Rewriting American History from the Pacific

Roundup: Talking About History

From the newsletter of the Chronicle of Higher Ed (1-25-05):

Some historians are approaching American history from a new direction -- from the West, via the Pacific Ocean.

From that perspective, the cast of characters in the nation's past is less familiar, say Edward G. Gray, an associate professor of history at Florida State University, and Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California at Davis, in an introduction to an issue on the topic.

Instead of the Pilgrims and colonists of the Atlantic Coast, Pacific history is peopled by "Russian fur traders, Spanish missionaries, Japanese fishermen, French and Spanish explorers, British naval officers, American travelers, German naturalists, Tahitian translators, Aleutian hunters, Polynesian navigators, Yankee merchants, and that peculiar species of Pacific go-between, the beachcomber," they write.

Such figures were relatively obscure for too long, but they are now starting to get their due, says Peter A. Coclanis, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an essay.

"Scholars have begun to take seriously, really for the first time, historical actors, actions, and processes both on the ocean itself and around and along the entire Pacific Rim," Mr. Coclanis writes.

"Almost 500 years after Balboa," he says, "American historians have themselves discovered the Pacific."

The issue is online at

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