Thursday, March 30, 2017

Toward a "Newer" Western History

While the “new” western historians added immensely to our understanding of development the American West, there are some significant limitations to their analysis: limiting the discussion of the frontier’s significance after labeling it a racist concept, isolating western development from the rest of North America, failing to establish a useful narrative for discussing western history, and arbitrarily excluding Texas from their analyses. These gaps in “new” western history offer several opportunities for developing the “next” or “newer” western history that encompasses the history of the frontier, the history of the region, the West’s connections to the rest of the world, and reincorporates Texas into the history of the West.

One of the major metaphors that bind the various threads of new western history together seems to be that of the conquest of the West, as a region, by invading groups of settlers from the United States (Limerick, 18).  The conquest metaphor is seen in the movement of settlers, displacement of Indians, and the use of western mineral, timber, and farming resources (Limerick, 27).  “New” western historians use the reclamation of arid lands using irrigation techniques is a vivid example of American’s conquest of nature, even if they don’t specifically refer to it as a type of conquest.  William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin carry the conquest metaphor forward in the opening chapter of Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, but add two new underlying ideas: connectedness and colonialism.   Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin claim that the key issue that separates their vision of western history from the “new” western historians and from the traditional Turnerian frontier thesis is that they “stress the connectedness of frontier areas more than their isolation.  Western history makes sense only when we see the complex linkages that tied frontier areas to other parts of the world.  One cannot hope to understand colonies without exploring their empires,” (Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin, 9).  Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin hope to gain a greater understanding of the American West by examining the history of European colonialism and finding common attributes with America’s westward expansion (Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin, 9).  The twin concepts of connectedness and colonialism truly separate their proposed “newer” western history from the traditional and “new” western histories that precede it.

However, the colonial model suggested by Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin does not work without the base concepts of both a frontier and a region. However, this is not the divide between “civilization” and “savagery” described by Frederick Jackson Turner, and assaulted by the “new” western historians (Pisani, 166).  Instead, the frontier Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin utilizes has two qualities; it is both the border between nations favored by Patricia Limerick and the multi-cultural zone of interaction between peoples favored by Terry G. Jordan (Jeffrey, 1062).  Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin insist that, “One should analyze frontier and region not as isolated, alternative ways of viewing the American past but rather as phrases of a single historical process.  We should worry less about trying to define precisely when a frontier ends and a region begins than about analyzing how the one moved toward the other,” (Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin, 7).  This attitude toward studying the American West certainly makes more sense in trying to develop a new all-encompassing historical narrative than abandoning the concept of a frontier entirely, which many “new” historians try to do (Hurtado, 266), despite the example provided by Patricia Limerick’s repeated use of the concept in The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.  Limerick does, however, believe that the frontier should be deemphasized as a historiographical tool in favor of viewing the West as a region, mostly because she thinks the Turnerian use of the frontier as a process with an ending point artificially limits the study of the West (Limerick, 26).  Despite the objections of the “new” western historians to the use of the frontier concept, Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin believe it allows them to create a narrative that allows them to describe differences in the development of many different locales (Cronon, Miles, and Gitlin, 7).

Texas is an almost unique issue that should be addressed in a “newer” western history, as Richard White systematically excludes it from the “new” western history by only addressing the area to the West of the Missouri River (Hurtado, 286).  No real justification of specifically excluding Texas is provided, although Albert L. Hurtado claims that, “few will quibble with White’s geographic delineation,” (Hurtado, 286).  Hurtado’s defense of White’s and other “new” western historians is questionable given White claimed that the primary factor was the multiculturalism of the region, not environment (Hurtado, 287).  A quick reading of Ray Allen Billington’s The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860 demonstrates that multiculturalism was a factor in Texas, with Americans, Indians of various tribes, Mexican settlers and officials, and a few Europeans settling there (Billington, 15).  West Texas even has arid and semi-arid environments similar to New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Colorado, which would seem to alleviate any concerns that it was too different from the rest of the West.  The only two plausible explanations for Texas’ exclusion from the “new” western history are that it was settled relatively early compared to other western areas or that it was part of the Confederacy.  Neither explanation makes much sense, especially in light of early American settlements in California and Oregon.  Despite the connection with the Confederacy, Texas experienced much the same pattern of settlement as other western areas: illegal migration and trading followed by intense pressure for open settlement.  By any criteria, Texas should be included in any “newer” western history.

The concept of a “new” western history is frequently attributed to Patricia Limerick, the grand dame of the field on the basis of her work Legacy of Conquest, which is important not so much because of its original research, but because it brings two decades of western research into gender, environment, race, labor and the twentieth century into focus and attempts to synthesize it into a coherent whole (Limerick, 30).  The detractors of “new” western history like to point out all of the work done before the 1980s and 1990s when the “new” western history came into vogue.  Michael Allen writes that western history has had analyses of economic, multicultural, and environmental issues since at least 1893 (Allen, 1).  Others attack “new” western history on political grounds, saying that it is, “simply an expression of negativism and disillusion emanating from members of the anti-Vietnam generation,” (Nugent, 7).  Despite these criticisms, Limerick’s work serves as a landmark, simply because it focused a generation of western historians in a new direction and revitalized their field by acting as a catalyst.

Hopefully, the work of Cronon, Miles, Gitlin, and the other contributors to Under an Open Sky will push the “newer” western history back toward a narrative that can be more easily explained to students and non-scholars alike.  The interconnected methodology that brings the west back into contact with the rest of American history is a giant step toward that goal, but it must also be combined with the admission that not all whites are irretrievably evil despoilers of the West.  This is certainly the impression that some “new” western writers provide, although others, like Richard White, demonstrate that the Indians of the Northwest were modifying their environment for their own use, or adopted some useful tools or cultural traits from Europeans. 

Works Cited

Billington, Ray Allen.  The Far Western Frontier, 1830-1860. New York: Harper & Row, 1962

Cronon, William, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds.  Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past. New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 1992.

Hurtado, Albert L. “Whose Misfortune? Richard White’s Ambivalent Region.” Reviews in American History 22, no. 2 (1994): 286-291

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

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.

Nugent, Walter. “Western History, New and Not So New.” N.d. (8 July 2004)

Pisani, Donald J. “The ‘New Western History’ Comes of Age.” Reviews in American History 21, no. 1 (1993): 166-171.

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