Tag Archives: Paul Sharp

Adventure Science and the North American Landscape

Reinhard and Rothaus set out on the first day of Adventure Science's fieldwork in western North Dakota.

Reinhard and Rothaus set out on the first day of Adventure Science’s fieldwork in western North Dakota.

This morning I’ve been listening to one of Adventure Science‘s raw audio press conferences and forums, this concerning the latest trek through the badlands of western North Dakota, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the divide between the hard and soft sciences and the humanities, and how it is so necessary for conversations to take place between them (another interview from Prairie Public can be found here). Throughout academia, this is often called “crossing disciplinary lines.” In non-academic jargon, this means that you walk down the hall or out the building and across the courtyard to someone else’s office, kitchen, machine shop or garage, and ask her or him why and how they are working on a problem, whether an abstract theorem or a carburetor.

In the case of this Adventure Science press conference (which everyone should listen to at least once), Simon Donato and Richard Rothaus explain at the outset that they undertook this project in a completely scientific and objective fashion, and by this they were not obligated to produce — ahem — results for one public or private group or another. This is true, to a point. Yet the cultures that we are born into also contributes to the way we see the world, and consciously or unconsciously we will speak to a variety of these groups whether we like it or not.

I was thinking about this in relation to an observation Simon, who hails from the culture of Alberta, Canada (this is important, just stay with me here), made about half way into the press conference or conversation (or press conference-sation). In the history of the British-Canadian West and the American West, Euro-American settlement above and below the 49th parallel played out in much different ways. Simon consciously or unconsciously hints at this. There is historical reason for this (something the late historian Paul Sharp researched at-length, and some comments on that here and here).

Some badlands beauty, on the abrupt cusp of the winter to spring transition.

Some badlands beauty, on the abrupt cusp of the winter to spring transition.

In the history of the Canadian West, Anglo- and Euro-American settlement was deliberate. This is often symbolized by the Royal Canadian Mounties, who would patrol and police the areas, ensuring that the Crown’s Law and Order would be maintained across all the land, and ideally across the global empire. Through this order, land would be settled in an orderly fashion, and be made “useful” and useful for the commonwealth and crown (see Thomas Hobbes for intellectual exegesis). If coming from that Canadian backdrop, either yesteryear and today, when you enter the American West, including western North Dakota, it still looks like a crazed free-for-all, even in the wilderness. At the Adventure Science forum, beginning at 35:20 in the audio, Simon said,

…As we got into some of the ranching areas where, again it’s vast, you know you feel like you’re kind of on the edge of a wilderness area, but there’s no houses… there’s fences, there’s obviously been cattle through there, but there’s no houses and no structures at all, and that was really surprising to me. Where I’m from in Alberta, if you got fences, there’s gonna be a farmhouse somewhere, there’s gonna be a barn somewhere. You get into these areas, and I was really surprised that I didn’t find these structures out there, I mean, not even hunting cabins.

Bison in the badlands of western North Dakota.

Bison in the badlands of western North Dakota.

So I guess what Simon hints at and what I’m communicating here is that yes, science tries to be as objective as possible. But there is no amount of finality to that objective science, because as cultures evolve, so does science, and so do perceptions. What appears normal to one person will be abnormal to an outsider. This is why cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary studies and conversations absolutely have to take place, and this is why it is worth our while to conserve and preserve some of these places (one of the reasons Theodore Roosevelt set up the national parks).

Note: Native America/First Nations had occupied these badlands and North America for millenia, at least 12,000 to 13,000 years (and even this is contested by Native friends, as they have told me much longer), before non-Natives got to the area. Even the fact that we call a wilderness a “wilderness” today is a cultural bias worthy of consideration and contemplation.

Closer to Paul Sharp

At first read Paul F. Sharp’s 1955 work might look like an extension of Frederick Turner’s frontier hypothesis. Yet the intellectual turn Sharp laid out in 1955 reacted to Walter Webb’s 1931 idea about man and nature. According to Webb, man entered the environment of the American West, and then reacted accordingly. In this way environment rather than man dictated the coarse of action. Yet Sharp tested this hypothesis by considering how man entered the North American west north and south of the 49th parallel. If Webb’s earlier ideas held true, then British Canadian culture and American culture (or Anglo-American culture) would have played out quite similarly on both sides of the geo-political border. The fact remains that they did not, though, since American culture and British Canadian culture were structured in two different ways. In the American West, chaotic and localized development ruled the day. North of the 49th parallel, though, a structured British-Canadian will set the course of its western development.


My first review from December 5, 2012 was analogous to how a Canadian might have regarded Sharp — here is just another Turnerian, Frederick’s same whiskey in a different cask. Yet the closer to an object, including Sharp’s 1955 work, the more amplified the details and subtleties become. I suppose this is an excuse for anyone to reread and revisit a good novel or piece of scholarship (or a novel piece of scholarship), Sharp’s work included.

Sharp’s “Whoop-Up Country” (1955) in Great Plains Historiography

Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. By Paul F. Sharp. (Norman: University of Minnesota Press, 1955. 347 pages.)

