Wednesday, May 26, 2010

3 Frontiers of Conquest

This week, we're reading Patty Limerick's Legacy of Conquest, a spirited response to Turner. “Turner’s frontier rested on a single point of view; it required that the observer stand in the East and look to the West,” Limerick writes. What happens when we shift points of view? Limerick herself was born in the west, in Banning, California, one of the struggling desert cities that you may have driven past on your way to Palm Springs or Joshua Tree. Limerick’s parents ran a roadside stand selling dates to tourists. They encouraged her to dress as a cowgirl, so that passing tourists would pay to take her photo. What do you think: does any of that personal history enter into her view of the frontier west?

Limerick writes about all that Turner left out: non-English speakers, women, miners, urbanites, railroads, banks, and the problem of defining whenever "the frontier" closed. Patty Limerick chooses to avoid the term “frontier” altogether, preferring the term “conquest.”

In a preface to her re-issued book in 2007, Patty Limerick explains,

"The fuzzy and forgiving term ‘frontier’ had drawn our attention from what westward expansion had meant to native people, as well as citizens of the Mexican North, and to the natural environment. But a quick dose of honesty could cure this problem: accept the applicability of the sharp and honest term ‘conquest’ to the United States’s westward expansion, and national self-understanding would be beneficially enhanced."

What do you think? Is "conquest" a more "sharp and honest term" than frontier? By "conquest," it is important to understand that Limerick does not only mean the oft-depicted violence between whites and Indians, but also the far-less-binary contests between Anglos, Spanish, Mexicans, Asians, Blacks, Russians, Canadians, Mormons (I know, Mormons aren't a race or ethnicity like other groups on this list, but they faced their own discrimination in the west), different Indian tribes who fought each other (often allied with various Europeans who also fought each other), Portuguese, Chileans, and many other sub-groups who fought for claims to the American west. That list does not even include the many mixed-race mestizo settlers of the West. It is a huge challenge to comprehend the West's diversity, but understanding that diversity may help you understand the West's long history of competitions over who is a "real" Westerner.

While Patty Limerick uses the term "conquest," more recent scholars tend to prefer the term borderlands. To understand that term, consider one of many photos from Robert Runyon who photographed the Texas borderlands in the 1910s. This photo shows Mexican-American women standing in front of a Catholic church built with Native-American-inspired architecture in the desert southwest. What would Turner say? Nothing in this picture shows the “germ of American character” that Turner wrote about, at least not the British-German-Protestant version of the American character that Turner believed in. Instead, this is an image of cultural overlaps, borrowing and adapting. It is an image of women, religion, interracial cooperation, and the complexity of the actual frontier.

Like later borderlands scholars, Limerick emphasizes America’s west as a “meeting ground” of cultural diversity, where there were contests for legitimacy and cultural dominance and land-ownership (page 27), a place where the federal government first expanded its role, and a place where boom and bust economic cycles dominated. Think about that Limerick Thesis: does that fit with your own personal experience of California, or does Turner’s thesis fit better?

Limerick begins with an image of a frontier-woman eating endless cans of food because this image highlights connections between the frontier, corporate culture, and environmental degradation. Limerick ends her introduction with the parable of Louis L'Amour touting western “progress” in his Turner-style novels, while actually using a lawsuit to fight Indian-led development that threatened environmental degradation in his backyard. This reflects her belief that the west was settled not by lone, manly pioneers but by governments, legal rules, and contests over who was -- and is -- legitimate.


In later chapters, Limerick emphasizes that "The two key frontier activities - the control of Indians and the distribution of land - were primarily federal responsibilities" (p. 82), contradicting the popular image of lone pioneers independent of Eastern government. Instead, "in Western affairs, business and government were interdependent and symbiotic" (p. 84), in a way that is not quite corruption only because it was so common and so central to the whole goal of settlement. In the nineteenth-century west, businessmen often became politicians, and even when they didn't, both businessmen and politicians aimed to exploit Western resources and so saw no real distinction between helping themselves to make money and helping America to expand. This overlap between big corporations and big government is still evident in many aspects of America, but I urge you in your responses to name what you mean, whether it is business or government or both. It is worthwhile distinguishing between public and private and big and small. Specifics grounded in evidence are more thoughtful than political cliches.

Between 1850 and 1875, the federal government gave the railway corporations 131 million acres of land. That means that the government gave away land as big as one-third of the entire state of California. To encourage the construction of transportation infrastructure, the federal government also gave the railroads bonds and loan-guarantees (meaning that the corporations took almost no risk, but reaped almost all the profit), along with right-of-way lands (400 feet of land beside all the tracks), and, most controversially, large land grants of sections of land within ten miles of each track, to sell or to hold without paying any taxes. This shifted the tax burden from giant corporations to smaller farmers and ranchers.  Some of the people who passed laws favorable to railroad-owners -- such as California's former governor Leland Stanford -- also happened to be railroad owners. He became rich while his workers complained of receiving starvation wages.

This is part of what Limerick is thinking of when she writes, "In the early development of the Far West, five principal resources lay ready for exploitation: furs, farmland, timber, minerals, and federal money" (82). Even today, the West receives more federal aid than the rest of the U.S., although westerners often declare that the West has a tradition of small-government independence. Such declarations are part of the historical amnesia of America.


When it first came out 20 years ago, Limerick’s book made many Americans, especially many westerners, astoundingly angry. Limerick was pilloried for being a “Revisionist Historian,” revising Turner’s “frontier” into her story of “conquest”. Limerick defended herself, explaining that all history is revision.

Every normal human being is forever recalculating, reorienting, reorganizing information and reaching for new understanding. Thus, if you know a historian who is not a revisionist, indeed, if you know any human being in any line of work who is not rethinking, reappraising, and revising his or her previous assumptions, then charity requires you to summon the paramedics and get that nonrevisionist examined fast, on the chance that there might still be time to get this party’s heart restarted. [Patty Limerick, Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West (W W Norton, 2002), page 17.]

In addition to accusations of writing “revisionist history,” Limerick was also accused of being “bleak,” emphasizing the dark spots of history over the glory. She replied that she actually intended to write an optimistic book about our messy, pluralistic past, hoping that it would help us face our messy, pluralistic present. Consider her concluding sentences: “We share the same region and its history, but we wait to be introduced. The serious exploration of the historical process that made us neighbors provides that introduction.”

What do you think: is there room for optimism in Limerick's work?

Limerick's work is a synthesis of new western history, relying on the research of scholars from Asian-American studies, African-American Studies, Chicano Studies, History, Native American Studies, and Environmental Studies. Thus, Limerick is an example of the interdisciplinarity of American Studies -- but the story she tells is not as straightforward a story as Turner's. When you studied "Manifest Destiny" in school, you probably learned a version of the story closer to Turner's than Limerick's. When you learned about the "Big Four" railroad leaders, you probably did not also hear about the mostly-Asian workers who risked their lives to build America's railroads, or the story of the government granting huge land-grants to a few millionaires. What do you think: could the schools possibly teach Limerick's multicultural, multi-perspective version?

1 comment:

  1. There are limits to the alleged multiculturalism of Limerick's text. I believe that her chapter "Property Values" would have been an excellent place to delve into the ideology driving the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act), and how that imposition of Jefferson's Yeoman Farmer ideal upon tribal communities furthered the designs of conquest in the western borderlands. Alas, for all of her concern for Natives, she cordons them off into a separate chapter and missed this opportunity.

    I've previously mentioned this criticism in an article written in the early 1990s: