The Mysterious West
In 1976 the cartoonist Saul Steinberg drew a famous cover for the New Yorker
showing the locals' mind's-eye-view of the United States. Looking westward from midtown, the Manhattanite saw, close up, Ninth Avenue, then Tenth, then the Hudson, and then, in fast-closing perspective, vagueness, error, and finally dismissal.
If Steinberg had drawn for the Los Angeles Times
, he would have produced a much different map. It would have highlighted the Big Bear Lake ski area, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe; Sacramento and San Francisco; Phoenix, Denver, and Seattle; Washington, D.C.; and not much of New York except Wall Street and the theater district. But the map would certainly have shown London, Paris, and Rome and, looking west, Hawaii, Australia, and Japan. Mexico, definitely.
Even in the West, however, people have strange ideas about their own region. Sophisticated and case-hardened editors of metropolitan dailies on the Pacific Coast do not believe that anything east of the Rocky Mountains is really part of the West. Conversely some residents of Billings, Boulder, or Boise -- the interior West -- think that California, Oregon, and Washington are outside the West. Such people would prefer that any place west of the Sierras should break off and float out into the Pacific. They think that the "real" (meaning, ideal) West no longer exists, that it has already gone to metropolitanized hell. For them, what is left might as well be strip-mined, deforested, overgrazed, desertified, and paved over because the "true West" can never be found again except in the pages of writers like Louis L'Amour, Larry McMurtry, and the earlier Zane Grey and Owen Wister. To this way of thinking, the West is myth, memory, imagination, not a place at all, because the place that is now there has too many cities, too many people, and hardly any buffaloes or cowboys.
But it is a place, with people more diverse in race or class than those of the other great regions of the United States: the Northeast, the Midwest, and the South. They are more varied today than they used to be, but they have always been a mixed lot, not just cigarette-smoking cowboys or hippies on beaches. This book is one story about the people of the West: who they are and have been, how they got there, what myths motivated them to go there, and how they have interacted. Some were in what we now call the West at least fourteen thousand years ago, and others, from Europe, Africa, and Asia, have been arriving from that day to this. They are all part of this story.The Five Motivators of Migration into the West
Demography measures births, deaths, marriages, and migrations and what speeds or slows them, like health and disease. Demographic history traces these phenomena over time. Among them migration is especially crucial for the western story because in the long run it has shaped the West most. Millions of migrants mean millions of stories. But it would be impossible, and for that matter meaningless, to tell every tale. A few motives, broadly defined, account for western (and most other) human migration.
First, the hunger for land has been well-nigh universal, from ancient times in Europe, Asia, or Africa to the present. In American history, land hunger has taken the form of the Agrarian Myth, codified by Thomas Jefferson into an ideal society of independent, individualistic smallholders, or homesteaders. (Indians, to the contrary, usually considered land a "free good," like air, owned by everybody; land privately owned was a foreign concept to them, and in that difference of attitude rested much of the problem between whites and Indians.) Homesteading was crucial for pulling the land-hungry across the Overland Trail to Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s and in settling the Great Plains from the 1870s to the 1920s. It was not at all crucial, and in fact almost marginal, in populating California. Whatever its name -- the Homesteading Ideal, or the Agrarian Myth, Jeffersonian or otherwise -- it reflected a profound attachment to the idea of getting and keeping some land of one's own and thus creating a "family farm."
Second, contrasting with the ideal of settling, is the idea of finding a valuable resource, taking it, and exploiting it for its value. Natural resources have been targets of exploitation since before King Solomon had mines. In the American West this motive first exploded in the California Gold Rush of 1849-1852, reappeared in Colorado and Nevada in the late 1850s and again in dozens of later strikes of gold and silver across the West. It operated in the twentieth century when entrepreneurs sought fossil fuels and more exotic substances like molybdenum or uranium. Homesteading inspired people to find a place to settle; the gold rush idea caused people to migrate to find and extract resources. The two overlap in one respect: Land itself has sometimes been an exploitable resource, especially for grazing animals, but it is often renewable, with care, while minerals are not. In the twentieth century the gold rush idea has underlaid migrations to find more abstract forms of wealth, as when corporations merge and hopscotch from place to place, seeking the best returns. This is attenuated gold rushing, but the basic motive is similar.
