Category Archives: empire

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.


154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

99: Domosh & Seager’s Putting Women in Place

In Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World, Mona Domosh and Joni Seager show that space and place are both gendered and integral to the construction of gender.  In providing an overview of feminist geographical scholarship (up to 2001), they argue that this gendering has historically (and is currently) integral to processes of segregation, dominance, and resistance, in places like work and home as well as in the actions of everyday life.  Further, they situate this discussion of gender and geography within both local urban historical geographies in Western Europe and the US AND a structural analysis of global gender issues.  Their book is divided into six parts:

Home: history and analysis of a space almost universally associated with women.  Focusing on England and the US form the 17th century on, they show how the emerging capitalist system separated the male world of production from the female world of reproduction, from the Victorian cult of domesticity to mid-century suburbia.  They then interrogate the raced and classed connections between notions of domesticity and turn-of-the-century social engineering projects aimed at “Americanizing” urban working-class and immigrant women and rural Native American women.

Women at Work: a structural analysis of gendered definitions of “work” and an intro to women’s labor issues.  They demonstrate how women’s work, including homework, formal work, and exploitative work under global capitalism is devalued and rendered invisible around the world, and they include discussions of the glass ceiling and the feminization of poverty.

The City: history of the relationship between gender and urban landscapes.  Beginning in the late 17th century, they trace gender in the landscape, from the creation of masculine and feminine countryside to the Postmodern city.  They then examine women as both consumers and workers, and show how the city and its spaces of consumption and production have been reconfigured as gender roles have changed over time.

On the Move: a discussion of women’s mobility.  Beginning with spaces of the body, they trace mobility across scales and spatial contexts.  They examine social structures, like transportation routes, that inhibit female movement, as well as the formal and informal processes of maintaining those structures; they also discuss different kinds of female travel, from Victorian female travelers to refugee migrations and sex tourism, to suburban women buying cars and women from 3rd world countries moving for work and thus feminizing the global workforce.  They show that gender impacts how and why people move and examine what women’s movements mean.

Nations and Empires: a mostly theoretical discussion of women’s mobility in the context of imperialism.  They consider geographical scholarship in gender, imperialism, and colonialism, with an eye toward the interpenetration of the domestic and the imperial as it pertains to women, and they examine (dis)placement of women and women’s issues within nationalisms and nationalist movements.

The Environment: Discusses connections between women and the environment, from the often devastating results of importing Old World links between control of nature/ control of women to the New World, to ecofeminism and other 20th century feminist/ environmentalist movements, including 3rd world environmental degradation.

As a survey, this book provides a good introduction to the ways in which gender and geography are studied and thought together, as well as some concrete examples of how the two intersect.  I do wonder whether they end up with a simplified understanding of the category of “women,” however; more discussion of intersections with race and ethnicity, as well as thorough analyses of the social constructions of gender in 3rd world countries, would make me feel better about consistently linking female bodies with the social construction of gender.

97: Penny Von Eschen’s Race Against Empire

In Race Against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957, Penny Von Eschen locates radical black American thought within the larger tradition of politics of the African diaspora, and she traces the rise and fall of the relationship between the two in the decades surrounding WWII.  The international politics of the African diaspora (or the Black Atlantic) combined local struggles against racism and colonialism with a broad critique of imperialism.  International black leaders found support in Pan-Africanism, the Popular Front, labor movements in the US and the colonies, and a very vocal independent black press in the US; they viewed WWII as a unique opportunity to pursue their anti-colonial activism because they felt the racism and imperialism of the Axis powers would force the Allies to recognize and join their mission.  This international context for radical black American thought provides context for the Civil Rights movement while detaching race from its American context and reconfiguring it as the internal contradiction in global capitalism.

Von Eschen traces the rise of this international movement in the decade before WWII as an internationally coordinated project that was at once dedicated to eradicating local racisms and to fighting global capitalism.  After WWII, however, the movement began to decline.  In the US, the 1947 decision by the NAACP and major African American periodicals to stop criticizing Cold War policy because of anti-Communist sentiment dramatically reshaped the movement.  Critiques of US imperialism were replaced by a narrative of American exceptionalism, where the US was the legitimate leader of the “free world” and racism was an aberration, not a constituent element of capitalism or imperialism.  Further, the Americans replaced their international diasporic solidarity with paternalism toward “primitive” Africans, effectively erasing international ties with Africa.  The Cold War thus impeded decolonization efforts, disrupted black radicalism, and hindered the Civil Rights movement, all with devastating effects on black politics worldwide.

