The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

Rated 3 out of 5 by from Somewhat Disappointing Listening to a course on a subject in which I have, more or less, experienced a type of saturation throughout my life is difficult, because, for one thing, I probably have some perspectives and indoctrinations that are averse to the current social acceptance. In addition, I most likely will have some unfair expectations regarding the course because of my background. This was the case, for me, in listening to the lectures and reading the guidebook of Professor Patrick Allitt's course on The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy. Nevertheless, notwithstanding my so called preconceptions of the American West, being a native of eastern Nevada, I still found many topics from which I could learn, and I could still appreciate the professor's efforts in considering both sides in discussing various controversial issues. That said, I found inaccuracies, omissions, and contradictions that were difficult for me to ignore. but may not annoy the mainstream student. As one example of several inaccuracies I noticed in this course, Professor Allitt stated the following in his lecture on Traveling the Oregon Trail as he discussed the Mormon immigration to the west: "After a hard journey through the Wasatch Mountains, Young's (Brigham) pioneers descended into the Salt Lake Valley, between the mountains and the Great Salt Lake. Young decided that the area would be their new home, and named it Deseret. It was indeed harsh desert land." In fact, the name Deseret has no connection with the landscape. Rather it is a term that Brigham Young extracted from The Book of Mormon, which states in Ether 2:3: "And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind." From that verse, the term deseret among the Mormon pioneers came to convey the attribute of industry, which they felt was a trait of honeybees. This is why Utah is nicknamed the Beehive State. As quoted from the Utah History Encyclopedia, "Utahns relate the beehive symbol to industry and the pioneer virtues of thrift and perseverance. The beehive, or skep, was chosen as emblem for the state of Deseret in 1848 and was maintained on the seal of the state of Utah in 1896. Utah is nicknamed the "Beehive State." With regard to omissions, I anticipated a much different course than the one Professor Allitt offered. Admittingly, I should have read the course outline a little closer, but in many ways, the course seemed more like an academic series of lectures on settling America as a whole rather than emphasizing the west, which, I suppose, I considered anything west of the Mississippi River. Consequently, we had lectures about the English settlement of the eastern seaboard, the American Colonists venturing across the Appalachian mountains, the Trail of Tears from Georgia to Oklahoma. the American Civil War, and the Louisiana Purchase. Conversely, some of the topics which I thought would be emphasized in a course on the American West were superficially mentioned or omitted completely such as lawmen of the west (i.e. the Mastersons, the Earps, Bill Tighman, etc.); the Comstock Load and Virginia City, Nevada; the Donner Party; the Oklahoma Land Rush; the Dust Bowl and old west outlaws (the Dalton's, Billy the Kid, James-Younger Gang, the Wild Bunch, etc.) to name a few. Obviously, with only twelve hours (24 half hour lectures) to present his material, I can understand the professor had limited time, but I was disappointed in some of the topics that were selected, and some that were omitted. In addition, Professor Allitt's knowledge of Western literature appeared to be somewhat limited, in that he talked repeatedly about books by Willia Cather, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Hamlin Garland, and stated that Owen Wister who published The Virginian in 1902, "is regarded by many critics as the first recognizable Western novel." Considering that the professor dedicated one whole lecture to crossing the Appalachians I couldn't help but wonder why the Professor never mentioned James Fenimore Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales which was many years before Wister. It seemed that he could have at least mentioned The Last of the Mohicans. And to not even mention Zane Grey, Max Brand, Mark Twain (i.e Roughing It), or some of the Pulitzer Prize recipients such as Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose), Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove) or Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres), seemed, to me, a major omission. I know many might say that Grey and Brand wrote nothing more than pulp fiction and that they were too unrealistically violent and anti-Native American, but I believe those commentators never heard of Grey's The Vanishing American, or read his final paragraphs of The UP Trail. I was also disappointed, in his discussion of Western literature, that he never mentioned some of the Western poets, such as Stephen Vincent Benet (The Ballad of William Sycamore), Western short story writers such as Bret Harte (The Outcasts of Poker Flat), or Western humorists, such as Will Rogers. On the other hand, he spent about fifteen minutes giving several synopses of old western movies, particularly those starring John Wayne, such as Red River. I guess it's easier to watch a movie than to read a book. Finally, I noticed that Professor