Oh, boy is this late. I’ve been juggling a lot recently and haven’t been able to give this the attention it deserves. But let’s get down to business:
In reading The Legacy of Conquest for this week, I found myself struck by Limerick’s argument about how ‘the usual story’ of the American West tells an often heroic story of progress and advance, but consciously ignores the far more common stories shared not only by “the white man” and “the Indian,” but also by those ‘the usual story’ often ignores. The simplistic story often told of the West ignores a far more complex, and arguably, far more interesting, past.
Growing up in southern California, my schooling was much more focused on the West than one here in Virginia would be. As I may have mentioned in class, we spent more time on the Mexican War and than we did Jamestown or the Puritans, we learned more details about the Gold Rush than we did the American Revolution, and we studied the Transcontinental Railroad in more depth than we did the Civil War. And so, one of the things my teachers back then drilled in to us was that the West, rather than some blank canvas for settlers to come and imprint civilization, was already thriving with any number of different cultures, and the West, rather than a wilderness dotted with holdouts where the whites held off Indians and the wilderness, was an interestingly cosmopolitan place.
Western culture, at least in California, comprised numerous flavors, from Old World Spanish, to the various native tribes, to those arriving from the United States, all with a healthy dose from the Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco. The result was a confusing (and often violent) jumble, where money and the quest to obtain it were paramount, and where the arm of the law was anything but long. By this parameter, the growth of “civilization” was signaled not by the railroad but by the sheriff, and the indicator that one was finally “civilized” a reliance on a court rather that a Colt.
But even this more complex story, as Limerick points out, ignores in turn any number of other tales not only in California but across the West. Perhaps, then, the lesson—at least, the lesson I took away from Limerick—is that no one story can truly encompass the complexity of the American West, but that does not mean we shouldn’t try.