The Ironic West

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987

In an August 1989 review article in
The Western Historical Quarterly, Patricia Limerick said she “wanted to narrow the widening gap between ‘sophisticated, scholarly history’ and ‘readable, simplified, popular history.’ If you cannot express your findings in terms that an intelligent freshman can understand, I have long felt, then you haven’t yet figured out those findings” (318). This is a sentiment I agree with 100%. Limerick wrote Legacy of Conquest in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Turnerian history of the West to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Reagan-era western myth. Her attack on the normal view of the West split between history and current events. Limerick argued for the continuity of western history to the present, and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that current view. Since most of these issues were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date. But many of Limerick's arguments have inspired others to expand on them. First is the idea that “the sharp and honest term 'conquest’ ” enhances our understanding of the morally ambivalent nature of western expansion. As one of the 1989 review's panelists remarked, it’s not only the South that Americans need to feel guilty about.

Limerick begins 
Legacy of Conquest by quoting Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on history (not "The Significance of the Frontier”): “The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past...the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past” (17). This T.S. Eliot-esque statement connects historical study with both the present and the public and suggests that Turner, like the West itself, was more complicated and multidimensional than we're often led to think. On the subject of the frontier thesis, Limerick says (paraphrasing Lamar) that it created an artificial barrier between “America’s rural past and its urban-industrial present” (22). The frontier thesis was so widely adopted, she says, because the West had “no watershed comparable to the Revolution or the Civil War.” But it was inaccurate and oversimplified. “One could easily argue,” for example, “that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening stage [of the frontier] and that a population lowered through...the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities.” However, even that complication may not be enough, since many areas went through cycles of growth, decline and regrowth, as conditions, technologies, and human goals changed. On a more concrete level, Limerick points out that in 1890, when the frontier was declared closed, “one-half of the land remained federal property” (23). She says, “If it is difficult for Americans to imagine that an economy might be stable and also healthy,” their addiction to growth may be related to the frontier myth, with its prospect of endless western opportunity. (28) If so, this is doubly ironic, because Turner’s whole point was that the frontier had closed, and America was going to need to find a new way to uphold its individualist, democratic values.

But, as Limerick observes, “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” Historians should be interested, she says, in not only what happened, via “the keepers of written records,” but in what people believe happened, via “the tellers of tales” (35). The discrepancy that interests Limerick most is the “idea of innocence.” People moved west, she says, for “improvement and opportunity, not injury to others” (36). This sentiment certainly fits with the apparent motives and sensibility of the Ranneys, whose primary letters I've been using in my classes. But of course, other people
were injured in the process. Limerick highlights the contradictions: “Squatters defied the boundaries of Indian territory and then were aggrieved to find themselves harassed and attacked by Indians.” They “felt betrayed when the rains proved inadequate...Contrary to all of the West’s associations with self-reliance and individual responsibility,” she says, “misfortune has usually caused white Westerners to cast themselves in the role of the innocent victim” (42). Because the national government has been an ongoing player in western affairs, Limerick says government became both a favorite scapegoat and a source of recompense (44). She finds the origins of the “injured innocent” attitude all the way back in Colonial Virginia, where “Having practically destroyed the aboriginal population and enslaved the Africans...the white inhabitants of English America began to conceive of themselves as the victims, not the agents, of Old World Colonialism” (quoting Carole Shammas, 48).


The generalizations are broad. It’s quite possible to imagine subgroups in both the colonial and western-expansion periods who did not necessarily share the same degree of “guilt” as the “agents” and main beneficiaries of western development. The rest of the book discusses these groups and the increasing division of wealth and power in the developing west. “ ‘Power always follows property,’ John Adams said bluntly” (58). In the West, “The advantage always accrued to the wealthy man of influence, regardless of what the law said” (quoting Malcolm Rohrbough, 61). A case in point, Limerick says, is William Stewart’s 1866 Mining Law, which established the ground-rules for massive accumulation of patent claims. “A great deal of Western property right,” she says, “rested on this narrow margin of timing” (67). While “Speculation is extremely disillusioning if you are trying to hold onto the illusion that agriculture and commerce are significantly different ways of life,” it might be interesting to highlight the ways property laws were devised to enable accumulation of vast tracts of undeveloped land under the ownership of individuals and corporations.