Allitt mentions in his lecture on Women in the Wild West that "Women were expected to stay home, raise God-fearing children, and elevate their families' moral tone. It followed that a place without women would be deficient in religion and morality. The frontier West, where men vastly outnumbered women was just such a place." In other words, in many cases, one might say women had an important, but, admittedly, supportive role in settling most of the West. This didn't make them any less important, heaven forbid, it simply didn't give them the exciting story such as the cattle driver, the miner, or the gun fighter. Later on, however, as the professor discusses Hollywood's interpretation of the west, "Women's roles in movie Westerns have nearly always been subordinate to those of men." In saying that, I'm not sure whether the professor was stating a fact, or making an apologetic statement, but I, for one would rather see accuracy and truth portrayed, rather than to have history changed, even if it is on the silver screen in order to make appearances more inoffensive. If we begin to change truth in order to make it more comfortable (i.e. women gunfighters or bounty hunters), we are no better than how the Ministry of Truth changed history to justify the government in George Orwell's 1984. Whether it be fiction or not, literature and cinema that corrupts history is a perilous sword that destroys veracity in the name of revisionism. In any case, I felt that Professor Allit's course on the American West could be considered a shot in the arm from modern day academia. Consequently, in many cases, I believe that the professor was spot on, but, there was much of it that I felt simply missed the boat.
Date published: 2021-01-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Good Survey of the West This is a newer 2017 production, using a wide screen format with decent props and exhibits. This was my second course that I've taken by Professor Allitt. I admit it's a bit strange to hear a Britt talk about the American West. However, if you think about it, the West was 'settled' by many European immigrants such as Allitt. One distraction that I had, came in Lesson 12 when Allitt talked about Texas and he mispronounced a few geographical places, such as the Sabine and Brazos Rivers. But, he 'ain't' from around there, and so, he just didn't know that the word Sabine is Spanish, and it should not be pronounced SAYBINE. A good research assistant or grad student could have helped him with that. This is a survey course, meaning it doesn't get too deep into the details. But, Professor Allitt does a good job keeping the topics interesting. He introduced some new characters that I did not know, and he at least tried to illustrate the atrocities the white man committed on the Native Americans in settling the West. But, that's a subject for another course in itself.
Date published: 2021-01-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good I enjoyed this. Like so many Brits of (ahem) a certain age I remember growing up watching lots of tedious Westerns at the weekend which shaped my (false) impressions of what the American West was. It was good to come back to it in this course to see it from a more realistic perspective. The course was solid rather than brilliant but nothing wrong with that.
Date published: 2020-12-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from enjoyable very informative, new informattion & facts & well prganized
Date published: 2020-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding In Every Way I purchased this course a year ago and finally got around to listening to it. It is outstanding in every way. The Professor's attention to detail is one of his strongest qualities. He delves into such things as (a) Indian Wars; (b) the Homestead Act; (c) the Railroads; and the (d) Gold Rush. He does an excellent job of discussing the Mormon settlement in Utah and how the Mormons were successful. John Wesley Powell gets a lecture as do the Mountain Men who battled the Indians. The account discusses in a fair and evenhanded way the mistreatment of American Indians by the United States. The Professor also has watched all the good Western movies and has taken the time to understand them. The strengths of the course are its attention to detail and its even-handed outlook and absence of political correctness.
Date published: 2020-10-29
Rated 1 out of 5 by from A very slapdash, reactionary take Numerous ridiculous mispronunciations of words and places. Huge conservative apologist. Glosses over major issues like slavery. He really doesn't seem like he understands much about the American West at all. Not recommended.
Date published: 2020-09-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The American West Allitt was very interesting. The topic sounded interesting and he did not dampen our enthusiasm for it in any way.
Date published: 2020-09-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course, very entertaining. I totally enjoyed this course. I learned much about things I thought I already knew about, such as Indian wars, settlements, ranching, cattle drives and great plains farming. Excellent presentation as always with Allitt.
Date published: 2020-09-12
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The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy
Course Trailer
Westward the Course of Empire
1: Westward the Course of Empire

