New Western History

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The "new western history" movement emerged among professional historians in the 1980s, a belated manifestation of the 1970s "new social history" movement. The new western historians recast the study of American frontier history by focusing on race, class, gender, and environment in the trans-Mississippi West. The movement is best known through the work of Patricia Nelson Limerick, Richard White, William Cronon, and Donald Worster. The philosophy and historiography of the new western historians is discussed thoroughly and supportively in Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds., Trails: Toward A New Western History. An overview of the New Western History is available in Clyde Milner, et al., The Oxford History of the American West. The movement has been thoroughly critiqued by historian Michael Allen.

Like the new social historians, new western historians made important contributions. By focusing on race, class, gender, environment, they added to the work of older Borderlands scholars of Hispanic studies, furthered the understanding of American Indians and frontier women, and worked the fertile ground of twentieth-century western history.

Frontier history did not show the impact of the new social history until over a decade after most other historical fields. The reason for the lag is that frontier history, from its inception in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 "Frontier Thesis" paper, had always been home to a strong school of non-Marxist economic determinists (“Progressives”). These “old” western historians had addressed multiethnic and environmental issues on the Colonial, trans-Appalachian, and trans-Mississippi frontiers. Although they left much work undone, these Progressives planted the fields the new western historians later harvested.