Dedicated to advancing scholarly and public understanding of the past, present, and future of western North America, the Center supports research, teaching, and reporting about western land and life in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Richard White's History of Transcontintental Railroads Wins Los Angeles Times Book Prize and Is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist

American history professor Richard White‘s book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history in late April, and earned a finalist spot in the 2012 Pulitzer Prize history category.

The Pulitzer selection committee is comprised of esteemed historians and White said although he didn’t win the Pulitzer, it was a “great honor” to be recognized by his peers.

Twelve years ago, White began to investigate how the creation of the railroad system affected the development of the American West. Along the way, he uncovered tales of political intrigue, bribery and outright scandal that resonated with readers when his book was published in 2011.

“The financial crisis and scandals of the last few years were terrible for the country, but good for the book,” said White, who also is faculty co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

White’s findings go beyond the traditional accounts of the railroads as the first modern corporations. His research reveals “how closely intertwined the railroads were with the political system” and demonstrates how they were “as much creatures of commerce as creatures of politics.”

White is no stranger to the Pulitzer process. In 1992, his book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, was a Pulitzer Prize nominated finalist. He has also been on the selection committee.

White is currently working on a history of the American “Gilded Age” from 1865 to 1896, which will be published as part of the Oxford History of the United States series.

A Decade of Fire in Western Australia: Comparing Aboriginal Fire Regimes to Lightning Fire Regimes

Spatial History Project

The Spatial History Project at Stanford has published an interactive online visualization of a decade of fire in western Australia based on the work of researchers in our Comparative Wests project at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. The visualization is based on a combination of ethnographic and ecological research undertaken by Stanford faculty and students in collaboration with indigenous Martu and was originally developed as a touchscreen application for the art exhibit Waru! Holding Fire in Australia’s Western Desert at the Thomas Welton Stanford Gallery in Summer 2011.

Ethnographic field work included interviews with Martu and quantitative observations of Martu hunting and burning. Ecological research included on the ground monitoring of areas at different stages of regrowth following a fire and spatial analysis of satellite imagery to classify burns over a ten year period from 2000-2010.

In the arid spinifex grasslands of Western Australia, fires are an integral part of the ecology. Following the first rains after a fire, small shoots of green vegetation begin to grow out of the newly enhanced sand. About a year later, the area will be dominated by fruiting and herbaceous plants, many of which are important sources of food for Aboriginal people. By about five years following the fire, spinifex grass begins to dominate once again. A large hummock grass, spinifex reaches out from its center and begins to crowd out all of the other plants. Eventually spinifex comes to dominate the entire sand plain and the process can begin again with another fire.

Martu fires, lit most frequently in the context of sand monitor lizard hunting, are significantly smaller than lightning ignition fires. Over time, these differences build into different contrasting landscapes. Within the Martu region, the visualization shows the fine-grained mosaic of different aged vegetation patches created by the Aboriginal fire regime over time. In contrast, the lightning regime is dominated by a small number of extremely large fires. The end result is a much more heterogeneous and diverse landscape within the area dominated by Aboriginal fires. This diversity also benefits other desert species.

Visit the Spatial History Project to see the visualization.

Spring Quarter Courses on the American West

This week, students return from spring break to begin the new quarter at Stanford. Throughout the year, Stanford students interested in the American West have a variety of courses from which to choose in departments across the university.

A quick glance at the courses offered this spring term confirms that the study of the American West attracts students and scholars from many disciplines. Courses available this quarter include "California's Minority-Majority Cities," "Federal Indian Law," "Ecology and Natural History of Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve," "Oaxacan Health on Both Sides of the Border," "LGBT History in the United States," "Field Seminar on Eastern Sierran Volcanism," the "Flor y Canto Poetry Workshop," and many more.

