The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

Course No. 8552
Professor Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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What Will You Learn?

  • numbers Discover the details of everyday life for American cowboys, homesteaders, mountaineers, and fur traders.
  • numbers Explore what it was like to travel with an emigrant family along the Oregon Trail or to herd cattle along the Chisolm Trail.
  • numbers Learn how the Gold Rush and the Transcontinental Railroad brought immigrants from all over the world out West.
  • numbers Examine early frontier interactions between European colonists and indigenous peoples of North America.
  • numbers Uncover how our understanding of the Wild West has been shaped by decades of pop culture and myth-making.

Course Overview

The brutal conflict of cowboys and Indians. Dusty, dangerous outposts policed by vigilante justice. The six-shooter showdown at high noon. Daring railroad heists and arduous cattle drives. These and other scenes from countless Western films have so shaped our conception of the American West that it’s impossible to separate myth from reality. But how wild was the West? Was it really ever “won”?

According to historian and award-winning Professor Patrick N. Allitt of Emory University, the historical approach to understanding the American West has moved far beyond pop culture in recent years. “Nearly all the clichés and bromides of the old Western history have been discarded,” he says. “We’re now much more aware of the histories, not just of the people who happened to end up on top—but also the histories of the diverse peoples who were defeated or displaced.”

It turns out that the legendary people and events we associate with the Wild West—the last stand at the Alamo, the Battle of Little Bighorn, the exploits of Calamity Jane and Kit Carson, the glories and hardships of the Gold Rush and the Oregon Trail—are just as exciting in the light of history as the tall tales that have defined our conception of them.

Explored chronologically, they form a story more thrilling than any Hollywood Western. And it’s a story not just of adventure and danger but a story about how the United States, as it acquired new territories and encountered new peoples, transformed a collection of newly independent states into a continent-bestriding colossus that would dominate the 20th century.

Designed to shine a light on truths about westward expansion and the American frontier (sometimes uncomfortable, always insightful), The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy is a way for you to experience the grit and grandeur of an epic period in American history. Professor Allitt’s 24 lectures, rich with historical detail, take you from the era of the American Revolution to the beginning of the 20th century and uncover new historical angles and perspectives about events and themes ranging from the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Indian Removal Act to the creation of America’s first national parks. Packed with period maps and artwork, photographs, diary entries, and more, this course is an entertaining, eye-opening, balanced look at the achievements and sufferings of a period and place as important as it was wild.

Over 200 Years of Frontier History

Central to Professor Allitt’s course is dispelling the idea of the American West as a single, monolithic place and idea. There is a great diversity to the American West that it is easy to overlook.

“It’s actually an area almost as big as Europe, incorporating some of the hottest and coldest places in the inhabited world,” says Professor Allitt. “The area we think of as the West today includes mountain ranges, deserts, canyons, badlands and some of the richest, most productive farmland in the world. At different times, it has been inhabited and claimed by indigenous peoples, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Britons, and Americans. Its people today have distinctive voices, clothes, traditions, and music, and they keep alive a distinct set of ideals and attitudes different from those of their fellow Americans back East.”

Befitting an area of such epic scope and diversity, The American West encompasses more than 200 years of history and the most important events, themes, and ideas that form the backbone of the frontier’s reality—and legend. Just some of the major topics you will explore in this course include:

  • The Transcontinental Railroad: Perhaps the most defining moment for the American West was 1869, when the two lines of the Transcontinental Railroad met at Promontory Point in Utah. While the system brought more people (including immigrants) and money out west, many sections were built so badly they had to be renewed almost at once.
  • The Trail of Tears: Named the “Trail of Tears” by the Cherokee, the forced migration of America’s “Five Civilized Tribes” in the 1830s resulted in the loss of traditional homes in the East in exchange for federal lands out West (referred to as “Indian Territory”). A central figure in this dark moment in American history: President Andrew Jackson.
  • Manifest Destiny: This phrase, coined by journalist John O’Sullivan regarding the nation’s claims on the Oregon territory in the 1840s, came to embody the spirit of westward expansion—and the conflicts it provoked. The idea behind Manifest Destiny was that it was America’s God-given right to spread liberty and democracy across the continent.
  • The Gold Rush: With the discovery of Californian gold in 1848, the American West, for the first time, became a destination of mass appeal for Americans. With the mad rush for quick wealth, however, came rampant fraud. Prospectors had to learn quickly how to distinguish gold from “fool’s gold” (iron pyrites). The simplest way to do so is now the most iconic: biting it.
  • Cowboys and Cattle: After the Civil War, American cowboys herded cattle to railheads across the West, from where they would eventually feed the industrial workers back East. The most famous cattle trail, the Chisholm Trail (named after a half-Cherokee cowboy) spanned over 500 miles between Texas and Kansas, and could take up to two months to traverse.