While Von Eschen might have overstated the dominance of radicalism in black American political thought, her integration of domestic thinkers and activists with an international movement to end racism by ending imperial capitalism provides much-needed context for the Civil Rights movement and the development of black American thought more generally.

45: David Lovejoy’s Glorious Revolution in America

In The Glorious Revolution in America, David Lovejoy compares the effects of the Glorious Revolution in three different English colonies, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, to see how colonists reconceptualized their rights as English citizens during a time of political instability in England.

After 1660, England became aggressively involved in colonial affairs, which led settlers from Maryland and Virginia to ask what, exactly, it meant to be a colonist.  The Glorious Revolution was the 1688 overthrow of James II and the House of Stuart by English Parliamentarians, Dutch William III of Orange, and his wife, Mary II, who was the protestant daughter of James II.  James was Catholic and folks were concerned that England was getting too Catholic and too liberal regarding religion in general.  Per Lovejoy, this political coup was emulated by colonists in America during the revolution of 1689, when they overthrew their arbitrary governments and demanded equality within the empire.

The colonists’ attempts to gain equality with Englishmen ultimately failed in all of Lovejoy’s three case studies, largely because of the logical impossibility of gaining equality while remaining within an inherently unequal imperial system.  Ultimately, being Englishmen was more important to them than being equal.  However, Lovejoy argues that fighting for equality with England did foster communication and cooperation among the colonies, and thus this book shows that the colonies were becoming a single, interconnected unit much earlier than scholars had thought.  (Previously, scholars thought that the Great Awakening in the 1700s was the first intercolonial experience.)  Perhaps the fight for equality within the Empire did more for colonial unity than any imperial policy could have done.

Although Lovejoy says he’s not reading the American Revolution into this study, and although he relies heavily on primary sources, I’m not sure why else he would be so intent on figuring out when the colonies started to form a unified identity that was both predicated on a relationship with England and uniquely American… especially since that unified identity is based on assertions of equality, equal rights and liberty.

36: Virginia Anderson’s Creatures of Empire

In Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America, Virginia Anderson argues that in seventeenth-century Chesapeake and New England, domestic animals put English settlers and Native Americans into close contact and thus actively shaped the history of early America and settler/ native relations.  By putting livestock at the center of early American history, Anderson contributes to a growing body of literature in animal studies, which, like environmental history, decenters human historical agency by elevating the broader environmental context.  Because colonists and Indians related to animals very differently and because these relationships had a huge impact on the landscape, focusing on animals also allows Anderson to investigate the imposition of one worldview over another in a holistic way.

Anderson divides her book into three sections: a discussion of the many ways Algonquians and English settlers thought about different kinds of animals at the beginning of the 17th century; a history of the introduction of livestock into the Chesapeake colonies and New England and the development of regional husbandry practices; and a comparison of two near-simultaneous conflicts in the 1670s, Bacon’s rebellion and King Philip’s War, with an emphasis on the relationship between disputes over livestock and the outbreak of violence in both regions.  Building on Bill Cronon’s Changes in the Land, she argues that the English settlers sought to turn the New World into England, which included imposing their view of animals as property on the landscape and on Native Americans.  There were regional differences: Chesapeake farmers, with tobacco as their cash crop, let pigs and other animal run free and go semi-feral; New England farmers, who had to deal with colder climates and rocky soils, ran family farms rather than large plantations, and kept a closer eye on their herds.  However, in both regions, Native American responses to new animals and practices ranged from cautious acceptance of pigs (which seemed like deer or dogs) to outright rejection of environmental destruction by animals.

In some ways, this book is a continuation of the spatial turn in American Studies: English attitudes toward animals were closely linked to their attitudes about property, and Algonquian attitudes toward animals were linked to their more holistic view of humans, animals, and the environment, so disputes over animals spatialize and materialize conflicting worldviews.  By broadening the concept of agency to include environmental and non-human actors, it also presents a more contextual (and thus possibly more complete and less biased, or at least differently biased) history of early America.

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.