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The topic of the American West has intrigued me throughout my life. The tales of cowboys and Indians, of the rugged individual and nature, has always sparked my interest. A land with such quixotic stories of adventure, the West has instilled itself in American history. The yarns and movies of the mythical frontier provide a perception to which I among many others have chosen to adopt at one time or another. This perception has been embedded in many youths, providing a nationalistic view of America using the West as a symbol of the individualism to which our forefathers fought for.
Yet it is human nature to be inquisitive, and so I delved into this topic in the hopes of developing a better understanding of the history of the great American frontier.
The myth of the American West has been intertwined throughout United States history. It is often perceived as a romantic story, a legacy that has ingrained itself in American culture and society. The 1890 census announced the end of the frontier, closing a chapter in American history. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner argued the importance of the frontier in shaping American politics, economy, and culture. Turner’s nationalistic view of the West created a problem, providing a mythical notion of a realistically rough arena filled with conflict and frustration. Furthermore, the thesis proposed by Turner proved to be futile for the present and future. The firmness of Turner’s thesis left it susceptible to challenges, creating a revolution of historical study of the Old West in the mid-twentieth century. Historians dedicated to the American West have branched off from Turner and have created a field that hinges on this complex area. These historians have challenged the old myths of a quaint West, seeking to expose the true nature of Western expansion. Among these historians, Patricia Nelson Limerick has developed a perception of the West based on the stories of the men and women who actually lived there. In her book, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, Limerick maintains that Westward expansion was not a romantic saga of cowboys and Indians, but instead was a gradual conquest based on economics and politics. In a sense, the West was not founded by rugged individualists, but rather by competition and profit.
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Limerick’s thesis hinges on the stories of various people that roughed it out on the frontier. Yet in reading her book, one must first note the dependence on secondary sources in obtaining the letters and testimonies of the people. She details many stories of persons seeking fortune and adventure. In these various accounts, Limerick highlights many key aspects that have come to define the West. The concept of “injured innocence” is introduced, reviewing the authentic sense of Western people being victims of nature or rich entrepreneurs (p 48). This concept helped to shape Westerners view of the federal government by using the bureaucracy as a scapegoat for the problems they encountered. Limerick identifies Western dissatisfaction with the government due to its handling of the Native Americans and Mexicans that populated the area as well, taking much time and resource away from whom the Westerners thought deserved it the most: themselves. Yet the Westerners relied on the government and regulation, resulting in them becoming contingent on the same government to which they ridiculed.
Limerick fervently examines the importance of commerce and the role of government in the West. The mere possibility of rewards spurned incredible population growth, creating a conflict with the native inhabitants of the frontier. Businesses such as land speculation and agriculture were intertwined with the growing appetite for land and profit. As Limerick states, the early development of the West depended on the exploitation of “furs, farmland, timber, minerals, and federal money”(p 82). The Westerners were dependent on these exploitations, challenging the notion of rugged individualism which has come to exemplify the miners and cowboys of Western lore.
Limerick contends that the West was a project to exploit the resources available in the land, making entrepreneurial endeavors of extractive industries “devices to supplement nature’s offerings”(p 86). What resulted was a land filled with diverse ethnic groups all of which bound by the driving force of industry. This statement is backed by Limerick’s accounts of Mexican farmers, Native American chiefs, and Chinese railroad workers, all of whom became dependent on government aid and big business for their continued livelihood. In this modern perspective, Limerick argues that each group of Western settlers, rather Hispanic, Asian, Anglo, or Native American, had a role in creating and shaping the West united under the ambition for a better life.
Limerick’s analysis of the West creates a new perspective of the frontier. By examining the tales of Westerners, she effectively goes to the heart of Western reality. Limerick’s book has increased my awareness as to the diversity of the West and its true atmosphere of boom and bust. It opened my eyes to the reality of the West’s dependency on the federal government and big business. The actual narratives of the miners, the cowboys, the Native Americans, and other characters of the Old West highlight this logical examination. Limerick successfully conveys to us that through the testaments of the Westerners, Americans can truly understand the development and exploitation of the ethnically diverse and abounding frontier of the Old West.