New Horizons for the American West

By Walsh, Margaret | History Today, March 1994 | Go to article overview

New Horizons for the American West


Walsh, Margaret, History Today


For many years and for millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic the American West was and still is the excitement, action and scenery of a John Ford-John Wayne Movie or of a Zane Grey dime novel. For others who have a different cultural approach to the West it is the magnificent landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt or Thomas Moran or the backdrop to the classic literary works of James Fenimore Cooper or Mark Twain. For historians who studied North America the West was that part of the continent, usually the United States, which was unsettled at the time of the Revolution, or the area beginning at the Appalachian Mountains and stretching to the Pacific Coast. The process of settling this vast territory became the story of the West, often a saga of epic proportions filled with heroes who not only had major adventures but who brought civilisation in the shape of democracy and capitalism.

Such a West was popular for many years in the twentieth century, but then became unfashionable in the 1960s and 1970s when historians, popular culture and the media paid more attention to urban industrial settings and the issue of civil and equal rights. More recently, however, new currents have been flowing and the West has become a whirlpool of historical activity. Stirred in part by the concerns of residents to have a more realistic past and one which covered centuries other than the nineteenth, historians are busy uncovering the 'New West'. This West is a place or a region, rather than a process of development and it is a place which has possibilities as well as problems. Through discussing specific issues Western historians have not only reinterpreted and revitalised the traditional or 'Old' West, but they suggest ways in which the region may lead the nation into the twenty-first century.

The traditional West which dominated the textbooks and media for much of the twentieth century had been given respectability through the pioneering work of Frederick Jackson Turner. His famous thesis 'The Significance of the Frontier in American History', first published in the American Historical Association, Annual Report of the Year 1893, (1894), set the framework for many of the ensuing historical outpourings. Writing that 'the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession and the advance of American settlement westward explains American development' Turner hypothesised that abundant, available and cheap land ensured the triumph of American capitalism.

By utilising the resources of the West, pioneers contributed to raising American standards of living to the highest in the world. Equally if not more importantly the process of westward expansion meant that the nation was won for democracy and that the character of the American population was shaped by the struggle to win the environment. Turner and his followers, now called 'Old Western Historians' wrote optimistic history. Theirs was a story in which progress was the key feature. The American West had been won for the benefit of a wealthy democratic nation-state.

This traditional West, whether read in academically researched monographs, general textbooks or novels, or whether viewed on the large or small screens, was primarily a EuroAmerican male experience, often highlighted through the achievements of cowboys, homesteaders, fur traders or the United States' army. In Ray A. Billington's monumental classic (Westward Expansion. A History of the American Frontier, Macmillan, first edition, 1949, fifth edition, 1982) these men overcame obstacles like difficult terrain, drought, Indians, wild animals and distance through their perseverance, hard work, ingenuity and most of all through their use of technology. Such technology might be a Winchester repeating rifle, but it could also be a reaper, a windmill or the railroad. Though other people were present in the movement west, they were not the most important actors and could thus be either marginalised or stereotyped. …

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