Monday, December 8, 2014

Professor Petrik and Classmates,

Thank you for making this course stimulating and informative!  Happy Holidays!    Diane

Summary of Final Paper: Tamsen Donner: Martyr to Western Expansionism

12.  Summary of Final Paper:

Tamsen Donner:  Martyr to Western Expansionism

      Tamsen Donner was the wife of the leader of the ill-fated Donner Party, the emigrant wagon train that became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter of 1846 - 1847.   Facing starvation, the group is best remembered for resorting to cannibalism.  Many, however, were ordinary people trying to survive.  How did Tamsen Donner fit into the picture?  How had her life prepared her for such severe hardships?  In what ways did she respond?  What does she tell us about the Donner Party and the larger picture about western pioneer women?

      Primary sources include early letters from Tamsen Donner and other Donner pioneers. Many tend to contradict one another, creating a challenge for historians to identify, interpret and reconcile disputed collective memories in order to draw conclusions. 

      Donner was born into an upper middle-class family in Massachusetts in 1801.  Educated as a teacher, she (unlike most antebellum women) remained single and independent, traveling widely and teaching school.  At twenty-seven, she married Tully Dozier, bore him a son, and thrived on family life.  Within one year, however, she had a miscarriage; her husband and then her infant died; she contracted malaria.  On her own again, she struggled to overcome her adversities, supporting herself for the next ten years.  She married prosperous George Donner in Springfield, Illinois in 1837, becoming stepmother to his children and adding three daughters of their own.

      George Donner shared his wife's wanderlust.  Both were attracted by the lure of opportunity in California, and they headed West in May, 1846.   Tamsen Donner writes of the beauty of the plains, the immensity of bison herds, and of bartering with friendly Sioux and Pawnee.   Against her better judgment, her husband opted to take a "short cut" to California.  Without a trail to follow, the party experienced wagon breakdowns in the Wasatch Mountains and thirst along the Salt Lake flats.  They reached the Sierra Nevadas a month later than planned; in late October, early snowstorms ensnared them near the summit.   The Donners survived in a primitive lean-to and ate their livestock, but food ran out by Christmas.  Weaker members of the party  began dying of starvation.  Later findings of mutilated human remains testify to subsequent cannibalism.   Reports vary as to the Donners' participation.  Here again, collective memory confuses the issue.

      George Donner injured his hand, which became infected and led to blood-poisoning.  Tamsen Donner took over responsibility for the family. In February, 1847, a search party reached them, bearing meager provisions.  Donner sent her three stepchildren out of the mountains with them.  Weeks later, another rescue team arrived and took her three youngest daughters to California.  She feared she would never see her children again, but out of loyalty or obligation, Donner remained at camp with her dying husband.

       With George Donner's death, competing collective remembrances present another quandary about Tamsen Donner's last days.  In one iteration, she wandered into the camp of one of the last remaining emigrants.  He took her in, and when she died in her sleep he cannibalized her.  However, there was no trace of Donner's body.  Other sources speculate that she wandered off, disoriented and starving, and perished in the wilderness.

      Regardless of how she died, Donner's valiant efforts and hard decisions saved her children.  Based on her background, it seems unlikely (but not certain) that the Donners ate human flesh.  Though her name has become synonymous with the cruel side of western expansionism, she, like many other pioneer women, can be credited with making sacrifices that eventually "won the West."

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Devil's Bargains

11.  Devil's Bargains

       I am the consummate tourist.  Historical sites, naturally, are my favorites, but I'm not opposed

to going out of my way to glimpse, say, the world's biggest ball of twine.  Tourist traps, often against

 the better judgments of those who run them, give visitors an essential sense of an area's

ambiance.  By paying less attention to what is written on the signs and in the brochures and more to

local and "neonative" input, it's possible to achieve a truer experience.

      Hal K. Rothman, in Devil's Bargain, Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West, is not concerned whether or not tourists enjoy themselves.  His thrust is understanding how innovative outside investors may destroy the very places they  invade, changing the areas and their residents.  Although Rothman explains this as a western phenomenon, the infusion of big money into backwoods, picturesque locations has precedents elsewhere and earlier.  Reading about the transformation of Paepcke's Aspen reminded me of David McCullough's Johnstown Flood (1968).  In 1889, a handful of wealthy magnets created an artificial lake resort above the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania for their private recreation and enjoyment -- and inadvertently devastated the downstream town and its people when their man-made dam burst.  Although most of Rothman's examples have less dire physical repercussions, incursions into places like Sun Valley, the Grand Canyon or Carlsbad Caverns likewise changed perceptions and interrupted local lives.  The wide open spaces and untouched nature of the West made it possible for the moneyed few to take unfair advantage.

