Patricia Nelson Limerick isn’t setting out to discredit Frederick Jackson Turner as an historian and scholar. And it isn’t that she believes his influential “Frontier Thesis” was without merit. On the contrary, she describes Turner as a “scholar with intellectual courage, an innovative spirit, and a forceful writing style” whose thesis served a purpose in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. In Limerick’s opinion, the problem lies in the “excessive deference” for Turner that led many historians to believe that Turner’s thesis was the first, final, and only word in Western history. Although his conception of the frontier seemed unifying and efficient, its dominance wedded Western historians to an idea that was static, rigid, and exclusionary. The Frontier Thesis may have “created” Western history but it also set up arbitrary divisions between “the West” and “the rest” – divisions Limerick was determined to break down in The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.
Much of Limerick’s work hinges on the debate of “process” (how events unfolded) versus “place” (the importance of location). In Turner’s view, the process of settling the frontier served as the basis of American exceptionalism, the belief that the United States are unique among world nations. Limerick and other “New Western” historians have challenged this theory by declaring that the West was always a place, with many different actors and events, not an empty land anxiously awaiting the arrival of white settlers. Turner’s thesis drew a line in time, carving out the arrival of white settlers as the beginning of the West and the closing of the frontier in 1890 (based on his interpretation of census records) as the end of this era. Limerick attempts to restore continuity to both time and space, and in doing so, opens up the field of Western history.
To accomplish this, Limerick addressed the history of the West thematically and divides her book into two tellingly-titled sections: “The Conquerors” and “The Conquerors Meet Their Match.” Turner believed that the frontier, shifting from savagery to civilization, served to “Americanize” the nation. Working under that pretext, scholars and citizens have conceptualized the frontier as a positive process. Using “place” instead of “process,” Limerick characterizes this period of Western history as “conquest.” By viewing the West as a place, she repositions the role of white settlers. These enterprising individuals did not discover a new place – they attempted to conquer a land that was already inhabited by Indians. Although this concept may seem jarring to the uninitiated, Limerick points out the contradiction of believing that “the legacy of slavery was serious business, while the legacy of conquest was not.” The older framework only made sense was through the thick veil of denial. This denial, in turn, allowed for the proliferation of a number of myths in Western history, such as the idea of rugged individualism. Under this model, Westerners were fully removed from the rest of the country. When other actors appeared, they were viewed as imposing upon the Western (white) settlers. And if the settlers themselves happened to be imposing upon the Plains Indians, it was only because the forward march of history demanded it – and because the settlers had convinced themselves that Indians were a doomed race.
Unfortunately for this last myth, she states, the conquered refused to be or remain conquered, nor were they passive participants in the drama of the West. Attacking the notion that the history of the West is the history of the white man, Limerick turns her attention to Plains Indians, Hispanic, Chinese, Japanese, and blacks. Although she addresses these groups of people in a fairly general manner, she makes a strong case for the study of borderlands history. Viewed from a 21st-century perspective, it can be easy to forget that the giant coast-to-coast landmass of the United States was never preordained. Battles were fought, treaties were drawn, and revenge was sought before state lines could be carved into the map of America. Introducing other ethnic and racial groups broadens the scope of Western history and highlights the centrality of conquest in the creation of the West. As Limerick makes clear, the history of the West is a nuanced and multi-faceted tale. While an historian annoyed “by the ethnocentricity of earlier frontier history” may be tempted by the desire to “take the Indian side,” doing so will not erase ethnocentricity. The Indian (or Hispanic, or Chinese, or Japanese, or black) “side” is a difficult thing to locate. Instead, she recommends that historians view these groups – she is speaking of Indians in particular, but the same motivation carries throughout her other discussions – as “people steering their way through a difficult terrain of narrowing choices.” The history books may not have treated these groups kindly (if they addressed them at all) but that does not mean they did not act, react, and affect the environment and the people around them.
In her final chapter, Limerick attempts to wrestle with the enduring power of the mythologized West and the problems that remain. The “frontier” still commands great respect and politicians from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have invoked its notion of progress. Mexicans became “aliens” in their homeland when the United States conquered the Southwest and today, immigration remains a hot-button issue. Indians, still decidedly not-extinct, continue to maneuver through legal and political channels in an attempt to recoup their losses. But a restoration of rights does not, as Limerick points out, solve the larger problem of scarce resources. Although white settlers and the U.S. government were determined to “manage nature,” drought and limited access to water remain critical concerns.
Ironically, Limerick, considered one of the greatest scholars in the field of New Western history, is actually opposed to viewing Western history as an area of specialized study; her intention is to create connections. Reaching across the fields of economics, geography, anthropology and dipping into the current events, Limerick is trying to erase the lines Turner drew around the West. If the old ways of understanding Western history no longer work, new ways must be introduced. Here, environmental history and borderlands history take center stage.
A number of historians have followed in a similar vein. William Cronon and Elliot West address many of the same issues as Limerick – and then push them further. West affords Plains Indians an even more prominent position on the Western stage, portraying them as active participants in a history that is sometimes of their own making and sometimes out of their control. In examining the importance of 19th-century Chicago, Cronon points out the problems with ideas of Western independence. In both of these works, as with Limerick, environmental history looms large. These Contested Plains and Nature’s Metropolis simply could not have been written in the framework provided by Turner even if they largely discredit its theories.
There are several minor missteps in The Legacy of Conquest, many of which Limerick admits to in the preface to the 2006 reprint. For one, she does not investigate the role of fur traders in the West, which would have given her an avenue to explore more fluid conceptions of identity. She also does not take into account the role of cities, reverting, against her best intentions, to the tired “idea that the real West meant the rural West!” Although Limerick employed contemporary examples to illustrate her argument about continuity (and these topics are now 20-plus years old), the book has aged well – perhaps as more evidence of continuity of the West. Many of the issues she discussed remain unresolved: issues about resource conservation, immigration, and the management of nature seem as relevant today as they did in the 1980s – or even the 1880s.
Below, Patricia Limerick delivers her lecture, “The Winning of the West Revisited,” at the 2011 Theodore Roosevelt Symposium in Medora, North Dakota on October 29, 2011. Q&A session follows the lecture.
If anything, Limerick seems to run the risk of overselling her case. In her fifth chapter, “The Meeting Ground of the Past and Present,” Limerick thoroughly grounds her discussion in the political and environmental problems of 1970s and 1980s. It is a somewhat distracting diversion from the technique that Limerick employs in her other chapters. Her argument about continuity is most effective when woven within the larger narrative, not considered separately. Instead of drawing connections, it can seem as though Limerick is only pushing her agenda – perhaps the danger of any historian venturing into the present. Additionally, perhaps because many of the themes she addresses have been long-adopted by the historical profession, the reader is often willing to accept her ideas before Limerick has concluded her argument.
These issues are minor. The Legacy of Conquest stands out as a cogent, well-written, and gloriously accessible examination of the major themes in Western history. While experts are unlikely to be surprised, Legacy of Conquest serves as an excellent starting point for Western historians and, she hopes, American historians in general (after all, as Limerick might ask, what’s the difference?) Limerick cheerfully admits that her book is a work of synthesis. Many of the stories and characters she highlights are purposefully familiar to illustrate their previous historical immobility. Cast in the new light of environmental history or borderlands history, what is old becomes new again. Limerick is arguing (beseeching, pleading) for a new focus on inclusivity and continuity in Western scholarship. It is a point well made, and, judging by the durability of Legacy of Conquest and endurance of the New Western history, a point still well-taken.
For more information:
- Visit the U.S. History Scene reading lists for Environmental History, History of the American West, and Native American History