Academic journal article The Historian

Meeting Places, Intersections, Crossroads, and Borders: Toward a Complex Western Cultural History

Academic journal article The Historian

Meeting Places, Intersections, Crossroads, and Borders: Toward a Complex Western Cultural History

Article excerpt

IN 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner set off a century-long definitional dilemma when he declared that the frontier was "the meeting point between savagery and civilization." Since that time, historians, journalists, novelists, filmmakers, and a host of others have joined the explanatory fray. During these decades, interpreters have described the frontier and the American West, among other delineations, as a meeting point, a zone of contact, a boundary line, a border, or a crossroads. But much needs to be done in studying the complexities of the western past. One rewarding approach is to examine cultures that met and interacted in the West. Studies of these contacts should not be limited, however, merely to tracing subsequent conflicts between two opponents. Sometimes more than two groups appeared at such crossroads; frequently each of the competing societies was as internally divided as its opponent; and oftentimes more compromises and even community building followed initial contacts than deadly competitions and conflicts. By scrutinizing several important works that treat initial contacts and subsequent sociocultural interactions, we can see approaches that provide more comprehensive interpretations of the American West. These more complicated paradigms, whether from historical writings, films, or novels, should help us to avoid the too-positive triumphal approach of many early-twentieth-century historians, and, conversely, move beyond several late-twentieth-century scholars placing too much emphasis on negative conflicts in the West. This larger view sees the American West as an arena in which different cultures met, sometimes conflicted, but also compromised and intermingled.

The numerous probing essays and several books of David J. Weber provide one emulative model for studying an interconnected West. From his first book, The Taos Trappers: The Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, 1540-1846 (1971), forward to his magisterial overview The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Weber has focused on the dynamic encounters of cultures in the American West. (1) As Weber shows, over the decades following the initial, dramatic incursions of the Spanish into Native worlds stretching across the gigantic spaces from Florida to California, the two cultures gradually found themselves mutually influencing one another. Indians affected the foods the Spanish ate and the clothes they adopted, provided women for many marriages and other relationships, and helped the Iberians to understand better what could be done with the new agricultural lands the Europeans encountered. Conversely, no Native group escaped the shaping influences of the Spanish. Spain's religious, political, and social systems notably remolded Indian societies. Over time, as they intermarried, these two peoples produced a new hybrid group, the Mexicans. By placing emphases on the cultural and racial mixes that resulted from sociocultural interrelations in the Southwest Borderlands, Weber encourages readers to move beyond conflict toward confluence and combination. He shows us how to avoid the extremes of Old Spanish filiopiety on the one hand, and excessive sentiment about the destruction of Indian cultures on the other, and to see what resulted from these contacts between competing peoples in the American West.

Glenda Riley furnishes another provocative work for studying the intersections among cultures in the American West and adds the much-needed ingredient of gender. In her often-cited study, Women and Indians on the Frontier, 1825-1915 (1984), Riley challenges the stereotypes of earlier historians who contend that contacts between incoming settlers and Native Americans nearly always led to brutal conflicts. (2) Rather, argues Riley, even though pioneer women usually arrived on the frontier with preconceptions of Indians as uncivilized and dangerous, if not brutal and savage people, interactions with Native Americans, particularly with Indian women, led white women to alter their stereotypical negative views. …

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