Publication Date

May 1, 1999

Perspectives Section

In Memoriam

Paul Wallace Gates, the John Stambaugh Professor Emeritus of History at Cornell University, died on January 5, 1999, at the age of 97, in Oakland, California, where he lived in brief retirement. Born December 4, 1901, in Nashua, New Hampshire, the son of a Protestant minister and educated at Colby College, he took his PhD degree at Harvard University in 1930. Gates taught at Cornell for 35 years, coming to Ithaca from Bucknell University in 1936 and retiring in 1971.

Spurred by the influence of the great historian of the American West, Frederick Jackson Turner, whose student, Frederick Merk, was his teacher at Harvard, Gates chose the development of the trans-Appalachian West as his lifelong scholarly endeavor. He wrote 10 books, edited 4 others, and published 75 articles, book chapters, and other scholarly essays, attracting much attention, and then widespread renown, as his generation's leading historian of American land policies. His first book, The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work (1934), based on his doctoral dissertation, won the David A. Wells Prize at Harvard, and earned him early attention. This was followed by studies that are classics of their genre: The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership (1943); Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts Over Kansas Land Policy, 1854–1890 (1954); The Farmer's Age: Agriculture, 1815–1860 (1960), culminating in his mangum opus, the 828-page, The History of Public Land Law Development (1968), a work undertaken at the behest of the Public Land Law Review Commission, a federal agency seeking to evaluate and plan the course of America’s future land policy. As recently as October 1998, a panel of scholars at the annual meeting of the Western Historical Association extolled the merits of this magisterial volume before an enthusiastic audience of both young and mature scholars. His publications spanned the years from 1931 to 1996 when he contributed a charming autobiographical sketch to a collection of his writings.

An agnostic about America's starry-eyed memories of the importance of the widespread disposal of free land in the growth of the nation's democratic order, Gates painstakingly described how Indian people lost their lands to Euro-Americans and, in best Progressive style, how speculators, bankers, federal and state governments, railroads, and settlers competed for control of America's landed domain. His work, which he personally characterized as "largely devoted to the malfunctioning of an intended democratic system of land disposal," fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how the western United States developed within the orbit of a free-wheeling capitalism that had little sentimentality and took few prisoners.

Gates was a single-minded professional whose work habits were extraordinary. He frequently was the first person in Cornell's Olin Library and often among the last to leave, Saturday and usually Sunday included. He continued to appear there each day, well into his 90s. His productivity and increasing recognition as the outstanding western historian of his generation resulted in many awards and the presidency of the Missisissippi Valley Historical Association (later the Organization of American Historians) in 1961–62.

In the classroom, Gates taught undergraduate courses on the American West with a booming voice that frightened everyone within earshot, but he particularly excelled as a graduate teacher and mentor. He directed 23 doctoral dissertations at Cornell. His seminars were famous for their intensity, rigor, and the superb work produced in them. Many of his students went on to distinguished careers of their own; several of them, like their mentor, attained the highest reaches of the profession. He encouraged his students to take interdisciplinary graduate fields ranging from agricultural economics and rural sociology to government and city-regional planning.

Professor Gates chaired Cornell's history department for 10 years, from 1946 to 1956, with the same intensity and commitment to professionalism that he demonstrated in his scholarship and teaching. Always interested in public affairs he was a lifelong activist, serving in the Agricultural Adjustment Administration of the New Deal, testifying as an expert witness in Indian land claim cases, helping to lead the New York state branch of the Progressive Party in 1948, and speaking out in the cause of conservation.

Gates was married for more than 60 years to Lillian Cowdell Gates, whom he met in graduate school and who pursued a scholarly career of her own, publishing several books and articles alone and in conjunction with her husband, while persistently fulminating against his inability to wait to drive with her to the library in the morning. They had 4 children and 17 grandchildren. Lillian Gates died in 1990. Subsequently, in 1991, he married Olive Lee, a retired college librarian, who survives him.

—Allan G. Bogue and Margaret Beattie Bogue
University of Wisconsin, Madison

Walter LaFeber and Joel Silbey
Cornell University

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