David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

AmWest Post #5: Migrations + Environmental Change = Way of the West?

This week’s reading, University of Arkansas historian Elliott West’s excellent The Way to the West: Essays on the Central Plains, focuses on two major migrations into the Central Plains during the mid-19th century: the better-known westward movement of U.S.-Americans and the lesser-known largely southward movement of various Native American groups, particularly Cheyennes. Through a series of four essays, originally lectures at the University of New Mexico in 1993, West traces the interconnectedness of these two migrations with the region’s larger environmental history.

This book particularly reminded me of one of my favorites, Colin Calloway’s One Vast Winter Count. Initially as I read The Way to the West, I thought of it as a sequel to One Vast Winter Count—until I realized that the former is eight years older than the latter. Nonetheless, in a lot of ways The Way to the West is a sequel chronologically.

Calloway’s geographic scope is much larger than West’s: The trans-Appalachian West, rather than the Central Plains (which West defines as the land between the Front Range of the Rockies and the Missouri River, south of the Platte River and north of the Arkansas River). Calloway’s chronological scope is from the arrival of the first humans in the Western Hemisphere up to when Lewis and Clark traversed the continent.

Nonetheless, Calloway and West echo each other strongly in focusing on the movement of peoples, and how they interacted with the environment (and how the environment interacted with them), as the basis of Western history. They both rightfully show that the many peoples lumped together as “Native Americans,” as well as the many people lumped together as “whites,” “Anglos,” “Americans,” etc., were neither static, monolithic, nor acting in a vacuum. Rather, their movements and interactions formed a “web of relationships.” For example, as West highlights, it was politics among the various Native peoples of the Central Plains that partially contributed to a sanctuary for bison—until a peace pact opened that territory for exploitation not just by whites but by Native peoples.

Randolph Campbell’s 2003 synthesis of Texas history, Gone to Texas (since updated), follows a similar track—arguing that the history of a particular Western state, Texas, has been one of migration.

So, then, taking West’s work in context with that of Calloway, Campbell, as well as others we’ve read this semester (particularly Limerick), could we say that the big theme of Western history has been movement into and out of this broadly-defined place called “the West”?

Instead of this class’s Turnerian name, “U.S. Westward Movement” (one I’m guessing has been a long-standing title for this course number, and which is really not used outside the course catalog), should it be something like “Movements into the U.S. West”? Is movement of various peoples, and their interactions with the environment (particularly how the environment has thwarted their dreams), the unifying thread of Western history?

On a related note, is this thread unique to Western history, or simply more pronounced in this region? As I was reading (the author) West, I wondered about a certain exceptionalism of the history of the (region) West. Is Western history exceptional?

What do others think?

1 Comment

  1. I think “Movements in the US West” might be a good title.

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