History of the Westward Movement

Frederick Merk was one of America’s great Western historians. Born in Wisconsin in 1887, he received his B.A. degree in 1911 from the University of Wisconsin where he worked under the dean of Western historians, Frederick Jackson Turner. In 1916 he followed Turner to Harvard where he received his Ph. D. In 1921 he became a member of Harvard’s History Department.

His early fame came primarily through the teaching of the course the “Westward Movement,” which his students called “Wagon Wheels.” It became one of the most popular courses offered at Harvard, constantly undergoing changes in content, and covering the grand sweep of the Westward movement from the first Atlantic settlements to the Pacific, emphasizing the economic and political developments. Spending much of his time on the refinement of this course, Merk’s record of publication was necessarily limited. But with his retirement in 1957, he published a number of significant works—Manifest Destiny and Mission (1963); The Monroe Doctrine and American Expansion, 1843-1849 (1966); Essays in Anglo-American Diplomacy and Politics (1967); and his last volume, History of the Westward Movement, published a year after his death.

This book is a compilation of Merk’s lectures to his graduate students in Western history. Because of that lecture format, there are sixty-four chapters, some of them consisting of only five or six pages. This creates a certain sloppiness in the work.

The hand of Merk’s teacher, Frederick Jackson Turner, is seen throughout the book. Merk stresses the interrelationships of political, economic, and social history. He spotlights the powerful influence of the availability of land on the growth of American society, as pioneers went through the changes brought about by social evolution. Merk emphasizes geographical rather than chronological continuity in the settlement process. He views American expansion as a series of conquests in which one physiographic province after another was overrun by pioneers. Each new conquest differed from the previous one as the special environment of the new land put its stamp on the Americans. An exponent of the theory of multiple causation, Merk shows that there were numerous forces behind the development of the various regions that make up America. It was the creation of the different “civilizations” resulting from these interactions of men and nature which accounted for the sectional conflicts that almost destroyed the nation in the 1860’s. Like Turner, Merk saw that the important controversies essential to the interpretation of early American history could be understood only by emphasizing the close interaction between the pioneers and the environment in which they lived; in other words, the stage was as important as the players.

The first chapter is a short one on the American Indians that accepts many of the usual myths. For example, Merk states that the Iroquois “were a ferocious people” who took sadistic delight in torturing people. Yet nowhere in the book does he mention the Camp Grant or Sand Creek massacres where whites perpetrated massacres on Indians. Otherwise, the Indian is given little attention. And when he is presented, it is usually only to serve as a backdrop for the more important white advance. But this oversight has its compensation: the name of George Armstrong Custer does not appear once.

Merk discusses the early settlements of Virginia and Massachusetts Bay and the later expansion of New England, as well as the pioneer advance into the Great Valley of Virginia. Then he continues with the story of the first conflicts between the colonists and the Indians and the collision of the British and French interests, ending with the victory of the British in the French and Indian War.

Emphasis is given to the period after 1763; and the author, unlike Turner, gives sufficient attention to the land speculators and the role they played in the settling of the Allegheny Plateau....

(The entire section is 1648 words.)


Booklist. LXXIV, July 1, 1978, p. 1661.

Chronicle of Higher Education. XVII, October 16, 1978, p. R13.

Library Journal. CIII, July, 1978, p. 1405.

New Republic. CLXXIX, May, 1978, p. 827.