Susan Stearns Office Hours: T/Th 1: 30-2: 40 hist 217 Or by Appointment

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Susan Stearns Office Hours: T/Th 1:30-2:40

HIST 217 Or by Appointment

History of the American West

M/W 2-3:15 ACA 215

The American West:

Why Place Matters

The goal of this course is to examine the history of the American West—but just setting that forward raises some important questions for the historian: Where is the West? Which part of its history should we examine? And, perhaps most importantly, Why does it matter?

This course uses the idea of “place”—this year’s college wide theme—to begin to address some of these questions. The bulk of the course will focus on the period between the American Revolution and World War II, when the modern contours of the American nation took shape.
Perhaps the two most fascinating thing about the American West are the interactions of various groups of peoples who encountered one another in the region, and, secondly, the interplay of humans with their environment in the region, an environment that ranges from the bitter cold of the Rocky Mountains, to the flowing grassland of Iowa, to the searing heat of the Mojave Dessert. Peoples from Europe and the emerging American Empire encountered peoples of very different backgrounds in the west: Native Americans, Mexicans, and Asians, foremost among them. This course will examine aspects of the experience of each of these groups in order to help develop a fuller understanding of both the distinctiveness of the West as a region and its importance, both economic, social, and ecological, to the United States.
Many of our ideas and images of the west are mediated through the lenses of Hollywood and of politics—the Lone Ranger and Tonto; the pioneer family; the rugged individualist. These images have deeply impressed historians of the west, as well. Part of this course will focus on understanding how the writing of the history of the west has changed over time, and explore the importance of these changes for what they reveal about American culture more broadly. Lastly, a primary goal of this class is to expand student’s research, writing, and problem-solving skills through active engagement with an historical problem: How does place effect human life?


  1. Students will identify, compare/contrast, and analyze the arguments of secondary sources and explain their significance.

  2. Students will analyze primary sources and construct original historical arguments about the past.

  3. Students will construct a narrative of the major themes of the history of the American West.

  4. Students will raise and resolve questions relating to the history of the American West.


Richard W. Etulain, Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional (Boston: Bedford/ St. Martins, 1999) ISBN: 0-312-18309-7

John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000) ISBN: 0-300-08924-4
Marilynn S. Johnson, Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre, A Brief History with Documents, ISBN: 0-312-44579-2
Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998), ISBN: 0-7006-0891-5
Course Reader: Available in class

Readings: The key to this class will be discussion of the readings assigned for each day. Every student is expected to come to class having done the readings and to bring the assigned readings for that day with them. Please let me know if you have any difficulty acquiring the required texts. For each day’s reading, there are discussion questions on the syllabus. Students are expected to arrive in class prepared to discuss those questions.
Quizzes: Quizzes in this class will be either pop-quizzes that occur in class, or, quizzes that are posted to blackboard and which you will have four days to respond to; again, these quizzes will be unannounced. All quiz questions, however, will be based off of the discussion questions on the syllabus.
Missed Quizzes: If you miss an in-class quiz due to an unexcused absence, you will receive a zero on that quiz. However, your lowest quiz grade is dropped.
Blackboard: Blackboard will be used to post all course documents including the course syllabus, quizzes, paper guidelines, and exams. Please check Blackboard and your MBC email on a regular basis.
Smart Board Notes: On campus, this course is taught in a room that has Smart Board Technology. Smart board is an interactive white board that uses powerpoint-type presentations including photos, video clips, and links to websites in addition to the notes written during class – all posted on Blackboard as a PDF. These lecture notes will help you to assess what is important in the chapters that you are reading. If you do not understand a topic – then ask! In addition, I often post “other cool stuff” – news articles, extra information, anything that enhances the course or may follow-up on questions.

Blog: Students will be graded on their participation in the online class blog. The blog is public. Students are expected to interact with each other, posting their own entries and commenting on the entries of other students.

1. This is an academic setting. Your blog entries should be professional, courteous, and tolerant of all opinions. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, or other misconduct of any kind on the blog will not be tolerated. (Your posts will be deleted and you will get a zero for class participation).

2. Your participation is required. You do not have to write long entries -- but I will look for your engagement in the discussions.

