Teaching Innovations

“Far West. See also Frontier”: The “New Western History,” Textbooks, and the US History Survey

Richard White, September 1992

Judging from recent textbooks, regions of the country occupy an odd place in college survey courses of United States history. Until they reach the twentieth century, textbook writers treat regions as a sort of historical American Express card: they don't dare leave home without them. Without regions, they cannot explain the Civil War or Reconstruction. And, after treating the Civil War, they rely on the South and the West as a counterpoise to the Northeast in explaining the development of industrial America. Virtually all of these texts have a chapter on the late nineteenth century entitled the "Frontier West," or "New Frontiers: North and South," or "The New South and the Late West." But then, as they reach the turn of the twentieth century, regions begin to fade like so much disappearing ink. A quick glance at the entries under the South or the West in any textbook index will indicate how much regionalism matters until the late nineteenth century and how little it matters thereafter.

Textbooks do not explicitly mention the demise of regions, but from their emphasis on national issues and centralization, an undergraduate would presumably surmise that "modernization" had somehow sounded the death knell of regionalism. As it turns out, however, regions do not die in the texts; rather, they go into hiding. In textbook treatments of the twentieth century, regions function like Clark Kent: they are all but invisible and unassuming most of the time, but they miraculously appear whenever there is an analytical emergency. It is, for example, impossible to treat the civil rights movement without resurrecting the South, and so the South, as a distinct section, rises to importance once again. But most of the time regions remain quiet and disguised.

If regions and regionalism in general have fallen on hard times, lo, the poor West. Of all the regions in the United States, the West has acquired the oddest identity in college textbooks. It is a place perpetually in the process of becoming. Always about to come into focus, at the last moment the West disappears only to reappear again in the (western) distance. The West, like some historical mirage, cannot take on a firm geographical identity. Unlike other regions, the West can only grow by sloughing off older parts as it adds new ones. South Carolina can remain in the South even as Mississippi and Louisiana become southern, but the Old Northwest, the states of the Middle Border, all became something else as the country added the lands west of the Missouri. The United States had a succession of Wests, and only the last one, the "Far West"—the lands beyond the Missouri or the lands beyond the 100th Meridian—became a regional West. But once confined in space, the West, it seems, could not survive. In the textbooks, the trans-Missouri West had a meaningful existence only for the few decades it took Anglo-Europeans to occupy and dominate it. When the "frontier" ended, the West as a significant region seemed to end with it.

It is within this general problem of the treatment of regions, and particularly the West, that any consideration of the influence of the so-called "New Western History" on college history textbooks and United States history survey courses has to be located. In the broadest sense, the "New Western History" is simply the aggregation of studies of race, gender, class, community, economic dependency, and the environment in the West conducted over the last twenty-five years. Many of the scholars who have written these studies do not consider themselves Western historians, let alone New Western historians. And many studies cited by New Western historians are written by professed Western historians who want no part of the movement. In Western history the New Western historians differ from the old Western historians in their preference for interpreting the West as a region rather than as a frontier. And the New Western historians themselves differ, sometimes markedly, on their interpretations of the West. Yet despite the overlapping definitions of the new history and the differences among its practitioners, the "New Western History" is having an impact, admittedly uneven and limited, on textbook writers. That influence, however, is confined almost totally to treatments of the late nineteenth-century West.

A glimpse at the range of treatments of the West, as well as the influence of the newer history, can be obtained by comparing three textbooks: Paul Boyer, Clifford Clark, Jr., Joseph Kett, Thomas L. Purvis, Harvard Sitkoff, and Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People (1990); the ninth edition of Thomas A. Bailey and David M. Kennedy, The American Pageant (1991); and the third edition of Bernard Bailyn, Robert Dallek, David Brion Davis, David Donald, John Thomas, and Gordon Wood, The Great Republic: A History of the American People. Although its last edition was published only in 1985, The Great Republic can serve as an archetype of older treatments of the West, for its account seems to have survived from an earlier historical epoch. In The Great Republic, the West is, by definition, primitive. It is inhabited by Indians who are stereotyped in ways presumably no longer acceptable for descendants of European immigrants. There are, for example, "peaceable Pueblos," "fierce and devious Crows," and "Utes of Utah, who barely subsisted by grubbing roots from the arid soil." Life, as it turns out, was little better for white migrants, at least on the Great Plains, where "beyond the 100th Meridian rain was scarce, trees nonexistent, neighbors few, and life bleak." This is the West of the frontier, and its discontents were frontier discontents; thus Populists arose "from a millennial outlook that had long flourished in the Protestant frontier democracy." The West of The Great Republic is thus defined in opposition to modernity. It is primitive, a throwback, and thus logically doomed to disappear as the country modernizes.