A third historic reason for migrating is simply the search for a better quality of life, specifically in California. The California Dream has been the motivator of health seekers, retirees, entrepreneurs, hedonists, hippies, escapees from Jim Crow or foreign repression, looking (with or without much accurate information) for a land of opportunity and "the good life."1 The California Dream has taken many forms. Its earliest expression was the legend floating around Europe in the early sixteenth century that California was an island where a race of black Amazons lived, ruled by their queen, Calafia. It took two centuries to convince mapmakers that California is not an island. The dream became anglicized with the American takeover in 1846. Since then California has attracted millions of people with its "Hedonistic Middle based on the desire of ordinary people to get a little more out of life, to have more fun." The modern California Dream began in southern California as early as the 1870s and became possible, affordable, and achievable for millions in the twentieth century. The more the area became Anglo-American, the more the California Dream attracted people from the rest of the country, particularly the Middle West. The dream had Spanish and Mexican origins, but they were modified and romanticized after the 1870s into something quite new.
A fourth motivator of migration is nostalgia. It urges people to return home, or to what they think is home, either as a lost place or a lost time, a "golden age." It brought Ulysses back across the wine-dark sea, and it made sojourners rather than settlers out of roughly half of the tens of millions of Europeans and Asians who came to the United States by sail and steam between the 1820s and 1914. A great many of those "immigrants" (so defined not by themselves but by the America they were entering) came not to stay but to improve things at home, to which they intended to return. In the American West the nostalgia motivator is the newest of these four. It is
the one now most vivid in people's minds, in the United States and around the world, thanks to media saturation, beginning with Buffalo Bill Cody. It actually brings far fewer people to the West except as tourists, than the other three, although it has recently prompted tens of thousands to leave the coastal and metropolitan West (especially California) for the interior West, where the myth remains strongest.
According to one of its defenders, this myth reaffirms and seeks out "Cowboy Code traits of individualism, democracy, equality, ingenuity, and courage," makes a hero out of the cowboy because his "individualism, stoicism, common sense, adaptability, courage, and democracy" are "consummately American," and clings to "the epic story of an American people crossing a continental frontier and taming its wild forces." That "epic," however, rests far too much on about twenty-five years of Indian-white struggle on the Great Plains, ignoring four hundred years of deeper history. Yet its imagery strongly affects western life today, including demography, and therefore must be taken into account. Call it the Old West/Golden West mythology.
The fifth motivator is the most historically universal of all. People have always migrated to improve themselves and their families, materially or spiritually. Southern Europeans went north for centuries before steamships and railroads opened North and South America to them as targets of opportunity. Contract workers from China, Japan, and the Philippines sailed east for similar reasons. In the American West, migration for wages (not land) brought Mexicans to El Norte
throughout the twentieth century, African-Americans from Texas and Louisiana to Los Angeles after 1940, Asians ever since the Gold Rush, Indians from the reservations to the cities, and whites from Europe and the eastern and midwestern United States throughout western history.
These five motivators -- homesteading, gold rushing, California dreaming, nostalgia for the Old West/Golden West, and sheer betterment -- overlap in individual cases because people always have, of course, mixed motives. These reasons do not explain everybody (political refugees, for example), but they cover the great majority. Of the five, however, the most important in terms of the number of people who directly responded to it is today, ironically, the most forgotten: homesteading.Where Did the Buffalo Roam, Anyway?
What "the West" means has changed radically over the course of American history. Where and when are we talking about? The Census Bureau defines the West as the thirteen Mountain and Pacific states, from Montana south to New Mexico, and everything west of them, including Alaska and Hawaii. It does not include the Great Plains tier from North Dakota to Texas. Yet Texans and Oklahomans (and many Kansans, Nebraskans, and Dakotans) vigorously insist that they are western. The commonsense definition of the West is the area where the people who live in it think they are western. This today includes everything west of the 98th or 100th meridian: the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountain subregion, the Great Basin, the Pacific Coast, and Alaska and Hawaii. (To look ahead, this is the West as I shall use the word in this book: essentially the Census West, plus the Great Plains.) But what makes one place western and another not? Should the definition consider not just where we are talking about but when? Has not "the West" shifted over time?