3. The blog topic will change bi-weekly. You are expected to comment at least twice a month.

4. The purpose of the blog is to explain your views and what they are based on -- and to take time to listen to the different opinions of your fellow students and RESPECT their different perspectives and try to UNDERSTAND where they are coming from. You do not have to agree with them -- but you DO have to tolerate and respect diversity in this class.

5. Enjoy this opportunity to get to know your fellow students better -- we have as much to learn from each other as we do from our books.1

Papers: This course has two required formal papers. You may choose to write your first paper on either the Faragher documents or on the Diary of Lydia Allen Rudd. This paper will be a primary source analysis—you can find more details on this assignment on the course blackboard site. This paper should be 3-5 pages long. This paper is due OCTOBER 8.
The second paper will arise out of the research you do as part of our Knowledge-Building Project. It is due December 10th. It should be 8-12 pages long.
Knowledge-Building Project: Knowledge-Building can be defined “as the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community, through means that increase the likelihood that what the community accomplishes will be greater than the sum of individual contributions and part of broader cultural efforts.”2 In the business, legal, economic, social, etc. world, collaboration and constant innovation are required of every individual and organization—a key example of this is Google, which relies on a model of both innovation and collaboration. In this course, we will be modeling a similar structure, both in order to widen our own understandings of a research topic of your choice AND to improve critical thinking, collaboration, and research skills through asking, answering, and refining questions—for you to learn to create knowledge, rather than receive it. We will be devoting the last month and a half of course work to this project, and your final paper will arise from it.
This will be a multi-stage process that will be completed, at least partially, during class. As we move closer to this section of the course, you will be provided with more information. For now, start thinking about either a place, or a general topic, that interests you.

Final: This course includes a cumulative final examination. Per Mary Baldwin Policy, you MUST TAKE THE FINAL EXAM IN ORDER TO PASS THE CLASS.


Late Papers: In order to pass the class, all papers must be handed in. You may ask for an extension on any paper, but, you may only ask for ONE. After your first late paper, all subsequent late papers will be docked a letter grade (i.e. a paper that would have gotten a B will get a C) for each day they are late.

Rewrites: No scholar (or business person, or lawyer, or engineer, or politician) ever writes anything just once. All works that you read, be they fiction, articles, textbooks—anything—has been written, read, and revised multiple times. If you are unhappy with your grade, or just change your mind about your argument, you may choose to rewrite a paper at any time, but before you can rewrite, you must come see me during my office hours or make an appointment to meet at some other time. Your grade on the rewrite will be your grade on the paper.

Discussion and Class Participation: This course will include several discussion components, both as a large group and in smaller group formats, as well as online blog-posts. Participating in discussion requires you having thoughtfully read the material and constructed your own opinions; it also requires you listening to your colleagues and responding to them in an engaged, respectful manner. Some students are uncomfortable speaking aloud in class; if this is how you feel, I strongly encourage you to participate even more regularly in the blog-posts.

Absences: All students may miss class once with no penalty. All subsequent absences must be excused (you must email me, in advance, with a reason you were absent. If you are ill and wish to be excused, I expect a note from Student Health Services). More than one unexcused absence will lower your class participation grade by 10%. IF YOU MISS MORE THAN 6 CLASSES, YOU AUTOMATICALLY FAIL.
Technology: I expect cell phones to be turned off before you enter the room and to remain out of sight throughout class. Improper use of a laptop (i.e. looking at an unrelated website) or cell phone during class will lower your class participation grade by 20% each time it occurs. In general, you do not need a laptop for this class, however, when we begin working on the knowledge building process, you may bring your own if you desire.

Plagiarism: Students are required to submit only their own work. Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, turning in another‘s paper as one’s own, or quoting, paraphrasing or taking ideas from any other source – whether published or unpublished – without properly and explicitly citing that source at every instance. If you have any doubts about what constitutes plagiarism, please ask. If you feel that you have “no choice” but to plagiarize, please come see me instead. Plagiarism is grounds for automatically failing the course, and will be referred for further disciplinary action by the Honor’s Council.


Quizzes: 10%

Paper 1: 15%

Knowledge Building: 30%

Paper 2: 15%

Class Participation: 15%

Final Exam: 15%

Mon, 9/3 Intro and welcome
Wed, 9/5 Richard W. Etulain, p. 3-43, What is the significance of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”? What is the “frontier thesis?” (i.e., what does Turner argue?); what stages of development does Turner give? How does this relate to the idea of American exceptionalism?

