William Cronon


William Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Referenced Work:

  • Cronon, William. Natures Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.

          Through the analysis of Chicago and its relationship to the Great West hinterlands, Nature’s Metropolis, describes the reciprocal relationship between urban market consumption and rural extraction and production. As William Cronon writes, this book “is a comprehensive history neither of Chicago nor of the Great West…[,] rather a history of the relationship between those places.” Particularly in the American West, the late 19th century market and industrial revolutions created, “an economy that bound city and country into a powerful national and international,” marketplace. The city and country are born symbiotic as a result of their mutual economic imperatives and dependencies in urban capital, rural production and natural hinterland resources. Through this rubric, Cronon demonstrates the rise of Chicago and its historical force integrating the economies of the Great West hinterland centered on the urban market on the west shore of Lake Michigan. A hinterland ranging from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Coast linked through telegraph and railroads, created a national and international market economy radiating out from Chicago’s rail yards. By tracing the economic and commodity development in wheat farming, the lumber industry, and meat packing in “Part II: Nature to Market,” Cronon demonstrates the rural dependence on this urban market gateway and the geography of urban resource dependence. Technological deployment and advancement allowed Chicago to integrate this expanding hinterland west, such as canals, rail roads, and corporate capitalism. With these technological linkages of rural and urban markets, Chicago could manufacture larger quantities of a growing variety of goods and products extracted from the expanding Great West and distribute them progressively longer distances as the 20th century approached. But this expanded hinterland was a consequence and a result of economic capital accumulation and its concentration in urban Chicago, creating an economic and social landscape with no precedent in scope or scale.

          As new regions of Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois were brought into the national economy through the gateway city and its dominant corporations, capital from at home and abroad concentrated among the growing business opportunities in “Nature’s Metropolis.” The rise of corporate capitalism and its fluid credit and debt relationships illustrated that Chicago was the largest and most productive market for the Great West. The Chicago Board of Trade represents an apex in this marriage of capital, urban, and rural markets, where the raw products of the hinterland become transformed into fluid dreams and expectant futures of urban capitalists in Chicago, New York, and Europe. By tracing the geography of capital, Cronon masterfully illustrates not only the supply side exploitation of the hinterland wilderness with its subsequent environmental destruction, but also the demand side of entrepreneurs, business, and capital as credit and debt traced economic development from the Pacific to the Atlantic Oceans. The consequences of the linkages between the city and country results in a social landscape which is divorced from its natural landscape.

          This new landscape of ambivalence to nature is best illustrated by Cronon’s discussion of Montgomery Ward and Company. While the growing hinterland and zone of exploitation of Chicago expanded as the tyranny of space was over come – first by canal, then by rail – Montgomery Ward and Company brought an “annihilation of space” similar to Armour’s meatpacking. By offering modern mass-manufactured commodities to rural sub-burbs and hinterlands, Armour and Montgomery Ward and Company brought all the benefits of urban development without the costs of urban vice and corruption. This ambivalence to the actual relationship between city and country is significant because as Cronon points out, historians are susceptible too. To ignore the city-country relationship present here, historians have institutionalized sub-disciplines of history into isolation and ahistorical relationships – such as urban history. In aggregate, Chicago represents a gateway city of opportunity, credit, and debt in the urban and rural Great West. While boosters would claim in the early 19th century supreme natural advantages of the south western shore of Lake Michigan, these advantages would only be truly revealed through the linking of the resource rich wilderness, rural hinterland production, and the larger market to the East and the world.

          Cronon’s approach is extremely significant. To fully understand the Great West one must fully understand the socio-economic relationships which link individuals, communities, and regions into an integrated economy and society. Cronon does this masterfully through his investigation into commodities and credit/debt relationships. Patricia Limerick had asked only a few years earlier for a reevaluation of Western History; to not only analyze the Great West as a place with local and regional contexts, but also to not deny the power of urban markets and the federal government. Both the economic force of urban centers and the force given migrants by the federal government were crucial to dispelling western historiographic myths of individual manifest destiny and fully understanding the push and pull factors of the eastern economic markets upon the Great West landscape. But how much can we assume that Cronon’s model of urbanization and rural conquest represents the process he claims to have occurred across the Great West, not just in Chicago.

          As Cronon points out, St. Louis, Toledo, and other cities were likely just as dominant and dependent on their own hinterlands, but as Limerick begs us to ask: how representative? In Chicago, fully encompassed in the Northern States which fought for the Union had a very different hinterland than say St. Louis and New Orleans, not to mention many of the other more southern urban market centers. In other words, how can local and regional contexts alter Cronon’s paradigm of urban development and rural market capture? In the words of Limerick, the Great West was in essence a meeting ground where eastern anglo-America met with a variety of local and regional contexts. It is in these liminal zones where the conquest of the Great West illustrate a variety of human experience which defies broad characterization. Certainly “central-place theory” explains a great deal, but patterns of race relations, Native American dispossession, and local economic imperatives can not be generalized with Cronon’s model in places like 19th century Sante Fe, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Anchorage, Alaska. These locations, besides involving different spectrums of resources, developed with very different ethnic populations and with them various understandings and critiques of the emerging capitalist political-economy.


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