Also, "frontier" and "West" have often meant the same thing, though they are not. This confusion goes back far, but its most powerful expressions appeared about a century ago from Owen Wister, the novelist whose The Virginian
(1902) set the formula for hundreds of novels and films since; Frederic Remington, who glorified the macho cowboy in oils and bronzes; William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody; Theodore Roosevelt; and Frederick Jackson Turner. Cody's long-running road show, Buffalo Bill's Wild West
(1885-1911), reenacted the victory of American bluecoats and buckskins over the "savage" Indians, employing some of those very same ones (including, briefly, Sitting Bull) to replay their defeat. Roosevelt's multivolume The Winning of the West
(1889-1896) told the story, chiefly, of white-Anglo conquest of the buffalo, the plains, and the Indians who lived there. Turner drew a much broader picture in his epochal essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which he presented as a lecture in Chicago in 1893. Rather than "the West," he described "the frontier," from Massachusetts and Virginia in the early 1600s to his own time, from the Atlantic to the Mississippi Valley, a zone of settlement that shifted westward as time went on. It made Americans uniquely what they are. And that, he said, was finished. He rested his case on the 1890 Census, which stated that a true frontier line could not be drawn any longer because white settlement had scattered so widely across the West.
"The frontier," however, was not the same as "the West." Except for the Great Plains with its then-recent Indian wars, these mythmakers ignored most of the region we are defining as West. The western half of the continental United States hardly figures in their stories, was as yet sparsely populated, remained a mystery to most Americans, and still contained millions of acres available for settlement -- or, more in line with what later happened, for city building. The "West" was still to be won, and would be, by a much broader spectrum of people than the Anglo-Americans of whom Turner, Roosevelt, Cody, Remington, and Wister were representative.
The West deserves a more inclusive history than the traditional frontier "epic." It has become much more important in the national and international scheme of things than it used to be. In 1890 the western census region contained only 3,000,000 of 63,000,000 Americans, less than 5 percent. By the late 1990s it was home to nearly 60,000,000 of the nation's 270,000,000. In 1890 fewer than 1 of 20 Americans lived in the West. To the other 19, it was an exotic place that was distant, unknown, dreamed about, and mythified. Many today who live in other regions have never lost their innocence about the West. They still think of it in ways learned from Buffalo Bill's theatrical Wild West, or the art of Remington and Russell, or western novels and films, or even Steinberg's New Yorker
cover. It is time for the mystery to end.Plains to the Pacific or Just Dodge City to the Sierras?
Just where the West is, and what it is, have puzzled Americans for some time, not least because they have confused it with "frontier" for so long. Both have been central to Americans' thinking about their history from the beginning. Are they places on the map or constructions in the mind? Are "frontier" and "West" the same, or is one the present echo of the now-dead other? If the West is a place, exactly what does it include: the thirteen states so defined by the Census Bureau, or only parts of them, or more? If it is a mental construction, is it Thomas Jefferson's Agrarian Myth, or Buffalo Bill's Wild West, or Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier, or the California Dream, or a mixture of these and other ideas?
According to a poll I conducted in 1991, most historians and other experts agree that the borders with Mexico and Canada delimit the West on south and north. Most said that the western edge is the Pacific (though they usually admitted Alaska and Hawaii) and they put the eastern edge at the 98th or 100th meridian, where the Great Plains begin. This includes the western halves of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, all of Oklahoma, and Texas west of Austin; call it the Plains-to-Pacific West. A minority of the experts voted for a tighter West running from the High Plains -- about at Dodge City -- to the Sierras, including the Rockies, Great Basin, and the deserts -- in effect, the arid region. This West specifically excludes the Pacific Coast and its great metropolises, with the view that such places are nonwestern or at best postwestern. Washington, Oregon, and California west of the Cascades and Sierras are not part of this Dodge-to-Sierras West. Dodge-to-Sierras can be regarded as the interior West, or the exclusive West, because of what it leaves out.
People who actually live in the three Pacific Coast states, however, regard their own states plus all of the Rocky Mountains, Texas, and Oklahoma, as western. Those who live in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas see their states as partly western, partly midwestern. Texans and Oklahomans usually want their states wholly included in the West, though some draw a line between Dallas (no) and Fort Worth (yes) or are uncertain about Texas south and east of Austin.
