Illustration by Jaya Nicely.
Patricia Nelson Limerick is a leading scholar of the American West, and the faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she also serves as a professor of history. She has published five books, including The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, a complex work of scholarship that reframed the narrative of the “opening” of the West. She has been the Colorado State Historian, a columnist for The Denver Post, and a MacArthur Fellow. In August 2019, while visiting the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, to take part in a discussion on whether Americans ever got along, she sat down to talk with Zócalo publisher Gregory Rodriguez. They discussed the difficulties of defining “the West,” how Limerick’s own views of history have evolved over her career, and why reading Ovid helps explain the romanticization of Native Americans.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Is the American West a place, an idea, or a process?
The American West can be whatever it wants to be, and no matter what you try to pin it down as, it will change. So, I used to try to pin the darn thing down, and it just was out of my grip all the time. I’m totally okay with that.
My personal preference is place because it is a really important place. And there was a long spell where people who called themselves American historians—the people who wrote American history textbooks, or taught American history survey courses—wrote regional history, taught regional history and spoke of regional history. So they were doing what they call[ed] American history, but it was really East Coast, Midwest, Southern history. So, for a while, it was really important to say that the West is a place, and that we were ignoring it, and we needed to put as much attention there as we were putting on other regional histories.
Also, something happens in North America, and in Kenya, and in South Africa, and New Zealand, and Australia. Where a bunch of people who were not born and raised in that area come in and take over, and there has to be a study of that process.
Does that process have a name?
It’s often called imperialism or colonialism. I got into using invasion and conquest as my terms of preference. I don’t care what the word is, but there were Indigenous people living in these places, and then there were some people who came from outside. And when the dust settled, the people who came from outside had more power, and more land, and more resources. And the people who’d been there before had less. This is the process we are talking about.
“The idea of the West being somehow free of troubles, or just open space, was retrospective in origin.”
You’ve clearly reached a point where you are comfortable with a variety of terms and definitions. However, your breakout 1987 book, The Legacy of Conquest, was arguing against the idea of the West being a process.
So, yes, I really think the idea of the West as process was getting in the way of understanding the American West as a place—though, heaven knows, it’s a vast place with a lot of internal variations. The idea of the West as process was suggesting that its significance was just to be in constant motion, just moving westward across the continent, and then its significance perishes at some imagined point of completion. And that wasn’t helping anybody. Then there’s the third thing you mentioned, the idea of the West.
What is the idea of the American West?
Well, it has many ideas, and which ones carry force depend on who takes possession of them at any particular time. But it’s usually something about freedom, opportunity, fresh starts, liberation from other forms of oppression. And just notice how that doesn’t have much to do with actual Western history because Western history came with plenty of forms of oppression.
So the idea of the West as “fresh start” was actually part of the notion of the West as process, right? There was this notion of moving beyond the line of civilization and therefore liberating oneself.
Right. But I think the people or the pioneers and settlers of the past were not that thick-witted. In most overland travel diaries there’s this at least a tiny indication of awareness of Indians. So I think that the idea of the West being somehow free of troubles, or just open space, was retrospective in origin. In fact, quite a number of overland travelers said the most interesting part of this journey was meeting Indian people. So it’d be pretty remarkable to find somebody so thick-witted as to say the West was uninhabited.
Patricia Nelson Limerick chats with Zócalo publisher Gregory Rodriguez in Salinas, California. Photo by Zócalo Public Square
But liberation doesn’t require meeting and knowing Indian people or not, it requires a distance from whatever it was you knew, right? Is it possible the overland settlers felt liberated simply from being from where they were from?
No. I wouldn’t say so. Because there’s no river of Jordan—if I might use that—to immerse yourself in and start fresh, and be baptized, and set free of everything.
Going West involved carrying baggage, literally. The Overland Trail was littered with stuff that people dropped because they brought too much baggage. Now there might have been an aspiration to be set free of old habits. But by the time you’re—I don’t know, what, maybe 19? A lot of those habits are just installed in your mind, in your conduct.
