When Americans think about the “West” they are invariably drawn to images of cowboys, Indians, independent farmers, and desert vistas. American historians, past and present, are no exception to this phenomenon. This is particularly true of “traditional” western historians and their portrayal of the conquest of the American West solely in terms of progress and achievement, of the Indians as “heroic victims,” Mexicans as sidekicks to American heroes, and of Asians as a source of cheap labor. Unsatisfied with what they saw as an incomplete and biased history of the West, historians such as Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, Clyde A. Milner, and William Cronon seek new ways to understand and explain the history and importance of the American West.
The roots of the “old western history” are Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which said that the western frontier and its expanse of free land drew Americans across the continent and is responsible for the increasingly direct forms of democracy found in that portion of the United States. (Faragher, 107) Turner’s thesis also defined the frontier as a continually moving region “determined by the reactions between the wilderness and the edge of expanding settlement…” (Bogue, 198). The general idea of the “old western history” is that the American colonization of every western parts of North America was a wholly good and defining process that molded American culture and refined American democracy.
The “new western history” is radically different than traditional western history in many ways. The most basic is the definition of “West.” Patricia Nelson Limerick argues that the idea of a “frontier” should be rejected in favor of studying a defined region, which Richard White places to the west of the Missouri River (ignoring Texas entirely), although other historians argue for the area west of the Mississippi River (Hurtado, 287). “New West” historians abandon the term frontier because it limits the study of the American West to the 19th century and because it has nationalistic and racist overtones; it is “the area where white people get scarce,” (Nugent, 2). Examining the West as a region allows this group to enlarge their research area temporally into the 20th and 21st centuries.
“New” western history also expands the areas of possible research into the contributions of Indian tribes, Latinos, Asians, and women into creating the unique environment European Americans moved into (Armitage, 1). Consequently it asserts that the grand story of American movement west is “neither one of triumph over adversity, with the resulting ennoblement of the American character, nor a unique and exceptional subjugation of an empty land,” (Nugent, 4).
Unfortunately, there are as many problems with the “new western history” as the old. The most troubling issue is that the personal biases inform the writing of “new west” historians, which allow their detractors to minimize research into new areas, questioning their objectivity when writing about environmental, gender, or race issues (Pisani, 171). Michael Allen claims that in addition to “presentism,” “new west” scholars suffer from a regional bias imposed by their east coast location and a narrative limited by their refusal to incorporate colonial and Appalachian areas for discussion. (Allen, 201)
Armitage, Susan. “Women and the New Western History.” N.d. <www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/west/armitage.html> (8 July 2004)
Bogue, Allan G. “Frederick Jackson Turner Reconsidered.” The History Teacher 27, no. 2 (1994): 195-221.
Faragher, John Mack. “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West.” The American Historical Review 98, no. 1 (1993): 106-117.
Hurtado, Albert L. “Whose Misfortune? Richard White’s Ambivalent Region.” Reviews in American History 22, no. 2 (1994): 286-291
Nugent, Walter. “Western History, New and Not So New.” N.d. <http://www.oah.org/pubs/magazine/west/nugent.html> (8 July 2004)
Pisani, Donald J. “The ‘New Western History’ Comes of Age.” Reviews in American History 21, no. 1 (1993): 166-171.