Encounters with Natives and Nature: Travel Narratives and American Ideologies

Endorsed by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History and the Western History Association

Friday, April 3, 2020, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration; West


Many historians and literary scholars have written about travel narratives or used travel narratives as their archive. Very few, however, have scrutinized the narrative form itself, the social construction of the genre, and its role in crafting colonial discourse. Travelers rarely recorded unmediated experience, but instead gazed at new environments and people through the eyes of previous sojourners. Indeed, the reading of narratives by those who came before them preconditioned travelers to apprehend exotic environments and peoples in ways that profoundly shaped their own experiences and structured their own stories. Our proposed panel, “Encounters with Natives and Nature: Travel Narratives and American Ideologies,” focuses on travelers who narrated their journeys along the Overland Trails, across the Isthmus of Panama, and down the Colorado River to explore the ways in which they constructed those accounts and in the process created national narratives that legitimated conquest, from the nineteenth century well into the twenty-first. These mediated narratives had long-term consequences. “Settler Discourse in Travel Writing: Overland by Foot, Wagon, and Rail,” by PhD candidate Christopher Smith (University of Oregon), will demonstrate that the published diaries and narratives of the overland journey through the American West promulgated settler-colonial ideologies of place, race, and the ownership of the land that live on to this day. “Crossing at Panama: Patterns of Tropical Perception during the Isthmian Transit Period,” by Paul Sutter (Professor, University of Colorado-Boulder), will argue that travel narratives of the trans-Panama journey laid the foundation for tropicality as an American ideology of extra-continental expansion. And “Danger River: Narrating Adventure through the Southwestern Canyonlands,” by Marsha Weisiger (Associate Professor, University of Oregon), will show how diaries and published narratives expressed the frontier ideology that continues to undergird wilderness environmentalism. Mark Fiege (Professor, Montana State University) will serve as chair, and Thomas Hallock, a literary historian who has written on frontier travel narratives, will comment before opening up 25 minutes of conversation with the audience.

Papers Presented

Danger River: Narrating Adventure through the Southwestern Canyonlands

Most government reports gather dust on shelves. But the publication of John Wesley Powell’s official report, Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries (1875)—and especially the popular account by crew-member Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, A Canyon Voyage (1908)—revealed and defined the American Southwest as a region where people could find adventure, test their mettle, and discover freedom. These men did not produce monotonous logs of quotidian experiences and observations; they structured stories that pitted the landscape as a formidable opponent in a heroic struggle for survival, and they cast themselves as frontier conquerers. In this endeavor, they drew on the structure of earlier narratives by explorers and geologists, and in turn, their stories fired the imagination of scores of adventurers, scientists, engineers, and tourists, who launched their own expeditions down the Colorado River. Before embarking, adventurers rehearsed their trips by reading Powell, Dellenbaugh, and others, whose dramatic narratives framed and structured their own experiences of what one adventurer called “the world’s most dangerous river.” Drawing on the journals and stories written by more than 150 men and women who boated these rivers between 1869 and 1977, this paper explores how adventure narratives shaped the ways subsequent adventurers experienced the river and imagined themselves as pioneers in a landscape they claimed as their own.

Presented By
Marsha L. Weisiger, University of Oregon

Crossing at Panama: Patterns of Tropical Perception during the Isthmian Transit Period

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, tropicality was a powerful environmental ideology of American extra-continental expansion, just as wilderness had been for American continental expansion. But how did Americans come to know and construct the tropics as a discrete and distinctive environmental space, and as an imperial problem to be solved? To the extent that historians have tried to answer that question, they have tended to rely on a handful of high cultural sources, assuming that they both influenced and reflected popular understanding. In this paper, I argue that the isthmian transit period – the two decades between the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, when approximately 800,000 people crossed the isthmus of Panama to travel between the East Coast of North America and the new U.S. territory of California—provides a remarkable opportunity to write a social history of American perceptions of, and ideas about, the tropics and tropical nature. By utilizing a source set of more than one hundred diaries, collections of correspondence, books, and other publications, I will assess this unique transit period as one in which travelers shaped each other’s expectations of and interactions with the tropical nature and peoples, mixing empirical observation with preconditioned expectations to create a discourse on the tropics and its most potent symbols.

Presented By
Paul S. Sutter, University of Colorado Boulder

Plains, Trains, and Automobiles: Settler Discourse in Travel Writing

Historians of the American West often focus their attention on the origins and evolution of a mythic “Western” identity
through a lens of fiction or visual art that spans roughly from the mid-eighteenth to the latter-nineteenth centuries. While there have been
many strong works that have assessed the qualities of a uniquely American Western identity, fewer studies have examined the ways in which
this identity was present in travel narratives. This paper explores the congruities of anti-Indian discourse across two centuries and three
modes of transportation through a lens of settler colonialism in order to highlight the ways in which travel narratives upheld and contributed
to mythologies of the American West. I argue that settlers participating in the overland trail migrations of the mid-nineteenth century were
influenced by earlier forms of forced or voluntary travel narratives and, in turn, settler narratives were highly influential to later travel
narratives of overland rail passengers and early automobile clubs—specifically in how these narratives described Native people and
spaces. Ultimately, this discourse upheld and contributed to an evolving “pioneer” mythology—one steeped in white supremacy—that was
representative of a settler colonial ideology and one that continues to permeate contemporary American social and cultural consciousness.

