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Up with the birds (and Elliott West) at #nche2016


Dang. These NCHE folks are serious.

It’s 6:45 – that’s am – and we’re already deep into it. I love the histories but a 7:00 start? But if there’s anyone I would roll out for at 7:00 am, it would be Elliott West. I love this guy. History stud.

The Contested Plains. The Essential West. The Last Indian War.

So I am as pumped as I can be this early in the morning. He starts off by addressing the audience as “we hardy few.” So true.

And continues with a question:

What’s going on here?

We have misplaced the West. We have failed to appreciate a fundamental, transformative power that came with making and creating the West. Something happened in the mid 1800s that sent the US into a trajectory that created the current US.

Our understanding of US history is like a large airport – always under reconstruction. We need to continue to think about the past and what it means.

What was this thing that sent the country on this trajectory?

As historians, our task is to look at the past and ask “what’s going on here?” So what was going on in the West in the 1800s? From the mid 1840s to 1877, we acquired the West and organized into the region that we recognize today.

We have vastly underestimated how important that period was. We have surrendered that period to the Civil War. And it’s hard to argue that the Civil War wasn’t important to the development of the United States. But we cannot ignore the people, places, and events of the West.

West argued that the story of the US is bigger than “just” the Civil War. Two events that we need to remember. The CIvil War and the creation of the West.We need to rethink the periodization of American History. Both stories deserve our attention on their own but we also need to see how they interact with one another.

Four ways that the West changed us and the US fundamentally:

1. Stuff. We are an economic and militarily superpower. Not before the move into the West but are now. This has a lot to do with raw resources. From 1846-1848, we gained 1.2 million square miles. (If we gained this much land now, it would be the equivalent of all of Mexico, Central America, and half of Columbia.) This was huge.

Gold in California. Silver in Nevada. Copper in Montana and Arizona. Coal and wood basically everywhere. Later uranium. All of the stuff needed to create an economic 800 pound gorilla.

“What would have been the outcome of World War II if the West had not be

2. The expanding power of the federal government and the creation of the modern American state. A whole series of bewildering and challenging problems needed to be solved as the country expanded west. How to connect the vast territories in the West with established areas in the east? Railroads and the partnerships between the government and private enterprises. Roads were created by the Corps of Engineers. Surveying. Mapping. Telegram.

So you get all of these federal bureaus and departments that were created and expanded.

Richard White, another western historian said the West is like the The kindergarten of the American state. West calls it “Gold’s Gym.”

3. The US became a transcontinental and bi-oceanic power. We became more connected with Asia because of our movement into the Pacific world. Pacific islands, the Philippines, China, Japan. Western coast of South America. This connection to the East has had obvious impact on current events.

We think of the 49ers who went west during the Gold Rush. They arrived to already find tens of thousands of 48ers already there. People from South America and Asia had beat the 49ers to California.

Another way to think about this connection to the Pacific world is to think of the wars and conflicts we have been involved with after 1848.

4. Who is an American? America has been and is wrestling with the concept of citizenship. How do we “comprehend” Americans? The expansion of the West led to a larger sense of who fits into the group that we define and see as “American.”

The Civil War and amendments after the war created an “embrace” of African Americans. But the move West now begin to raise questions of how the US should interact with Hispanics and Native Americans. Obviously this embrace ebbed and flowed but it became a question that the country could not ignore. As the embrace widen, we had to begin to wrestle with the challenges of inclusion.

These challenges included the questions of religion, education, and occupation. Early on the answer was simple – everyone becomes a Christian, go to school, and become farmers. Obviously over time, this simple answer wasn’t the solution.

We cannot begin to understand who we are as a country in 2016 without thinking seriously about the period of time between 1846-1877.

Man. I could listen to this guy any time he’s on stage. A great start to the conference. Even at 7:00 in the morning.

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