David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Category: Hist 616 – American West (page 2 of 2)

AmWest Post #4: Oral History and Memory

Last week, in discussing Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, we briefly touched on the topic of oral history as a means to learn about the past–not just from a person’s lifetime, but from a family, tribe, and/or community’s more distant past. As we noted, DeLay used very little, if any, oral history; instead, he relied on written sources (as most historians do) to piece together the fascinating story he tells.

This week’s book, Susan Lee Johnson‘s Roaring Camp, uses oral history in what I thought was a fascinating way–one I’d like to discuss a bit further, since this has been on my mind after, as I’ve mentioned ad nauseam in this blog and in class, last week’s American Association for State and Local History conference. My previous encounters with use of oral history to glean pieces of the distant, non-lifetime past have largely, if not completely, come from Native American history.

Thus, Johnson’s use of oral history to get at both facts and memory of the legendary bandit Joaquín Murrieta fascinated me, especially since she uses it oral history to learn about a literate society. Her prologue discusses stories about Murrieta, and how those have evolved over time, beginning with family memories. She then goes into other sources for this story, including written news and literary treatments.

Like Anton Treuer said about his use of Ojibwe oral traditions to glean the motives of the leader Hole in the Day, Johnson largely uses Murrieta family tradition to learn more about why Murrieta took the actions he did. Family tradition stated that he was avenging the rape of his wife, murder of his brother, and flogging of himself.

Like others using oral history and family memory, she uses these sources to compare with others, and to bring in context. With regard to Murrieta, she discusses what family memory says about him, and how that relates to broader historical trends. For example, in discussing the move of Joaquín and his wife Rosa to California from Sonora, she notes that Sonoran men, more often than others, did not travel to the gold fields alone but brought their wives. Thus she is using family memory to add a personal detail and illuminate a broader story.

At the same time, Johnson treats family memory, along with written sources, with a rightful degree of skepticism–more than many other authors do. This in large measure reflects Johnson’s concern–not just with the history but how the story came to be told. That raises the question of how transparent we should all be with our skepticism of our sources. Is this because of her focus–that she is taking a strongly textual analysis approach to these stories? Is this because she’s asking particular questions about history and memory, and thus interrogating how the idea of a “white” Gold Rush came to be?

I would say that this is the case–and that it made me think more about how I use my sources in my own work. We all interrogate our sources as we use them, acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of each and the purposes for which we can and cannot use them. But are we being transparent enough about that process? Would that bog down the stories we try to tell?

Furthermore, will the need for transparency and discussion about sources, especially family memory like Johnson uses, recede as anthropological methods of using oral history to learn about the distant past become more mainstream in history? Is the need to explain these sources a byproduct of them not being as accepted in the historical profession and in the world at large? Or is it more a part of the cultural turn in history?

For lack of a compelling conclusion to my series of questions, all that I can say is, I look forward to discussing these issues further in class!


This week I commented on Nick’s blog post.

AmWest Post #3: Roles of Indians in North American Politics

This week’s reading of Brian DeLay’s War of a Thousand Deserts, as well as Bernard DeVoto’s abridged version of Lewis and Clark’s journals (digital version of the entire set here), coincided for me with a trip to Minnesota for the American Association for State and Local History’s 2014 conference. The timing could not have been better, as some sessions at the conference–particularly the keynote by Dr. Anton Treuer at the Awards Banquet–related extremely well to DeLay’s themes.

One of the recurring themes through DeLay’s book is the importance of understanding decisions by various Native American groups as political decisions–rooted in culture and economics, yes, but in the end political decisions. For him, rightfully, the only way to understand Comanche decisions to go to war against Mexico in the 1830s and 1840s is through the lens of politics. Raids on an increasingly large portion of Mexico did certainly yield economic benefits. But Comanches destroyed what they couldn’t take; for DeLay, this was a calculated political move, meant to demonstrate Comanche power.

He also yields insights on why Comanches chose to make war on northern Mexico and not on the United States or the Republic of Texas: They knew Mexico’s state was weaker, and their treaties had fallen apart. In other words, they knew how to play the political game.

Additionally, DeLay argues for the importance of what he calls the War of a Thousand Deserts–his name for this series of raids–on the outcome of the U.S.-Mexican War. The raids had so weakened northern Mexico, and the Mexican state generally, that they paved the way for the U.S. victory.

Treuer’s talk at the AASLH conference detailed another such story from less than two decades later: The role of Hole in the Day, an Ojibwe leader in northern Minnesota, during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He raised the important point that we cannot simply look at United States versus Indians when discussing these relationships.