The West in Popular Culture

A vivid popular culture sprang up around the American West as the area developed. While Professor Allitt uses these lectures to lay bare the often harsh realities of life out west, he also points out how popular culture—books, paintings, films—can help us understand the intimate details of life for everyday men and women. By looking critically at popular depictions of the West, you will:

  • Learn about one of the best accounts we have of the cowboy way of life: the 1885 biography A Texas Cowboy, or Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony.
  • Open an illuminating window into the emotional lives of homesteaders on the Great Plains through novels including My Ántonia and Little House on the Prairie.
  • See how paintings by iconic American artist Frederic Remington emphasized the adventurous men who pitted themselves against the landscape of the West.
  • Discover how historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis” (that the frontier defined American democracy) had an immense influence on generations of historians.
  • Break down the main plots of Western films and understand how new historical understanding has led to a shift in the genre’s plots and characters.

A Clearer Picture of the Wild West

Over the years, Professor Allitt has brought his incredible historical knowledge and his engaging teaching style to multiple Great Courses popular with our lifelong learners. The American West is no exception to this tradition. Professor Allitt imbues every single lecture not only with insight and knowledge, but with a contagious passion for the American West—both the heroic idea of it and the more complex historical reality.

Additionally, the lectures in The American West are enriched with historic photographs and illustrations, period artworks and maps, and quotes from first-person accounts and history-changing documents.

“Anyone who studies the subject of the American West quickly discovers that the myths sometimes had a more tenacious grip on Westerners’ minds than the realities,” says Professor Allitt. “But with a close look at the facts and how they’ve been stretched and spun over time, the muddled picture of the place that many people have in their minds will become clearer.”

Saddle up for an exciting adventure in learning.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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. x
  • 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). x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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.” x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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? x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x
  • 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. x

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  • 496-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Patrick N. Allitt

About Your Professor

Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D.
Emory University
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...
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Reviews

