‘Taming’ of the Wild West Is Rewritten by Scholars : History: Revisionists steer away from the ‘heroic conquest.’ They focus on the diverse peoples, conditions.


Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

When profit-hungry white settlers, heavily subsidized by the federal government, invaded the West--ravaging the environment, depleting natural resources, conquering the various other peoples who had arrived there before them, and planting the seeds for many of the problems the region faces today.

Turning their backs on the heroic frontier story as told in countless movies, a new generation of scholars has rejected the notion that the West was “tamed” through an unbroken series of triumphs and acts of individual courage.

Their perspective, being heard in college classrooms around the country, may well be “making John Wayne spin around in his coffin,” as Dallas Times-Herald columnist Molly Ivins approvingly told a recent gathering of historians here. It is also breathing new life into a once moribund academic field.


In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced that a key chapter of American history had ended three years earlier, because as census figures showed, no more unsettled land remained in the Great West--in other words, the frontier days had come to an end. For much of the time since then, Western history was taught as a single, triumphant process of settlement that came to a halt a century ago.

What was overlooked, most of the so-called new Western historians say, is the continuing, and far richer, story of a distinct and increasingly important region “washed by successive waves of emigrants who have been moving, settling and adapting to the country for at least 25,000 years,” as historian Elliot West of the University of Arkansas puts it.

The “new” historians, led by media-conscious Patricia Nelson Limerick, 39, of the University of Colorado, and shaped by the politics of the Vietnam era, focus on what was omitted from the legends. They explore the settlers’ failures--economic and moral--the environmental consequences, the role of the federal government, the resilience of native peoples and other ethnic groups and the part played by women.

To these scholars, Gen. George A. Custer was more fool than martyr, and the missionaries who died at the hands of the Indians--such as Narcissa and Marcus Whitman, who were massacred with 12 others by the Cayuse in 1847--contributed to their demise by their misguided attempt to do good works.

The revisionist view has been attacked as neither new nor true to history. Most of it has been expressed before, but probably not in as coherent and forceful a fashion. Despite their reservations, many academics at the Western History Assn. meeting last month grudgingly conceded that Limerick, known to her colleagues as Patty, and the other mavericks have brought new--and measurable--respectability and excitement to a discipline once derided on many campuses as “cowboys and Indians.”

“Patty’s done more to publicize what we do and bring it to the attention of the American public than anyone who’s been writing Western history for the last 50 years,” said Paul Andrew Hutton of the University of New Mexico, who still sees value in teaching frontier history. “My graduate students think Patty walks on water.”

Revisionism has been the subject of cover stories in three national publications during the last eight months. (since March 18)

Eagerly, if nervously anticipated, are two books scheduled to be published next year by Western historians William Cronon of Yale University and Richard White of the University of Washington that are widely expected to set new standards in the field. Along with Limerick and Donald Worster of the University of Kansas, Cronon and White are part of what some refer to as the Gang of Four.

As further evidence of the hoopla, an estimated 700 people--200 more than last year--exchanged shoptalk and ideas against an unlikely backdrop of slot machines and blackjack tables at a casino hotel near Reno. Western history buffs in bolo ties, many of them members of an international organization known as the Westerners, used to predominate at the annual Western history meeting, which welcomes amateurs as well as academics. This year, perhaps as a reflection of the growing prestige of the field, non-academics were a distinct minority.

Many participants were drawn by a non-traditional program organized by Limerick around such topics as the black population of Orange County, being Indian in the 20th Century, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the novelist’s “advantage” in understanding the West, and a much-debated proposal to turn the Great Plains into a national park.

What some historians describe as a revolution in their field was sparked three years ago by the publication of Limerick’s “The Legacy of Conquest,” a synthesis, as she is the first to admit, of other scholars’ research, seen from a revisionist perspective. Limerick is a Banning native whose long straight hair, barrettes and fondness for paisley are a throwback to her undergraduate days at UC Santa Cruz. She forthrightly sought not only to bury Turner’s frontier thesis once and for all but also to emphasize what she sees as a continuity in the region’s history.

Turner--who in 1895 at the University of Wisconsin became the first professor ever to teach Western history--wrote in 1893 that population figures derived from the latest census proved that the frontier, the “meeting point between savagery and civilization,” was closed because no large tracts of land remained unsettled. It was the advance westward, Turner said, that had turned Europeans into Americans and imbued this country with its individualistic, democratic and optimistic spirit.

“This tale has unquestionable power and influence but bears little resemblance to the events of the Western past,” Limerick countered nearly 100 years later. “The myth has the undeniable charm of simplicity. Simplicity, alas, is the one quality that cannot be found in the actual story of the American West.”

Turner-bashing is hardly a new exercise. His theories were repudiated as early as the 1930s, as the country entered a more pessimistic and cynical period. However, they enjoyed a period of revival a generation later, when such historians as Ray Allen Billington of Northwestern University began searching for a definition of the American character. “Idealism drove the pioneers onward no less than the hope of material gain,” Billington wrote in 1963. “They were dreamers who found in westering a road to the foot of the rainbow.”