Alexandra Koelle, a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, is teaching a course entitled "Critical Theory and the Environment," cross-listed in American Studies, Anthropology, and the program in Modern Thought and Literature. Students in Koelle's class will examine a variety of theoretical approaches to conceptualizing the environment, including approaches from cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and feminist science studies. In the second half of the course, students will apply these methods to five topics that are crucial for understanding the American West: land use, water, agriculture, toxics, and animals.

For the full listing of spring courses, click here.

On California: A Dense Hotbed of Urbanism, U.S. Census Reveals

Gold LA, photo by Neil Kremer

The U.S. Census released a report on urban population on Monday, and in it was a perhaps-unexpected fact: Of the ten most densely populated cities, seven of them are in California. Indeed, California’s showing was so strong that the great bastion of urbanism in the United States — the New York-Newark metro area — just barely made the top five.

John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s urban design critic, interviewed a number of experts about California’s unique status. Among them was Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. One of Christensen’s quotes caught my attention, so I followed up with him via email to explore why California is such a hotbed of urbanism. Our correspondence follows:

Tim De Chant: What’s special about California that it has so many dense urban areas?

Jon Christensen: The American West, in general, and California, in particular, is really a metropolitan region and has been for a long time. California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona are among the 10 most urbanized states. The settlement pattern in the West is one of concentrated cities surrounded by wide open spaces — often substantially made up of public lands. This is true of California as well.

So it’s really the interplay of the history of cities and their hinterlands in the American West that explains why California has such dense urban areas. The fact that they are among the most dense urban areas in the country is also a result of population growth in California. The state has been and still is a great place for many people to live.

Read the rest of the interview at Per Square Mile »

Writing the Rails: Scholar Richard White Gives Dimension to the History of the Railroad

Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1868

Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a new book by historian Richard White, is “smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through,” says William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The book, 12 years in the making, is a “powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War,” he adds.

White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, spoke to Huntington Frontiers magazine about the way he balanced his own unique brand of storytelling with an equally creative use of historical data through something called the Spatial History Project, a collaborative community of scholars who use visual analysis and digital technology to identify patterns and anomalies in their research.

How should we read the book—as business history, environmental history, history of technology, or all of the above?

All of the above. I weave various strands of history together, so anybody who is looking for a sort of clean, direct narrative— in which one thing determines all—has probably found the wrong book. I attempt to bring in a whole variety of subjects that influenced railroads and show why they came to be in the late 19th century.


Sunset Magazine's 2012 Environmental Awards

Photo courtesy of The Wildlands Conservancy.

Sunset magazine announces the winners of its "2012 Environmental Awards" in the pages of its March issue now on newstands and online. Sunset editors and writers, including Sophie Egan, a former research assistant and intern at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, searched the West for the winners. Awards were given in categories such as Best Wild Kingdom, which celebrates one of the nation's biggest private conservation land purchases, Best Shoreline, and "Capital of Green," which was awarded to Washington's Olympic Peninsula for two separate projects that preserve beautiful rivers and forests.

The magazine's editors and an esteemed panel of judges, including Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, also honor Education Programs, such as The Wildlands Conservancy in Southern California (photo above), and Visitor Centers helping to promote ongoing interaction with and appreciation of the environment.

"The projects and people we honor this year are outstanding in every way," said Peter Fish, Sunset editor-at-large. "We received massive amounts of emails nominating candidates and almost all were very good, so it was a difficult choice."

"The recession has had a silver lining when it comes to the environment," continued Fish, who served as one of the award program's judges. "Land development and competition from real estate developers is down, meaning that land trusts have a better chance of obtaining and protecting land."

The judging panel also included Brian Kahn, host of Montana Public Radio's Home Ground and author of Real Common Sense; and Jenny Price, a research scholar at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women, an environmental historian and one of the founders of Los Angeles Urban Rangers.