The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 120.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from one of the best truly an excellent course. Prof presentation was clear, interesting & very informative. He left me with a much better appreciation of how the western part of the US developed, it's people, history, strengths & weaknesses - as well as a much more thorough understanding of how badly treated the Indians (native amer) & Chinese were. A small positive point - his, so far, is the only course i've taken that doesn't have each (any) lecture start & end with the phony canned applause.
Date published: 2020-05-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent programs If you want to know about the West, this course is one I would highly recommend.
Date published: 2020-04-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course! I'm so glad I bought this course. I enjoyed it thoroughly and learned a lot. Professor Allitt talked about how movies taught many of us the preconceptions we had about the beginning of western life.....cowboys and Indians, the Gold Rush, etc. He talked about how life really was, even the role women played in taming the West. He explained how territories became states, the effect the Homestead Act had, the treatment of native Americans and so much more. I didn't even mind his accent! I'm going to get more of his courses because I enjoyed this one and learned so much.
Date published: 2020-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful Survey Course of the American West This is an all-inclusive tour of the American west--once again Professor Allitt proves he understands American culture better than many who were actually born here. This course gives a fair and objective overview of the many sides at odds against each other: the indigenous peoples, the western expansionists, and the profiteers in the east. Everything is covered: the gold and other metal/mineral rushes, the homesteaders, the cattle drivers and outlaws, and even the national parks and transcendentalist movement. This course is an essential supplement to any understanding of American history.
Date published: 2020-01-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This is a very exciting course! The only reason that I don't rate it five stars is because I am stingy and want to give five stars for only the truly exceptional and transcendent courses, which this course does not quite make it to that level. Professor Allitt is a well rounded professor who is well spoken and easy to listen to. He speaks clearly and tells a lot of interesting stories. He knows his material very well, and I have been listening to a few of his others courses along with this one, although this one was the first I finished all the way through. Some of his stories overlap between the courses. One of the things I really love about Professor Allitt is that he quotes from literature, oftentimes primary sources, to amplify the point that he is making or to show the moment in history through the people who were experiencing it. He does this to greater effect than the other professors who I have listened to (except, I must say the Literature professors!). Some of the best lectures in this course are the ones on The Fur Trade and the Mountain Men, Struggles of the Plains Indians, Cowboys and Cattle Drives, and Homesteaders on the Plains. I tend to enjoy the lectures most that I don't know as much about already. Professor Allitt is fair in his assessment of the harm caused by those who were settling the west, he does not ignore the massacres that were taking place and the wrongs done by settlement, but also he does not try to portray all natives as noble savages either. I enjoyed this course, and as I have already stated, have begun others by this same professor.
Date published: 2020-01-11
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Are They Coming? Reportedly shipped on 12/13, now 12/29 and still no sign of it.
Date published: 2019-12-29
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Course I really enjoyed and learned from the lectures. I also liked the last two lectures which brought the entire course together. I live in Nebraska, the mid-west, but still learned a lot.
Date published: 2019-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Six Wests in One Geographically there have been two Wests, one between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, and then--when that was filled in with white farmers and towns--the other between the Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. This excellent course covers them both, but Professor Allitt emphasizes the latter. In thematic terms there have been four Wests. The first is the traditional account centering on the many achievements and famous moments of white Anglo-Saxon civilization, such as the Lewis and Clark expedition, the brave last-ditch defense by Texan rebels of the Alamo, the sufferings of wagon-train migrants along the Oregon, the horrible fate of the Donner Party, the establishment of Mormon Deseret, easy victory over Mexico in 1846-48, the California Gold Rush, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, Custer’s defeat at the Little Bighorn, cowboys and cattle drives, mining boomtowns, and gunfighters and bandits like Jesse James. The second is the more recent view of a vicious race war and conquest, in which white soldiers, officials, and militia expropriated American Indian and Mexican land, killing or driving off the inhabitants to make room for white settlement, and then in which white employers, politicians and mobs enforced a rigid racial hierarchy. Only white landowners, white investors and—to a lesser extent—white workers prospered under this system. Chinese in particular were wanted only as subordinate, low-paid laborers, not as citizens, and with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 they were not wanted at all. Allitt rightly points to South Africa, Australia and Siberia as analogies. The Trans-Mississippi entered the network of global capitalism as a site for producing raw materials, especially meat, grain, lumber, and precious metals, and eventually as a place of amazing natural wonders to attract writers, artists, photographers and tourists. The third West is an arena for the expansion and exercise of federal power. The US government acquired the old West in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, purchased the Louisiana Territory, waged war, ordered land surveys, created territories and self-governing states, divided up land for white settlers, subsidized railroads, set up irrigation works and built dams, supervised and further oppressed American Indians on tribal reservations, licensed mining, logging and ranching on federal land, yet also established parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone to conserve large tracts of wilderness. Only under the umbrella of federal and state law and with the benefit of government funding did “rugged individualism” and the “free market” have a chance to take root. The final West is the West of the imagination—Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, historian Frederic Jackson Turner’s 1893 speech at the Columbian Exposition, Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian, Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House on the Prairie” series, the paintings of Frederic Remington, and movies like “The Great Train Robbery,” Gary Cooper’s “High Noon,” John Wayne’s “The Searchers,” “Shane,” or Dustin Hoffmann’s “Little Big Man.” And Clint Eastwood almost goes without saying. It is greatly to Professor Allitt’s credit that he, an Englishman by origin, has been able to bring together all these themes into one solid course. You understand why the West has had such a powerful hold on the American mind, or even the global one. By contrast, no one ever celebrates “The East”; humdrum civilization with its workaday life of earning, saving and consumption is boring. In assessing the West’s legacy, Allitt takes a middle ground. He acknowledges the ethnic cleansing, persecution, exploitation, pollution, corruption, and criminality, yet he also defends the accomplishments. So much of the arid Trans-Mississippi could be permanently settled and exploited by human beings only with the technology that whites brought, especially railroads, mining machinery and the telegraph. Thanks to farmers on the Great Plains, Europe never had to face peacetime famine again; I would only add that Argentina should also get some credit in the same way. The Plains Indians also benefited, if only temporarily from the reintroduction of the horse. The professor obviously admires ordinary white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who settled the West, reinforced by Swedes, Germans, and Irish Catholics, obviously because they ran great risks, endured serious hardships and worked hard for their gains, if there were gains at all. In this I am less forgiving. It is much to their discredit that these people could not find the simple empathy to allow non-Europeans to share the same opportunities they claimed for themselves. Of course, it was worse in the US South, the subject of another course I plan to watch soon.
Date published: 2019-12-12
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