What are some of the ways we think about the American West? How did this vast, fascinating region come into being, and how was it shaped by centuries of myth-making? What is it about westward expansion that has fascinated every generation of Americans? These and other questions are the topic of this introductory lecture.

31 min
The West in the Colonial Era
2: The West in the Colonial Era

To understand the history of the American West, you have to understand the mark left by its earliest colonists. Among those you'll encounter here are the Spaniards (who introduced horses), the French (who developed a complex trade system), and the English (who, ironically, had little interest at first in colonizing west of the Appalachians)....

31 min
Venturing beyond the Appalachians
3: Venturing beyond the Appalachians

After the Revolutionary War, the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi became part of the new republic. How was this territory organized? As you'll learn, it started with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which created a set of new rules that came into conflict with complex old realities....

30 min
Discoveries of Lewis and Clark
4: Discoveries of Lewis and Clark

Follow the fascinating journey of the two explorers who mapped the Louisiana Purchase between 1804 and 1806. Along the way, you'll learn how Lewis and Clark fit into the tradition of explorers looking for a water route to the Pacific, and you'll consider the political (and geographic) history of the Louisiana Purchase....

31 min
The Fur Trade and the Mountain Men
5: The Fur Trade and the Mountain Men

Fur traders and mountain men played an integral part in exploring and mapping the American West. Here, Professor Allitt reveals why fur was such a precious commodity; how John Jacob Astor dominated the American fur trade; and how famous mountaineers like Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson became legends....

31 min
Trail of Tears
6: Trail of Tears

Turn now to one of the most dismal episodes in the story of the American West: the forced migration of the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole) under the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It was this ordeal that the Cherokee came to call the "Trail of Tears."...

30 min
Struggles of the Plains Indians
7: Struggles of the Plains Indians

From 1830 to 1890, the lives of the Plains Indians changed irrevocably. Topics include our sources for the early history of the Plains Indians (including portraits and archaeology), the importance of buffalo and horses to life on the Great Plains, and two visitors' perspectives on America's treatment of the Plains Indians....

30 min
Rebellious Texas and the Alamo
8: Rebellious Texas and the Alamo

Get the full story behind the last stand at the Alamo and the story of the Texas republic. What led to tensions between the Mexican government and the growing United States? Why is the idea of rebellion so crucial to the myth of Texas? How did the territory eventually join the United States?...

32 min
Traveling the Oregon Trail
9: Traveling the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail has become a symbol of westward migration. In this lecture, Professor Allitt invites you to consider the challenges of the journey, as they were experienced by thousands of travelers. Among the most exceptional were Brigham Young's Mormons, fleeing persecution back East as they headed to Utah....

31 min
Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War
10: Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War

In 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico and, as a result, gained the whole of what is now the nation's southwest region. Welcome to the era of "Manifest Destiny," which, as you'll learn, set the stage for the future of California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico....

31 min
The California Gold Rush
11: The California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush transformed the politics, demographics, and economy of the United States. It also, for the first time, gave the American West an irresistible mass appeal. Discover how the gold rush accelerated westward expansion and, in the process, established some of the first truly multicultural American communities....

30 min
Bleeding Kansas and Civil War in the West
12: Bleeding Kansas and Civil War in the West

Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, giving new states the right to decide their relationship with slave labor. Explore how this event led to a period of chronic anarchy and low-level warfare on the frontier, and how the American Civil War played out in the western states and territories....

31 min
Building the Transcontinental Railroads
13: Building the Transcontinental Railroads

For Professor Allitt, the great dividing line in the story of the American West is the construction of the transcontinental railroads, which did more than anything else to link the West with the Eastern states from which they'd emerged. Go inside the myths-and startling realities-of this decisive moment....

30 min
Cowboys and Cattle Drives
14: Cowboys and Cattle Drives

There is no greater symbol of the American West than the cowboy. But who were the cowboys, exactly? What were their everyday lives like? What did it take to go on a cattle drive along the Chisolm Trail? And why did the arrival of the farming frontier bring an end to the open range?...

30 min
Homesteaders on the Plains
15: Homesteaders on the Plains

With the Homestead Act of 1862, public lands became available for anyone willing to settle and farm them. Enter the homesteaders. Explore the frustrations they faced in trying to cultivate the Great Plains, what fiction reveals about their emotions, and how farming difficulties led to the rise of the People's Party, or Populists....

