When we say, “the frontier,” what does that phrase call to mind? I see covered wagons and pioneers; I picture that screen from the Oregon Trail computer game that asks the traveler to make a difficult decision: caulk the wagon or ford the river? Settlers are the historical actors most people have encountered before, but they aren’t the only people who lived or live in what is now the U.S. West— and their experiences of the frontier are only part of the story. (And of course, both “the frontier” and “the West” move, so locating these concepts in place and time will be important for us.) This block we’ll encounter a diverse range of historical actors: enslaved people, Native communities, mining families, workers, settlers, and even astronauts as we consider the U.S. West as a frontier, homeland, borderland, and empire. What do each of these frameworks open up? And what kinds of arguments do they support? Together we’ll grapple with questions of narrative: which—and whose—stories do we tell when we talk about homelands, borderlands, empires, and frontiers? How do structures of power shape access to sources, experiences, and narratives? We’ll pay special attention to the ways historians and institutions position Colorado and Colorado Springs in these frameworks, and we’ll even track some of what we think of as nineteenth-century rhetoric forward when we consider extraterrestrial frontiers near the end of the block. Together we’ll examine—and ultimately, participate in—the debates historians are still having about the history of the West—and about how to tell that history.
HY217: American Frontiers Fall 2018, Block 1 syllabus here.
Screenshot of Oregon Trail computer game, 1990. You can play online here!