Atlantic History The American West
by
Tangi Villerbu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0300

Introduction

Making a bibliography on the American West is nearly an impossible task, for a number of reasons. First, what is the West? Is it a space or an era? The West of popular imagination is a fluid space in a precise time period, from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee and probably—but not exclusively—west of the Mississippi. The West of the historians is where and when each historian wants it. This definition was at the very heart of most of the debates of the 1980s and 1990s. Frederick Jackson Turner had argued in 1893 that the frontier defined the United States as a nation: his Anglo-American and male frontier went east to west and began when the first settlers arrived in Virginia and New England. His successors studied a “Trans-Appalachian frontier” as well as the “true” frontier, beyond the Mississippi valley, though they sometimes changed what that frontier meant. The “New Western” historians of the 1990s, refusing what they called an exceptionalist, triumphalist male white narrative, also refused the concept of the “frontier,” writing instead the history of a region, the West (the concept of the frontier is now used and debated, however, in Latin American history and in medieval eastern Europe). Nobody really knows the West’s precise western or eastern boundaries. Because scholars can play with so many new concepts, such as middle ground and borderlands, nobody really tries to scientifically circumscribe a place called the West. It is more open than ever northward, southward, westward, and even sometimes eastward. Nevertheless, a quick look at the Western History Association conference programs leads to the conclusion that the definition is still mostly classical: the West lies between Canada, Mexico, the Mississippi valley, and the Pacific Ocean. But what about time? Turner argued that the frontier was closed in 1890, and many Americans and foreigners also thought that something was ending in the United States at this time. But one of New Western history’s main legacies is a never-ending West: regional history cannot stop, and what new historians described in the 19th century—capitalism, colonialism, federal states, meetings of peoples and empires, and fluid identities—takes place in the 20th and 21st centuries as well. In the late 2010s, of course, it is clear that western US history, without an understanding of the long native histories that preceded the first colonial era, would be nonsense. Notwithstanding, this article focuses on a rather traditional “West,” in terms of space as well as of time: the Trans-Mississippi West in the 19th century. This is due to the field’s immensity and the necessity of choosing. The choice here is to point out that what happened in the West in the 19th century was a nation-building process. This doesn’t mean a Turnerian bias, but a way to understand how Turner came to think about the frontier the way he did: his hypothesis participated in that nation-building process, creating the United States through a myth more than describing its birth. Even if describing more or less the same region, the Spanish, Mexican, or French “West” is not the subject of this article.

General Overviews

Readers should begin with a good concise history: Butler and Lansing 2008 is a good synthesis, not debating what Frederick Jackson Turner understood as the frontier, but arguing that while the West’s location changed over time, its significance remained the same and at the core of American national identity. Calloway 2003 is by far the best overview to date of the pre-American West. Hyde 2011 builds its narrative of the first half of 19th century on two decades of New West history and is also a good landmark of new trends, with fewer structures and more individuals. New Western historians themselves published overviews as manifestos: Limerick 1987 remains a landmark study that redefined the field, arguing for a western history, not a frontier—a region more than a process. The author of White 1991 chose not to use or even debate the word “frontier” and not to conclude his history as such: frontier history can be closed in 1890; western history cannot. Some years later, two other syntheses tried to mix approaches. Milner, et al. 1994 mixes old and new western history: “old” because its “heritage” section narrates pre-1803 history without clearly defining the what and the where; “new,” thanks to a never-ending narrative and up-to-date, topically organized chapters. Hine and Faragher 1999 is a revised classic that fought the New Western historians: the authors argue that studying the “frontier” is still useful because it provides a more inclusive narrative. Only that concept sheds light on the whole colonial process from the 16th century to the 20th century and can pave the way to international comparisons. Once readers understand how historians “do” western history, they must read the quintessential Cold War Turnerian textbook: Billington 1949 (and its many editions to the 1980s) uses the frontier thesis even more strictly than Turner, imagining it along the lines of white Anglo-American males moving east to west.

  • Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan, 1949.

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    A triumphalist and seducing story: the conquest of the wilderness, and the “winning” of the West against every “obstacle,” including nature, Indians, and Mexicans. Throughout this process, multiple frontiers (traders, farmers, miners) acted as stages of development. A new, democratic, and exceptional nation appeared: the United States.

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  • Butler, Anne M., and Michael J. Lansing. The American West: A Concise History. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.

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    A good, concise history, informed by two strong arguments: first, “The United States created and retains its national identity in the West”; second, the West is what was regarded as the American West and changed over time with what Adelman and Aron 1999 (cited under New Concepts) defined as the transition from borderlands to bordered lands.

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  • Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

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    Organized into three parts. First, Calloway historicizes the native West before 1500, explaining how the first pioneers invented changing and various cultures. Second, he analyzes what he calls the “invasion” from 1500 to 1730, when Spanish, French, and British colonizers entered the West, bringing new artifacts, guns, world economy, Christianity, and war, while native peoples stayed the dominant powers, even when “middle grounds” appeared. Third, between 1700 and 1830 a new world emerged: horses from the South deeply changed the native peoples, new wars and settlers came from the East, and smallpox nearly destroyed whole nations.

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  • Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999.

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    Mainly organized around seemingly Turnerian frontiers and old-fashioned concepts such as the “safety valve,” but each chapter is perfectly up to date and presents a counterpoint to Billington 1949: the “frontier” can be modernized and is still useful.

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  • Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800–1860. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.

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    Argues the early 19th century still belonged to a “first colonial” world, studying the “continental web of family trade.” From 1840 onward, the West was subject to the US nation-building process, through war with Mexico and native nations and new migrations. Some phenomena studied by New Western historians (federal government and capitalism) are less present in Hyde’s narrative.

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  • Limerick, Patricia N. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.

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    Limerick defines the “West” as a place conquered by capitalists and bureaucrats and still burdened after 1890 by that conquest’s heritage: racism, violence, and exploitation. A “contest for property and profit . . . and cultural dominance” characterized the West and led Limerick to write a more inclusive history, by tying all the diverse groups into the same narrative.

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  • Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    The Turnerian turning point of 1890 is still here, in addition to the way the book is topically organized, with stimulating chapters about federal government, global economy, environmental history of western capitalism, migrations as “a saga of families,” and violence, and a whole section on the interpretation of the West.

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  • White, Richard. “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

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    Four years after Limerick 1987, White published another New Western overview. He begins his narrative in 1803, when the United States bought Louisiana, and closes it in the 1990s. This is a regional history of a conquered place, with emphasis on structural forces: federal government (as explorer, conqueror, landowner, lawmaker), capitalists (and the West’s integration into the world economy), migrants, and social conflicts.

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Debates and Concepts

Despite early criticism of the frontier as imagined by Frederick Jackson Turner, the triumphal, exceptionalist creation myth it offered was extremely popular during the Cold War era and became embedded in national history. But since the 1980s, a new flow of new concepts emerged: New Western historians promoted the West as a place, while others understood it as a middle ground, native ground, shatter zone, or borderlands or saw western history as colonialism by American settlers. Western history is now a dynamic field, though some uncertainty remains about concepts that historians should use.

The Frontier and Its First Critics

Turner inaugurated the field of the “American West” with his paper presented in Chicago in 1893. It is republished, with other articles, in Turner 1920. In this seminal work, Turner argues that a succession of frontiers from east to west created the United States: traders, miners, farmers, and others successively moved westward, vanquished Indians and nature, and invented a new democratic nation along the way. Turner 1906 is the only real book after his dissertation and is now mostly forgotten, though Turner himself is still very important for his understanding of the role the West played in US history, and how historians integrate the West into a national narrative. Webb 1931 adds an environmental argument to Turner’s narrative by focusing on the Great Plains, but the book remained a firmly white, male, Anglo-American heroic adventure. Studies such as Lamar 1956 criticize Turner in the interwar years, promoting other ways to see the frontier. Howard Lamar shed light on what Turner, Walter Prescott Webb, and, above all, Ray Allen Billington often preferred not to see: government—above all, the way that pioneers needed it, wanted it, and asked it to help them. Although Lamar’s work played a part in discrediting the frontier hypothesis, until the “New Western” historians at the end of the 1980s, western history was a nearly moribund field.