Somewhere in Kansas and Nebraska, the Midwest becomes West. The Almanac of American Politics
describes the Third Congressional District of Nebraska, which runs from Grand Island and Hastings to the Wyoming line, as "geographically and politically . . . where the Midwest becomes the West," rancher and wheat grower Republican like western Kansas just south of it. Some Nebraskans make Omaha the border point; others, North Platte or Grand Island. Dakotans both North and South name the 100th meridian, which cuts most of those states into the West. Kansans are sure that the West begins somewhere
in their Sunflower State.
So where is the eastern edge of the West? A writer in Time
in 1989 affirmed that "Signs of America's Old West start as far east as Adair, Iowa [seventy-five miles east of the Missouri River], where an old railroad wheel marks the spot on which Jesse James held up his first moving train in 1873. . . . By the time you reach Al's Oasis at Oacoma, S. Dak., on a bluff over the glistening Missouri River [and just thirty-four miles east of the 100th meridian], all doubt vanishes. . . . The proud sign at Al's . . . unabashedly announces where the west begins."
By the 1990s, many towns on Interstates 70 (across Kansas), 80 (across Nebraska), and 90 (across South Dakota) were recouping their waning agricultural fortunes by claiming to have had significant roles in the shaping of the historic West. Minden, Nebraska, between Kearney and Grand Island, boasted a Pioneer Village theme park "Showing Man's Progress since 1830" and "The Story of America and How It Grew." Visitors could see "Elm Creek Fort": "The first log cabin in Webster County, Nebraska, both as a dwelling and as a community fort against Indian attack, built in 1869. The interior is authentically furnished. An original Pony Express mailbox is on the wall [even though the Pony Express ceased in 1861]. A replica general store . . . [is] completely stocked with by-gone items [including] a glass cat on the cracker barrel." Also visible were a relocated land office, an "authentic replica" sod house, and much else. The Stuhr Museum "of the Prairie Pioneer," at Grand Island, Nebraska, with a main building designed by the architect Edward Durell Stone, honored actor Henry Fonda's birthplace (1905), although Fonda was at best a highly attenuated frontiersman. It displayed a "re-created" prairie town that told the story of "community development in Nebraska during the last decades of the nineteenth century."
North Platte celebrates Buffalo Bill Cody, who built a ranch there in 1886, although he spent most of his life elsewhere. But who could argue when North Platte asserts that "No one personifies the frontier better than Buffalo Bill Cody . . . [whose] legacy lives on today"? Visitors tour the eighteen-room ranch house and the horse barn, "all preserved in the finest detail," and then partake of a "genuine buffalo stew cookout."
On I-90 in South Dakota, 1990s travelers visited "Deadwood's Broken Boot Gold Mine" from the 1890s ("Give a Hoot -- See the Boot") or, at Mitchell, the extraordinary Corn Palace, first opened in 1892 and refitted in 1937 with "moorish-designed minarets, turrets, and kiosks." The exterior is replaced every September with "thousands of bushels of corn, grain, and grasses, which are native and of natural color." Dodge City, Kansas, perched exactly on the 100th meridian, strives harder for accuracy than most of these Great Plains frontier sites. Dodge literature states frankly that the original Front Street burned down in 1885 and the present Long Branch saloon and other attractions have been reconstructed three blocks away from the original site. Yet Dodge lives on as "the most western town of all, beautiful bibulous Babylon, the Cowboy Capital of the world."
But was the West mostly bluecoats and "redskins," gunslingers and marshals? Was (and is) it really violent? Historical truth scarcely justifies its reputation and belies the mythology of western violence. In 1920 the leading seven states in homicide rates were not in the West but in the South. California was ninth, Washington thirteenth, but no other western state (even Texas) placed in the top twenty-four of the then-forty-eight states. By the mid-1990s the relative positions of South and West had not changed greatly. Of the nineteen states we are counting as western, thirteen had homicide rates below the national average, but nine of eleven southern states were above it. Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, despite the Unabomber and the anarchistic militias within them, were among the ten least afflicted by murderers, rapists, and robbers. Western violence never remotely compared, except in myth, to southern violence.
