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.