In 1873, the U.S. Congress passed the Timber Culture Act, granting up to 160 acres to any head of a family willing to plant and keep 40 acres of trees in the Great Plains for a period of 10 years. But when would-be settlers attempted to go into the timber business, they ran into a problem that is obvious to any modern person—without a huge supply of water, you can’t just drop a forest in the middle of a dry prairie.
Were 19th-century farmers idiots? No, but they were confused. The idea that you could plant timber out on the prairies was predicated on the theory that “rainfall follows the plow”—a now-discredited notion that if you break up the prairie sod with a plow, the soil will get better at absorbing rainfall, and will slowly release the water back into the atmosphere, increasing future rainfall. If you plant it, rain will come.
If you were on the Great Plains in the 19th century, it’d be valuable to know that plowing the soil won’t inevitably summon up a good climate. Just so, if you’re on Mars in the 21st century, it’d be valuable to know that a harsh environment and great distance from Earth won’t inevitably summon up a good political climate. Yet, advocates for space settlement persist in pushing theories of the American West founded more in myth than history.
Chief among them is the so-called Turner thesis—a grand theory of the American West that has been out of the academic mainstream for decades. The Turner thesis begins with an 1893 speech by a young historian named Frederick Jackson Turner about the nature of the American frontier, laying out ideas that he continued to develop over the course of a rise to nationwide fame.
Here’s the basic idea: The American frontier was a line of expansion ever-moving westward, where European men could get access to cheap land. By claiming and taming that land, and by organizing to fight its former inhabitants, they gained a number of good social qualities—strength, rugged individualism, and a democratic spirit. Those values filtered back to the effete East Coast while unifying diverse European traditions into glorious Americanism.
And, like any good theory of human nature, it includes a fall from grace. As Turner lamented in his 1893 speech, according to the census of 1890, the frontier line had finally closed, meaning that there were no longer wide connected swaths of unsettled territory. The frontier days were over, putting all those old frontier values at risk—bottling up American dynamism and shutting down the engine of American greatness.
This is appealing stuff for space settlement fans. Frontiers aren’t just a place to go—they’re a place we ought to go to, to become tough and rugged and democratic and unified. This theory, widely accepted among historians for the first half of the 20th century, entered into space settlement discourse in an especially enthusiastic and simplified form.
Whereas Turner, over time, became concerned that the forces that the frontier unleashed had also resulted in a dangerous form of populism, space settlement fans tend to see settling the so-called final frontier as straightforwardly good. Consider rocket expert and writer G. Harry Stine writing in his book Halfway to Anywhere that “We got to where we are as Americans because we are a capitalist frontier people.”
Or Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill in his seminal book The High Frontier, writing of space settlements: “What chance for rare, talented individuals to create their own small worlds of home and family, as was so easy a century ago in our America as it expanded into a new frontier.”
This simplified version of the Turner frontier thesis has been grafted on to the space discourse—where it remains to this day, turning up in, for example, the National Space Society’s statement of philosophy, which notes how “[t]he presence of a frontier led to the development of the ‘open society’ founded on the principles of individual rights and freedoms.”
The problem is that professional historians with no position for or against Martian homesteading have largely moved on from the Turner thesis. As American West historian William Cronon wrote back in 1987, “In the half century since Turner’s death, his reputation has been subjected to a devastating series of attacks that have left little of his argument intact.”
So, if the idea is dead down here, why are we suiting up its corpse for a rocket trip? Over time, a pushback against Turnerism developed. This so-called “new western history” became dominant around the 1980s, and one of its major critiques of Turner was that while taking an aerial view of history, he managed to mostly see only white male settlers twinkling below. He does mention the existence of Indigenous Americans, but almost always as a sort of aspect of the wilderness—as just one more problem to be dealt with in taming the land.
Very few modern space advocates are willing to straight up ignore the ongoing violence perpetrated against Indigenous people—what many do want to do is recover the purported Turnerian dynamism of the period, minus all that bad stuff. Unless we run into Martians, after all, there are no indigenous residents out there in the solar system to be dispossessed.
But Turner himself considered the need to fight other human beings to be integral to the process that created Americans. As he said in 1893, “The Indian was a common danger, demanding united action.” Thus, the frontier was “a military training school, keeping alive the power of resistance to aggression, and developing the stalwart and rugged qualities of the frontiersman.” If you want to keep the Turner thesis for space, you’ll simply have to skip this part, unless you believe that the natural difficulty of Mars can somehow function as a military training school the same way that fighting other humans supposedly did.
Turner leaves out other people, too, many of whom had their labor exploited. He mentions slavery, but otherwise ignores Black Americans who went westward—sometimes as free people, sometimes against their will. He leaves out Chinese immigrants, who helped build much of the region’s infrastructure under notoriously brutal conditions. He leaves out the Hispanic people who had been in the American West for centuries after the Spanish wars of conquest. He largely leaves out women, who in many cases went West with misgivings. In one study of diaries from the Oregon Trail, fully three-quarter of female diarists expressed a desire to stay back home.
Robert Zubrin, a modern space advocate who explicitly endorses Turner’s framework as a theory of space sociology, has said that the 19th-century United States was “an improvisational theater big enough to welcome all comers with no parts assigned.” But even if we believe that some white men enjoyed this fantastic latitude, we shouldn’t conclude anyone else did.
Turner also claims that the good values and democratic institutions developed on the frontier made their way back to U.S. society at large. Modern historians disagree. There were, of course, governmental institutions created by and for Westerners, but the vision of the old East as stuffy and regimented compared to the freewheeling West is not so straightforward. As Patricia Limerick, one of the preeminent new western historians, wrote, “American democracy came from thinkers on the East Coast, not from humble settlements in the interior.”
And in any case, the West was always connected to the rest of the country—by the need for massive financing for development. Not just in the form of highly discounted land, but also the physical presence of the U.S. military, which at times kept 90 percent of its forces west, fighting the genocidal so-called Indian Wars. There was also government financing of the physical infrastructure crisscrossing the country well before the frontier line closed. Although there were some regions where white settlers lived relatively cut off from federal governance, the West was not neatly independent of the East, nor was it clearly the lone wellspring of U.S. democracy.
In our experience, some space settlement geeks see raising the above issues as politically correct preciousness—worrying about mean stuff in the past instead of focusing on a future that could benefit everyone. But the Turner thesis isn’t just politically incorrect. It’s also regular old incorrect. Especially in the simplistic form used in space settlement discourse, it’s a bad model. To believe it, you have to…
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