So we’ve had a long debate over whether white women in the West were delighted to be free of the old constraints of the parlor and the expectations of women doing indoor work, and so on. I’d go a little bit more with historians who see white women replicating those constraints as soon as they could, because that was how they defined their dignity. That was their honor; that was their sense of standing.
When did the idea of the West as process begin?
Well, the great impact of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which was presented in 1893, was to put the word “frontier” front and center. He was certainly not the first to do that, but that book was, for historians, a very big thing. There are plenty of people to this day who still would be following Turner, except they might be instructed to ponder the line in that essay where Turner says, “The term is an elastic one, and for our purposes does not need sharp definition.” So, uh-oh, here we’ve got a key word, and we have the guy pushing it saying it’s an elastic word, and we don’t actually know what it means. Oh, Turner, hey, come back buddy! You got to tell us what that word means if it’s going to be so key.
If the American West is a place, where is it?
For years after Legacy of Conquest came out, there was a concerted effort to torment me with people saying, “Well, wasn’t the West once west of Jamestown? Wasn’t the West once east of Massachusetts Bay?” As George Catlin wrote in the 1830s, where is the West? “Phantom-like it flies before us as we travel …”
When I was writing Legacy, I ran into a comment in a newspaper, I believe from the state engineer of California, saying, “There wouldn’t be any West if it weren’t for irrigation.” Well, that does not help us answer what the West is, because it is still this floaty thing that is always just going out of your reach.
But the truth is I am fine with a variety of definitions of where the West is for different reasons. So if you want west of the 98th meridian because of the lower rainfall, that would be good except, then, the darn Pacific Coast is going to be a problem, because it has plenty of places that have too much rainfall to qualify as arid. West of the 98th meridian a good share of the land was too rugged, and too arid or too semi-arid, and too elevated for conventional agriculture. So, I guess what I’m saying is there are ways you can define Westerness as aridity or elevation. And all of those things, creating open spaces that are not put to conventional agricultural use over the 19th century, or the early 20th century, are thereby available to become national parks, national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, candidates for nuclear testing, or for nuclear weapons production sites, or places to put Indian people if they seem to be places without resources that white people would want.
So again, you seem to be saying that the West is a type of place, rather than a place, that it’s a place characterized by certain conditions whether geographic or human.
Yes, it is physical conditions, but then there’s a huge factor of human choice, subjectivity in what people will do in response to those conditions. The upshot is the physical conditions produce a lot of space, a lot of land that is pretty sparsely settled.
“We think in terms of there being two major sins in American history—slavery and conquest. So, when we think about the troubles of, say, the South, we pay attention to slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War. Presumably, we should also be having the same struggles over the displacement of the Indian people.”
Let’s go back to the idea of conquest. Could you give us a more expansive definition?
Well, it has many permutations and variations, but it’s what I had said a moment ago: just that there’s Indigenous people. And this is—the place that we’re looking at—their homeland, which doesn’t mean necessarily that they have been there from eternity, but they have come to be affiliated with the landscape and familiar with the resources and capable of holding life together there. Then there are some people from a distant place who appear on the scene, sometimes as explorers or traders. Then at some point the population of the intruders grows or the ambition of the intruders grows. Then there is a pretty long period of getting acquainted with a surprising amount of intermarriage—or if not marriage, at least sex. This brings forth a generation of a new population who are hybrids of native and intruder. Then there’s usually some form of combat and often a level of brutality that’s intense on both sides or all sides. The notion of there being just two sides doesn’t work, because some of the Indigenous people will have reason to ally themselves with the intruders and conquerors.
You’ve written that all of American history is characterized by conquest, indeed all of the Americas. The American West was hardly unique in this regard. So why then did the American West become a focal point in the discussion of conquest, and two, do you believe that conquest played a more formative role in the creation of the West than other parts of the United States?
OK, conquest is not the exclusive property of the American West, but it is extremely associated with the American West because of timing. The conquest of the West, with its violence and military actions, coincides with the creation and popularization and distribution of mass media. So the sneaky Puritans could go about displacing native people without anything like dime novels or the paintings of Frederick Remington or Charlie Russell to dramatize the transactions there. So, it’s almost as if the other stages—in both senses—where conquest occurred, the lights weren’t up yet, quite so much, and there wasn’t yet the spirit of “let’s go document this and market this.”
