The Center of the American West would like to call attention to a major resource belonging to the State of Colorado but seldom recognized by its residents today: a talent pool of many accomplished and influential historians who found their sense of mission in this state.

At the January 2017 convention of the American Historical Association in Denver, Patty Limerick organized a session bringing together historians who spent their formative years in the State of Colorado, and who have followed their careers to other locales. Each of the presenters at this session have retained ties with and feelings toward their place of origin. In at least one or two cases, they live with at least a mild sensation of exile from the landscapes, communities, and stories that first brought to life their sense of vocation as explorers of the past.

Four of these “prodigal children,” returning to Colorado for the AHA convention, reflected on the puzzling, thought-provoking, disturbing, and inspiring aspects of their lives in Colorado that drew them into the design and creation of narratives and interpretations that could deliver a better understanding of the world around them. While a couple of participants became Western American historians, others headed toward seemingly distant fields of history, tracking themes and questions that first preoccupied them here in Colorado: dynamism and hybridity in ethnic identities; contests over property and land use; the lasting legacy of violence; the workings of federalism; the shifting alignment of political parties; encounters with nature and the reckoning with human reshaping of nature; the power of ideas and myths in the shaping of behavior and conduct. As people returning to a territory dramatically transformed by rapid population growth over the last decades, the participants also found an occasion to explore the workings of memory and nostalgia.

The members of the American Historical Association who attended the “Homegrown Historians” session gave every sign of finding the stories they heard to be moving, funny, instructive, thought-provoking, and very much worth their attention. In what we hope will be the first of many postings, we now launch the “Homegrown Historians” feature on the Center of the American West website, with an elegant essay by Robert Westbrook, Joseph F. Cunningham Professor of History at the University of Rochester. A leader in the field of American intellectual history, Professor Westbrook explores the connections between his childhood experiences in Grand Junction, Colorado, his choices of subject matter in his work as a historian, and some of the deepest and most resonant dimensions of the nation’s past.

Others who participated in the AHA convention session have expressed an inclination to join Professor Westbrook in placing their stories on this site. And, just as important, the Center of the American West would love to hear from other Homegrown Historians: people who spent a consequential part of their formative years in this state, with a lasting impact on their work in helping their contemporaries get their bearings in time and reach a fuller recognition of the constant commuting of features of the past into our world today. It is important to put on record the fact that limits of time constrained the number of historians Patty could invite to participate in the AHA session, and she and her fellow Coloradans want to issue an open invitation to Colorado-originating historians to tell their stories here.


Robert Westbrook

Banner image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons