The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick

by Cody

The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West by Patricia Nelson Limerick (cover art)

To my mind, The Legacy of Conquest is the single best volume on Western history, albeit I’m no historian but, rather, a mere kid from Colorado. It’s just such an engaging and succinct text, chock full of ideas that, at the time of writing in the 1980s, were groundbreaking and often controversial. A number of them still are, though, as proof of Patricia Nelson Limerick’s prowess and conviction, many have become far more commonplace in discussions of Western policy, history, and ways of life. For instance:

  1. Nature, far from being ours to control and profit from, has always proved a fickle partner. It’s one of the greatest barriers to sustaining life in the American West and has long left many of those seeking fortune there to feel somehow betrayed.
  2. The notion of property–especially land–was, and still is, one of the great conflicts between those living in the American West. Initially a mostly racially charged issue–the idea property to White settlers was wholly sacrosanct, whereas to the Native Americans it was, at least initially, fairly bewildering–property continues to be a source of class, race, corporate, and/or government-based conflict.
  3. Contrary to the still dominant view of the American West as a place for those seeking independence, the settling of the region was only possible through heavy government subsidies. The distribution of land, the control of Native Americans, and the railroads were all only possible thanks to substantial federal funding and support. We can now add many more items to this list, notably resource and public land management.
  4. Speaking of natural resources and public lands, in contrast to the prevalent ideas of the region’s bountiful and well-preserved landscapes, the West was founded on extractive industry: get in, get rich, get out. Touching on a couple of the earlier points: “The essential project of the American West was to exploit the available resources. Since nature would not provide it all, both speculation and the entrepreneurial uses of government were human devices to supplement nature’s offerings.” (p. 86)
  5. The belief that there was some kind of pastoral “golden age,” which the West still conjures, is, and always was, a myth. In fact, Western settlers often experienced the same feelings, because there “…is a pattern in Western civilization, long preceding Jefferson, to attribute ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match.” (p. 131) The same goes for natural disasters, times of resource scarcity, and other events that cause people to feel that life was simpler, easier, and better in the past. “The fur trappers coming into the Rockies in the mid-1830s could regret having missed the real boom times of decade before…” (p. 152) This nostalgia for the past is one of the longest-running misconceptions in the American West.

That’s a pretty impressive array of ideas, all of which bolster Limerick’s central thesis that, far from being a long lost, nostalgia-inducing era, the nineteenth-century West is, in many ways, very much alive in the present. Which is not to say that Limerick always gets it right, nor have many of her insights lead to tangible resolutions in the decades since The Legacy of Conquest was written. Sadly, as the West continues to grow, many of these issues continue to give rise to a strange mixture of denial and stubbornness which, in turn, often leads to more conflicts and more exploitative policies and ways of life.

Limerick, I suspect, would be the first to concede this. History, she tells us, is never resolved, nor should it be. It’s a dialog, one that circles back on itself in light of new discoveries and modes of thought, always being reworked and, ideally, calibrated with each new generation of historians, readers, lawmakers, and Westerners. And the work is never done.

“The clashes and conflicts of Western history will always leave the serious individual emotionally and intellectually unsettled. In the nineteenth-century West, speaking out for the human dignity of all parties to the conflicts took considerable nerve. It still does.” (p. 221)

 

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