Frontier West: Process or Place?


American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review. Edited by Roger L. Nichols. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. 303 pp. $35.00.

Often when western or frontier historians gather at their annual meetings, private conversations turn to the question, "What's wrong with western history?" To my knowledge the question has never been honestly addressed on the programs of those scholarly conventions, but in hotel lounges throughout the country, after the formal papers have been delivered, one will always hear western/frontier specialists bemoaning their plight. At the top of the complaint list is the history profession's lack of interest in their work. Of course, once you start to listen to stories of scholarly woe, the agenda seems as endless as the interstate between Tucson and Yuma in July. Student enrollments in western courses are down, you'll hear, and even the membership in the Western History Association has plummeted from its peak some ten years back. Someone is sure to point out that when western or frontier historians retire, history departments regularly shift the vacant slot into more vigorous and respectable areas of scholarship. On occasion, one's colleagues drop remarks which indicate that the study of the West is simply "Cowboys & Indians," the scholar's version of the child's games. With wagons rolling, let's not forget the charge that frontier historians lack social conscience and relevance. ("How can you study nineteenth-century Indian- white relations, when that cowboy Reagan has his finger on the button?") Historians who peruse the distant past (i.e., medievalists or Ren/Ref types) feel that American history, and especially frontier history, lacks discipline and intellectual rigor. And finally, if all this were not enough, the general reading public has deserted western history, surely the cruelist blow of all. Whenever a recent bestseller list contains a book on a Western or frontier theme, you can be certain that it was authored by a popularizer, not an academic.
I suppose that all this masochism and self-pity works a cathartic effect, for despite criticism worthy of a Penitente at Easter, the scholarship changes little, if at all.
In a thoughtful introduction to American Frontier and Western Issues, Roger Nichols confronts the malaise of western history, and argues with conviction that frontier history is neither headed toward extinction, nor in a state of permanent decline. What has happened, Nichols writes, is that in the last twenty years the field has grown increasingly specialized. Few of today's frontier scholars can claim the broad expertise of previous generations, perhaps best exemplified by Ray Allen Billington. In recent decades frontier scholarship has expanded at an exponential rate, and today's historian can only master small, restricted areas under the broad aegis of frontier history–areas such as mining, women, urbanization, Indians, environment, agriculture, ethnic groups, politics, transportation, social relations, and military affairs. While hundreds of researchers inside and outside of academic write on these and other topics, they now regard themselves as experts in these narrow specialties and no longer identify with the field of frontier history. But despite this intellectual Balkanization of western and frontier history, American Frontier and Western Issues shows that the discipline still contains pockets of remarkable intellectual vitality. This reviewer strongly agrees with Nichols that his fourteen contributors illustrate the "variety, strength and originality being demonstrated by some frontier and western historians."
Historiographical works that provide a sweeping overview of a discipline are always welcomed by historians, and within the last three years frontier and western specialists have been twice blessed as two major historiographical studies have made their appearance. First to be published was Michael P. Malone's Historians and the American West (1983); then in 1986 Roger Nichols edited the volume under review, American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review. Because of their similarity, these two books will invariably be compared with each other, but it should be emphasized that Malone and Nichols take different approaches to the subject of western/frontier history. Malone is a regionalist and from this perspective flows a wide range of coverage. He offers chapters on such diverse topics as the Spanish Borderlands, Twentieth-Century Politics, and Western Cultural History. On the other hand, Nichols, a frontier historian, stresses the frontier as process, rather than a fixed geographical region. This places American Frontier and Western Issues within the frontier thesis framework first delineated by Frederick Jackson Turner. For the most part, Nichols' contributors confine themselves to the American frontier of the nineteenth century, and this concentrated focus gives the Nichols' volume a greater depth and intensity of treatment than Malone's study. It may be a book reviewer's cliché, but these two books complement each other, making them mandatory reading for all students and scholars of western and frontier history. Yet, one does wish that each editor had sought out an essay which argued the philosophical basis of their particular approach, for both books fail to make a strenuous effort to justify either regionalism or the frontier thesis.
What western and frontier history needs for true rejuvenation is a thoroughgoing debate over intellectual premises on the order of the exciting exchanges that took place in the 1970s over slavery. The divergent positions of Malone (regionalism) and Nichols (fiontier process) lend themselves to vigorous disputation. Is the American West a place or a process? Sooner or later every scholar swears allegiance to one school or the other. Try to argue for both, and the question is only slightly altered. Is the region a part of the frontier or vice versa? This is not a chicken or egg argument; an evolutionary process is very different from fixed geographical region. (Like a Greek chorus, I can hear some of my friends, "Why bother with these questions? Aren't we producing monographs in record numbers, with a greater depth of research than ever before?") Nevertheless, these bedrock questions need to be addressed even if answers satisfactory to all cannot be reached.