  • Lamar, Howard R. Dakota Territory, 1861–1899: A Study of Frontier Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1956.

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    Studies how the federal government created the West and how settlers never were the individualistic pioneers many people still imagine: first, because they participated in collective political activities; second, because they lived in a desperately hostile environment that made federal and state action necessary.

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  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. Rise of the New West. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906.

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    Differentiates the “West” (which he saw as two regions: the West beyond the Alleghenies and the Far West beyond the Mississippi valley) and the “frontier,” the latter being every American region’s first development stage, and the main tool for understanding American history.

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  • Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt, 1920.

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    Turner narrates a glorious, all-white, male, and Protestant story that stopped in 1890, when the frontier was supposed to be closed. He is now considered one of the main builders of the mythic West, alongside Buffalo Bill, but he also understood how conquest created the national state. The movement he can now be understood as colonial history.

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  • Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains: A History of Institutions and Environment. Boston: Ginn, 1931.

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    Webb argues that the Great Plains should be defined above all by aridity and the way that men adapted to it, creating institutions to deal with environment from the Indians to the cowboys. This was an innovative book about settlers, bison, and horses, though still Anglo-American and exceptionalist, even if Webb tried in a later work to integrate the West into world history.

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New Concepts

Limerick, et al. 1991; Cronon, et al. 1992; and Milner 1996 are three collective works that originated from projects launched in 1989 and have to be read together to shed light on the debates of New Western history, beyond simple narratives of westward expansion. While New Western historians refused the frontier as process and imagined the West as region, Aron 1994 is a plea for a greater West as a colonial American history. Wrobel 2004 is an assessment of the field of New Western history, which became an object of study itself in Massip 2011. The author of White 1991 invented a concept that every western historian (and many others who research the 16th-century Mediterranean Sea or ancient Greece) uses or, at least, knows and debates. Subsequently historians tended to see “middle grounds” everywhere in colonial North America, or to invent new neighboring concepts such as “common and contested ground,” “divided ground,” or the “native ground.” DuVal 2006 argues that for decades (until Anglo-American colonialism conquered the Plains), Native Americans weren’t colonized but took part in multifaceted diplomatic activity. Besides the middle ground, Adelman and Aron 1999 redevelops an old concept that Herbert Eugene Bolton used in the 1920s to describe the Southwest: “borderlands into bordered lands” as a way to mix the frontier (as a process) and the West (as modern or even postmodern narrative). Stephen Aron and Jeremy Adelman’s hypothesis has been criticized and nuanced but has become influential in North American history (and beyond). Twelve years later, the authors of Hämäläinen and Truett 2011 argued that borderlands history needed renewal. However innovative, provocative, and enthusiastic, the article is also discomforting because of the kind of elusive history that Pekka Hämäläinen and Elliott Truett sometimes seem to promote. In the meantime, Ethridge 2010 proposes new “shatter zones.” Though never explicitly compared with the “middle ground” or “borderlands,” all of these are ways to describe the uncertain worlds that the European irruption generated in America; the difference is mainly how and when Indian power is defined.

  • Adelman, Jeremy, and Stephen Aron. “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples In Between in North-American history.” American Historical Review 104.3 (1999): 814–841.

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    Borderlands are places where empires and states meet without asserting their full power; in those regions, peoples in between imagine new ways of life and new cultures and can create nonstatist forms of power. Nevertheless, nation-states tend to reinforce the border, leading to more-defined, bordered lands.

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  • Aron, Stephen. “Lessons in Conquest: Towards a Greater Western History.” Pacific Historical Review 63.2 (1994): 125–147.

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    Argues that any understanding of conquest west of the Mississippi is impossible without studying Kentucky, the Great Lakes region, or anywhere else that Americans settled and tried to impose their way of life.

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

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    As a tribute to Howard R. Lamar, some historians tried to invent new ways of writing western history.

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  • DuVal, Kathleen. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

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    More than a “middle ground,” the heart of the continent, DuVal argues, was a native ground until the early 19th century, when the American nation-state imposed a new settlement colonization model, valuing land more than connections with people. Before that, the Spanish, the French, the British, and the first Americans who came along the Arkansas River valley stayed in the periphery of the Caddo world.

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  • Ethridge, Robby. From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540–1715. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.5149/9780807899335_ethridgeSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defined the Mississippian world from 1540 to 1715 as a “shatter zone,” arguing that many other such zones have existed in North America. Describes the shatter zone as an Indian world that was politically, socially, and culturally destabilized by European invasions: new viruses, capitalism (through slaves and fur trade), and war (for commerce).

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  • Hämäläinen, Pekka, and Elliott Truett. “On Borderlands.” Journal of American History 98.2 (2011): 338–361.

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    These authors take “new borderlands history” to mean “destabilizing distinction between core and peripheries,” working beyond simple dichotomies between empires or nations on one side, and local resistance on the other. They take a transnational view, inventing new narratives and “locally rooted and contingent continuities.”

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  • Limerick, Patricia N., Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds. Trails: Toward a New Western History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

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    The collective project that named New Western history. A landmark book.

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  • Massip, Nathalie. “La nouvelle histoire de l’Ouest: Historiographie et representations.” PhD diss., Université de Toulouse II-Le Mirail, 2011.

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    A dissertation about New Western history, it includes three illuminating, long interviews with Limerick, Donald Worster, and Richard White. Massip used them as her main sources and argues that western history is still a special field: even textbooks cite Turner (often the only historian cited in textbooks) and explain debates about the “Frontier.”

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  • Milner, Clyde A., II, ed. A New Significance: Re-envisioning the History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

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    One of the collective projects launched in 1989 to debate what western history could and should be.

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  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republic in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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    White’s “middle ground” is the Great Lakes region, defined by what he called “creative misunderstandings” from first contact to Anglo-American domination in the early 19th century. These “misunderstandings” could take place in a violent context, but in a space where all people could learn to live together, more or less reluctantly, until it was disrupted around the War of 1812.

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  • Wrobel, David M. “Introduction: What on Earth Has Happened to the New Western History?” In Forum: The American West Enters the Twenty-First Century: Appraisals on the State of a Field. Edited by David M. Wrobel. The Historian 66.3 (2004): 437–441.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6563.2004.00077.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Fifteen years after the first New Western history symposiums, Wrobel edited a new collection to scrutinize what has really changed. New Western history, no longer new, had become orthodox but remained dynamic, as shown in articles about race, gender, environment, and visual history.

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Comparisons

Exceptionalism in American historiography made comparison to other regions nearly impossible for a long time. At the same time, the “frontier,” as a concept, had obvious potential for comparisons: the United States was not the only country built on conquest. Though the entire Americas from Argentina to Canada could be understood as a history of frontiers, continental historians are very rare. Chaunu 1964 is a lonely example of a fruitful dialogue between South and North American trends. Twenty-five years later, Lamar and Thompson 1981 compares North America and South Africa by defining frontier as “a zone of interpenetration between two previously distinct societies” and as a process, with an opening and a closing. After years of New Western history and global history violently refuting Turner’s hypothesis, Belich 2009 argues that the American West is just one of the many regions where settler colonialism can be studied. This colonization occurred mainly in the Anglo-American world; that is to say, in the British Empire and the United States. Of course James Belich generalizes, but his book is a must-read for every western historian who wishes to avoid exceptionalism. Graybill 2007 and Jacobs 2009 weave two parts of the Anglo-American world: Andrew Graybill compares Texan and Canadian ways of maintaining law and order in the Plains; Margaret Jacobs studies the removal of American and Australian indigenous children from 1880 to 1940, and the way that maternalism acted as a common culture. Sabol 2017, by an expert on Kazakhstan, reverses the Turnerian narrative that had been used in Russian history, recognizing that the acts of the United States and Russia in the 19th century could be called “internal colonization” not unlike the British, French, and Belgian Empires. The comparisons tend to focus on colonialism; the frontier is still a fruitful concept in many places (especially Hispanic America) and could also be used for other historical narratives.

