The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West
By Patricia Nelson Limerick, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1987, 349 pages
Review by Curt Prendergast
A recent headline on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star read “‘Invasion’ claim over SB 1070 shot down.” The state of Arizona had countersued the federal government over the partial blockage of an immigration enforcement law passed in April 2010. The central argument of the countersuit was that Arizona was being invaded by undocumented immigrants and the federal government should stop this invasion.
Inside the same newspaper, dated July 29, 2011, another headline read “Border security contract signed,” about a 3-year $24 million contract to maintain and repair the border fence in Arizona. Next to it was a headline that read “Huachuca general picked for 2nd star,” about the promotion of the head of Fort Huachuca, the largest military installation in southern Arizona. In the Nation section of the newspaper, a headline read “Polygamist-case prosecutor promises audio recording,” about a Mormon who was on trial for allegedly raping two girls, aged 12 and 15, with whom he had “spiritual or celestial marriages.”
Patricia Nelson Limerick suggests that we can better understand these disparate topics if we study the West as a place, rather than as a process that culminated with the “end of the frontier” as Frederick Jackson Turner declared in 1890. A central theme in Limerick’s book is that the West is still being settled and the key to understanding the current situation is conquest. “Reorganized, the history of the West is a study of a place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences.”
This seminal work was published in 1987, but as the headlines above show, its insights are still relevant today. For example, Limerick’s book sheds light on the continued relevance of the sense of innocence held by immigrants from the Eastern United States living in the West, the complex relationship between Westerners and the federal government, the role of boundaries in the evolution of the West, and the rights of minorities in the West.
Limerick writes: “The conquest of Western American shapes the present as dramatically–and sometimes as perilously–as the old mines shape the mountainsides…Americans are left to stumble over–and sometimes into–these connections, caught off guard by the continued vitality of issues widely believed to be dead.”
She concludes the book with a detailed discussion of racial encounters in the West, both past and present. According to her, these encounters make those in the Eastern United States look like a “family reunion.” The West was the meeting ground for Native American and Hispanic people already living there and immigrants from the Eastern United States, China, Japan, and a variety of other countries. Her discussion of racial encounters is essential reading for anyone interested in the current immigration debate in Arizona.
The book is written in a lively prose that avoids academic jargon. After reading it, the newspaper will never look the same again.