The American History Curriculum: Why Is It Still Eastern-centric?


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

The protest by the Hispanic community regarding the failure of documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to include the story of Latinos and Latinas in his forthcoming PBS production on World War II reflects a long standing historical bias regarding the portrayal of the American West and its citizens in our national narrative.  Although Burns has made concessions to widen the focus of his film to include Native American and Hispanic perspectives, this is not the first time that his work has been subjected to such criticism.  For example, his seventeen-hour epic Baseball betrays a regional and cultural parochialism by focusing his account of the national pastime upon the cities of Boston and New York, while short changing St. Louis, a city which served as the Western and Southern outpost for Major League Baseball in the first half of the twentieth century.  The Boston-New York axis approach also privileged the story of African Americans in baseball over Latinos who have dominated the sport in recent years.  Similar accusations may be made regarding the Burns documentary on jazz, which overlooked the contribution of Latin musicians to this art form.

In taking this Eastern seaboard approach to the study of World War II, baseball, and jazz, Burns reflects his East Coast roots as well as the prejudices of many American history textbooks and survey courses.  Contemporary celebrations regarding the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown founding tend to ignore the fact that American history began well before the establishment of the first permanent English settlement.  Focusing upon 1607 as a beginning date for American history leaves out much of the Native American experience and Spanish colonization in the Southwest, making it appear as if American history only commences when the white guys walk upon the stage.  The Virginia Company certainly did not enter a virgin land and continent when they established Jamestown.  In the grand master narrative of American history, the heroic Jamestown story is usually followed by the saga of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England and the English colonization of the Atlantic seaboard, culminating in the American Revolution and the formation of a new experiment in representative government. 

While the master narrative has expanded to include the story of women, laboring classes, Native Americans, and slavery in the forging of the Revolution and Early Republic, the Trans-Mississippi West really only enters the story with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.  To ascertain what he gained in this land transaction Jefferson dispatched the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana territory.  Lewis and Clark are usually perceived as courageous explorers who provided the American government with considerable knowledge regarding the people and landscape of the Missouri River Valley, not to mention a claim to the Oregon territory by pushing into the Pacific Northwest.  From a Native American perspective, of course, Lewis and Clark may be perceived as agents of empire and conquest, although this is not the usual interpretation for the master narrative of expansion.

In fact, territorial expansion becomes the major theme of the Trans Mississippi West for the first half of the nineteenth century with little attention paid to the people of the region until the white Americans showed up, often accompanied by their slaves.  The Mormon trek to Utah led by Brigham Young is often depicted as a struggle against intolerance, while their success in the desert is described as what a tight-knit group may accomplish in adverse conditions.  But the Mormons in Utah tend to be a sideshow in Western history, with the main focus in the Jacksonian era upon the question of slavery expansion.  

One of the liberties which the Texans were fighting for in their 1836 revolt against Mexico was the right to hold slaves, and the annexation of Texas in the final days of the Tyler administration assured a conflict with the Mexican government.  War with Mexico, however, also offered an opportunity to acquire trade routes in New Mexico and the port of San Francisco in California.  Accordingly, Tyler’s successor James K. Polk pursued an aggressive foreign policy which culminated in the Mexican War and American acquisition of the Southwest.  The aftermath of this conflict is usually focused upon how the Mexican War reopened the slavery issue and led to the Civil War.  However, the impact of expansion upon the peoples of the Southwest is given less attention.  For example, what happened to the promises of the American government that the land grant rights of the Mexican inhabitants would be respected?  Contemporary border issues might be better understood if most Americans realized that residents of the New Mexican territory were given six months to leave if they did not want to be annexed by the United States.  There was no plebiscite allowed for the residents of the region.  The border for the region was imposed by the American government, and contemporary issues of immigration and Mexican animosity toward the United States must be reflected through this historical lens.

While there was a Civil War fought in the West, most of the fighting in this bloody conflict was in the Eastern region of the nation.  And certainly this conflict and the issue of slavery, followed by the premature ending of Reconstruction, are crucial elements of the national history.  However, the Civil War and its aftermath tend to overshadow the cultural and ethnic diversity of the California gold rush and what happened to the Native Americans and Mexican residents of the region following annexation by the United States.

Post Civil War and Reconstruction American history of the nineteenth century tends to focus upon the growth of industry and big business which made the United States the number one industrial power in the world by the 1890s.  An essential component of this story was Anglo settlement of the American West, and in most history classes the West is primarily covered during the period from 1876 to 1893, using Frederick Jackson Turner’s definition for the closing of the frontier.  This late nineteenth-century emphasis upon the West usually includes the expansion of the transcontinental railroad, mining frontier and introduction of big business into the region, ranching frontier and cattle drives, and farming frontier with the Homestead Act as well as the political revolt of the Populist Party.  The heroic stand against this expansion by Native Americans such as the Sioux nation is noted, along with the role played by the Chinese in the construction of the railroads before the xenophobia of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

But the West is virtually ignored after this period as if the twentieth-century West did not exist until the discovery of its political power with the so-called Sunbelt in the final decades of the century.  The American history narrative of the twentieth century often ignores the West and its peoples while focusing upon national issues and the growing power of the federal government in Washington.  The West is all too often ignored in the stories of Progressivism, World War I, the “roaring twenties” and the new immigration from Southeastern Europe into the cities of the Northeast, the Great Depression and New Deal, World War II, Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam and protest of the 1960s, Watergate, Reagan Revolution, and the aftermath of 9/11. 