Should Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Mexico -- and California -- be included in a history of the people of the West? The English novelist David Lodge says yes to Hawaii: "One day Lewis came back from a big convention in Philadelphia and said he had been offered a good job, associate professor with tenure, at the University of Hawaii. . . . To me the idea of moving to Hawaii seemed bizarre -- I mean, it didn't sound like a serious place, where anyone would do serious work. It was somewhere you went for vacations, or your honeymoon, if you were kind of corny and had the money and didn't mind long airplane trips. It was a resort. The last resort. It is, you know. This is where America ends, where the West ends." The census agrees with Lodge, and so do I. Hawaii has volcanoes, like the Pacific Coast. Aside from the Parker Ranch on the Big Island, it lacks cattle and cowboys, and its spaces, except for the ocean, are not wide open. Never did it have homesteaders, forty-niners, long cattle drives, or mountain men. Yet it has hotels, condominiums, visitors, racial mixture, and seekers of the good life, like southern California. So by nineteenth-century criteria Hawaii might not qualify, but by twentieth-century ones it certainly does.
Alaska is less problematic. Despite its long Russian past and much longer habitation by native peoples, it hardly had any American
history until the late 1890s, when Klondike gold pulled thousands of wealth seekers up through its panhandle. Since the 1970s oil from Prudhoe Bay has created another resource exploitation frontier. In its gold rush and oil-drilling traditions, its concentration of population in urban oases separated by vast stretches of raw and beautiful wilderness, its native peoples, and its economic ties to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, Alaska has several claims to westernness, negated only, if at all, by its separation from the lower forty-eight.
Western Canada and the western United States are of a piece. The Great Plains cross the forty-ninth parallel for hundreds of miles, so that Montana and North Dakota blend imperceptibly with Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Rockies are as important a feature of Alberta and British Columbia as they are of Montana, Idaho, and Colorado. Vancouver is as much a Pacific Rim city as Seattle. Canada certainly had a settlement frontier, which closed officially in 1930. By then western Canadians had developed a distinct region, containing cities as different as Vancouver and Winnipeg and such contrasting landscapes as Alberta's mountains and glaciers and Saskatchewan's flat prairie. The region was united by "affable contempt of Toronto and a serious hatred of Ottawa." Western Canadians have also been united by a sense of difference from the United States, for many good reasons. But despite the continuities, we will leave western Canada out of this story except when Americans migrated to the Canadian prairies after 1901.
Physiography joins southeastern California and southern Arizona with Sonora, Mexico, and west Texas with Chihuahua. It is the same desert. Spanish place-names and Hispanic people appear all along the border from Brownsville to San Diego and well north of it. Nevertheless, the boundary line of 1848 that means so little physiographically means too much politically to include Mexico. In the demographic story it provides people for the American West but is separate from it.
Finally, what about California? Those who would exclude it always seem to live elsewhere. It admittedly does not fit the Dodge-to-Sierras stereotypes: hardly any cowboys or gold miners, at least not for a long time; never many homesteads; no buffaloes. Indians, yes, but without horses and feathers. It is not like Kansas, or even Colorado, and never was. It does have several mountain ranges, including the Sierras, highest in the continental United States. It has naval and military bases and defense-related industries galore and other federal property and agencies; they make it very much part of the post-1940 West, though many nostalgists do not believe that such things can really be western. It is the leading agricultural state. It has several of the world's greatest universities. It contains three of the fifteen largest metropolitan areas in the United States, all of which grew much faster than the national average since 1980, as well as ten of the fourteen fastest-growing American cities of over a hundred thousand. It elects more representatives to the United States Congress, spread more widely across the political spectrum, than any other state. Its people speak more languages and represent more ethnic and racial groups than anywhere else in America. Of the ten congressional districts in the United States with the highest median household value, eight are in California. None of these fits well into the Old West/Golden West stereotypology. But in respect to three of the migrant-motivating myths -- gold rushing, general betterment, and of course California dreaming -- the state was and is fundamentally western. It is, as often said, at the edge of the West and at its center, all at once.The Agrarian Dream vs. the Old/Golden West
Although California inaugurated two of the motivating myths of western migration, gold rushing and California dreaming, and is a major target of hoped-for betterment, it has never had much to do with the oldest motivator (the Agrarian Dream), or the newest (Old West/Golden West nostalgia). In the mountain and plains West, however, these have been crucial. They have also been fundamental to Americans' national self-images, though at different times: the Agrarian Dream for the first centuries of nationhood, the Old/Golden West idea much more recently.
