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The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
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43 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick puts forth her thesis that the conquest of the Trans-Mississippi West is an ongoing economically driven process. Focusing on the West as a physical place rather than a mythic ideal, the author demonstrates how the frontier never closed and that the conquest continues to this day. The book looks at the conquerors of the West and the obstacles they face from Native peoples, westward expansion, immigration, and government interference or the lack thereof. Those coming west did not come with the idea of destroying the land or the Indians, but with the hope of economic improvement and opportunity.
Few people coming west concerned themselves with the Native Americans whose land they began to occupy. Farmers, ranchers, and miners seeking wealth worried more about their own survival than the survival of Indians. Many pioneers portrayed themselves as victims when their dreams of wealth came face to face with the reality of grasshopper plagues, overgrazed ranges, and barren mines. This self-victimization continues to this day with these same groups decrying government waste while asking for subsidies. However, some who came to the west did become true victims.
Some of those who came west in an attempt to make their fortune mining ended up working in the mines of large companies or working other low paying jobs. Those who worked in the mines put themselves in grave danger everyday. With no safety regulations and labor laws that blamed workers for their injuries, mining was one of the deadliest occupations. Attempts to unionize Mineworkers led to mine owners using violence and murder to dissuade union membership. Many who worked the mines immigrated from England and Ireland. These European immigrants, while low on the class scale, were not as low as those who came from a different ethnic background.
Non-white immigrants all faced similar experiences. Chinese immigrants, hoping to improve their lives, faced hostility from all sides. Local and state governments barred them from living in certain areas, bringing over their families, and working in all but the most menial and dangerous of occupations. Mexicans and Latinos who came to work in agriculture faced constant harassment and persecution that continues to this day. The idea that an immigrant is taking a job from an American plays a large part in anti-immigration movements to this day. Unfortunately, most who oppose immigration refuse to realize that the jobs immigrants perform are ones that most Americans consider to menial or low paying to perform. Limerick's weaving of the past and present together shows how the problems of the Old West are still with us today.
The author does an excellent job of examining the past problems of the West and showing how they are unresolved. Arguments between ranchers and the federal government persist over grazing fees. Farmers receive payments for not growing certain crops. Mining laws allow companies to buy land for a shockingly low price and strip it of its mineral worth and beauty. Native Americans, pushed onto reservations, are now suing for the enforcement of past treaties. Limerick shows the irony of the attitude of the West in pushing the federal government away with one hand while reaching for a handout with the other.
While The Legacy of Conquest is highly recommended to students of American history, it does have its flaws. The author overuses metaphor in the early chapters of the book, making it read more like an opinion piece than a historical one. The author's inclusion of the Mormon Church's problems seems forced and does not belong in a book about the economically driven conquest of the American West. Limerick also uses a non-chronological approach that may bother some readers. However, the author does an excellent job at combining primary and secondary sources into an interesting book. Despite some minor problems, Limerick shows that while the appearance of the West changes the conquest of the West continues.
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21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on April 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
Limerick's work here is outstanding. Here ability to tie in the violence of the western expansion to our current myths and current behavior is terrific. Moreover, in addition to be an eye-opening and informative work, it is an enjoyable read as well. A must have for anyone who has an interest in Western history, or who simply wants to learn more about US history.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on April 22, 2000
Format: Paperback
Anyone who still believes with Frederick Jackson Turner that the West somehow "closed" in 1898 should read this book. Limerick advances the thesis that the same boom-bust cycles and the same struggles over land, water, and mineral rights that characterized the "Wild West" are continuing to this day. She writes in an engaging style that combines well-told narrative with penetrating analysis.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2013
Format: Paperback
Written as part of the "New Western History," Limerick attempts to not only revitalize Western history and prove its worth in the greater scheme of American history, but also to dispel the myth of the frontier that she was in some ways personified by Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis." Arguing against Jackson, Limerick writes that the West was a place of conquest, rather than frontier, and further states that the continuity of the region's past has continued into the present. The latter also goes against Turner's thesis because he felt the closing of the frontier in 1890 was essentially the end of the West. Although he wrote during this time, it does not seem he would have argued for a continued continuity.
The book is broken into two parts. The first part attempts to dispel the myths and legends of the "Old West" that Limerick feels have been perpetuated not only by popular histories and Hollywood, but also some academic historians. Far from being the rugged individualists that Hollywood or Frederick Jackson Turner would have you believe, Limerick argues that Westerners relied heavily on the federal government, needing assistance in dealing with Indians, distributing land, and assisting the railroads. Furthermore, Limerick shows that the ideal of the West as the land of golden opportunity is more myth than reality, as the West was actually a place of continuous cycles of boom and bust.
The second part of the book discusses groups that Limerick deems "unconquered," those who have largely been ignored in histories of the West. Going against the stereotype of western Indians, Limerick shows that Indians of the West were persistent in attempts to keep their culture. The strongest portion of the book may be Limerick's discussion of Hispanic and Asian peoples in the West and how their mere presence disputes Turner's thesis. It also brings two groups who have largely played no role in the popular histories of the West into the picture.
For all of the positives of Limerick's work, there are some flaws. The biggest, in my mind, is how frequently she jumps from decade to decade and topic to topic. This makes the book almost incoherent at times as one cannot always keep track of when or where she is referring to. The problem is that this makes it seems as though Limerick is talking about an amorphous, hard to define, "West" that could stretch across the entire country, depending on what time period you are referring to. Perhaps I am oversimplifying this, but I thought the time period and area studied was poorly defined. Finally, Limerick links the past to the present (at the time she was writing), which can be very problematic. While it does tie in to her overall thesis, I found it disconcerting. Overall, however, Limerick has written a good synthesis of the secondary literature of the "New Western History" and has given time and space to groups that have often been marginalized.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 1, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
In The Legacy of Conquest, Patricia Nelson Limerick accomplishes three feats not usually accomplished by historians. With some trepidation and the risk of offending others in the field, she writes a readable and entertaining narrative. This is however, not a prerequisite of good academic history, so possibly her second accomplishment is more worthy, that with her thesis she debunks a cornerstone in American history which is as over-mentioned as Tocqueville, she lays Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis to waste. To this, legions of young upstarts have no doubt said "thank you." While this daring move may be enough to celebrate on its own, it is her third feat that is most worthy. Limerick views western history with continuity--as an ongoing process, unfettered by Turner's geographic and periodized borders, and demonstrates the usefulness of looking at the West for what it has always been, a historical pallet.