Review by Aaron L. Barth

In 1955, Paul F. Sharp pushed the Turnerian model north across the 49th parallel with his Whoop-Up Country: The Canadian-American West, 1865-1885. In doing this Sharp turned Turner’s national model into an international one, describing the two-decade history of the trail that linked Fort Benton in west-central Montana with Fort McLeod in western Canada. In Sharp’s words, “Here on the northern plains, the two great streams of Anglo-Saxon pioneering that had pushed across the continent finally reached their last west in the same environment.” (Sharp, 1955: 8) A shortcoming of Sharp’s use of “whoop-up” is that he never defines its origins (for example, why would Euro-Americans use this phrase?). Grasslands united the United States and Canada, the matching physiographic and semi-arid plain transcending the geopolitical borders, yet culture carried on in its own respective way. Merchants arrived to these grasslands, acting on behalf of “their London masters — Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Henry Kelsey, David Thompson, Peter Skene Ogden, and scores of others.” (Sharp, 1955: 33) Castor Canadensis, or beaver (and the Euro-American fetish for top hats), compelled these trappers to move into this area, and with them arrived vestiges of Anglo-American culture.

"Whoop-Up" country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

“Whoop-Up” country map (Sharp, 1955: 6).

The way in which Sharp breaks with earlier Anglo-Americentric histories is in his portrayal of the May 1873 massacre (rather than a battle) at Cypress Hills. In the nineteenth century American mind, when Custer and his Seventh Cavalry died at Bighorn, it remained a “massacre.” Yet when the Union army fell upon Native American villages with rifle, cannon and sabre, it remained a “battle.” According to Sharp, neither interpretation did the historical record any justice, or benefit, as they did no “credit to the objectivity or scholarship of those who, by reason of inadequate research or national bias, have perpetuated legend as history or myth as truth.” (Sharp, 1955: 55) Bringing up the topics of legend and history, or myth and truth, is where Sharp slips into a Positivistic, 1950s frame of mind. Three decades later, in 1986, William McNeill would cover this topic with more rigor and tenacity in Mythistory.

In other ways Sharp’s scholarship is dated, at least in his victimization of the Indian as a “drunk,” this inebriation described as the malefactor of the Cyprus Hills massacre. In Sharp’s words, “Whisky was the real culprit and this fight was another of its fearful effects upon the western Indians,” since this was a “frontier society which tolerated the sale of whiskey to the Indians and encouraged violence against them when disagreements arose.” (Sharp, 1955: 77) While Sharp’s scholarship broke from earlier Anglo-American histories, he continued to use paternalistic condescension toward Native America in his interpretation. When it came to interpreting the behavior of whites, however, he aptly allowed for individual agency and explained the differences in how it played on each side of the 49th parallel.

Four years before the massacre of Cyprus Hills, the Hudson’s Bay Company “transferred to the government of Canada its title to the vast preserve granted in its charter of 1670 and known as Rupert’s Land.” Sharp says it was approximately 2,300,000 square miles (italics mine) of land, this unit of measurement a subtle and slight reminder that Sharp’s readership still obliged American rather than Canadian interests. The establishment of a police force (“Law in Scarlet Tunics”) in the Northwest Territories on April 28, 1873 arguably denied the Canadian west a type of “lawlessness” and chaos so typical of the American West. Sharp addressed this, saying that if “every westerner lived by the myth and defended his honor with Colt’s ‘Great Equalizer’ at the slightest provocation, only one honorable man would have survived in each community” (Sharp, 1955: 107) Yet violence still held true, since the decentralized authority in the American West invariably could not stand up against large, roving gangs (unofficial social institutions in their own right). “Decentralization of authority in local governments was the heart of the matter, for through them law enforcement and judicial administration functioned.” (Sharp, 1955: 108) Local and regional laws guided the development of the American West, until they gave way to organized State and Federal systems that replaced the territories. Under the British-Canadian system, though, the myth or reality of disorder compelled London and Ottawa to bring the Empire immediately to bear on their western wilderness. Thus, in the western United States, chaos theory, regionalism, might-is-likely-right, and individual wits reigned. In the British-Canadian west, imperial order for god and country carried the day.

It is important to keep in mind that this history, when launched onto the scene in 1955, was nudging the interpretation of the Indian as “barrier” (as Walter Webb did in his Great Plains, 1933) to the Indian as understandable victim of United States and Canadian policy. A decade later, Vine Victor Deloria, Jr. and M. Scott Momaday (among others) would further this, an intellectual contribution that coincided with advances made by the American Indian Movement. Today, at least in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, scholarship has again shifted. Note, for example, Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (Yale University Press, 2008), or Elizabeth Fenn’s forthcoming work on the Mandan, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People. This scholarship demonstrates how Native American cultures acted rather than reacted to Euro-American encroachment. It is up to Native and non-Natives scholars today to push these interpretive boundaries, and help reshape the understanding of the past, and even the present.