Webers father, who owned a furniture and appliance store in Buffalo, New York, considered
his sons 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 nations most dearly held myths about its history.
This includes a re-evaluation of Boltons 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 Americas
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 SMUs
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 DeGolyers 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 DeGolyers 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
Centers 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 peoples
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 SMUs
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
Weber credits his success in part to being in
the right place at the right historical time. "Weve 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. populations
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 Webers
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 scholars scholar, a historians
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."
Hes 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,
"Webers Hispanophilic (meaning he favors the Spanish), but hes not very
good at being Hispanophilic because the evidence he presents of Spanish misdeeds undermines
the general argument."
"I dont 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,
its 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 didnt go far enough
in their analysis. "Its not that the Anglos didnt 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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