Today, no historian accepts Turner uncritically. Some say that Limerick is attacking a straw man when her real quarrel is more with the mythology of the West than with the way the subject is taught. Limerick argues that most American historians mistakenly view the West through the overly nationalistic and celebratory frontier prism, without adequate attention to how diverse peoples converged in the region--women, as well as men, Indians, Europeans, Latin Americans, Asians and blacks.

“Legacy” does not even mention the Lewis and Clark expedition, Custer’s battle at the Little Big Horn or the Gunfight at O.K. Corral. It is a plea to see the West in complex, unsentimental terms: To remember that many settlers simply could not make it and returned home; that horrible accidents occurred in the mines while the legal system offered the miners no protection; that federal policies helped create a pattern of boom-bust cycles.

Where Indians once were treated as barriers to the settlers’ progress, new historians urge a closer look at how European intruders must have appeared to the Indians. Borrowing from environmental historians, they find links between massive cattle deaths in the 1880s caused by overgrazing and current allegations that the federal government is similarly ruining the range by keeping grazing fees artificially low.

Limerick said about 200 Western historians, including many who would prefer to be grouped under the heading of Chicano, Asian or Native American studies and some who are still in graduate school, are sympathetic to the revisionist perspective.

On the other side are historians who say it is wrong, even dangerous, to view the past by the standards of today. Nineteenth-Century settlers cleared oak forests to make way for farmland, with lasting repercussions for the environment. To hold “farmers who have no familiarity and experience in this . . . accountable in some way isn’t right,” said Martin Ridge, professor emeritus at the University of Indiana.

“I am an environmentalist in the 20th-Century sense but I cannot turn the clock back,” said Ridge, who has been attacked by Limerick as a symbol of Turnerism.

Critics say the political slant of the new history can also lead to oversimplification and overemphasis on the darker aspects. “I think I come down somewhere in the middle,” said Glenda Riley, a women’s historian at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Like with women--there was a lot of wife abuse, there was rape, the divorce rate was pretty high. . . . But on the other hand, there were a lot of jobs available . . . and (women’s) suffrage was here (in the West) first.”

Not surprisingly, Limerick’s self-characterization as pioneer has caused a good measure of resentment. “Sometimes, (revisionists) don’t acknowledge some of the ancestors of the newer spirit, and it hurts our feelings a little bit,” said Wilbur Jacobs, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, who is considered a forerunner in the field of environmental history.

To the charge that her work is not new--that it reflects much of the social history that has been popular in American history for the past three decades--Limerick responds: “There have always been those pieces and parts. But putting it into one new vision and calling that ‘conquest'--that is new.”

“What Patty wants to do is be the Frederick Jackson Turner of her time,” said Hutton of the University of New Mexico--an assessment that Limerick dismisses as “perfect idiocy,” saying, “I want there to be a lot of Turners.”

If that happens, they might well include the following scholars--all but one did graduate work at Yale--whose names crop up in nearly every discussion of new historians:

* Richard White: A year from now, “Legacy” is likely to be supplanted by White’s thick textbook called “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own,” in an ironic reference to a cowboy song. Six years in the making, it will offer the first chronological narrative from the revisionist perspective.

White, 43, a soft-spoken man whose gray hair reaches to his shoulders, is interested in how the heroic legends developed and were incorporated into people’s behavior. He said he will also demonstrate how “the West instead of being a region that’s the most individualistic is the region that is most dependent on the federal government.”

* Donald Worster: Born in Needles, Calif., the Jeremiah of the foursome offers an uncompromisingly anti-capitalist view of a region he defines by its dryness. His latest book, “Rivers of Empire,” traces the effects of massive irrigation systems in creating a “hydraulic society” that is “increasingly a coercive, monolithic . . . system, ruled by a power elite based on the ownership of capital and expertise.”

In contrast to the South, said Worster, 49, the West has never been subjected to an internal moral critique. “The old Western myth was that these people were the salt of the Earth, that they were people of astounding virtue,” he said. “But these same people often were filled with greed and violence and corruption and racism. . . . No people went through an environment faster, and more destructively and more wastefully than Americans have gone through North America.”

* William Cronon: A protege of Howard R. Lamar at Yale, also Limerick’s mentor, Cronon has a close relationship with other new historians but has distanced himself from some of their arguments. Although very much of an environmental historian, he is more moderate than the others and more inclined to see the development of the West as “an ambiguous legacy.”

Cronon, 36, a Rhodes scholar and MacArthur fellow, considers himself a frontier historian rather than a regionalist, having chosen the field because it encompassed his--and Turner’s--home state of Wisconsin. “Because Wisconsin is east of the Mississippi, I’m nervous about any definition that excludes it,” he said.

His new book, “Nature’s Metropolis,” will show how environmental changes in the West, such as the destruction of millions of bison, were linked to the rise of Chicago in the latter part of the 19th Century. This “urban-rural linkage” has previously been overlooked, he said.

Whether new or not, many of the revisionist concepts have already seeped into the mainstream. Despite a predilection for guns and Western movies, the 2-year-old Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles attempts to strip the frontier story of some of its romanticism.

Given additional resources, chief curator James H. Nottage said, “I would be doing more and more to make clear what the different ethnic and cultural voices were in the whole settlement and development of what we call the West.”