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Robbins, William G. Colony and Empire: The Capitalist Transformation of the American
West. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1994.

William G. Robbins, in Colony and Empire: the Capitalist Transformation of the

American West, provides an extensive study of the role of capitalism in the American

West. In a field that has been dominated by one theory for so long, Robbins not only

portrays the “New Western History” theory, but also brings his ideals of the world-

systems theory into his study. Frederick Jackson Turner’s, The Significance of the

Frontier in American History, dominated the American West field of study for a century.

It was not until the 1980’s that a new school of thought, the “New Western History,”

came to the attention of scholars. Robbins capitalist transformation explanation steers

clear of Turner’s thesis, that states a new America developed that was more democratic,

less authoritarian, and less class conscious and his thesis is clearly stated throughout the


“Inquiries into the political economy and systems of power and dependency are

central to understanding historical change. There is no convincing alternative…to

encounter with ideology, with the politics and economics of social and class

relations…with the all-embracing influence of capital as an agent of change.

Those dynamics are part of the revolutionary world that is modern capitalism


Robbins uses his research to create an analysis between capitalism and its

revolutionary consequences for the American West. He divides his book into three parts.

The first part covers myth, ideology, and reality of the American West. It consist of

chapters involving the interpretation of historical change, the United States-Mexican and

the United States-Canadian borderlands and the effects of capitalism in these areas. The

second part replaces the mythical Turnerian West with Robbins capitalist transformation

West. In this part, Robbins takes the reader through the numerous industries of the West

(mining, lumber, agriculture, and electrical power), and uses these industries to explain

how these capitalist transformations occurred. The third part starts off with a comparison

of the effects of capitalism in the South and the West. He then goes on to focus on the

metropolitan and hinterland experiences. Robbins ends the book with an epilogue that

concludes that as capital continues to disperse itself across the hinterland West, it will

create a local autonomy more diminished than ever before (197).

William G. Robbins, Colony and Empire: the Capitalist Transformation of the

American West, is a great addition to the study of the American West. It provides

scholars with a new approach, not only to the Turner thesis, but also to the “New Western

History” school of thought with the introduction to capitalism as a major theme for

change. Robbins’ extensive amount of research is evident in his work and he provides

more than enough evidence to support his argument. It is a work that should be

considered by all historical scholars and should be established as a reoccurring theme in

the historical study of the American West. Although, it is evident that the work was

originally “a series of discrete essays,” and is too repetitive at times, Robbins book is

worth scholarly attention.

John C. McKnight

Appalachian State University