Class Overview

Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote, “. . . the history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.” This course will examine the place, process, idea, cultural memory, conquest, and legacies of the U.S. West throughout American history. The American West has been a shifting region, ranging from the Louisiana Purchase territory to the Pacific coast, where diverse individuals, languages, cultures, environments, and competing nations came together. We will examine the West’s contested rule, economic production, incorporation, and mythmaking under Native American Empires, Spain, France, England, individual filibusters, Mexico, Canada, and an aggressively expanding United States. The West has embodied the American dream, the ideal of mobility, freedom, and a mythology of abundant uninhabited “virgin” land, while also representing an American nightmare full of disease, catastrophic environmental disasters, Native rebellion, barren landscapes, confinement, and racial violence. Popular images of the West often center on masculine archetypes of the rugged self-made man or lone cowboy as the embodiment of American independence, but the West’s power and daily operations required household partnerships with women, forced laborers, unionization, political activist movements, and a reliance on the United States federal government on a scale unknown to any other region.

Major themes and topics of this course include the mapping and the scientific cataloging of the West, missionaries, the environment, forced and elective migration, mythology, racial caricature and exclusion, gender, the household, settlement, imperialism, borders, and disruption of diverse groups of native and colonial people, the cultural representation of the West in popular culture, and the increasing role of the federal government.

Course Requirements

  • Attendance and participation. 20% of your grade.

The success of this class hinges on active engagement by all students. Attendance is mandatory. If you cannot attend for medical or emergency reasons, please submit proper documentation. Participation involves preparation, thoughtful contribution, and engaging with your peers. Students will participate in both small group work and large class discussions. Attendance will be taken at the beginning of each class. Absences and late arrivals will affect your participation grade.

  • Weekly assignment. 10% of your grade.

Each week’s readings will include primary sources and/ or a set of articles or book chapters. It is your responsibility to secure these sources, read them, and submit your weekly assignment by 8 P.M. on Mondays. These assignments are to help you prepare for class discussion, to practice argumentative writing, and to give you an opportunity to fulfill some of your participation. Your responses should be no more than two paragraphs.

Each student will give a five-minute presentation on a “found object” in Los Angeles archives, analyzing how it relates to the week’s course themes and readings. You will “bring this object to class” through a digitized research presentation, (you can use Power Point, SlideShare, Prezie, Zeega, a short film, etc.). Throughout the course, we will encounter readings that use material culture, especially by various Native American tribes who left more objects than written sources. Consider what everyday objects can tell us about the past. Consider the object’s design, creation, distribution, provenance, and lineage. What can objects reveal about kinship networks, migration, labor, leisure, environmental change, or the history of capitalism? How do race, gender, and sexuality come into play?  For an example, see: Yolonda Youngs, “On Grand Canyon Postcards,” Environmental History, 16 (2011), 138-47. You will receive further instructions.

Submit a polished thousand-word film analysis focused on the tension between western mythology, cultural representation, and the history of the U.S. West. A list of pre-selected films for you to consider along with their movie trailers can be found here:

Directions for writing your film review can be found here:

A list of pre-selected films for you to consider along with their movie trailers can be found here:

  • Collaborative Research Project. 40% of your grade. Due April 21, 2017 at 5 P.M.

You will receive further information outlining the project.   

  • Final Exam. 10% of your grade.
  • Office Hours
    After registration, I will circulate a signup sheet for one-on-one meetings so I can learn more about you, your intellectual goals, and interests in the American West. There will also be a mandatory mid-semester check-in meeting.
  • Late Work.
    All late work will be docked 2 points automatically, and one additional point for every late day. No exceptions.
  • Technology in the classroom.

Please respect our classroom environment. Turn off cell phones while in class. You may only use your laptop during classes that require you to read digital primary source material. Recording, filming, and photography is not allowed during class sessions.

  • Grading Rubric.
    94-100 = A | 90-93 = A- | 87-89 = B+ | 84-86 = B | 80-83 = B- | 77-79 = C+ | 74-76 = C | 70-73 = C- | 67-69 = D+ | 64-66 = D | 60-63 = D | > 59 = F

Warning of Graphic Material

America has a dark past. The subject matter of this course—both in imagery and description—can and will at times be graphic and upsetting. Understanding that each individual’s level of sensitivity can be different, if some part of the course is overly distressing or disturbing please feel free to discuss such problems with the instructor.

Academic Honesty & Classroom Conduct

You are encouraged to discuss the readings and ideas in the course with your fellow classmates and others. However, your written work should be planned, developed, and written by you alone. Plagiarism—the representation of ideas or words by another source as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words—is cause for an automatic failing of this course. Words taken directly from another source (whether the item was found in published or unpublished print material, manuscript source, or the internet) should be presented in quotation marks, with the source clearly indicated in footnotes. Ideas paraphrased from another source should also be footnoted to indicate and credit the source. Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Section 11, “Behavior Violating University Standards.”

