Huddled in a room at the Columbian Exposition in 1893, a group of academics listened to the last of several presenters, Frederick Jackson Turner, read his paper, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward,” the young historian contended on that sweltering July day, “explain American development.” Four hundred years after Columbus’s arrival in the New World, Turner essentially ignored the Indian in his famous thesis. One hundred years later, the Indians were remembered, and the quincentenary of the Columbian landfall was maligned more than it was celebrated. Comparisons of Columbus to Hitler were frequent, and many college campuses celebrated October 12, 1992 as “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
Not surprisingly, it was in this atmosphere—much of it derived from the 1960’s generation and their disillusionment with the Vietnam War and the failure of the War on Poverty—that the New Western Historians emerged and temporarily became ascendant over the western history profession. Led by Patricia Nelson Limerick, the New Western Historians declared Turner’s concept of the frontier—that which defined the American character—ethnocentric and even racist. “When clearly and precisely defined,” states Limerick’s one-page manifesto defining the New Western History, “the term ‘frontier’ is nationalistic and often racist (in essence, the area where white people get scarce).” In this essay I will examine the New Western Historians, their positions regarding the environment, economic development, and Native Americans, and will consider the arguments of their critics.
The New Western History
The New Western Historians are a diverse lot, and they hold no party line, contrary to the claims of their critics. Rather, and they readily admit this, they are attempting to correct national and “triumphal” myths of the American West; they desire to make the past usable. According to their manifesto, the New Western Historians advocate examining the West as a region rather than a process, rejecting the term “frontier,” considering whites invaders, exploring the continuity between the nineteenth and twentieth-century Wests, and feeling sympathy for their subjects. Walter Nugent, a historian somewhat sympathetic to the New Western Historians, explains their collective position as “anti-Turnerian” rather than “neo-Turnerian.” This is contrary to virtually all western history revision over the past century. According to John Mack Faragher, Turner’s essay is probably the most influential essay ever written on American history; it defines America.
Considering the immense power of the western myth in American culture, it should not be surprising that the New Western Historians and their critical ideas swept through the media. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, several popular periodicals—such as U.S. News and World Report, People, The New York Times Review of Books, The Economist, The New Republic, The New York Times Magazine, and USA Today—covered the New Western History with an interest rarely seen in academic arguments.
Originally, the four most prominently identified as New Western Historians were Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, Donald Worster, and William Cronon, known collectively as either the “Gang of Four,” after Mao’s radical vanguard, or the “Wild Bunch.” Cronon dropped out from this group almost as soon as he was identified with it and is currently the Frederick Jackson Turner Chair at the University of Wisconsin. This essay focuses on the other three. Limerick and Worster received their graduate training at Yale University. They now teach in neighboring states—Limerick is at the University of Colorado at Boulder and Worster is at the University of Kansas. Richard White did his graduate work at the University of Washington where he currently holds a chair.
While the New Western Historians are quite diverse in their thinking, they do share some similar views and goals. Probably more than any other issue, concern for the environment ties these three together. Before the term New Western History was coined, White, Worster, and Limerick had written important environmental histories. All three authors, to varying degrees, consider American culture (especially capitalism) exploitative and wasteful. It is difficult to separate their environmental views from those concerning the economy. Now deceased environmentalist-novelist Edward Abbey expressed it well: “The rancher is a man who supplants the native grasses with tumbleweed, snakeweed, mud, dust and flies. He drives off elk and antelope, shoots eagles, bears and cougars on sight. And then leans back and grins at the TV cameras and talks about how much he loves the American West.”
White’s dissertation, published in 1980 as Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington, is pathbreaking. It is the first narrowly focused, deep environmental study of one area (208 square miles) over a long period of time. Beginning his study at the last glaciation, some 25,000 years ago, White finds that all humans—Indians and whites—use the environment to better their own situation. Differences exist, though, between the two groups. Indians viewed the land as alive and full of spirits; it was something sacred to them. Whites felt nothing of the sort; culture and economics dictated that land was simply for profit. Both groups altered the land, and the land, in turn, altered them. And, both groups experienced unintended consequences from their actions.
