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Unit information: The American West: An Environmental History (Level I Special Field) in 2018/19

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Unit name The American West: An Environmental History (Level I Special Field)
Unit code HIST26004
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Professor. Coates
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of History (Historical Studies)
Faculty Faculty of Arts


Welcome to Marlboro Country. The twentieth century’s most successful advertising campaign underscores the powerful allure of what is arguably the world’s most heavily mythologized region - the American West. A strong sense of physical place and emphasis on nature as mythic landscape has been a distinctive feature of the region’s study since the 1890s, but a more overt focus on the nonhuman world has emerged since the 1970s with the advent of environmental history.

This unit aims to rise above the facile polarization of good and evil and the lamentation of a lost, pre-colonial Eden, paying particular attention to ‘activist’ scholarship. Roaming from Yellowstone to Las Vegas, it encompasses topics such as nuclear testing, fear and loathing of wolves, desert cities, dust bowls, controversy over Western paintings, advertising motifs, the sanctification of wilderness, the Americanism of the national park and the hallowed ‘Green’ Indian. No previous knowledge of US history required, nor background in geography or ecology.


  • To place students in direct contact with the current research interests of the academic tutor
  • To enable students to explore the issues surrounding the state of research into the environmental history of the American West
  • To develop students' ability to work with primary sources
  • To develop students' abilities to integrate primary source material into a wider historical analysis
  • To develop students' ability to learn independently within a small-group context.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the unit students should have:

  • deepened their understanding of a particular aspect of the environmental history of the American West
  • become more experienced and competent in working with a widening range of primary sources
  • become more adept at contributing to and learning from a small-group environment.

Teaching details

  • Weekly 2-hour seminar
  • Tutorial feedback on essay
  • Access to tutorial consultation with unit tutor in office hours

Assessment Details

1 x 2 hour exam

Reading and References

Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature & History in American West (1992)

Patricia Limerick, Legacy of Conquest: Unbroken Past of the American West (1987)

Patricia Limerick, ed. Trails: Toward a New Western History (1992)

Susan R. Neel, 'A place of extremes: nature, history & the American West', Western Historical Quarterly 25 (1994)

Clyde Milner, ed. Oxford History of the American West (1994): chapters 7 & 17

Peter Coates, 'Chances with Wolves: Renaturing Western History', Journal of American Studies 28 (1994)