A sharp reframing of the history of the early Western frontier in personal terms.
At the outset of this elegantly written study, winner of the Bancroft Prize and a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize (the book was first published in 2011 by the University of Nebraska Press), Hyde (History/Colorado Coll.) observes that the Louisiana Purchase did not suddenly dump into the tender hands of the new United States a howling, savage unknown. Instead, granted that the “Anglo-Americans were newcomers in a world that was anything but wilderness,” the vast region was a territory both held together and divided by complex lines of relation, friendship and other affinities elective and otherwise. Within the confines of the West were settlements such as St. Louis, Santa Fe, Nootka and Prairie du Chien whose inhabitants spoke countless languages and were often of mixed ethnicity. It was family connections more than any political or military power that enabled those people to cross lines of nationhood and race; Hyde cites, for instance, the case of William Bent, the founder of Bent’s Fort, Colo., a success as both a trading post and a non-Native American settlement only “because [he] had made familial relationships with the Cheyenne, American, and Mexican elites.” With the arrival of formal American institutions, writes Hyde, racism began to take hold; as she concludes, after 1860, “[i]deas about race and how it described people and circumscribed behavior remained very shifty but soon had the power of the state to give them shape.” The shape they took was that of Jim Crow, and soon, those old kinship and friendship ties gave way to a different set of laws.
With a vast dramatis personae and stage, Hyde’s book sheds considerable light on the 19th-century development of the nation. Highly recommended.