Certainly the depression-era saga of “Okies” moving to California after the dust bowl is well chronicled, but less well known is the deportation of Mexican-Americans from the Southwest.  The story of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast being ushered into the internment camps of Western deserts is now part of our national history, but less recognized, as the omissions of the Burns documentary demonstrate, is the role played by Hispanics and Native Americans in the Second World War. 

In a similar fashion, the African-American Civil Rights Movement of the post World War II period is an important part of our national consciousness, but the example of black Americans in the South provided impetus for the Chicano movement in the Southwest and formation of the American Indian Movement.  Cesar Chavez, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, and Dolores Huerta are due their place in the American pantheon of civil rights heroes, along with events such as the land grant movement in New Mexico and the 1973 siege at Wounded Knee.

Despite the efforts of Western historians such as Richard White, Patricia Limerick, and Donald Worster, all too often these achievements are ignored, much as Ken Burns proposed to short change the Hispanic contribution to the Second World War.  As Mexican immigration and the Hispanic population of the United States continue to grow along with the economy of the American West, in the twenty-first century, documentary filmmakers, textbooks, historians, and American citizens, in general, need a better understanding of the role played by Mexican immigration and Native Americans in the making of the West and the nation.  The grand narrative of American history must make room for the West and its people.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/1/2007

You make it sound as if we did something wrong in building transcontinental railroads, unleashing the Homestead Act, developing mining and cattle industries, etc. In fact, in developing the West we made a highly productive, enviable and prosperous homeland for millions of people from all over the world, in a very short space of time. Even today the West attracts millions of illegal aliens--more people by far than sneak into any other country on earth. We did many things right. The "grand master narrative" happens to be true. And when you wax about "the heroic stand against this expansion by the Native Americans such as the Sioux," you are suggesting that bringing civilization to the West was a big mistake, which it was not. The Sioux were brave--it was their best quality--and they died at our hands, it's true. But they were few in number, and their title to the land was poor, since their ancestors had saughtered previous generations of Indians quite savagely, also. Sorry, but the story which ought to be taught is the old American Romance saga, not the plight of the pitiful natives who stood in the way. It is not helpful, either, to drive wedges between todays Anglos and Latinos (and Indian survivors), by puffing up the latter up as victims of the former, when all have now become happy Americans.

Lisa Kazmier - 6/25/2007

Indeed, my best recollection is using "A People & A Nation" for a community college (I've only rarely taught the US survey) and it started before 1607. I may or may not have had an "Eastern bias" but since the creating of US begins in the east, and a lot of power remains there if shifting w/i the region (Boston/New York/DC) there is a rationale for this "bias." Whether it fits other stories, I don't know.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/25/2007

Briley is a high school teacher so his textbook basis is a different set. That said, much of what Smolenski says is equally true for high school textbooks as well. The problem isn't adding more West to the story (as Riley is advocating), it's trying to come up with new narratives that encompass regional experiences rather than nationalizing the experience of the Eastern seaboard and upper Midwest. For example, turning the story of the industrial revolution (Gilded Ag era) from one primarily of technological change to one of primarily rationalization allows me to connect city and country (a la Cronon from whom my students read excerpts) and connect various technological acheivements ranging from barbed wire to the Bessemer steel process. The point here is that "the rise of the factory city" story is now intertwined with "the economic development (exploitation?) of the hinterland. It also is able to bring in the labor stuff in both East and Western variants.

John Smolenski - 6/25/2007

I should note at the outset that I am sympathetic to Briley's overall point, namely that US history survey courses should be more geographically inclusive. But in his efforts to state his case the author makes some dubious (if not outright false) assertions.

As a historian of early America, I am puzzled by his claim that textbooks and survey courses are guilty of routinely "[f]ocusing on 1607 as a beginning date for American history" and "making it appear as if american history only commences when the white guys walk on stage." This raises two questions. First, how is it exactly that Spanish exploration of 16th century North America counts as pre-"white guy" history in the way that Native American history does? Are we really going to get past Eastern bias by suggesting that De Soto, Coronado, and De Leon weren't white? If you mean Anglo, say Anglo.

Second--and more substantively--which textbooks in particular is Briley talking about? Having reviewed a number of textbooks while putting together my own survey course, I can't think of a single one that skips over Native American history or the formation of Spanish American colonies. It is certainly true that some texts are much better than others in this respect, but everyone gives at least one chapter to North America before English colonization.

(Yes, this is a bit perfunctory, but in the texts I'm thinking of we're talking about one out of six or seven chapters dealing with colonial and/or Revolutionary America, so it's not _entirely_ as bad as it seems.)

Without calling out those textbook authors who in my opinion give Spanish colonization and/or Native American history short shrift, I can say that I have assigned two textbooks--Out of Many by John Faragher et. al. and Liberty, Equality ,and Power by John Murrin et. al--which each devote about 1/4th to 1/3rd of their colonial/Revolutionary sections to non-Anglo colonies material. And it's not like Prentice Hall or Thomson Wadsworth (the respective authors of Faragher and Murrin) are boutique presses--a survey instructor could locate these books pretty quickly with even the slightest motivation. (And sometimes with no motivation, given the aggressive way that publishers often market these books.)

The idea that "the Trans-Mississippi West really only enters the story with Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase" just doesn't hold any water when you look at actual college textbooks. For Briley to invoke the biases of the "grand master narrative of American history" as a way to bash US history textbooks and survey teachers does a real disservice to the scholars and teachers who are trying to rectify the problems is really not only unfair but intellectually cheap as well.