Sunset magazine was founded in 1898, and under the guidance of the Lane family in the 20th century became the premier guide to life in the West, covering the newest and best ideas in Western home design and garden, food and entertaining, and regional travel in 13 Western states. It is published in five zoned monthly editions-Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Southern California, Southwest and Mountain-showcasing the region's unique lifestyle and noteworthy destinations and inspiring its nearly five million readers to achieve the dream of living in the West.

Bill Lane Center Fellowships for Scholars of the West 2012-2013

Photo by Linda A. Cicero, courtesy of Stanford News Service.

The Bill Lane Center Fellowships for Scholars of the West invites letters of inquiry from scholars who would like to spend time in residence at the Center during the 2012-2013 academic year. The Center has funding available to support scholars whose work intersects with the mission and programs of the Center, who can contribute to the scholarly community at the Center, and who can advantageously use time at Stanford to advance their own scholarly projects. The terms of funding are negotiable depending on the length of the fellowship and any cost-sharing funds that scholars can bring from other institutions.

We are also able to offer visiting scholar status to qualified applicants who bring their own funding and have projects on the American West that are particularly suited to research at the Center and Stanford University.

President Obama gives the National Humanities Medal to Stanford literary scholar Ramón Saldívar

Ramón Saldívar receiving the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.Courtesy of

In a White House ceremony on Monday, President Obama awarded a National Humanities Medal to Stanford English and comparative literature Professor Ramón Saldívar.

His teaching and research, centering on globalization, transnationalism and Chicano studies, were recognized for "his bold explorations of identity along the border separating the United States and Mexico."

"You've helped guide our growth as a people," Obama told the nine medal winners. The awards are for outstanding achievement in history, literature, education, philosophy and musicology. This year's recipients include poets, historians and philosophers.

The medals are described as honoring those whose work deepens the nation's understanding of the humanities. Saldívar, the Hoagland Family Professor in Humanities and Sciences at Stanford and a member of the Bill Lane Center for the American West's faculty committee, was selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities for his literary analysis, which "beckons us to notice the cultural and literary markings that unite and divide us."

Bringing "Real Rural" California into The City

Photographs from "Real Rural" by Lisa M. Hamilton

On their morning commutes this winter, many BART riders will look up from their newspapers, iPads, Kindles, and smartphones to see the faces of farmers, rodeo riders, young smalltown boxers, and country poets staring back at them, thanks to an innovative public information campaign designed to connect urban Californians with their rural compatriots.

"Real Rural" is the product of a collaboration between writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton, the nonprofit organization Roots of Change, the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and the Creative Work Fund, which supports artists working in the nine Bay Area counties. On a media fellowship from our Center, Hamilton spent much of 2011 criscrossing California, capturing offbeat portraits of the state's remarkable scenery and seeking out stories about the diverse residents of what she calls "the rest of California."

Hamilton writes:

Real Rural is meant to start a new conversation, between two parts of California that are at best disconnected, and often at odds. Many people in our cities think they already know the story of rural California: who’s there and how they think, their values and their struggles. I have aimed to demonstrate that in fact this place and its people are far more diverse and dynamic than most of us from outside realize.

Working with Geoff McGhee, the Center's creative director of media and communications, and the San Francisco design firm MacFadden and Thorpe, Hamilton has crafted an elegant, interactive and multimedia rich website — — that tells the stories of 20 rural Californians, as well as posters on BART. Later this year, the project will be featured on mass transit and billboards in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and in exhibition at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

"Real Rural" has garnered extraordinary media attention, including a feature in the "Insight" section of the Sunday San Francisco Chroncle, an hour-long interview with Lisa Hamilton and Jon Christensen on KQED Radio's "Forum," a feature story on public radio's statewide "California Report," a feature on National Public Radio's "Picture Show" online, and numerous other newspaper, radio, and television features.

We hope you can join us to celebrate "Real Rural" California at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday, January 31, from 5 to 7pm, where Lisa will talk about the journey she took to find these extraordinary stories from the rest of California. Please click here for more information and to RSVP.

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