Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Challenging Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis

The twenty-nine historians that contributed to The Oxford History of the American West finally achieved Ray Allen Billington’s secondary goal in The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1960; to discuss whether Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis that cheap and empty land in the American West drew settlers and resulted in the creation of a uniquely American character and democratic institutions.  Where Billington’s focus is the settlement of the West in the period before the U.S. Civil War in a regional fashion, The Oxford History of the American West approaches Western history thematically, allowing it to cover a broader range of topics and a five hundred year span.  Both texts challenge our modern conceptions of the West; Billington clearly demonstrates that vibrant cultures existed in the region before Americans arrived, while The Oxford History illustrates the impact of westward migration into the 20th century.

The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 is by far the older and more often reviewed of the two texts, and was generally well received.  The most negative comment made was that in an effort to comprehensively cover the topic of migration to the West, Billington sacrificed accuracy in small details such as the spelling of names and places (Pomeroy, 666). In his review, Pomeroy also specifically disputes Billington’s facts regarding Texas, saying that, “the Texans were never Mexican subjects,” (Pomeroy, 667).  The key issue is whether to accept Billington or Pomeroy’s view of Texas history.  Given Billington’s seemingly exhaustive detail on the conditions Mexican officials allowed Americans to settle in Texas, it seems a stretch to believe that they were anything other than subjects of the Mexican Republic.

Despite the issues surrounding spelling of place names and interpretations of early Texas history, the only major flaw in The Far Western Frontier is that, like Turner, Billington sees settlement of the West as a “civilizing” influence that the Hispanic and Native American inhabitants either did not, or could not achieve.  Oscar Osburn Winthurn notes this in his review, and it is evident in his description of Mexican settlement of California that Billington sees the pastoral Californian lifestyle as lacking in moral character when he described it as indolent (Winthurn, 638; Billington, 13) Strangely, this criticism of Mexican society in California comes at the same time Billington describes it as reminiscent of the antebellum South with an emphasis on hospitality, companionship, and honor (Billington, 9).

This criticism does not mean that The Far Western Frontier is wholly without merit.  Once Billington’s Anglo bias is accounted for, there is a wealth of valuable information regarding all of the different regions of the American West.  Billington begins his discussion of American settlement in Texas with background information on the Spanish government’s methods for using presidios and missions to occupy frontier areas in an effort to defend the heart of Mexico.  After Mexican independence, the policy of trying to keep Americans out of Texas changed as the government attempted to create a more dynamic economy in the region.  Billington moves beyond his consideration of Texas to also delve into trade between the Mississippi Valley and Santa Fe, the fur-trapping expeditions into the Rockies, which devastated beaver populations before 1840, the development of Mormonism and their settlement of Utah, and the “opening” of Oregon and California.

The vast breadth of available topics here inevitably means that some aspects of Western settlement will be given a short shrift.  However, it also allows Billington to provide additional perspectives for some subjects.  The experiences of the “average” pioneer group in contrast to that of Mormon emigrants is the most obvious example. Unlike groups that started out for California or Oregon poorly equipped, led, and with no knowledge of the terrain before them, the Mormons set out with a definite plan that would see almost 15,000 people safely arrive in Utah.  The first party of Mormons blazed the trail, established camps, and provided guides for the parties following them.  The chapter describing the complexity of the Mormon move to Utah and the establishment of Salt Lake City stands in stark comparison to the hardships faced by less organized groups.

The Oxford History of the American West is as different from The Far Western Frontier as the Mormon migration was from that of other settlers.  Divided into four thematically based sections, The Oxford History covers every conceivable topic possible, from Native American beginnings, economic and environmental issues, religion, Federal support in the region, urbanization, and art.  Where Billington’s The Far Western Frontier is steadfastly in the realm of “traditional” history, Julie Roy Jeffry writes of The Oxford History of the American West that the major emphasis on Native Americans, the Federal government, environment, and globalism, “make it clear at once that this volume reflects the perspectives and concerns of the revisionists,” (Jeffry, 1026).  The focus on areas considered “new” Western history is a major difference between these two books.

Fortunately, The Oxford History of the American West does not suffer from the vice usually attributed to “new” Western history: that of blaming European-Americans for all conceivable problems.  Instead, the volume attempts to strike as balanced a tone as possible, while still acknowledging the negative impact of European-Americans on Native American populations and the environment.  In some ways this is quite subtle, as in Richard White’s chapter he writes that both Indians and Europeans used animals, but Europeans paid no attention to the long-term costs  (Milner, O’Connor, and Sandweiss, 238).  White also notes that the introduction of large-scale cattle and sheep ranching to the West played a pivotal role in the destruction of native species. If The Oxford History has any problem, it is that the profusion of subjects and points of view make it difficult to develop a narrative understanding of the West, a complaint that is often heard from critics of “new” Western history.  Its strength is as a reference, which incorporates many different aspects of Western history.

Works Cited

Jeffry, Julie Roy. “In Search of the New American West.” The Historical Journal 38, no. 4 (1995): 1057-1065.

Pomeroy, Earl. “The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43, no. 4 (1957): 676-677.

Winther, Oscar Osburn. “The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860.” The American Historical Review 62, No. 3 (1957): 638-640

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