There Is No True History of the Westward Expansion

Learn how the history of the westward expansion will never be accurate due to the differing accounts of historical giants, literary figures and the common people.
By Robert Morgan
March 2013
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“What is history,” Napoleon is supposed to have said, “but a fable agreed upon?”
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Lions of the West (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2011) unfolds the stories of Thomas Jefferson and nine other Americans whose adventurous spirits and lust for land culminated in the Westward Expansion. Read the stories of David Crockett and Kit Carson as well as the nameless thousands who risked their lives to settle on the wild frontier, displacing thousands of Native Americans. History is an ever-changing beast because of accounts told by different people, ranging from eminent historians to the common folk who experienced the event. Learn how the story of the westward expansion is no exception in this excerpt taken from the prologue, “The Empire for Liberty.” 

In 1831 the actor-producer James H. Hackett presented in New York a play by James Kirke Paulding called Lion of the West, based loosely on the legends of David Crockett and other frontier figures. The play was an instant and runaway success and was later presented to acclaim in other American cities and in Britain. In Colonel Nimrod Wildfire, Paulding created the type of the backwoods humorist and teller of tall tales. Claiming to be half alligator and half horse, the colonel bragged, “I can jump higher — squat lower — dive deeper — stay longer under and come out drier!” than anyone foolish enough to challenge him. The play thrilled city audiences who felt superior to the frontiersman but also dreamed of aggressively expanding the United States into the promised land of the West. The president at that time, who personified the passion for westward expansion, was Old Hickory, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. Congressman David Crockett, in the audience for the play in Washington, D.C., was called out and saluted by Hackett, and rather than being offended, he seemed to enjoy the burlesque of his public image.

It could be argued that the caricature of Lion of the West allowed audiences to laugh at traits and attitudes in themselves they might otherwise have been ashamed of: the overweening arrogance, the claims of being chosen, the brash air of destiny. In the hyperbolic braggadocio of the backwoodsman such attitudes were good for laughter, and the viewers could indulge themselves in the satire while remaining a safe distance from attitudes and actions in which they were all complicit, such as the belief they were justified in killing Indians and taking their land.

Thomas Jefferson, the quintessential American dreamer, whose vision of the future republic had from the beginning stretched over the mountains to the Mississippi Valley, perhaps over the farther mountains to the great harbors on the Pacific, had called his envisioned nation “the Empire for Liberty.” In retrospect we can see the contradiction that Jefferson and most of his contemporaries could not: the oxymoron of imperial power promoting the spread of “liberty.” It is a contradiction Jefferson passed on to the new nation that has come down to us in the present day, the fixed idea that imperial might can be exercised in fostering democracy on foreign soil.

“There is properly no history,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “only biography.” It is natural and perhaps necessary for historians and story-tellers to view the dramatic shifts of history through the actions of a few famous figures, whether heroes or villains. Certainly the story of the westward expansion of the United States has many examples of each, and sometimes it seems the villains outnumber the heroes. But often the same figure can be seen as both. Andrew Jackson probably did more to extend democratic power to a greater number of citizens of the nation in that era than anyone except Jefferson. Yet he is blamed for displacing and destroying much of the native population in the Southeast. Jackson’s protégé, James K. Polk, often called Young Hickory, is one of the least attractive men to ever serve as president of the United States, yet even his severest critics concede that Polk accomplished, uniquely, almost miraculously, all he had promised when elected.

The poet Walt Whitman believed that written accounts always miss the reality, the specifics and multiplicity of history. Commenting at the end of the Civil War, he said, “The real war will never get in the books.” For Whitman a true account would be a great catalog of the many different soldiers and their actions. The war was “that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies.” The real story of the time was “the untold and unwritten history of the war — infinitely greater (like life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written.”

A true story of the westward expansion would be the account of the actions, thoughts, emotions, words, and persons of the unnamed thousands, the people on the ground, who are the living flesh and blood of history. Historians may concentrate on the famous, but most of what happens is the composite deeds of common folk. There is no better example of this paradox than in the narrative of the westward expansion. We must consider the “lions” of the West, but it was the unnoticed thousands on foot and on horseback, in wagons and ox carts, who made the story a fact, who wrote history with their hands and feet, their need and greed, their sweat, and often their blood.

