Tag Archives: The West

When does it count as “American history”?

Here’s an excerpt from a post by Erin Bartram that really hit home for me:

To put it bluntly, I’ve observed the following patterns in how we casually talk and write about individuals in the past.

  • men tell us about “America,” women tell us about women
  • New Englanders tell us about “America,” Southerners and Westerners tell us about regional culture
  • Protestants tell us about “America,” Catholics tell us about Catholicism and maybe also the Irish
  • white Americans tell us about “America,” non-white people tell us about…a variety of things, but rarely America

It’s obviously not as simple as that, but I think when we’re confronted with a dominant versus a non-dominant group, our analytical brains go in different directions; for the dominant group, we go broad, and for the non-dominant group, we go narrow.

Bingo.  I think we all have a tendency to think of “American history” as having a sort of default setting, and that default setting is basically the history of white guys on the northeastern seaboard.  If you’re not white, not a guy, and not a resident of the northeastern seaboard, then we assume that your history is a part of American history, but it’s not really synonymous with “American history.”  Instead, we assume that it’s some particularized subset of history: women’s history, black history, regional history, gender history, Western history, etc.

In terms of race and sex, I’m a member of two dominant groups.  One of the few senses in which I’m historiographically non-dominant is in terms of geography.  I’m from southern Appalachia, so I tend to notice this sort of unconscious “default setting” for American history when it bears on region.  I think even people who are used to thinking about history in a sophisticated fashion tend to assume that Appalachian history is strictly regional history; it doesn’t really count as “American history.”  And yet when you see how extensive Appalachia really is…

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Jax42 at en.wikipedia (http://www.arc.gov/images/regionmap.gif) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

…it’s hard to justify the assumption that the history of this region doesn’t speak to American history as a whole.  It’s a pretty good-sized chunk of the country.

Same thing goes for Western history.  Think about the last college survey text you looked at.  Was material on the West more or less limited to chapters on the trans-Mississippi frontier and Populism?  Did the more general chapters on large-scale developments and eras in “American history” take the West into account?  They certainly should have, because once you exclude what we dismissively call “the West”…

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Grayshi, Roke (Own work, File:BlankMap-USA-states.PNG) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

…”America” suddenly looks a whole lot smaller.

The issue isn’t that there are concerns that are rightly specific to or more pronounced in Appalachian history, Western history, women’s history, black history, Catholic history, and so on.  Any discipline will develop specializations, and historians who specialize will inevitably engage in scholarly conversations that will be of particular interest to others in the same sub-field.  The issue, rather, is our tendency to see certain sub-fields as nothing but sub-fields while turning others into stand-ins for the discipline as a whole.  “American history” isn’t synonymous with the history of white Protestant guys in the northeastern U.S.  And the best way to drive that point home, I think, is for everyone who works on the history of non-dominant groups to be as bold and daring as they can when it comes to thinking about how their projects speak to the entire discipline of American history.  Don’t think of yourself as a scholar of a marginalized subject; think of your subject as a vehicle to approach American history from a different perspective.

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Frontier types in ‘The Revenant’

It’s nice to see The Revenant getting some attention during movie awards season.  Although it takes quite a few liberties with the Hugh Glass story, it’s a well-made film and a powerful depiction of the hardships and dangers endured by the nineteenth-century fur traders.

One of the things that struck me about the movie is the way its two main characters reflect contrasting frontier archetypes, set apart by their interactions with the West’s original inhabitants.  These archetypes appear and again over the course of the American frontier’s history, from the colonial era through the late nineteenth century.

The Trapper’s Bride by Alfred Jacob Miller, via Wikimedia Commons

For some people, the frontier was a liminal realm where cultural and racial barriers broke down and where a degree of mutual accommodation and hybridity was possible.  Moving and living among Indians, these traders, trappers, and missionaries straddled the border between the worlds in which they were born and the ones they inhabited.  Examples of this type would include the coureurs de bois of New France, who sometimes too up residence among Indians, learned their languages, adopted their dress and customs, and married into their societies.  Another would be Simon Girty, who assimilated into Indian culture and fought with Britain’s Native allies in the American Revolution.

In the film, Hugh Glass (the title character played by Leonardo DiCaprio) comes across as this type of frontiersman.  Formerly married to an Indian woman, he has a mixed-race son and is himself bilingual, as fluent in the language of the Indians he encounters as he is in English.  The film’s Glass thus represents a particular frontier archetype: the white man for whom cultural and ethnic barriers are permeable.

Richard Slotkin has referred to the archetypal “man who knows Indians” in frontier literature.  This figure is often a warrior; he uses his familiarity with Indians to defeat them on their own terms, demonstrating his own superiority in the process.  The Revenant‘s take is a little different.  While Glass has violent encounters with Indians, the point of his ordeal is not so much that he survives by killing Native foes, but rather the fact of his survival itself.  Indeed, his ability to communicate and interact with Indians on something like an equal footing plays an important role in his survival.

