Title Reviewed:
American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review.

Author Reviewed:
Roger L. Nichols

Catherine Price


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 084, Issue 2, pp 196-197

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Frontier and Western Issues: A Historiographical Review. Edited by Roger L. Nichols. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986. Pp. viii, 303. Notes, sources and repositories for frontier and western history, index. $35.00.)

This book contains an introduction and thirteen essays on recent trends and developments in American frontier and western historiography. The essays cover a broad spectrum of topics, such as territorial government, frontier environment, mining, agriculture and livestock, transportation, economics, frontier military affairs, Native Americans, women, urbanization, and social history. In his interesting introduction, Roger L. Nichols briefly examines the several major problems that have plagued the field. These include a perceived lack of respect from colleagues in the historical profession as a whole, declining student interest on college campuses, and a persistent dilemma concerning definitions. As Nichols rightly asks, "If the practitioners of frontier and Western history cannot agree on the nature of their field, why should other scholars pay much attention to their efforts?" (p. 3).

Although some of the essays are analytically weak, amounting to little more than bibliographical lists, most successfully evaluate the current literature. Many of the contributors advocate using new methodologies—anthropological, sociological, economic, quantitative, and meteorological—to replace the traditional narrative histories of the West with more interpretive studies. More importantly, the authors' various suggestions on how to improve frontier and western history serve to stimulate thought and direct both students and professionals to new research problems. One should note, however, that merely advocating changes within the field does not necessarily produce them. Several of the authors, especially Lawrence H. Larsen (frontier urbanization), Mark Wyman (mining), and Paul A. Hutton (military affairs), believe that their areas of inquiry are still essentially in a state of infancy. Echoing their sentiments, Nichols asserts in his essay that despite Indian historians' recent emphasis on exploring and utilizing ethnohistory and comparative studies, "it is difficult to avoid the persistent feeling that even the newer versions of Indian history have not reached maturity as a major force within the profession" (p. 168). Nichols concludes this book, however, by surprisingly predicting a rosy future for western and frontier history. If the generally inadequate depiction of Native Americans in the most recent college history textbooks is an indication of the effectiveness of new research in just one area, the editor's optimism might seem somewhat premature.

American Frontier and Western Issues is, nevertheless, a well-constructed work, a significant historiographical source, and a useful addition to major research libraries and institutions.

CATHERINE PRICE has recently completed her doctoral dissertation, "Chiefs, Headmen, and Warriors: Oglala Politics, 1851-1889," and is currently visiting assistant professor of American history at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.