Patricia Nelson Limerick’s “The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West”
- Pages: 7
- Word count: 1612
- Category: History
A limited time offer! Get a custom sample essay written according to your requirements urgent 3h delivery guaranteedOrder Now
In her definition of the New Western History, Patricia Nelson Limerick views the West as a region, rejecting the term “frontier” as the best demarcation for the processes playing out in that region. Instead, Limerick proposes such terms as “conquest”, “invasion”, “exploitation”, “colonization”, “development”, and “expansion of the world market”. In all her works, the author highlights the convergence in the West of diverse peoples; rejects the notion of the end of the frontier with its implied divide between old West and new West; and questions the traditional model of progress and improvement. Limerick had first outlined these points a in the very influential book: The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.
Limerick clearly states the book’s thesis in the introduction. The author is bothered by propensity of historians to peg the history of the American West onto dates, for example, 1607, 1620, 1865, and, of course, 1890. Completely aware that Westerners, when they heard of the Census Bureau announcement of he frontier’s end, did not drop what they were doing, pause for a few moments, and then go back to business in a different mode, Limerick has written a book that stresses “the unbroken past of the American West.” For her, rejecting the frontier as the overriding thematic framework for structuring the story of the West would lead to a fuller recognition of the region’s tremendous cultural diversity and to an emphasis on its twentieth-century history and the continuities between the 19th century western past and the present.
In this book, the author proposes that the “history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences”. In these terms, Western history has distinctive features as well as features it shares with the histories of other parts of the nation and the planet. Under the Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”, Western history stood alone. In addition, Limerick also proposes in the book that, an “ongoing competition for legitimacy-for the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western resources. This intersection of ethnic diversity with property allocation unifies Western history” was associated with conquest.
According to Limerick, the frontier did not end in 1890 and that the history of the West is unbroken since it first began. According to the author, “Deemphasize the frontier and its supposed end, conceive of the West as a place and not a process, and Western American history has a new look.” In The Legacy of Conquest, Limerick utilizes select examples from the 19th and 20th centuries in supporting her thesis. The book rests on a selective but broad foundation of published scholarship, primary sources, and newspapers and periodicals.
After stating the thesis, the author devotes most of The Legacy of Conquest to aspects of conquest. Western history spans from before European arrival to the mid-1980s and from the High Plains to the Pacific: the western region, not the processual frontier. The chapter topics include several continuous themes, including the need for self-justification and a sense of moral innocence in order to undertake efficient conquest.
Another major subject is the passion for property, especially real estate. Dependence on the federal government, and on other people, made conquest possible, but so did the insistence that the West means independence. Conquest meant hard work, much of it wage labor in mines or agribusiness, with rewards well below the Jeffersonian ideal. Further continuities include water disputes, the key role of federal money, the boom-and-bust character of mining and oil searches, the West always promising more than it delivered, the unintended consequences of western development, the persistence of outlaws.
The last half of the book discusses problems and groups demonstrative of conquest: Indians, the clash of cultures in the borderlands, the complexity of race relations, and the conservation-preservation struggle. The final and summary chapter is scattershot, but still stimulating. Limerick juxtaposes the present with often long-past events to illustrate the themes of conquest and continuity.
A large part of The Legacy of Conquest directly tackles the economic dimension of western history. It seems that Limerick was influenced by cultural anthropology when she wrote the book. In her work, the author questions the perspectives historians have used to write about and interpret the West, particularly its economic life. Limerick writes:
White Americans saw the acquisition of property as a cultural imperative….There was one appropriate way to treat land–divide it, distribute it, register it. This relation to physical matter seems so commonplace that we must struggle to avoid taking it for granted…
The above perspective permeates the approach of many culture-bound historians. Limerick notes that the fight to obtain water and mineral rights for profit and property has been similarly misinterpreted as a product of rational behavior. As an alternative, the author argues that, it was born of a passion, a passion for profit. She writes:
…[T]he dominance of the profit motive supported the notion that the pursuit of property and profit was rationality in action, and not emotion at all. In fact, the passion for profit was and is a passion like most others.
While Americans have enshrined the area in myth, the author suggests that there is nothing mythic about the American West, since it has a history deeply rooted in primary economic reality. Even though economic realities have shaped the West, Americans as well as professional historians have not perceived them as such. Limerick’s survey embraces a wide range of cultural, ethnic, social, and political influences which she feels have shaped the contours of the West.
For Limerick, the study of the West is of great importance for American history in general; this is largely because the West as a place remains an important meeting ground for Blacks, Spaniards, Indians, Asians, and Anglos. Additionally, The West’s diversity of religions, languages, and cultures surpasses that of the East or the South.
The machinery of conquest have drawn the different Western ethnic groups together in the same story. The farm crises, the struggle over water rights, the controversies over immigration and bilingualism, America’s relations with Mexico, the boom and bust cycles in the oil, copper, and timber industries, the conflicts over Indian resources and tribal autonomy, and many other matters still hold the attention of Westerners. According to Limerick: “Reconceived as a running story, a fragmented and discontinuous past becomes whole again.” Turner’s frontier thesis may be outdated, but the West is still alive and vibrant.
Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest is an arresting new synthesis of the history of the West. He author highlights perceptions and interpretations of familiar topics and bases her research largely on secondary works, and newspapers for the more recent period. Its major strength is that it offers a good synthesis of secondary works and of articles – especially about the environment, Mexicans, and Indians – appearing in existing newspapers and magazines. She writes in a smooth and entertaining style. Historians who are interested in economics, and who wish to reconsider frameworks and approaches to studying the history of the West may want to pay attention to this book.
The Legacy of Conquest can be considered more as an extended essay instead of a traditional monograph. This gives the reader the distinct impression that the author is surest of herself when dealing with twentieth-century topics. In this book, Limerick’s prose is sharper and her reasoning is more convincing compared to other traditional monograph. In addition, the reader feels that the author is revealing more confidence in this work as a result of her extensive research. Overall, the author is a very engaging writer and, mostly, argues her case very well.
On the minus side, other chapters of the book leave one flat. This flaw may be because of Limerick’s limitation of the American West to Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa, and west to the Pacific. This is obvious in the author’s discussion of the “unbroken past” brings the reader back to the East Coast and to colonial times and again and again. Moreover, it is surprising that the book pays little attention to the fur trade. A more extensive discussion of the fur trade could have added more strength to her main thesis. It would broaden the author’s argument back to the 16th century, and it involved ruthless business practices, an out of control search for profits and resources, and geopolitical games for empire.
Overall, Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest is an important and influential refutation of the old myths and theories, providing readers with a deeper and broader understanding of the real West and its history. The author provides more than a valuable contribution to examining the American West; it can be considered as a classic in the field of American Western history. While western studies scholars may find few new insights in this book, in terms of facts, they should find The Legacy of Conquest intriguing because of Limerick’s arguments, which are very much supported by evidence and reasonable interpretations. This book is also useful for specialists outside of western studies, for starting courses both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and for lay readers concerned with the West and its role in national history.
 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The unbroken Past of the American West, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987.
 Limerick, 26.
 Limerick, 27.
 Limerick, 26-27.
 Limerick, 55.
 Limerick, 77.
 Limerick, 27.