Frontiers: A Short History of the American West

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Published in 2000 to critical acclaim, The American West: A New Interpretive History quickly became the standard in college history courses. Now Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher offer a concise edition of their classic, freshly updated. Lauded for their lively and elegant writing, the authors provide a grand survey of the colorful history of the American West, from the first contacts between Native Americans and Europeans to the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Frontiers introduces the diverse peoples and cultures of the American West and explores how men and women of different ethnic groups were affected when they met, mingled, and often clashed. Hine and Faragher present the complexities of the American West—as frontier and region, real and imagined, old and new. Showcasing the distinctive voices and experiences of frontier characters, they explore topics ranging from early exploration to modern environmentalism, drawing expansively from a wide range of sources. With four galleries of fascinating illustrations drawn from Yale University's premier Collection of Western Americana, some published here for the first time, this book will be treasured by every reader with an interest in the unique saga of the American West.

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Editorial Reviews

Signals From Telegraph Hill
A lively, as well as authoritative, short history of the American West.—Richard H. Dillon, Signals From Telegraph Hill

— Richard H. Dillon

Gregory Nobles

"Smart, lively, and lucid, this book takes a sweeping, expansive view of the American West, offering anyone a fine point of departure for exploring the many paths into the past."—Gregory Nobles, author of American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest

Virginia Scharff

"There is simply no better first journey into the vast terrain of Western history than this lively, learned, clear-eyed volume. Another winner for Hine and Faragher."—Virginia Scharff, University of New Mexico, Autry National Center

Stephen Aron

"From the Caribbean to Canada and from the Atlantic to the Pacific, this marvelous survey spotlights the unexpected twists and turns that occurred when peoples met and mingled and how from these cultural encounters emerged today's American West. Hine and Faragher find in our frontier history the key to 'our common past' and a 'blueprint for our common future.'"—Stephen Aron, Department of History, UCLA

Signals From Telegraph Hill - Richard H. Dillon

"A lively, as well as authoritative, short history of the American West."—Richard H. Dillon, Signals From Telegraph Hill
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300117103
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2007
  • Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 7.20 (w) x 10.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert V. Hine is professor emeritus, University of California, Riverside and Irvine. He lives in Irvine. John Mack Faragher is Arthur Unobskey Professor of American History, Yale University. He is the author of Women and Men on the Overland Trail and Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, both published by Yale University Press. He lives in Hamden, CT.

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A Short History of the American West


Copyright © 2007 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11710-3

Chapter One

A New World Begins

The Indians who first met Columbus were the Taínos. On their island homes in the Caribbean (Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Puerto Rico today) they cultivated corn and yams, made brown pottery and cotton thread, and fashioned deadly little darts from fish teeth and wood. But Columbus thought the Taínos had no weapons, a conclusion he based on a curious test. Handing them swords, he observed that they grasped the blades and cut their fingers. Steel had come to a people who previously had worked only with bone and stone. This surmise was typical for Columbus, who assumed the superiority of his own culture in all things. "They are all naked, men and women, as their mothers bore them," he condescended in his report to the Spanish monarchs. Columbus made his landfall in October 1492, when the prevailing Caribbean temperatures were balmy, and the natives he saw were attired in much the same costume as bikini-clad vacationers who flock to those beaches today. Although he could not understand the Taínos' language, Columbus assumed he could read their minds. When the natives lifted their hands to the sky, he wrote, it was an indicationthat they considered the Spaniards to be gods. It was only one of several possible explanations. Perhaps the Taínos were exclaiming, "Great God, what now!"

We can be more certain of what lay in the minds of the Spaniards. After noting the Indians' loving, cooperative, and peaceful reception, Columbus concluded that "all the inhabitants could be made slaves," for "they have no arms and are all naked and without any knowledge of war. They are fitted to be ruled and to be set to work, to cultivate the land and to do all else that may be necessary, and you may build towns and teach them to go clothed and adopt our customs."

Noticing the little gold ornaments the Taínos wore, Columbus contracted a bad case of gold fever. More than anything else, it was the possibility of setting the natives to work mining gold that would persuade the monarchs to finance a large return expedition. "The best thing in the world is gold," Columbus once wrote in his diary, "it can even send souls to heaven."