Rather, Treuer showed what he called a “web of relationships”–a term that applies to what DeLay discusses, as well. In 1862, Dakotas in southern Minnesota had attacked white settlements throughout the region. The U.S. government, which had already sent two regiments away from fighting the Confederacy to fight the Dakota, was desperate to keep the Ojibwe out of the war. So Hole in the Day won significant concessions from the U.S. government by threatening to intervene. This war was not a pan-Indian effort (indeed, almost none of the so-called Indian wars were) but rather a war between one Native American group and the U.S. government, which another group used to its advantage. Hole in the Day made a political decision with his people (the Ojibwe, not all Indians) not to intervene. Treuer also focused on political dynamics among various Ojibwe groups that played into that decision.

For both Treuer and DeLay, then, politics within and among Native American groups were paramount in the outcome of these wars. Decisions by Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and other groups to trade, raid, and deal with the United States, Mexico, and the Texas Republic made all the difference in the U.S.-Mexican War. Ojibwe decisions not to join the U.S.-Dakota War made all the difference in that war’s outcome, and perhaps even in the U.S. Civil War; what would have happened had more U.S. Army regiments been diverted to Minnesota in 1862?


This week I commented on Ben’s, Doug’s, Megan’s, and Carol’s blog posts.

To Learn More

Here is a condensed version of the talk Treuer gave at the AASLH conference:

And below is my Storify of his talk.

AmWest Post #2: “Well, I knew it wasn’t the East”

This afternoon I attended a meeting of the Potomac Corral, a group of people in the Washington region interested in the history and culture of the American West. Everyone went around the table to introduce themselves. The icebreaker question: What is your connection to the West? What drew you here?

In part because of the readings for class this week, I listened intently to how people responded. Most of us talked about growing up in places that this week’s authors would or wouldn’t define as the West (some of which have my hometown of San Antonio in, and others out), or a close affiliation, such as attending college or one’s studies. One answer particularly struck me, though: One attendee mentioned going to college in California, and that she guessed that it was the West. I said, half-jokingly, “What makes somewhere the West?”

Her response: “Well, I knew it wasn’t the East!”

Although this was far from a scientific poll–really just an anecdote that we didn’t discuss further (it was an icebreaker before the main event, after all)–it provided, to me, an interesting definition, one that dovetails with this week’s readings that contain many ways of defining just what the West, and Western history, is.

Frederick Jackson Turner, the man whose name continually pops up in the interrelated fields of Western, borderlands, and frontier history, leads off the order. For him, the West and the frontier meant the same thing: the line of “white” (term used loosely) settlement (term also used loosely, in my case). For the U.S. Census from 1790 to 1890, this was a literal line, separating where settlement of U.S. nationals (vis-a-vis Native Americans) lived at a density of at least two people per square mile. For Turner, then, Western history was frontier history–the history of the place where the frontier happened to be at a given time, and the process by which those places ceased to be frontiers. Thus, going to the point that Limerick took pains to refute in last week’s readings, according to Turner Western history ended in 1890.

I had only read Turner’s famous 1893 thesis, and in high school at that. Rereading that, and then the rest of his book, I was amazed at just how much his ideas of what the frontier was, and its phases, have influenced U.S. history–and not just Western U.S. history. For a paper in my previous round of graduate school, I read through several New England town studies, which were popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them followed a mode I now recognize as Turnerian: People of European descent show up, they found a town, the town develops. Sometimes Indians figured into the story, but most often not. The sequence of events in these stories reads like chapter 2 of The Significance of the Frontier.

These studies also relate to the revision of Turner in historiography. There was a small revival of town studies in the 1990s, in which Native Americans played much more prominent roles, reflecting a redefinition of frontier happening at that time. That term, in the North American context, took back what Turner calls its European meaning: A meeting place between peoples, rather than Turner’s line between civilization and savagery.

So for Turner, the West is a place defined by a particular process. But others, both historians and not, consider the West a place. Colin Calloway defines his West as the trans-Appalachian western part of North America for his magisterial One Vast Winter Count, which covers the region’s history from the arrival of the first humans to the arrival of Lewis and Clark. Limerick, meanwhile, focuses on the trans-Mississippi West, noting that as a controversial definition.

Then came this week’s most precise, creative, and logic-driven definition of the West: that of David Emmons in a 1994 Western Historical Quarterly article. He bases his definition on the areas that could be considered beyond the Census/Turner definition of frontier in 1843, when the historian Hubert Gutman argues that the United States (as a rough date) turned from a “preindustrial” to “industrial” country. Emmons argues those regions formed “a separate West not because it was so environmentally different but because it was settled at a different time and under the rules of market capitalism and national states” (445). Because the United States incorporated these places after that time, they can be seen, according to Emmons, as having a unified history and can truly be considered a region.

