Title: The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Author: Patricia Limerick
Categories: American West, Mythology, Federal Government, Synthesis, Revisionist
Place: The American West
Time Period: 1850s-1980s
Patricia Limerick writes one of the foundational works of "New Western History" in a revisionist take on the American West. Limerick assaults the sacrosanct status of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier process, but does so in a way that distinguishes her from many of the social history critiques of Turner from the 1960s onwards (which she sees as having fragmentized the field and made it less relevant to national historical narratives). Instead, she crafts a synthesis of Western history undergirded by two guiding frameworks: the West as a place of conquest (rather than a frontier process) and the continuity of the region's past into the present. Limerick tells a story of complexity, of a place where a staggering array of groups competed for both economic and cultural domination and where the moral legacy of conquest needs to be taken as seriously as that of slavery in the American South.
The first part of The Legacy of Conquest dismantles many of the deeply held myths and symbols of the region. First, she points out how the myth of Westerners seeing themselves as "innocent victims" is much, much messier and belies the region's "moral complexity" (epitomized for her in the figure of the female prostitute). She goes on to argue that real estate is the emotional center of the region, and becomes a stand-in for struggles over resources, in particular ownership over oil, water, minerals, cattle-grazing, timber, and transportation routes. One of the central theses of the book, meanwhile, is westerners' dependence on the federal government. Far from being a land of rugged individualists, western inhabitants needed the government to prop up their claims - particularly in controlling Indians, disbursing land, and subsidizing transportation. Finally, she points to the region's instability: instead of the mythologized golden land of opportunity, the West was wracked by boom-and-bust cycles that wreaked havoc with any pretense of self-sufficiency.
The second part examines different "unconquered" groups of people that have long been denied a rightful place in western history. Once Indians were conquered, they were turned into stereotypes of helpless (and vanishing) victims carrying an unchanging, ahistorical culture. Instead, Limerick highlights their persistence through the twentieth century. She goes on to discuss the Hispanic borderlands as a constantly shifting site of interactions between competing groups and one that perhaps most comprehensively undermines Jackson's frontier thesis. In addition, Limerick points to the presence of Asian immigrants and how they were a part of the tremendous racial diversity that made prejudice so complex and fluid in the West. Anti-Mormon sentiment, meanwhile, demonstrates that race was far from the only dividing line of prejudice in the West. Finally, Limerick writes about the ongoing efforts of Americans to manage the environment, painting a tragicomic story of competing interests, objectives, and ultimate failures.
Key Themes and Concepts
- West as a place of conquest rather than a frontier process
- Emphasizes continuity and presentist perspective
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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