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Virginia and the westward movement.

Migration is a central theme of U.S. history. The nation has been shaped by movement - whether the overseas journeys of immigrants, the overland trek of those who settled the frontier, or the constant flow of the population from country to city to suburb. Historians have produced various interpretive schemes to explain the effect of abundant land, and the peopling of that land, on U.S. culture. Perhaps the most famous is Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis," unveiled in 1893. Turner held that free land engendered free institutions, broke the "bonds of custom," and gave rise to new cultural structures. Competing theories, however, have argued that tradition is stronger than environment, and that free land leads not to freedom but to exploitative labor systems.(1)

Last fall the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, Virginia, marked the hundredth anniversary of the Turner thesis with its exhibition, "Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement" Using migration in Virginia through the mid 1800s as a case study, the exhibition seeks to answer which, if any, historical model best explains the relationship between the frontier, migration, and the American character. Under the direction of chief curator James C. Kelly and guest historian David Hackett Fischer, the Virginia Historical Society mined its own collections and those of a host of institutions around the country to chronicle movement to, within, and from Virginia over a 250-year period, as well as the effects of that movement on settlements in and beyond the state. Virginia's experience indicates that the development of U.S. culture cannot be linked solely to tradition or to the environment; the face of culture varied by region and changed constantly, as migration brought different ideas and new ruling elites into prominence. The exhibition thus rejects Turner's basic model; yet it welcomes disagreement and discussion, in the spirit of the debate Turner ignited a century ago.

1 David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly, Away, I'm Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement [catalogue of the exhibition] (Richmond, Va., 1993), 10. The exhibition, which was supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will remain open until 31 May 1994.

Susanna Dyer is an editorial assistant for The Historian.

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Author:Dyer, Sue
Publication:The Historian
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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