My use of the word pallet may be a bit clumsy, but with deference to Richard White, I am trying to avoid using his term "Middle Ground," which in itself is overused--pallet may be more apt in the case of Legacy. The reason for this is that Limerick correctly describes the West as a great mixing ground of cultures, motives, and nature that has continually been redefined. No "closed" sign hung on the West side of the Mississippi after Turner wrote in 1893, quite the contrary. As long as there is profit in "them thar hills," the West lived, and lives on--this statement in itself may be a sufficient quick summary of Limerick's work.

Starting her work dispelling the myth of Westerners as innocent victims, the real story of the West cannot be neatly divided into good guys and bad guys. In Legacy we learn of a mixed-gendered West with complicated dynamics between Native Americans, Mexicans, missionaries, and the discontented. All in some way are seeking their own interests, whether it is to live peacefully, save souls, or extract fortunes--Limerick teaches us that there is no one size fits all narrative to the West.

The most powerful theme, underlying all else however, is private property. Limerick goes far in describing the basis for "the emotional center of Western history" as the establishment of private property. It was then and remains today that the "dominance of the profit motive" that was the driver of westward manifest destiny--this point in itself dispels Turner's thesis, if the frontier closed, then why did profit seekers continue heading west?

Linking profit to myth, Limerick dashes the myth of the self-employed adventurer making it on his or her own past the prairie. While we learn that there was work done by individuals "laboring on their own," it was big capital, especially in mining that defines rapid westward expansion. One could go farther to equate western expansion as technological expansion, for as transportation, extraction, and communications advanced, so did the drive west. Despite the specifics, Legacy forever links capital to Western History, and the "rape of the land" to capital, here it was more the drive for profits and wages that defines the American character than Turner's independent adventurer.

No story of the West can be told without the discussion of the Native American, and it is here that we most realize that Limerick's book is not a book of history; it is a debunker of history. Possibly no truer statement has ever been made than "The historiographic past has not, after all, provided the firmest ground for launching a defense of professional history." The history of the western United States cannot be defined by the old consensus ethnographic notion of savages versus civilized, yet it cannot be defined by history written by Indians either. The West is and was "a complex cultural world" and in Legacy, it is presented in all of its complexities. Limerick concludes that the interrelationship between the Europeans and the Indians by its very nature is unsettled. She is clear that there can only be versions of the Western past, not an objective account.

