History 4100 Syllabus

American Progress (1872) by John Gast.
A scantily clad "America" with the "Star of Empire" on her head making her way relentlessly westward, fulfilling her Manifest Destiny shining the light of progress and technology and pushing back the darkness, (and the Native Americans, Buffalo and assorted wildlife.) This image was used to illustrate a popular travel book.


Course Schedule


Perhaps no other part of the country is so surrounded by myth, historical misinterpretations, and hype as the American West. In this course, we will seek to understand the West as it was and how it has come to be known. Central to our understanding is the concept of regionalism – we will examine the West as both a place and as a process.

Between 1850 and 1912, seventeen new western states joined the Union, completing the formation of the contiguous United States. Hundreds of thousands of settlers flocked to these new regions, shifting the center of the country's population dramatically toward the West. The federal government facilitated this western movement in several ways. Most critically, in 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railways Act, and the Morrill Education Act. All three used public lands to achieve national goals: western migration, the construction of a transcontinental railroad, and the development of state colleges.

The addition of these western territories and their integration within a national economy added enormously to the wealth and power of the United States. In addition, the "Wild West" and the "winning of the West" provided important themes to American culture. In 1890, an American census report declared the West "closed." Yet in the years that followed, the West assumed an even more prominent place within American culture. The mythology surrounding the West's homesteading pioneers, political heroes, and frontier clashes grew more elaborate. Similarly, efforts to preserve the West's natural conditions increased. The Sierra Club was formed in 1892 to protect America's wilderness areas. The National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage the nation's parks and ensure that they be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.


  • The Land of Little Rain, Mary Austin
  • A Companion to the American West, ed. William Deverell
  • Violence Over the Land, Ned Blackhawk
  • additional readings as assigned

  Student Learning Goals:

A. Historical Knowledge 

  • Students will demonstrate a knowledge of basic facts, events -- and, especially,  of significant questions and major themes in the history of the American West to 1900
  • Students will explain the West as a region.
  • Students will describe the role of the federal government in the region
  • Students will describe the West as an idea in American culture and in the popular imagination.
  • Students will describe the struggle for land resources, identity, and power which have characterized the West.

B. Historical Thinking 

  • Students will use a historical perspective by which to understand present issues in the American West. 
  • Students will articulate the diverse perspectives of westerners.
  • Students will consider a wide variety of historical sources and learn about how historians go about "recovering the past." 

 C. Historical Skills

  • Students will hone their skills in reading, thinking, writing. Students will learn how to learn, how to reflect on their own learning.
  • Students will be able to weigh conflicting claims by employing reason and rules of evidence to establish the reliability of any claim or statement.

 Activities in support of learning goals:

  • 2 Exams. These will be randomized from a list of posted topics. (50 points each) These exams must be taken on Chi Tester at  a WSU testing center or under proctored conditions.
  • 3 Response papers (2-3 pages).  Points (15) are earned for:
    • Accomplishment of the assignment = 7 points
    • Composition skills - 5 points
    • citation of sources = 3 points
  • oral presentations: 3 formal (with handout = 10 points each) and some informal (include in participation statement)
  • Field trips - may be used as basis for 1 formal oral presentation
  • Participation Statement = 20 points

Seminar Participation: Active participation and critical thinking about the reading is essential. Careful reading is the single most important thing you can do to be successful in this course. In evaluating your participation grade, we will be looking for three main things: 1) active, regular participation; 2) direct engagement with the text by offering reflections, posing questions, pointing out problems, etc.; and 3) interaction with your peers by building on their comments, asking further questions, and putting forth a different view with respect and courtesy

I emphasize these three areas because they mirror my approach and understanding of what a seminar should be -- a collegial space for exchanging and discussing ideas. We tend to think of seminar as a conversation among peers who come to class with thoughtful questions, remarks, and comments about the assigned reading and then leave with other issues in mind that have surfaced after carefully listening to and engaging with the ideas of their colleagues. Like any good, animated conversation, discussion depends on give and take from all of those involved –– listening as much as talking.

  • Book Presentation. Students will read a text which contributed to the making of the myth of the West and will present their responses to the text in a formal oral presentation. 


Grades will be based on a percentage of the points possible

  • 4 formal response papers: 60 points
  • 4 formal oral presentations = 40 points
  • 2 exams = 100 points
  • book presentation = 15 points
  • Participation = 20 points

A = 94 -100%
B = 83 - 86%
C = 73 - 76%
D = 60 - 66%