Empires, Nations & Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860

Although my professional life as a historian has been devoted almost exclusively to 20th century Britain and Europe, my life-long obsession with history arose in part because of reading about the Mountain Men, the very essence of boot-strapping individualism. As I grew older, youthful, simplistic views gave way to more nuanced ones, but Bernard DeVoto’s western trilogy can still quicken my pulse.

Hyde’s subject in Empires, Nations & Families is the North American West, home of the Mountain Men, often referred to as the Trans-Mississippi West. It is located in time between the Louisiana Purchase and the beginning of the American Civil War. We carry this vast space and time imbedded in our psyches from primary school. It is given shape and texture by our belief in Manifest Destiny.

I was unprepared for Ann Hyde’s Empires, Nations & Families. It has upended what I thought I knew about that time and place. For me, the story was about explorers, hunters, Mountain Men, and Indian tribes—great men doing great things. For her, the story begins with families in St. Louis. She observes the Trans-Mississippi West through a different lens than traditional histories, at once more panoramic and more revealing.

Hyde concentrates mostly on St. Louis, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Monterrey, Fort Vancouver (Washington), and Bent’s Fort (Colorado). While the fur trade is a central theme for her, she is careful to portray the rich, complex economies of these areas, economies that were owned, managed, encouraged, and worked by Indians and various Europeans (Spanish, French, British) as well as Canadians and Americans. Men from these various backgrounds married indigenous or Mexican women and set up family businesses in these locales, businesses that often were carried forward by their “half-breed” children. As for the fur trade itself, it simply could not have existed without cooperative, partnering Indian tribes. More specifically, it could not have existed without Indian women—as wives, mothers, concubines, and workers, women who provided the family connections, spreading over space and time, that held the trade together.

Nor could it have existed without the steady infusion of capital and management provided by an ever-shifting array of fur companies, including the goliath of them all, the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Mountain Men, tough though few in number, were nearly all employed by the big fur companies and always found themselves at the mercy of the market. So much for independence.

The fur and leather trade, active since the 17th century, rapidly declined in the 1840’s. As Hyde argues in Empires, Nations & Families, however, the decline was not just an economic one. It was a social one, too. The families that owned land, promoted trade, and influenced local politics throughout this vast area were ones of mixed ethnicity, or “mixed race” in the argot of the 19th century. As Anglo-American settlers flooded into these areas from the 1840’s onwards, supported by the U.S. Army, they brought with them differing notions of law, marriage, land ownership, and the place of “half-breeds” in their new society. “Half-breeds” lost status and became mere Indians in the eyes of the settlers and the law. Even John McLoughlin, still regarded as the “father of Oregon,” found it nearly impossible to protect his land, property, and wealth either for his own use or for his “half-breed” children’s, in part because he was not yet an American citizen and in part because his wife and children had only marginally more legal rights than slaves.

The rich tapestry of the American West before 1860 rapidly gave way to a more homogenized cloth. There is a bit of sadness in Hyde’s complex narrative. (Perhaps the sadness is mostly in me.) The dynamic Anglo-American society of the 19th century appears to have been insatiable. It demanded the labor of Blacks (Free or Slave) and the land of the American Indians. They were inferior races. Manifestly, they were in the way. Hyde’s portrayal is wonderfully evocative. She deserves her 2011 Bancroft Prize.                                             – Neal Ferguson

 

Also available by Ann Hyde: The West in the History of the Nation, Vol I, To 1877; The West in the History of the Nation, Vol II, Since 1865 (both volumes co-authored by William F. Deverell); American Vision, Far Western Landscape and National Culture 1820-1920.

 

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