Donald Worster, generally considered the best of all environmental historians, has certainly written the most provocative environmental histories. His first monograph, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s, winner of the 1980 Bancroft Prize, argued from a stridently Marxist viewpoint that the Dust Bowl was little more than nature’s retribution for the human imposition of modern capitalism upon it. Worster gives nature almost human (certainly cognizant) qualities. For example, in one essay, “Beyond the Agrarian Myth,” he argues that to understand the West better, historians must “look, as it were, through the eyes of the rest of nature.” In his 1985 monograph, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West, Worster continues with his Marxist themes, but also uses the ideas of Karl Wittfogel, the late German-American historian. Combining the theories of these two men, Worster finds (or so he believes) that water is the blood of the West, and those who control the water—generally big business and the government—control the West. “The American West is. . . more consistently and more decisively,” he argues in his best anti-Turnerian fashion, “a land of authority and restraint, of class and exploitation, and ultimately of imperial power.” Worster does not mince words. “He sharpens [sentences] into weapons, and this makes him a formidable polemicist,” colleague White writes. “When he attacks, his targets bleed.”
Patricia Limerick also targets exploitation and capitalism as culprits in environmental abuse and degradation, but her attacks are less severe than those of White and Worster. Capitalism, more than directly causing the rape of the land, simply led (and misled) people to the West, following boom and bust cycles. Once in the West, Americans tended to leave their trash in conspicuous places; the negative effects were indirect results of capitalism. In her Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, generally considered a touchstone for New Western Historians, Limerick focuses mostly on the government’s inability to manage nature and the West effectively.
None of the New Western Historians are overly appreciative of the free market or the economic development of the West. If their writings are considered collectively, one can find three themes that emerge concerning economic development. First, the free market in the West was exploitative, as covered above. Second, capitalism produced more failures than successes in the West. This was in large part due to the inherent problems of economic individualism. Whereas Turner, and Locke and Jefferson before him, envisioned the individual as the primary unit of a civilization—and the most productive—the New Western Historians see the individual as a destroyer. Worster, the farthest Left on this issue, argues that capitalism changes the very nature or essence of an individual, making him or her rapacious. He also contends that the West is the best place to examine American capitalism and the “power elites” who control everything.
The third point concerning the economy is—and it contradicts the first two points, that the free market caused the problems—that the federal government greatly facilitated the development of the West. From the very beginning, the federal government aided in settlement: defining land; fighting, placating, and removing Native Americans; building public works such as roads, canals, and dams; and offering railroad subsidies and free land. “Although couched in terms of frontier self-reliance and older western self-images,” Richard White notes, “western individualism in its most recent form is very much the product of an urban, prosperous, middle-class West whose very existence was the result of federal programs and policies.”
On the issue of Indians, the New Western Historians are still less coherent. The New Western Historians claim to be appalled by the Turnerian’s use of the Indian as foils for “brave, patriotic whites” who fought them to clear the country for settlement and by the Turnerian’s view that the Indians were simply a part of nature. However, if one considers the overarching theme in Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest, that “conquest” shaped the American character, then Indians are once again relegated to monolithic victim status. The only difference between the Turnerians and the New Western Historians, is that in this new story, whites are now the bad guys. Critics of the New Western History have been quick to note this point. In Limerick’s defense, she does stress that historians should examine the vastness and distinctiveness of Native-American cultures, even though she herself fails to do so. Worster, aside from encouraging an ethnohistorical approach to studying Indians, has written nothing significant on them.
