In Domesticating the West, Brenda K. Jackson ’02, a Washington State University history Ph.D., explores the settlement of the West by the 19th-century middle class. Specifically, Jackson presents a dual biography of Thomas and Elizabeth Tannatt, middle-class migrants from Massachusetts to Washington Territory in the late 1800s.
Jackson begins her book by examining the middle-class backgrounds of the Tannatts and their experiences prior to and during the Civil War. Jackson effectively demonstrates that both Thomas and Elizabeth grew up solidly middle class, in terms of relative wealth, status, and privilege, though Thomas’s situation was a bit more precarious. As a result, Jackson argues, “throughout his lifetime, Thomas worked diligently to maintain position and status and to not allow himself to be dislodged from the place he coveted in America’s nineteenth-century middle class.”
That desire to maintain their middle class status brought the Tannatts West. Jackson convincingly argues that opportunities declined in many towns in the Northeast following the Civil War. This was certainly the case in Manchester, Massachusetts, the Tannatts’ hometown, and that lack of opportunity drove Thomas to explore employment in the West. Following a stint as an engineer in the Colorado mining industry, Thomas landed a job in management for Henry Villard and the Oregon Improvement Company. In his new position Thomas played a key role in successfully drawing immigrants to settle the vast lands of eastern Washington along newly established rail lines in towns like Endicott, Colfax, and Pullman.
Thomas and Elizabeth both became community leaders as well. Thomas served as mayor of Walla Walla and a member of the Board of Regents of the new Washington Agricultural College and School of Science (now WSU), while Elizabeth headed the Walla Walla chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Together, the couple used their influence to help create the Steptoe Monument, in part in homage to a West Point classmate of Thomas’s who was killed in a battle with Indians. Through these organizations and activities, the Tannatts helped instill their middle-class character and values into Western society.
Jackson’s book deftly shows how late-19th-century middle class migrants like the Tannatts helped shape the society, economy, and culture of the American West and the nation. The Tannatts’ story should appeal to those interested in the history of the American West and, particularly, eastern Washington.
— Robert Bauman, Assistant Professor, Department of History, WSU Tri-Cities