     From my standpoint as tourist,  I particularly enjoyed Chapter 6, "Interregional Tourism."  As a child in the 1950s, I was aware of the influence of automobiles in our lives.  The family car provided my first familiarity with the glories of the western terrain.  Every year or so our family left Spokane for an eight-hour road trip west to Seattle (which now takes about half that long).  We motored down the two-lane highway in Dad's '55 Buick into the arid conditions of central Washington, a literal desert compared to our manicured lawn at home.  The tiny, colorless towns through which we passed held neither interest nor promise for us.  Crossing the Cascade Mountains with its high peaks, lakes and waterfalls  invariably awed me (still does!).  When we reached lush, green western Washington and the blue Puget Sound, I felt much farther from home than the 280 miles we had travelled.  The ride itself was the adventure.  I craved, as Rothman states on page 150, "difference
. . . new activities, seeing new places and doing new things . . . travel did not have to mean anything more than an opportunity to get away." 

      This past May, my husband and I toured the Mid-West in our SUV.  In Missouri, we located the legendary Route 66, intending to follow it to visit old-time tourist traps.  Instead, we discovered only short, intermittent segments of the road, interrupted by seventy-five years of modern "improvements" that bisect and obliterate most of  66.  It was one of Rothman's devil's bargains: its very success in opening the West to auto travel lead to its obsolescence. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I have commented on Megan's post about Misplaced Massacre.   I have not posted on my blog about it, since I will be presenting in tomorrow evening's class.   Stay tuned!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Was the Comancheria an Empire?

10.  Was the Comancheria an Empire?

November 15, 2014


      Pekka Hamalainen's The Comanche Empire (2008) contends that between 1700 and the early 1800s the Comanches conquered an expansive section of southwestern America  to create the Comancheria empire that rivaled the imperialistic efforts of Europeans.

      The concept of an all-powerful empire among Native Americans seems unique, something I've not previously considered.  American history seldom endows minority groups with such superlatives: Hamalainen obviously intends to start a new discussion about the power and influence of the Comanches.   There is little question that they reinvented themselves to meet the needs of their evolving world as they moved south across the plains.  They became expert equestrians and bison hunters. They developed outstanding economic and political skills that interplayed and vied with Europeans who had a far more extensive history of international machinations. The Comanches incorporated outsiders into their families and tribe, often through slavery, to bolster their numbers and strength.   Their warrior spirit and grasp of conflict, conquest and alliances were par excellence.  Eighteenth-century Comanches were a vibrant, dominant, intimidating, hierarchical, resourceful and violent people.  But was their Comancheria an empire, an example of reverse colonialism?

      It is tempting to permit a sense of presentism when recalling our country's deplorable historical treatment of Indians.  True, most Americans no longer accept good-cowboys-besting-bad-wild-Indians scenarios as the basis for relationships between the two cultures.  But neither have we established a firm footing or a meeting of the minds as to who Indians were (are) or how they fit into the American landscape; the ongoing debate over the name of Washington's football team pinpoints this quite succinctly.  New cultural approaches encourage greater open-mindedness in the search for and acknowledgment of greater agency in Native American cultures.  But has Hamalainen gone too far in an effort to accomplish this?  By elevating the Comancheria to the echelon of empire, he detracts from the reality of an industrious people who redeveloped their culture, suffered losses and enjoyed successes, and left an imprint on their times.  Raising the Comancheria to empire status inevitably leads to an overemphasis on their denouement:  the Comanche's dramatic fall from grace when Euro-Americans overran the West, the end of the bison economy, and the crumbling of the foundations of their indigenous "empire."

      Reading The Comanche Empire, I preferred to focus more on Comanche accomplishments and errors than on Caesarian or Hitlerian ideologies of grand empire.   The haphazard sprawl of the Comancheria across the Southwest, for instance, did not include definitive, defendable borders of empire -- nor did the tribe appear to need them.   By absorbing people of other cultures to increase their numbers, the Comanches evolved into an "ethnic melting pot" rather than retaining distinct Comanche traits (360).  They participated in the destruction of their environment; the environment destroyed them.  They were diplomats and fearsome warriors who "reshape[d] their economic strategies and social traditions" (348).  