White, however, has written brilliantly and broadly on the history of Native Americans. In his first book on Indians, The Roots of Dependency, White attempts to meld his views on the environment and economics with “Third World Dependency Theory” to explain the history of three distinct American-Indian tribes, the Choctaws, the Pawnees, and the Navajos. White argues that trade with European-Americans altered the very fabric—especially their profound relationship with the environment—of Native-American life. “Initially they obtained clothing and other manufactured items as the result of various exchanges [that] were not beyond their control. Increasingly, however, the terms of these exchanges were literally dictated by the whites.” As the Indians grew more and more dependant on whites, they lost their own ability to understand and use the environment around them. White’s second book concerning Indians, The Middle Ground, uncovers a vast and important new area in frontier and Indian historiography. White brilliantly examines the ways in which radically different cultures, most notably (though not exclusively) the French and Great Lakes Indians, found ways to “peaceably” and meaningfully deal with one another. But, because the program of the New Western Historians and the study of American Indians is so tenuous, Wilbur Jacobs notes that the White who authored “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” a New Western History textbook to replace Billington’s Westward Expansion, and the White who authored the Middle Ground, seem like two different persons.
Opposition to the New Western History
Not surprisingly, the attacks on Turner and traditional western history have roused the ire of many in the profession. The New Western History has engendered great new debates on the profession’s most pressing and fundamental questions: what and where is the West; and what is the larger significance to the nation? Many Turnerians and neo-Turnerians have reacted with a counter-offensive. These attacks range from the moderate to the reactionary in degree. “I think that what we have here is an image of an ideal West, and the real West doesn’t come up to it,” Howard Lamar, Limerick’s dissertation director, says. “So they tend to look at the dark side of things. There, I have to part company, but in a friendly way.” Paul Andrew Hutton, a former student of Martin Ridge, claims that the New Western Historians suffer from “insecurity & cultural inferiority.” Larry McMurtry, in a very clever article, argues that the New Western History should more appropriately be called “Failure Studies,” and Gerald Kreyche, a retired philosopher, labels them the “new flag burners.” Some claim their work lacks originality. Other critics claim they simply tell the story with a negative tone. Several seem embittered by the attention given to the New Western Historians. Limerick herself has recently lamented that all of her agitating has only increased the standing of Turner and reinvigorated Turnerian thought in the profession.
Historians Gerald Nash, Gerald Thompson, and John Mack Faragher provide the most comprehensive and hard-hitting arguments against the New Western History. In 1986, Nash wrote an article in which he claimed historians have an “obligation” to students to present the history of the American West as the “personification of the American Dream.” He now views the new historians, naturally, as far too pessimistic—a pessimism stemming from “a profound guilt complex” about America’s previous oppression of women and minorities. In a recent editorial, Nash asks if the New Western Historian’s manipulation of the popular press is nothing more than propaganda. He compares their use of the press to Nazi propaganda and their attacks on capitalism to Stalinism. Influenced by the “fascist”-derived theory of deconstruction, the new western historians “are attempting proselytization for what in essence are totalitarian ideologies [and] historians need to be alert to those who under the guise of scholarship seek to propagate ideologies that seek to undermine democracy in the Jeffersonian sense.” Even more recently, Nash claims that he has been the recipient of anonymous threats to not publish or appear at conferences. Ironically, when Nash reviewed the Legacy of Conquest in 1988, he did so favorably.
Gerald Thompson, while claiming to be partial to much of the revision, argues that despite their intention to update western history, the New Western Historians are now using ideas that are seemingly cliche in other history fields—most notably, the idea that “white men are evil conquerors and all minorities are saintly victims.” Thompson argues that such groups as Indians and Latinos are better off under United States rule. To prove this notion, the author states, one need only visit a Native-American cemetery to see the “abundance of small American flags over the graves of veterans.” Thompson also argues that “victim” status does little for the groups discussed. Rather, it is patronizing and ultimately counterproductive. The University of Toledo historian specifically attacks the New Western History’s emphasis on conquest and environmentalism which, he claims, relegates the role of minorities and women “to rank somewhere below the importance of lumber and firewood.” Like Nash, Thompson claims that deconstructionist theories, products of Nazi intellectuals, have detrimentally influenced them. His main criticism, however, is that they “would impose by edict rather than rigorous scholarship,” stereotyping the older western historians, for example without naming them or their works specifically.
