35: Patricia Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest

A Westerner studying at Harvard, Patricia Limerick wrote The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West with three main goals: to knit together the Old West of frontiers, cowboys, and conquest and the complex, 20th century west into a coherent history; to warn against the dangers of the narrative of Progress for the West, environmentally and culturally; and to finally overturn the Turner thesis and shift the focus of Western history from the frontier-as-process to the West-as-place.  She achieves these goals by synthesizing existing scholarship in a variety of historical subdisciplines, including urban, social, business, labor, Chicano/a, Indian, and environmental, and by taking the West’s many regions and perspectives into account.

Much of the book, then, involves dispelling myths of the Old West by retelling the history of the West from a variety of perspectives.  Limerick investigates the ideology of Western independence, which can only exist in a national and international context; real estate and property as the emotional center of Western history; and writing mining as labor history.  Most importantly – she spends the second half of the book writing a history of the West from Native Americans’ perspective.  While she pulls from Native sources somewhat, her main strategy is to read Anglo sources from a Native American perspective; the result is a portrayal of resentful  people reduced to dependency on a single centralized agency, choosing rationally from among a dwindling number of opportunities.

With this new, synthetic history of the West as a place instead of a mobile frontier or a cowboys-and-indians fantasyland, Limerick argues that the West is a “place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences,” and that “Western history has been an ongoing competition for legitimacy – for the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western  resources.”  In other words, the West has long been shaped by a competition between different ethnic groups for property rights, even as the Western frontier functions as a kind of creation myth for white America.  This book thus complicates American narratives of Progress and manifest destiny even as it reclaims the West for historical study.

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