32 min
Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee
16: Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee

Examine the period from 1865 to 1890, which marked the end of the Native American resistance to white domination. Two events form the core of this lecture. The first: the massacre of General Custer's cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The second: the massacre of the Lakota at the Battle of Wounded Knee....

31 min
Life in Western Towns and Cities
17: Life in Western Towns and Cities

Survey the five main types of towns that developed in the American West: Spanish towns, mining towns, farming towns, railroad towns, and the Pacific coast cities. Three cities you'll explore in depth are Salt Lake City, laid out in 1847; Chicago, the central metropolis of the West; and the great port city of San Francisco....

30 min
John Wesley Powell and the Desert Southwest
18: John Wesley Powell and the Desert Southwest

Twenty years after the end of the Mexican War, thousands of square miles of desert land the U.S. received had yet to be mapped and settled. That's where John Wesley Powell came in, whose report on these arid regions sparked the rise of irrigation farming techniques that would lead to unimaginable bounty....

30 min
Women in the Wild West
19: Women in the Wild West

What was life like for everyday women in the American West? Some were prostitutes. Others were missionaries. Others still were working- and middle-class women trying to recreate their lives back East. Ultimately, as you'll discover, the experience, while enlarging women's sphere of influence, was nevertheless a conservative one: to create a stable home....

30 min
From Territories to Western States
20: From Territories to Western States

Imperfect and violent-two words to describe how Western territories were created and then transformed into states. In this lecture, go inside this intriguing, often misunderstood process, from the role of influential businesspeople to the copying of other state constitutions to the efforts to give women the right to vote.

29 min
Western Violence, Law, and Order
21: Western Violence, Law, and Order

There is no doubt that the American West was a violent place. Why was this so? What kept the region from chaos and civil war? Professor Allitt's brief survey of violence explores the rise of vigilante justice, race riots against Mexicans and Chinese, and class conflict at coalmines....

30 min
Protecting Yellowstone and Yosemite
22: Protecting Yellowstone and Yosemite

The American West is home to a magnificent series of national parks, two of the earliest of which (and, arguably, the greatest) are Yellowstone and Yosemite. Discover through these case studies how the idea of a park system came into existence through government action and the dedication of conservationists....

29 min
Mythology of the American West
23: Mythology of the American West

Go inside the mythology of the American West, which kept the frontier alive after the U.S. Census Bureau declared in 1890 that it had disappeared. Examine historian Frederick Jackson Turner's influential "frontier thesis." Learn about the contributions of novelist Owen Wister and painter Frederic Remington. Also, explore the main categories of Western movies....

30 min
Winning the West?
24: Winning the West?

When thinking about the American West, Professor Allitt stresses a balanced view that encompasses both the achievements and the sufferings of this period in American history. It's an insightful conclusion to the grand, fascinating, sometimes troubling story of how exactly America became a vast nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific in just a century....

32 min
Patrick N. Allitt

Nostalgia is the enemy of history. 'Downton Abbey' is great fun but it's not history. If seeing or reading something historical makes you feel warm and cosy, it's probably very inaccurate.


University of California, Berkeley


Emory University

About Patrick N. Allitt

Dr. Patrick N. Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, where he has taught since 1988. The holder of a doctorate in history from the University of California, Berkeley, Professor Allitt-an Oxford University graduate-has also taught American religious history at Harvard Divinity School, where he was a Henry Luce Postdoctoral Fellow. He was the Director of Emory College's Center for Teaching and Curriculum from 2004 to 2009, where he looked for ways to improve teaching. In this critical administrative position, he led workshops on a wide variety of teaching-related problems, visited dozens of other professors' classes, and provided one-on-one consultation to teachers to help them overcome particular pedagogical problems. Professor Allitt was honored with Emory's Excellence in Teaching Award and in 2000 was appointed to the N.E.H./Arthur Blank Professorship of Teaching in the Humanities. A widely published and award-winning author, Professor Allitt has written several books, including The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities throughout American History; Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985; Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome; and Religion in America since 1945: A History. He is also author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom, a memoir about one semester in his life as a university professor. In addition, he is the editor of Major Problems in American Religious History. He has written numerous articles and reviews for academic and popular journals, including The New York Times Book Review.

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