By: Ruben A. Arellano
Historical understanding of the American West has come a long way since Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” which posited, in short, that the steady push westward by Anglo-Europeans and their indefatigable frontier spirit made (white) Americans exceptional. In a collection of essays on Turner’s frontier entitled Does the Frontier Make America Exceptional (1999), Richard W. Etulian quotes Turner: “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Historians picked up on this and, with few exceptions, told and retold American history from this Eurocentric perspective for almost a century. Herbert Eugene Bolton, who pioneered the “Spanish Borderlands” approach and was a student of Turner, maintained a Hispanocentric (Eurocentric) interpretation of the Southwest, and essentially relegated indigenous people to the historical margins. Bolton promoted an alternative form of Turnerian frontierism that romanticized Spanish explorers and ignored indigenous agency.
Another of Turner’s contemporaries, Walter Prescott Webb, defined the American West as a geographic space in the 1930s. “Webb called attention to the significant power of the flat, arid, and treeless plains, environmental themes that gained tremendous popularity after the 1960s.” Etulian informs us that neither Bolton or Webb were critical of Turner, rather, “they were advocates of alternative interpretations of the frontier.” However, by the 1960s, some historians adopted a critical view of Turnerian historiography. One such historian, Jack D. Forbes, a scholar of Native American descent, explicitly disdained the insidious Eurocentric bias in American historiography and called on historians to consider revising the traditional approach.
In 1963, Forbes published an essay entitled “The Historian and the Indian: Racial Bias in American History” (1963), where he points out how American historians had all but ignored ethnic and racial minorities… [full essay]