Richard White and the New Western History

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"Challenging and at times veritably poetic, Richard White's The Middle Ground establishes a meaningful new framework for the analysis of Indian-white relations. Rather than setting up easy victim-exploiter categories or glorifying Native American resistance, White examines how violence, cultural innovation, confrontation, and accommodation worked on the ground, in specific interactions and conflicts between and within settler and indigenous groups. The author views Native Americans and Europeans soberly, showing the deep divisions on each side in relation to questions of power, legitimacy, and meaning.

By resisting the temptation to glorify or satanize either side, White presents a deep, humane, and enduring picture of Native American heroism in the face of increasingly unviable odds. His conceptualization of the "middle ground," and of the role of the state in constructing ethnicity, also represent contributions of lasting value to our understanding of Indian-white relations throughout the Americas."

-- American Historical Association
1992 Albert J. Beveridge Award Announcement

A new trend in the study of American history has stirred up controversy in recent years. Academic historians have scrapped the time-honored, sacred American myths about the Old West; and the media, from the New York Times to People Magazine, have taken notice.footnote 1

At the forefront of the "new Western history" is UW history professor and alumnus Richard White, whose pathbreaking works about the West and environmental history have received national acclaim in a slew of awards. Among them is one of the famed "genius" grants--a fellowship award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1995.

White's first book, based on his dissertation for his doctorate from the UW, focused on the history of Whidbey Island. The book debunked the popular myth that the white man destroyed an environment that the native peoples had left intact, revealing that the Indians had indeed significantly altered their environment in the course of living off the land. White's work helped to give rise to a new subdiscipline: environmental history.

"White's book is highly original, certainly the most innovative and challenging overview of Western history written in the last couple of generations."

--Elliott West, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville,
It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own footnote 1

But it was with his book, It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, published in 1991, that White distinguished himself as a scholar of the American West. UW history department chairman Richard Johnson characterizes it as "a reinterpretation of Western history that decisively turns away from the Hollywood epic of white men heading wagon trains and shaping frontier democracies on virgin land.

"Instead, it delineates the forming of a region: one already endowed with distinctive Indian and Hispanic cultures, and one where racial tensions and discriminations, extractive industries, highly urban settlements and a common dependence on the federal government were at least as important as the traditional elements we associate with a rural and independent West."footnote 2

Previous concepts of the American West were based largely on work at the turn of the century by Frederick Jackson Turner, the "founding father" of Western history. Turner characterized the Western frontier as a process, explains historian Sherry Smith in a recent article about new Western history.footnote 3 Turner "believed that the westward movement across the continent was the defining national experience, one which left its imprint on both national character and institutions," she explains. But Turner's thesis does not embrace the experiences of Native peoples, Mexicans, Asians, and women. Instead, "it promotes a triumphal story of progress which belies the West's complexities," she asserts. Moreover, Turner's analysis abridges the history of the West, concluding in 1890 when the Census Bureau announced there was no longer a distinguishable frontier, thereby denying the West a 20th century history.

"The Middle Ground is a brilliant scholarly accomplishment, one of the most impressively researched works in any field of history."

--John Mack Faragher, Mount Holyoke College,
in the
Western Historical Quarterly

New Western historians have abandoned the concept of the frontier as a process, and think of it in terms of place and relationships. White's book, which Smith calls "the best synthesis of New Western History scholarship," asserts that the West is characterized by a set of relationships that distinguish it from other sections of the country--the region's relationship with the federal government; a dual labor system based on race and the existence of minority groups with distinctive legal status; patterns of political participation and political organization. Together, these relationships among people, and between people and place, have combined to make the West a distinctive region.

On another front, White's research on the history of Indian-white relations, reported in what is considered his best work, also challenges previously-held beliefs. "Most histories of Indian-white relations in the U.S. tend to emphasize Indian victimization," notes White in an interview in the Seattle Post- Intelligencer.footnote 3 White examined little-used French and English manuscript sources from the 17th to the 19th centuries, including some 200 microfilm rolls of French-language primary documents. He expected to find that Indians would be dependent on the fur trade: "I expected to find Europeans coming in and dictating the terms for their alliance," says White. "Instead, I found Indians acting with remarkable independence."

The culmination of that study, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region 1650-1815, has won five major history prizes: The 1992 Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association for the best book published in American history, as well as the Albert B. Corey Prize, the Rawley Prize, the Francis Parkman Prize, and the American Society of the Colonial Wars Prize. Moreover, the book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

In a review of the book, Colin G. Calloway of the history department of the University of Wyoming observes "the middle ground which White describes was not just a place; it was a network of fluid relationships, held together by its own language, rituals, and patterns of behavior." The place, physically, was the region around the Great Lakes, especially the area between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. Here, Europeans had to adjust to the kinship politics of native society. "People tried to persuade others by appealing to what they perceived as the others' cultural values, and they achieved accommodation and shared meaning through a 'process of creative, and often expedient misunderstandings.'" footnote 4 Echoes a review in the William and Mary Quarterly: "...the governor of New France assumed the role of 'father' to his Indian 'children.' Such language epitomizes the kind of useful cross-cultural misunderstandings characteristic of the middle ground." footnote 5

UW history department chairman Richard Johnson notes The Middle Ground "moves us beyond…depicting Europeans as all-powerful aggressors and Indians as puppet victims to see how competing groups developed their individual strategies for interaction and survival." He adds that "a whole generation of graduate students is now applying this paradigm to other times and places." Johnson calls The Middle Ground "a book that will set the standard and shape the language of research and interpretation for many years to come." footnote 2

  1. "What's New About The New Western History?" Sherry Smith, Wyoming Annals, Winter '94-'95, p. 4.
  2. "We all play the hand we're dealt, honored historian says," N. P. Pautler, University Week, June 22, 1995, p. 3.
  3. "UW historian wins MacArthur 'genius' grant," J. Hadley, Seattle Post-Intellingencer, June 13, 1995.
  4. "Native American history and the search for common ground," C. G. Calloway, Reviews in American History, 20, 447-452 (1992).
  5. Review by Daniel K. Richter in William and Mary Quarterly, Oct. 1992, p. 715.

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