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HSTAA 413 A: The American West in History and Film

Meeting Time: 
MW 1:00pm - 2:20pm
ART 317
Professor John Findlay
John M. Findlay

Syllabus Description:

The American West in History and Film, 1800-2000

HSTAA 413                                                                                                        Prof. John Findlay

Winter 2020                                                                       , 206-543-2573

Mon & Wed 1:00-2:20, ART 317              Office Hours Mon & Wed. 2:30-3:30, & by appt.

Fri 1:30-4:20, ART 003                                                                                    Office: Smith 108B



INTRODUCTION:  HSTAA 413 is an upper-division course on the American West in History and Film, 1800-2000.   Learning revolves around lectures; reading and discussing both primary sources and secondary works; viewing and discussing “Western” films and other representations of the region; and four written assignments—a short paper responding to readings; take-home midterm and final essay exams; and a paper entailing research beyond the assigned materials.  The lectures are meant to provide both a “textbook” overview of regional history and an interpretive framework.  The readings and films allow us to delve into specific topics and eras in greater depth, and to appreciate divergent perspectives on the history and representation of the American West.  Several major themes, addressed in readings, films, and lectures, prevail throughout the course: the ever-shifting relationships between Natives and non-Natives in the region; the in-migration, social organization, and political development of non-native colonizers (including immigrants) in the western U.S.; economic and environmental change; the evolving role of the state, in particular the federal government; the evolving diversity of the regional population; and relationships between the American West, the rest of the United States, and the world.  While tracking how the history of the region unfolded, we will also explore changing representations of the West both among historians and in American culture, especially as they appeared on film.  Since at least 1890 the West has been central to the cultural identity of the nation; 20th-century Hollywood was especially powerful at conveying the meanings of the region for the broader United States.  Historians’ and filmmakers’ versions of the West had considerable impact upon one another; both versions evolved over time and make up part of what we will study.


SOURCES OF INFORMATION:  Much course content will be presented through lecture.  A substantial amount of reading on specific topics and events is also required, and the class will watch and discuss eight films concerning the West. 

Assigned readings include four paperback books available at the University Book Store (Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families; Mead, How the Vote Was Won; Molina, How Race Is Made in America; and Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre.  These titles are available as well on 24-hour reserve in Odegaard Undergraduate Library, and three of them (Mead, Molina, and Kelman) are available as E-Books from UW Libraries.  Thirteen shorter readings (mainly historical articles and chapters) have also been assigned; they can be accessed electronically from UW Libraries or from links or copies posted to the course website. Note that the thirteen shorter readings include five draft chapters from Professor Findlay’s current research project, a historical overview titled “The Mobilized West, 1940-2000.”

The class will watch and discuss eight films together (the films will be viewed on Fridays, when class meets for up to 170 minutes).  For each of those eight Fridays, students will organize into small groups that conduct some preliminary research, introduce each film to the class, and then lead discussion of it afterwards.  The films are available on 24-hour reserve from the reserved readings desk in Odegaard Library.

Nearly every meeting represents an occasion for conversation—on the readings, on points in lecture, and on the films.  Students are expected to complete all reading assignments on time and to participate in an informed, respectful fashion in course discussions.



Students will be graded on the basis of their written work and their participation in discussions. 

Written Work:  Students will submit four papers, all of which are to be uploaded to the course website.  One will be a response paper of two, double-spaced pages, responding to the readings for Friday 17 Jan., due at the beginning of class on Jan. 17, and worth 10% of the course grade.  The response paper is a reflection upon one or more topics raised in that day’s readings.  Two papers will be take-home essay exams—a midterm exam due by 2:20 p.m. on Monday 3 Feb., and a final exam due by 4:20 pm on Mon.16 Mar.  On take-home essays, students will be asked to answer two questions, choosing from a list of 4-6 prompts that is posted at least 3-4 days before essays are due.  Essays are meant to make arguments in response to the prompts, and to be integrative, i.e. to combine material from lectures, readings, discussions, and films as appropriate.  I anticipate exams being a total of 5-6 double-spaced pages.  The midterm will be worth 20% of the course grade, and the final 25%.  The fourth paper will be a research project on representations of the post-1800 West in film, television, literature, visual art (paintings, sculptures), museums and monuments, or historiography.  Each student will select his or her topic, frame his or her questions, and conduct research as appropriate.  I urge that topics be finalized in consultation with the professor by 19 Feb. 2020.  These papers of at least 6 double-spaced pages, worth 30% of the course grade, will be submitted by the start of class on Monday 9 Mar.

Class Participation:  There are two components to class participation.  (1) Each student is expected to come prepared to participate in an informed way during class discussions.  One recognizes that for a variety of reasons there is wide variation in how frequently students can and do contribute to class.  Nonetheless, one will be looking for evidence that students are engaged with the class material and with one another.  (If someone has to miss class discussions, one way to make up the absence could be to write one or two paragraphs in response to key questions raised by the readings or film on the day missed.)  (2) Each student will be part of a small group that takes the lead in introducing an assigned film to the class and then leads discussion of the film afterwards.  Groups should consult among themselves, divide up different tasks, and ensure that each member speaks up during the presentation.  A group slide show (PowerPoint, etc.) is usually quite welcome.  Each group is expected to a) view its film ahead of time, b) do research on significant aspects of it (e.g., how it marked a departure from previous “Westerns,” how it was received by the public, why it was significant when it appeared and remains significant today, how it shaped or mirrored perceptions of the West, why the actors and/or directors were important, and so on—there is no single formula), and c) field questions from the class.  Together, these two components of discussion will be worth 15% of the course grade.