The conquistadors who followed Columbus were equally sure of themselves. They were also skilled in the arts of conquest because of their long experience fighting "infidels" on the Spanish peninsula. Muslims from Africa had flooded western Europe to a high-water mark in the eighth century, and thereafter the Christians slowly pushed back. These wars of the "Reconquest" directed the crusading propensities of many generations of young Spaniards. In 1492-that most extraordinary year-Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia, fell to the Christian warriors led by Isabella and Ferdinand of Castille and Aragon, and consequently their Catholic majesties turned their attention westward, across the ocean.

The invasion of America was marked by scenes of frightful violence. In the wake of Columbus, conquering armies marched across the islands of the Caribbean, plundering villages, slaughtering men, capturing and raping women. Once all the islands had been taken, the Spaniards turned to the mainland coast to the west. The people they encountered lived in far more complex societies than those of the Caribbean, with splendid towns and even libraries of handwritten, illustrated books. A Mayan reacted with surprise when he saw a Spaniard reading a European book. "You also have books?" he exclaimed. "You also understand the signs by which you talk to the absent?"

Responding to rumors of a land called Mexico in the interior, in 1519 a fleet of eleven ships with 530 Spanish soldiers departed from Cuba. Onboard were sixteen horses-"the nerves of the wars against the natives," as one Spanish chronicler called them-and numerous fighting dogs. Mexico, they thought, might be some powerful principality of the Great Khan of Cathay (China). Nearby must be fabled California, which was said to be located "on the right hand of the Indies ..., very close to the region of the terrestrial paradise." Dreams die hard.

Leading this expedition was the archetypal conquistador, Hernán Cortés. An officer in Cortés's army of conquest, Bernal Díaz, described his commander as sexually attractive and physically strong, slow to anger but sometimes roused to speechless fury. He read Latin, wrote poetry, and was fond of gambling at cards and dice. Now he gambled for the highest stakes in the New World. Shortly after his arrival on the Mexican coast, near present-day Veracruz, he ordered the ships dismantled. The game was winner take all, and the Virgin Mary was on his side.

Even as they landed, Cortés and his men were being observed by spies of Moctezuma II, the ruler of the Aztecs of central Mexico, an empire that exploited the peoples of several dozen surrounding city-states. Moctezuma's men recorded the strangers' movements in a set of detailed drawings and reported: "Their flesh is very light, much lighter than ours. They all have long beards, and their hair comes to their ears."

The Aztecs dominated the surrounding region from their capital at Tenochtitlán, which was built and maintained with the tribute collected from their conquests. One of the sixteenth-century world's greatest cities, it rested on an island in the midst of a large lake and was resplendent with stepped pyramids, stone temples, golden vessels, and causeways with cleverly engineered irrigation canals. The Aztecs were as certain of themselves as were the Spaniards. "Are we not the masters of the world?" Moctezuma remarked to his council when he first heard of the landing of the Spaniards.

At this point, the Aztecs might easily have crushed the several hundred Spaniards, who were struggling to survive amid the sand dunes and mosquitoes of the Gulf Coast. But Moctezuma was undecided about the right course. Confident of the enormous power of his empire, he indulged his desire to see with his own eyes the strangers from another world.

How Cortés conquered an empire that could at any time raise thousands of well-trained fighting men remains something of a mystery. One explanation emphasizes Aztec doubts about the invaders. For several years there had been evil omens-comets, heavenly lights, monstrous two-headed births, foaming lake waters. Very much like Europe's kings, Moctezuma held his office in trust for sacred authority, and as he and his high priests worried over these signs, there came the news of the strange appearance of the invaders from across the ocean. Didn't they ride on weird creatures larger than deer? Were not the heads of the men covered with iron, and did they not use strange rods that spit fire and killed? It was an ominous year, and perhaps Cortés had come to fulfill a prophecy.