      The Comanches were a complex tribal group with a complex history, worthy of Hamalainen's in-depth study. He centralizes their nation in American history, awarding them with the recognition they deserve.  However, the description of Comanches as deliberate empire builders, a tribe vastly superior to other indigenous people, somehow seems aggrandizing and unnecessary, detracting from Comanche heritage.


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

If You Build It, They Will Come

9.  If You Build It, They Will Come

November 8, 2014

      While reading Railroaded, the Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (2011) by Richard White, the phrase "if you build it, they will come" kept running through my mind.
Echoing Ray Kinsella's hopes in Field of Dreams, the railroad barons guided an industry based on fantastical, unrealistic visions of land usage.  Unlike Kinsella, however, who churned up his cornfield to realize his dream, the many Collis P. Huntingtons, James J. Hills, Tom Scotts and Jay Cookes metaphorically dug their fields under after they built their railroads.

      White's scope in Railroaded seems all-encompassing. He ties virtually every post-1865 American (and Canadian and Mexican) occurrence -- from political, economic and social to military and philosophical -- to the effects of railroad-building.  The long-dead, egotistical barons would undoubtedly preen at Whites' assessment of their ultimate power.  At the same time, they would reinvent his well-documented criticisms of their lives and activities to their own advantage.

      White contends that "[W]hatever the railroads did -- rob, create, organize -- they supposedly did ruthlessly and effectively" because "if failure could be lucrative, then ignorance, incompetence, and disorganization were not incompatible"(233, 232).  Given the breadth of railroad construction after the Civil War, it is impossible to deny the builders' influence -- often negative -- on the western United States.  Yet White suggests that railroad-building was a ploy, a moneymaking byproduct for the garnering of untold wealth for mediocre, reckless entrepreneurs.  This infers that if, for instance, the planting of wheat or the skinning of buffalo had had the same lure of maximum financial success, the barons would just as eagerly have embraced those instead.

       This supposition gives rise to "what if's."   What if other enterprises had swayed the railroaders away from the indiscriminate building of thousands of miles of needless railways too soon?  Would the West still have been "won" without them?  Pioneers had been traveling the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails since the early 1800s, settling western lands years before the advent of the railroads.  The Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern surely made the trip more convenient and expansive, but would not such dedicated trailblazers have continued on their own,  at a more manageable pace for region building?  Would their homesteading choices have been any more or any less astute and well-placed than those of the railroad tycoons? Harkening back to their western spirit of individualism, upon which historians from Frederick Jackson Turner to Susan Lee Johnson to White himself comment, is it possible that White bestows the railroad magnets with excessive and undue credit/discredit for opening the West?

           The intricacies of the financial dealings and economic machinations in Railroaded were sticky to follow, despite White's eloquent explanations.  However, his cast of antagonistic leading characters leaves little doubt that, regardless of their assertions of patriotism and the national interest, the railroad barons' definitive goal was to line their own pockets.

      I admit that by page 534, Railroaded left me feeling a bit dejected.  I will never look at railroad tracks quite as I did before.  They were not fields of dreams. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Montana Memory Project: Big Timber Pioneer Newspapers, 1899 and 1916

8.  Montana Memory Project:

Big Timber Pioneer Newspapers, 1899 and 1916


      Early newspapers are a historian's delight, providing provocative tastes of local life.  Montana's weekly Big Timber Pioneer, reprised in the Montana Memory Project, does not disappoint.  The front pages for January 12, 1899 and January 6, 1916 are snapshots in time, reflecting changes that occurred there during that seventeen-year period.

      Big Timber is the county seat for Sweet Grass in south central Montana.  It remains a small town today, according to its Chamber of Commerce (, with a population of 1,641.

      The headline for January 12, 1899  (http://mtmemory. org/cdm/ compoundobject/ collection/p16013coll7/id/74195/rec/7) reads "Delinquent Tax List for 1898."  The half-page article names and threatens non-tax-payers: "If not paid, [your property will be] sold at public auction."  About one-third of the front page is devoted to ads:  Cottage Hotel rates are $1.25/day,  Perrine's cuts hair for thirty-five cents, Sam Lee Laundry does "all kinds of laundry quickly and neat (sic) done," and H.O. Kellogg's clothing store advertises Christmas specials (three weeks too late).  The remainder of the front page contains "The State's Latest News."  Montana shipped out 384 railway boxes of sheep in 1898.  The Smith Brothers own the oldest sheep ranch (1872) in Montana:  in 1898, 33,000 grazing acres for 48,000 sheep valued at $32,000.   No national or international news features appear.  Big Timber still considered itself a pioneer town in a pioneer county:  organized, somewhat isolated and self-sufficient.