The second question is, was conquest somehow more formative in the history of the American West than other regions?
So finding a way to make a living is the fundamental thing in all this activity. Because the extractive industries are so prone to boom and bust, and so often they were the provocation for the intrusion of the settlers and launching the process of conquest in the West. Because mining was so associated with boom and bust patterns, it became very important to be able to make a quick adjustment if the mines closed down. To say, well, now we’re not a mining town, but we’re a very colorful place with some tales of old days in the saloon, and so we’re going to now have the Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City. So better find some other ways to make a living and playing off our romantic heritage of settlers and pioneers and miners and prospectors. Let’s try that out—and a lot of writers and artists and various people start thinking, “I could make something out of this: I could write this up in a colorful form; I could write about these colorful conflicts,” which were really stories about conquest.
That all makes sense in terms of why conquest became a subject in telling the stories of the American West, but was conquest more formative in the creation of the American West than in, say, other parts of the U.S.?
I would certainly do a disservice to the Indian people of the Southeast if I said yes.
So why hasn’t a Legacy of Conquest been written for the entire United States?
Because we think in terms of there being two major sins in American history—slavery and conquest. So, when we think about the troubles of, say, the South, we pay attention to slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War. Presumably, we should also be having the same struggles over the displacement of the Indian people.
Patricia Nelson Limerick with Zócalo in Salinas, California. Photo by Zócalo Public Square.
But you mentioned the Puritans, conquest also occurred in the Northeast.
Well, OK, this is great. Thank you so much for reminding me of Francis Jennings who wrote a book called The Invasion of America. It came out in the mid-’70s. I was sitting on my porch in New Haven, Connecticut, reading The Invasion of America. And I was thinking, “Are you sure about this, Francis Jennings?” Because his book was about the horrible violence of the displacement of Indian people in the North, the New England colonies. Jennings was just no holds barred. This was not virgin land, he said—and listen to this metaphor—this was widowed land. So I remember reading that and thinking, “I don’t think you’re supposed to say that about the Puritans.” But how could you not? Consider the Pequot War. When the Puritans set a fort on fire that had Pequot people in it, the Narragansett Indians said, “Stop it, it kills too many.” The Narragansett were enemies of the Pequot but, they said, “Stop it, it kills too many.” Well, OK, so that woke me up. In the years since, a lot of good souls have followed Francis Jennings’s lead, adding complexity and dimension to the story of northeastern Indian history.
So, just to clarify, you’re saying that the history of the American West is not any more characterized by conquest than other regions of the country? But simply that it was a matter of timing and dime store novels, and as you said, the lights are on and people told more stories about it?
I guess I’m not just saying that.
So, then Western history was more characterized by conquest than other regions in the United States?
Yes. The Indian people are the people who took conquest in the most immediate and painful and direct way. And the majority of them live in the West, and the majority of them continued to exercise tribal sovereignty over land. There was also other military activity called the Mexican-American War that took half of Mexico. So the West has a significant population of people who became American, as the phrase always goes, because the border crossed them.
One of the striking things that you write about is that war wasn’t necessary for conquest and that people can also be conquered through negotiation. Is that right?
Yes. There was a lot of manipulation of tribal structures in terms of treaty negotiators, commissioned by the United States saying, we’ll have to find the leader and negotiate with the leader, and that often meant, we’ll find some person, and we’ll designate them the leader.
You suggested above that it is inaccurate to consider that there was a two-sided war between whites and Indian people. Can you please explain more?
Because it’s never such a clear two sides. It’s so dynamic. Part of that is the intermarriage, and the fur trade, and the fact that there were plenty of people with mixed ancestry by the time war entered the picture—as Elliott West has written of the Sand Creek Massacre. A lot of the Indian folks at the Sand Creek Massacre had some degree of white parentage and, as he says, in some ways, the whites were attacking their own people in that moment. So there’s that, and there’s the fact that there are good reasons to ally yourself with the conquerors if that’s going to get your people in a better situation at the end of the war.