But certainly there was more to it than the Aztec preoccupation with signs and omens. Cortés proved masterful at the art of diplomacy, and his first assistance came in the form of one of the cleverest women of history, a young Aztec named Malíntzin, who is best known as La Malínche, the Hispanicized version of her native name. Sold into slavery as a child, she was given to Cortés by a local chief and made the decision to align herself with the Spaniards. Possessing an enormous talent for languages, she quickly mastered Spanish and became Cortés's indispensable interpreter. But she also proved a master interpreter of Aztec intentions, and in the Aztec images of the conquest, Malínche is often shown by Cortés's side.

Malínche was a powerfully complex character, and the Mexican people have never ceased arguing over the meaning of her actions. On the one hand, her name symbolizes the betrayal of native culture, synonymous with the worst traitor. Because she became Cortés's mistress and bore him a son, other Mexicans see her as the mother of la raza, the new people who arose out of the blending of Indian and Spanish, native and European. Thus she symbolizes not only betrayal, but also the mixing of cultures and peoples that is the foundation of modern Mexico. Malínche stands for the process of interchange in the frontier cultures of the Americas.

Just as Cortés exploited Malínche's alienation from her people, so he brilliantly exploited the resentments of the Aztec's many subject peoples. He was able to persuade the Tlaxcalans, a small republic that lived under the heavy heel of Aztec domination, to join him, and thus thousands of Indian warriors marched with the Spaniards over the mountains to the great city of Tenochtitlán. The conquest of Mexico would largely be the work of Indians fighting Indians-a powerful lesson Europeans learned from Cortés's victory.

When Cortés and his Spanish-Tlaxcalan army arrived at Tenochtitlán, Moctezuma gave Cortés and his lieutenants the use of large quarters near his own palace and tried to enter into dialogue with his counterpart. But when Cortés knocked down an Aztec religious shrine and set up a Catholic altar in its place, Moctezuma was shocked. Cortés was certain in his convictions. After all, Aztec priests practiced rituals of human sacrifice, inflicting a terrible death on captives by cutting open their chests and tearing the pulsing hearts from their living bodies. Yet Aztec priests also subjected themselves to frightful self-torture, slashing their own bodies with obsidian blades and piercing their tongues and penises with cactus thorns to draw the blood that was the ultimate sacrifice to the gods. The Aztecs were, in short, as thoroughly committed to their own religious beliefs and practices as the Spaniards.

Eventually, in 1520, the Spaniards seized Moctezuma and massacred a group of young men engaged in religious observance. That precipitated a revolt, and the Aztec army besieged the Spaniards in their quarters in the center of the city. After seven days, the Spaniards made a bold attempt to flee by night, during which two-thirds of the Spanish troops died. Dressed in heavy armor stuffed with gold and precious stones looted from Moctezuma's treasure house, many drowned in the canals. So clogged did the channel become with their bodies, it was said, that those who managed to escape did so by running across the backs of the dead. After the battle the Aztecs dredged the canal and brought up the dead in order to retrieve the treasure.

But the Spaniards returned, reinforced by troops from Cuba as well as thousands of Indian allies who now grabbed the opportunity to overthrow the Aztec overlords. During the intervening year, Tenochtitlán had been struck by an epidemic of smallpox brought by the invaders. Some contemporaries estimated that this disease reduced the population by half. It was then that Cortés attacked the city. The invaders fought their way to the central pyramid where the last battle took place. Many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, died, including Moctezuma. The Aztec leaders were captured and tortured to reveal the location of the state treasure, which the Spaniards plundered.

The successors of Columbus established a feudal institution known as the encomienda. This system placed Indian workers at the disposal of Spanish lords, who set them to work building the new capital of Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, dredging the streams for alluvial gold, and working the fields. There were reports that rather than accept this form of slavery, many Indians killed themselves, after killing their children. Native peoples resisted the conquest in many ways. One chronicler of the conquest told of a particularly ironic torture some Indians invented for captured Spaniards with a hunger for gold. Heating the metal to its melting point, they would pour the molten stuff down the throats of their prisoners.

Some Spaniards protested the horrors of the conquest and worked to obtain justice for the Indians. Principal among them was the Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas. The Christian mission in the New World was to convert the Indians, he argued, and "the means to effect this end are not to rob, to scandalize, to capture or destroy them, or to lay waste their lands." Centuries before the nations of the world recognized the concept of universal human rights, Las Casas had proclaimed that "the entire human race is one." He became a towering moral figure in the early history of the Americas.

