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Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Specifically it will contain a book review of the book. "The Legacy of Conquest" is a new look at the settling of the American West, from the 19th century to the Reagan era. She has a new take on how the West was settled, and does not look at it as a frontier, as most historians do, but as a land of conquest, where many different nationalities came together and learned to live together, and conquest was always at the forefront.
The author makes her thesis clear in the Introduction. She writes, "In this book, I have undertaken to pull the pieces together to combine two or three decades of thriving scholarship with a decade of thriving journalism in Western American subjects" (Limerick 30). She has a new way of looking at western history, and rejects the idea that the "frontier" closed and western conquest ended. Throughout the book, she maintains that western history is still occurring, which is one reason she brings the reader from the past into the present (at least up until the book was published, it is 20 years old now). She maintains that things supposedly "closed" were occurring when she wrote the book, such as troubles with Mexico, Native American conflicts over land and resources, and many more. Her book as an attempt to rethink how we look at our past and our history, while shedding new light on the American West.
As shown, Limerick's primary thesis is to rethink western history, and show how it is still evolving, hence her title, "The Legacy of Conquest." The West's history is full of conquest, from whites over the Native Americans and Mexicans, to continuing court battles over Native American treaties and mineral rights. The West is extremely special because of its location and the way it was settled. It is new territory, it is extremely vast, it held incredible wealth, and it still continues to be in conquest today. It helped make America great, but it was far enough away from the East and the seat of government that it evolved differently, with different values and beliefs. The West is still special, because it is so diverse and still evolving.
Innocence is an important concept in the West and in this book. Limerick notes that settlers traveling to the western frontier did not knowingly set out to victimize others and play a role in the conquest of others. They traveled for opportunities and a better life. However, she believes there were many victims in the settling of the West, and that is a normal result of conquest. Many would think that the Native Americans were the most common victims of the conquest, and of course, they were innocent victims deprived of their lands and their way of life. However, Limerick maintains that "the closest thing to an authentic innocent victim" were the white women who traveled West. She writes, "Of all the possible candidates, the long-suffering white female pioneer seemed to be the closest thing to an authentic innocent victim" (Limerick 48). She backs up this claim by citing one often overlooked aspect of western life -- prostitution, and then describes the lives of pioneering women, often harsh conditions, loneliness, and sheer will to survive. She writes, "Prostitutes were not consistently and exclusively sinners, nor were wives and mothers consistently and exclusively saints" (Limerick 54). Her comments about innocence are well taken, and they are an important inclusion in the book.
The American West is a vast place, full of dramatic landscapes and endless potential. Much of its history depended on the creation of states and territories and drawing imaginary lines in the landscape. That is because there was just so much territory available, and so much to manage. In addition, much of that land was extremely valuable, and it was important who controlled that valuable land. What evolved as the West was settled was "prior appropriation," which boiled down to whoever got there first got the land. This worked in homesteading, mining claims, water rights, and more and it worked because it allotted land in at least a somewhat fair manner, and it did away with lengthy court battles and legal wrangling. It was a simple matter of the first one to file a claim, and it was a system that parceled out land effectively. The author writes, "To take up a piece of undifferentiated land, assign it boundaries, and then watch it acquire value was one of the most exhilarating experiences available in the Western economy" (Limerick 67). That is still true today, as the dramatic rise and fall of home prices in the West clearly demonstrates.
The West is still evolving, and still struggles under many of the same things early settlers faced. For one, they were extremely dependent on the Federal Government for development of the West, because the government was the one who decided when territories evolved into states. Until they joined the Union, the territories were served by federally appointed governors and other officials, and the people did not have the right to govern themselves, which they resented. The feds also controlled the land, and that was a big issue. Limerick notes, "The two key frontier activities -- the control of Indians and the distribution of land -- were primarily federal responsibilities, at times involving considerable expense" (Limerick 82). This is interesting in that westerners are typically portrayed as fiercely independent and anti-government, when in fact, most of the states learned early on to depend on government resources for much of their survival.
Mining was the lifeblood of the West, and it helped settle it. The gold rush in California in 1849 brought thousands of people west, and many of them stayed on to settle the area. New mining booms brought a jump in the population and formed new cities and towns. In the beginning, just about anyone could pan for gold along a stream, but as mining grew, so did the cost of mining, and most of the miners were actually big mining companies that hired miners for the manual labor. This is another undermining of the myth of the "independent" westerner. In fact, most of the people in the West actually worked for others if they worked in the mines, so they were dependent on a company for their wages, rather than being the independent cowboys or farmers that form so many stories of the early West. It is not so bad that miners gave up their independence, but the working conditions they faced were brutal at best, and if they were injured, they faced little justice in the court system, even if they could afford to hire a lawyer. The conditions and the social injustice they faced were one of the saddest legacies of the West, and it is interesting to note that today, mines are far more regulated, but they still continue to kill and injure people at an alarming rate.
Historical stereotypes of the Native Americans abound, even today. One perpetual stereotype is Indians and alcohol, they have been addicted to it since the whites introduced it to them, and that is a lingering stereotype. Another is that they would never survive the white man's immigration. They have survived, and some tribes even thrive today. Yet another is the Euro-American view that the Indians were savages because they did not engage in agriculture and were not Christians. They thought the only way to deal with them was to "tame" them and bring them to God, because they did not respect the Indians' culture and ideals. They wanted to "help" the Indians see the errors in their ways, but in reality, they were happy the way they were and did not want to change. The way they were treated shows that the whites thought they were much more important and influential than the Indians, and that their wishes and lifestyle did not matter at all. It shows they had a general disregard for anyone but themselves, and they felt that other races had no rights or value.
Another important aspect of the American West are the borderlands, especially between the U.S. And Mexico. That is because they are difficult to control and maintain, they are still kind of a "no man's land" where the two countries struggle to contain them, and they are still contentious today, because of illegal immigration that continues to this day. They are completely opposite of the European borders that people were used to, because those borders, for the most part, did not hold people back or keep them in check, they were more lines on a map than border fences. The author writes, "Americans, like Spanish and Mexican officials before them, found that it was extremely difficult to maintain the sanctity of a line across the land when the 'aliens' were convinced that opportunity lay on the other side" (Limerick 228). The American settlers along…[continue]
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