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.

Journal Surveys the Comparative Wests

Pupunya Tula artist Patrick Tjungurrayi names the waterholes that became wells in his painting Canning Stock Route Country. (Photograph by Tim Acker, 2007, courtesy of FORM, Canning Stock Route Project.)

The Comparative Wests project is a collaboration of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and scholars at Stanford, the University of Western Australia, and around the North American West and Australia. Together, the researchers seek to examine the commonalities and differences among former settler colonies in western Canada, the United States, and the western Pacific including Australia and the Pacific Islands, and the rapid cultural, economic and environmental transformations they experienced.

This spring, a collection of research papers from the Comparative Wests has been published in the journal Occasion, an imprint of the Stanford digital humanities collective Arcade

The lead essay, "An Introduction to the Comparative Wests," provides a quick overview and framing of the researchers' approach:

Historically understood as distant from the centers of colonial and national political and economic power, we understand these Wests to be at the center of some of modernity’s most fraught struggles. In the essays that follow, these Wests are homes from which we travel and to which we return, places we visit, and in which we hope to permanently remain. The Wests we compare are sites of cosmological centeredness for some, as well as spaces of epistemological, ontological, and geopolitical struggle for all. We hope that the methodology of approaching these regions and their histories as “Comparative Wests” opens up spaces for thinking through, and beyond, the practices, contests, and legacies of settler colonialism.

The journal collects papers presented at the project's January 2012 gathering at Stanford of historians and archaeologists, anthropologists and indigenous studies scholars, architects and art historians, lawyers and land planners, hailing from North America and Australia. They cover a range of subject matter: the environmental legacy of historical contacts between settlers and indigenous populations, such as the carving of cattle driving paths through Aboriginal Australian lands; land use by the North Fork Mono tribe in California; images of the "cowboy" in both North American and Australian contexts, where it was widely adopted by indigenous peoples working on settler "stations" or ranches; the role of commercial interests like shippers in influencing and shaping migration and immigration patterns and policies; the role of fire in indigenous landscape management and how land managers are giving ancient techniques a fresh look. 

The publication is entirely free online and can be read on the web or downloaded in print-ready PDF format.

Drawing Lessons from a Mexican Groundwater Saga

The environmental historian Mikael Wolfe has published a sobering account of land reform, environmental stewardship and economic development gone wrong in North-Central Mexico. Published in the journal Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Prof. Wolfe's article looks at the arid Comarca Lagunera – or "La Laguna" – region of Durango and Coahuila states, which was turned into an agricultural and dairy powerhouse between the 1930's and 1960's by the extensive use of powerful electric pumps (like the one in the 1961 advertisement above). Despite the repeated warnings of water engineers over many years – as well as frequent prohibitions on pumping – the region saw the vast overdraft of groundwater resources and concomitant pollution by naturally occurring salts and toxins like arsenic. 

At a time when undertakings like the Center's Water in the West Project seek to identify best practices and metrics for groundwater management, Prof. Wolfe's account is a reminder that good information alone is no guarantee of sound management practices when it is placed in competition with other factors:

[The] concatenation of social, economic, political, and ecological forces, and not lack of awareness or concern among at least some experts even in a "pre-environmentalist" era (prior to the 1980s), is, I contend, what rendered groundwater conservation almost impossible in twentieth-century Mexico – a legacy that tragically persists to this day.

– Mikael Wolfe, "The Historical Dynamics of Mexico’s Groundwater Crisis in La Laguna: Knowledge, Power and Profit, 1920s to 1960s"

Prof. Wolfe, who is an Assistant Professor of History at Stanford and a member of the Center's faculty committee, is working a book-length version of his research entitled Watering the Revolution: The Technopolitical Success and Socioecological Failure of Agrarian Reform in La Laguna, Mexico.

On Memorial Day, Considering the Volunteer Military

Photo: Sha Sha Chu via Flickr

Amid the remembrances of the nation's war dead on Memorial Day, The New York Times has published an op-ed co-written by Center faculty director David M. Kennedy and Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry (retired) that reflects on our all-volunteer fighting force and the problems it poses for American culture and democracy – and for the military itself: 

"...The greatest challenge to our military is not from a foreign enemy — it’s the widening gap between the American people and their armed forces. ... For nearly two generations, no American has been obligated to join up, and few do. Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. Even fewer of the privileged and powerful shoulder arms. In 1975, 70 percent of members of Congress had some military service; today, just 20 percent do, and only a handful of their children are in uniform."

