Southwest to Whom? An Analysis of the Historiography of the American West

Frederick Jackson Turner

The American Southwest – the title hints at the meaning, history and mental imagry attached to the region by inhabitants and observers. The “Southwest” is not southwest of Mexico City, so the geographic nature of its designation implies its conquest by the United States in 1848, as if the American nation’s sovereignty over the region could change the spatial position of the land and the people that occupied it.

Popular American conceptions of the American West have underpinned this proprietary definition of the Southwest, but the historical treatments of the region, its people, and its place within the larger narrative of human experience have changed over the last few decades. The American Southwest was once defined by American historians as part of the rewards of Manifest Destiny, and its incorporation into the nation was explained as the implementation of God’s plan for the Anglo-Saxon race.

Frederick Jackson Turner

Frederick Jackson Turner announced the closing of the frontier in 1893, and the academic investigation of the western region of the United States languished, as Americans tended to view the West as a completed process of frontier settlement. This paper will examine the development of the historiographical treatment of the Southwest over the last three decades, and show how the New Western history and investigations into issues of national identity revitalized the field. Once seen as a cultural artifact or a Hollywood backdrop, the history of the Southwest has become a dynamic exploration of continuity and variety, conquest and exchange, and culture and identity. Once defined by its relationship to the conquering metropole, the Southwest is increasingly understood through its relationship to its environment and the experiences of its population.

Turner had characterized the American West in terms of its significance as a frontier between expanding civilization and shrinking savagery. Once Turner determined that the process of the frontier had been ended through white settlement, the study of the American West, and its subregions like the Southwest, foundered. Many historians in the later part of the twentieth century avoided analyzing the American West, but produced important works on regional, ethnic and gender history that were set within the western region. This resulted in significant scholarship on the experiences of minority groups that had been subsumed by the frontier narrative.

Albert Camrillo

Chicanos in a Changing Society by Albert Camarillo

Albert Camarillo became part of what he described as “the new social history that has focused on heretofore excluded from traditional historic studies” with books such as Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930 [1] His book on the experiences of Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos, in Santa Barbara and Southern California was part of a larger academic effort to reclaim the history of Chicano communities from obscurity. Although he did not necessarily consider his work part of Western history, he did endeavor to establish the continuity of the Chicano historical experiences after 1848.

Camarillo disproved the perception that Chicanos lost their historical grounding as they transitioned from Mexicans to Americans. By demonstrating the political and economic displacement of Chicanos in California, and illustrating the development of barrios and their relationship to the dominant Anglo-American culture, Camarillo exposed a part of Western history that had nothing to do with the Turnarian closing of the frontier. Camarillo used economic, demographic and social data to articulate the vibrant, dynamic history of Chicano people in Southern California, and the larger history of capitalist development in the West, and by doing so established a useful model for understanding Hispanic displacement in the Southwest. He integrated the Chicano experience into the exploitive and racialized economic system that enabled the incorporation of the American West, and in many ways anticipated the goals of the of the New Western historians that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s.

Patricia Limerick and Donald Worster

Historians like Patricia Limerick and Donald Worster also pursued themes of continuity in the West, although not through exclusive focus on the social history of underrepresented, minority groups. Instead, these historians of the New West revitalized the field by connecting their analysis of the West to the lives and interactions of the diverse inhabitants, and the economic and social consequences of the western geography and extreme environment. With these approaches they were able to directly contribute to the understanding of the Southwest, by establishing frameworks that connected an understanding of the West and its subregions to the interrogation of the history of the people that lived there and the events and conditions they experienced.

Instead of viewing the region of the West only in relation to the course of white settlement, Patricia Limerick rejected Turner’s thesis and defined the West as a geographic location, not an idea, in her 1987 ground-breaking work Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.[2] Her decision to define the West as a region freed the study of the West from the “conceptual fog” that she determined prevented Western historians from engaging in relevant interpretation and debate.[3] This allowed her to integrate Chicano, or Mexican-American, history, and the work of social historians like Camarillo, into a larger narrative of conquest and continuity.

