Patricia Nelson Limerick is the Faculty Director and Chair of the Board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado and Professor of History.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987.
In Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick synthesizes decades of western scholarship into one masterful intersecting narrative describing America’s conquest of the West and its legacies still visible today. Limerick insightfully divides the narrative between two frameworks. First, through that of the Anglo-American conquerers and second, through the contradictions in the American conquest’s legacy as it is understood and seen today. If the images of the western myth were of cowboys, indians, and individuals; where do farmers, industrialization, and the federal government fit in? In part one, Limerick illustrates the psychological, economic, and social consequences of American society’s invasion West. Driven by a quest for individual or familial competency, fueled by the expanding capitalist market economy, American’s who moved West dealt with extreme hardships and conflicts. But unlike story told in the mythology of the American West, the most significant force which was routinely ignored by Americans was the boom and bust cycle of extractive industries like mining, lumber, and livestock and the peoples ambivalence to this relationship. Part two illustrates a contrasting picture to the myth’s espoused in part one. Here, Limerick describes the various silences within the westward migration myth-making. The “persistence of natives,” the southwestern hispanic legacy, and the irregularity of western water provide examples of where the myth of westward expansion broke down. More importantly, Limerick’s most significant contribution is placing the myth, its silences, and its legacies in one continuous narrative from the 19th to the 20th century. To Limerick, the more recent 20th century discussions of native rights, water wars, and natural resource extraction are not unique or recent phenomena, but are in fact a continuing legacy of Anglo-American expansion across space.
While Limerick describes significant nuances in particular regions, the strength of the argument lies in putting the American westward expansion story into a single narrative with continuities and contradictions. Contrary to the monolithic and long-standing framework of the “Frontier Thesis,” conquest of the West illustrates a very different process than the benign manifest destiny, safety-valve thesis, and empty land described by Turner. Most significantly, Turner had argued that the West was a process of personal ambition, and not a place of interaction. Limerick flatly rejects this and demonstrates that the West as a place illuminates the past legacies of American conquest revealed then, and today. The West represents significant meeting grounds for many historical processes of 19th century America. Native American conflict, race relations, and the marriage of individual and federal power are not uniformly occurring across the West as Turner would have us believe, but vary with region, place, and local context. Thus, “the contest for property and profit has been accompanied by a contest for cultural dominance,” legitimacy, and “point of view.” It is in these ways that the West was more than a process of settlement and economic development, but involved people, places, and contexts that interacted with American conquest in varying ways; illustrating a story very different than the myths presented in the movies, popular culture, and current politics.
In addition, the West as a place with its unique rationalities, local contexts, and relationship to the federal government illustrates the most significant paradigm which Limerick exposes – the relationships of power and authority. It is the role of the federal government and the West’s ambivalence to its dependency on the East that represents one of Limerick’s most significant contributions to New Western History. Similar to the way that William Cronon attempts to demonstrate the connections of the East and West through commodities and credit/debt relationships, Limerick dispells the traditional nationalistic narrative, exemplified by Frederick Jackson Turner’s American germ theory. As the myth goes, the individual came West with his entrepreneurial skill, religion, and political system to turn a wasteland into a productive and democratic eden. But the individual in fact came with much more. As Limerick explains in her most intriguing chapters, “Empire of Innocence” and “Denial and Dependence,” the Americans that came west traveled with the real power of the federal government over their shoulder, and legal legitimacy based in this federal power and on anglo-American victimhood. The result was a powerful demographic force which would conquer the western lands to the Pacific. The romanticization of cowboys, American manifest destiny, and native American destruction in popular culture and the historiography are products of this ambivalence between the West as a process and the West as a place.