If some historians have portrayed the frontier as a zone of adaptation and exchange, other scholars have portrayed it as a realm prone to explosions of bloody conflict.  From this perspective, the frontier was not a place where cultures overlapped and blended, but a place where they collided and ground against each other like tectonic plates.  For many frontier whites, familiarity with Indians bred contempt rather than accommodation.  They had no use for Natives, nor for the easterners who stood in the way of extirpating them.  The work of Peter Silver, David Andrew Nichols, Patrick Griffin, Brendan Lindsey, and Ned Blackhawk reminds us how prevalent this “Indianophobia” could become.  Historical representatives of the Indian-hating westerner would be men such as the Paxton Boys or the perpetrators of the slaughter of peaceful Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten.  An individual example would be John Kirk, Jr., who murdered a group of Cherokees under a flag of truce to avenge the massacre of his own family at Indian hands in East Tennessee during the 1780s.

In The Revenant, the treacherous John Fitzgerald (played to chilling effect by Tom Hardy) is the archetypal Indian-hating frontiersman.  He is suspicious of Glass for his past residence with the Pawnees, and is openly contemptuous of the son Glass fathered with an Indian wife.  Perhaps Fitzgerald’s hatred for Indians is as personal as Kirk’s, since the kerchief he wears on his head covers the scars of a scalping he survived and can still vividly recall.

I don’t know if the filmmakers intended Glass and Fitzgerald to stand in for these two contrasting types of frontiersman, the cultural hybrid and the Indian-hater.  But the degree to which the characters reflect the varied ways whites dealt with the frontier and its Indian inhabitants suggests a greater degree of historical sensibility than we usually get from Hollywood.  In any case, I recommend you see the movie for yourself.

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From coonskin caps to lightsabers

In a few days, Disneyland is closing some attractions—most of them in Frontierland—to make way for construction of a new Star Wars themed area.  The Disneyland Railroad, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, Sailing Ship Columbia, and Tom Sawyer Island Pirates’ Lair will be out of commission for at least a year, while the Big Thunder Ranch Jamboree, Petting Farm, and a frontier-themed BBQ restaurant are shutting down for good.

All the American Wests collide in Frontierland, from Twain’s Mississippi to the desert Southwest. By Chuck, aka SolGrundy on Flickr – https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/ (https://www.flickr.com/photos/solgrundy/380968586/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s somewhat fitting that Disney is replacing parts of Frontierland with Star Wars, because it reflects some long-term changes in the relationship between popular culture, childhood, and historical memory.

For kids of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, the American frontier was the setting for a lot of the mass media they consumed and the toys they played with, whether they were listening to cowboy-themed radio shows in the 1930s or watching the wildly popular Davy Crockett serial on the Disneyland TV series in the 1950s.  The Crockett serial starring Fess Parker was so popular that it became a bona fide part of the Zeitgeist for children of the 1950s.  According to the L.A. Times, at the height of Crockettmania, parents were buying 5,000 coonskin caps per day.  The same article reports that Disney moved some $300 million in Crockett-themed merchandise before the whole thing ran its course.  I ran that figure through some inflation calculators.  Turns out $300 million in 1955 would be the equivalent of $2.6 billion in 2015.  To put that in perspective, it’s more than the 2013 merchandising revenue from Spider-Man, the Avengers, Batman, and Superman combined.

I can’t think of any historical-themed franchise aimed at kids from my generation or since that has had that kind of popularity.  Sure, I had a few Western-style cap guns, pirate swords, and toy rifles when I was a kid.  But the dominant media and toys of my childhood took fictional universes as their setting, not the frontier or some other historical era.  Instead of Crockett and the Swamp Fox, we had He-Man and Han Solo.  By the time my generation of kids came along, moviemakers and toy manufacturers had traded in the West for Eternia and Tatooine.  Same thing goes for today’s kids, whose cultural touchstones are the fictionalized worlds of Star Wars, Harry Potter, and so on.

I don’t intend this to come across as a “kids-these-days-don’t-know-their-history” rant.  It’s not that children of the seventies, eighties, nineties, and 2000s were any more susceptible to mass marketing or any less susceptible to a fascination with the past.  It’s just that the media and products aimed at kids have changed.  There aren’t any historical TV shows that can command the kind of market share ABC’s Disneyland show had sixty years ago, when there were fewer channels and the whole country was watching the same programs.

And despite the popularity of “historical” shows like the Crockett and Swamp Fox serials, I don’t think anybody would argue that they helped kids of the 1950s to develop any sort of historical sensibility.  The people and events depicted in these old programs bear little in common with their historical counterparts.  Indeed, Frontierland itself isn’t even a fictionalized depiction of any particular time or place.  Instead, it’s an imaginative evocation of all the different Wests of our imaginations: the palisaded forts of Crockett’s trans-Appalachian frontier, the steamboats of Twain’s Mississippi, the saloons and dance halls frequented by cowboys and gunslingers, and the dusty mining towns of the Southwest.

Still, exposure to a fictionalized past can help spark an interest in the real one.  Perhaps a history-themed entertainment franchise with the sort of popularity enjoyed by Harry Potter or Star Wars would create a new generation of budding historians.  As things stand now, though, I doubt that a major theme park built in the 2010s would devote an entire themed area to the frontier.  An amusement park with a Frontierland made sense in the 1950s, but the West just doesn’t have the same hold on kids’ imaginations that it did in the days of Roy Rogers and Fess Parker.  The past isn’t the mass-marketed playground it used to be.