The historian John Buchanan has called the westward expansion, or Manifest Destiny, “the greatest folk movement of modern times, in which, for the most part, the people led and government followed.” It would be hard to overstate the importance of this insight. While it is understandable that we see history mostly in terms of the deeds of a few, our grasp of what actually happened will be flawed and limited if we do not consider the story of the almost invisible many who made the notable deeds possible, even inevitable. In the words of the Mexican historian Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, “The North Americans kept up this continuous expansion, and the United States government followed their footsteps.”

Take, for example, Andrew Jackson’s victory over the Red Stick Creeks at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa River in March of 1814. His success in that campaign and the subsequent treaty negotiations led to the opening of much of Georgia and Alabama for white settlement. But a precipitating factor of the Creek War was the incursion of thousands of white squatters into Creek territory in Georgia and southern Alabama. The Red Stick rebellion was inspired not only by the eloquence of Tecumseh but also by the skirmishes and killings between whites and Creeks as whites cleared land and hunted game on traditional Creek territory. Andrew Jackson’s victory at Horseshoe Bend was a result of this ongoing activity, not its initiation. After the massacre at Fort Mims in August 1813, the Creeks were doomed to lose their vast holdings. The thousands who risked their lives to possess Creek lands are mostly forgotten. It is Jackson’s victory that we remember.

Behind the overwhelming force of American expansion was the phenomenon called “the American Multiplication Table.” Birthrates in North America were much higher than in Europe. Large families begat large families, doubling the population every twenty years. With swelling immigration, this exploding population needed space to put down roots, and the space available was to the west, always following the sun. Lord Castlereagh, British foreign minister, is supposed to have quipped in 1814 that Americans won victories not on the battlefield but “in the bedchamber.” In 1800 there were only sixteen states in the Union; by 1824 there would be twenty-four.

“What is history,” Napoleon is supposed to have said, “but a fable agreed upon?” All written history is distortion through selection. As Whitman suggests, a true history would be infinitely detailed, infinitely long. In that sense all written history must be what Bernard DeVoto called “history by synecdoche,” where a part, a feature, is made to imply the whole. By its very nature narrative can represent only by implication, explicit about some parts, suggesting the many. Each detail should be significant, suggesting the unrecounted others. In Lions of the West I try to create a living sense of the westward expansion of the United States through brief biographies of some of the men involved. But it can be, at best, only a partial story.

Those who study history often come to feel that it is a living organism, with a will and energy, a whim and persistence, all its own, beyond explanation, beyond logic. The turns and surprises, the lulls and lunges, remain mysterious, following rules we can only speculate about, codes we try to decipher. The historian and diplomat George F. Kennan liked to recount a Russian fable to satirize individuals or governments who claim that they have decisively influenced history. A fly rides on the nose of an ox all day while it plows, and when the ox returns to the village at the end of the day the fly proudly proclaims, “We’ve been plowing.” The ox of history goes its way, unaware of the hitchhiking, braggart fly. What we cannot deny is the fact of the westward expansion, and while conceding that much of the story is tragic, a narrative of ruthlessness and greed on a cataclysmic scale, we cannot deny the poetry of the westward vision either, the lust to explore and know, to see the splendor of the mountains and rivers and deserts, to learn as well as to possess.

The novelist Leo Tolstoy viewed history as a kind of mysterious force following predetermined paths the human mind is slow to grasp. For him the historical process was inexorable, exhibiting little freedom. “The actions of so-called makers of history and leaders of war depend on the actions of countless other people . . . natural law determined the lives of human beings no less than the processes of nature itself.” In War and Peace Tolstoy writes, “The force that decides the fate of peoples does not lie in military leaders, not even in armies and battles, but in something else.” The novelist urged the student of history to “look into the movements of those hundred thousand men who took direct immediate part in the events; and all the questions that seemed insoluble before can be readily and certainly explained.” Tolstoy’s favorite metaphor for history was weather, hard to predict with accuracy, impossible to control, yet a palpable fact.

One of Tolstoy’s most important heirs in Russian literature is Boris Pasternak, poet and author of the novel Doctor Zhivago. The poet-doctor of the title, Yuri Zhivago, near the end of the narrative, in the collapsing world following the Russian Civil War, writes a series of poems and meditations on love, the individual in society, and history. “The forest does not change its place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change . . . And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselessly changing history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformations.”

In isolation in the countryside, in the midst of catastrophic events of his life and the life of Russia, having lost his muse and lover, Zhivago contemplates the mystery of historic change. “No single man makes history. History cannot be seen, just as one cannot see grass growing. Wars and revolutions, kings and Robespierres, are history’s organic agents, its yeast.” For Zhivago the individual life is paramount, even, or especially, in the midst of the most confusing dramas of history. The romantic Emerson may proclaim, “Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.” But the closer we look the more we understand that revolutions actually occur because of ideas in many minds at once.