John Mack Faragher, author of the acclaimed Women and Men on the Overland Trail and Daniel Boone, offers two poignant criticisms of the New Western Historians. First, and most important, Faragher, taking his cues from David J. Weber’s concept of the frontier zones, Bolton’s Borderlands, and White’s (!) Middle Ground, argues that the West should not be seen as just a place; it is also a process—the process of radically different cultures clashing and learning to adapt to one another. In any case, both intruders and the intruded upon should be considered as fully human, not merely as polarized stereotypes. Second, Faragher challenges the notion that a New Western History exists at all. “The rhetoric of “new” and “old,” Faragher writes, “seems simply a way of distinguishing between arguments one does and doesn’t like.”
There can be little doubt that the New Western History revitalized a dying profession. Equally important, it challenged that profession’s most basic assumptions, demanding significant revision. Despite Worster’s claim that he and his colleagues control the profession, the New Western Historians, lacking a comprehensive agenda or positive philosophy, remain a small minority within the profession. Walter Nugent, after conducting a detailed survey of the profession, concludes that most western historians still prefer the concept of the frontier over the West as region. At this point (1995), the New Western Historians seem to be an important transition between the simple, one-sided frontier thought of Frederick Jackson Turner and a newer, fuller, multi-sided frontier, the Middle Ground or Frontier Zone concept.
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From part of a series of graduate papers I wrote almost decades ago.—BJB
1. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” chapter in Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays, ed. by John Mack Faragher (New York: Henry Holt, 1994), 59, 31. See also, Richard White’s excellent description of Turner and the thesis in “Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill,” chapter in James R. Grossman, ed., The Frontier in American Culture: An Exhibition at the Newberry Library, August 26, 1994-January 7, 1995 (Chicago: The Library, 1994), 7-65.
2. Robert Royal, Columbus on Trail: 1492 v. 1992 (Herndon, VA: Young America’s Foundation, 1992), 25; and David Sacks and Peter Thiel, “Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Wall Street Journal, 9 October 1995, editorial page.
3. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “What on Earth is the New Western History?”, chapter in Trails: Toward a New Western History, ed. by Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles Rankin (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 85.
4. Limerick, “What on Earth is the New Western History?”, 85-7.
5. Walter Nugent, “Remarks on ‘The Frontier in the United States,’” paper delivered before the Wilson Symposium for Professor Janaina Amado, 21 June 1990, 5. Glenda Riley makes this same point less diplomatically in her review of Richard White’s ‘It’s Your Misfortunte and None of My Own’: A New History of the American West,” in Western Historical Quarterly 23 (May 1992): 223-5.
6. From Faragher’s commentary, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, 1; and John Mack Faragher, “Gunslingers and Bureaucrats,” New Republic 207 (14 December 1992): 29.
7. Larry McMurtry, “How the West was Won or Lost,” The New Republic 22 October 1990: 32; Alan Brinkley, “The Western Historians: Don’t Fence Them In,” New York Times Book Review 20 September 1992: 1, 22-27; Miriam Horn, “How the West was Really Won,” U.S. News and World Report 21 May 1990: 54-65; “Exploding the Western Legend,” The Economist 7 October 1989: 27; Gerald F. Kreyche, “Preserving the Myth of the Old West,” USA Today (January 1992): 70-1; and Richard Bernstein, “Unsettling the Old West,” New York Times Magazine 18 March 1990: 34 ff.
8. Worster and Abbey quoted in Horn, “How the West was Really Won,” 59.
9. Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980): 5; and Roderick Nash, review of Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change, American Historical Review 86 (October 1981): 911.
10. White, Land Use, 155-60.
11. Michael L. Smith, review of Donald Worster’s Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West, Western Historical Quarterly 24 (May 1993): 241.
12. Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979). William Cronon has written an excellent review essay of Dust Bowl, exploring its deeper meanings and implications, in his “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History (March 1992): 1347-76.
13. Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 17. See also his The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); and An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1994).
14. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon, 1985), 4.
15. Richard White, “Back to Nature,” Reviews in American History 22 (March 1994): 2.
16. Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1987), 17, 293-321.