  • Belich, James. Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783–1939. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    Every “West” (Belich uses that term not geographically, but as a concept) is characterized by four stages: a slow colonization, a boom, a bust associated with reinforced economic links, and finally a varied decolonization process that depends on many factors.

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  • Chaunu, Pierre. L’Amérique et les Amériques. Paris: Armand Colin, 1964.

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    An exceptional work synthetizing North, Central, and South American history to the 1960s. Argues that history is dominated by specific relationships to time and space. Built on Turner’s frontier hypothesis, Chanu’s book omits native history.

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  • Graybill, Andrew R. Policing the Great Plains: Rangers, Mounties, and the North American Frontier, 1875–1910. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

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    Compares Texas and Canadian Plains and argues that while Texas Rangers and Canadian Mounties had common goals, racism and violence were less frequent in Canada than in Texas, where they were the core of Rangers’ culture.

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  • Jacobs, Margaret. White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

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    Sheds light on common cultural trends, such as maternalism, to show how they lead to racist assumptions and practices.

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  • Lamar, Howard, and Leonard Thompson, eds. The Frontier in History: North America and South Africa Compared. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

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    The result of a seminar organized in 1979, four sets of paired essays parallel North America and South Africa, making the reader do his own synthesis on phases, politics, societies, economics, and Christianity.

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  • Sabol, Steven. “The Touch of Civilization”: Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization. Boulder: University of Colorado Press, 2017.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1mtz7g6Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Though there are differences between the United States and Russia, Sabol argues that appetite for land and a civilizing agenda targeted Sioux and Kazakhs and led to violence and resistance. And above all, usefully leads historians to think about the United States as an empire in an imperialist era.

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Violence

Violence in the American West—its gunfights and Indian wars—has fascinated people for years. Historians have produced narratives of violence that integrate federal power, colonial impulses, and native agency, questioning the concept of genocide and understanding folk tales as stories of honor and social conflict.

Federal Power

In spite of old stories of individualistic settlers who created a nation alone in the wilderness, historians began in the late 20th century to propose another narrative, in which the West is the region where federal power was (and still is) the most present and the US government owned a large part of the land. Goetzmann 1991 narrates decades of army explorations of the American West: knowledge of the West was created, promoted, and diffused by the federal army. Though military history’s battles, campaign narratives, and biographies are often lacking in analysis, some of these studies are really analytical; for instance, Ostler 2004 on the Lakota-US colonial relationship. In Stiles 2015, Custer’s Last Stand is seen as a romantic individualist’s desperate last act in a world he didn’t understand. General George Custer is one of the soldiers and officers whom McChristian 2017 scrutinizes; this book is the best overview of the federal army and is a good synthesis of the many volumes on forts, regiments, and battles. The US Army alternately protected Indians and made war with them, depending on circumstances, but Wallace 1999 explains that this process of conquest was initiated by federal power and theorized by Thomas Jefferson. Indians were not the only victims of westward expansion: Foos 2002 shows that the Mexican War was an important part of American citizenship, military, and conquest, while Greenberg 2012 studies debates on what conquest meant and whether it even had to occur.

  • Foos, Paul. A Short, Offhand and Killing Affair: Soldiers and Social Conflict during the Mexican-American War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

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    A good collective portrait of men who acted in the name of the United States but often were “a roving international proletariat”: German or Irish migrants or Catholics. Though they weren’t American citizens, they were subject to disciplinary institutions and nativist impulses as well as being guilty of war crimes against Mexican civilians.

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  • Goetzmann, William H. Army Exploration in the American West, 1803–1863. Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1991.

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    This detailed account, first published in 1959 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), is a comprehensive overview and the best introduction to exploration history despite limitations, most notably its lack of Native American points of view, and cultural or social approaches to exploration.

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  • Greenberg, Amy S. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 Invasion of Mexico. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

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    Greenberg intermixes three narratives to give a comprehensive view of the debates surrounding the Mexican War, a war many Americans refused, mainly because Whigs believed that expansion could lead to a stronger South and war. In great prose, Greenberg made American history more complex and normalized it, stating that Manifest Destiny was not, after all, a shared national ideology.

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  • McChristian, Douglas C. Regular Army O! Soldiering on the Western Frontier, 1865–1891. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.

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    A thematic approach to what it meant to be a soldier in the American West, though it still uses the concept of the “frontier” and begins in 1865. Accurate study, and a call for more studies to fully understand the military experience in all its dimensions.

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  • Ostler, Jeffrey. The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to Wounded Knee. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

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    An excellent case study of the relationship between one Indian nation and federal power, which can be understood only through the framework of US colonialism.

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  • Stiles, T. J. Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

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    An interpretive view of the most famous American cavalryman, from the Civil War to the frontier, where the warrior died with his men at Little Big Horn in 1876. Neither a hero nor a crazy Indian killer, Custer seemed to be a self-destructive romantic lost in a world he didn’t like.

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  • Wallace, Anthony F. C. Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.

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    Investigates Jefferson’s intention for Native American nations to be civilized into Jeffersonian farmers by giving up most of their lands and becoming the federal government’s pupils. If they refused, a debt system would lead to war and more loss.

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Native American Points of View

Until the 1970s and the emergence of the field of ethnohistory, historians forgot Indians, considering them enemies who didn’t understand the futility of resisting the Anglo-American conquest. The author of White 1978 was among those first historians to imagine Indian history before and without white history, trying to understand why Indians did or did not take up arms against Anglo-Americans. War was not the only way to conquer: Adams 1995 studies Indian education as a national system, operated by the Office of Indian Affairs, and the many Christian reformers who worked for it. Nevertheless, physical violence, war, and massacres are central in Indian experience and the way historians deal with it. Blackhawk 2006, a landmark book, offers a useful counterpoint to studies that want to assert Indian power or “native ground”: the author points at how violent colonial conquest was. Two years later, an award-winning book tried to redefine the field: Hämäläinen 2008 argues that the Comanches had built an empire in the European way as a great power in the 18th-century southern Plains, which disappeared only in the mid-19th century. The author points out Indian power, invention, and resistance. DeLay 2008 focuses on the way that Comanches interacted with Mexicans and Americans for fifteen years prior to 1848, exemplifying what history can do when it crosses borders between states and fields. Famous episodes of violence still can be reimagined. Jacoby 2008 tries to understand western violence through the Camp Grant massacre of 1871, proposing a new way—not totally convincing but very stimulating—to write this history. Arguing that it’s impossible to build a unified narrative of the event, Karl Jacoby imagines four narratives: Tohono O’odhams, vecinos, Anglo-Americans, and Nṉēē (Apaches, Camp Grant’s victims). West 2009 integrates the Nez Perce War of 1877 into what the author defines as the “Greater Reconstruction” from 1846 to 1877: the rebirth of the nation and imposition of a single model through wars (Mexican, Civil, Indian). Hämäläinen 2016 participates in the Civil War history’s western turn, first building on West 2009 to study “Greater Reconstruction” in place of the 1861–1865 phase. The author argues that it’s time to stop thinking about a North versus South war in the West. Moreover, it’s also possible to see what happened in the West as a part of larger American history: Reséndez 2016 integrates western history into large spatial and chronological contexts, understanding its violence as slavery by other names.

  • Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

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    Adams scrutinizes the way that Indian boarding schools formulated their new Indian policy to acculturate young Indians and change them into “Americans,” then how the schools functioned as disciplinary institutions to extirpate tribal identities, and finally how students resisted or accommodated before returning home. Adams concludes that reformers imagined “the only way to save the Indians was to destroy them”: education was violence.

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  • Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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    Blackhawk insists on the colonial violence exerted by the Spanish Empire on Utes and on how those Utes tried to invent new ways to live with their neighbors until the mid-19th century. Blackhawk’s work can also be read as a geopolitical study of a neglected region (the Great Basin): violence (sometimes an elusive concept) becomes the pivot of the New World that Indians and colonizers made together.

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  • DeLay, Brian. War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexican War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

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    Through an extraordinary reconstitution of 540 Comanche raids in Mexico from 1831 to 1848, DeLay examines the contemporaneous environmental and geopolitical problems that led Indians so far south and how Mexicans suffered from that violence deep in their territory, as well as how the Americans narrated those raids to benefit from them by conquering northern Mexico.