       Response Paper, due Jan. 17, 10% of course grade

       Midterm Take-home Essay Exam, due Feb. 3, 20% of course grade

       Research Paper, due Mar. 9, 30% of course grade

       Final Take-home Essay Exam, due Mar. 16, 25% of course grade

       Discussion—15% of course grade 



HSTAA 413 is an upper-division course devoted in part to improving skills associated with the discipline of History.  However, it also aims to improve skills that are of use elsewhere around the University, in our roles as citizens, and in the workplace.

            * Students in HSTAA 413 will improve their abilities at critical reading.  Over the course of the quarter, they will be responsible for reading and discussing four entire monographs, thirteen articles or chapters, and additional readings required for the research project.   On papers and on essay exams students are expected to demonstrate mastery of those readings.  Through class conversations and by getting comments on written work, students will receive feedback meant to help hone their reading skills.

            * Students in HSTAA 413 will improve their verbal and written communication skills.  The course is structured around a series of discussions and written assignments.  The professor is committed to providing supportive feedback on writing as well as on spoken remarks.

            * Students will sharpen their ability to “read” and critique movies, and to appreciate how genres of film (such as Westerns) evolve over time.  Films ostensibly about the past have their own history worth knowing.  We thus will view films one at a time, but we will also discuss and write about them in relation to one another and to broader conceptions of “the American West” as a formative influence on American culture.

            * Students in HSTAA 413 will improve their ability to think historically—about the American West after 1840 as well as about other places and times.  Historical thinking entails:  the recognition of complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty in human affairs; the development of a critical—and often skeptical—attitude toward sources of information; and the understanding that events occur sequentially and that the sequence matters.  Historical thinking also requires that one try to understand past events and trends from the different points of view that people living at the time had, and to recognize that those points of view from the past are generally substantially different from our own today.  Lectures, readings, essay exams, and research projects will provide opportunities to sharpen historical thinking.

            * Students in HSTAA 413 will improve their abilities to conduct historical research, especially in conjunction with the research project on representations of the West.  This will entail finding, understanding, and assessing critically sources of information, particularly primary sources and other works of historical scholarship.

            * Students in HSTAA 413 will improve their knowledge of the American West between 1800 and 2000, and of how American culture (especially in works of history and in films) has interpreted the past of that U.S. region.



 “RR” designates required readings posted to “Files” or “Pages” on course website.

“EJ” designates required articles available from E-Journals in the UW Libraries.

“EB” designates required titles available as E-Books from the UW Libraries.

“SF” designates film offered via streaming by UW Libraries (“Pages” on website).


Mon 6 Jan: Introduction to the Course


Wed 8 Jan:  Lecture on “Region and Nation.” 


Fri 10 Jan:  Lecture on “Indians and Indian Policy.”  Discuss RR (Pages) Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1893 (Washington: American Historical Association, 1894), 199-227.


Mon 13 Jan:  Discussion of Anne Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860 (New York: Ecco, 2012), pp. 1-345 (Introduction, Parts I and II [or chs. 1-5]).


Wed 15 Jan:  Lecture on “Transplanting Cultures”


Fri 17 Jan:  RESPONSE PAPER DUE at start of class.


Fri 17 Jan:  Discuss Hyde, Empires, Nations, and Families, pp. 347-514 (Part III [chs. 6-8], Epilogue); EJ Benjamin Madley, “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate:  Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods,” American Historical Review 120 (Feb. 2015): 98-139; EJ Margaret D. Jacobs, “Reproducing White Settlers and Eliminating Natives: Settler Colonialism, Gender, and Family History,” Journal of the West 56 (Fall 2017): 13-24.


Mon 20 Jan:  MLK Holiday, no class


Wed 22 Jan:  Lecture on “Industrial West, Progressive West, Mythic West, 1869-1912.” 


Fri 24 Jan:  View and discuss the film SF STAGECOACH (1939) (96 min.)


Mon 27 Jan:  Discussion of EB Rebecca J. Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914 (New York:  New York University Press, 2004), entire.


Wed 29 Jan:   Lecture on “Race, Labor, and Immigration, 1880-1945.”  Discuss EJ Kazuhiro Oharazeki, “Anti-Prostitution Campaigns in Japan and the American West, 1890-1920:  A Transpacific Comparison,” Pacific Historical Review 82 (May 2013): 175-214; EJ Denise Khor, “’Filipinos are the Dandies of the Foreign Colonies’: Race, Labor Struggles, and the Transpacific Routes of Hollywood and Philippine Films, 1924-1948,” Pacific Historical Review 81 (August 2012): 371-403.




