World-building the American West
In my last post, I outlined some thoughts on the problems of world building relating to the Nazi Germany topic commonly taught across many specifications at GCSE. In this post, I want to turn to my attempts at world building perhaps the most challenging GCSE topic of all (as presently constructed), the nineteenth century American West course.
It is fair to say that I have not been a natural enthusiast for this particular period of history. Despite an avid fascination with modern American history at university, where I took courses both on the causes of the American Civil War, and the US Civil Rights Movement, before then completing a Masters degree with an American history specialism, I have never loved this particular period of its’ past. I think in my life I may have watched one Western movie from beginning to end (The Magnificent Seven — assuming that Blazing Saddles doesn’t count) and when there were lectures on this topic) — to be honest I’d never really got the fascination. I knew that it was important, but much like the Industrial Revolution, I didn’t want to learn much more about it beyond that.
I first started teaching the topic at GCSE back in 2016 on the old OCR SHP course. My enthusiasm hardly increased at this point. Wading through the lives of the homesteaders and the problems faced by the late nineteenth century cattle industry or the importance of dry farming is tough going if you’re working from a weak base of knowledge. Then presenting this information to students who themselves have no real sense of the West, given the decline of the western movie (problematic as they are in their romanticisation of this time and place, they were at least a starting point) in popular culture is a real challenge.
When the new specifications came on stream, with the academic bar of these courses being raised, I was determined that I was going to crack this topic and figure it out one way or the other. I felt that the following presented real issues for students:
1. They had little sense of what the West actually was in terms of its’ location and its’ appearance. Indeed, the ‘West’ is an umbrella term for a variety of geographic locations referenced in the course, whether it be the Great Plains of Kansas and Nebraska, the California and Oregon coastlines, or the arid Salt Lake Valley.
2. They had little understanding of why they, a bunch of 14–15 year olds in Yorkshire, should be learning about this topic, at the expense of other things, in the first place.
3. The variety of names — of people, of places, of Native American tribes, of concepts particular to this period of history — that seem to come and go, is quite bewildering for students already without an adequate schemata for dealing with this topic.
How have I tried to address these problems? Well, I’ve dabbled in my own bit of world-building, to use Mike Hill’s excellent phrase, to try to address these issues. I’ve still got loads of work to do in this area, particularly to reflect more effectively the experience of the indigenous population, but these are some of the strategies I’ve tried. I certainly would defer to genuine experts on the history of the American West within the History teacher community like Alex Ford, for example, and I stand to be corrected on any of the knowledge stuff I outline below.
I love maps, and find them essential in History teaching, especially given that the geographic knowledge of young people in terms of where things are in the world is so poor. Yes that is a shot across the bows of the colouring-in lot, although I was a bit of an unusual child who would happily sit in the back of the car on various long drives (not a pun) that were a feature of my childhood absorbing the various maps of Britain and Europe that my dad had and trying to work out where we were going. Also I had a flag obsession but that’s another issue entirely. For the American West topic, maps are absolutely essential and I use them frequently throughout the course to help illustrate various problems. I’ve included a few of my go-to maps below with a bit of explanation:
This is quite a simple map but good for an overview of the physical geography of the West, which is one of the first bits of Western geography I will do with students. The point here is to identify the main features of the different ‘Wests’ that exist in terms of their environment. I will use this with the accompanying information that I robbed from an old textbook (above) that basically goes through this information — the Plains as flat, dry grassland, the mineral rich Rocky Mountains, the dry and hot Great Basin, and then the fertile Pacific coastlands.
I’ve added more recently photographs to my accompanying slideshow to try and give at least a basic snapshot of what these regions look like. It’s also useful to anticipate what the most desirable bits of land would be for the settler-colonists coming to the West, and to consider how that evolves over the course of the Nineteenth Century (for example in how the Plains shifts from being the ‘Great American Desert’ to being a highly desired area from at least the 1850s onwards).
