Making the west malleable : coal, geohistory, and western expansion, 1800-1920

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title


Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Historians have long understood the West as a region shaped by aridity. Yet by analyzing scientific imaginations as they interacted with the materiality of western landscapes, this dissertation argues that the history of the American West was equally influenced by the discovery of the watery deep past of its paleo-landscapes. The physical geography and remnant resources generated through geologic time in the American West decisively influenced western settlement and the advancement of American science in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Through government reports, scientists breathed new life into the ancient denizens and environments of the West. Where others saw an eternal and timeless desert, many scientists saw a plastic and ever-evolving environment. Boosters absorbed the authority of their science to lend credence to visions of a plastic West that would once again become a verdant paradise. Imagined vibrant paleo-environments portrayed once-and-future fertile landscapes that overrode the dominant perception of the American West as arid and hostile to life. With the power granted by coal paired with new technologies, and the Eden-like scientific visions of a former fertile West, vast human-induced climatological changes became an empowering possibility to a nation driven to settle the West. A "paleo-restorative dream" emerged in which the West--by the agency of humans--would return to ancient Edenic landscapes. Indeed, the geoengineering that pervades contemporary discussions concerning climate change and drives hopes to terraform Mars had their origins in the nineteenth century drive to recreate the American frontier.




Copyright (c) 2002-2022, LYRASIS. All rights reserved.