As the editor of History Now, let me welcome you back to another year in the classroom. What better way to start the year than with an issue on The American West? Of course, for many students, mention of “The West” conjures up popular stereotypes: macho cowboy heroes, Indians in warpaint, gunfights in saloons, or wagon trains filled with pioneer families. These images, powerful and simplistic, come from movies and television and adventure books. But modern scholarship has given us a much more complex, realistic—and more interesting—history of the American west.
In this issue of History Now, leading historians share an introduction to that new scholarship with us. In his overview essay, “Born Modern: An Overview of the West,” Richard White describes the area west of the Missouri River from a new perspective: as a laboratory for many of the modern developments we often assume to have roots in the older states. Among these are the extension of the authority and bureaucracies of the federal government and the dominance of large and powerful corporations in the local economy. In “The Myth of the Frontier: Progress or Lost Freedom,” John Mack Faragher traces the literary and screen history of the west, from Daniel Boone to Clint Eastwood. The western, he argues, tells a tale of progress, yet it is an ambivalent tale. From James Fenimore Cooper’s heroes to John Ford’s, many of the central characters in these western tales are ambivalent about “progress,” and mourn the loss of the “natural freedom” enjoyed outside the boundaries of civilization. In “A New Look at the Great Plains,” Elliot West, shows us that American history looks dramatically different if the Great Plains are taken as a starting point for the study of our national past. He notes that the first settlers on the continent came to the west, not the Atlantic shore; that French and Spanish colonial empires were created here just as the English created the 13 Atlantic coast colonies; and that the multiple Indian cultures of the west provide a different perspective from that of American pioneers. Next, Virginia Scharff reminds us that the history of the west belongs to women as well as men. In “Women of the West,” Sharff introduces us to the critical roles women have played, from the earliest Indian societies to the era of the homesteaders to modern times. The west, she notes, offered American women the same opportunity as it offered men: the chance to reinvent themselves. Finally, in “The Road to a New Era of American Indian Autonomy,” Ned Blackhawk brings the story of Indians of the West into the modern era, showing us how Indians, like African Americans, sought justice through the court system and the application of constitutional law.
These essays provide a starting point for discussions and projects in the classroom that help our students develop a richer and more complex understanding of the West, one that should prove as exciting as the gunfight at the O.K. corral. Studying the West allows us to stress multicultural perspectives, geography and diplomacy, economic growth and technological innovation, and gender and race. But it also allows us to bring to life the stories of fascinating women and men from Jim Bowie to Owl Woman to Lewis and Clark. As always, our master teachers offer you model lessons for elementary and secondary history classes and our archivist offers you a wealth of resources—from novels to history books and articles to valuable websites and bibliographies -- that you can draw upon in designing your own lessons on the West. Finally, this issue’s interactive feature allows you and your students to explore a “virtual” west on the computer.
Our next issue focuses on technology—and how it has changed our society.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.