The ironic contrast between the myth of private enterprise and the reality of federally subsidized railroading, mining, and western state development continues throughout western history. “Western settlers were so abundantly supplied with slogans and democratic formulas,” Limerick says, “that putting our trust in their recorded words alone would be misleading” (83). The seemingly heroic, seemingly populist “squatter government” of Sioux Falls were actually “agents of a land company, financed and organized by Minnesota Democrats” (84). States like Wyoming and Colorado received subsidies far exceeding what their taxpayers “sent to a government [they] considered meddlesome and constitutionally threatening” (87). And the West
regularly got more than its share: “Per capita expenditures of federal agencies in Montana from 1933 to 1939...were $710, while they were only $143 in North Carolina” (88).

“Despite the promises of the Homestead Act,” Limerick says, “much good land was already in possession of railroads and states, and ‘purchase continued to be the most usual means to obtain a farm after 1865’ ” (quoting Everett Dick, 125). The cost of outfitting a farm with “a house, draft animals, wagon, plow, well, fencing, and seed grain could be as much as $1,000,” putting homesteading out of reach to many eastern wage-earners (125). When grasshoppers wiped out Minnesota farms, governor John Pillsbury actually
argued against state aid for family farmers (127-8). But how much state aid, in the form of subsidized railroads, government flour contracts, and the legal fiction of corporate rights, went into the building of Pillsbury’s flour empire?

The “split character” of the farmers’ social position, halfway between workers and businessmen, “curtailed the radicalism of their protests,” says Limerick (129). This seems like a failure of imagination on the part of radicals, or perhaps it was a social engineering victory for their opponents. Limerick says, “The economy of scale required by certain kinds of irrigation confirmed the pattern” of agribusiness in the dry states (130). But the assumption that no other arrangement of resource use was possible is anachronistic and avoids confronting the forces that enabled the victory of global economic concentration over community and regional self-sufficiency. Limerick agrees with Williams that “attribut[ing] ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match” is as old as history, but it would still be useful to critically examine how rural nostalgia has been mobilized as a propaganda tool, from Jefferson to the present (131).

The rest of the book tells the story of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and Indian presence in western history, and of the government’s continuing presence, especially in conservation in the era of Pinchot and Roosevelt. Limerick concludes on a hopeful note, suggesting that a closer look at the complex history of the West might help solve some of America’s ongoing problems.

The Manufacturing Frontier

The Manufacturing Frontier: Pioneer Industry in Antebellum Wisconsin, 1830-1860
Margaret Walsh, 1972

This is an interesting book which isn't read enough by American Environmental Historians, possibly because the author is neither an American nor an Environmental Historian. In her introduction, British Economic Historian Margaret Walsh says resource-frontiers such as farming, mining, lumbering, “even the military frontier” have been well covered by historians, but the “development of an urban and a manufacturing frontier...begun contemporaneously with the cultivation of land” has not. Exceptions she notes are Richard C. Wade,
The Urban Frontier and James D. Norris, Frontier Iron (v). The industries she's talking about on the manufacturing frontier were mainly “primary processing industries -- lumber planed and sawed, flour and grist milling, brewing, leather tanned and curried, and meat packing -- industries whose existence have been ignored, or have been dismissed as being merely ʻpre-industrial,ʼ even though they were of major importance” (vii). She notes:

There was no clearcut dichotomy between an industrial East and an agrarian West. The existence of new and relatively quick modes of access to other parts of the country, using first the seasonal water routes and then the year-round railroad, meant that the frontier no longer needed to be a series of self-sufficient communities, nor did it have to go through cumulative stages of growth. A more complex process of economic growth ensured the co-existence of several kinds of economic activity. (viii)