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  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. Comanche Empire. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

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    For decades, the Comanche Empire, according to Hämäläinen, controlled commerce and geopolitics while European powers stayed at the periphery simply because they couldn’t do better. Hämäläinen’s hypothesis is exaggerated and draws too-many parallels between Indian and European ways of imagining politics and social life, but his study was—and still is—useful because it led a new generation of western historians to think differently; for instance, by fully integrating environmental bias in the field of history.

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  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. “Reconstructing the Great Plains: The Long Struggle for Sovereignty and Dominance in the Heart of the Continent.” Journal of the Civil War Era 6.4 (2016): 481–509.

    DOI: 10.1353/cwe.2016.0070Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Hämäläinen’s storyline is about the continual clash between the still-expanding Anglo-American nation-state on the one side and the indigenous resistance and resilience on the other side, thanks to an “utterly unanticipated reconstruction of nomad power.” Thus, he studies contested sovereignties and “a massive geopolitical crisis in the making.”

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  • Jacoby, Karl. Shadows at Dawn: A Borderland Massacre and the Violence of History. New York: Penguin, 2008.

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    Jacoby aims to shed light on each group’s crossed interests (Tohono O’odhams, vecinos, Anglo-Americans, and Nṉēē), to understand why, in April 1871, Anglos, Hispanics, and one Indian nation gathered to massacre another Indian nation. Even if too-much essentialism makes Jacoby’s book imperfect, it is a good example of how historians still have to reimagine their work.

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  • Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

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    Indians could be slaves in America until 1542, but after that date, labor coercion continued through many ways: encomienda, repartimiento, peonage, and every kind of slave raiding or abduction, by the Spanish, Mexicans, Indians, and Americans. Résendez centers his narrative on Mexico and the Southwest, where racial and social conflicts make “the other slavery” live well after the Peonage Act of 1867.

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  • West, Elliott. The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    What Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce refused was what the North wanted for liberated slaves as well as for Indians: a Jeffersonian ideal of small individual farmers and virtuous families. In both cases it had to be created by the military, but while the African Americans wanted the model implemented in the South, most of the Nez Perces (and Native American more generally) didn’t want any of that dream.

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  • White, Richard. “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.” Journal of American History 65.2 (1978): 319–343.

    DOI: 10.2307/1894083Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    White invented new ways of understanding North American history when he argued that one first has to scrutinize intertribal wars and the Indian’s agency. According to him, Western Sioux (Lakotas) were the dominant power in the northern Plains for decades, until the middle of the 19th century. They made war against other native nations, and against another expansionist power, the United States. The main reasons were environmental: horses, bison, and epidemics.

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Potential Genocide of American Indians

Were American Indians the victims of genocide? Of course, nobody thought so before the concept of “genocide” was created to describe what the Nazis did to the European Jews, but their dispersal throughout the 19th century is undeniable. For most people their disappearance was natural; for others, Anglo-American conquest was a long story of massacre and treachery. Historians began to seriously scrutinize this in the 20th century, and after WWII some of them began to argue for the genocide case, mainly in the 1970s. The debate has been reinvigorated in the early 21st century. Anderson 2014 and Anderson 2016 argue that there was no genocide, but an ethnic cleansing, according to what the UN defined for the Balkan wars of the 1990s; the Native Americans were not intentionally destroyed but clearly were dispossessed and sometimes massacred over four centuries of settler colonization. On the other side, Madley 2015 is by the most important promoter of the concept of genocide in western history. Benjamin Madley argues that’s not only a historian’s problem but also a citizen’s issue, contending that historians should consider not western history but American history to discover local genocides. Madley 2016 scrutinizes California after the Gold Rush, convincingly arguing that the demographic catastrophe resulted from genocidal impulse.

  • Anderson, Gary Clayton. Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

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    Not exactly western history but “frontier history,” because it follows the story of conquest from the East Coast. The author analyzes many important episodes of western history, most notably scrutinizing the Plains from the Civil War to the end of the 19th century. Grant’s peace policy, according to Anderson, was a large-scale “benevolent ethnic cleansing.”

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  • Anderson, Gary Clayton. “The Native Peoples of the American West: Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing?” Western Historical Quarterly 47.4 (2016): 407–434.

    DOI: 10.1093/whq/whw126Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Debates the legal definitions of genocide and ethnic cleansing and tries to analyze which definition fits the American case.

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  • Madley, Benjamin. “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate: Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods.” American Historical Review 120.1 (2015): 98–139.

    DOI: 10.1093/ahr/120.1.98Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to Madley, historians have to build on the legal definition of genocide as developed by Raphael Lemkin and the UN. Rather than thinking globally, they should use a tribe-by-tribe analysis to discover local genocides; for instance, the Pequots in 17th-century Massachusetts, or the Yukis in 19th-century California.

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  • Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

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    In this monumental book, Madley studies the demographic catastrophe in California. He makes the case for genocide by tracking every occurrence of violent Indian death. He doesn’t argue that there was a global Native American genocide, but he convincingly argues that local genocides occurred.

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Honor and Social Conflicts

Gunfighters and dueling are crucial parts of the legend, and historians had taken for granted that for decades the West was lawless and violent. Brown 1994 proposes a useful way to think about the many violent episodes. A set of values (no retreat, vigilantism, personal self-redress, homestead ethic, individual enterprise) “programmed westerners to commit violence,” and that violence, from 1850 to 1920, can be defined as the “Western Civil War of Incorporation.” That is to say, a very low-intensity war, or a series of violent moments. Andrews 2008 is an in-depth look at one of the great labor conflicts that made the West so violent, one of the Richard Maxwell Brown’s Civil War episodes. In the same narrative way, Faragher 2016 tells the history of 1840s and 1850s Los Angeles through the lens of murder, trying to explain why the United States is “a first-world nation with a third-world violence problem,” and locates that violence’s roots in the “frontier” and some specific parts of the country. Studying violence by quantifying it, McKanna 2002 scrutinizes 1,338 murders in seven Californian counties from 1850 to 1900 to understand what caused the abnormally high level of violence in the West. Leonard 2002 studies Colorado lynchings from 1859 to 1919: approximately 175 people were killed without legal trial. Dykstra 2009 reviews those quantitative studies and concludes that some of them are inaccurate and all of them have methodological problems. More recently, Gordon and Shipps 2017 adds a very interesting dimension, using the Mountain Meadows massacre as a lens to reintroduce religion in the western narrative: it was the meeting point of two “competing visions of the American Kingdom of God” embodied by Captain Fancher, the Mormon leader who committed the crime, and Jason Lee, the Methodist preacher who led the migrants.

  • Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.

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    In Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914, fifty men, women, and children died during the Ludlow massacre and Great Coalfield War. Andrews puts this in the context of western history, from environmental problems to colonial western economy to the exploitation of miner’s exploitation, as well as their resistance.

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  • Brown, Richard Maxwell. “Violence.” In The Oxford History of the American West. Edited by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, 393–425. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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    Builds on social and economic conflicts among gunfighters, social bandits, workers, trade unions, and so on, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, conservative forces who wanted to normalize the West, incorporate it, and impose their own will, and finally won.

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  • Dykstra, Robert. “Quantifying the Wild West: The Problematic Statistics of Frontier Violence.” Western Historical Quarterly 40.3 (2009): 321–347.

    DOI: 10.1093/whq/40.3.321Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that historians should take care with numbers, better define high or low homicide rates, continue to collect data, and compare the American West to the Deep South or northern cities. Unfortunately, Dykstra doesn’t turn global: the West must mainly be compared to other “frontiers”; the United States, to other countries.

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  • Faragher, John Mack. Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016.

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    Extraordinary homicide rates in 1840s–1850s Los Angeles could be explained by a weak state frontier and rapid social (and political) change, which led to popular justice, self-defense, and honor codes. Sometimes lacks analytical depth, but is an impressive look at western violence.

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  • Gordon, Sarah Barringer, and Jan Shipps. “Fatal Convergence in the Kingdom of God: The Mountain Meadows Massacre in American History.” Journal of the Early Republic 37.2 (2017): 307–346.

