The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987

In a 1989 review article in
The Western Historical Quarterly, Limerick explained this book by saying she “wanted to narrow the widening gap between ‘sophisticated, scholarly history’ and ‘readable, simplified, popular history.’  If you cannot express your findings in terms that an intelligent freshman can understand, I have long felt, then you haven’t yet figured out those findings.” She began the Preface to the twentieth-anniversary edition, “This book...has made me happy.” The significance of that statement became more clear, as the reader continued into a book that, for all its insights and contributions, is filled with heavy irony and a general air of accusation.

This tone may have been inevitable. Limerick wrote in 1987, so she had not only the heroic, Frederick Jackson Turner history of the west to debunk, but the even more wildly out-of-touch Ronald Reagan western myth. The attack she mounted on the normal view of the west was split between history and more current events. Limerick advocated for the continuity of western history to the present and for the use of current newspapers as “primary sources” for that extended view. Since most of the issues on which she focused were particularly intense in the 1970s and 1980s, the reader needs to work a little, to bring them up to date.

But many of the points Limerick makes were suggestive and have inspired others to expand on them. First was the idea that “the sharp and honest term ‘conquest’” enhances our understanding of the morally ambivalent nature of western expansion.  As one of the 1989 panelists remarked, it’s not only the South that Americans need to feel guilty about.

Limerick began by quoting Turner’s essay on history (not “The Significance of the Frontier”): “The aim of history, then, is to know the elements of the present by understanding what came into the present from the past...the historian strives to show the present to itself by revealing its origin from the past.” This statement connects historical study with both the present and the public, and shows Turner, like the west itself, was complicated and multidimensional. On the subject of the frontier thesis, Limerick said (paraphrasing Howard R. Lamar) that it created an artificial barrier between “America’s rural past and its urban-industrial present.” It was so widely adopted, she suggested, because the west had “no watershed comparable to the Revolution or the Civil War” (what happened to the Mexican-American War?) But it was inherently inaccurate and oversimplified. “One could easily argue,” for example, “that a sudden concentration of population marks the opening stage [of the frontier] and that a population lowered through...the departure of people from a used-up mining region marks the end of the frontier and its opportunities.” Even that complication might not be enough though, since many areas go through cycles of growth, decline and regrowth, as conditions, technologies, and human goals change. On a more concrete level, Limerick pointed out the very important point that in 1890, when the frontier was declared closed, “one-half of the land remained federal property.” She suggested that “If it is difficult for Americans to imagine that an economy might be stable and also healthy,” their addiction to growth might be related to the frontier myth with its prospect of endless western opportunity. If so, this is doubly ironic because Turner’s whole point was that the frontier had closed and America was going to need to find a new way to uphold its individualist, democratic values.

But, as Limerick said, “humans live in a world in which mental reality does not have to submit to narrow tests of accuracy.” Historians should be interested, she said, in not only what happened, via “the keepers of written records,” but in what people believe, via “the tellers of tales.” The discrepancy Limerick was most interested in was the “idea of innocence.” People moved west, she said, for “improvement and opportunity, not injury to others.” But of course, many others were injured in the process. Limerick highlighted the contradictions: “Squatters defied the boundaries of Indian territory and then were aggrieved to find themselves harassed and attacked by Indians.” They “felt betrayed when the rains proved inadequate...Contrary to all of the West’s associations with self-reliance and individual responsibility,” she continued, “misfortune has usually caused white Westerners to cast themselves in the role of the innocent victim.” Because the national government was an ongoing player in Western affairs, Limerick said government became a favorite scapegoat. She found the origins of the “injured innocent” attitude, in the fact that “Having practically destroyed the aboriginal population and enslaved the Africans...the white inhabitants of English America began to conceive of themselves as the victims, not the agents, of Old World Colonialism” (quoting Carole Shammas).

The generalizations are broad. It’s quite possible to imagine subgroups in both the colonial and western examples, who did not necessarily share the same degree of “guilt” as the “agents” mentioned. The rest of the book discussed many of these groups and the increasing division of wealth and power in the developing west.  “‘Power always follows property,’ John Adams said bluntly.” In the west, “The advantage always accrued to the wealthy man of influence, regardless of what the law said” (quoting Malcolm Rohrbough). A case in point, Limerick said, was William Stewart’s 1866 Mining Law, which established the ground-rules for massive accumulation of patent claims. “A great deal of Western property right,” she said, “rested on this narrow margin of timing.” While “Speculation is extremely disillusioning
if you are trying to hold onto the illusion that agriculture and commerce are significantly different ways of life,” it might be more accurate to highlight the ways property laws were devised to enable accumulation of vast tracts under the ownership of individuals and corporations.

The contrast between the myth of private enterprise and the reality of federally subsidized railroading, mining, and western state development continued throughout western history. “Western settlers were so abundantly supplied with slogans and democratic formulas,” Limerick said, “that putting our trust in their recorded words alone would be misleading.” The “squatter government” of Sioux Falls turned out to be “agents of a land company, financed and organized by Minnesota Democrats.” States like Wyoming and Colorado received subsidies far exceeding what their taxpayers “sent to a government...considered meddlesome and constitutionally threatening.” And the west regularly got more than its fair share: “Per capita expenditures of federal agencies in Montana from 1933 to 1939...were $710, while they were only $143 in North Carolina.”

“Despite the promises of the Homestead Act,” Limerick said, “much good land was already in possession of railroads and states, and ‘purchase continued to be the most usual means to obtain a farm after 1865’” (quoting Everett Dick). The cost of outfitting a farm with “a house, draft animals, wagon, plow, well, fencing, and seed grain could be as much as $1,000,” putting homesteading out of reach to many eastern wage-earners. When grasshoppers wiped out Minnesota farms, governor John Pillsbury argued against state aid. One wonders how much state aid, in the form of subsidized railroads, government flour contracts, and the legal fiction of corporate rights, went into the building of Pillsbury’s flour empire?

The “split character” of the farmers’ social position, halfway between workers and businessmen, “curtailed the radicalism of their protests.” This seems like a failure of imagination on the part of radicals, or perhaps a victory for their opponents.  Limerick said “The economy of scale required by certain kinds of irrigation confirmed the pattern” of agribusiness. But the assumption that no other arrangement of resource use was possible is anachronistic and avoids confronting the forces that created the victory of global economic concentration over community and regional self-sufficiency. Limerick agreed with Williams that “attribut[ing] ideal values to rural life that reality cannot match” was as old as history, but it would still be useful to critically examine how “rural nostalgia” has been mobilized as a propaganda tool, from Jefferson to the present.

The rest of the book told the story of the Chinese, Japanese, Mexican and the Indians present in western history, and of the government’s continuing presence, especially in conservation in the era of Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt. Limerick concluded on a hopeful note, suggesting that a closer look at the complex history of the west could help solve some of America’s ongoing problems.