      The Big Timber Pioneer front page of January 6, 1916 ( compoundobject/collection/p16013coll7/id/71654/rec/12) is more sophisticated in its presentation and includes a broader range of news.  There are no advertisements here; about half the page is devoted to local and regional news, the rest to national, with one international article.  The headline reads "Annual Masquerade Breaks Big Records."  Hundreds of guests met in the lodge of the Modern Woodsmen of America, a fraternal benefits society, to dance and to enter a costume contest.  Prizes ranged from $5 cash to a fifty-pound bag of Gold Medal Flour; winners' names and costumes are listed.  The second most important article announces the opening of Ellison Brothers' Parking Garage "to serve residents and tourists," featuring steam heat and  a ladies' rest room.  Besides clips from Bozeman and Livingston, a national news item declares "Montana Leads in Wool Production," having generated 29, 000,000 pounds of wool in 1915, over 10% of the national total.  A small blurb entitled "Another Ocean Liner Sunk by Torpedo" states the Persia sank in the Mediterranean with 300 people lost.  It provides no further details; the editors apparently assumed readers read related articles and thus this sufficed.    Although this issue is more inclusive than its 1899 predecessor, Big Timber readers still consider local occurrences more interesting and timely than outside news. 

      These Big Timber Pioneer front pages indicate town and county growth.  The 1916 page stresses modernization and culture; news extends beyond county borders, though local items -- even less pressing ones -- remain prominent.  Both issues display population diversity for women and ethnicities.  They emphasize local growth industries and financial stability:  information about the area's ranching, sheep-raising, forestry and town development lead all other articles.  Like most small town newspapers, the Pioneer retains its parochial approach.  Hometown news trumps the East Coast and Europe.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

I commented on David's blog entry this week.

California and Reconstruction

7.  California and Reconstruction

       If white southerners thought they had problems getting the better of blacks during the Reconstruction period, they must have been surprised by white Californians and their self-made predicaments.   The bi-racial issues of the ex-Confederate States seemed to explode exponentially in California, where whites plotted against Indians, Chinese and blacks.  The South, of course, had a two-hundred year head start abusing, sidestepping and legislating against blacks prior to Reconstruction.  California, on the other hand, gave birth to triple racial confusion and biases in the relatively short period from the middle to the end of the nineteenth century (and beyond).

      D. Michael Bottoms skillfully engages readers in California's racial turmoil in An Aristocracy of Color, Race and Reconstruction in California and the West, 1850 - 1890 (2013).  Nineteenth-century white Californians expended tremendous energy to 1) keep their various racial prejudices straight and 2) design multiple campaigns against specific non-white groups according to complex reasoning, rationalizations and lies.

      African Americans seemed to come out marginally ahead of other minorities in California, thanks to the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments, resulting from the sufferings of the black race and grudgingly acknowledged (though not ratified) by Californians.  Human nature can be wicked: California's blacks were unwilling to share the fruits of their long-fought battle with fellow minorities.  Instead, they adopted whites' sense of superiority.  Whites had systematically crushed California's Native Americans before the Civil War, leaving Indians in the unwanted position of being, to use a Pacific Northwest analogy, last men on the totem pole.  White Californians rated their bias against the Chinese between blacks and Indians, creating a mythology about Asians that rivaled the inventiveness of Aesop's Fables.  They labeled "Chinamen" subhuman, dirty and infectious.  But the resourceful Chinese fought back,  employing American law to their advantage, riding on the coattails of Reconstruction legislation.  Nevertheless, California mirrored the nation well into the mid-twentieth century as they strived desperately to maintain white supremacy, regardless of the color or race of its minorities.