In recent years the two theses, regionalism and process, have seldom been analyzed or defended, allowing critics to gain the upper hand. Those who dispute regionalism declare the West to be a vast, divergent place that will not hold together as a distinct region. The well-known extremes of geography, climate, ethnicity and economy need not be repeated here, but the dissenters from regionalism postulate that forces pulling against unity are stronger than the coalescing factors. How can a scholar link together an area that contains Salt Lake City, Des Moines, and Los Angeles? Diversity is not the cement of regionalism. Then, there's a vagueness about the term, the West. Where is it? Is Dallas in the West? Hawaii? What about those older places that once were the West, like Illinois or Louisiana? In a recent article, Gerald Nash, Presidential Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, concluded that the region exists in a spiritual realm, bounded by hopes, dreams, and optimism. But if we adopt Nash's definition, echoing Gertrude Stein's "There is no there, there," what becomes of those geographical realities called Arizona, Nebraska, and Montana?
If the West as a region is unfocused and vague, the definition of frontier is equally imprecise. When and where does the process commence and terminate? Do we use Walter Prescott Webb's great frontier thesis, and start with Renaissance Europe? Many of Turner and Webb's disciples believed that, above all else, the frontier was an economic evolution that explained America's nineteenth- and twentieth-century growth. But within this Turnerian framework there exists an explicit rise and fall syndrome, a sort of pubescent Marxism, that has caused more than a few frontier scholars, including Turner and Webb, to take a dim view of America's future. If the frontier has ended in the United States and the American economy entered into a twilight of decline, what has become of the capitalistic frontier? Logic dictates that it can be found in Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong. Of course, let's not forget the People's Republic of China. But this conception of the frontier as a synonym for modernization is so far-flung as to be almost meaningless. Scholars who subscribe to this viewpoint usually refer to a developmental thesis and avoid entirely the use of the word "frontier." While this ethereal world frontier theory makes for heady reading, it falls to earth when confronted with such a simple fact as the economic vitality of the Sun Belt since World War II. Decades ago Turner's theories about democracy and the frontier were laid to waste, and now his economic ideas seem equally outmoded. Finally, with a close relationship existing between Marxist economic beliefs and the frontier thesis, the movement by socialist and communist countries away from Marxism bodes ill for the longevity of the frontier process. The thesis may well survive, but it will surely need significant rethinking.
Still, despite their critics frontier/western historians continue to research and author narrow monographs without ever considering the need to justify their work. But such a justification is long overdue, and a serious effort to answer the question, "Is the American West a place or a process?" will force scholars to reach into the national psyche and into the heart of American history. Nichols realizes this, and in this preface to American Frontier and Western Issues, he states, "if the practitioners of frontier and Western history cannot agree on the nature of their field why should other scholars pay much attention to their efforts?"
American Frontier and Western Issues is divided into fourteen chapters, covering many aspects of the nineteenth-century frontier experience. Some of the most respected frontier scholars have written these essays: "Environment and the Frontier," by John Opie; "Economic Development of the American West," by John D. Haeger; "Agriculture and Livestock Production," by James W Whitaker; "Frontier Urbanization," by Lawrence H. Larsen; "Frontier and Western Transportation," by H. Roger Grant; "Mining Frontiers," by Mark Wyman; "Frontier Social History," by Anne M. Butler; "Historians and Indians," by Roger L. Nichols; "Frontier Women," by Glenda Riley, "Ethnic Groups and the Frontier," by Carlton C. Qualey,; "Foreign Affairs and Expansion," by Robert D. Schulzinger; "Territorial Government," by Jo Tice Bloom; and "The Frontier Army," by Paul A. Hutton. The book concludes with a valuable note on sources and repositories for Frontier and Western History.
Any volume that encompasses the efforts of fourteen individuals will have some essays that are better than others, but the overall quality of these contributions is quite high. In fact, when one notices that a chapter seems particularly insightful, e.g., Opie's "The Environment and the Frontier," what may have impressed the reader is the fullness and creativity of the areas scholarship. Those essays that appear less distinguished accurately reflect subjects that scholars have ignored. Historians, who believe in the stock market axiom to buy low and sell high, arc advised to examine those unexplored topics of western history which promise future dividends.