17. Donald Worster, ed., The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 11.
18. Donald Worster, “Beyond the Agrarian Myth,” chapter in Trails, 21.
19. Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 576.
20. See especially chapter one in Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1982), 1-11. On page eight, the authors write, “Whenever natural obstacles stood in the way–whether an Appalachian Mountain barrier, a phalanx of hostile Indians. . . .”
21. See, for example, Gerald Nash, “A Comment on the New Western History,” Continuity 17 (Fall 1993): 25-7.
22. Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, 179-221.
23. Worster, Under Western Skies, 17.
24. Richard White, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983), xix.
25. Wilbur Jacobs, review of “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” in Pacific Northwest Quarterly 83 (April 1992): 62.
26. Quoted in Bernstein, “Unsettling the Old West,” 57.
27. Quoted in Nugent, “Where’s the West,” Montana The Magazine of Western History, 17. Martin Ridge argues that the New Western Historians merely reflect the counter-culture mentality of the late 1960s. See Martin Ridge, “The New Western History and the National Myth,” Continuity 17 (Fall 1993): 4; and William G. Robbins, “Laying Siege to Western History: The Emergence of New Paradigms,” Reviews in American History 19 (September 1991): 315.
28. McMurtry, 32; and Kreyche, 70-1.
29. Michael Allen, “The ‘New’ Western History Stillborn,” The Historian (1994): 201-8; Michael Allen, “Shoot-out at the P (olitically) C(orrect) Corral,” Columbia 9 (Spring 1995): 3-5; and Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, 229.
30. William W. Savage, Jr., “The New Western History: Youngest Whore on the Block,” Bookman’s Weekly 92 (4 October 1993): 1242-47.
31. Bernstein, “Unsettling the Old West,” 54.
32. Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Turnerian All: The Dream of a Helpful History in an Intelligible World,” American Historical Review 100 (June 1995): 698-9.
33. Gerald D. Nash, “Where’s the West?” Historian 49 (November 1986): 9.
34. Gerald D. Nash, Creating the West: Historical Interpretation, 1890-1990 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 79.
35. Gerald D. Nash, “Point of View: One Hundred Years of Western History,” Journal of the West 32 (January 1993), 3-4.
36. Nash, “Comment on the New Western History,” 25.
37. Gerald D. Nash, review of The Legacy of Conquest in Journal of Economic History 48 (June 1988): 508.
38. Gerald Thompson, “The New Western History: A Critical Analysis,” Continuity 17 (Fall 1993): 6-24. Donald J. Pisani makes the same point in his “Is There Life after Turner? The Continuing Search for the Grand Synthesis and an Autonomous West: A Review Essay,” New Mexico Historical Review 67 (July 1992): 294.
39. John Mack Faragher, “The Frontier Trail: Rethinking Turner and Reimagining the American West,” American Historical Review 98 (February 1993): 116-7; and Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, 237-41.
40. Faragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner, 229.
41. Gene M. Gressley, “Whither Western American History? Speculations on a Direction,” Pacific Historical Review 53 (November 1984): 493
42. Quoted in William H. Goetzmann, “Crisis of the New–West?”, Continuity 17 (Fall 1993): 29.
43. Nugent, “Where’s the West?” 11.
44. See R. David Edmunds, “Native Americans: New Voices: American Indian History, 1895-1995,” American Historical Review 100 (June 1995): 728-32; Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar, “Comparative Frontier History,” chapter in The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared, ed. by Leonard Thompson and Howard Lamar (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981), 3-13; David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992), 12-3; William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, “Becoming West: Toward a New Meaning for Western History,” chapter in Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past, ed. by William Cronon, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 3-27; Jay Gitlin, “Empires of Trade, Hinterlands of Settlement,” chapter in The Oxford History of the American West, ed. by Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha Sandweiss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 79-113; and Stephen Aron, “Lessons in Conquest: Towards a Greater Western History,” Pacific Historical Review 63 (May 1994): 125-47.
Editor’s note: The featured image is from the Library of Congress catalog and is in the public domain.