The Hundredth Meridianrnby Chilton Williamson, JrrnWhistling DixiernHistorians have been arguing since thern1950’s whether the West ought to be understoodrnas a frontier, a region, or thernseamless westward extension of Easternrnand Midwestern America. Beginning inrnthe 1980’s the debate intensified, owingrnto the work of the so-called New WesternrnHistorians who like to think that theyrnstarted it all. Led bv Patricia Limerick ofrnthe University of Colorado at Boulder,rnthe New Western Historians have identifiedrnFrederick Jackson Turner and hisrnfronher thesis as their nemesis and, afterrnhim, Ray Allen Billington who devotedrnhis career to expounding and extendingrnTurner’s work. According to Limerick,rnTurner, Billington, and almost the entirernAmerican historical profession beforern1980 confused frontier history withrnregional history and—even worse—withrnnationalist history. Neo-Westerners likernLimerick, Donald Worster, Carl Abbott,rnand Malcolm J. Rorbaugh accuse theirrnpaleo-Western forebears of leaving outrnof their books the experience of Indiansrnand Mexicans, blacks and Asians,rnwomen and children, bison and grizzlvrnbears, the Mexican Spotted Owl andrnthe Southwestern Willow Flycatcher,rnmountains and rivers, rocks, trees, andrnhistory professors and concentratingrnnearly to exclusion on the peripheralrnadventures of narrow-minded, wedgeheaded,rninbred Anglo-Saxon barbarianrnmales bent on murder, rape, pillage, andrnexploitation, hi the interests of challengingrnand amplifying this over-inflatedrnsideshow melodrama, the New WesternrnHistorians have emphasized the idea ofrnregionalism in tlieir own work, attemptingrnto demonstrate how much of a settled,rnpeculiarly Western civilization —rnor civilizations —existed before thernAnglo hordes arrived on the scene.rnThe recent emphasis on regionalismrnas a concept in the history’ of the West isrnas full of ironv as it is of interest, “regionalism”rnbeing a term not ordinarily associatedrnvith New Left historians except as arnpointer to demonize something or someone.rnTurner himself anticipated the newrnway of thinking about the West in an essay,rn”The Significance of Section inrnAmerican Histor}’,” by which he tried torncounteract his earlier conflation of thernWest with the frontier. In the same wayrnGerald Thompson, a modern historianrnat the University of Toledo, found himselfrnloosely associated with the NewrnWestern school after concluding that thernWest thought of as a region is a more effectivernvehicle for thematic unity, andrnmore inclusive besides. But Thompson,rnfar from being of the New Left persuasion,rnis a generic conservative, amongrnthe most good-naturedly trenchant criticsrnof his New Western colleagues.rnAware perhaps of reactionarv connotationsrnattached to the word “regionalism,”rnthe New West historians have done theirrnbest to replace them with progressivernovertones. Carl Abbott, arguing for whatrnhe calls an “urbanization model” forrncomprehending the history of the AmericanrnWest, describes how regionalismrnhas been modified and weakened by urbanrndevelopment. As early as 1880, Abbottrnnotes, 30 percent of the populationrnof the Rocky Mountain and Pacific statesrnwere urban dwellers, compared with 28rnpercent for the rest of the United States,rnaccording to the U.S. Census taken thatrnyear.rnMy own view is that the West hasrnalways needed to be seen as both as regionrnand frontier. Turner never claimedrnall of American history to be frontierrnhistory, simply that frontiering was therndefining, and in fundamental waysrnunique, experience of the Americanrnpeople. The Western frontier, from thernperspective of those who were, culturallyrnand racially speaking, generic Americansrnat that time, was either the defining orrnthe emblematic way of life representingrnthe primary force within a region, in additionrnto being a geographical part of thernsame region. No matter what percentagernof the American population outrnWest lived in “cities,” the frontier was thernperceived norm, experientially, socially,rnand politically. For Mormons living inrnSalt Lake City in the latter half of thern19th century and well into the 20th, lifernwas not “urban” in the way that it was inrnNew York, Philadelphia, or Charleston,rnas town life for the citizens of LaurarnWilder’s De Smet, South Dakota, wasrnsubstantially different from life in Thoreau’srnConcord. The American pioneer,rnwhether he lived in a chinked log houserna hundred miles from the nearest neighbor,rnin a frame house in a prairie village,rnor in a spacious adobe mansion in thernpresidio of Old Tucson, belonged to arndistinct American type going back as farrnas Jamestown and Massachusetts Bay.rnTo this extent, of course, he is not prototypicallyrn”Western,” but to admit asrnmuch is hardly to deny that the frontiersmanrnreached his fullest development inrnthe Rocky Mountains and the Far West.rnThe breed was essentially establishedrnin the First American West, meaningrnTrans-Appalachia. Its spirit is suggestedrnby Malcolm Rorbaugh when he writes ofrnthe fierce independence and resistancernto authority characteristic of the NorthrnBritish and Scots-Irish stock. “In thernend,” Rorbaugh says, “the citizens of thernFirst American West were no more inclinedrnto respect the Federal Governmentrnthan they were to obey the dictatesrnof Richard Henderson,” the wealthyrnjudge who at one time laid claim to almostrnall of modern-day Kentucky. Movingrnacross the Mississippi River and beyond,rnthe descendants of the earlierrnfrontier stock, pursuing frontieringrnthrough successive generations as otherrnAmerican families pursued banking,rncommerce, or the law, saw to it that thernfederal government away off in Washingtonrndid not substantially interfere in social,rneconomic, and political matters affectingrnthe settlements and territories ofrnthe West.rnYet the sodbusters, cattle ranchers, furrntrappers, gold miners, and Indian fightersrnwere not the whole story of the West.rnThere was, of course, another aspect tornWestern development—not so radicallyrndifferent a one as the New HistoriansrnFEBRUARY 1998/49rnrnrn