Mon, 9/10 Craig T. Friend, Kentucke’s Frontiers, excerpt **; Stephen Aron, “Pioneers and Profiteers”**

What differences do you see between Friend and Aron’s work? What types of sources do you think they used? What was life like on the Kentucky frontier? For men, women, slaves? What is land speculation—and what are attitudes towards it?

Wed, 9/12 Draper Manuscripts, Boone documents, Land Speculation**

What conclusions can you draw about life on the Kentucky frontier? What are the major points of the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 and 1787? What was the Ohio Company, and how do you think settlers felt about it?

Mon, 9/17 John Mack Faragher, “The Fur Trade,” excerpt from The American West: A New Interpretive History**; Fur trade documents**

Why was the fur trade so important? How did the fur trade operate in different regions of the country? How was it a source of both conflict and cooperation between Euro and Native Americans?

Wed, 9/19

Glenda Riley, “Frederick Jackson Turner Overlooked the Ladies,” in Etulain, p. 59-72

What is Riley’s argument? Why does she take issue with Turner? How does she propose to solve the problem? What is her evidence?

Mon, 9/24

John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, Intro, ch. 1, ch. 2

What are Faragher’s goals? Why did people decide to emigrate? What was life like on a Midwestern farm?
Wed, 9/26

John Mack Faragher, Women and Men on the Overland Trail, ch. 3, 4, p.160-178 and conclusion

What was life like on the trail? Is this the same as what you expected, or different? How did gender roles differ on the trail from what they were at home?
Mon, 10/1

“Notes by the Wayside en Route to Oregon, 1852,” by Lydia Allen Rudd**;

What was Rudd’s attitude towards immigration? What events occurred on her journey? What is her attitude towards Native Americans? What do you think was the most difficult thing on the journey for Rudd? Would you have emigrated?
Wed, 10/3

Donald Worster, “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History,” in Etulain, p. 87-104

What is Worster’s argument? How is it different from the arguments of other historians that we have read? What is Worster’s evidence?

Mon, 10/8

Elliott West, The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado, intro, prologue, Part One (ch. 2, 3,4 )

Wed, 10/10

West, The Contested Plains, part 2.

Mon, 10/15

West, The Contested Plains, ch. 8, 9

Wed, 10/17

West, The Contested Plains, ch. 10, 11

Mon, 10/22

NO CLASS—Fall Break

Wed, 10/24

Manifest Destiny and the Mexican American War, part I**

Mon, 10/29

Manifest Destiny and the Mexican American War, part II**

Wed, 10/31

Phillip B. Gonzales, “Struggle for Survival: The Hispanic Land Grants of New Mexico, 1848-2001”

Mon, 11/5

Faragher, “The Power of the Road,”**

Wed, 11/7

Richard White, “When Frederick Jackson Turner and Buffalo Bill Cody Both Played Chicago in 1893,” in Etulain.

Mon, 11/12

Johnson, Violence in the West: The Johnson County Range War and the Ludlow Massacre, p. 1-18; Documents, TBA

Wed, 11/14

Johnson, Violence in the West, p.18-31; Documents, TBA

Mon, 11/19

Gregory Nokes, “‘A Most Daring Outrage,’: Murders at Chinese Massacre Cove, 1887”**

Judy Young, “A Bowlful of Tears Revisted: The Full Story of Lee Puey You’s Immigration Experience at Angel Island”**
Wed, 11/21

NO CLASS--Thanksgiving

Mon, 11/26

Marc Reisner, excerpt from Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water**

Wed, 11/28

Jeffrey Ostler, “‘Just as Well with my Hair On’: Colonial Education”**

Mon, 12/3

Linda C. Noel, “‘I am an American’: Anglos, Mexicans, Nativos, and the National Debate over Arizona and New Mexico Statehood”

Wed, 12/5

Patricia Limerick, Michael P. Malone, Gerald Thompson, and Elliott West, “Western History: Why the Past May be Changing,” in Etulain.

1 Many thanks to Laura Van Assendelft for the wording of this and the section above labeled “Smartboard Notes.”

2 M. Scardamalia & C. Berieter, “Knowledge Building,” in Encyclopedia of Education, Second Edition ( New York: Macmillan, 2002).

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