By Virginia Scharff

This guest post is published in advance of the Organization of American Historians conference in St. Louis. UC Press authors share their research and stories that reflect on this year’s conference theme, Taboos. Come back for new posts every weekday until April 17.

Can we talk about shards of American history that seem vaguely forbidden? About a family of abolitionists bent on slaughter, Native American slaveholders, heroes of the Union who commit Indian massacres, woman suffrage advocates who favor the vote for white women to counterbalance the votes of black men, a Navajo woman, once a captive, meeting the President of the United States, Hispanic households reliant on unfree domestic labor, long after Emancipation? Can we talk about the deep contradictions and complexities of seeing the American struggle over freedom as a continental story?

If you don’t mind history that embraces unpleasant truths, then you are ready for the stories you’ll find in Empire and Liberty: The Civil War and the West, companion volume to the exhibition opening at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles this spring. Eleven historians offer essays inspired by revealing objects. Consider the double-edged Bowie knife given to Cherokee leader Stand Watie, commissioned a colonel in the Confederate army, who would become the last Confederate general to surrender. Or perhaps you’d be interested in the papers carried by Chinese immigrants to prove their legal status, the flag sewn by Jessie Benton Fremont for her husband to carry on expeditions of continental conquest, the rifle they called a “Beecher’s Bible” when it was shipped by devout New England partisans to antislavery warriors joining the arms race in Bleeding Kansas.

These objects and the stories they illuminate show us how our two great national epics, the struggle over slavery and freedom, and the quest for continental dominion, are really one story. It’s a story across prairies and mountains and deserts and innumerable cultural divides, shocking and multifarious and indivisible, with liberty and justice still to come.


Virginia Scharff is Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Center for the Southwest at the University of New Mexico. She is the co-curator (with Carolyn Brucken) of the “Empire and Liberty” exhibition at the Autry National Center, where she serves as Women of the West Chair. Her previous works include Twenty Thousand Roads: Women, Movement, and the WestThe Women Jefferson Loved; and Home Lands: How Women Made the West (with Carolyn Brucken).