      Because of my surname, I would be remiss not to mention Bottoms' Chapter 2, "The Apostasy of Henry Huntly Haight."  (I checked with my husband's Aunt Ladonna, our family genealogist, who  assures me that HHH and we perch on different branches of the family tree.).  Haight became governor of California as the Civil War segued into Reconstruction.  He vocalized the belief, as Bottoms explains, that "black suffrage was . . . the first step in the inevitable elevation of all nonwhites" (59).  Under his leadership, California refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments, realizing they would pave the way to full citizenship not only for blacks but also for Indians and Chinese.  It was Haight who unwrapped California's "simple binary racial hierarchy"  of whites versus nonwhites to reveal "a more complicated and more ambiguous hierarchy . . . along three, or even four, axes" (59).  Haight brought already-roiling prejudices into open controversies.  By then, there was no stopping the downward-spiraling process.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Primary Sources: The Women and Girls of the Donner Party

Primary Sources:  The Women and Girls of the Donner Party

       On February 13, 1847, San Francisco's California Star newspaper broke the news of "a most distressing account" of the Donner party.  A wagon train of eighty-three emigrants on their way to California had been stranded all winter in the snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Months earlier, the party had chosen an untested, supposedly shorter route west, travelling south across the Salt Lake desert without water or animal feed.  Being a month later than planned in reaching San Francisco, and with few supplies left, they hurried into the mountains in late October.  Early snow storms overtook them, forcing them to hunker down in makeshift cabins.   Eleven men and five women from the party volunteered to continue across the mountains on foot to seek aid.  "After travelling thirty days, 7 out of 16 arrived . . . all the females that started  and but two of the men,"  reported the newspaper.   Nine died of starvation en route; several of the corpses were "eaten by their companions" for sustenance,  making "meat of the dead bodies of their companions" (italics are the Star's).   Almost as an afterthought to such sensational journalism, the newspaper reported that a search party was being organized to hike into the mountains to find the rest of the Donner party.

      It is unfortunate that the words "Donner party" and "cannibalism" have become synonymous in the lexicon of the West.  They overshadow the otherwise courageous efforts of many of these pioneers.   The women and girls in the group are of particular interest.  Until the 1970s and 1980s when Women's Studies took its rightful place within the discipline of History, the Donner party women received little recognition for their heroic efforts.  Using primary sources, I will examine the Donner "womenfolk" to uncover their backgrounds and to investigate contributing factors along the trail that influenced their dire choices during that long, harsh winter.  I hope to draw conclusions about these women based on  facts from primary sources other than the yellow journalism of the times.

      The families of brothers George and Jacob Donner joined with that of James F. Reed in Springfield, Illinois in September, 1846 to head west.  They were joined by several others in St. Louis.  During the emigration, several people kept diaries, including Reed's daughter Virginia, age 13.  In 1891 she published an article, "Across the Plains in the Donner Party (1846)," based on her journal entries of the transcontinental journey.  In it, she makes no mention of cannibalism.  Instead, Virginia recalls her beloved mother's courage in the face of adversity and her fears that her sister Martha, called Patty, age 8, would die of starvation.  Virginia recalled Patty's tiny four-inch doll, "hidden away in her bosom, which she carried day and night through all of our trials."  The doll is now an artifact of the Donner party, part of the Sutter's Fort collection.  Virginia concludes the article optimistically, with a sublime description of California:  "the blessed sun . . . smil[es] down
. . . as though in benediction.  I drank it in . . . in thanksgiving to the Almighty for creating a world so beautiful."           

        George Donner's daughter Eliza was four years old when they emigrated.  In 1911, at the age of sixty-eight, Eliza Donner Houghton published her memoir, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate.  "I was too young to do more than watch and suffer with other children," she writes, but had since completed "eager research for verification . . . with other survivors" to counter "the false and sensational details . . . about acts of brutality, inhumanity and cannibalism . . . spread by morbid collectors and prolific historians who too readily accepted exaggerated and unauthentic versions as true stories." In thirty-six chapters and 334 pages, she provides a feminine view of the Donner party. 

      Other primary sources include the "eight small sheets of letter paper"  written by Donner party member Patrick Breen between November, 1846 and March, 1847 in the Sierra Nevada camp.  Published in 1910 as The Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party, he reports on the harrowing experiences and bravery of the isolated party, where women assisted and supported their neighbors.     Another authoritative source is The History of the Donner Party, a Tragedy of the Sierra, by C. F. McGlashan, published in 1880.   McGlashan, who was not a member of the Donner group, interviewed many of the (grown) children of the group in over 1,000 letters of correspondence.  His book is a tribute to the bold pioneers who struggled and suffered over deserts and mountains to begin anew in California. 

      The saga of the Donner party is a story of human survival, in good part due to the heroism of the women and girls.  This iteration is not about the lurid details of desecrating the dead at Donner Lake.  Rather,  it is a portrayal of wives, mothers and sisters who, in the face of devastating loss, did their best to keep their families alive and together.



