Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Previous: Acknowledgments
Next: Chapter 1: The view from Cahokia

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So the journalist, Maxwell Scott, tells the senator, Ransom Stoddard, at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a 1962 Western directed by John Ford. It has become one of the most quoted movie lines, and its message resonates through the pages of this book. As Jimmy Stewart’s Stoddard learned, the confusion of legend and fact, of myth and history, makes it hard to disentangle the stories we have told about the development of the American West from our understanding of what really happened. This book explains how the gap between projections and reality has shaped the development of the West and confounded our interpretations of its history. Owing to the ubiquity of popular representations (and misrepresentations) in movies, television series, novels, songs, and paintings, many readers come to this volume with firm yet false ideas about the West and its past. These perceptions make for a history that is too short, too small, too simple, and too singular.

To correct for the truncated vision of Westerns, this history of the American West stretches the chronology, enlarges the geography, complicates the casting, and pluralizes the subject. Where Westerns typically take place over the course of a few decades after the Civil War, this book opens up a much longer history. It begins hundreds of years before the West was American; it does not halt, as so many Westerns have, with the supposed “closing of the frontier” at the end of the nineteenth century but continues through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In addition, unlike Westerns, in which certain landscapes have been favored settings, this survey takes a more expansive view. The West as we know it today (more or less the western half of the United States) is not the West as earlier generations mapped it. Not that long ago, from the point of view of Europeans, all of North America was the West. Still longer ago, for most of the people who lived there it was not a West at all. How portions of North America became Wests, how parts of these became American, and how American Wests ultimately became the American West are central questions in this book.

Answers, though, are not so straightforward. The maps that earlier generations used (some essentially still in use today), first to divvy up North America and later to mark the Wests of the United States, were cartographic fantasies, presuming to erect walls in places where there were no true foundations yet—or at best very shaky ones. These competing colonial projections failed to respect the claims of Indian peoples or to reflect the intricacies of interpersonal, intercultural, and international relations on the ground. Even after various Wests were incorporated into the United States, the national orientation of these territories remained contested, subject to challenges from rival claimants. Indeed, in recent times as in the deeper past, efforts to occupy and pursuits of opportunity have brought diverse peoples to and through multiple Wests. Across the centuries, the movements of peoples and the minglings of cultures have shaped the history of sharp confrontations and murky convergences that unfolds in the pages that follow.

Previous: Acknowledgments
Next: Chapter 1: The view from Cahokia