The authors also collaborated on Prof. Kennedy's upcoming book, The Modern American Military, which collects the perspectives of a distinguished group of scholars and military minds on the state of the United States' armed forces. The book will be released by the Oxford University Press in June.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Urges Land Managers to See the Big Picture


The Honorable David J. Hayes, who as Deputy U.S. Secretary of the Interior has oversight over major governmental land management agencies, delivered a speech to the Center on campus in late April. In drawing on his long experience from two stints in the role during the Clinton and Obama administrations, Deputy Secretary Hayes sought to describe a group of agencies that have been hampered by budget cuts and political divisions, and that might be tempted to think and act small. Instead, said Hayes, those institutions should use an integrated management approach that links local-level projects to larger-scale plans, and that balance the competing interests of conservation and economic activity.

Looking at federal institutions that are collectively responsible for some of the nation's grandest projects, from dams and reservoirs to national parks and wildlife refuges, Hayes said,

...We can still think and act on a big scale when it comes to managing our nation’s lands for the future. Simply put, a number of forces are emerging and pushing back against the all-too-familiar, recent pattern of ignoring resource conflicts until they blow up into unmanageable disasters that chop up our lands and the precious resources that they hold for all Americans. 

Hayes went on to outline those factors and their reasons for adopting a more holistic approach to land and resource management, among them: large-footprint energy projects like oil, gas, wind and solar installations and electricity transmission lines; ensuring habitat protection for key wildlife species; reacting to larger and more frequent extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy; and the technological possibilities offered by remote satellite sensing and surveying.

Deputy Secretary Hayes, who is a graduate of Stanford Law School, will be returning to the West Coast this summer after he steps down from the Department of the Interior. He will take a teaching post at the Law School and will be a senior fellow at the Hewlett Foundation.

"Year of the Bay" Project Leads Wave of Humanities Crowdsourcing

The Stanford News Service today has a story looking at three creative examples of crowdsourced humanities scholarship, led by "Year of the Bay," a collaboration among the Center, Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis, the California Historical Society, scholars at UCLA, and technologists at HistoryPin and Stamen Design.

From the article:

Over the years, garage sale and used bookstore aficionado Michael Rettie has discovered dozens of historical photographs in forgotten boxes.

A new crowdsourcing project organized by Stanford researchers is enabling Rettie to post his finds on a publicly accessible virtual map that offers a nuanced picture of San Francisco Bay area history.

Rettie is one of many amateur historical researchers contributing to Year of the Bay, the first of three crowdsourcing experiments underway at Stanford.

Crowdsourcing holds the promise of enabling scholars "to engage people locally, across the country, and around the world in real research," said Zephyr Frank, an associate professor of history and director of Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), which is conducting the experiments with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. 

Madeline Weeks Heads to Mexico on Fulbright Scholarship

We're very proud to announce that Madeline Weeks, the Center's Program and Research Associate, has been awarded a Fulbright-García Robles scholarship for the 2013-14 academic year. Madeline will head to Mexico to study shade-grown coffee production in the state of Veracruz. In particular, she will explore the potential of shade-grown coffee plants to produce higher-quality beans with more beneficial socioeconomic and environmental effects. Madeline has been interested in the subject since writing her Wellesley senior thesis on the role of chocolate in Mexican history, religion, and culture. 

The Fulbright-García Robles scholarship is a prestigious award administered by the Mexico-U.S. Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (COMEXUS), which seeks promote mutual understanding between the two countries through educational and cultural exchanges. 

Since joining the Center, Madeline has been instrumental in coordinating our student research and activities like our summer internships and Sophomore College courses. She also planned and led the 20-mile Stanford to the Sea hike that took place earlier this month.

Madeline's departure this summer leaves us with an opening for the Program Associate position, which we will be posting later this spring. Interested candidates are welcome to contact us. In the meantime, please join us in congratulating Madeline and wishing her the best for continuing her studies of the North American West.

Reflecting on Bill Lane's Western Life

Bert Patenaude, right, a lecturer in history, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of L.W. "Bill" Lane Jr.'s memoir The Sun Never Sets, spoke about the book's development and about the Lane family's role in shaping the image of postwar California.

Before he passed away in 2010, the publisher, diplomat and Center benefactor L.W. "Bill" Lane, Jr., worked with the Stanford historian and researcher Bert Patenaude on a memoir spanning his rich life and experiences. Following the April publication of the book, entitled The Sun Never Sets: Reflections on a Western Life, Dr. Patenaude spoke May 14 at a Center-organized event commemorating the release.

"These are Bill Lane's words throughout," said Patenaude, who described the process of editing the volume with Ambassador Lane after he turned 88 years old in 2007. "There were no ghostwriters. My job was getting him to say it in fewer words sometimes, and rearranging and editing it down." The book chronicles Bill Lane's 90 years, from his childhood in Iowa and his father's purchase of the ailing Sunset magazine in 1928 that brought the family to the Bay Area, to  his naval service in the Pacific War, to his subsequent tours as a diplomat in Japan and Australia.

