The Culture of Wilderness

Agriculture As Colonization in the American West

By Frieda Knobloch

220 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4585-1
    Published: December 1996
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6254-4
    Published: November 2000

Studies in Rural Culture

Buy this Book

In this innovative work of cultural and technological history, Frieda Knobloch describes how agriculture functioned as a colonizing force in the American West between 1862 and 1945. Using agricultural textbooks, USDA documents, and historical accounts of western settlement, she explores the implications of the premise that civilization progresses by bringing agriculture to wilderness. Her analysis is the first to place the trans-Mississippi West in the broad context of European and classical Roman agricultural history. Knobloch shows how western land, plants, animals, and people were subjugated in the name of cultivation and improvement. Illuminating the cultural significance of plows, livestock, trees, grasses, and even weeds, she demonstrates that discourse about agriculture portrays civilization as the emergence of a colonial, socially stratified, and bureaucratic culture from a primitive, feminine, and unruly wilderness. Specifically, Knobloch highlights the displacement of women from their historical role as food gatherers and producers and reveals how Native American land-use patterns functioned as a form of cultural resistance. Describing the professionalization of knowledge, Knobloch concludes that both social and biological diversity have suffered as a result of agricultural 'progress.'

About the Author

Frieda Knobloch is assistant professor of history at St. Olaf College.
For more information about Frieda Knobloch, visit the Author Page.


“Offers anyone interested in American agriculture or the West a challenging and provocative study.”--Technology and Culture

“Knobloch has effectively debunked the arrogant assertions of those who helped colonize the West, while giving their words more power than they deserve as weapons deployed to tame nature.”--Pacific Northwest Quarterly

“One of the many pleasant surprises of this exciting and ambitious book is how well Knobloch actually accomplishes her goals.”--Journal of American History

“This is a fascinating, well-written and researched book, that moves briskly, with a vigorous, well-supported narrative.”--Western Historical Quarterly

"Beautifully written, wonderfully provocative, and at the same time deeply informative. That's a combination hard to pull off."--John Mack Faragher, Yale University