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.

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

Patricia Nelson Limerick

  • Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1987).

Patricia Nelson Limerick is a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West is considered to be one of the seminal works in the field of New Western History. Turner’s Frontier Thesis, Limerick comments, became the rendition of western history in the early twentieth century. Almost all interpretations of the frontier and the West in the ensuing decades were based on Turner’s premise of individualism and democratic equality. However, as Limerick observes, this version of western history began to topple in the 1960s when historians caught up in the spirit of the civil rights and feminist movements unearthed the glaring inadequacies of Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Turner was ethnocentric and nationalistic, and his story only included white men. This invalidation of the Turnerian model, however, is not completely Turner’s fault, Limerick argues, for Turner was writing for his time and is a product thereof. The blame rests on the historians that placed too much authority on Turner’s narrative, stretching it to fit a new social atmosphere into which it no longer belonged. In The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick compares the legacy of conquest to that of the legacy of slavery, the history of which she believes both shape the present. The difference between the two legacies is that slavery has been branded with a serious, educational label based in reality, while the legacy of conquest has taken on a lighthearted, entertainment value based on stereotypes and myth. Slavery offers somber reflection. The West offers adventurous escapism.

The core problem with Turner’s thesis and the greatest disservice that he rendered on future historians, according to Limerick, is that his entire argument was based on the idea that the frontier had ended. This kind of clean break in time does not take into account the continuities of human experience. Limerick’s argument is based on a strong belief that the problems that the west endured are still prevalent and have had a major effect on the west of today.  She suggests that the entire concept of the “frontier” should be pushed aside or at least to the very back of the western historian’s consciousness. “Frontier,” is a process, not a place, she argues. When one deemphasizes the concept of the frontier, the supposed end of the West no longer makes sense. “Reorganized,” she writes, “the history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.” (26) Liberated from the confines of the frontier and its demise, the historian is able to capture the true essence of the West as a place. The end of the frontier is not the only part of Turner’s thesis that Limerick has a problem with, however. Firstly, Limerick tears apart Turner’s assertion that the western settlers were rugged, individualistic, and independent. Limerick asserts that those that moved west viewed their motives as innocent and commonplace. Thus, they could not comprehend why their efforts were continuously hindered, they did not view this as a miscalculation of the limits of reality on their part, but rather as an inexplicable and undeserved fate that was forced on them. One example of this kind of attitude that Limerick describes is when the farmers moved into the Great Plains, a naturally arid region, and then were surprised when adequate rainfall did not follow them. This kind of hardship caused westerners to view themselves as the “innocent victim,” a far cry from the hardened, independent individuals of Turner’s frontier. From the very beginning, the West was dependent upon the East for basics such as canned food. As their hardships worsened, the westerners placed blame on the wilderness, the Indians, and finally, the ultimate scapegoat, the federal government. And yet, the west readily accepted, and still accepts, government subsidies. The west has always failed to admit its dependence on outside forces. Thus, taking pioneer rhetoric at face value may lead, one may come to the same conclusions as Turner, however, if one looks under the surface, one finds layer upon layer of denial.  The passion for property, Limerick claims, not the thirst for adventure and equal opportunity, was the main drive in westward expansion. Much of western history is the story of individuals trying to affix the concept of property on things that are not easily categorized, such as minerals and wild animals. Turner’s story of the frontier may make sense if one only looks at the agrarian side of things, even then farming was linked to commerce in the West, but the western economy was far more diversified. One industry that Turner ignores, which Limerick thinks is the most important, is mining. Furthermore, Turner’s assertion that the taming of the wilderness was the goal and ultimate success of the settlers does not take into account the fact that nature does not cooperate and often times fights back. The most prevalent example of this battle between humans and nature is the uneven distribution of water and the challenges this imposes upon farmers and townspeople alike. Another example involves the national parks, and the fact that their borders are not natural, but politically and economically based, and thus, plants and animals often do not respect the border much to the annoyance of the people and often the detriment of the creatures. Limerick also challenges the Turner’s claim that the west was a center of democracy and equality. The West was a meeting ground of diversity, she argues, a diversity that is completely ignored by Turner. Once women, Indians, Mexicans, and other minorities enter the picture, Turner’s egalitarian landscape is immediately shot to pieces. Examination of the role of the prostitute in western history easily dissolves the myth of equality, as it is an example of white people discriminating against other white people in an effort to lift up those women that were deemed respectable. Native Americans were also done a disservice by traditional western history as it “flattened” their history out, made them inconsequential, and homogenized disparate groups of people into one, all-encompassing category. Limerick states that while white Americans have their own history of the West, the Native Americans have a much different version. Limerick asserts that this is perfectly okay and that the modern historian must embrace relativism and its dismissal of the concept of a universal, authoritative history. However, no group was ignored more by the original frontier thesis and is more relevant to today’s situation in the area than the immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Willing to do labor for much lower wages than American workers, the Hispanic immigrant’s role in American society has always been and continues to be controversial and much contested.

Limerick’s claim to groundbreaking precedent within the field of western history is shaky, however, despite her narrative and argument appearing to be fresh and full of ingenuity. The problem with her claim is that the ideas that she presents were already addressed by Earl Pomeroy thirty years earlier in his 1955 article, “Toward a Reorientation of Western History: Continuity and Environment.” In the article, Pomeroy also expresses distress at the condition of western history and the field’s reliance upon Turner’s musings. Pomeroy contends that Turner’s emphasis on radicalism and environmental determinism are no longer appropriate theoretical models. Instead, Pomeroy believes that the concepts of inheritance, conservatism, and continuity are much more applicable to the western condition. Like Limerick, Pomeroy deconstructs the concept of the end of the frontier and declares it obsolete. He also similarly emphasizes the West’s connection to and dependence on the East and Old World institutions. Limerick illustrates the East-West connection in The Legacy of Conquest by beginning the book with a discussion of the West’s dependence on canned food from the East. This reflection is remarkably similar to Owen Wister’s inclusion of the dependence on canned goods in Medicine Bow in The Virginian. Christine Bold, in Selling the West, argues that Wister used The Virginian in an attempt to reconcile the differences between East and West, the focus on canned food perhaps being one of these elements.

Feature Photo: Three wonderlands of the American West; being the notes of a traveler, concerning the Yellowstone park, the Yosemite national park, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, with a chapter on other wonders of the great American West Year: 1912 (1910s) Authors: Murphy, Thos. D. (Thomas Dowler), 1866-1928 

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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