Since the early 1960s one of the most energetic areas has been environmental history. John Opie's essay shows how historians have used interdisciplinary techniques to understand the complex relationship of man and region. Opie expresses an admiration for the Annales school of history and summarizes the French historian's aims and methodology in the following passage: "(1) comparative and interdisciplinary methods to go beyond isolated monographic research to devise a comprehensive social history; (2) serious questioning of the usefulness of narrative history in favor of problem-oriented research; (3) a superhuman but necessary effort to embrace the whole of human activity in a given society in a specific region" (p. 20). Historians should heed Opie's call, but they should also remember that Frederick Jackson Turner advocated an interdisciplinary methodology long before the French Marxists, Marc Bloch, and Lucien Febvre founded the journal.
Historians who admire the Annalists should also be cautioned that all important questions are not economic in nature, and even within the realm of economics, the theories of class struggle and dialectical materialism may prove unreliable. On occasion, the rigidity of the Annalists framework has produced works that have strained credulity. Of course, class analysis can be a valuable tool for understanding western/frontier history, but if a historian starts out with a biased research premise (e.g., all questions are economic) he has become the academic version of H.L. Mencken's hill country fundamentalist who believed that all questions of historical causation could be answered by the phrase, "It's God's will."
This reviewer urges scholars to apply a true interdisciplinary methodology to the study of the West. Like the Annales school, historians need to use economic models and demographic tools, but they also must consider the roles played by religion, philosophy, music, literature and the arts. Moreover, what some European scholars have dubbed the history of mentalités should be applied to the American West. One should never forget L. P. Hartley's observation, "The past Is a foreign country; they do things differently there."
Like many students of the environment, scholars of the Native American have been especially creative in using interdisciplinary methodology. In what is perhaps the most impressive chapter in the book, Roger Nichols divides the writings on American Indians into four categories which reflect: Anglo-American attitudes toward the native peoples; Indian-white relations from the Anglo-American perspective; ethnohistorical studies which show the Indians' point of view and the comparative study of the indigenous peoples both within the Americas and elsewhere in the world. Within the first grouping, Nichols praises the work of several scholars and directs readers to Richard Slotkin's Regeneration Through Violence (1973), Roy Harvey Pearce's The Savages of America (1953), and Robert E Berkhofer's The White Man's Indian (1978). More scholars have concentrated on Nichols' second area, and there must be hundreds of titles under the umbrella of Indian-white relations. Francis Paul Prucha has special preeminence in this subfield, and his monumental study, The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians (2 vols., 1984) is the capstone for his career. The important studies of Bernard W Sheehan, Ronald Satz, Reginald Horsman, Mary E. Young, Herman J. Viola, Donald Parman, and many others are discussed in some detail. The author notes that few scholars have been able to convey the Indian perspective on Native American history. Colonial and early national history have been fruitful in producing ethnohistorical studies (James Axtell, Francis Jennings, and James P. Rhonda), but the best ethnohistory studies are yet to come. With such talented individuals as Terry P. Wilson, Gary C. Anderson, and Clyde Milner at work, one anticipates a flowering of ethnohistory that will rival the quality, if not the volume of Indian-white relations studies. Nichols'final grouping, comparative history of native peoples, has so far produced few results. Since 1970 some of the best books published combine an interest in the environment and Indians. Alfred W Crosby's The Columbian Excbange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972) is one of the most significant of these works. It seems that the study of the Native American history is on the verge of providing "an overall method or pattern that will help explain the varied, complex, and even contradictory story of Indians in the United States,)" concludes Nichols.
Other areas of frontier scholarship do not seem to have been as dynamic or creative as environmental or Indian studies, but these more lightly worked areas (mining, territorial politics, military history, and urban studies) may prove most rewarding in the future. Jo Tice Bloom's survey of scholarship on the dimensions of the territorial experience shows the scholarship to be little advanced from the early efforts of Howard Lamar, some twenty years ago. Studies in territorial history tend to concentrate on specific territories, such as Jay Wagoner's Arizona Territory (1970), or on prominent politicians. The most important overall study still remains Earl S. Pomeroy's 1947 work, The Territories and the United States, 1861-1860. There is a clear need for another broad treatment that offers a modern theoretical framework, based on new research.
A few questions come to mind for future research: Why did the nature of the federal territorial system change after the Civil War? To what extent did the political arguments of the territorial period spill over and influence the subsequent state histories? How accurate is the stereotype that the territories served as dumping grounds for political incompetents? Did the territorial system act as a tool of the eastern economic and political establishment for exploiting a people and a region?