One of America’s most distinguished historians, Henry Adams, near the end of his life, conceded that he understood little of the process of history. He recognized it was a matter of dynamics, forces, mysterious yet inexorable as the laws of physics and chemistry. “A dynamic law requires that two masses — nature and man — must go on, reacting upon each other, without stop, as the sun and a comet react on each other, and that any appearance of stoppage is illusive.”

Following Adams’s suggestion, I would appeal to a chemical metaphor for the story of the westward expansion. The tens of thousands of settlers, hungry for land, adventure, opportunity, are like the molecules of an element compelled to combine with another, the territory of the North American West. No law, no government, no leader, could stop that accelerating chemical process until the combining was complete. The celebrated or reviled leaders are partly figureheads that help us give shape to the messy narrative of this history. The real history is the unstoppable reactions of countless entities combining to create new compounds. Romantics might describe the course of events as alchemy, critics as destructive breakdown of natural substances.

With the exception of Nicholas P. Trist, the lives of all these men — Jefferson, Jackson, Chapman, Crockett, Houston, Polk, Scott, Carson, and John Quincy Adams — have been chronicled many times, often by outstanding historians and biographers. My hope is that recounting them briefly and in sequence here may create an integrated narrative where the separate lives link up and illuminate each other, making complex, extended events more accessible to readers in the twenty-first century. The discovery and exploration of the West is a large part of the story of who we are. And it is important that we know something of the Mexican side of that story as well. Where possible, I quote from Mexican historians to remind us that their versions of events are often, though not always, different from the accounts we are familiar with. We will not understand the story of the westward expansion if we do not recognize that the Mexican side of the narrative is an essential part of our story as well. Millions from south of the border cross into the United States every year looking for opportunity and security. This movement is as unstoppable as the rush into Missouri and California of a previous century. Where people want to go, they will go. Politicians or generals may take credit or blame for the events, but they are more responders than creators of the large shifts and migrations.

Those who had explored the wonders and dangers of the West, and survived to return and tell of their experiences, were said to have “seen the elephant.” As students of history we try to see the elephant, too. But, to extend the metaphor, it is our duty to try to see not just part of the animal but the whole beast, in so far as that is possible, in all its beauty, terror, ugliness and complexity. The story is by turns tragedy and romance, horror and thrilling struggle; a wrestling with the elements, deserts and deep snows, distances and disorientation, starvation and eating of boot leather, lizards, tree bark, and human flesh. It is a story we recount with shame, commitment to fact, and sometimes pride, sometimes exuberance. While some deeds were done on an epic scale, more often events unfolded in the harsh close-up of ambush at a turn in the trail, the warrior dying of smallpox, the scout drinking mule blood to survive, the raw recruit’s first sight of the Sonoran desert at sunset. The brutality often overwhelms the poetry of the land, but the land is still there, its poetry a fact, threatened now not by weather or predators but by progress.

The diplomat and historian George F. Kennan, while mostly concerned with foreign policy, had trenchant and profound things to say about the way we Americans tend to view ourselves. He saw as a special weakness “a certain moralistic and legalistic posturing on our part — a desire to appear, particularly to ourselves, as more wise and more noble than we really were.” Throughout his long career Kennan was eloquent and often merciless in his critique of American character in the conduct of diplomacy. When he looked at our history he found “a curious but deeply-rooted sentimentality on our part . . . arising evidently from the pleasure it gave us to view ourselves as high-minded patrons, benefactors, and teachers of . . . people seen as less fortunate.” It was Reinhold Niebuhr who warned against the habit of always seeing ourselves as the innocent party in any dispute, whether private or national. George F. Kennan, near the end of his distinguished career, would offer his fellow Americans “a plea for . . . a greater humility in our national outlook, for a more realistic recognition of our limitations.”

As we begin to examine the vexed story of the westward expansion and the lives of some of those involved in it, let us keep Kennan’s hard words in mind. Our greatest hope for the study of history, and of representative lives, is that we may learn from both the successes and the mistakes and begin to understand which is which. It has been said that America’s aggressive expansionism is evidence of a preoccupation with the future, not the present. With luck we might learn to direct that energy and passion toward effective, essential, and better goals.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing, 2011. 


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