Winter 2017

History 183B: Expanding America, 1865-Present:  From the Trans-Mississippi West to the World (4 units + optional 5th unit*)

* Note: students in 183B will have the option of taking one unit of extra course credit – – History198, P/NP grading – – for watching selected western movies or tv shows and writing a short (three-page) compare-and-contrast paper about them.


Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. — Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

Why are Lakota Sioux Indians demonstrating against an oil pipeline that is outside their reservation? Why did Nevada ranchers travel to Oregon to occupy a federal wildlife refuge? Why do they have so many supporters in the West? Why do they have so many opponents? Why can’t California get more water from western rivers to slake the thirst of its rapidly growing population? Why is the new Tesla factory located in Nevada? (Hint: it’s not just the tax breaks.) Why are our movies, video games, tv shows, music, and literature full of references to the Wild West, the Old West, gunfighters, saloons, dance hall “girls,” cowboys, “the border,” Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, pioneer women, and Deputy Dawg?

This class will answer these and a great many other questions, for a whole range of American institutions and practices trace their origins to the West. Big government and giant corporations of today both had crucial origins in the Far West. The Indian Wars of the West set important precedents for America’s wars in the Pacific and Asia, from the Philippines to Japan and Afghanistan. War was also a tool for imposing Protestant Christianity on native peoples, and in other ways, too, the West–with its Mormons, Ghost Dancers, Pentecostals, and others–was a hotbed of religious dissent and conflict that foreshadows much of today’s anxiety about religion and holy war. The Old West looked surprisingly modern in some ways: western society was more than the motley farmers and cowboys seen in our movies; it was at times the most diverse of any American society of the time, composed not just of Anglo-Americans but also Indians, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos and scores of other immigrants. It presaged our own communities and helped give rise to modern ideas of race and the social order you know (and perhaps seek to change).

Without the West of the nineteenth century, there likely would be no Indian casinos, no University of California, and no Silicon Valley. While the Old West is widely remembered as wilderness, subjugating it required the construction of modern government and modern science, and the many products extracted from it – – beef, grain, gold, silver, copper, coal, and oil, to name a few – – fueled the Industrial Revolution and left a long-term environmental quandary. The West became the home of the U.S. military, with gigantic military bases and a navy that dominated the Pacific after World War II, and the West was where the world’s first nuclear weapons were developed and tested and where the paradoxes of “nuclear security” – – of seeking to ensure peace with doomsday machines – – first appeared. The development of the West after World War II saw the birth of the modern suburb, ringed by landscapes that are among the most bitterly contested in the entire country, with fights over western forests, minerals, water, and land at the center of fierce disputes that have contributed mightily to the partisan warfare of the early twenty first century. Finally, the borders that encircle the West and separate it from Mexico and Canada paradoxically connect it to the larger world and make it central to some of the most contentious immigration debates of the age.

We will explore the history of the West since 1865 in all its complexity, seeking not just an understanding of the factual past, but insight into why western history has been consistently (and even willfully) distorted in our books, movies, and other media, and how that history can be connected to the U.S. and the world today.

Among the questions guiding our inquiry will be the following:

  1. How did Indians, emigrants, and immigrants remake the environments of the West as they made homes, and with what legacies for Americans today?
  2. What political struggles and economic arrangements accompanied westward expansion and annexation, and how did western settlement in turn re-shape U.S. politics, culture, and economy?
  3. How and why did the West give birth to the nuclear era? What are the connections between defense spending and the rise of information technology?
  4. How were frontier myths in U.S. popular culture created, and what do they tell us about American society and history?