Limerick focused on the variety and interactions of western inhabitants by seeing the west as a meeting ground of different groups of people. Limerick recognized that the Southwest was a contested borderland and a diverse common ground. In Limerick’s book, the conquest of the Southwest, so often seen from the perspectives of the victors in western narratives, was reoriented and made to show the experiences of the people living in the contested area and subjected to the “Anglo-American talent to change overnight from being intruders to being legitimate residents and, conversely to turn the natives into “foreigners.”[4] By weaving the biographies and social histories into a synthesis treatment of the American West, Limerick was able to build on the historiographical innovations of the 1960s and 1970s, but she also helped redefine the field of Western history and redirect it in ways that contributed to the understanding of the Southwest.

A couple of years before Patricia Limerick published Legacy of Conquest, Donald Worster established continuity and conquest within Western history in his book, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West, by connecting the arid environment of the Southwest to the economic inequality and instrumentalism that developed in the region. Worster also rejected Turner’s frontier thesis, and like Limerick chose to define the perspective of his work according to the reality of the land itself, not the general direction of the movement of white settlement. He, however, focused his analysis of the region on the way the technological advances in irrigation and riparian manipulation arose in response to the arid conditions of the Southwest. He explained how the distinct demands of arid environments historically resulted in the development of “hydraulic societies,” but that the domination of nature in the arid regions of the American West went further than previous irrigation-based empires.[5]

Pursuing a policy of “total use for greater wealth,” an alliance of capitalists, politicians and regulators constructed an economic and political structure that favored the accumulation of wealth, property and power in the hands of relatively few people.[6] Worster warned of the anti-democratic and ultimately anti-life implications of the Capitalist State, and urged his readers to accommodate nature instead of subduing it. Through his analysis of the powerful economic structures that enabled the accumulation of capital, Worster also exposed the social and economic constraints experienced by the inhabitants of the Southwest. He not only highlighted the importance of the region, and advocated wise stewardship of nature, but also recommended a re-examination of nature’s relationship to human history.

In 1994, work on the American West was published in The Oxford History of the American West, and the wealth and diversity of historical studies brought together in the book illustrate the multiple subjects, perspectives and processes involved in western history.[7] The complex history of the Southwest was featured within the Heritage section, and the article by David Weber, The Spanish-Mexican Rim, describes the Spanish influence on the region. Weber explored the interaction between native Southwesterners and Spanish, and the role that the northern portion of the Spanish American empire played in the international competitions between Spain and France.

Weber followed the story through the emergence of the Mexican Empire in 1821, and its subsequent decades as a republic, and rejected the earlier interpretations that “dismissed the long Spanish-Mexican tenure in the region as a time of despotism, religious intolerance, and economic stagnation,”[8] He instead integrated the Spanish heritage of the Southwest into an analysis of the West, reminding his readers of the significance of the continuity of the history of the region. Outside of the artificial constraints of the modern boundaries of nation-states, Weber conducted an analysis that connected the Spanish-Mexican heritage to Native American and colonial history.

Matt Garcia

A World of its Own by Matt Garcia

Cultural historians like Matt Garcia built upon the foundations of the New Western history in attempts to uncover more about the experiences and contributions of Mexican-Americans within American history. In his 2001 book, A World of its Own: Race, Labor and Citrus in the Making of Greater Los Angeles, 1900-1970, Garcia specifically investigated the political culture of Mexican-American citrus-workers.[9]

By merging analyses of Chicano cultural and community development, in a way that struck an “appropriate balance between space, time, and social being,” Garcia sought to answer certain questions about the history of the Chicano population of the suburbs around Los Angeles.[10] Garcia’s main query was the explanation for the lack of labor activism within Chicano communities of the San Gabriel-San Bernardino Valley. Garcia characterized Mexican-American laborers in Los Angeles as active agents engaged in less obvious forms of resistance, which they expressed through their popular culture and community cohesion. Garcia tapped into the work of social historians, like Camarillo, to show the material conditions of Chicano laborers, the racism that manifested in a dual-wage system, sub-standard living conditions, and second class status, and the “barrioization” movement that consolidated the Chicano population within enclaves.[11]

