In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The American West

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Myth

Atlantic History The American West
Tangi Villerbu
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0300


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.

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

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

    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.

  • 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.

    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.

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

    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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