The last question is tied to the theory that the West underwent a colonial occupation by the East. Such an assumption underlies much of the economic history discussed in John D. Haeger's chapter on economics. Haeger breaks down the frontier economic studies into three categories: entrepreneurial books, modernization studies, and staple-export model works. Allan Bogue, Merle Curti, Peter Decker, and Robert Dykstra are praised, but with only a few exceptions, these scholars all did their pathbreaking research decades ago. Questions that ought to be asked are numerous, but most pressing is the requirement for thorough testing of the colonial economic model. Gerald Nash's The American West in the Twentieth Century: A Short History of an Urban Oasis (1973), a much-lauded book, assumes as proven the colonial relationship between East and West. Nash may be right, but such an important assumption deserves extensive investigation. If the colonial thesis proves historically accurate, many of the attitudes of western politicians toward the federal government and eastern capital become understandable. An outgrowth of a rigorous examination of federal-territorial relations may show that western political conservatism, exemplified by politicians like Barry Goldwater, may have distinct western or frontier roots that reflect the territorial experience, and the economic exploitation of more recent times.
Frontier women's history, in contrast, has only received serious attention in recent years. As a result, many of the books cited by Glenda Riley in her essay are collections of documents or diaries of western women–a sign that primary research materials are still being gathered. Nevertheless, significant studies have been published, such as Westering Women and the Frontier Experience (1982) by Sandra Myres, and Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery: Prostitutes in the American West, 1865-1890 (1985) by Anne M. Butler. Women's history overlaps with other chapters in American Frontier and Western Issues, and Anne Butler's discussion of the literature on social history contains valuable supplemental information.
Social history also entwines with ethnic studies, and that chapter reveals extensive accomplishments by western scholars. Blacks in western American history were discovered in the 1960s, and the Chicano experience in the Far West has produced fine scholarship from authors like Juan Gomez-Quinones, Albert Camarillo, and Lawrence A. Cardoso. In the case of both blacks and Chicanos the scholarship tends to be narrow and monographic, the broad synthetic Annales' treatment has not yet been undertaken. Other ethnic groups, such as the Scotch-Irish, the Irish, Germans, and Jews have received modest consideration.
Urban studies has been a somewhat disappointing area for frontier scholars, as indicated by essayist Lawrence H. Larsen. Most urban historians, with a few important exceptions, have produced city histories that lack a theoretical framework or fail to place their communities within a broader historical sweep. Those scholars who have managed to give their urban history a substantial context would include Robert R. Dykstra, H. Craig Miner, Brad Luckingham, Richard Wade, John W Reps, and Gunther Barth. Others could be mentioned, but as Larsen points out, as least fifty thousand local histories have been published and only a small handful have advanced the state of the art.
A similar situation exists in agricultural history and mining history, where a Plea is made for an infusion of scholarly vitality. Gilbert C. Fite's The Farmer's Frontier, 1865-1900 (1966) remains the standard work on farming, but the livestock industry has been seldom investigated, especially when compared to the flood of books on Indian affairs. The history of the cattle industry, which spawned the myth of the cowboy hero, has been more the concern of folklorists than historians. Some of the best scholarship on the cattle industry is now decades old. As always, there are a few bright exceptions, such as Gene Greesley's Bankers and Cattlemen (1966), but despite the stereotypes of frontier history being the study of "cowboys and Indians few scholars have looked at the business side of cattle.
Mining has fared somewhat better. Most studies begin with Rodman Paut's important work, Mining Frontiers of the Far West (1963). Otis Young has written about the technology of mining, but the history of the great twentieth-century corporation is non-existent except for company-cndorscd promotional "histories.' Phelps-Dodge, Newmont, Asarco, and Kennecott all deserve monographic treatment. There are no overview studies which integrate corporate history into the broader genre of regional history, and there is also the global history of mining to consider. Perhaps the fact that so little copper mining has taken place within the United States in recent years will alert scholars of mining history that these large corporations require a global perspective. In the specific area of petroleum history such a broad outlook took place due to the Arab oil embargo of the early 1970s, but so far global mining history, with the exception of those econohistorians with an interest in oil, has remained unexplored.
There has been one bright aspect to mining studies-books which relate the difficult and sometimes violent road which lead to the unionization of the labor force in the western mines. Melvyn Dubofsky has played an important role in these studies, and as the major historian of the I.W.W writes: "In their mill and smelter towns, their shoddy company houses and stores, the cities of the mountain West bore a direct resemblance to their Eastern industrial counterparts." In a related vein, the essay's author, Mark Wyman, mentions Russell R. Elliot's Radical Labor in the Nevada Mining Booms–1900-1920 (1961), and James W Byrkit's Forging the Copper Collar (1982).