Conduct: Discrimination, sexual assault, threats, and harassment are not tolerated by the university. You are encouraged to report any incidents that occur in person or online to the Office of Equity and Diversity or to the Department of Public Safety. This is important for the safety of the whole USC community. Another member of the university community – such as a friend, classmate, advisor, or faculty member – can help initiate the report, or can initiate the report on behalf of another person. The Center for Women and Men provides 24/7 confidential support, and the Sexual Assault Resource Center webpage describes reporting options and other resources.

Support Systems:  A number of USC’s schools provide support for students who need help with scholarly writing. Check with your advisor or program staff to find out more about The Writing Center, or consult them directly. Students whose primary language is not English should check with the American Language Institute, which sponsors courses and workshops specifically for international graduate students. Additionally, The Office of Disability Services and Programs provides certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange the relevant accommodations. If an officially declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible, USC Emergency Information will provide safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued by means of blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technology.

Students needing academic adjustments or accommodations because of a documented disability must present their Faculty Letter from the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) and speak with the professor by the end of the second week of the term. Failure to do so may result in our inability to respond in a timely manner. All discussions will remain confidential, although Faculty are invited to contact the SSD to discuss appropriate implementation of accommodations.Required Texts, Films, and Workshop

Required Texts, Films, and Workshop

We will screen two films in this course: The Searchers and Salt of the Earth. We will also use short video clips, analyze images, and listen to music. You will be responsible for all material presented, just as you would assigned readings. All required books are available for purchase at the USC book store. Most of our readings are available online and have been identified as such with an asterisk. You are also required to obtain and read the following:

  • Babb, Sanora, Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel (2006)
  • Sone, Monica, Nisei Daughter (1979)
  • Ulrich, Laurel, A House Full of Women: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism (2017)

Schedule of Classes

Week 1

January 10, 2017. Introductions: Where and What Is the American West? Looking East with Lakota Winter Counts and Maps

January 12, 2017. Comanchería and The Mission System 

Week 2 

January 17, 2017. The Haitian Revolution to Lewis and Clark

January 19, 2017. The Overland Trails and Mormon Trials

Week 3

January 24, 2017. The Trail of Tears

January 26, 2017. The Mexican-American War

Week 4

January 30, 2017. Screening of “The Searchers” at 7:30 PM 

January 31, 2017. Popular Culture and Violence in Gold Rush San Francisco

February 2, 2017. No Class.

Week 5

February 7, 2017. The Civil War in the West 

February 9, 2017. Chinese Exclusion and Experience

Week 6 

February 14, 2017. Plains Warfare, Indian Reservations, and Boarding Schools

February 16, 2017. Ghost Dance to Wild West Shows

Week 7

February 21, 2017.  Labor, Landscapes, Preservation, and Destruction

February 23, 2017. No Class.  

  • Start reading Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher, A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870.

Week 8 

February 28, 2017. Women’s Rights in the West from Polygamy to The Vote

March 2, 2017. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake & The Progressive Era

Week 9 

March 7, 2017. Hollywood in the 1920s

March 9, 2017. The Global Great Depression in Western Focus

  • Babb, Sanora, Whose Names Are Unknown: A Novel (2006)
  • *Photogrammar – Explore Yale University’s 170,000 photographs from 1935 to 1945 created by the US Farm Security Administration

March 14 -16, 2017. Spring Break.

Week 10

March 21, 2017. The West at War: Homefront and the Pacific

March 23, 2017. Life in the Camps: Japanese America Incarcerated

  • Sone, Monica, Nisei Daughter (1979)
  • *Civil Liberties Act of 1988 and Presidential Letter from William Jefferson Clinton

Week 11 

March 28, 2017. Jim Crow in The City of Angels

  • *The Negro Traveler’s Green Books
  • *West, Kanye, Bound 2

March 30, 2017. Juan Crow and the Bracero Program

Week 12 

April 4, 2017. Amusement Parks, Dude Ranches & Gay Rodeos

April 6, 2017. No Class.

Week 13 

April 11, 2017. Cold War Hollywood

  • *Didion, Joan, John Wayne: A Love Song
  • *Thompson, Hunter S., Hippies
  • *Thompson, Hunter S., Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (Rolling Stone Original Publication)

April 13, 2017. The Atomic West and Conservative Right  

  • *“What It’s Like to Live in Earth’s Most A-Bombed Area,” U.S. News and World Report, 1957
  • *Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address as Governor. 5 January 1967.
  • *Todd Holmes, “The Economic Roots of Reaganism: Corporate Conservatives, Political Economy, and the United Farm Workers Movement,” 1965–1970,? Western Historical Quarterly 41:1 (Spring 2010): 55-80

Week 14

April 18, 2017. The Free Speech Movement 

April 20, 2017. Grape Boycott, Watts Uprising, Alcatraz Occupation

Week 15 

April 25, 2017. The Gay Rights Movement & Harvey Milk in San Francisco

April 27, 2017. 1992 Los Angeles Riots, O.J. Simpson, & the Racial Legacy of USC in the West

  • *W.A. “Fuck tha Police” and “Straight Outta Compton” (1988) (YouTube )
  • *Rodney King Beating & 1992 LA Riots (YouTube )
  • *Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (YouTube )
  • *Magic Johnson AIDS Special, 1992 (YouTube)


Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

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