambitious and complex historian, a man struggling to synthesize a huge quantity of data, who retains a genuinely open mind regarding material and methodology, but who increasingly defends his narrow frontier-sectional thesis in order to make sense of his data and to preserve his place in history. As historiography, Jacobs traces the roots of the frontier-sectional thesis in Turner's childhood and education, follows its development and permutations during Turner's life, reviews the life of the thesis in Turner's students and disciples, especially through Frederick Merk and Ray Allen Billington, and brings the story down to the present day writings of Richard White and William Cronon. One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is Jacobs' recreation of the institutional activities of these historians-course lectures which pass word-for-word from Turner to Merk to Billington, book reviews written to silence opposition to the frontier theory, and political battles waged over Turner's legacy. Also interesting is the publication of responses to a survey regarding Turner from his former students. Readings these not only enhances Turner's legacy, but also promotes self-reflection regarding the historian's double role of researcher and teacher.