So, taking these together, what is the West? What is this place we are studying this semester? Is it a place, or a process, or both? Does a place need to have a unified history to make it worthy of study as a cohesive place? That, for me, is the biggest question–one that remains unresolved–to come out of this week’s readings. It’s one thing to say that the West is the place that’s not the East, or that it’s the trans-Applachians, trans-Mississippi, trans-98th meridian. But do those places constitute one region, with a unified overarching story with a host of particulars? Do they need to in order to make an object–or class–of study? Not to mention, how does the changing notion of frontier discussed above fit into this picture? I look forward to discussing these questions in class–I’m now even less sure of my own answers than I was before…


This week I commented on Allyson’s blog.

AmWest #1: View from the East vs. View from the South

For the few people following along at home: I’m now taking a Western U.S. History class with Dr. Paula Petrik. This is the first in a series of weekly posts about our readings.

Our first reading assignment is, perhaps, not surprising for such a course:

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

Originally published in 1987 (the version I’m using includes a 2006 preface), this work has deservingly been one of the most influential on the subsequent development of Western history. Although I think I had heard of it before, it really popped to my attention originally in a fall 2009 forum on the book’s legacy in the public history field (JSTOR link).

I’ll leave commenting on that forum–including personal experience working at a contested site of Western history–for a later week, when we specifically discuss historical memory in the West. Instead, this week I’m turning my focus to Chapter 7 of The Legacy of Conquest: “America the Borderland,” discussing the role of people of Hispanic origin (perhaps the best term for a disparate grouping) in the history of the trans-Mississippi West.

Having studied borderlands history, a separate but related field, I especially found this chapter fascinating. I was particularly happy that Limerick, as in the rest of her work, showed the continuity of the past of the trans-Mississippi West–not breaking it arbitrarily at either the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 or the “closing” of the frontier in 1890, a la Frederick Jackson Turner.

However, I couldn’t help but to think that this chapter, even in discussing pre-1848 events, took a “view from the East” (to use the title of Dr. Petrik’s NEH summer seminar), rather than a “view from the South.” As did David Weber in his seminal The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), Limerick focused on events north of the Guadalupe Hidalgo and Gadsden treaty lines. She did attribute causality for these events to south of that line, showing that this region represented the northern expansion of New Spain and, briefly, Mexico’s “Far North,” as did Stanley Green in his The Mexican Republic: The First Decade (1987). But in reading that portion of the chapter, it still felt as if events in that region were isolated from those in the rest of New Spain.

Georgetown historian John Tutino‘s two recent books, Making a New World (2011) and Mexico and Mexicans in the Making of the United States (2012), meanwhile, brought, to me, more satisfying explanation for Spanish expansion. I recently read the latter, so this was fresh on my mind as I read Chapter 7. (Here’s an excellent podcast interview that summarizes the arguments of these complicated works.)

In Limerick’s synthesis–likely reflecting the approach of the time–imperial rivalries drive Spanish expansion into New Mexico, Texas, and later California during the course of the 16th through 18th centuries. Tutino, meanwhile, while not discounting the motive of imperial rivalry, linked these regions into the economic and social system he called “Spanish North America.”

He defined this system as beginning in the central Mexican region of the Bajío, northwest of Mexico City, and extending its tentacles northward. This was, he argued, a capitalist region, defined by mostly free labor, working for wages, and owners of large mines and haciendas accumulating and investing capital. This wealth accumulation was based on the silver mines of the Bajío, which provided the capital for the Spanish Empire’s imports from China, and the haciendas and ranches that fed those mines.

This stood in stark contrast with “Spanish Mesoamerica,” a land where Spaniards found already densely-settled native populations and essentially placed themselves at the head of these social formations. In Spanish North America, Native populations were typically nomadic, and many (like the Comanches that we’ll discuss in later weeks) maintained their independence throughout this period. Those that integrated into the Spanish system did so in ways that vastly changed their identities in new mission and ranching communities.

In this formulation, Spanish colonists pushed into New Mexico, Texas, and California not merely to fend off potential imperial rivals (although that was a motive), but to extend this economic system further. The integration of these regions into the wider economic system of Spanish North America is missing in Limerick’s chapter, and in much other writing on this region’s time under Spanish rule.

This is a small quibble here (one I hesitate to call a quibble, since it’s based on work two decades later), and indeed, Legacy of Conquest is one of the most cited works in Mexico and Mexicans. Thus, that work built upon Legacy of Conquest to provide a more full explanation. I wanted to bring attention to this point because it more fully supports Limerick’s analysis of the unbroken past in the trans-Mississippi West: Tutino and his co-authors in Mexico and Mexicans argued that this system of mining, farming, and grazing continued well after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and in many places continues to this day.

This explanation thus also provides a more significant cause for Spanish northward expansion than imperial rivalry, and shows one of the dangers of depicting the history of this region in relative isolation. As Limerick stated, the present-day Southwestern United States forms one ecological region with the Mexican North. As Tutino and his coauthors showed, it formed a unified economic region, as well.


This week I commented on Allyson’s, Carol’s, and Diane’s  blogs.

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