Presented By
Christopher C. Smith, University of Oregon

Session Participants

Chair: Mark Fiege, Montana State University
Mark Fiege is the Wallace Stegner Chair of Western American Studies and Professor of History at Montana State University. Prior to his appointment at MSU, he worked at Colorado State University, where he was the William E. Morgan Chair of Liberal Arts and the founding director of the Public Lands History Center. Fiege is the author of The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (University of Washington Press, 2012), and Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (University of Washington Press, 1999), which won the Charles A. Weyerhaeuser Award from the Forest History Society, among others. He also co-edited National Parks beyond the Nation: Global Perspectives on “America’s Best Idea (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). His essay, “The Weedy West,” won four awards, including the Alice Hamilton Prize from the American Society for Environmental History and the Oscar O. Winther Award from the Western History Association. Fiege has held fellowships with the National Humanities Center, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation/Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies, and the Tanner Humanities Center at the University of Utah, among others. He was a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and served on the Western History Association Council.

Commentator: Thomas Hallock, University of South Florida
Thomas Hallock is a Professor of English in the Department of Verbal and Visual Arts at South Florida University, St. Petersburg. Prior to his appointment at SFU, Hallock was on the faculty at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics and the Roots of a National Literature, 1749-1826 (University of North Carolina Press, 2003), and he co-edited Early Modern Ecostudies: From the Florentine Codex to Shakespeare (Palgrave-McMillan, 2008), William Bartram, the Search for Nature's Design: Selected Art, Letters, and Unpublished Writings (University of Georgia Press, 2010), and John and William Bartram: Travels on the St. Johns River (forthcoming, University Press of Florida). He is currently working on “A Road Course in American Literature,” a series of place-based narrative essays.

Presenter: Christopher C. Smith, University of Oregon
Christopher Smith is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Oregon, where he is a Peggy Pascoe Fellow. His master’s thesis was entitled “From the Plains to the Plateau: Indian and Emigrant Interactions during the Overland Trail Migrations.” He is currently expanding this work into a dissertation exploring overland travel narratives as settler colonial discourse.

Presenter: Paul S. Sutter, University of Colorado Boulder
Paul Sutter is Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at the University of Colorado Boulder. Previously, he was at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Driven Wild: How the Fight against Automobiles Launched the Modern Wilderness Movement (University of Washington Press, 2002) and Let Us Now Praise Famous Gullies: Providence Canyon and the Soils of the South (University of Georgia Press, 2015). He is co-author of The Art of Managing Longleaf: A Personal History of the Stoddard-Neel Approach (University of Georgia Press, 2010), and he is the co-editor of Environmental History and the American South: A Reader (University of Georgia Press, 2009) and Coastal Nature, Coastal Culture: Environmental Histories of the Georgia Coast (University of Georgia Press, 2018). Sutter is also the author of a 2013 state-of-the-field essay on environmental history in the Journal of American History. He is the series editor for “Weyerhaeuser Environmental Books,” published by the University of Washington Press, and he was the founding editor of the “Environmental History and the American South” book series published by the University of Georgia Press. Sutter has held fellowships from the Smithsonian Institution, the Huntington Library, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health, and the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society. He is currently working on a book, tentatively titled “Pulling the Teeth of the Tropics: Environment, Disease, Race, and the U.S. Sanitary Program in Panama, 1904-1914,” which interprets American expansion and imperial public health through the lens of environmental history.

Presenter: Marsha L. Weisiger, University of Oregon
Marsha Weisiger is the Julie and Rocky Dixon Chair of U.S. Western History, an Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, and the co-director of the UO’s Center for Environmental Futures. Previously, she taught at New Mexico State University. Weisiger’s scholarship includes Dreaming of Sheep in Navajo Country (University of Washington Press, 2009), which won four awards, including the Hal Rothman Book Award from the Western History Association and the Carol and Norris Hundley Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association, and Land of Plenty: Oklahomans in the Cotton Fields of Arizona, 1933-1942 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), winner of the Angie Debo Prize. She is also a public historian and the principal author of Buildings of Wisconsin (University of Virginia Press, 2017). Weisiger has received numerous academic and publication awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Association of University Women, and the Huntington Library. She is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and has served on the governing councils of the Western History Association and the AHA-Pacific Coast Branch, and on the editorial board of Environmental History. She is currently working on a book manuscript on adventure narratives, titled “Danger River,” and a co-authored book on Oregon’s public lands, “To Speak of Common Places.”