Promised Lands

Promotion, Memory, and the Creation of the American West

David M. Wrobel

Whether seen as a land of opportunity or as paradise lost, the American West took shape in the nation's imagination with the help of those who wrote about it; but two groups who did much to shape that perception are often overlooked today.

Promoters trying to lure settlers and investors to the West insisted that the frontier had already been tamed-that the only frontiers remaining were those of opportunity. Through posters, pamphlets, newspaper articles, and other printed pieces, these boosters literally imagined places into existence by depicting backwater areas as settled, culturally developed regions where newcomers would find none of the hardships associated with frontier life.

Promised Lands traces the origins of the California dream to a singular struggle that defined us and shapes us still. . . . Wrobel shows how Western mythmaking begins at a deep place in human consciousness. . . . He has tapped into a ‘mountain of printed promises’ and succeeds in wringing new meanings out of these mostly-overlooked sources.”

Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Wrobel has some of the best ideas of any western historian of whatever generation. . . . His marvelous argument in this book advances significantly our understanding of how the West was created.”

—David M. Emmons in
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Quick on their heels, some of the West's original settlers had begun publishing their reminiscences in books and periodicals and banding together in pioneer societies to sustain their conception of frontier heritage. Their selective memory focused on the savage wilderness they had tamed, exaggerating the past every bit as much as promoters exaggerated the present.

Although they are generally seen today as unscrupulous charlatans and tellers of tall tales, David Wrobel reveals that these promoters and reminiscers were more significant than their detractors have suggested. By exploring the vast literature produced by these individuals from the end of the Civil War through the 1920s, he clarifies the pivotal impact of their works on our vision of both the historic and mythic West.

In examining their role in forging both sense of place within the West and the nation's sense of the West as a place, Wrobel shows that these works were vital to the process of identity formation among westerners themselves and to the construction of a "West" in the national imagination. Wrobel also sheds light on the often elitist, sometimes racist legacies of both groups through their characterizations of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans.

In the era Wrobel examines, promoters painted the future of each western place as if it were already present, while the old-timers preserved the past as if it were still present. But, as he also demonstrates, that West has not really changed much: promoters still tout its promise, while old-timers still try to preserve their selective memories. Even relatively recent western residents still tap into the region's mythic pioneer heritage as they form their attachments to place. Promised Lands shows us that the West may well move into the twenty-first century, but our images of it are forever rooted in the nineteenth.

About the Author

David M. Wrobel is associate professor of history at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. He is the author of The End of American Exceptionalism: Frontier Anxiety from the Old West to the New Deal and coeditor of Many Wests: Place, Culture, and Regional Identity and Seeing and Being Seen: Tourism in the American West, all published by the University Press of Kansas.