There’s disunity within tribes, and there’s also unity among tribes. Also, white people are not homogeneous, all of one mind, peas-in-a-pod characters. There are white people who will sometimes try to rescue Indian people under attack. There are white people who argue about the justice of it all. And there were soldiers condemning the Sand Creek Massacre before it happened and after.
You’ve described the displacement and removal of Indians as an actual jumble of motives and intentions, communications and miscommunications, actions and reactions, and therefore you imply that the accusations of genocide are inaccurate.
U.S. policy toward Indians cannot be seen as a coordinated, active, orchestrated state policy. There are episodes that involve the American army removing squatters from Indian land. There are episodes of federal officials really struggling with controlling settlers. And the Office of Indian Affairs was a jumble of people with different temperaments, and different agendas, and different forms of corruption and profiteering. And there were people who sometimes were motivated to take that job as Indian agent with the hope of doing it better than their predecessors had done it.
So genocide is inappropriately used because it wasn’t an orchestrated plan?
It has seemed that way to me for a while, but younger scholars have written recent books that make me less certain. And thank the Lord that attempts to eliminate Indian people failed. And one of the things I fear is that in condemning—as we should—the cruelty and brutality toward Indians, we can inadvertently give ground to the idea that the Indians have vanished.
Did mixed Indian-white relationships and intermarriage mitigate the harshness of conquest at all?
There’s a long period where white people are not in sufficient power to take over. So there’s a long spell where the Indian people have to be dealt with, because what else are you going to do? Certainly for fur trade purposes, there’s every reason for a fur trader to want to have an ally in an Indian tribe, and marrying a well-connected man’s daughter is one way to do that. Then you are no longer entirely an outsider.
There’s a wonderful story Elliott West tells about E.B. Sopris, who took part in the killings at Sand Creek, and bragged and bragged and bragged when he was an older pioneer about how he thought half-breeds were the worst, and that he had shot one of the better-known half-breeds at Sand Creek. Then as he went chatting away in his reminiscing, he says that he’d married a half-breed woman and adopted her half-breed son, whom he thought the world of.
“Whatever their level of patriotism—retro or anticipated—[white settlers] felt that they were in the United States, and that the army should rescue them.”
You write a lot about white victimhood in the American West. Where does this feeling of victimhood come from and why did it play such a significant role in the West?
There are times where white people in the 19th century just seemed to be caught by totally inexplicable surprise when their presence aroused hostility and anger. That surprise arose, I would say, because the promise of land and resources superseded much thinking about who else was on this land, and why they might respond with forceful resistance.
So we have to reckon with the legitimate desire for better opportunities that European peasants had, or that second sons in New England had, when the first sons would inherit their family’s land. So it’s not inherent human depravity to think, “I want a better opportunity, and I have young offspring that I want to have provided with food as they’re growing.”
Which makes you feel innocent because you’re just trying to help your kids?
Right. So that takes front and center in the mind. And the notion of going outside of that framework and thinking about who is paying the price for my getting this opportunity is quite a move of extra empathetic exertion. But some people do it.
So then this idea of just wanting more opportunity gets all scrambled up with weird attitudes towards the federal government—that the federal government should have better protected these white people pursuing opportunity. I think that is sort of that sense of betrayal. There’s a lot more complexity than most people register, and that explains how angry the settlers in various places can be at the military.
Many settlers think the federal government should rescue them, and that the federal government has an obligation to them, because they are serving the nation and expanding its borders. There were settlers calling the military Indian lovers. It’s quite comical that that could happen. Maybe it’s not much different from any other moment in history, like our own. People find a way of saying that their own actions are part of a larger picture of innocence. “I came to Oregon because my cousin went and said it was great. I am not doing this for any reason that could seem evil to me.” They don’t back up and see the bigger picture of what happens when a whole flood of people come into the Willamette Valley, and they carry diseases with them.
OK, let me get this straight. So, I decide to go into my neighbor’s yards and pick his peaches, and my rationale is that I’m going to give them to my kid. Would I still feel like a victim if my neighbor starts shooting me with a BB gun? Wouldn’t I say that getting shot was part of the risk I took? How could I claim victimhood if I clearly crossed the line into my neighbor’s yard to pick peaches?