    DOI: 10.1353/jer.2017.0026Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The Mountain Meadows massacre, in 1857, was the most important migrant massacre in western history: 120 men, women, and children were shot dead by Mormons while trying to cross Utah. It would be a seminal event, according to Gordon and Shipps, who for the first time considered it within western history.

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  • Leonard, Stephen J. Lynching in Colorado, 1859–1919. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002.

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    One of the first studies to discover that lynching should be seriously studied in the West. In Colorado, as elsewhere, Leonard concludes that lynchers were white men who “knew they would be regarded as community protectors rather than community destroyers,” but they violently established a gendered, racial, and social order.

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  • McKanna, Clare V., Jr. Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2002.

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    Defines enclaves of violence created by social turmoil, young single males, intermixing of racial groups, dislocation of Hispanic and native communities, anti-Chinese sentiments, and cheap handguns. Sheds light on a deeply racially and socially biased criminal justice system.

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Environments

Environmental history was born in great part in the West, and historians now often integrate it into their narratives. “Environments” are understood here as a way to think of western settlers as part of their natural world, but also to understand how they thought of themselves as separate from nature. Attempting to take advantage of nature, they adapted to animals, land, minerals, and water, as well as changing them, or making them disappear.

Animals

A history of animals means many different things. Before environmental history, historical geographers studied the fur trade: Wishart 1979 still stands as the best introduction to fur trade history, at least at its heyday from the 1820s to the 1840s, and in two precise settings, the northern Missouri basin and the southern Rocky Mountains. The fur trade men are now well known, after years of scholarship, but see Havard 2016: this masterwork is a must-read for every western historian. Gilles Havard scrutinizes “coureurs des bois” in North America from the 17th to 19th centuries. Like Wishart 1979, but focusing on later in the 19th century, Igler 2001 mixes business, labor, and environmental history to shed light on the transformation of animals into commodities. Flores 1991 mixes history and sciences to evaluate the ecological equilibrium of the southern Plains. Isenberg 2000 is the best study of the destruction of the bison in the United States; the author sheds light on the whole story, not only on the most famous episodes, and refuses a simple “villains and victims” narrative. This is by far the best overview on Plains Indians of the 18th and 19th centuries. Hämäläinen 2003 builds on a North-South framework in place of the usual East-West one and argues that Indian cultures differed according to what nations chose to do with horses and environment. Coleman 2004 situates western history within American history as a colonial narrative, while Flores 2008 sheds light on what changed from the end of the 18th century to the 19th century’s first decades.

  • Coleman, Jon T. Vicious: Wolves and Men in America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

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    Euro-Americans have tried to eradicate wolves since they crossed Atlantic Ocean, as Europeans had tried to do the same. Through three test cases in colonial southern New England, the early Republic northeastern woodlands, and Mormon country from Nauvoo to Utah, Coleman follows wolves’ path and settlers’ assaults until the mid-20th-century extermination—and reintroduction from Canada in the 1990s.

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  • Flores, Dan. “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850.” Journal of American History 78.2 (1991): 465–485.

    DOI: 10.2307/2079530Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reevaluates how many bison and humans could live in the same place. The Comanches created a valuable short-term model that ended up very weak in the long term, due to environmental problems as well as the approach of colonial powers. Argues that peace in the 1840s enabled various native nations to face problems together: diplomacy and ecology were strongly interdependent.

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  • Flores, Dan. “Bringing Home All the Pretty Horses: The Horse Trade and the Early American West, 1775–1825.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 58.2 (2008): 3–21, 94–96.

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    The Spanish Crown tried to control the horse trade, but Indians couldn’t be easily controlled. Moreover, Anglo merchants illegally entered Spanish territories to capture horses and sell them in the United States; they were beginning to reorient commerce out of the Spanish Empire to the East, before St. Louisans invented the Santa Fe trade.

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  • Hämäläinen, Pekka. “The Rise and Fall of Plains Indian Horse Cultures.” Journal of American History 90.3 (2003): 833–862.

    DOI: 10.2307/3660878Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Studies three main nomad cultures that appeared: Comanches in the southern Plains, Cheyennes in the Central Plains, and, above all, Lakotas in the northern Plains. The latter were an anomaly; for a time, they were most successful equestrian Indian nation. Historians shouldn’t overemphasize their history, which hides many ways to be Indian in the Plains.

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  • Havard, Gilles. Histoire des coureurs des bois: Amérique du Nord, 1600–1840. Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2016.

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    Coureurs des bois,” trappers and fur traders, cannot be understood without a North American scale. Havard’s cultural history of the fur trade sheds light on some of the most important debates in the field.

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  • Igler, David. Industrial Cowboys: Miller and Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850–1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520226586.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Miller and Lux owned 1.25 million acres, dominated Pacific Coast meat markets, and was “one of the nation’s largest industrial enterprises” at the beginning of the 20th century. A rich story of the men who used their capital, federal laws, and environmental knowledge to build an empire but failed to understand the changes of 1914.

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  • Isenberg, Andrew I. The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511549861Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that the nomad cultures that developed in the 17th-century Plains as a result of the reintroduction of the horse in North America created a new ecological equilibrium that very quickly destabilized, before colonialism and capitalism through trade as well as industry finally destroyed the weakened herds.

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  • Wishart, David. The Fur Trade of the American West, 1807–1840: A Geographical Synthesis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

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    Differentiates the upper Missouri and Rocky Mountain fur trades in their strategies and annual cycles, and studies fur trade globally as a system, from the resource base in the West to European markets. In a Turnerian framework, concludes that fur trade “was the vanguard” of colonization, but also that it destroyed environments (beaver, bison, and riparian woodlands) as well as native cultures.

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Land and Water

Pioneer researchers in environmental history, working on water and irrigation, defined the West as arid and questioned how farmers could have settled without revising Jeffersonian agrarianism, and whether the state and corporate powers helped them or not. Worster 1985 builds on Karl Wittfogel’s theory of hydraulic societies: whoever controls water controls political, economic, and social institutions. Pisani 1986 argues that the family farm ideal disappeared at the beginning of the 20th century because of irrigation programs, big business, and big government’s victory. Faragher 1986 studies Sugar Creek; though focusing on east of the Mississippi valley, it still stands as the best work on any prairie community and as a model for rural, midwestern, and western historians. Vaught 2006 contends that midwestern rural history should move to California; because farmers and dreams were the same, historical methods must be the same as well.

  • Faragher, John Mack. Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986.

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    Imaginatively using quantitative data as well as newspapers and diaries, sheds light on how landscapes and communities changed from the 1810s to the 1860s, and how a stable and deeply hierarchical society can coexist with cohorts of poor and failed migrants who come and go.

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  • Pisani, Donald J. From Family Farm to Agribusiness: The Irrigation Crusade in California and the West, 1850–1931. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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    Pisani argues that while irrigation programs could have promoted small farms, they turned to agribusiness; in place of societal transformation, they promoted agricultural establishment. Pisani didn’t study farms per se, but irrigation programs and the way agriculture was imagined.

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  • Vaught, David. After the Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

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    Vaught makes the case for “new” rural history by examining “wheat farmers in their social and cultural context,” beyond “production, distribution, technology, and government policy.” An excellent antidote to mining-centered narratives of California experience.

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  • Worster, Donald. Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

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    According to Worster, the West developed through corporate and governmental elites (the Bureau of Reclamation), who built dams, reservoirs, and canals and benefited from them. Small farmers and citizens had no place in this framework. There was constant tension between Jeffersonian agrarianism and the alliance of big business and big government.

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Mines and Railroads

Mines are a way to achieve great wealth, thanks to earth’s production of ores, and mines had traditionally been examined through community studies. Mann 1982 and Jameson 1998 are two good examples of what historians did—and still could do—through quantitative study of the census as well as newspapers, family papers, and, for Elisabeth Jameson, labor union papers and oral history. Johnson 2000 is not exactly an old-fashioned community study but is a fine-grained cultural history of ethnic and gender conflict and identities in Gold Rush California. Isenberg 2005 is the first environmental history of the California Gold Rush (until the 1870s). According to the author, California was far from an agrarian dream or a poor man’s country: federal state and capitalists allied to exploit natural resources without really questioning social or environmental consequences. By building on questions answered in the 1970s, the author of White 2011 wonders if railroads were necessary in the American West, and concludes, like Isenberg, that state and capitalists worked more to make money than to develop the West.

