American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review

By Roger L. Nichols | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

ROGER L. NICHOLS

For the past two or three decades, frontier and Western historians have given their field and craft much attention. Most of this has been in the form of negative introspection and self-criticism. Feeling as if they were at the fringes of the profession, these scholars seemed to react in a spirit of negativism, saying that their colleagues in other fields of history lacked any sympathy for their interests or any respect for their work. One might characterize their collective self-image by paraphrasing the old quotation about Western civilization, saying that "like it, frontier and Western history are always in a state of decline." Correct or not, this view is widely held by historians both in and without the particular field. Surveys of college and university history departments, as well as the writings of concerned faculty, raised this issue repeatedly. Two decades ago, in 1964, W. N. Davis, a California historian and archivist, concluded that "for meaningful survival, the field will soon require further fresh efforts in the form of imaginative, modern analysis of the large issues and of imaginative, modern synthesis of the separate ends." 1 In his critique, Davis saw both challenges and obligations for scholars in this field of American history.

The issues he raised failed to disappear, or to be dealt with adequately, or so thought many practitioners. At the 1983 annual meeting of the Western History Association, Richard Van Orman presented a paper reviewing the trends during the nearly two decades since Davis published the results of his survey. Van Orman's findings paralleled those of Davis. In another paper given at the same conference and published the next year, Gene M. Gressley considered similar issues. He cited "declining enrollments, inadequate research and teaching, lack of administrative support and the respect of our colleagues in other fields of our discipline are all symptoms of a malaise." 2 These scholars are not alone in their concerns about the nature and place of frontier and Western history within the profession.

The obvious question, then, is to what extent are such charges accurate, and

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