The Frontier Thesis and San Joaquin County

How would you describe the American character? For many of us, the description would include words like individuality, ruggedness, informality, and initiative. We might even see an image of John Wayne riding high in the saddle, six-shooter at his side, enemies cowering in fear.

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932)

Frederick Jackson Turner didn't know Wayne, but he may have had someone similar in mind when he authored one of the most famous scholarly papers in American history, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893). A professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, Turner depicted the essence of the American character as rugged individualism, and he saw it shaped through interaction between waves of settlers and the raw, untamed wilderness.

Turner envisioned an evolutionary process. In his view, the savagery of the frontier forced America's pioneers to rely on their own individual strength and resources. It also weeded out those who didn't. As Americans pushed westward, they abandoned useless European institutions and ideas and brought into existence new ideas and a new form of democratic government that reflected their experience.

Does the historical experience of San Joaquin County support Turner's Frontier Thesis? I don't think so, and one of the major reasons I don't is the career of Charles Weber.

If anybody typified the pioneer spirit in San Joaquin County, it may have been Weber. Weber was no stranger to individualism, but he didn't do it all on his own. Weber traveled west as part of a group (the Bidwell-Bartleson Party), learned firsthand about California as an employee of John Sutter, and acquired Rancho Campo de los Franceses, the foundation of his fortune, in partnership with Guillermo Gulnac.

In 1850, Weber married Helen Murphy, daughter of Martin Murphy, an early settler in the Santa Clara Valley. The marriage expanded Weber's social network. Around the same time, he converted to Catholicism, the religion of his new wife, which cemented his connections with another, even more extensive community, religious in nature, with roots deep in California soil.

As Weber aged, he found himself part of a growing social network that helped him define himself and through which he could influence and be influenced by others&#46

The marriage also did something else: It marked the beginning of a lifelong alliance in which, according to the Weber Library, both partners, Charles and Helen, retained interest in the world of Western culture and ideas—not only within the United States, but also in Europe.

So if the Frontier Thesis doesn't "fit" in San Joaquin County, how can its history be explained? At this point, I'm not entirely certain. However, I suspect that any plausible explanation needs to take into account a more expansive understanding of human interaction than Turner offered, as well as the intellectual world of San Joaquin County's early settlers, glimpses of which can be seen in the Weber Library.

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