In his recent State of the Union speech, President Donald Trump did me a favor. Thanks to the president and his speechwriters, my long-awaited occasion — to speak out in defense of the settlers of the American West — has now arrived.
“The American Nation,” Trump said, “was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth.”
When a powerful national leader turns the people of the past into caricatures and thereby drains their lives of dignity and meaning, the response of a conscientious Western American historian condenses into four words: “Just cut that out.”
White Americans of the mid-nineteenth century held a wide range of opinions and exhibited a wide range of conduct. Some of them supported the nation’s territorial expansion, and some of them objected to it. Some of them left written documents steeped in arrogance and over-confidence, and some of them left records conveying forthright admissions of doubt, fear, disappointment, and regret. Some of them cheered for the development of natural resources, and some of them expressed dismay over the waste, improvidence, and disruption that progress unleashed. Some participated wholeheartedly in violence against Indian people, and some tried to restrain that violence.
With that complexity in mind, look back at the president’s wildly over-generalized characterization of these complicated, entrancing, haunting historical figures: “the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth.”
And then consider a few of the actual participants in westward expansion.
Consider William Swain, an initially hopeful participant in the California Gold Rush, who wrote letters home with a full disclosure of his yearning for the company of his family, making forthright and frequent use of the word “anxiety,” to capture the feelings that he and many of his fellow adventurers shared.
Consider Edward Wynkoop and Silas Soule, two Army officers who spoke out forcefully against the brutality of the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in Colorado.
Consider John Fairchild, a local rancher who intervened in the Pacific Northwest’s Modoc War in 1872-1873, in hopes of cutting short the bloodshed. Consider, as well, John’s brother James, who undertook to transport seventeen Modoc men, women, and children to safety, but failed in his cause when two gunmen murdered some of his passengers. James Fairchild never escaped this sorrow for the rest of his life. In his words, “It was a terrible scene, one I will never forget. I shudder when I think what I saw and heard. The fearful voices of those women and children still ring in my ears.”
If the framers of the Constitution had designated the over-simplifying of the minds and souls of the people of the past as an impeachable offense, few presidential terms would have extended past a month or two.
Still, fellow lovers of history, think of how our national conversations would improve if we could add just a few words to the presidential oath: “I do solemnly swear that I will respect the people who have lived in this nation before me, with the hope that the Americans of the future will find me worthy of that same respect.”
Patty Limerick is the faculty director and chair of the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.
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