Wednesday, May 26, 2010

4 Western Settlement

This week, you are reading the early chapters from Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher's Frontiers: A Short History of the American West. These chapters raise interesting questions about when & where American history begins, who matters for history, and who the "savages" were during the era of European conquest.

Hine and Faragher show that the first parts of the current United States to be settled by Europeans were Florida and New Mexico, not New England as the story is often told. This basic historic fact helps reveal that the frontier was not only a westward movement, but a movement north from Mexico, south from Canada, and east from Asia. In their early chapters, Hine and Faragher highlight the role of governments and imperial contests; the role of racial diversity and mestizo mixing amongst many borderlands populations; and the role of women as guides, interpreters, wives, prostitutes, frontier businesswomen, and also justifications for conquest. They raise interesting points about various "frontiers of inclusion" which absorbed conquered people into citizenship versus "frontiers of exclusion" which sought to expel or exterminate conquered peoples, as well as frontiers that fell somewhere between those two poles. It's fascinating stuff.

Your task this week is to try to figure out what the story of western settlement should be.

The main question to consider is: does the information in Hine and Faragher support Turner's thesis, Limerick's thesis, or possibly a third thesis?

  • Does the information here concur with what you already knew, or add some new details or perspectives that change the story?
  • Think about what perspective Hine and Faragher take. Are these authors standing at Cumberland Gap like Turner, standing at a tourist-stall in Banning California like Limerick, or standing somewhere else? Whom do they pay attention to: politicians, business-people, or non-elites; whites or other races; men or women or children or some combination thereof?
  • Do Hine and Faragher depict western settlers as independent (Turner's view), or also dependent on government (Limerick's view), or perhaps some third way?
  • Do they depict the western settlers as Turnerian heroes or Limerickian conquesters or something else?
  • Do they show a frontier with Turner's opportunities for class mobility or a frontier of economic inequality?

Your earlier training may have taught you that academic writing should be objective, but here's one important insight to learn in college: no one is entirely objective. Everyone has biases. Good historians strive to thoughtfully consider evidence, but we cannot help but selectively choose our evidence, framed by the questions we ask, the people we consider to be important, the evidence we think most important, and the perspectives we each hold.

Hine and Faragher are attempting to tell a complete story of the frontier, but you should understand after reading Turner and Limerick that the complete story is in question. Learning to be a college-level critical reader means learning to think about the choices each author makes.

Your earlier history classes might have given you the impression that history involves memorizing names and dates, but college history is not about simple memorization. Especially in American Studies, college history is about learning to ask questions. 

At CSUF, no American Studies class ever has a scantron test because we are not teaching you to memorize something for a multiple-choice exam; we are teaching you, instead, to analyze. This means that American Studies can start to feel frustrating. "Just tell us the answers," students sometimes tell me. "What was the frontier really like?" Hine and Faragher attempt to describe what the frontier was like, but it is up to you to analyze: what story are they telling? How else could this story be told? Do you believe their version?

Let me be clear: this does not mean that there are endless answers to the story of the frontier or to any past event. All history depends on evaluating evidence.

The difference between the authors we have read so far is that they ask different questions about the frontier and so they use different sources to look for answers. Like most historians in the 1890s, Turner didn't notice the evidence left by women and non-whites. Turner quotes politicians, government reports, and famous leaders of his time, and that means that he only ends up seeing white men. After the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, historians like Patty Limerick wanted to add in evidence from other races. Limerick used evidence discovered by scholars speaking languages other than English. As you read more Hine & Faragher, you will find they sometimes use sources that earlier historians used to assume were unreliable, sources like slang or tourist guidebooks, because they want to answer questions about daily life. Considering the contrast among these authors means understanding that history is not so much a set of permanent facts but a story that changes over time depending on who is asking the questions and choosing the evidence. We call that insight historiography.

As you read Hine and Faragher, think not only about simply memorizing their information, but also evaluating it by analyzing where they are historiographically.

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