Speaker reveals the softer side of the American West
November 16, 2010Tweet
Acknowledging that periods of concord existed with periods of conquest in the development of the American West makes us better understand that part of history, Stephen Aron said at the 19th Annual Freedeman Memorial Lecture on Nov. 12.
“This history is more commonly rendered as an almost unending series of world-shattering, people-scattering, blood-spattering conflict,” he said. “Amid that history of conquest, there was at least a smattering of concord.”
Aron spoke about “The Legacy of Concord” to history professors and students at Casadesus Recital Hall. The lecture was based on a book Aron is working on about the history of concord in the North American frontier and borderlands called Can We All Just Get Along? An Alternative History of the American West.
While admitting that he found the previous 18 Freedeman speakers to be “intimidating company,” Aron brought his own impressive credentials to Binghamton University. A professor of history at UCLA, Aron is also executive director of the Autry Institute for the Study of American West. He has written books such as How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay and was seen by millions in March on the NBC show Who Do You Think You Are? helping actress Sarah Jessica Parker determine if an ancestor was part of the California Gold Rush.
For Aron, “the legacy of concord” represents an alternative history of the West.
“It’s certainly not the first word that comes to mind when thinking about the convergences of peoples and cultures across North American frontiers and the American West’s past,” he said. “When I tell people that I’m working on this alternative history of the American West that focuses on stories of intercultural concord, the usual reaction is that I’ve moved into the world of fiction.”
The perception of alternative history is usually made up of “what if?”: What if the South had won the Civil War? What if the Nazis won World War II? But Aron emphasized that “what if?” is not his question, preferring when, where and how.
“The alternative history I’m seeking is one of possibilities,” he said. “Possibilities occasionally realized, but rarely stabilized. When and where did these glimpses of opportunity develop? Why did these moments occur, yet so rarely endure?”
Aron also has sought this alternative in particular places, instead of familiar historic faces. He offered six “episodes,” as examples of concord, starting with the Straits of Mackinac at the confluence of several Great Lakes in the early 18th century. A second example, Apple Creek in southeast Missouri, featured French, Spanish and Americans sharing occupancy with Indians into the first decade of the 19th century. The groups would often come together to trade, hunt, drink, gamble and mate.
“This remarkable history, like the creek on which it played out, lies now almost entirely buried,” Aron said.
The third and fourth examples were Fort Clapsop, on the western end of the Lewis and Clark trail, and Chimney Rock, a midpoint on the Oregon Trail. Aron moved into the 20th century for his final two examples, the Boyles Height neighborhood in East Los Angeles and the Malpai Borderlands Region of New Mexico and Arizona. Only the latter remains an example of conciliation, as the Borderlands group has worked together with ranchers, environmentalists and land managers.
Attempts at concord should not be short-changed, Aron said, adding that explanations should be provided for why conciliation faded at the sites.
For example, Americans operated in a “more unchecked atmosphere” after the War of 1812, he said.
“Gone were the fur-bearing animals,” Aron said. “Gone were the rough balances of power that constrained expansionist endeavors and invited people into cultural borrowing. Gone then was the concord that once characterized Mackinac and Apple Creek.
Concord remained at Fort Clapsop and Chimney Rock until the middle of the 19th century.
“So long as Lewis and Clark and others were just passing through Indian countries and were there mostly to trade, conciliation could hold its ground,” Aron said. “Once settlers moved in to stay, the balance of numbers changed and so did the character of the frontier.”
Complementary cultures, not common cultures, often led to concord, Aron said. The best opportunities for concord arose when resources were less exploitable and economies more compatible — even if that concord was short-lived.
“I concede that this legacy of concord should not hide us from the harsher truths of the legacy of conquest upon which the American West was built,” he said. “We can’t allow moments of uneasy amity to obscure eras of unrelenting enmity. But neither should we allow these eras of enmity to blind us to the extended moments of amity and the possibilities at which they hint.”