RECAP: “Lessons from the Legacy of Broken Concord,” Spring 2023 Keynote w/ Prof. Stephen Aron
Views on the history of the American West have shifted drastically, and importantly, in recent decades. What was once a celebration of destiny manifested has become an indictment of ruthless expansion. The language of social progress, political democracy, and economic development has been replaced by ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and genocide. Brutal fact, in other words, has taken the place of scrubbed fiction. As UCLA Professor of History Emeritus Stephen Aron, now President and CEO of the Autrey Museum of the American West, detailed in introducing his talk, though these views are diametrically opposed to one another, they still share violence as a common denominator. Regardless of how you tell it, there is not much peace and friendship in the historiography of the American West.
At least on the surface, this makes the title of his most recent Oxford University Press monograph, Peace and Friendship: An Alternative History of the American West, a bit curious. But as he showed throughout his April 28 spring keynote lecture at the State Historical Society of Missouri, running adjacent to and intersecting with the now mainstream history of the West is a second narrative that his book seeks to unpack. Specifically, for as dark and bloody as the grounds of the frontier were, there were nonetheless sites where colonialism wore a different face and the relations between settlers, Native Americans, and states deviated from the monolithic logic of elimination and exclusion. What lessons, his book asks, can we take from recovering the history of those specific locales where foes faced off but where violence was contained; where enmity, even if for a brief time, transformed into amicability?
Before diving into some of the case studies that his book examines, Prof. Aron made clear that the instances of relative peace and friendship that he looks at were quite unstable. Local arrangements that curtailed violence gave way easily when the balances of power and powerlessness shifted. While premised on enforcing law and creating peace, the apparatuses and arsenals of empire devastated frontier-crossing, inter-cultural friendship. And this, he noted, should be a primary takeaway from the book: that in the immediate term, the entrance of armies and armaments—of the United States’ forces of law and order—turned the frontiers darker and bloodier.
Another primary takeaway—one particularly well-suited to crowd and venue—was the centrality of Missouri to the book’s alternative history. The first chapter of Peace and Friendship, for example, looks at the years Daniel Boone spent living in the Missouri Territory among many of the same Shawnee Tribe members with whom he was at war during the 1770s and 80s in the Ohio Valley. And the memory of war was curiously critical to Boone not giving into the blinding hatred of Native Americans that demonically possessed so many of his contemporaries. “Many things happen in war,” Boone wrote while in captivity in Chillicothe, “that are best forgotten in peace.” This would be the stuff of biography, Prof. Aron acknowledged, were it not for so many similar stories. Large numbers of Americans, Shawnee, and Delaware Indians sought refuge in the 1790s in Spanish Louisiana and lived in peace and friendship alongside one another for a significant period of time. The same was true along Apple Creek in what is now Southeast Missouri. In this latter case, we see quite clearly both how and why concord existed and how and why it could dissolve in what seemed a moment. The settlers and the Shawnee who lived side-by-side shared a common enemy in the Osage. The state’s colonial regime was weak, and the number of American settlers in the area relatively limited. Put those factors together, and you have a formula for old enemies finding common ground. Take them away, as was the case in the wake of the War of 1812, and inter-cultural friendships fade quickly.
A similar framework can be seen at Chimney Rock, a stop on the Oregon Trail for which Missouri served as a jumping off point. The most iconic image from Chimney Rock—of wagons circled and Native Americans riding combatively around them—is likewise among the most misleading, as, at least initially, the site was not at all one of conflict. Or, perhaps more accurately, tensions between Americans and the Indigenous peoples whose land they were emigrating across certainly abounded from the start. That said, as long as the caravans were only passing through, their numbers limited, and the U.S. Army mostly absent, both sides put off their mistrust to trade with one another. Stresses and conflicts heightened with the discovery of gold in California, which brought both more numbers and more military presence, and relations broke down entirely after the Civil War with the arrival of railroads and permanent settlements, after which the U.S. unleashed its army and equally deadly bureaucracy on the Plains Indians.
The book concludes with what Prof. Aron described as a rather unexpected stop in Dodge City, whose origins likewise trace back to Missouri. In lore—and to some degree, in truth—Dodge City’s name still stands in for vice and violence, a blood-stained site of anarchic, red hot hatreds. Closer perspective brings some measure of redemption. Racial animosity toward African Americans was far less pronounced in Dodge City and the cattle drives that led to it than in the majority of post-Civil War America. It was also less deadly than most of its fellow cow towns, with statues in place (if unevenly applied) prohibiting the carrying of arms and a police force that lacked the era’s and region’s penchant for killing rather than arresting perpetrators. To be fair, Prof. Aron argued in closing, Dodge City is not a perfect laboratory for thinking through the history of the West, just as the history itself is imperfect. Understandings between peoples and across cultures were ephemeral, and nowhere in the history does a record of continuous, unbroken concord exist. As frustrating as the collapse of peace and friendship is, though, the narrative of it is not a dead end. Better a history of broken concord than no concord at all, and, especially today, better to continue to seek out places and periods where people overcame differences than deem them existential and irreconcilable.