In several readings, the idea of a single “American” westward movement experience has been repeatedly shot down. The average American is most familiar with the Anglo-centric experience, the much-romanticized process of Manifest Destiny being fulfilled that we learned in high school social studies classes. Yet as historians have pointed out for 20 years or more, this version ignores the very different experiences of Native Americans, Mexicans, the French, the Chinese and Japanese, Mormons, and others who do not fit in the standard mold. How much more interesting and nuanced western history becomes once we begin to broaden our scope and incorporate these others!
The challenge with such incorporation, of course, is that it challenges the American creation myth of the west as a place open to all who want a chance to make something of themselves based purely on their own hard work and effort. It correlates nicely with the idea of the American Dream: if one just works hard enough, one can succeed in America. Yet allowing others to have a legitimate western experience of their own that does not mirror the Turnerian model means that the benevolent, strong, inclusive image that we Americans like to nurture of ourselves becomes endangered. The brave pioneer is transformed into a paternalistic, greedy land-grabber with no respect for a nearby tribe’s legally recognized ownership of a parcel of land. The enterprising miners in California reveal their vicious anti-Asian racism. Missionaries intent on spreading God’s word to the Indians might instead be viewed as intolerant invaders.
I am a simple girl, so I ask a simple question: so what? Is it not true that American settlers frequently helped themselves to Indian land simply because they thought they deserved it more? Is it not true that Asian immigrants were regular targets of racism and violence well into the 20th century? Is it not true that missionaries sometimes employed less than kindly tactics to coerce Indians to the Christian faith? Is it really better to embrace an image of ourselves as Americans that we know to be false than to admit that, during a period of intensive national growth and expansion, our forebears often did not behave nobly? I see no utility in propagating this myth. What does it accomplish? Nothing but self-delusion, it seems to me.
As I contemplate this question of allowing others agency, my mind turns to my own people. The Apelts immigrated to Kerr County, Texas, from Germany in the second half of the 19th century; this region of central Texas remains substantially German today. As historians investigate the Mexican experience of the west, I find myself asking, well, what was the German-immigrant experience? What about central Texas attracted so many German settlers? Once they arrived, what was their experience like? In what ways did they shape and influence their adopted communities? How were they received by non-Germans in the area? Were they all as entrepreneurial as my family, creating a commodity no one knew was needed?
These are the questions percolating in my consciousness just now. As we continue delving into the rich experiences of the many peoples who chose to give it a go in the west, we will gain a far greater richness of understanding than we will lose in the demythologization of our own false self-image.