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.

“It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own:” A New History of the American West

Richard White

  • Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own:” A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). 

“It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own:” A New History of the American West, written by Richard White, a professor of history at Stanford University, is a another addition to the field of New Western History. Like Patricia Nelson Limerick, in The Legacy of Conquest, White challenges many of the basic assumptions and generalizations made by western historians since the origination of Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis. Throwing aside the constricting Turnerian mold, White seeks to produce an inclusive narrative of the West based on the assumption that the West did not always exist or suddenly come into being in the nineteenth century, but was rather fashioned gradually over time. White, a true New Western historian at heart, seeks to include those aspects of the past that have not easily fit into the traditional narrative, and thus he begins his account with the influx of Spanish explorers and ends it with the development of metropolitan regions in the mid-twentieth century.

White’s main challenge to the Frontier Thesis is in response to Turner’s emphasis on environmental determinism. This theoretical model is not workable in the West, White argues, because “geographically the West does not exist.” (3) The West cannot be physically distinguished from the lands bordering it, and thus, White comments, “geography did not determine the boundaries of the West; rather history created them.” (3) In other words, the boundaries of the West were determined by politics, not topography. If one picks a geographical region, such as the Great Plains, as an organizing agent of Western history, then, White argues, one is likely to discount entire sections of the west that do not fit the criteria and in turn be tempted to include some regions that are not traditionally “Western.” Using geographical criteria to look at western history also distorts the environmental record of the region by employing an outmoded understanding of nature. Nature is not static wilderness as most Western historians claim, but rather dynamic and greatly modified by human hands prior to European settlement. Like Limerick, White also declares the West a region defined by conquest, and a product of the mixing and intermingling of diverse ethnic groups. Individual violence is focused on in popular accounts of the West because it enables the glorification of the violence without the stinging pangs of one’s conscience acknowledging that it was the Anglo-Americans, as a group, who conquered the Native Americans and Mexicans and kept them “subordinated by force,” (228), White writes. The West is the meeting of these groups, and it is the struggle for dominance and control amongst them that slowly resulted in the creation of what is today referred to as the West.

White’s similarities to Pomeroy are quite obvious, but not as seemingly too similar, almost blindly plagiarized as Limerick’s. Like White, Pomeroy also rejects Turner’s environmental model. Additionally, Pomeroy emphasizes the idea of continuance and rejects the idea that the West, at least the traditional conception of it, ended in 1890. White also emphasizes continuity and begins his narrative much earlier than conventionally accepted and ends it well into the twentieth century. Additionally, like Pomeroy and Limerick, White demonstrates that the West inherited a great deal of the East institutions and actually, contrary to the popular belief in western independence, relied a great deal on Eastern capital and government supervision. White relies on the conception of imagination a great deal, which is also underlined by William N. Goetzman in The West as Imagination, Doug Owram’s Promise of Eden, and many other studies written on the West.

Feature Photo: “And With One Last Wave, He Was Gone,” Fabio Slongo, Flickr Commons

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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