Review: Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families

By September 9, 2012

Empires, Nations, and Families: A History of the North American West, 1800-1860, by Anne F. Hyde. History of the American West Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011. xiii-xv, 628 pp.

The great project of turning the West into part of the United States, initiated in 1803 and begun in earnest in the 1840s, had made little progress in many places. Much remained flexible and contingent about life on its complex border into the second half of the nineteenth century. Residents of the West seemed quite ambivalent about nationality, easily claiming new citizenship when it served personal or business needs. During a time when no one knew which nation or empire would finally impose control, effective trade was the sole source of power. And it continued to be a world defined by personal connections. (30)

So argues Anne Hyde, Professor of History at Colorado College, in Empires, Nations, and Families, winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize earlier this year. Although the first word in her title is ?empires,? the Spanish, French, and British empires play only a small role in her work. Empires certainly claimed title to much of the land that would become the western United States, but Hyde contends that empires, and later nations (Mexico and even the United States), exercised very little actual control west of the Mississippi prior to the 1860s. Power rested instead in the hands of indigenous nations and Euro-American fur traders who successfully tapped into Native kin networks via marriage and ceremonial gift-giving. As Hyde suggests in the excerpt above, empires and nations came and went, while elite fur trading families and Native nations maintained control in the region.

Hyde’s focus on families rather than empires and nations allows her to bring in a host of new actors who would normally not appear in syntheses, most notably women and children. While keeping one finger on the evolving political and military chronologies that form the backbone of narrative histories, Hyde keeps nine fingers, figuratively speaking, on families in various regions of the emerging West?the Pacific Northwest, California, the Southwest, Texas, the Central Plains, and the Great Lakes region. What she finds is a mixed-race world, with Euro-American men married to indigenous and Mexican women who provided the essential contacts for their husbands to create their trading networks. Their mixed-race children lived comfortably within worlds of their mothers?dominated by powerful Native nations such as the Comanches, Cheyennes, and Navajos. Some mixed-race children also functioned well in the worlds of their fathers, although some faced discrimination among other Euro-Americans. It was not until the United States conquered northern Mexico in the late 1840s that this fur trade economy that allowed for relative equality among various peoples began to unravel, although it would take decades longer for the United States to claim full sovereignty in the region.

Relatively speaking, religion is absent from Hyde’s text, as she prefers to analyze trade networks rather than religious ties. Certainly, she mentions Catholic and Protestant missionaries, but few receive extended treatment. On multiple occasions, she mentions in passing how religious ordinances such as baptisms and marriages tied families together across racial and ethnic divides, but rarely does she take the opportunity to further explore these ideas. The exception in Empires, Nations, and Families are Mormons. The Latter-day Saints were latecomers in Hyde’s story, only making an appearance when the fur trade and its accompanying world was on the decline, soon to be replaced by a settler society that had no need for harmony among Euro-Americans and Natives. Rather than primarily analyze the Latter-day Saints as encroaching settlers dispossessing and replacing Natives, Hyde deals with Mormon ?otherness? by comparing the Latter-day Saints with Indians:

One surprising native group was the Mormons or Latter-day Saints, who replaced the Osages in terms of public worry and press attention on the Missouri frontier. Like the Osages, they were small in number but effective in getting the attention of imperial or national officialdom. Taking the analogy further, like many Native nations, the Mormons traveled in family groups, did business almost exclusively with their kin, and took great pleasure in refusing to do things the ?American way.? Maybe a better comparison is to see the Mormons as more like the Comanches. Similar in numbers, eventually arranged across a forbidding piece of isolated desert landscape, they controlled trade and travel in the region using kinship connections, price controls, and fear.

Mormons and Indians disrupted Anglo-American assumptions about how settlement should occur and who should benefit from it. Unlike Native societies, however, Mormonism developed out of the heart of Anglo-American culture and religion and operated as a sort of shadow critique, which is why it upset people so much. In the same year that young Mariano Vallejo and his family fled the coast of California because of rumored French pirates landing in Monterrey, another family left New England for upstate New York. Less romantic than pirates, but equally infamous and misunderstood, the Mormon religion that would come out of this move to the eastern edge of the western frontier would prove even more unsettling. (358)

After making this initial comparison, however, Hyde does not fully develop her Mormon/Indian comparisons as the text progresses, although the assumption remains implicit throughout.