However, said Patenaude, "the heart of the book is Sunset in the postwar boom years in the West. He becomes a philanthropist and diplomat, but Sunset's success enabled him to do all that." Patenaude spoke about how Bill and his brother Mel tweaked their father Laurence's opinion-free service journalism in the 1960s, mixing in a concern for the environment that reflected changing times. "They just took a look at these mounting environmental challenges in the West, and said we've got to break this rule. But here, too, in the environmental arena, there's this how-to dimension: water conservation, the smart use of water, drought resistant plants, and so on."

In his latter years, Amb. Lane continued to promote environmental causes through his philanthropic work and advocacy for state and national parks, both of whose administrators named him an honorary ranger, a rare achievement of which, says Patenaude, he was justifiably proud. 

Patenaude said that Amb. Lane was nearly done reading the final pages of the manuscript when he died in the summer of 2010, but that he remained restless and ambitious to the end. "If Bill were still here," said Patenaude, "I'm convinced the book would not be finished."

The book is available from Stanford University Press and online and retail booksellers. Video of the lecture is available on Vimeo:

At Stanford, Reworking the Old Story of the Overland Trail

William Henry Jackson’s Crossing the South Platte, c. 1930 (William Henry Jackson Collection, Scotts Bluff National Monument, Gering, Nebraska)

During 2012-13, Sarah Keyes was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with a joint appointment at The Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW). She is currently an Upton Foundation Fellow at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. This fall she will begin a two-year appointment as an ACLS New Faculty Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

For approximately nine months, The Bill Lane Center for the American West was my intellectual home. I joined the Center after completing my dissertation, "Beyond the Plains: Migration to the Pacific and the Reconfiguration of America, 1820s-1900s," at the University of Southern California under the direction of William Deverell.

My appointment at the Center allowed me to begin work on my book manuscript, based on my dissertation. In the fall I explored aspects of the experience that I had not included in the dissertation. One of these themes was health on the overland trail. Historians have long noted that many Euro-Americans undertook the journey to improve their health, as well as to reach what they believed to be the more healthy climates of California and Oregon. In a paper I presented at the annual meeting of the Western History Association, I argued that Euro-American travelers declared that adopting an "Indian lifestyle" - walking long distances and eating buffalo meat, for instance - was the way to improve their health. Through this claim Euro-Americans described the journey as transforming them for the better, by making them more like the healthy, tall Indians of the Plains that they so admired.

Recently, during the Center's "Spring Seminar" series. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to present portions of an upcoming exhibit that I am developing at the Oregon History Museum. The exhibit, based on research I did at the Oregon Historical Society, showcases how the Society focused its preservation and commemoration efforts on both Euro-American and indigenous populations. Although the members of the Society had distinct views of these two groups' roles in the history of their state, they vigorously pursued relics and documents pertaining to both of them.

I have recently begun an Upton Foundation Fellowship at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan. I am currently researching and continuing to revise my book manuscript from the Midwest. In the fall I will be teaching Immigration History and American Indian History at the University of California, Berkeley. 

From Stanford to the Sea

Stanford to the Sea walkers after arriving at San Gregorio Beach

For the past two years, the Center's ritual hike around the Stanford campus, known as "Walking the Farm," has taken on a challenge even greater than circumnavigating the university's famously sprawling lands: crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains to reach the Pacific Ocean on foot. 

On Saturday afternoon, May 4, a group of 30-odd trekkers arrived at San Gregorio Beach after hiking roughly 22 miles from the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. Some walkers even chose to cool off in the frigid ocean waters, and others dipped a toe in the surf.

Following traditon, the walk was enriched by several presentations along the way following the day's theme: land use in the coastal West. Prof. Chris Field (Carnegie Department of Global Ecology) spoke about the effect of climate change on coastal forests; Prof. David Freyberg (Civil and Environmental Engineering) talked about research on redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains; Prof. Meg Caldwell (Center for Ocean Solutions) spoke about the California Coastal Commission; and Paul Ringgold and Walter Moore of the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) spoke about their group's work in land conservation. Portions of these talks are available as video clips.

The 2013 walk was a valedictory for Prof. David M. Kennedy, the outgoing director and co-founder of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Prof. Kennedy, who will turn over direction of the Center this summer to Prof. Bruce E. Cain, originated the idea of Walking the Farm and its later iteration, Stanford to the Sea, which the Center first attempted in 2012. Last year's hike wound 23 miles through the foothills but stopped a few miles short due to darkness. With a new route plotted by the Center's Program and Research Associate, Madeline Weeks, and partners at POST, the group was able to celebrate on the beach in style. For more photos and video from the trip, please follow the links below.

Slideshow and complete photo collection on Flickr: 

Lectures by Chris Field, David Freyberg and Paul Ringgold on video

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