- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (January 30, 1987)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393304973
- ISBN-13: 978-0393304978
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 28 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #105,796 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West Reprint Edition
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"Written with extraordinary grace and understanding, Patricia Nelson Limerick's The Legacy of Conquest returns the Western American past to the mainstream of national history."
About the Author
Patricia Nelson Limerick is a professor of history and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
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Limerick makes several bold - and for the time - revolutionary critiques of the west: the notion of Americans (and especially westerners) as "rugged individualists" who have made their way in the world by their own merits, hard work and pluck - without any assistance from the government, who is held in contempt - is destroyed by the abundance of evidence she provides, but is also interpreted as part of a larger theme in America as a whole. The perception by westerners as "injured parties" whenever there is any perceived (or real) limits on settlement or the exploitation of natural resources or regulation by the government is similarly called into question. What is most important, however, is Limerick's astute recognition that the west has always been a diverse place (from the earliest settlement of First Peoples through Spanish conquest and into the settlement by Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islanders and white Americans from the eastern parts of the continent) - and that this has resulted in not only the development of a unique culture, but also of tension and conflict, which remains very much a part of the west to this day.
In fact, it is the connections between the settlement and "opening" of the west in the 19th century to the attitudes and perspectives of westerners today that makes this such a classic in the field: a "sagebrush rebellion" remains, the sense that westerners deserve and ought not to share the natural resources of the region (from timber and minerals, to water - a particularly valuable commodity given the agricultural demands of the region), and the strong competing interests between business and ecology. For anyone interested in American history, this should be on your reading list, and is a "must read" for those interested in western history in general.
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.