Martha "Patty" Reed


Patty Reed's Doll
Works Cited

Editor.  "Distressing  News."  California Star, February 13, 1847. 
      http://www/   Accessed 15 October 2014.

Houghton, Eliza Donner.  The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate.  Chicago: 

       A.C. McClurg and Co. (1911).  Accessed

       2 October 2014.

 McGlashan, C.F.  History of the Donner Party, a Tragedy of the Sierras.  Truckee,
      California:  Crowley and McGlashan (1879).
      donnerp01cfmc. Accessed 10 October 2014.

 Murphy, Virginia Reed.  "Across the Plains in the Donner Party (1846), a Personal Narrative
      of the Overland Trip to California."   Century Illustrated Magazine (1881 - 1906:  San
      Jose, California , XLII, 3 (July, 1891).  American Periodicals, 409.   Accessed
      14 October 2014.

Teggert, Frederick J., Ed.  The Diary of Patrick Breen, One of the Donner Party.  University
       of California at Berkeley (July, 1910). uc1.

       31822035083831;view=1up;seq=1.  Accessed 18 October 2014.



Martha (Patty) Reed. "The Survivors and Casualties of the Donner Party."  http://www.donner  Accessed 22 October 2014.

 Patty Reed's Doll.  "Sutter’s Fort Offers Visitor Enhancements & Return of Patty Reed Doll" 

      visitor enhancements-return-of-patty-reed-doll/.  Accessed 21 October 2014.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Post #6 American Capitalism Encapsulated: Chicago

6.  American Capitalism Encapsulated:  Chicago

       William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis, Chicago and the Great West (1991) is a logical segue from our earlier reading of Elliott West's The Way to the West.  Both authors stress the significant role of nature in the settling of the West: natural resources were as integral to progress as the human beings who used and/or abused them.  West and Cronon present definitive chronological histories of their subject areas, Cronon zeroing in on Chicago and its hinterlands.  As time progressed, the Windy City, like a cat with nine lives, recreated itself through stages of industrialism, finances and natural resources.

        Nature's Metropolis reads like a novel with intricate, twisting plots and heroes and villains; natural resources are the protagonists.  Cronon walks us through Chicago's phases of market development from eighteenth-century fur trading to nineteenth-century real estate (1830s), railroads (1840s - 1900),  grain sales (1850s - ), lumber trade (1870s - 1890s), meat packing (1870s - 1930s) and white collar corporations (1870s - ).  Each industry built upon the one before it to establish Chicago as the financial capital of the West.

       Cronon documents the city's growth through the lens of American capitalism, Chicago-style.  He explores the interconnectedness and interdependence of the growing city and its hinterlands.  He examines spatial and environment theories of city expansion, including Von Thunen's and central place.  Both hypotheses, he states, are "profoundly static and ahistorical," concluding that the Chicago area's growth pattern was unique and thus did not fit preconceived molds (282) .

      For Chicago, the commercial successes of each era encouraged the growth of the next, at the same time creating rifts when one outbalanced the other.  While city wheeler-dealers often tried to override the demands of country bumpkins, Cronon demonstrates that farmers and lumberjacks and cattlemen also displayed uncanny acumen to tip the balance in their favor.  The constant give-and-take between city and hinterlands bolstered Chicago's vibrant, healthy economy.  Cronon's dynamic industrialized West is a far cry from Frederick Jackson Turner's isolated, rural West.

       Several of Cronon's examples of Chicago's dynamism jumped out at me.  I grew up hearing the word "grange," but as a city girl I didn't understand its role; Cronon clarified it for me.  The efforts of Gustavus Swift and Phillip Armour to utilize every morsel of an animal's carcass was both ingenious and horrifying; there is good reason to be suspicious of Spam!  The retail empire built by Montgomery Ward was nothing less than revolutionary  -- from a one-page flyer to a catalog-order company that brought affordable and civilizing comfort into town and country homes alike.  I have long been intrigued by Chicago's 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.  How ironic that buildings which  displayed state-of-the-art technologies and revolutionary ideas were mere facades, not meant to last.  The fair mirrored Chicago itself, with its emphasis on the latest money-making projects and the disposal of outdated ones after humans depleted the necessary resources.  William Cronon covered a lot of territory in this book, as broad and inclusive as Chicago and its hinterlands.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

5. Buffalo, a Microcosmic Story of the Great Plains

5.    Buffalo, a Microcosmic Story of the Great Plains

      Elliott West brings an innovative approach to the study of the old American West in The Way of the West, Essays on the Central Plains (1995).  He discards the well-used technique of capturing western history from a unilateral perspective -- for example, that of white settlers or of imagining the West as one giant region.  Instead, he formulates an inclusive strategy to unite seemingly disparate yet vitally intermingled influences in the West.   He narrows his study to the Great Plains, dividing the book into four sections -- "Land," "Animals," "Families" and "Stories."   West not only interprets history, but also geography, anthropology, zoology, meteorology and botany, with a bit of literature thrown in for good measure.