Ethnicity as a part of Western development is not limited to Native Americans, certainly Mexico plays a role in the development of the American West. Framing the Western legacy of borderlands as a continuation of the British/Spanish imperial struggle, Limerick also brings the Puritan belief that the "papists to the south" were problematic into the fold. Here Legacy speaks as much about today as it does in the past, that even though the mestizos have played a major role in the history of North America, they were and are still viewed as alien by Americans.

Whether it was Indians, Mexicans, Chinese, or Mormons, culturally constructed divisions of race and religion were key factors in dividing the West and play a vital part in the complex and misunderstood history of the West. As one reads farther into Legacy, the one-history-fits-all approach of the Turnerian thesis as an accepted part of the scholarship of the past seems more like an embarrassment in the annals of the academy.

The story of the West is not just a story of people, it is also a story of nature. The frontier as a measurement was defined by population--trees, water rights and environmental exploitation never played into the picture. Gifford Pinchot and John Muir should play prominently in any history of the West, their work went far preserve some of the most beautiful lands on the planet. Those are just the well known spots however. Legacy correctly identifies the past crimes of buffalo and bear slaughter as well as the ongoing destruction wrought by the extractive industries. Long after Limerick's writing the boom and bust of the West is continually defined by technological advances in extraction, from horizontal boring to fracking.

For Limerick, the difficulty in writing objective Western history has been the inevitability of "friction with popular beliefs," and while we know that is true with all history, Legacy convinces us it is perhaps most difficult with Western history. As Americans, the myths are deeply engrained within us. This is what made Limerick's work important, Legacy defined the so-called New Western History, finally putting Turner's legacy to rest. Western history cannot be defined by the myths of good versus bad or savage versus civilized, it is a complicated story intertwining capitalism, nature, and the notion of the other, which continues into the present.
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16 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on June 29, 2000
Format: Paperback
Limerick's writing is vivid and engaging. The organization of her chapters is excellent. She critiques every aspect of the Turner thesis. Her book is/was the opening salvo in the New Western History that looks at the American West as a region instead of a process of frontiers. Limerick seeks to include everyone in her story of the American West, not just white, Anglo-American cowboys and Native Americans. A wonderful book. There is NEW stuff in this book, in that before her few historians of the west looked at women, Asians, Indians from their perspective, blacks, etc. A must read for any student of the American West!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2009
Format: Paperback
They say this is the Anti-Turner Frontier Thesis book...The author pretty much states her hypothesis (anti-hypothesis?) from the beginning...And the rest of the book is support material....She does a good job at supporting her theory...It's pretty much what the title says..Conquest, and to an extent, exploitation...Shady land speculators, shady lawyers, shady mine owners, railroad barons, etc. Also the mistreatment of the native Americans and the Chinese...The book is very well researched...I guess if you read BOTH "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" and this book..you have both bases covered..I have to admit..I lean a little more toward the "conquest"/capitalism side of the argument after reading this book....
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on July 6, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is one of my all-time favorite books. What a marvelous writer! Patty tells a well documented "story" of the westward movement of Anglo people across the US that turns out not to be the simple, glorious, self centered, celebratory, tale too often portrayed in journals, magazines, books, and film. VERY well done. Have used the book in my American West geography course for years.
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on July 13, 2013
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Limerick is an intelligent writer with a good sense of humor. I'm a little tired of the "wild west" and the "pioneer spirit" stereotype views of the dry western states. Limerick sets it straight. However, if I could read only one of her works, it would be "Something in the Soil" where she brings this book and other works together in a nice tight read.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2006
Format: Paperback
Limerick's text is quite simply the most important work in social and intellectual history of the American West of the past several decades. Scholarly yet readable, the appropriately documented text includes historic photographs as well. The final chapter, "The Burdens of Western American History," is commonly and effectively used in college classes in history, American Studies, environmental ethics, and other areas. A GREAT text to give to the child or nephew/niece going off to college because it introduces the reader to such a wide, interdisciplinary context of understanding.
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