American West Program

The American West Program at Colorado State University began in 1972 as a cross-disciplinary program created by scientists, humanists, engineers, and artists who wished to explore common themes related to the American West and to provide greater cultural opportunities for the University community, Fort Collins, and summer visitors. Over the decades, funding came from both university and external sources.

Under the leadership of Drs. Joseph Angell and Arthur Wilcox of Recreation Resources, the American West Program was officially launched in the summer of 1972. The program’s highlight was the Thomas Moran art exhibit, held in conjunction with a celebration of the National Park Service. The following year, Dr. Russell Churchill, professor in the Electrical Engineering department assumed the chairmanship. During his three-year tenure the American West Program evolved into a loosely structured aggregation of films, conferences, seminars, art exhibits, and other events related to the theme of western Americana.

History faculty took over the administration of the program in the mid-1970s. Dr. Harry Rosenberg became the program’s long-standing leader and champion. He ran the program for several decades with the assistance of an advisory board drawn from the local community. Under Dr. Rosenberg’s leadership, the American West Program became a very popular summer series at CSU. Each year, program leaders chose a distinct theme (for example, cowboys, outlaws, ethnic minorities) and developed programming that included guest lecturers, film, music, and dramatic performance. The program had a loyal following, especially among older members of the Fort Collins community and summer visitors to Fort Collins. Typically, the American West Program offered six events over the summer season, drawing audiences of 100 or more individuals to each event. Program events were free to the community.

Anne Bond, a public historian who had worked extensively with the Colorado Historical Society, became the program’s administrator in 2002 following Dr. Rosenberg’s retirement from CSU. With guidance from History faculty, she revised the program to draw in scholars and audiences who were interested in topics that went beyond the history of nineteenth century western frontiers. The program continued for the summers of 2003, 2004, and 2005. Dr. Ruth Alexander was coordinator of the program during these final years. The College of Liberal Arts provided funding for the program but required that audiences pay admission fees. The program ended due to insufficient participation/audience fees and a loss of support from the College of Liberal Arts.

Program Revival

The Public Lands History Center began to host public programs in 2011. Our public events attracted attention from across the university and from the local community and the College of Liberal Arts began to encourage the PLHC to consider working with the Department of History to revive the American West Program, which would connect its legacy to our current activities.  The goal of the program is to meet the interests of alumni, friends, supporters, and citizens who miss attending these regular opportunities to learn more about the history of our region.

The PLHC’s first public program was a Fall 2011 event, National Parks beyond the Nation, a colloquium of 15 scholars from seven countries who examined the history of parks in unique international settings. Well-attended public panel presentations complemented workshop sessions for the participating historians and brought their work to a general audience.

On March 1, 2013, the Public Lands History Center hosted a one-day event, “Coping with Extremes: A Western Water History Symposium.” Presenters included historians Patty Limerick, DC Jackson, Jay Taylor, and Louis Warren. Funding was provided by the William E. Morgan Chair in Liberal Arts and CSU Libraries. The PLHC also hosted Ari Kelman, author of Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek (Harvard University Press, 2013), for a lecture attended by more than 80 people, followed by a reception for faculty and graduate students.

The PLHC ramped up its American West presentations in 2014 and 2015. On March 6, 2014, Dr. Jared Orsi gave a lecture on his recent publication, “Citizen Explorer: The Life of Zebulon Pike,” followed by a book signing. (Click here for event poster: Orsi Citizen Explorer lecture.) Then on December 4, 2014, Dr. Anne Hyde, Professor of History at Colorado College, gave a presentation entitled “Western Zombies and Their Killers: Exceptionalism, the Empty West, and Mixed Race Families.” She discussed her recent publication, “Empires, Nations, & Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860,” followed by refreshments and a book signing. Seventy-five people attended the event. (Click here for event poster: Hyde Western Zombies lecture.) On February 28, 2015, the PLHC organized a panel discussion, “Flood, Fire, & Ice: Environmental History and Environmental Extremes.” Dr. Ruth Alexander spoke about her work on the 2013 Colorado Floods Oral History project with the PLHC, CSU History M.A. student Dane Vanhoozer spoke on his experiences with wildfire in the U.S. Forest Service, and Dr. Adrian Howkins spoke about his collaborations with scientists in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys. (Click here for event poster: Flood Fire & Ice panel.)

On November 5, 2015, the PLHC celebrated the centennial of Rocky Mountain National Park with a special conversational, question-and-answer style presentation on the history of the park, entitled “100 Years of Rocky Mountain National Park: Conversations on Park History and Interpretation.” Dr. Mark Fiege moderated, with conversations and questions-and-answers by Dr. Thomas Andrews, Associate Professor of History at University of Colorado Boulder, and Rich Fedorchak, Chief of Interpretation & Education at Rocky Mountain National Park. Over 200 people attended the event, which closed with refreshments and Andrews’ book signing of his latest publication, “Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies.” (Click here for event poster: 100 Years of Rocky Mountain National Park.)

Activities between 2011 and 2015 provided the foundation for the PLHC to consider a regular speaker series that would highlight issues and historical scholarship related to public lands and resources and other topics pertinent to the contemporary American West, and how these regional topics are connected to the broader national and international contexts. With a revival of these activities under the American West Program brand, the PLHC Council and staff are now planning a year round series with lectures, panels, and events in the fall and spring semesters as well as the summer term.

This robust new American West Program series begins in full force in 2016, with a lecture and book signing on March 3 by Dr. Adrian Howkins on his recent publication, “The Polar Regions: An Environmental History.” On April 14, the PLHC will celebrate the centennial of the National Park Service with a special panel discussion by Park Service staff and scholars studying the parks, and student showcase of PLHC projects conducted in the parks.

The successful implementation of the American West Program requires the help and support of our friends, donors, and community. If you would like to support the American West Program, please visit our giving page and indicate the purpose of your donation as “American West Program” in the comments field.

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