Those seeking to justify the conquest argued that the Indians were savages who practiced horrible vices. It was widely reported, for example, that Indians used drugs and were sexual libertines or sexual deviants. But the most common complaint was that they were cannibals. In the earliest books devoted to the conquest, the Caribs (a people of the Lesser Antilles and the neighboring South American coast, from whose name the Spanish derived not only the word Caribbean but also the word cannibal) were shown devouring the flesh of captured Spaniards.

Las Casas considered such claims slanderous. The charge of sexual deviance he dismissed as "a falsehood," and he compared the native use of drugs to communion in the Catholic Church, pointing out that it was part of a ceremony of divination. He even made an effort to explain Aztec human sacrifice in its own terms. "It is not surprising that when unbelievers who have neither grace nor instruction consider how much men owe to God," he explained, "they devise the most difficult type of repayment, that is, human sacrifice in God's honor." The Church, he argued, should aim to correct such practices through enlightenment, not punishment.

The controversy over the treatment of the Indians finally came before the royal court of Spain. Impressed by Las Casas's argument, the Spanish monarchy declared that henceforth it would be official policy that the Indians be considered fully human and treated fairly. But these ideals, overwhelmed by more typical patterns of colonial exploitation, were never realized in practice. As Cortés once said, "I came to get gold, not to till the soil like a peasant." Dreams of riches easily obtained easily corroded ideals.

The most enduring contribution of Las Casas came not in his contribution to policy but in his history of the conquest. The Destruction of the Indies, published in Spain in 1552, is one of the most influential books in the history of the early modern world. Las Casas blamed the Spaniards for the deaths of millions of Indians and indicted them for what today we would call the crime of genocide. Other European powers later used these arguments to condemn Spain while covering up their own dismal records of colonial conquest. Subsequent scholars, doubting Las Casas's estimates of huge population losses, criticized his work as part of a "Black Legend" of the Spanish conquest.

Scholars dispute the size of the indigenous population of the island of Hispaniola at the time of the conquest. Estimates range from several hundred thousand to several million. But there is no dispute over the fact that fifty years after Columbus's landing, only a few hundred native people remained alive. The Taínos virtually disappeared. Faced with a severe labor shortage, the Spaniards began importing African slaves, and by 1560 Africans had become the majority population, ruled by a small elite of European colonists.

The destruction of the native population of mainland Mexico was one of the greatest demographic calamities in human history. Many thousands died in the fighting, or as the consequence of the destruction of their communities, but by far the greatest loss of life resulted from the introduction of Old World diseases. Pre-Columbian America seems to have had few contagious epidemic diseases, and Indian peoples had no protective antibodies. A shipload of colonists from Spain carried smallpox to Hispaniola in 1516, and the expedition of Cortés brought it to Mexico, where it seriously undermined Aztec society. Disease, which frequently preceded conquest, was the secret weapon of the European invaders and helps to explain their success. The outstanding difference between the European colonial experience in the Americas and elsewhere-in Africa and Asia, for instance-was the extraordinary reduction in the native population.


Excerpted from Frontiers by ROBERT V. HINE JOHN MACK FARAGHER Copyright © 2007 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Dreams and Homelands....................1
Chapter 1 A New World Begins....................7
Chapter 2 Contest of Cultures....................17
Chapter 3 The Struggle of Empires....................28
Chapter 4 The Western Land and Its Markers....................39
Chapter 5 The Fur Trade....................52
Chapter 6 From Texas to Oregon....................62
Chapter 7 War and Destiny....................80
Chapter 8 Mining Frontiers....................94
Chapter 9 The Power of the Road....................109
Chapter 10 Open Range....................121
Chapter 11 The Safety Valve....................133
Chapter 12 A Search for Community....................147
Chapter 13 The Urban Frontier....................163
Chapter 14 Plunder and Preservation....................176
Chapter 15 The Myth of the Frontier....................191
Chapter 16 The Frontier and West in Our Time....................204
Further Reading....................227
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