Constructing a Western Past
Today's western historians face a far different documentary landscape. Scholars seeking to interpret the trans-Appalachian West are faced with the challenge of untangling the complex and contradictory body of written records and testimony left in the wake of the settlement era. Equally important, they must examine the past through a powerful and distorting haze of myth, legend, and folklore that has shaped American understandings of the West since the late eighteenth century.
Legends and Epics
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The earliest writings on the trans-Appalachian West were created while the forcible occupation of Native American lands was still underway. The authors of these works sought to soften the harsh realities of western conquest and transform a brutal and often bitter struggle into an inspiring and heroic narrative.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the reconfigured biography of Daniel Boone. A Carolina hunter and explorer, Boone made an intermittent living in the newly settled Kentucky as surveyor, land speculator, and store owner. Two of the earliest western narratives to be published, John Filson's promotional tract The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentucke (1784) and Daniel Bryan's epic poem The Mountain Muse (1813), refashioned Boone's frontier career as an epic saga of noble adventures.
Boone's legend also emerged in more sophisticated literature. When James Fenimore Cooper published The Pioneers (1823), the first volume of his widely read Leatherstocking Tales, he introduced Nathaniel (Natty) Bumppo as a fictional counterpart to the mythic wilderness figure of Daniel Boone. Popular books and magazines, along with literature for children, fixed a legend of Boone and his dauntless pioneer contemporaries firmly in the nineteenth-century imagination.
Boone's legendary persona swelled not only in America but also in Europe, where he was seen as the embodiment of the ideal natural man unmarked by the complexities and flaws of civilization. Lord Byron devoted part of the eighth canto of his Don Juan to a celebration of Boone's imaginatively enlarged accomplishments.
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Academic interpretations of the West emerged in the late nineteenth century as a generation of antiquarians and gentleman historians were building collections of original source materials and shaping the public image of Western history.
Lyman C. Draper, an antiquarian, collector, and secretary of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, devoted fifty years to amassing original manuscripts and interviews on the settlement of the trans-Appalachian West. Bound in more than 500 volumes, Draper's notes preserve significant and frequently unique information on western settlement. Draper's successor, Reuben Gold Thwaites, directed attention to these materials through a monumental series of historical publications.
Colonel Reuben T. Durrett, an attorney and newspaper editor in Louisville, Kentucky, followed Draper's lead in collecting all types of books, manuscripts, maps, drawings, and paintings dealing with the history of Kentucky. Durrett, like Draper, held fixed assumptions about what was worth preserving, principally material on political and military history and Kentucky's prominent families.
The Filson Club founded by Durrett and his circle of Louisville antiquarians and local historians provided a forum for discussion, but it also played an important role in collecting and publishing texts and narratives essential to the writing of western history.
Historians and Histories
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The transition from amateur to professional historian occurred just as Theodore Roosevelt's triumphalist saga, The Winning of the West (1889-1896) was appearing in print.
In Chicago in 1893, at a historical conference held in conjunction with the World's Columbian Exposition, Professor Frederick Jackson Turner of the University of Wisconsin declared that the western frontier was the most important factor in defining the nation's history. The "existence of an area of free land," Turner proclaimed, "its continuous recession, and the advancement of American settlement westward, explain American development." Strongly influential for many decades but now frequently criticized, Turner's thesis was among the earliest attempts to craft a new and more critical understanding of Western history.
Today's historians of the trans-Appalachian West are re-examining the development of the region from fresh perspectives. Drawing on materials collected by nineteenth-century antiquarians but moving beyond their assumptions and prejudices, these scholars are writing a new history that emphasizes the complexities of the settlement era and the powerful impact of race, class, and gender in shaping the western experience.
Encountering the First American West