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A Comparison Between The American West: A new interpretive history and The Legacy of Conquest: The unbroken past of the American West In comparing Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faracher's book The American West and Patricia Nelson Limerick's book The Legacy of Conquest, it is apparent that the extent of their similarities basically end at their topic of discussion. Both books write about the history of the American West; however, each book has a totally different goal and focus than the other. The American West presents Fredrick Jackson Turner's viewpoint on the development of western society and the idea that the Wild West was conquered so society could prevail in the West. It describes the development of America being forged out of the western frontier and it chronicles the struggles of those people involved in western development. The book's purpose is to tell a comprehensive story of the development of the American West.
The Legacy of Conquest, on the other hand, tends to focus on destroying the typical thoughts about development of the West. Limerick does little to present the whole history on the settlement and development of the west. Instead, she focuses on the stories that are not often told such as the plight of the minorities, the governments attempt to manage the lands of the West, and the feelings westerners have and had toward the federal Government. She uses these stories to present an argument against the common perception that the West was conquered in a violent, yet romantic series of events. The American West clearly follows Turner's theory of how the American West developed. The book begins by revealing the wild uncivilized society that existed in the west during the California Gold Rush and illustrates the gradual development of the western society into a national power.
One example the book uses to show us this lawless uncouth society during the early development of society in the West is when the miners ruled western development. The book points out such instances as when California miners in the 1850's held meetings that were designed to serve justice, but "were quick to resort to lynchings and vigilante action, without the approval of courts and the legal system" (267). The book also tells of the terrible physical and moral conditions that existed in California towns and mining camps. One miner, whose story is told in the book, described the women in mining towns saying "there are a great many in all the mining towns who wear the form of a woman, but oh so fallen and vile, a living, burning shame to the sex they have so disgraced" (269). These examples of early western society are used to show the progression that the West is going to make in time. It is illustrating Turner's idea about how western society uniquely developed out of the frontier and how society advances in stages.
Turner said that civilization moves in a certain pattern with the trappers first coming followed by miners, farmers, and then towns of civilized people. The book quickly moves away from examples of uncivilized society where miners and farmers were forced to live to the telling of the "technological triumph of a transcontinental railroad" (290). With the completion of the transcontinental railroad, people moved into the west at a much greater pace and "every station upon the railway had become a nucleus for a civilized settlement" (295). The book again follows Turner's view of western history. Hine and Faracher make the case that the railroad helped enable society in the West to flourish and expand because the new wave of settlers was able to move to the West and maintain in reasonable touch with the East.
The book, although briefly, touches on the harm these Railroad companies inflicted on the people in the West. It presents the information with the same bravado and excitement that Turner's ideas on western development tend to be portrayed. There is always an undertone of conquest in Turner's theory and the book maintains this same tone when talking about the impact the railroads had on the region. In reading about this impact, a feeling of conquest emanates from the text. One gets the feeling that American ingenuity conquered over Mother Nature to help further advance society. Turner's last idea that is presented in Hine and Faracher's novel is the idea that if it is easy for people to become land owners it is thus easy to establish and maintain a democracy in America.
The American West details the free land opportunities in the West by calling it the safety valve. These free land opportunities are describe as the safety valve because the book presents the idea that in order for Americans to continue prospering and maintaining democracy, people needed to be able to work their own land. The industrial revolution threatened upward mobility for an individual and threatened ones democratic values (330-360). In presenting Turner's theory on the development of western society Hine and Faracher also present the popular idea that the West was conquered so civilization could thrive. The book has this theme spread throughout the text; however, it is clearly displayed for us when the Chapter Open Range is discussed.
This chapter brings to light the near extinction of the buffalo. Although the dramatic decrease in the buffalo's numbers occurred due to several different reasons, one reason is set aside when the book is talking about the transition from buffalo grazing on the Great Plains to cattle grazing on the plains. " (That) was one of the most rapid episodes of frontier advance in the Euro american occupation of the continent" (320) says Hine and Faracher. This statement makes the disappearance of the buffalo seem like the buffalo were killed off in order for White settlers and Cattlemen to conquer and rule the Great Plains. With the buffalo gone the Plains Indians lost their major source of food and therefore would need to move on to reservations.
Thus, the theme of American conquest plays a huge part in the development of the West. Before turning to Limericks novel for review, it must be understood that The American West is a novel whose purpose is achieved and not hurt by its influence of Fredrick Jackson Turner's theories. The authors are still able to present a well rounded view of western history and are successful in presenting the problems minorities incurred during westward development. The Legacy of Conquest is a unique novel to say the least. Patricia Nelson Limerick presents views of western history not often offered by historians. In one of her most interesting examples she discusses the government's early attempts at resource management and its Chief Forester, Gifford Pinchot.
Generally when people speak of Pinchot and his Department of Forestry their efforts to preserve and manage our natural resources are applauded. Pinchot and his department tend to be looked at as true innovators and among the first environmentalists. However, Limerick writes that this sentiment and view point is actually flawed and that the national forests would have been better off without government regulation. She tells of the clear cutting that Pinchot and the Department of Forestry allowed, which were not for the benefit of the forests or preservation, but for economic gains. Here, Limerick tells of what one assistant in the Department of Forestry said when asked about the clear cutting of forests: "From an economic standpoint these trees are doing nothing but standing there rotting, we could get more value by cutting them down and growing a new crop" (303). In writing this passage, Limerick destroys our perception that the Department of Forestry was established to preserve forests and shocks her readers when she reveals the motivation of the government.
Another common misperception about the West is that the 20 th century brought peace and tranquility to the region. Limerick takes this perception and says that "this conventional image was reassuring, progressive-and inaccurate" (269). She goes about destroying this perception by telling about the horrible race relations people in the West encountered and why they were encountered. It is well documented that the West was associated with opportunity and Limerick makes the case that when people were unable to find success they wanted someone to blame when they did not succeed. She tells of the desire to restrict Chinese laborers migrating to California with the Chinese Exclusion Act. She moves further into the 20 th century and tells of the problems Japanese people encountered during WWII with their forced internment.
She lets these examples show that the West was anything but peaceful and writes that the system that united Western history was the struggle between the minority and majority for "control of land, for labor applied to the land, and for the resulting profit" (292). The purpose of The Legacy of Conquest was to be the antithesis of modern perception about the west. Basically, Limerick presents the idea that the West is still evolving and the region should, perhaps, not be viewed in the romantic fashion popular culture sees it. In looking at the focus of The Legacy of Conquest and The American West, we can note the drastic differences. Hine and Faracher set out to write a novel which detailed the vast and expansive development of the West; however, in doing this they were unable to incorporate many of the feelings minorities and westerners harbored for each other, the government, and big business. On the other hand, Limerick set out to present these feelings to further her focus of dispelling the romantic notions people had about western development.
Both novels accomplished their goals and made efforts to present the facts about western development. Overall, both books aided in my understanding of Western attitudes and development. Combined they are a perfect match to tell the comprehensive history of the West.
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