In his Notes on Virginia
(1784), Thomas Jefferson derided Europe, where "lands are either cultivated, or locked up against the cultivator," and "manufacture must therefore be resorted to of necessity. . . . But we," this planter wrote, "have an immensity of land courting the industry of the husbandman. . . . Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people. . . . Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example." Twenty years later, from the White House, Jefferson bragged to the French political economist Jean-Baptiste Say that, again unlike Europe, "Here the immense extent of uncultivated and fertile lands enables every one who will labor, to marry young, and to raise a family of any size." Malthus had no purchase on America; here population would never outrun food.
Jefferson spoke often along these lines, and his Americans, 95 percent of whom lived on farms or in country villages, never doubted him. He had, and the people had as well, a "nearly mystical sense of the American West." Enriched by the Louisiana Purchase, opened by Lewis and Clark, the West was for Jefferson "a self-renewing engine that drove the American Republic forward . . . boundlessly prolific . . . America's fountain of youth." He was "a westerner." Jefferson himself drafted the bill that became, revised, the Ordinance of 1785, by which the United States public domain would be surveyed and sold to settlers. In all subsequent land legislation, through the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave the land away to actual settlers, and beyond into the twentieth century, the Jeffersonian vision and the agrarian, homesteading ideal were inseparable.
Besides the California Dream, gold rushing, and the Agrarian Myth, Americans have manufactured the mythology of an Old (or Golden, or Wild) West, the wide-open-spaced, manifestly destined, now-threatened West. Such a mythical West is held to have shaped Americans into free individuals and to have been no less than the story of American progress itself. Threats to it, which some perceive, signal American decline. As Turner said of the frontier, it made Americans who they are; to lose it is to lose ourselves. For cowboyphiles, it has become a creation myth, an explanation of the primal, and not to be messed with.
What has really declined, however, is the traditional Agrarian Myth. The Old/Golden West Myth, often framed in ranching and cowboy icons and heroes because they seem the most emblematic of individualism, has in the Cold War and post-Vietnam years been most resurgent. In the late twentieth century the ancient Agrarian Myth that motivated much of the nation from the 1600s to the early 1900s has been entirely overwritten by this very different myth of the Old West, even though that myth is not old at all.
But myths come and go, ebb and flow, as people seek a usable past, even an invented one. John Wayne and the Marlboro Man are icons of the Old West Myth, and they are recent ones. Wayne was Marion Morrison, a refugee from Winterset, Iowa, working as a Hollywood stagehand before the director Raoul Walsh began molding that tall putty into a star. The Marlboro Man emanated in 1954 from the minds of Chicago admen Leo Burnett and John Benson, who were trying to devise a more macho pitch for Philip Morris's filter tip cigarette and agreed that "the most masculine figure in America" was the cowboy. In the next forty years the smoking cowboy traveled the world (and two actors who played him died of lung cancer).
The search for the usable, if mythical, past manifested itself in a special issue of Life
magazine of April 1993, describing "The Wild West, Yesterday and Today." Reviewing the mythology, it also propagated it: "There were giants in those days. The men and women who tamed the Wild West were brave, fierce, ambitious, violent sometimes but implacably determined to build a new world and to live there in complete and glorious freedom. They dreamed a mighty dream and in a few extravagant decades made it come true. Born during the Gold Rush of 1849, the Wild West of wagon trains and Indian raids and range wars and fast-draw artists faded into history as the 20th century arrived with its civilized amenities: government regulations, special interests, local, state and federal taxes -- and lawyers." But Buffalo Bill's Wild West
kept the legend going, as did dime novels and then films and television. The result, according to Life
's writer: "[T]he spirit of the Wild West is still alive. You can find it if you take the trouble to look. Come along with us to sagebrush country."
In short, we are drenched with clichés: the golden age is now gone; there were giants then; people were once free but now are ridden by government and lawyers. The narrative is entirely Anglocentric. Was the West born in 1849? What about the Overland Trail and the Mormon migrants of the mid-1840s, the mountain men of the 1820s and 1830s, the Texan rebellion of 1836 against Mexico, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806)? What about the Spanish colonization of the Southwest? Plenty happened before 1849; in fact Santa Fe was already 240 years old. Were there no lawyers in the nineteenth century? What about the monumental case of Lux v. Haggin
(decided 1886) that laid down the law on who controlled California water, or the Santa Fe ring that euchered nuevomexicanos
out of ancient Spanish royal land grants? In fact lawyers had argued Indian rights for centuries, beginning with the great debate between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Sepúlveda in Valladolid in 1550 to help the Emperor Charles V decide whether Indians were fully human. (Las Casas convinced him that they were, and Spanish law took that position.)