  • Isenberg, Andrew. Mining California: An Ecological History. New York: Hill and Wang, 2005.

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    According to Isenberg, industrial development appeared because of the federal government’s legislation and flow of eastern capital, and it led to social inequalities and environmental transformations. He studies flood management in Sacramento, as well as hydraulic mining and mercury in the mountains, where water and redwood forest suffered, as did the men and women who lived there.

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  • Jameson, Elisabeth. All That Glitters: Class, Conflict and Community in Cripple Creek. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

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    Studies class, gender, and community in a Colorado mining town in its heyday. Through a Marxist bias (modes of production, working class) and then-new research fields (gender), the author empathetically captures deeply encroached capitalist structures and the complex world of all the militant men and women who fought for a better life.

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  • Johnson, Susan Lee. Roaring Camps: The Social Life of California Gold Rush. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.

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    Scrutinizes southern mines east of Stockton, California, from 1848 to 1855. Archives of cultural and social history, through gender and race, reveal stories of changing masculinities, rough violence against Chilean and French miners, and of what women expected and did when they arrived in this region, as well as the way the Gold Rush epic was quickly constructed.

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  • Mann, Ralph. After the Gold Rush: Society in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California, 1849–1870. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1982.

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    Confirms in the Far West what Wade 1959 (cited under Cities) established in the Trans-Appalachian West: Anglo-American settlers didn’t want to create a totally new world; they traveled with their own values and preferred to reproduce what they left on the East Coast. In Grass Valley and Nevada City, they quickly tried—and succeeded—to change mining camps into small “normalized” towns, with their inequalities and racial, social, and gender boundaries.

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  • White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011.

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    Digging up company as well as public archives, contends that railroads were not built for the westerner’s benefit but that the West was the playground for federal government and eastern financiers’ power and profit. As a development strategy, transcontinentals were useless, but they did merge public and private interests to make money.

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Conservation

Conservation in 19th-century western history is how some elite white men imagined nature and how they had to “preserve” it. In very few pages, Spence 1999 explains how some Americans created wilderness in order to imagine themselves as a nation at the end of the 19th century, when the United States was urbanizing and industrializing. While Mark Spence argued that eastern promoters of Yellowstone removed Indians to create wilderness, the author of Jacoby 2001 went even further by studying the Indians as well as other individuals or groups, using what elites thought should be “protected” parks. After studying water in the West for years, the author of Worster 2009 decided to shift from capitalistic or federal structures to individual destinies to understand the way that Americans thought about nature; John Muir was a pivotal figure in intellectual American history.

  • Jacoby, Karl. Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservationism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

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    Scrutinizing three case studies (Adirondacks, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon), Jacoby argues that “Squatters, poachers and thieves” developed communities who could control access to land but who lost this access when the state, through environmentalism, was authorized to use violence against them.

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  • Spence, Mark David. Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    National parks were created to preserve landscapes for the benefit of people. But which people, asks Spence? Using Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite as test cases, the author argues convincingly that preserving meant dispossessing: uninhabited wilderness requires Indian displacement.

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  • Worster, Donald. A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    This biography of Muir is traditional but efficient and sheds light on Muir’s personal achievements (the “discovery” of the Grand Canyon, for instance), but also more generally on how Muir’s thinking and spirituality advanced American environmentalist imagination and movements around the turn of the 19th century.

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New Societies

Settlers in the 19th-century West created new societies. Historians have studied the way migrants organized their move and thought about the country they arrived in and their aspirations, from the East Coast, the Midwest, the South, Europe, and Asia. They also imagine this new world through gender. Historians have argued that cities were fundamental in western experience, despite difficulties integrating the importance of religion in the West into their narratives.

Migrants

For a long time, the only migrants whom historians studied were the Anglo-American white pioneers who heroically crossed the Plains. Those migrants are now nearly absent from the field. Those who want to understand the iconic transcontinental migration—covered wagons, forts, and Indians—still must read the classic Unruh 1979, almost an encyclopedia of overland migration before the railroads. John Unruh’s book is still valuable in the late 2010s mainly for its quantitative estimates and for migration material history. Richards 2017 surprisingly revises what we thought about those who migrated before the Mexican War. Instead of seeing pre-1846 overland migrants as the forefront of US conquest, Thomas Richards contends that they left for regions they couldn’t know would subsequently be part of the United States, precisely because they were not part of the United States. They are what May 1994 defines as its first model: people who left to reproduce what they thought they were losing (or what they couldn’t have) at home. Now, historians study mainly the various ethnic groups peopling the West. Building on the author’s own studies of Swedish Americans, as well as new archives and secondary sources, Gjerde 1997 explains why so many European chose to settle in the Plains. Instead of debating the “frontier” of New Western history, West 1998 crafts a case study of Colorado that remains a classic in western history. Historians still build on the waves of migrants peopling the central Plains. Taylor 1998 is the only overview of African Americans in the West, while Emmons 2010 creates a new framework to understand Irish experiences in America. After so much work by the author on Chinese exclusion laws and Chinese miners in California, Chung 2011 sheds light on rarer experiences. Murphy 2014 mixes old quantitative tools with early-21st-century concepts such as borderlands and creolization to shed light on Mississippi valley Creoles, and more generally on US Creole history. Nugent 1999 is the only synthesis on the peopling of the West, but it lacks the new historiography and concepts of the 1990s. Neither totally Turnerian nor New Western history, Walter Nugent’s narrative stands in the middle, almost as an appreciation to the settlers from everywhere who built the West.

  • Chung, Sue Fawn. In Pursuit of Gold: Chinese Miners and Merchants in the American West. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

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    Scrutinizing three small and isolated Rocky Mountain communities of mostly Chinese miners and merchants, and using a whole range of sources from census to archaeology, Chung argues that despite anti-Chinese sentiments and laws, positive interactions with Euro-American society existed.

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  • Emmons, David M. Beyond the American Pale: The Irish in the West, 1845–1910. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010.

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    Emmons wanted to shed light both on what the West was for the nation as a whole, and on the ways the Irish could fit that model as exiled, poor Catholic peasants who fled home from the 1840s onward. He correctly argues that religion is deeply important in western history, even that of labor—most of the Irish in the West were miners or other workers. The narrative stops in the 1910s.

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  • Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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    Gjerde contends in this landmark study that migrants came to the rural Midwest (for most of those migrants, the “West”) because they believed in what the United States proposed: freedom to be Swedish, German, or Norwegian and to reimagine in the Plains the world they thought they had lost in Europe. They became American so as to not break with their past—although they of course changed through the generations.

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  • May, Dean. Three Frontiers: Family, Land and Society in the American West, 1850–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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    By studying three rural communities, Mormon historian May defines three frontiers; that is to say, three reasons to migrate and settle in the West. In Sublimity, Oregon, Old South settlers wanted to reproduce the world they left. In Alpine, Utah, English Mormons were looking for a place where they could try out their faith in a rough environment. In Middletown, Idaho, migrants believed in markets and wanted to “get in, get rich, get out.” May argues that the third model has contaminated the first two ones.

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  • Murphy, Lucy Eldersveld. Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750–1860. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107281042Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A community study that sheds light on global phenomena: the way the Creoles reinvent themselves, both as French-speaking Catholics, frequently of mixed ancestry, and American citizens, from the War of 1812 to the Civil War. Should lead historians to think about old questions such as American citizenship in the early Republic, or how the Hispanics have been defined and their lands stolen in the Southwest.

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  • Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of Its People. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

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    The only synthesis of the peopling of the West from 1848 to the end of 20th century. Still valuable and useful as a good factual database, with an intent to be inclusive and not just a white pioneer history.

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  • Richards, Thomas S., Jr. “‘Farewell to America’: The Expatriation Politics of Overland Migration, 1841–1846.” Pacific Historical Review 86.1 (2017): 114–152.

