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David Weber’s father, who owned a furniture and appliance store in Buffalo, New York, considered his son’s career choice a big mistake.

"He told me about salesmen who came to his store and had history degrees," Weber remembers. Ironically, a secret to success in retailing appears to be one that Weber took to heart in his work: location, location, location.

Weber, director of the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies and the Robert H. and Nancy Dedman Professor of History, has become one of the leading scholars of U.S. borderlands history, particularly the impact Spanish settlers had on Native Americans in the Spanish colonial period. Borderlands history looks at the confluence of cultures – including English, French, Spanish, Mexican, and Native American – in a region once considered too far out of the mainstream of U.S. history to warrant attention.

Weber has written or edited 20 books and more than 50 scholarly articles on the history of the southwestern United States. His nationally acclaimed book, The Spanish Frontier in North America, which was named one of the "notable books" for 1992 by The New York Times, is considered the yardstick against which other books in the growing field of borderlands research are measured.

"David Weber is surely the leading scholar of the Southwestern borderlands of his generation; indeed, he ranks with Herbert Eugene Bolton, who founded the field of borderlands history, as one of its preeminent practitioners in this century," says William Cronon, the Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Only a scholar as balanced as Weber could lead the field in reinterpreting some of the nation’s most dearly held myths about its history. This includes a re-evaluation of Bolton’s work, which was part of an early 20th century Yale series that boasted the motto, "Let us now praise famous men." Where once U.S. historians focused on the actions of famous Anglo-American men in state and national capitals, Weber helped lead the shift in emphasis to the actions of everyday men and women of many races.

"I felt that the scholarship on the frontier was too Anglocentric, too one-sided when you look at it from Albuquerque or the southern Rockies," Weber explains. His first book, The Taos Trappers: Fur Trade in the Far Southwest, grew out of that feeling. Earlier historians cast the Anglo-Americans as winners and the Spaniards as losers because they could not hold the territories in North America. Those historians focused on the Anglo-Americans of the 1820s and 1830s as heroes coming from the East in search of beaver in the West, which usually was depicted as a vast open space. In reality, Mexico extended to the northern boundaries of what is now California, Utah, and Colorado and included the Rocky Mountain region, which made the "West" part of Mexico. From that perspective, the Anglo-Americans were illegal immigrants and poachers depleting a Mexican natural resource: beaver.

"I like to take what is familiar and make it strange: to put Anglo-American trappers who headed west into northern Mexico instead of the ‘American’ West," Weber explains.

Earlier historians often did not read Spanish or think in terms of conservation.

"The emphasis instead was on the bravery of these mountain men, fighting off dangers, serving as an advance guard for America’s manifest destiny," Weber says. "Many of them were criminals who sold guns to the Indians and bought stolen livestock that Indians took from Mexican ranchers. By selling guns to the Indians, they upset the balance of power in the region. Stephen F. Austin referred to these guys as land pirates."

Weber is working on a new book, Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment, which looks at Spanish relations with independent Indian groups in North America, Central America, and South America from 1750-1812. He is attempting to place North America more fully in context as part of a larger empire for which Spain had to commit resources and manpower. That picture, he says, did not emerge clearly in his prize-winning book.

"If you were to read The Spanish Frontier, you could come to the conclusion that Spain was unable to hold on to its North American empire, even though it held it for 300 years – 50 years longer than the British and 100 years longer than the French," Weber says.

Weber conducts much of his research at SMU’s DeGolyer Library. "The DeGolyer is a treasure trove of every conceivable imprint on Western Americana and much of Mexico," he says. Libraries in Chicago and California may rank higher in handwritten manuscripts, but DeGolyer’s holdings in maps and photographs (400,000 items) and rare publications – such as the pamphlet containing a letter Columbus wrote about his impressions of the New World that was printed when he returned to Spain – can stand up to any other collection.

The Clements Center, which Weber directs, publishes new editions of some of the DeGolyer’s most noteworthy books and recent SMU scholarship. Again, Weber is at the vanguard, using high-tech, "printing on demand" techniques that many trade publishers would envy.

These techniques enabled the publication of the Center’s recent book on Picuris Pueblo, an archaeological site near SMU-in-Taos at Fort Burgwin, New Mexico.

Weber is too humble to claim even changing people’s minds, although he does acknowledge changing "half a dozen" lives through the fellowship program he directs at the Clements Center, named for former Texas Governor William P. Clements. In 1995, Clements gave a $10 million gift to create the Center and SMU’s Ph.D. program in American history with an emphasis on the Southwest. Other benefactors include the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation, the Summerfield Roberts Foundation, and the Summerlee Foundation.

Weber credits his success in part to being in the right place at the right historical time. "We’ve had a major shift in the understanding and appreciation of Spanish and Mexican heritage in Southwestern America just in my lifetime," he says. The change in perspective followed the U.S. population’s shift southward from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt and the northward immigration of Hispanics from Mexico, Cuba, and Central America.

Weber remembers being fascinated by the beauty, history, and exotic feel of Albuquerque when he arrived at the University of New Mexico to attend graduate school after growing up in upstate New York. "In some respects, going to New Mexico was like going abroad," he recalls. "There were Hispanics, Spanish was still spoken by many people, and there were Native Americans."

The only passions to be found in Weber’s work are those for detail and accuracy, reflected in the nearly 200 pages of footnotes and lists of resource materials included in The Spanish Frontier, which took five years to write. His exhaustive research corrected the errors of earlier historians about who discovered the Mississippi River (Alvarez de Pineda, not Hernando de Soto or René La Salle) and set straight a popular, but wrong, notion that Spaniards went to the New World to plunder, while the English and French came to settle and trade.

"David is a scholar’s scholar, a historian’s historian," Cronon says. "He scrupulously combines meticulous archival research with a commanding understanding of the broad sweep of the historiography to produce subtle, nuanced interpretations that are so evenhanded and fair-minded that they command respect from the entire field."

When confronted with a stack of favorable reviews of The Spanish Frontier, Weber says "the reviewers have been very generous." He’s put together a humorous talk in which he reviews his reviewers. "Some reviewers wrote that I am pro-Spanish; some wrote that I am anti-Spanish. Some see me as pro-Indian, some as anti-Indian, and they are all reading the same book," he says.

He laughs at the memory of one reviewer who wrote, "Weber’s Hispanophilic (meaning he favors the Spanish), but he’s not very good at being Hispanophilic because the evidence he presents of Spanish misdeeds undermines the general argument."

"I don’t think one can be totally objective, although I do think we must try to be as balanced as we can. If I have a passion for anything, it’s for that," he says.

Revisionism is an ongoing process in history, just as it is in science, Weber says. He refuses to commit "intellectual patricide" against the historians who went before him, saying only that they didn’t go far enough in their analysis. "It’s not that the Anglos didn’t perform heroic deeds," he says. "They did. They let people go west, and they fought grizzlies, and so on. But that is a one-dimensional view, and we must see all the dimensions. There are other dimensions that the next generation will see that will give an even fuller picture – perhaps in some completely unforeseeable way."

 



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