She devotes four subsections in two chapters to Mormonism, which is better than average for western history surveys. In her chapter on the U.S.-Mexican War, Hyde dedicates ten pages to a discussion of Mormon origins through Winter Quarters (359-69). Although sound overall, this section contains multiple minor errors and head-scratching assertions, that makes the reader wonder how closely she read her sources (which include Bushman, Brodie, Quinn, LeSueur, Arrington and Bitton). For example, she claims that at the age of 12, JS was apprenticed out to a newspaper printer (359), makes no mention of the First Vision (359), states that JS reburied the plates, per Moroni’s instructions (360), omits mention of the importance of the Book of Mormon in shaping early Mormon understandings of Indians/Lamanites and their Missouri Zion (360), confuses the chronologies of the Ohio and Missouri settlements in the 1830s (361), claims that polygamy was a primary source of contention in Missouri (361), and that JS openly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo (364, 365). The best that can be said here is that Hyde is in good company, as most surveys that treat Mormons make similar errors. Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is a notable exception.

The most compelling element of this section is Hyde’s use of Mary Haskins Parker (Richards) to explore how a literate Mormon woman experienced Mormonism after converting in England in the early 1840s and migrating to Nauvoo. Hyde traces Parker’s marriage to Samuel Richards and her husband’s dedication to building the temple even though the Latter-day Saints would soon leave Nauvoo. In the temple, the couple would receive ?the rites that. . .stood at the heart of Mormon religion? (366). Hyde then discusses the couple’s preparations to leave the city, while Samuel prepared to leave his wife for a mission, a hardship that prepared Mary for the difficulties that awaited at Winter Quarters. Later in the chapter, Hyde discusses the Mormon Battalion (388-92), which also impacted Mary because her brother-in-law, Joseph Richards?who was supposed to help her on the trail??voluntarily? enlisted and died before returning to his family. By narrating much of this section from the perspective of a Mormon woman, Hyde successfully integrates Mormons into her family-centered approach that runs through the entire work. She does not explicitly return to her comparison of Mormons with Indians in this section.

Mormons return to Hyde’s analysis in a later chapter on the United States’ struggles to impose its authority on the new territories. She devotes ten pages to 1850s Utah (452-62), in the context of other crises in the territorial system in Gold Rush California and Bleeding Kansas. This section contained fewer noticeable errors, perhaps reflecting Hyde’s background as a western historian who has likely taught on the subject. Here she resumes the the story of the recently-arrived Richards family and their efforts to establish a home in Utah territory. Hyde, relying on Arrington, Fox, and May, describes Mormon communalism, tithing, stewardship, and the Perpetual Immigration Fund. In addition, she explores the Richards family’s experience with plural marriage, as Samuel took six additional wives in the 1850s. Hyde then describes the growing conflict with federal officials?relying primarily on Bagley‘s, Bigler‘s, and Campbell‘s writings?over land, Indian policy, and polygamy. Only here does Hyde mention the Latter-day Saints’ distinctive beliefs regarding Indians as Lamanites, who as the Battle Axes of the Lord would help the Mormons destroy Gentile America, and Young’s instructions to missionaries to intermarry with the Natives. She concludes the section with a discussion of the Utah War, relying on the aforementioned sources and MacKinnon.

Later in the chapter, Hyde describes the Mountain Meadows Massacre (484-88) in the context of the 1862 Dakota War and the Sand Creek Massacre of 1862. She quotes Walker, Turley, and Leonard primarily to complicate their argument that, aside from that fateful week in September 1857, the perpetrators were good and honest frontiersmen. Hyde uses this to comment on the tendency among white settlers to simultaneously use violence while claiming innocence:

A nation of squatters who used violence to establish rights and to dispossess other people needs to recognize itself in these actions. Anglo-American settlers, however laudable their individual intentions, chose to settle on land owned by others and demanded that the U.S. government use all of its power to remove them, making these ‘ordinary nineteenth-century frontiersmen’ into killers. [The conflicts discussed here] compel us to consider them as logical productions of the culture that housed them: the world Euro-Americans worked so very hard to situate in the North American West. (484-85)

While Hyde places the blame for Mountain Meadows on the Mormons, she contextualizes the massacre as a result of the United States’ failed effort to coerce the Latter-day Saints into submitting to American authority. Although Hyde relies primarily on Brooks, Bagley, and Bigler in her notes, she avoids entering into the historiographical mire over Young’s complicity in the massacre, preferring to locate the origins of the plan with local leaders. She does, however, argue that Young was guilty of covering up the massacre.

Hyde’s extensive treatment of Mormonism?although flawed in places?is laudable and noteworthy. As in the work as a whole, Hyde’s attention to Mary Richards and her family expands the number of actors in important ways. Comparing Mormons to Indians presents an intriguing interpretive move, although she does not fully develop this angle. Consulting recent works by Paul Reeve and Jared Farmer would have likely helped to clarify the Latter-day Saints’ complex relationships with Indians and other Anglo-Americans. Overall, Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families is a fantastic work that will make a lasting contribution to the historiography of the American West and will provide new ways for Mormon scholars to situate Mormonism in the history of the West.


Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Historiography


  1. Fantastic review, David; I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while, and this might put me over the edge. Seems like the book is phenomenal in both transcending the “donut hole” issue in Western studies as well as better integrating women in Mormon history.