    DOI: 10.1525/phr.2017.86.1.114Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    According to Richards, pre-1846 migrants fled a country in crisis, due to the Panic of 1837 and sectional tensions, and were looking for cheap and free land they couldn’t find in the United States. That dream was more important than any American expansion, and many even imagine creating new republics.

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  • Taylor, Quintard. In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

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    Taylor’s book is the only comprehensive history of the African American experience in the American West. It should be updated, but it’s still a good introduction to slavery and freedom in the antebellum West (part North, part South), Reconstruction, migration patterns (exodusters and others), buffalo soldiers, and the end of the 20th century’s black, urban West.

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  • Unruh, John D. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

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    Understands migration as the meeting of many enterprises: migrants, but also the federal government (through the US Army), the Mormons, natives, and the myriad private entrepreneurs who tried to benefit. Unruh’s lists of prices and analyses of the market and animal trade have never been replaced.

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  • West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

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    In this wonderful book, West studies the central Plains when they became Colorado in the 1850s and 1860s. Cheyenne and fur traders who had built the first colonial model’s mixed society had to fight not to disappear amid “goldseekers” building another society by taking land and minerals.

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Gender

As in other fields of historical research, women—and subsequently gender—appeared in the 1970s and deeply reinvigorated the field well before New Western history. Faragher 1979 studies gender, whereas Unruh 1979 (cited under Migrants), in its comprehensive analysis of the overland trail, does not. Women historians began to merge quantitative data and more-intimate archives to understand women’s lives and what it meant to be a woman in the West, which they still understood in a Turnerian way. Two very good regional monographs are Riley 1981, on Iowa, and Petrik 1988, on Montana. Van Kirk 1980 studies “country marriages” in the British colonies to create a model that has been applied in the United States as well. González 1999 sheds light on the ways Hispanic women resisted and adapted to the American conquest. Mead 2004 explains how and why women’s suffrage appeared first in the West. Garceau-Hagen 2005 made historians understand that they must use new frameworks to study women: they have to point to individual lives and integrate communities into any global narrative. Jacobs 2010 provocatively argues that historians should definitively stop writing history from the white pioneers’ point of view. Moore 2010 examines cowboys and cattle men to show the relationship between class and gender, since the definition and display of bosses’ and workers’ masculinity greatly differed. Boag 2011 illuminates the transgender and cross-dressing history of the American West and how it has been erased.

  • Boag, Peter. Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.

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    Rediscovering five long-buried lives at the end of the 19th century, sheds light on cross-dressing or living a transgender life in the West, also explaining how conceptions of masculinity and womanhood contributed to those lives’ erasure. Calls for historians to attempt to quantify and compare the West with other places.

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  • Faragher, John Mack. Women and Men in the Overland Trail. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

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    Like Unruh 1979 (cited under Migrants), Faragher studies gender by working on diaries. Instead of looking for prices or hardships, he sought what differentiated men’s and women’s experiences on the trail, and how it created or reinforced male and female experiences in the Midwest, where most migrants came from. For instance, masculinity was reinforced by frequent hunting along the trail.

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  • Garceau-Hagen, Dee, ed. Portraits of Women of the American West. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    After the quantitative era, women historians turned to biography to “open windows on gender relations” between the late 19th century and the 20th century; in the first decade of the 21st century, it became important to offer portraits from every community.

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  • González, Deena J. Refusing the Favor: The Spanish-Mexican Women of Santa Fe, 1820–1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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    The first of a wave of historians who shifted from white pioneer women to conquered Hispanic women. In Santa Fe, women of Spanish descent (or so called) had to learn to gain and maintain power through marriage with Anglo-American merchants. Other historians have confirmed this in California. In a colonial context, women must adapt, collaborate, accommodate, or refuse, risking their wealth and lands. In turn, conquerors needed Hispanic women to subvert the borderlands.

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  • Jacobs, Margaret D. “Getting out of a Rut: Decolonizing Western Women’s History.” Pacific Historical Review 79.4 (2010): 585–604.

    DOI: 10.1525/phr.2010.79.4.585Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Jacobs argues that the monographs about white pioneer women in specific states or regions of the 1980s must be avoided in the 2010s. Historians have to decolonize their narratives and to begin to adopt a multicultural frame, engaging in an analysis of power relations along gender, class, and race lines, and, above all, between women, understanding the West as a colonial region.

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  • Mead, Rebecca. How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868–1914. New York: New York University Press, 2004.

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    Western success in women’s suffrage “stands in profound contrast to the East.” But that’s not a simple, triumphalist, or exceptionalist history. It falls into three phases: first, from the end of the Civil War to 1883, territories gained women’s suffrage through Reconstruction’s New Departure theory and Mormon influence; second, Populists won in Colorado and Idaho in the 1890s; third, the Progressive moment led to a new wave from 1910 to 1914.

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  • Moore, Jacqueline M. Cow Boys and Cattle Men: Class and Masculinities on the Texas Frontier. New York: New York University Press, 2010.

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    Moore was curiously the first one to use gender to scrutinize that example of rude and heroic masculinity: the cowboy. Beyond explaining what it meant to be men for those workers, she explores the difference between conceptions of masculinity for cowboys and their bosses (the cattle men).

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  • Petrik, Paula. No Step Backward: Women and Family on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier, Helena, Montana, 1865–1900. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988.

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    A very good example of mixing quantitative analysis (through the census database) and individual stories dug up in court archives and newspapers. Contends that women of Helena who confronted the “urban mining frontier” redefined womanhood and increased their independence, except prostitutes, who lost many social and economic opportunities with the cultural and social normalization of the closing of the frontier.

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  • Riley, Glenda. Frontierswomen: The Iowa Experience. Ames: University of Iowa Press, 1981.

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    A landmark study, produced in an era when women historians began to integrate women into history. A kind of old-frontier history with the long-forgotten point of view of women, using census records and also letters, diaries, and memoires scattered in state or county historical societies. Sheds light on what was called Iowa from 1830 to 1870, and on women’s agency at work and at home, in peace and in the Civil War.

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  • Van Kirk, Sylvia. “Many Tender Ties”: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670–1870. Winnipeg, MB: Watson & Dwyer, 1980.

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    By the first scholar to seriously study “country marriages” of fur traders and native women. Those women and their “half-blood” children had to live between two worlds, and the gender relations, social world, and mixed faiths they created are still being discovered by historians who followed Van Kirk.

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Cities

For a long time, cities didn’t exist in western history, though they existed in western novels, comics, and movies. Historians didn’t know what to do with Tombstone or Rio Bravo. Wade 1959 changed frontier history by arguing that urban history didn’t fit Frederick Jackson Turner’s model: trans-Appalachian cities often preceded rural frontiers, and their inhabitants didn’t imagine inventing a new democratic nation in the West. Richard Wade invented one more frontier, an urban one, without deeply revolutionizing Turner’s hypothesis. In the 1960s some historians noticed that cities were still absent. Dykstra 1968 built on Wade 1959 and on Turnerian heritage, understanding five Kansas towns as stable communities. Though Robert Dykstra’s model should be reevaluated, his work is still good to begin with. Barth 1988 invents a new concept, understanding San Francisco and Denver as “instant cities.” Gunther Barth’s analysis, though useful, looks over the nuances of gender, race, or, to focus on the frontier, pioneers and wilderness. Reps 1979 is a visual encyclopedia of western cities. Mahoney 1990 builds on Wade 1959, linking cities to western market and transportation networks. Cronon 1991 refuses New Western history’s regionalist narrative as well as the Turnerian frontier, linking environmental and economic history with historical geography. This study, though flawed, is still a landmark. Abbott 2008 is the best overview, to date, of urban western history.

  • Abbott, Carl. How the Cities Have Won the West: Four Centuries of Urban Change in Western North America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008.

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    Abbott debates Turner’s East-West concepts to show some cities developing along a North-South axis, shedding light on major themes of urban history while at the same time arguing that railroads and multiple waves of global capitalism were key factors in western urban development.

