The American Myths of Westward Expansion

Here is a good essay written about two different works of history, with a critical eye about some of the pleasing mythical narratives any of us who were Californians were likely taught in public school.

I remember that in elementary school, in third or fourth grade, my class engaged in a little Westward Expansion roleplaying - we each invented a pioneer character who would travel west via covered wagon, a little Oregon Trail RPG. Mine was Gunther, a German immigrant (my invention.) It’s cute, but we didn’t really talk about land grabs, ethnic cleansing, or genocide.

The essay’s also written by a San Franciscan who lives in Berkeley now, so, you know, local voices.


Along these lines I’ve been reading a lot about The End of the Myth by Greg Grandin, and I really need to read it. I’m currently making my way slowly through American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard, but it was published in 1993 and I would like to know what has changed in the scholarship since then…


Here’s a good quote from the American Myths essay:

“Individualism, hard work, and private enterprise alone,” writes Ross of Powell’s central argument, “could not overcome the challenge of the arid lands.” There’s not enough water in our watersheds to sustain all that we’ve built and our great biological and economic thirsts. “Would America develop her rich, promising western lands with the public interest in mind,” writes Ross, “or hand development over to the selected, well-connected, and wealthy individuals to exploit, and worry about the consequences later?”

Those consequences have come. These days, we flood and we burn as if extras in Manaseh Cutler’s tattered Bible. We know to keep go-bags packed in our cars and in accessible corners of our houses with supplies: food, water, emergency blankets, whistles, a knife, duct tape, a compass, warm layers, some extra cash. These emergency bags are contemporary versions of the bags the Pioneers would have packed as they tramped through land that wasn’t theirs, that Powell would have packed as he floated the rivers in order to determine how best to exploit and manage them. My emergency kit is not to survive the treacherous march toward supposed progress, but rather to survive the apocalypse of our own making.

The Pioneers is a vibrant collage of primary sources, which means that it is steeped in the diction, the mindset, and the Manifest Destiny gaze of the time with little contemporary correction. On the one hand, McCullough lays bare just how horrifically the European settlers regarded the Indians. Army General Rufus Putnam, another settler protagonist of The Pioneers , considered some Indians to be friendly, but “judged the Mingos, Shawnees and Cherokees residing by the waters of the Scioto to be ‘a set of thievish murdering rascals.’” Putnam wrote a letter to George Washington imploring him to attack. “As to Indian matters,” he wrote, “we are fearful that the spring will be open by a general attack on the frontiers unless prevented by Government carrying a war into the enemy’s country.”

I just wanted to point out that “rascals” sounds like it must have been really bad, as a derogatory term.

Thieves? Meh. Murderous? Hey, it’s the frontier. Rascals? Call in the fucking army!

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“Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.” Fortunate is he who understands the cause of things.

<jeff-winger>Bug out bag? Bug out bag? Bug out bag?</jeff-winger>

Have you studied frontier theory? I heard about it in Professor Hollinger’s course on “the intellectual history of America” when he assigned his colleague Professor Klein’s essay on it. I’m trying to find it. I later took that colleague’s course on Californian history. He was very much a character. He’d go on tirades sometimes about how his cowboy boots stopped traffic when he first moved to Berkeley.

It was not this but this is the kind of thing Klein writes: Frontier Tales: The Narrative Contruction of Cultural Borders in Twentieth-Century California | Comparative Studies in Society and History | Cambridge Core “Frontier Tales: The Narrative Construction of Cultural Borders in Twentieth-Century California”

I want to hear what you think @malatesta! And everybody!

I always think of frontier theory when tech workers say “california ideology” and I don’t really have anything to add but there’s something there. Also something about the high-water mark where the wave rolled back.

And just because I mentioned him, one of Hollinger’s big concepts for the intellectual history of america was the tension between cosmopolitanism and provincialism. And I can’t say I understood all the things or maybe even any of the things that class covered and I didn’t get all the way through it despite taking it twice and I don’t understand or know enough history but I sort of get the tension and I feel it as an american living on the western coast in an “innovating” and “disruptive” industry feeling both old because China is old and I’m Chinese and new because I’m a first-generation American and cosmopolitan and provincial at the same time

…wait are those all dialectical oppositions? or dialectical whatevers? dialectics? dammit i still don’t know how to use that word


Also… Have you read Lonesome Dove? It is … really, really something.


I haven’t studied frontier theory, unless you think it’s a way of recouping Frederick Jackson Turner’s concepts, and I’m not familiar with Hollinger, but Greg Grandin’s thesis in The End of the Myth is something like…America is a unique country because it used the eternal frontier as a release valve for social problems, and its wars, until basically the present moment, were all colonial frontier wars.

He wrote an essay at Boston Review that is kind of an adaptation of some of The End of the Myth:

As the United States expanded, first into the West and then into the world, frontier theorists such as Turner—faced with Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation and nativist exclusion laws, the resurgent KKK, Mexican workers being lynched in Texas, the military still massacring Native Americans, and deadly counterinsurgencies in the Caribbean and Pacific—promised that the racism and brutality of outward expansion would soon be relegated to the margins of the nation. Nearly all of these theorists, especially [Frederick Jackson] Turner, were Americanized Hegelians, arguing that history moved forward dialectically. That is, they believed that the unilateral will to power that drove the United States to establish continental dominance would help create a world of universal law, which, if allowed to mature, would then establish dominance over Washington’s will to power.

…And, as one president after another has learned, the easiest way to control the sphere of domestic extremism is to extend the sphere of outward expansion, to channel the passions beyond the frontier. So [Teddy] Roosevelt pushed forward.


And no I’ve never read Lonesome Dove! The one Western writer I’ve ever really enjoyed was Elmore Leonard’s early Western short stories (he also wrote some Western novels, which I’ve never read) before he started writing crime novels. He wrote all his Westerns after reading magazines on the west and southwest…the two movies of 3:10 to Yuma were based on Leonard’s short story. I like him because he’s a pretty modern Western writer and race and American ideology are part of what he writes about.


There’s that damn word again. What are they trying to say in that sentence?!? History moved forward in cycles? Just frigging say that!


It’s not just cycles, it’s saying that the so-called “Americanized Hegelians” believed that opposing ideas generated forward movement. Saying they believed it moved forward dialectically says more about how they believed the cycles occurred and what composed them than just saying cycles.


What I’m hearing is the person talking to Judy certainly heard some fancy sounding words at one point and certainly used them in a sentence. For certain.