This is one I use heavily when teaching the growth of the Cattle Industry in the 1860s. It helps to show how the western cattle industry started with the long drives to the railroads at Abilene (which itself was useful to avoid the problems caused by Texas Fever from the pre-Civil War period). You can flag up Chicago as the ultimate destination with it’s large meat packing factories. You can also look at the Goodnight-Loving Trail which helps to develop the market for beef in the West itself, and the locations of the early ranches of John Iliff to explore that development as well. You can also identify the problems of the Texan cattle trails crossing Indian Territory as well. You can see why Colorado becomes a state of significance in this period also.
Indeed, you can see another of my attempts to use a map with students below — this one looking at some of the main locations of the key issues in the course, scrawled over the top of a map of the expansion of the United States.
Outside-in: Knowledge of the states
One of the tasks I often start with is looking at a profile of the key states in the American West course, as a way of outlining the political geography of the region as well as introducing some of the key issues. I’ve attached below, with some basic questions to go along with. I actually think this probably needs a lot of condensing down but at least gives an initial overview of the material students will encounter later.
It still blows many students’ minds when they realise that we have actual photographs from this time period. I’ve used some recently on my lessons on the California Gold Rush — both to illustrate the methods of small-scale and large-scale mining used, as well as to give some sense of the environment in which this is taking place — see a couple of examples below (the first one showing an individual panning for gold, and the second one showing the hydraulic mining methods that are generally taught about far less).
It’s also good to show students examples of some of these western settlements. For example, see early 1850s San Francisco, below:
This is an area of my practice that needs more work. However, again with a Gold Rush lens, I was able to include a good story that I think helped illuminate some of the issues of this bit of the course. This was about Leland Stanford — see below the text I used in my lesson to briefly outline his story:
Leland Stanford was a lawyer based in Wisconsin, near to the Canadian border. In 1852, his law office burned down, and he followed his brothers, who had migrated two years earlier, to California. Although Stanford dabbled in mining, his main business was a store that he opened in the settlement of Michigan Bluff, located about 150 miles to the North-east of San Francisco. This store sold equipment to miners, especially shovels, and enabled Stanford to quickly become extremely wealthy — one of the first millionaire’s in the West.
Stanford later invested in the Central Pacific Railroad, one half of what would become known as the First Transcontinental Railroad and in 1869 supervised the ceremony where the last spike of that railroad was driven in to the ground. Before that, in 1861, he was elected Governor of California. As Governor, he was notoriously hostile to the Chinese immigrants that had arrived over the previous ten years, who he dubbed an ‘inferior race’. He pushed for legislation to restrict immigration from China, at a time when the USA had no restrictive immigration laws whatsoever (although he was happy to employ Chinese workers on low wages to help build his railroad). He later went on to found Stanford University, the most prestigious university on the entire west coast of the USA. His complex legacy is typical of many of those who succeeded in the West.
Another Western millionaire was Levi Strauss. He, like Stanford, made money selling goods to miners. In particular, he became famous for his later development of denim jeans from the 1870s, a popular item of clothing for some of the later miners in California and elsewhere in the American West where gold and silver mining took place.
MAIN TASK 3
Why might Leland Stanford be seen as someone who had a ‘complex legacy’ for the American West?
This was useful to bring to life the real way to make money in the west — which was not to pan for gold, but to sell things to those that did want to! A big nod to the excellent BBC In Our Time episode on the California Gold Rush for that one.
Looking at the list of three problems identified above — hopefully I’ve shown some ways into dealing with the first and third of those. The second one (why should young people still study this topic given its’ declining popular cultural relevance) I deal with a bit differently. Certainly given contemporary events and the continuing legacy of colonisation in British life, that is certainly one angle I use. I also very much tie in this unit with one of our next units — Weimar and Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler was fascinated by the story of the West (particularly through the novels of German author Karl May), and you can certainly see significant crossover between, for example, Generalplan Ost, and US government policy to the Native Americans.
I’m not saying I’ve been brilliantly successful in my world-building attempts by any means. The assessment framework for this section on the Edexcel course still defeats a lot of students, unfortunately, as it really punishes them if they don’t know very specific sections of the course. But I do think I’ve come a long way in my teaching of this topic over the past 4 years or so, and hopefully this post helps to reflect that.
In my next post on this theme, I’ll show you what I’ve been working on with the Mao’s China unit for A-level History. This is very much a work in progress and I’m still building my own world for that section of the course, but hopefully might prove to be an interesting exercise.