Well, imagine that all kinds of credible, authority-carrying people had told you that your neighbor was not entirely human; that your neighbor was inferior; that your neighbor could eat a peach if nobody else wanted the peach; and that neighbor had no claim that matched your own?
OK. So white settlers had heard authorities disparage Indians before leaving home?
Right. And they were sometimes surprised to find that encounters were congenial. It is totally accurate to say that white people and Indians in North America spent more time trading with each other, having sex with each other, conversing with each other, ignoring each other, than they spent fighting each other. I think that is an accurate assessment, and I’m pushing that hard, because I like that better than the assumption people were always at each other’s throats.
Do you mean over the last 500 years?
Yes. And shouting at each other, and so on—but not always killing each other. I’m always trying to say: Let’s get this better foundation for history, so that we don’t just have to say it’s always been a miserable tale of opposition. Because it hasn’t always been that, and so I’m pushing that.
And this happened even though you had the great majority of the figures holding cultural and political power in your world, and your nation, telling you that your neighbor was not deserving because he was uncivilized. He was savage and had the wrong, possibly even satanic, religion. He was physically limited, mentally, cognitively, intellectually limited in his capabilities and was simply your inferior. And there’s plenty of that going around in the 19th century. So I suppose if we put that in the context of victimhood, then we do have to say it is more enraging to be mortally under the power of a person you consider an inferior.
Patricia Nelson Limerick in Salinas, California. Photo by Zócalo Public Square.
So start with pre-learned prejudices, add to that the acquisitiveness that moves you westward, and then the conditions. So if you’re in a condition in which whites are not the majority, then you learn to play. You learn to interact and to intermarry. But if you’re in a situation in which conditions are such where you could rout the Indians, whites did so?
And then we have the third, which is probably the more common: You will be totally committed to holding on to what you have claimed for yourself, and you may not have the power to entirely back that claim up. That’s where you would be thinking that the federal government has to come to rescue you, and you’re supposed to hear the theme songs or the trumpets of the soldiers coming to rescue you.
So you think many whites felt themselves to be in a defensive crouch?
So the implication here is that white pioneers did feel themselves to be an extension of the United States. Is that correct?
I think, they’re not as forthcoming to us as we would like them to be. The darned people of the past, who did not write down full records of everything they’re thinking! I said in writing once a statement that I don’t think I can fully support with evidence, which is that westward expansion had the cultural, psychological, political advantage that you could think, “I am pursuing my own good and my own interest, and I am serving my nation and pursuing the interests of my nation.”
Wait, that’s brilliant. You’re not upholding that statement?
I need a little bit more help from the pioneers. Because I don’t know everything that they were thinking.
But you’re implying that they felt themselves to be extensions of the United States.
OK, I do know this part—that as soon as they got there, they formed pioneer societies. And the pioneer societies said this is what we did: We came here on behalf of our country, we all wanted farms, and we wanted to be merchants. We wanted to do all that, but we knew that we were serving our nation in advancing its greatness.
I don’t know if they thought that when they were first setting out. Whatever their level of patriotism—retro or anticipated—they felt that they were in the United States, and that the army should rescue them.
“The conqueror looks better to himself and to others if he makes a gesture of admiration for, and recognition of, the nobility of the defeated.”
I’ve always wanted to know why conquerors always romanticize the people they conquered after the fact. What is it do they get out of that romanticization?
We once had classicist Peter Knox give a presentation on Ovid and the Roman frontier. And that’s where we learned that the Roman generals sometimes wrote in elegant Latin the speech that the barbarian leader had supposedly given the night before the battle. Peter said that’s how you show how much you deserve to win: You’re showing yourself to be a very fine person by appreciating the nobility of your enemy. And victory means less if you have a degraded enemy, who you think is beneath contempt. The conqueror looks better to himself and to others if he makes a gesture of admiration for, and recognition of, the nobility of the defeated.
Does this help explain the tendency to romanticize Native Americans?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this.
It’s been wild. It’s been a total rollercoaster.