Eastern American History versus Western American History: Two Different Histories

America has two histories — two separate histories — Eastern his­tory and Western. These two histories are divided by a line that runs from Chicago, south through St. Louis and down to New Orleans. Until recently, most academics viewed all American history through Eastern lens.

I bring to mind the famous New Yorker Maga­zine cover showing the Eastern view of the United States with New York City taking up three-quarters of the map and ev­erything west of the Hudson River being stuffed into the rest.

But the two histories were different — much different.


Eastern American History — A Story of “Groups”

When we look at American history of the Eastern half, we see the story of ethnic and religious groups of Europeans migrating to America at different times.

We came in waves — in groups — and tended to settle the same way. The Irish are remembered for settling in New York and Boston. The Italians and Poles settled in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.

The Jews settled on the Eastside of New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. The French liked Canada and, of course, New Orleans. The Scandinavians moved out to Wis­consin and Minnesota.

We settled in groups, bringing and maintaining our cultures as we struggled hard to become Americans.

The great untold story of America is that, for the most part, our ethnic and cultural groups got along well as the borders of our neigh­borhoods abutted one other.

Hollywood focuses on the rare conflicts while a real history course points out how well we integrated.

The mixing of so many cultures was, and still is, almost impossible in Europe.

The greatness of America was that we all became “Ameri­canized” together. We learned from each other. Just think of the vari­ety of ethnic foods we all eat and take for granted — Chinese, Italian, French, Creole, Middle Eastern, etc., as well as the various ethnic festivals we enjoy.

That is the great story of Eastern American history — ethnic groups arriving, settling as groups, keeping and enjoying their cultures while becoming “Americanized,” and then slowly mixing.

In many parts of Europe, take away a strong central government and the various cultures of the country go back to fighting — and, often, even killing each other.

America is, and has always been, unique!

Western American History — A Story of “Individuals”

For our purposes, Western American History can be said to begin at the midpoint of the 1800s.

This was the point when Mexico transferred California and the New Mexico Territories to the United States.

The New Mexico Territories consisted of the current states of New Mexico, Arizona, Southern Utah and Southern Colorado.

Although winning these territories as part of the settlement of the Mexican-American War, the United States also paid Mexico for the lands. Payment for lands won in war is part of the uniqueness of America.

The Louisiana Purchase and the Corps of Discovery led by Louis & Clark set most of our Northwestern and Far West boundaries, opening up this vast land for settlement. 

Back East, an interesting phenomenon began. From each of the various ethnic communities, individuals — very few in number —broke their community bonds and started heading West.

They left behind their friends, families, churches, synagogues, organizations, foods, and all the other comforts of belonging to a group.

They headed West into the unknown — on the “Great Adventure.”

Some of these individuals also came directly from Europe. They did not settle in first with friends or family, but headed West.

The Early American West became a place of individualists — al­most to the extreme.

They came to new lands that were populated by Indians tribes and rather recently transplanted Mexicans.

They came to lands where the European man was expected to take control and “Americanize” the Wild West.

European family social status did not count. One just had to be of European background.

Every field was open to this new Western Man. One could take up any occupation or endeavor. One’s ethnic, religious or social back­ground was no barrier.

A Man’s Story in the Beginning

The early years the American West was a “Man’s” story. Very few women came West in those early years.

It was not until the men reached the point where they could care for a wife and family that women joined them in any large numbers.

The Journey to the Wild West

To better understand the nature of the Western Man, we must first consider what he went through just to get here.

He had three travel routes from which to choose.

1. Over Land by Covered Wagon, Horseback, on a Mule, or Walking

The most popular jumping off point was St. Louis. St. Louis was equipped with warehouses and merchants who could outfit the pioneer for his long trip.

A covered wagon, or prairie schooner, could carry a load of about 2,000 pounds. That had to include necessities, food and whatever else the pioneer decided to take with him.

Our pioneer joined a wagon train and headed West, crossing the great prai­rie before he reached the base of the Rockies.

Then everyone helped the horses, mules, and oxen drag the wagons up and over the slopes of the Great Divide, or the wagon train headed southwest and crossed the Great Desert or headed northwest on the Oregon Trail.

Either way, the trip took about six months to the West Coast, assuming there were few angry Indians, prairie fires, broken axles, or snowstorms.

One begins to get a fair understanding of the character of these few, unique individuals who headed West, tackling such hardships.

2. Nicaragua

The fastest way to the West Coast was by steamer from an Atlan­tic port, such as New York or Baltimore, to San Juan del Norte in Nicaragua.

Our pioneer would then unload his belongings, limited in nature, and be escorted by foot or mule up to a river, where he and his luggage were placed in a small flat bottomed boat.

Then it was up the tropical river, onto Lake Nicaragua where the biggest problems were shallow waters and tropical diseases.

Next came a hike or mule train down to San Juan del Sur on the Pacific Ocean.

Finally our pioneer boarded another steamer, this time heading North to Yerba Buena, now known as San Francisco.

A good trip might be made in four months, if one was lucky. However, the speed meant less baggage or merchandise.

3. Around the Horn

If our pioneer had time and enough money he could load as much baggage and merchandise as he could afford aboard a three-masted clipper ship. Quarters could be comfortable, but not fancy.

If the winds blew right, the trip southward to the Equator could be delightful.

Around the Equator came the problem of the “doldrums,” meaning no wind.

No wind on a clipper ship meant floating still — some­times for a day or two, other times for weeks. About the second week of the doldrums, drinking water became a serious problem.

Assuming the wind picked up, it was down to the southern tip of South America, hoping to reach the Horn when the currents and winds were blowing toward the Pacific and the route was relatively calm.

Oth­erwise, it meant a seven to fourteen day trip on non-stop, gut churning, roller coaster waves.

After that, it was a gentle trip up the western side of South America, then Baja California, and finally, Yerba Buena — San Fran­cisco.

All told, this journey usually took an average of six months.

This trip, as with the other two choices, took very special people — individuals we have to admire, even today.

The Western Man

From these adventurous European pioneers we begin to develop the idea of the Western Man — an individual first.

Today he is seen as a combination of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, with a little bit of Jimmy Stewart thrown in. A little bit of Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry also helps.

Our Western Man was judged by four basic crite­ria: How honest he was, how smart he was, how hard he worked, and how lucky he was.

His religion, ethnicity, and even lack of wealth were not usually factors in judging him (so long as his skin was white).

Our Western pioneer entered into a totally free economic system. There were no government rules, no planned economy, no welfare state.

Each person survived and succeeded, or failed, based on his own character, all while attempting to be part of a new, barely civilized society.

These are the people that built the American West — rugged indi­vidualists — rugged capitalists, even though they did not knew what the word meant at that time.

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Or click on “Pioneer Jews and Their Five Added Values” on the upper right hand column of this page.

from Why the Jews Were So Successful in the Wild West…And How to Tell Their Stories, by David W. Epstein, Isaac Nathan Publishing, 2007.