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  • Barth, Gunther. Instant Cities: Urbanization and the Rise of San Francisco and Denver. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

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    Barth invented the concept of “instant cities,” a first step toward either “ordinary cities” or “ghost towns.” But those cities were diverse: economic towns (Santa Fe), imperial outposts (Monterrey), farmers’ markets (Champanoog, Oregon), and temple cities (Salt Lake City), or, like Denver and San Francisco, “produced by gold and sustained by commerce and industry.” First published in 1975.

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  • Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.

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    Cronon centers his “Great West” on Chicago and explains a technological and ecological system. Chicago exists only through western ecosystems and what men decided to produce and transport. Because of railroads, the lake city became an entrepôt, a hub, the place where the capital came from and through: Chicago was organized by the Great West and the Great West was organized by Chicago.

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  • Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

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    Contends that Abilene, Ellsworth, Dodge City, Wichita, and Caldwell were real communities, driven by cattle enterprises and divided by civic conflicts over reform, which “largely succeeded” in law enforcement, with fewer murders than we might think. Those who were involved in homicide were often a transient population.

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  • Mahoney, Timothy R. River Towns in the Great West: The Structure of Provincial Urbanization in the American West. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511549915Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using transdisciplinary methods, above all, historical geography, Mahoney builds on Wade 1959, proposing a theoretical framework to understand cities in a regional system along the upper Mississippi. He argues that this regional urban network was river oriented because it was market centered, hierarchically organized around transporting agricultural production out of the West. Since Mahoney mainly studied the era of the river and the canal, he is less valuable on the railroad era and the Far West.

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  • Reps, John W. Cities of the American West: A History of Frontier Urban Planning. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

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    This is a strange book, a kind of encyclopedia of western cities and towns, without real conceptual framework, but full of five hundred illustrations—including many bird’s-eye views that boosters used to spread awareness of these towns and cities in the 19th century—now often available online. Reps argues that Turner was wrong: cities weren’t spontaneous; they were planned, either by boosters or by governments.

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  • Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: Pioneer Life in Early Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Lexington, Louisville and St. Louis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

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    Contends that cities existed simultaneously with, or preceded, Turner’s or Ray Allen Billington’s rural frontiers, and moreover, that urban settlers didn’t want to create a more democratic, individualistic world but to reproduce the one they left. Wade studied the Trans-Appalachian West, and because no work was farther West, urban western history never became a very dynamic field.

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Religion

The main argument presented in Szasz 1988 is still useful: western history neglects religious (mainly Protestant) problems, as if religion was disconnected from society, prioritizing the study of race or gender over religion. Ferenc Szasz’s book is a good introduction and should help historians ask new questions about western religious history. Religion is embedded in many aspects of western history and should be considered one of its many dimensions. Historians of religion are also to blame, too often seeing themselves as more connected to religious institutions than to other historians. Writing Mormon history is still difficult, with few “New Mormon” historians appearing in the 1970s, but see Turner 2012. Catholic history is more dynamic, even if sometimes very conservative and hagiographic due to connections with ecclesiastical institutions. See Butler 2012 to understand Catholic sisters’ important role in western history, and Villerbu 2014 to see a local (Minnesotan) case study.

  • Butler, Anne M. Across God’s Frontiers: Catholic Sisters in the American West, 1850–1920. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

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    Both innovative and conservative, Butler’s stance is exceptionalist, but innovative for its study of sisters’ daily life in the West; their dealings with Hispanics, Indians, or African Americans; how they financed their activities; and, above all, how their dreams differed from reality: how they wanted to change the world and were changed by it. Sisters became, in Butler’s narrative, migrants among many others.

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  • Szasz, Ferenc Morton. The Protestant Clergy in the Great Plains and Mountain West, 1865–1915. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

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    Studies all the Protestant denominations in the Great Plains and Mountain West. Szasz argues that missionaries ultimately failed to “shape the West in their own image,” with Anglo settlers rarely convinced by their moral crusade, their difficulty converting Mormons or the Catholic Hispanics, and the unpredictable reaction of the Indians.

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  • Turner, John G. Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674067318Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    What should historians do with Joseph Smith’s prophecy, and how can they write honestly from Mormon archives, controlled by the Latter Day Saints? Turner accessed Young’s papers and tried to narrate this religious history, from New York’s “burned-over district” where Mormonism was created as a deeply American sect, to Deseret, where Young controlled his flock from the 1840s to his death in 1877, to American conquest and the necessary evolution of Mormonism.

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  • Villerbu, Tangi. Les missions du Minnesota: Catholicisme et colonisation dans l’Ouest américain, 1830–1860. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014.

    DOI: 10.4000/books.pur.42629Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Mixing French and American historical trends, Villerbu studies the transition from a first colonial model to settlement colonization through a Catholic lens in Minnesota. French missionaries first had to deal with Dakotas, mixed-blood fur traders or farmers, and soldiers, all of whom tended to invent their own Catholicism. French and German priests chose to make sure that Catholic settlers were good parishioners rather than converting Indians into Catholic farmers.

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Myth

The West is the American creation myth, and that myth must be studied. Smith 1950 and Slotkin 1973 paved the way. As the first scholarly study of the West as myth, Henry Nash Smith’s book is still valuable, arguing that Frederick Jackson Turner and his frontier hypothesis had to be analyzed as a part of a long western narrative. Though Richard Slotkin’s method was often ahistorical, without context, and culturalist, no one who would like to seriously scrutinize the West as myth or narrative can bypass this landmark study. Subsequent scholars scrutinized those who participated in the myth’s creation (on boosters and pioneers, see Wrobel 2002; on Buffalo Bill, see Warren 2005; on Owen Wister and eastern elites, see Bold 2013) or understand it as a global process: Villerbu 2007 examines travel writing, dime novels, movies, academic journals, shows, and missionaries’ narratives, available from the end of the 18th century to the beginning on the 20th century. Wrobel 2013 sheds new light on the West as a global process.

  • Bold, Christine. The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880–1924. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199731794.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Uses Owen Wister’s famous novel The Virginian (1902) to scrutinize a group of East Coast “aristocrats” (George Bird Grinnell, Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt) whom she calls “frontier club,” due to their use of the frontier narrative to assert their own power as rich white males. Through race, gender, and class, Bold’s cultural history of publishing and promoting western fiction sheds light on the modern meaning of the American West.

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  • Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Lands: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950.

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    A totally Turnerian framework, showing how the United States was exceptional and triumphant, forgetting other stories and leaving other characters, who still stay invisible.

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  • Slotkin, Richard. Regeneration through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600–1860. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

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    Contends that the United States invented its foundation myth by narrating a violent conquest and the settlers’ regeneration, a kind of pre-Turnerian Turnerian hypothesis. Uses novels as sources (James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series) and Custer’s Last Stand as a symbol.

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  • Villerbu, Tangi. La conquête de l’Ouest: Le récit français de la nation américaine au 19ème siècle. Rennes, France: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2007.

    DOI: 10.4000/books.pur.6251Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that narrating a great West is one of the most effective ways to shed light on the nation-building process in North America. French people imagine what the United States was, and its place in the world, through western fantasies. Though different and even contradictory, all these fantasies agree that the American nation was born in the West.

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  • Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

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    The best biography on Buffalo Bill. Sheds light on how William Cody invented his own life as well as the American West through his influence as entertainer, businessman, and myth creator. His Wild West Show was among the most important methods for creating and spreading a western narrative for national and international audiences. In Europe, the Wild West Show exported what the United States wanted to say about its past and its very essence.

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  • Wrobel, David M. Promised Lands: Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

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    Compares boosters and pioneers, the first group describing a wonderful present and a bright future; the second were nostalgic for the rugged past they reconstructed. They all participated in the invention of the “frontier” as a triumphalist narrative, but not only as a nation-building myth. Wrobel sheds light on westerners’ deep sense of place, and on their many regional and local identities.

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  • Wrobel, David. Global West, American Frontier: Travel, Empire, and Exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Great Depression. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013.

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    Critically examining Edward Said or Mary Louise Pratt’s works on orientalism and empire, Wrobel argues that travel writing, one of the most popular 19th-century genres, is an excellent way to think about the West. American or European travelers, thinking globally, described an exceptional American frontier, at the same time comparing it to other imperial and colonial conquests.

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