      Unveiling the mysteries of nineteenth-century Plains life,  West appears to assign equivalent efficacy to vibrant plant life, varieties of animals, differences in people and cultural heritages (12).    Naturally, the intervention of humans, steeped in goals towards their own ends and thoughtlessness of inevitable repercussions, complicated the evolution of the Plains.   West gives equal footing to the responsibilities and actions of pioneers and Native Americans, clarifying their divergent motives and incentives as well as their intercultural exchanges.  But he goes on to emphasize that humans alone could not produce the dramatic changes on the Plains in the 1800s.    Man did not have authority over weather or wild plant life, or river sites or the instant availability of food sources.   Here, West synthesizes interdependence among land, people and animals in a very non-Turnerian view of the region.

      Being a cultural historian, I was tempted to skip ahead to chapters three and four about people.  Nevertheless, I began reading from the Introduction.   To my surprise, the story of short and long grasses quickly engrossed me, especially in relation to buffaloes.  I came to observe bison as critical actors in a microcosmic progression (or regression) of western survival versus destruction, and of the connectedness of environment, human beings and animals. 

       West enlightened my pitiful knowledge of bison in many ways. How the odds were stacked against those bulky, scroungy foragers!  I had not imagined buffalo herds heading east to find sustenance (towards oncoming settlers) or of neutral Indian zones acting as buffalo havens before intertribal peace treaties made the animals fair game -- literally (57, 61).    Demon alcohol?   There is anguish in the bleak correlation between its destructive effects on Indian families and the decimation of the buffalo population (67).    Species packing, West notes, forces all living things to "compete for [limited] resources" (81).   It appears that buffaloes paid the price for "evolving patterns of power" in Native American and white settler migration (71).   Bison became the unwitting pawns of a natural environment in flux and of human avarice run amok.

         I read The Way to the West with an increasing sense of humility regarding human frailty.  Since time immemorial, people have greedily and unhesitatingly grasped for that which they desire.  Those entering the Great Plains wanted it all, a replication of the comfort and reliability of known places in tandem with "finding simpler lives in land free of the past" (146).   Life is rarely static; it demands decision-making.  On the Great Plains, the fate of the buffalo was swept up in human error and natural calamity.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Saturday, September 27, 2014

4. "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"

4.  "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"

                                                                        September 27, 2014


       As a child, I sprawled on the living room carpet to eagerly watch episodes of the television show "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."   Loosely based on Earp's feats as Tombstone's deputy marshal, he was the hero of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  With those memories in mind, I tackled Steven Lubet's Murder in Tombstone, the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp in hopes of gaining a more historically-accurate account of this legendary character's adventures.

      Lubet does not disappoint.   He brings Tombstone back to life, portraying Wyatt Earp's "tough and inflexible" approach to law with a (questionably) "minimum amount" of force against the "rough and lawless crowd"  known as Cowboys (Lubet's capitalization) (25, f 16, 14).  Tombstone's "flush economy and relative absence of established authority" create the perfect storm for the wild shoot-out of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the McLaury and Clanton brothers (13, 2).  But as Lubet demonstrates, teasing out the "good guys" from the "bad" remains a conundrum.

       After gunfire left three Cowboys dead and two Earp brothers wounded, Lubet investigates the trial (hearing) at great length.  The lawmen are accused of  premeditated first-degree murder, but the proceedings are overshadowed by local politics, a weak and vengeful prosecutorial team, and two rival, biased newspapers.  The townspeople take sides, too, Republicans (Earp proponents) versus Democrats (Cowboy supporters).  The defense attorney, Tom Fitch, outmaneuvers the disorganized prosecution by cross-examining witnesses with the then-innovative approach of "sharp, leading questions" that tear the prosecution's case apart (189).  Judge Spicer, a Republican, renders his decision in less than a day:  the prosecution had not proven its case (180).  The Earps and Holliday go free.