The American Pageant also lugs considerable baggage from older treatments into its discussion of the West. Indians are, for example, naturalized; they share a "habitat" with the buffalo, the wild horse, the prairie dog, and the coyote. (Do urban whites share a habitat with the rat, the cockroach, and the cat?) They form a "barrier" to American expansion and end up in "`human zoos' known as reservations." Once on reservations, Indians do not matter much. After misinterpreting the Dawes Act, the text treats, in only a paragraph, the rest of Indian policy through the New Deal. A later paragraph summarizes the remainder of Indian history through the twentieth century. In The American Pageant the Indians are conquered by pioneers who "flung themselves greedily" on the "enormous prize" of the West. Their own destiny, however, was quickly closing in on them, for "As the nineteenth century neared its sunset, the westward-tramping American people were disturbed to find that their fabled free land was going or had gone." In fact, more land was taken under the Homestead Act and related acts in the twentieth century than in the nineteenth. The American Pageant, however, is an improvement over The Great Republic in that it does pay some attention to diverse racial and ethnic experiences in the West, and for all its interest in pioneers, prospectors, and cowboys, it at least mentions the capitalist and industrial context in which they lived and worked.

Compared with the other texts, The Enduring Vision shows an impressive familiarity with the newer literature and a willingness to try to free Western history from older stereotypes. In its treatment of Indians, this text is not without flaws, and it has ethnographic oddities of its own (e.g., Sioux visions during the Ghost Dance are explained by their dancing too fast in circles, which led to their becoming dizzy and passing out), but in the depth of its coverage and the sophistication of its explanations it is light-years beyond The Great Republic. It notes that Indians and non-Indians had been in contact within the region for centuries at the time when citizens of the United States entered the region. It stresses federal involvement in settlement from the railroads to Indian policy. It discusses the experience of Hispanics and Chinese. It points out that from the beginning Anglo-American settlement of the region was part of the expansion of the world economy. The settlers were expectant capitalists, not subsistence produ-cers. In short, the West is not some primitive exception to the history of the rest of the nation but an integral part of that history.

Most other text-books fall short of The Enduring Vision in revising the West, but, like The American Pageant, many are willing at least to begin broadening their treatment of the region for the late nineteenth century. Of all the multi-edition texts, that by Richard Current, T. Harry Williams, Frank Freidel, and Alan Brinkley—American History: A Survey—does the best job of incorporating the newer literature. Admittedly, however, it does not get off to a promising start in its treatment of the trans-Mississippi West. The "Last West" emerges as the "province of nomadic Indian tribes, of wild animals, and a few scattered immigrants from the East." (If students' only source were textbooks, they could be forgiven for thinking that all Indians in the West were nomadic. Indeed, the wealth of factual mistakes about Indians in some of these texts is surprising.) Having thus disposed of two centuries of contact in parts of the area (and at least a century or more in most of it), several European empires, and numerous Indian peoples who were neither nomadic nor tribal, the text does use the newer literature to take a fresh look. The West emerges as an area of corporate cattle ranches and corporate mines. It is an area opened by the federal government, and the railroads are virtually a "public project." The farmers are not hardy pioneers but instead are commercial farmers struggling in a world market. If the West's relation to the East seems a bit skewed in one of its maps—which shows the entire West, except a part of Texas, as the hinterland of Chicago—at least there is a schematic attempt to indicate the relation.

Other textbooks seem more consciously ambivalent about the corporate and federal West described in The Enduring Vision and American History: A Survey. These texts try to blend the older pioneer, individualistic West with the newer federal and corporate West. George Brown Tindall's America: A Narrative History and the Gary B. Nash, Julie Jeffrey, John R. Howe, Allen F. Davis, Peter J. Frederick, and Alan M. Winkler volume, The American People, both devote detailed attention to the West from the overland migrations and the Mexican War to the Populists. But both also try to maintain older interpretations of the frontier as a bastion of Anglo-American individualism while integrating newer literature on ethnic and racial diversity and the dependence of the Western economy on outside capital and federal aid. Tindall tries to do this within the old framework of mining, cattle, and farming "frontiers," but the attempt is half-hearted and he admits that the expansion of mining hardly fits frontier models, and that large amounts of capital quickly became necessary to work the mines. Nonetheless, he devotes his attention to prospectors rather than industrial workers, thus carrying on some of the primitivist and frontier tradition.

The approach in The American People is more coherent. The text stresses the large number of migrants into the West who were foreign-born inhabitants and connects western settlement with an immigrant experience too often confined to eastern cities in other textbooks. It, however, tries to make too strong a distinction between an earlier Anglo-American pioneer West and a later ethnically diverse, market-oriented West. As the text itself indicates, California was the state with the largest percentage of foreign born as early as the 1850s, and corporations funded by outside capital dominated mining, cattle raising, and lumbering virtually from the outset.