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When the legend becomes Wikipedia, print the legend

I was at the grocery store the other day and ran across Bill O’Reilly’s Legends & Lies: The Real West, the companion volume to the ten-part TV series.  O’Reilly’s name is in the title, but the cover lists David Fisher as writer, so I’m assuming Fisher did the heavy lifting.  Anyway, it’s selling like crazy.

Nobody in their right mind should expect a glossy, heavily illustrated TV companion book to be a model of scholarly rigor.  But it looks like O’Reilly/Fisher really phoned this one in, even by the lackadaisical standards of pop history.

Check this out (sorry about the pic quality; snapped this on my phone in the store):

Yep, that’s Wikipedia on a list of “especially trustworthy” websites.  Wikipedia, for crying out loud.

Now you can all rest easier, knowing that your kids’ middle school research papers meet the same benchmarks as bestselling history books.

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How big is your mental map of colonial America?

A good friend of mine is moving to Los Angeles this weekend.  Last night we had a going-away party for him at a local pizza joint.  I’ve never been to California myself.  The West Coast is about the only major region of the country I have yet to visit.

I’ve never really felt much compulsion to go there, especially when it comes to seeing historic sites.  As a paleophile, I’d love to see the La Brea Tar Pits and do the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal. (One of my more unrealistic bucket list items is to experience all four Jurassic Park water rides before I die; so far I’ve only hit the one in Florida, which leaves Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, and I doubt I’ll be going to Singapore in the foreseeable future.)  But as a guy who’s into early American history, I think I’ve always had this assumption that there isn’t really anything in California that’s right up my alley, so I haven’t felt the urgency to make it to the West Coast in the same way that I badly wanted to go to New England for many years.

Of course, this attitude of mine is based on misconceptions about colonial America.  Both California in particular and the West in general have an early American history.  It just doesn’t fall within the boundaries of early Anglo-American history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Lordkinbote at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A lot of us get our sense of the basic contours of history from the introductory classes we take in high school and college.  And in American history surveys, there tends to be a sort of “progression” toward the English colonial experience.  You get your early Iberian explorers, then Columbus, then the conquistadors, then maybe a brief detour up to New Mexico for the Pueblo revolt, then the French, and finally Roanoke and Jamestown, and English-speaking Protestants take center stage from there on out.

This “progression” scheme partly has its roots in chronology.  The English were relative latecomers in establishing New World colonies, so it makes sense to examine their efforts last.  The problem is that we tend to drop the Spanish and French experience altogether once the Englishmen show up.  Yet after the English colonies were well established, there were still French fur traders in the Mississippi River Valley, mestizo ranchers in the southwestern deserts, and friars in California.

Indeed, in the period between Jamestown and the annexation of California, entire populations rose up in the American West under the rule of Catholic monarchs or the government of Mexico.  In 1776, while Washington reeled from Howe’s campaign in New York, Spanish Franciscans were celebrating Mass at San Juan Capistrano.  And by that time there had been Spanish missions in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for nearly a century.

But how many people think of southern Arizona and California as places associated with eighteenth-century American history?  I’ll confess that I generally don’t.  Instead, we think of the “history” of the Far West as something that started in the 1800s, when settlers of mostly British extraction started pushing back the frontier and displacing the Indians.  But the Indians weren’t the only people in the way.  The descendants of the original colonists were still there, too, so the contest wasn’t simply two-sided.

The Euro-American frontier didn’t just move westward from the English-controlled seaboard, but also southward from French Canada and northward from New Spain.  All this was very much a part of early American history, and I’m still trying to get my head around it.

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Here be dragons

I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters.  Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction.  If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.

For most people who love history, geography evokes the past.  Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on.  The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one.  When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out.  When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies.  You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.

For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development.  My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between.  I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote.  Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare.  Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified.  Hollywood had a lot to do with it.  The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.

In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West.  For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before.  Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way.  Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites.  Something for everybody.

Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s.  My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers.  We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.

We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner.  We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.

Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel.  I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations.  The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional.  Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.)  But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, train robbers, and all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.

Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so the historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize.  These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter.  They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam.  The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent.  In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse on the plaza in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward.  The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.

Tombstone was always on the itinerary.  What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop.  The main attraction was the O.K. Corral.  The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it.  Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button.  A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves.  You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets.  You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month.  One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.

Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions.  It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops.  I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops.  The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting.  Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.

Como Bluff, WY. Some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of the 1800's were made here during the famous "fossil feud" between rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible.  It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters.  The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive.  I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.

Detail from a 1570 map. Image from The Old Map & Clock Company, http://www.old-map.com

When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana.  If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff.  What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then.  These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.

So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it.  Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree.  When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.

My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager.  I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons.  Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around.  As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.

I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else.  I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it.  The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for the monsters.

Allosaurus takes on Diplodocus at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, from Wikimedia Commons

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