I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

“Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment”

Earl Pomeroy

  • Earl Pomeroy, ”Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review Vol. XLI, No. 4, March 1955. 

Published in 1955, “Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment” challenges the academic arena’s traditional acceptance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. In the article, Earl Pomeroy demonstrates that the radical and environmental approach of frontier theory no longer holds applicability to the contemporary age. Historians have insisted on sticking to an analytical model that suited its time, but has become outdated. Pomeroy traces the way in which the environmental model took hold of Western history. He argues that many historians, eager to prolong Turner’s spirit, have practiced poor quality history, emphasizing only that information that supports the Frontier Thesis, and ignoring that which does not. Pomeroy’s article acts as a wake-up call to fellow historians to take responsibility for the material they are producing and to pull themselves and their colleagues out of the mires of antiquity.

Pomeroy contends that western history has been dominated by narrow-minded historians, some of whom he contemptuously refers to as romanticists and antiquarians, obsessed with Turner’s end-of-the-frontier model that was based on environmental determinism, which ignored Eastern intellectual and material infiltration. Due to the fact that time has marched on, often around stubborn historians, this interpretation no longer makes sense, and Turner’s claims either have other explanations or are completely incorrect. Pomeroy pulls apart several of these claims, starting with Turner’s celebration of the Westerner as an ideal, self-made individualist. Instead, the Westerner, he argues, was the ultimate imitator, connected to the East culturally and economically. Secondly, he argues that the West was not a utopia of equality, but was instead fraught with the social complexities that mark other civilizations. Both the liberal and the autocratic have been exaggerated by Western historians. When developing their own governments, Westerners did not try to start from scratch, but, naturally, looked to the East for examples. Economically, evidence points clearly to the fact that the East heavily invested capital in the West. Social historians have been particularly negligent in perpetuation romantic stereotypes of Western figures, such as the ornery mountain man and the forlorn wife. Because so much has been overlooked in the process of historical mythmaking, Pomeroy calls for the further research of neglected topics such as roles of education, the military, and religion in the West.

Pomeroy raises intriguing questions involving the historian accountability. To bury their heads in the sand and ignore change is just as damaging to the historical record as blatantly forging historical events. The sources that the historian chooses to supports his or her claims are also important; Western historians have relied too heavily on narrative sources, a source whose meaning is more interpretation or were openly biased to begin with. Openly fictional tales such as James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, are immediately treated with an interpretive eye, yet other accounts, that are purportedly real, are not given the same level of analysis.  Francis Parkman’s Oregon Trail is a source that is deemed historical and yet, to the contemporary eye, is perceptibly prejudiced. His retelling of his adventures seems a little too exciting at times, and his descriptions of Indians and the environment shaded by Eastern preconceptions and racial attitudes. Theodore Roosevelt’s Winning of the West is another historical account with almost propagandist tendencies. Pomeroy’s call for a more critical and inclusive western history is intriguing, and begs the question as to whether historians met his call or continued to reproduce the Turner myth in either original or bastardized form. One instance that suggests that his call was met is Anne Farrar Hyde’s An American Vision, in which Hyde emphasizes the West’s connection to Europe and the Eastern United States and analyzes the significance of Western architecture.

Feature Image: [Fighting over a stolen herd. “Protecting the herd”] / Frederic Remington, c. 1907. 

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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