Fri 31 Jan:  View and discuss the film CHINATOWN (1974) (130 min.)


Mon 3 Feb:  No class meeting.  MIDTERM EXAM due by 2:20 (end of class period)


Wed 5 Feb:  Discuss RR (Files) Findlay, Table of Contents, Introduction, and Chapter One, “A Mobilized Region:  The American West during Wartime, 1940-2000,” from THE MOBILIZED WEST, 1940-2000.


Fri 7 Feb:  View and discuss the film HIGH NOON (1952) (85 min.)


Mon 10 Feb:  Discuss EB Natalie Molina, How Race Is Made in America:  Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2004), entire.


Wed 12 Feb: Discuss RR (Files) Findlay, Chapter Two, “Westerners: Demography and Regional Identity, 1940-2000,” from THE MOBILIZED WEST, 1940-2000; discuss EJ Earl Pomeroy, "Toward a Reorientation of Western History:  Continuity and Environment," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 41 (March 1955): 579-600. 


Fri 14 Feb:  View and Discuss the film DESERT BLOOM (1986) (105 min.)


Mon 17 Feb:  President’s Day, no class


Wed 19 Feb:  Lecture on “Migration, Community, and Cities in the West after 1940”




Fri 21 Feb:  View and Discuss the film LITTLE BIG MAN (1970) (139 min.)


Mon 24 Feb:  Discuss RR (Files) Findlay, Chapter Three, “Seized by Initiative: ‘Direct Democracy’ and Political Culture in the Western States, 1940-2000,” from THE MOBILIZED WEST, 1940-2000; Discuss EJ Janne Lahti, “Settler Passages:  Mobility and Settler Colonial Narratives in Westerns,” Journal of the West 56 (Fall 2017): 67-77.


Wed 26 Feb:  Discuss RR (Files) Findlay, Chapter Four, “Armed Standoffs: The Western Politics of Federal Lands since 1940,” from THE MOBILIZED WEST, 1940-2000.


Fri 28 Feb:  View and Discuss the film REEL INJUN (2009) (85 min)


Mon 2 March:  Lecture on “Nature and the 20th-century West”


Wed 4 March:  Discuss Ari Kelman, A Misplaced Massacre:  Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2013), preface and chs. 1-3 (pp. ix-xiii, 1-134).


Fri 6 March:  View and discuss the film UNFORGIVEN (1992) (130 min.)




Mon 9 March:  Discuss RR (Files) Findlay, Chapter Six, “Region of the Imagination:  Histories of the Mythic West and the ‘Real’ West since 1940,” in THE MOBILIZED WEST, 1940-2000; discuss RR (Files) Patricia Nelson Limerick, “What on Earth Is the New Western History?” Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin, eds., Trails:  Toward a New Western History (Lawrence:  University Press of Kansas, 1991), 81-88; discuss RR (Files) William Kittredge, “Owning It All,” in Owning It All (St. Paul, 1987), 55-71.


Wed 11 March:  Discuss Kelman, Misplaced Massacre, chs. 4-6 and epilogue (pp. 135-279).




Fri 13 March:  View and discuss the film LONE STAR (1996) (135 min.)


Mon. 16 March:  FINAL EXAM DUE BY 4:20 p.m.




Students are responsible for submitting their own independent work. They are also responsible for understanding and following UW policies regarding academic honesty and plagiarism.  Please contact the professor if you have any questions on these matters.

Late papers will be penalized at a rate of 0.4 per day.  However, in the event of illness or personal emergencies the professor always tries to be accommodating.  Please contact the professor as soon as possible when you identify a problem. 

Participation in discussions is expected from all students.  Once or twice—and preferably no more), a person can “make up” for a missed discussion by quickly submitting 2-3 paragraphs on that day’s reading or film.  Similarly, if a student finds it hard to speak up in discussions, she or he might consider submitting 2-3 paragraphs that respond to assigned readings.           

To receive a passing grade, students must complete all assignments, including participation in discussion.  In other words, one cannot (for example) skip the response paper (worth only 10% of the total course grade) and still pass the course.




            The UW Libraries are a wonderful resource for students of the history of the American West.  They contain rich holdings in academic journals, books, archival materials, films on DVD’s, newspapers, government documents, and so on.  The History librarian, Theresa Mudrock (, is terrific should you need any sort of help.

            Several titles are being placed on 24-hour reserve in Odegaard Library.  These include the 4 assigned books (Hyde, Kelman, Molina, Mead); two titles (out of many, many options) that are especially valuable for learning about the genre of Western films (Richard Slotkin, Gunfighter Nation, and Jane Tompkins, West of Everything); and a handful of textbooks on the history of the modern American West (White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own; Hine and Faragher, The American West; Milner et al., eds., The Oxford History of the American West; and Pomeroy, The American Far West in the Twentieth Century).

Catalog Description: 
Examines emergence of American West since 1840 by looking at colonization processes; Native-white relations; economic and demographic changes; environmental issues; urbanization; western politics and the role of the state. Historians' evolving interpretations of the western past are considered alongside those in film in order to appreciate why the West has loomed so large in 20th-century American culture and identity.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 22, 2019 - 9:21pm