    Comment by Ben P — September 9, 2012 @ 8:58 am

  2. It always worries me when works that I read make mistakes in my area of study. I wonder what other mistakes they might have made that I didn’t notice because I’m not working in the area being discussed. I’m a little disappointed to hear about the errors… I was so looking forward to the book. I’ll still read it, but with a more careful eye than I otherwise might have.

    Comment by Amanda — September 9, 2012 @ 9:25 am

  3. Thanks for the very thoughtful review, David. Going to have my students read it when they discuss the books a few weeks from now. Hyde’s “families” angle is a really good response , in a sense, to a critique of the new borderlands history than Ann Little ( issued a few weeks ago in reference to important recent works such as “Comanche Empire” (also using that book in the course) — the problem of how “womenandchildren” have no agency even in some of these more innovative recent works which place groups such as the Comanches at the center of history. Anyway, a great deal to think about here, and also, evidently, some cautionary tales for writing history when we’re way out of our field and rely on secondary sources. We all do that on some topics, but it’s also how errors get passed down (I can point out a few in my own books which cause me pain when I see them now).

    Comment by Paul Harvey — September 9, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  4. Thanks for the review, David. Those errors are puzzling, especially since they continue to occur again and again and again.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

  5. Ben: yes, in an earlier draft of the review, I had a sentence about Jan Shipps’ “donut hole” theory, but it got cut somewhere along the line. While most western history surveys that I’m familiar with do devote some space to Mormonism, Hyde’s book is exception for the amount of space given.

    Amanda: Agreed, it is a bit disconcerting, but as I note in the review, it’s also fairly common in survey texts to botch the details of Mormon history. I tend to give the authors some leniency, given the massive amount of reading required for such works, and like to focus on how they’re framing and contextualizing Mormonism.

    Paul: Thanks for mentioning Historiann’s post. I intended to incorporate it somehow into my review, but in the end, it didn’t make it. I hope your students find the review helpful, in spite of the fact that I wrote it primarily for an audience already familiar with Mormon historiography. If you think it would be useful, I could probably revise this for a more general audience. Let me know.

    Christopher: Indeed, the errors are puzzling. Confusing the chronologies of the MO/OH settlements is understandable–most Mormons can’t untangle them–but I found some of the claims a bit mindboggling, especially the statements about JS being apprenticed at age 12 and that he openly practiced polygamy in Nauvoo. Hopefully, given the positive reception of the book, she’ll get a change to revisit these things in a revised edition.

    Comment by David G. — September 9, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  6. David – I am uncertain about how to react to such things. On the one hand, I worry about making them in my own work, especially in the areas of Pacific history. American scholars are infamous throughout the Pacific for the errors they make when they write about the Pacific Islands – creating towns and islands that don’t exist, confusing kings, and using outdated place names that no one has used for at least a century. It would be like writing about radical politics in Canada in the 1950s and calling it New France. Although such errors are common, they are also evidence of what American historians think is important. They don’t take Pacific historiography seriously or devote enough care to their work to even get place names right. What I find surprising about Hyde’s work is that she obviously cares about Mormon history and took it seriously enough to devote more time than others have done, but she still had so many errors. I’m still excited about the book, because I think she’s right about the importance of women and families, but the errors temper my enthusiasm and make me pause.

    Comment by Amanda — September 9, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

  7. If someone were likely to read only one survey of this time period, would you recommend this book? I just finished Wood’s Empire of Liberty and my inner completist wants to continue with Howe and the Oxford series. What would you advise for the amateur history enthusiast?

    Comment by Casey — September 9, 2012 @ 2:12 pm

  8. Casey, good question. It really depends on what you’re looking for. The two books cover similar time frames, but Howe examines that is happening in the U.S. east of the Mississippi, while Hyde is looking at the territory west of the river that only gradually will be incorporated into the nation. There’s some overlap, but for the most part the actors and themes are different.

    Comment by David G. — September 9, 2012 @ 2:52 pm

  9. Casey, Howe is a fantastic book and a broad survey of the entire nation. I would probably read that one first.

    Comment by Smb — September 9, 2012 @ 3:04 pm


Recent Comments

Steve Petersen on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “Joey, thanks for putting this together! I still need to make it through a lot of these, but it’s nice to have a collection to…”

J Stuart on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “Thank you, Steven and David!”

David Morris on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “The University of Szeged in Hungary recently published our anthology "Mormonism in Europe: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives". The 382-page book features essays by leading…”

Steven L Mayfield on 2019 In Retrospect: An: “American Polygamy by Craig Foster and Mary Ann Watson The History Press”

wvs on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Looking forward to this. Thanks J.”

Daniel Stone on JWHA CFP 2020 (St.: “Thanks much for posting this, Joey!”