Garcia used the frameworks of theorists like Edward Soja and Antonio Gramsci in order to uncover other forms of political activity within Chicano communities, and the ways geographic and cultural choices allowed Chicanos to engage in counter-hegemonic activity in response to the discrimination they faced in Los Angeles. Garcia connected theatre and dancehall culture to political activism and intercultural exchange, recognizing alternative ways Chicanos had to critique and change Los Angeles society. Garcia’s book was the product of his own extensive scholarship and oral interviews, but was also a part of the growing scholarship that was re-examining the history of the West, the experiences of the inhabitants of western communities and the relationship different groups of western inhabitants had to dominant Anglo-American culture and their own natural environment. While part of the growing scholarship on cultural history, Garcia’s book also signified the dynamic potential of New Western history, once released from the ethnocentric constraints of the Turner Thesis.

Andres Resendez

Like Chicano political culture, southwestern national identity is another complex subject that cannot be successfully explained through Turner’s frontier process. An understanding of Anglo-American national identity can benefit from an understanding of the place of the frontier within popular culture, and the idea that the American West signified the historic “struggle with the wilderness [that] turned Europeans into Americans.”[12] However, this perspective obscures the identities of nonwhite inhabitants of the West. Andres Resendez’s 2005 book, Changing National Identities of the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850, examined the identity choices of Tejanos, Nuevomexicanos, Mexicans, and Americans in the Southwest in the first half of the nineteenth century.

The region transitioned from the periphery of the Spanish empire, to the northern states of Mexico, and ultimately into the American Southwest, and the people that lived on the borderland faced stark choices between Mexican and American national identity. Resendez found that identity choices of people living on the frontier did not derive from inherent identification with either national project, but instead grew out of “situational” logic, as Southwesterners were buffeted by the forces of the American economy and coerced by the Mexican state.[13]

Resendez used evidence of Mexican state-formation, southwestern market choices, cross-cultural marriages, ethnic literature, and violent resistance to explore the forces that influenced identity choices among Southwesterners. He integrated history of the Spanish heritage in the region, and the nation’s colonial legacy, with a rich variety of frontier inhabitant experiences to explain the construction of national identity on the Mexican-America border. He treated the Southwest as a region and an idea in order to understand the ways its inhabitants understood themselves and navigated their positions to competing national claims. Examining an era of changes and choices, Resendez also showed the continuity of the Southwest through his decision to treat the region as a discrete location, with a rich past and a dynamic cultural heritage that included the contributions of many cultures.


The historiographical scholarship on the American Southwest has progressed over the last few decades, and culminated in the kind of sophisticated analysis of heritage, culture and identity exemplified by historians such as David Weber, Matt Garcia and Andres Resendez. Yet these kinds of interpretive works would not have been possible without the contributions of Chicano and New Western historians. The “conceptual fog” that so worried Patricia Limerick was lifted from the study of the American Southwest and other western regions, and the ensuing analysis has given insight into the previously obscured lives of southwestern residents. Not only freed from the limitations set by Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, studies of the Southwest have uncovered evidence of widespread personal agency and political culture among Mexican Americans, re-examined connections between human history and ecology, and recognized the importance of identity and continuity in a contested region shaped by conquest.


  1. Albert Camarillo, Chicanos in a Changing Society: From Mexican Pueblos to American Barrios in Santa Barbara and Southern California, 1848-1930 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, London: Harvard University Press, 1979), pg 2.
  2. Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest : The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987).
  3. Limerick, pg 24.
  4. Limerick, pg 239.
  5. Donald Worster, Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), pg7.
  6. Worster, pg 262.
  7. Clyde Milner, ed., The Oxford History of the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  8. David Weber, “The Spanish-Mexican Rim,” The Oxford History of the American West, pg 73.
  9. Matt Garcia, A World of its Own: Race Citrus, and Labor in the Making of Greater Los Angeles (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
  10. Garcia, pg 5.
  11. Camarillo, pg 53.
  12. Limerick, pg.20
  13. Andres Resendez, Changing National Identities on the Frontier: Texas and New Mexico, 1800-1850, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).