Whatever the differences in emphasis of the various texts, they all largely abandon the West once the Populists are defeated. The West, to be sure, occasionally reappears, but it is now, confusingly, a "historically conservative" West (The Enduring Vision) or a West whose endemic "hostility to 'big government'" (America: A Narrative History) is used to explain the New Right's triumph in the Sun Belt. How this West derived from the West which mightily sought federal aid to railroads, produced the Populists, and ardently supported the New Deal is never made clear.

The brief and confusing reappearance of the West as part of the Sun Belt in some of these texts illustrates an underlying problem with the concept of regionalism in all of them. While virtually all the newer texts introduce contrary evidence, they still seem to think of regionalism in terms of a series of largely unexamined binary oppositions. Thus regionalism stands against nationalism, and "backward" regions oppose a modernizing state. Regions stand for the past; the nation stands for the future. What makes this construction particularly odd is that the "nation" is usually metonymically reduced to two regions: the Northeast and the Midwest. They stand for the country as a whole. The Northeast was surely the dominant region from the Civil War into the late twentieth century, but this does not mean that it can be taken as the normative region from whose experience other "backward" regions deviate. By accepting such binary oppositions with little modification, a text like The Great Republic can logically argue that the West deserves no further attention after the 1890s. Defined largely as a frontier, the West should have disappeared as a meaningful entity as it and the country grew more modern and centralized. Most of the other textbook writers have also treated the West as if it disappeared after 1890, but their own more sophisticated treatment of the West undercuts this position. To the extent that they see the same factors working within the nineteenth-century West as within the rest of the country, it is hard to explain why, if the West mattered as a region in 1880, it did not in 1930 or 1980.

What textbook writers, as well as teachers of United States history survey courses, need is a more complex relation of regions and nation than is offered by the older binary opposition. In this more complex relation, the very forces that produce centralization and "modernization" also produce distinct regions. Many of the textbook accounts contain elements of such an interpretation. The role of the federal government in expanding the country, conquering Indians, building railroads, and distributing land would, for example, seem to lead to an interpretation that makes the West the most "modern" rather than the most "backward" section of the country. The West serves as the kindergarten of the modern American state, and it is the region most dependent on outside capital for its rapid development. In the West, precisely because existing Indian and Hispanic communities are conquered and marginalized, the federal government and corporations lack the kind of local opposition that can retard their dominance elsewhere.

In this kind of interpretation it makes no sense to halt a treatment of regionalism in the 1890s. The growth of the twentieth-century West as a distinct region is intimately connected with the growth of a powerful central government and a modern capitalist economy. Bureaucracies that get no mention or merely passing mention in the textbooks—the Bureau of Reclamation, the National Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs—are integral to the history of the West. The federal government's retention of huge landholdings in the West (something rarely mentioned in the texts) sets it apart from other sections of the country. Western hostility to federal power comes from its very dependence on it.

The forces operating on the West in the twentieth century are not unique, but forces that operate nationally or internationally can have distinct regional consequences. To the extent to which Indians and Mexican Americans are territorial minorities, incorporated through conquest rather than through migration, Western race relations differ from those of the country as a whole and must be treated separately. They cannot simply be lumped in a section dealing with minorities. The special semi-sovereign status of Indians, for example, gets virtually no specific treatment in these texts, but this is what legally sets Indians apart from other groups, and most Indian tribes are in the West.

Examples of Western difference can be multiplied indefinitely, but by doing so I might inadvertently undercut the larger point about regions which needs to be made: regions are relational; they have no particular essence, no magic qualities whose loss means the end of their existence. They exist in relation to other regions or to a central state. Difference matters, but not necessarily particular differences. What defines the West in the nineteenth century need not define it in the twentieth, or in the twenty-first. Relationships can and do change over time. The changes as well as the continuities deserve the attention of historians.

The American West is, as Patricia Limerick has pointed out in Legacy of Conquest, a diverse and interesting section, not some romantic backwater, the temporary refuge of doomed and exotic types destined to vanish as "real" history intrudes. In the West the Newlands Act, as Donald Worster has emphasized in Rivers of Empire, matters as much as or more than the Homestead Act. Immigration from Mexico and Asia in the twentieth century deserves attention just as immigration from the eastern United States and Europe in the nineteenth century deserves attention; the slow restoration of the Indian's semi-sovereign status is as significant as the Plains Indian Wars; and World War II marks as great a watershed as the renewal of expansion following the Civil War. Textbooks, and presumably survey courses, have begun to incorporate newer literature on the late-nineteenth-century West, but the twentieth century is nearly over, and textbook writers are still largely ignoring the twentieth-century West. Looking back from the end of the century, the twentieth-century West arguably looms every bit as large, if not larger, in the history of the United States as the nineteenth-century West. But you would never realize this, let alone understand how it happened, from the textbooks and the survey courses that rely on them.

—Richard White is the John and Burdette McClelland Professor of Pacific Northwest History at the University of Washington.