With so many pages devoted to the labor question, the neglect of the companies themselves is more onerous. For decades the great mining companies were the leading industries of states like Montana, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. At present, because so much literature on mining has concentrated on labor unrest, it would appear that the corporations were a negative aspect of western history. But such a view seems to fly in the face of reality, and entrepreneurial historians need to redress this historical oversight.
In one of the best chapters in the Nichols' volume, H. Roger Grant analyzes the writings on frontier and western transportation. Unlike mining history, where few solid corporate histories have emerged, transportation history has produced many. Grant points out that fine histories have been written on the various railroads and airlines. He calls special attention to four books on railroads: Robert Athearn's Rebel of the Rockies: A History of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroads (1962); Richard Overton's Burlington Route (1965); Keith L. Bryant's History of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway (1974); and Roger Grant's The Corn Belt Route. There have been a number of excellent biographies of important railroad builders, such as Albro Martin's James J. Hill and the Opening of the Northwest (1976) and John Lipsey's The Lives of James John Hagerman: Builder of Colorado Midland Railway (1968). Several books concern themselves with the subject of labor unrest, although this part of transportation has a long way to go before it rivals the output of mining scholars. The large number of transportation studies that focus on the twentieth century airlines is surprising. As in so many of the essays, Grant concludes with a call for broader analysis. There is no overall history of transportation, he writes, and even Oscar Winter's key book, The Transportation Frontier (1964), says nothing about the twentieth century.
A final chapter by Paul Hutton discusses the writings on the frontier military. While solid, broad-scale studies have appeared by Robert Utley and others, there is no theoretical framework for frontier military history. There is simply too much emphasis on narrative–gunsmoke and flying arrows–and little space is devoted to the economic, social, and political context within which the military functioned. Paul Hutton's Phil Sheridan and His Army (1985) stands as one of the few biographies of a military figure that goes beyond the traditional confines of the genre. Another example of first-rate biography is Joseph C. Porter's Paper Medicine Man: John Gregory Bourke and His American West (1986). William H. Leckie has made an admirable contribution to military scholarship with his study of blacks in the frontier army, The Buffalo Soldiers (1967), but no major works have appeared on other ethnic groups (and, of course, we all know the frontier army was very Irish). No major study has surfaced on army wives, or on the economic impact of the military in the Far West, although Darlis Miller and Robert Frazer had made serious efforts in that direction. Hutton also notes that in writing about military engagements, scholars have been slow to adopt the ethnohistorical dimension. He considers that oversight the equivalent of writing about Gettysburg strictly from Union sources. One of the most interesting times for western military historians will occur when accounts that fully integrate the Indian perspective into military history make their debut.
Throughout the pages of American Frontier and Western Issues there are pleas for larger, more synthetic studies. It seems clear that historians in general, not simply western historians, have grown fearful of big books, those studies that make pathbreaking contributions. Such works involve intellectual risk, and many frontier historians have passed entire careers in examining and disproving a part of Turner's thesis, while, like intellectual schizophrenics, they still worship the names of Turner, Webb, and Bolton. James Axtell, colonialist and ethnohistorian, declares the problem or malaise of history to be a failure of imagination, stemming from graduate training. During their days of graduate study, historians are taught to avoid large-scale studies and speculative ideas–they might prove too difficult to manage and perhaps too controversial. Instead, graduate students are directed to select small, narrow topics which lend themselves to copious research. One never hears the words imagination or creativity in graduate school, and the grad students proceed to research and write dissertations in the late nineteenth-century tradition of the scientific historians like Leopold von Ranke. For decades this has been the status of history, and western historians arc no exception.
In American Frontier and Western Issues, Roger Nichols has written that there exist pockets of historical creativity within frontier history, and given the overall state of historical studies, western historians can take some pride in that achievement. But historians, frontier- or otherwise-minded, will never regain that sense of self-esteem and importance that belonged to earlier generations until the profession returns to thinking of history as art. History is literature and meant to be read, and historians should never use the excuse of modern research techniques, such as quantification, to Justify dull and unreadable prose. Historians should employ all available research tools, from computers to psychology, but then they must labor over the meaning and form of their words. Finally they must free themselves from the bondage of graduate studies and think creatively, utilizing their imaginations. With so many of Nichols' contributors recognizing the problem and its solution, one can feel optimistic about the future of western and frontier studies.