Skip to main content

A New Look

May 2024
2min read

The interpretation of history, we are all aware, is ever changing. Wilbur R. Jacobs, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, now questions whether it is not the time to re-evaluate our ideas about the American West. Writing for the American Historical Association Newsletter of November, 1970, in an article entitled “Frontiersmen, Fur Traders, and Other Varmints, an Ecological Appraisal of the Frontier in American History,” Professor Jacobs says:

Do historians have an obligation to help counteract harmful social attitudes about the environment that run contrary to the best interests of the nation at large? It is a question that has plagued the consciences of some of our best writers, including Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. Certainly we historians have no responsibility for what has happened in the past, but we do have access to historic records and knowledge of what earlier generations did or failed to do. The public and students can expect, therefore, that we will make available the fruits of our investigations in a form undistorted by patriotism, prejudice, sentiment, ignorance, or lopsided research. But such a presentation of the American past is, in certain areas of history, not always the rule. This criticism can be applied particularly to specific subjects in “frontier” or “westward movement” history.

Historians of the American frontier, for instance, have failed to impress their readers with the utterly destructive impact that the fur trade had upon the North American continent and the American Indian. There are no investigations of the role the fur men had in killing off certain types of wildlife, which in turn had a permanent effect upon the land and upon native and white societies. The traders and their followers, the fur trading companies, are usually depicted as positive benefactors in the development of American civilization as it moved westward from the Appalachians to the Pacific Coast. Indeed, the story of the fur trade is almost always (and perhaps unconsciously) told with a capitalistic bias. The historian usually expresses a businessman’s outlook in describing the development and expansion of this mercantile enterprise. If the fur trade contributed to the rapid economic growth of the country, and it unquestionably did (Walter Prescott Webb argued that it helped to develop a boom economy in the first two centuries of our history), then the implication is the fur trade was a good thing for all Americans. Free furs and skins, free land, free minerals; it was all part of the great westward trek and “The Development of American Society,” according to Frederick Jackson Turner and his followers. The selfmade man, the heroic figure, who conquered the wilderness was the free trapper, the mountain man. Because the history of trading does not naturally attract the reader’s interest, historians of the frontier have often gilded their flawed lily with a bit of spurious romanticism. The bear and bison hunter becomes the courageous tamer of the wilderness.

The real question of interpretation here is: who is the real varmint, the bear or the trapper who killed him? Aside from the fact that bears are sometimes noted for anti-social behavior, our frontier historians have not had a problem in answering such a question because their interpretations have been conditioned by a society steeped in a laissezfaire business ideology. Our view of progress—one which permeates all groups of society and leads us to accept without question the need for an expanding economy--is that progress consists in exploitation and growth, which in turn depends on commercialization and the conquest of nature. In our histories we have treated the land more as a commodity than as a resource. We have here in a nutshell the conquistador mentality that has so long dominated the writing of much American history.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate