Alan Brinkley, Columbia University

Debating the Past

Chapter Sixteen: The Conquest of the Far West

Where Historians Disagree – The “Frontier” and the West

The emergence of the history of the American West as an important field of scholarship can be traced to the paper Frederick Jackson Turner delivered at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1893: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner stated his thesis simply. The settlement of the West by white Americans–“the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward”–was the central story of the nation’s history. The process of westward expansion had transformed a desolate and savage land into modern civilization. It had also continually renewed American ideas of democracy and individualism.

In the first half of the twentieth century, virtually everyone who wrote about the West echoed at least part of Turner’s argument. Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion (1949) was almost wholly consistent with the Turnerian model. In The Great Plains (1931) and The Great Frontier (1952), Walter Prescott Webb similarly emphasized the bravery and ingenuity of white settlers in the Southwest.

Serious efforts to displace the Turner thesis as the explanation of western American history began after World War II. In Virgin Land (1950), Henry Nash Smith examined many of the same heroic images of the West that Turner and his disciples had presented; but he treated those images less as descriptions of reality than as myths. Earl Pomeroy challenged Turner’s notion of the West as a place of individualism, innovation, and democratic renewal. “Conservatism, inheritance, and continuity bulked at least as large,” he claimed. Howard Lamar, in Dakota Territory, 1861-1889 (1956) and The Far Southwest (1966), emphasized the highly diverse characters of different areas of the West.

The western historians who began to emerge in the late 1970s launched an even more emphatic attack on the Turner thesis and the idea of the “frontier.” “New” western historians such as Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick, William Cronon, Donald Worster, Peggy Pascoe, and many others challenged the Turnerians on a number of points.

Turner saw the nineteenth-century West as “free land” awaiting the expansion of Anglo-American settlement and American democracy. The “new western historians” have rejected the concept of an empty “frontier,” emphasizing instead the elaborate and highly developed civilizations that already existed in the region. White, English-speaking Americans, they have argued, did not so much settle the West as conquer it. And they continue to share the region not only with the Indians and Hispanics who preceded them there, but also with African Americans, Asians, Latin Americans, and others who flowed into the West at the same time they did.

The Turnerian West was a place of heroism, triumph, and above all progress, dominated by the feats of brave white men. The West the new historians describe is a less triumphant (and less masculine) place in which bravery and success coexist with oppression, greed, and failure; in which decaying ghost towns, bleak Indian reservations, impoverished barrios, and ecologically devastated landscapes are as characteristic of western development as great ranches, rich farms, and prosperous cities.

To Turner and his disciples, the nineteenth-century West was a place where rugged individualism flourished and replenished American democracy. The new scholars point out that the region was inextricably tied to a national and international capitalist economy. Westerners depended on government-subsidized railroads for access to markets, federal troops for protection from Indians, and (later) government-funded dams and canals for irrigating their fields and sustaining their towns.

And while Turner defined the West as a process–a process of settlement that came to an end with the “closing of the frontier” in the late nineteenth century–the new historians see the West as a region. Its distinctive history did not end in 1890, but continues into our own time.

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