The Man Who Changed How We Think About American History

Fountain of youthFor many students, the study of American History begins with Columbus wandering mistakenly into the New World, followed by a dash around eastern North America with French and English explorers, and finally settles firmly into the founding of Jamestown and Anglo-America. They may get a smattering of information on the Spanish and Portuguese explorers, as well. Most people know the story of Ponce de Leon’s fruitless searches in Florida for the Fountain of Youth, which in the best spirit of entrepreneurialism, is now touted as a tourist attraction in St. Augustine.1 fountain of youth_0

Students of Texas history get a somewhat more fulsome treatment of Spanish explorers, especially Cabeza de Vaca. It is part of the state curriculum. De Vaca was among the remnants of Pinola de Narvaez’s Florida expedition. Starving and fearing imminent demise, they were making for the Mexican coast on crude, hastily constructed rafts when a hurricane blew them ashore at Galveston, thus becoming the first Europeans to set foot in Texas. Their experience of the Texas coast was such that after six years of habitation, only four of the eighty or so men who originally swam ashore survived. At that point, de Vaca decided walking the 1,043 miles to Mexico City was their only hope. They eventually made it, by the way.[1]

Because the United States owes so much to Great Britain, it is understandable that history survey courses in American schools, colleges, and universities concentrate their curricula on the development of Anglo-America. After all, what would our Constitution be without its considerable infusion of English Common Law? The British Isles (England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland) provided so many settlers and immigrants that for much of US history, persons of British ancestry were the majority in many parts of the country. At the turn of the last century, a young professor of medieval and European history at the University of Texas became interested in looking beyond Anglo-America toward what he came to call The Spanish Borderlands and a vision of an integrated history of the Americas.[2][3] His name was Herbert E. Bolton (1870-1953).Herbert_Eugene_Bolton_1905

Born in Wisconsin in 1870, Bolton received his B.A. from the University of Wisconsin in 1895. From 1896-1897, he studied under the imminent historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, originator of the Frontier Thesis of American history. As a Harrison Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, Bolton pursued his doctorate, which he received in 1899. After graduation, he accepted a position on the history faculty at the University of Texas where he taught from 1901 to 1909. There, he became interested in the Spanish colonial experience in America, traveling several times to Mexico in search of archival documents. These were surely not difficult to locate. According to my Spanish Borderlands professor at Valdosta State University, Dr. Lamar Pearson, Spanish explorers and colony governors employed scribes who were required to prepare copious reports to the crown in quintuplicate. That’s a lot of parchment!

Bolton published his findings in 1913 at the request of the Carnegie Institution. His continued work in the field led to the development of the Bolton Theory, which he presented in his 1932 address, The Epic of Greater Americato the American Historical Association of which he was president at the time. His theory is best summarized in his own words.

There is need of a broader treatment of American history, to supplement the purely nationalistic presentation to which we are accustomed. European history cannot be learned from books dealing alone with England, or France, or Germany, or Italy, or Russia; nor can American history be adequately presented if confined to Brazil, or Chile, or Mexico, or Canada, or the United States. In my own country the study of thirteen English colonies and the United States in isolation has obscured many of the larger factors in their development, and helped to raise up a nation of chauvinists. Similar distortion has resulted from the teaching and writing of national history in other American countries.

It is time for a change. The increasing importance of inter-American relations makes imperative a better understanding by each of the history and the culture of all. A synthetic view is important not alone for its present day political and commercial implications; it is quite as desirable from the standpoint of correct historiography.

For some three hundred years the whole Western Hemisphere was colonial in status. European peoples occupied the country, transplanted their cultures, and adapted themselves to the American scene. Rival nations devised systems for exploiting natives and natural resources, and competed for profit and possession. Some of the contestants were eliminated, leaving at the end of the eighteenth century Spain, Portugal, England, and Russia as the chief colonial powers in America.

By this time most of the European colonies in America had grown up; they now asserted their majority. In the half century between 1776 and 1826, practically all of South America and two-thirds of North America became politically independent of Europe, and a score of nations came into being. Eventually, the entire Western Hemisphere, with minor exceptions, has achieved independent nationality. Since separation from Europe these nations alike have been striving on the one hand for national solidarity, political stability, and economic well being, and on the other hand for a satisfactory adjustment of relations with each other and with the rest of the world.

Our national historians, especially in the United States, are prone to write of these broad phases of American history as though they were applicable to one country alone. It is my purpose, by a few bold strokes, to suggest that they are but phases common to most portions of the entire Western Hemisphere; that each local story will have clearer meaning when studied in the light of the others; and that much of what has been written of each national history is but a thread out of a larger strand.[4]

In 1911, Dr. Bolton moved to the University of California, Berkley where he continued his work as a teacher, as history department chairman, as a researcher, as an associate editor of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly (formerly the Quarterly of the Texas State Historical Association), as one of the founders of The Hispanic American Historical Review, and as the founding director of the Bancroft Library.  As a mentor and advisor to master’s and doctoral candidates, he supervised more than 300 theses and 104 dissertations, a remarkable accomplishment. His History of the Americas course attracted large enrollments and his round-table seminar became famous, producing historians who became well-known in their own right, as well as, members of the “Bolton School.” He retired from UCAL in 1944 and passed away from a stroke in 1953. His work and theory are still influencing historians today.

  1., accessed April 6, 2017.
  2. (the entire manuscript of Herbert E. Bolton’s seminal work, The Spanish Borderlands).
  3., accessed April 6, 2017.
  4. (full transcript), accessed April 6, 2017.