“The West may be the place where it is still possible to get lost – and die of it.” – Lynn Stegner, West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West.
“Space; the final frontier.” Television viewers of the 1960’s and ’70’s may recall this clip in the introduction to every episode of the Star Trek series. It was, after all, a sci-fi Western, complete with all the romanticism, mythologies, good and bad guys, and shoot ’em ups of the older classic novels, movies and TV shows staged in the American West. People like their mythologies and stories, even if they are glaringly far from the truth.
But, one may ask, “What is the ‘truth’?” Truth is what you believe. And history is not exempt. Especially that of the American West.
Events, facts and dates may be data points in a varied and rich narrative that goes through several renditions, traveling through one filter to the next. We have several ‘gatekeepers’ of American Western history: those of the general media -novels, movies, TV shows and, more importantly, school textbooks. Then we have academia; scholars that interpret and ‘document’ history through facts, dates and people in contexts which they perceive through Euro-American filters. Except for historians of the post-modern New American West, literature and history scholars typically develop their narratives of early history on ‘facts’ that are relatively unknown and without thorough investigation, including consideration of nontraditional narratives. History, as most know it, is what it was, not how it was. Especially of the so-called ‘frontier’.
Myths of the ‘frontier’, especially that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s most influential theory of 1893, laid the framework for the American ‘frontier’ as we know it today. Turner’s theory presents the origins of a ‘unique and rugged American identity [that] had to occur precisely at the juncture between the civilization of settlement and the savagery of wilderness’ (1), while ignoring the fact that most of that great ‘frontier’ land was already occupied. Even Teddy Roosevelt’s theory was more spot on by including into the overall process and context a great contest of land ownership and ethnicity. It was much later when scholars began including in our country’s history the sociological context and clashes of ideas between the early Americans and non-Europeans. Whereas Jacksonian history provides the framework for the unique and ‘rugged’ American, Roosevelt’s sectionalism also has continued basis in our modern self-identity: many Americans are loyal to their own region before they are to their nation. Two prime examples of this are Texas and New Mexico.
If one were to construct a Venn diagram (2) of Texas, the most schizophrenic area of occupied land would make one’s head swim (3). Overlapping and aggregations of relationships might foster residual myths of the American frontier juxtaposed over the fastest growing urbania in the country. Six national flags have flown over Texas soil claiming it as their territory. Settlers from all points north, south and east of the state lines have tilled and cursed the same land, while the federal government and the rest of the nation rescued the state many times. And still, Texan’s proudly subscribe to separatism.
The historical process of New Mexico, on the other hand, has a more simplistic aggregation in relationship: expansion and colonization onto land occupied by various native sedentary or nomadic American tribes. As Meinig explains in an essay (4), the cultural geographical region of SW Texas, New Mexico and Arizona share a strong commonality in historic development. Add the similarities of the topographies of New Mexico and SW Texas, and we have a sub-region with ethnic, biological, ecological, climatic and even architectural identities. Some locations may not have seen human footprints in decades, if not centuries. The land still dictates who and what lives and stays. Perhaps the ‘frontier’ where old ideas, stories and challenges, even if within the political boundaries of the United States, still exist, with or without the myths. And perhaps we like it that way.
You may wonder about the title ‘Occupied New Mexico,’ if I am posting about Big Bend, Texas. Simple: The more I experience New Mexico, the more I realize how similar many parts of Big Bend are to New Mexico. Big Bend is more like New Mexico than the rest of Texas: in terrain, people, communities, biodiversity, and even structures. If you know the past rich history of southwest Texas and New Mexico, even the present is parallel.
A well known expert in adobe construction, an adobero, that lives in New Mexico, once referred to SW Texas, as ‘Occupied New Mexico.’ He’s right, and he doesn’t realize what he started, for I refer to Big Bend as the same: Occupied New Mexico. Partly because most other people don’t have a clue what I am talking about. Partly because I tend to buck convention with place names, and use a name that reflects past history as well as current perspectives. I don’t owe blind allegiance to any place on a map; places own me and I give them names that mean something to me.
“How it was, how it is, here in the West – just that. It is the difference between drinking the glass of water and knowing the thirst. And it may be that knowing the thirst, imperfect or misguided as it can be, carries more truth finally than what’s in the glass.” – Lynn Stegner.
1. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, delivered to the American Historical Association in 1893 in Chicago.
3. I highly recommend reading D. W. Meinig’s, Imperial Texas: An Interpretive Essay in Cultural Geography. Becoming familiar with the historical framework of Texas will help explain the culture and people of that state.
4. Southwest: Three Peoples in Geographical Change 1600-1970, D.W. Meinig.