       As Lubet notes, questions regarding Earp's innocence still remain up in the air.  He presents Wyatt as a fast-thinking hot-head, a sharpshooter and quick on the draw  -- and probably a liar on the witness stand.  Did Earp enter the OK Corral harboring a vendetta against the Cowboys, exploiting his badge to legalize murder?  Why does the feeble prosecution insist on a first-degree murder charge rather than more believable manslaughter?  Does Earp's nemesis, John Behan, distort the facts to his own advantage?  Is Judge Spicer's decision unduly influenced by elite Republican Tombstonians?  Lubet does not (cannot) provide definitive answers.  He leaves interpretation to the reader.

       A few years ago I visited Tombstone and watched a reenactment of the gunfight, complete with blazing guns, bulky black coats and Billy Clanton's grieving girlfriend (apparently a bit of romantic inaccuracy to enliven the Wild West theme).   Like the Earp TV show, notoriety trumped historical facts in the still-Republican-leaning staged event.    So-o, given my various experiences with the Wyatt Earp legend, what conclusion have I drawn?  I can't help but admire Wyatt's √©lan, but I believe he got away with murder.  Further,  I would change the TV show's heroic theme song lyrics that describe him as "brave, courageous and bold" to "impetuous, troublemaking and audacious."  I would, however, leave intact the last lines of the Wyatt Earp tune which still seem to ring true:

                                     "Long live his fame

                                     And long live his glory

                                     And long may his story be told."





Saturday, September 20, 2014

3. Vengeance is Mine

3.  Vengeance Is Mine

 September 20, 2014

       A "severed head" proved that "it was acceptable to avenge themselves upon an enemy who had no connection whatever to the one that brought them grief." (DeLay 169, 131).   If you read that sentence in a daily news blog, your first thought would be of the three western journalists recently beheaded by the terror group ISIL.  But this is a history blog.  The "barbarians" in question are American Indians.  In both these instances, separated by almost two centuries, the responses of western civilization to terrorist attacks are very much alike:  fear, revulsion, anger -- and  incomprehension. 
       In War of a Thousand Deserts, Indian Raids and the US-Mexican Border (2008), Brian DeLay gives equal credit (and discredit) to mid-nineteenth-century Indians and settlers in the history of the Southwest.  Along with the voices of white and Latino pioneers, DeLay speaks for historically silent Native Americans, presenting succinct rationales for their warlike behaviors.  In the Comancheria region of Mexico, pioneers considered the death-and-destruction response of indigenous people as vastly disproportionate to simple immigrant acts of settling new lands; they saw Indians as indiscriminant terrorists. DeLay, however, describes natives living out their ancient political, economic, religious and social conventions.  Each group saw their enemy as prey; neither viewed their opponents as individuals, but rather as the Other.

       The private and public aspirations of Indians comingled, "bound up in concerns of wealth and poverty, honor and shame, and life and death."  It did not occur to the settlers that Native Americans might "promote a value system that bestowed communal legitimacy and honor upon men's pursuit of glory and wealth" (119).  Instead, they attached sanctity to their own western beliefs.  The idea of definitive, functional Indian cultures would undoubtedly have struck whites and Hispanics as ludicrous.

       Yet as DeLay points out, Indians' needs and desires were as human and inviolable as those of westerners.  The opposing forces had more in common than either imagined.  Comanches felt the usurpation of their land and the loss of their comrades as keenly as Mexican settlers felt attachment to their farms and to their murdered kin.  Recovering the bodies of slain warriors was as important to Native Americans as a Christian burial was to settlers (132).  Both groups craved violent revenge and acted upon it; if Indians arbitrarily plundered and killed, settlers responded with equal savagery by dismembering and scalping their enemies (128).  Neither side perceived the human frailties -- indeed, the humanity -- of their adversary.  Neither was willing to sacrifice their way of life. 

       Mexican President Anastacio Bustamante declared that Indians "are not similar to us, except in their human shape." DeLay suggests that Indians "were perhaps like Beduins" (157).   His unintended prescience likens El Presidente's comment about American natives to our own reaction to ISIL revolutionaries today.  Most contemporary westerners cannot fathom the attitudes of Middle-Eastern radicals, any more than pioneers discerned Native American mentalities in the 1800s.  The misunderstandings go (and went) both ways . . . a distressing symptom of why history tends to repeat itself . . .