Advanced Seminars in US History

The American West: Connections and Conflict (aka Frontiers)

Course Description

           Cowboys, Indians, and the shoot-out at the OK Corral. This is what many think of when they consider the history of the American West. Often left out of this characterization of “the West” is a discourse about the ways in which the region has long been immersed in a landscape of connections and networks. These have created borders and frontiers that are both real and imagined and all have been central to the development of the United States as a whole. This course explores the many cultural and economic histories of the American West including the histories of the mining, water, racial, Atomic, and transnational networks and the connections and conflicts they elicited. The course is writing intensive and incorporates project-based learning.

Painting Above: Among the Sierras, Albert Bierstadt

Our purpose

In 1896, Frederick Jackson Turner explained that, according to census material, the western frontier had “closed.”  Prior to this declaration, Turner had argued that it was the existence of a frontier which had allowed America to develop into the unique economic and cultural nation that it was.  In his doctoral dissertation, Turner highlights the many manifestations of frontiers and their connections to networks in America, Europe, and S. America. After engaging in a close examination of the water networks crucial for development of the West we will zero in on the networking events that occurred before 1896 (the Mexican American War, the Gold Rush, Chinese immigration, railroad building) and then, in the second half of the course, we will delve deeply into the 20th century as a narrative case study on the importance of water to all the developments in that truly western century. Water in the arid spaces of the US West is perhaps not only one of the best topics for revealing connections and conflicts in the West, but it is also the most pressing social, environmental, and economic issue of our day.

Our work will be guided by an essential question -- "do networks help or hinder the development of a region?" In order to come to any sort of conclusion about the above question, we will grapple with the terms “network” and "development."   How have the networks that existed throughout the history of the US West connected and/or disconnected the peoples and places of the West. We will read primary and secondary written sources as well as use films and images to get at these larger analytical issues, and we will write deeply to help communicate and crystallize our understandings and conclusions.

Course Expectations

You can expect to work very hard in this course and to have a lot of fun! You must come to every class prepared to analyze, memorize, and synthesize. You should also be willing come to class ready to think about new ideas and to be eager to consider the myriad perspectives that inform the lives of historical actors.  The course will be reading and writing intensive and will be based largely in discussion so you MUST come to class prepared to analyze and synthesize the documents we've read for the day!