For example, Grant County lead mining began 1826; peaked in 1845 at 54.5 million pounds. (2) Grant County "was settled at an earlier date than other parts of Wisconsin, and often by Southerners traveling up the [Mississippi] river.” (70) "Crops cultivated in Wisconsin -- corn, oats, barley, wool, and tobacco -- served mainly for local consumption either directly or indirectly, as did the small amount of dairy and cattle production.” (5) “In 1840 those counties south of a line drawn from Green Bay to the Mississippi River contained 85.2 percent of 1850 the percentage was 93.1...and in 1860 it was 82.7 percent.” (7) So apparently the growth in German population in the northern part of the state (see Gannett maps from 1910 census) happens after the Civil War. Importantly, rivers and the lake meant that “even before the construction of railroads in the 1850s, most settled areas of Wisconsin were able to reach outside markets.” (8)


Jefferson County, located in the heavy wheat-growing region of southeastern Wisconsin, might be regarded as typical of many western pre-railroad counties. The main resource was land, the main occupation was farming. Yet there also developed a remarkable range of small-scale manufacturing (in a note on her selection of counties, Walsh summarizes central place theory, 31). Wheat production “provided a basis for industrial the stimulus given to the primary processing industries, notably flour milling and, to a lesser extent, tanning, meatpacking, brewing, and wool carding. But agriculture also functioned as a market as well as a source of inputs.” (38) Farming quickly became commercial, meaning farmers needed specialized tools and the things they no longer made at home.

The market remained relatively local, Walsh says, and “Even when the railroad came, it merely brought merchandise manufactured in other places” (39). I'm not sure this distinction makes sense to me. Manufactured elsewhere but sold by a local merchant still seems significant. But maybe the question she's pointing at has to do with how did the Jefferson County farmers pay for this merchandise? Unless sheʼs saying they sold agricultural products outside the county, but not manufactures. “There was little room for the development of even a rudimentary kind of division of labor. Most firms in Jefferson County were very small operations, employing one or two skilled artisans.” (42) “Within [the] processing group flour milling contributed the largest share -- almost 40 percent of the value added -- and lumber planed and sawed furnished 20.6 percent. Jefferson County was concentrating on processing its local products.” (46) ...for local consumption... Manufacturers like furniture-makers worked “often in exchange for lumber or farmersʼ produce. But cabinetmakers...did not enjoy a monopoly, for by 1847, retail merchants...were advertising ready-made goods at competitive prices.” (63) Did the difference between cash and farmersʼ-produce markets keep some of these little guys in business?

Racine and Milwaukee became urban and industrial very quickly, in Walsh's story. By 1850, Racine, “well- placed for the development of...[an] industry focused on the prosperous wheat-growing region,” was making a third of the stateʼs farm machinery. (150, 142) The market expanded, and “By the mid-1850ʼs [J.I. Case] threshers were known throughout the West, especially in Iowa and Minnesota, and in 1860 he even shipped six machines to California.” (155) This was bad news for blacksmiths, who “in Racine County...were ceasing to be regarded as manufacturers. They either took on general service and repair functions or began to specialize...the more ambitious turned to other craft trades, such as making plows or wagons.” (169)

Milwaukeeʼs population was “20,061 in 1850 and 45,286 in 1860.” (171) Its industry was uncharacteristically (for Wisconsin) diversified. “In 1850 six branches of manufacturing -- flour milling, clothing, construction materials, iron, furniture, and boots and shoes -- were responsible for half the countyʼs value added.” (172) “Several large firms...employed from fifty to eighty workers, often using machinery to fabricate articles for mass consumption. But at the other extreme there was a proliferation of shops run by owner-operators or craftsmen and their one apprentice.” (176)

“The...manufacture of lager beer, was the third leading processing industry in the county in the antebellum years and indeed was the fourth-leading industry in Wisconsin. Its origin and steady growth lay not so much in the accessibility of agricultural crops...but rather in the presence of an ethnic group -- the Germans -- both as producers and consumers.” (185-6) “Consumption...was high among the working class of Milwaukee, and especially among the German element, which formed about one third of the cityʼs population...Most of the successful brewers were German [and] were experienced in the business.” (187)

Lots to think about here. Given that Walsh wrote well ahead of others such as Cronon and Steinberg (William Cronon cites her work pretty extensively in
Nature's Metropolis, as a matter of fact), it's too bad Walsh's books aren't more widely read by Environmental Historians.