West

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).

eight-stagecoach

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.