Nor was any West ever innocent of government. Congress created the U.S. public domain in 1785, and the federal government sold and distributed it to settlers and speculators thereafter. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 laid out the procedure by which newly settled areas became full-fledged states of the Union, rather than malcontent colonies of the original thirteen. Did not the government provide military forces to protect settlers and miners, resettle Indians on reservations, and subsidize much of the trans-Mississippi railroad system? Where, in this mythology, are the Hispanics and the Indians, who were there before the Anglo-Americans; or the Chinese and Japanese who arrived in the late nineteenth century; or the European immigrants, who made western industrial mining (not just the flash-in-the-pan gold rushes) as ethnically diverse as Pennsylvania's?
After this stirring and entirely misleading introduction, Life
presented a photo of seven riders -- perhaps Indians, but one can't be sure -- passing beneath the thousand-foot-high cliffs of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly. Caption: "This is the essence of the West: the grandeur of nature, the insignificance of human beings. Great cities have sprung up all over the region, but between them lie vast stretches of magnificent wilderness like the Canyon de Chelly. In such settings, man seems no more than an ant." Such a dehumanized definition claims that the real West is where people aren't and that where they are, they are insignificant. It absurdly contradicts the previous assertion that the West never amounted to much until the "giants" of "those days . . . tamed the Wild West."Life
gave lip service to the brutality of Indian removal in the 1830s, but then fell back into a cliché anecdote about the valor of "Indian fighting" and the supertough Texas Rangers. Then, with a photo of the Dust Bowl, readers learned: "It wasn't the plow that broke the plains. It was greedy, ignorant farmers who in less than 50 years turned 87 million acres of the richest soil on the planet into a great Dust Bowl centered in Kansas and Oklahoma. The land simply blew away, and with it went thousands of Okies, who piled into jalopies and hit the road to California."
This is a fascinating comment, inadvertently marking the eclipse of the Agrarian Myth and Jefferson's ideal. The yeoman, the prairie schooner family heading west full of hope in a new homestead and a fresh start, Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap (as in George Caleb Bingham's famous painting) were the
all-engrossing American conception of the frontier West throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth -- not the big sky cowboy symbolism of the likes of Buffalo Bill, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Wayne. Life
's blatant disrespect for agriculturists, homesteaders in fact, would never have seen print in the same magazine even as late as the 1960s, when millions of farm families still existed and the homestead idea still resonated. Life
could have mentioned "greedy, ignorant ranchers" whose cattle and sheep -- once called "grasshoppers with hooves" -- overgrazed the public domain the ranchers leased at subsidized rates. No doubt there have been greedy farmers, and greedy ranchers. Many were not greedy, however; just hard pressed to make a living. Life
's inaccurate insult reveals that the Agrarian Myth, motivating two centuries of settlement, has been thoroughly supplanted. By 1993 hardly any farmers were left to complain.
presumably told a mass readership much of what it wanted to believe about a topic with which it continues to be fascinated. Americans won nearly all the Nobel prizes in 1993. One of the chemistry laureates, Kary Mullis of San Diego, explained why: "We're a frontier society. All of us are all still a product of a culture which rewarded people who were mavericks and who thought of new things." Superior funding and the United States' abundance of researchers (compared, for example, with Germany, which consistently led other countries in Nobels before the 1930s) explained less to Mullis than the mystical frontier did. The term "last frontier" has been a mantra of the NASA rocketry programs, although they have all necessarily been carried out by teams rather than by lone individuals, as was true of most things throughout western history. "Stay the hell out of my nostalgia," a reader wrote to Montana
's editor, protesting a piece critical of western mythology: a howl of a wounded man, but rare only in its frankness. A college teacher reported in 1993 how difficult it was to teach "the truth about the history of the American West." Since Turner, she concluded, it had become "the frontier," the "national myth," and thus "resistant to knowledge." Her students wanted their "stereotypes about Indians confirmed, not torn away."
Yet in recent years critiques of the myths of the frontier and West have come from many quarters. The sheer weight of demography has eroded what lingers of the homesteader-frontier mythology on the Great Plains. Depopulation since the 1920s steadily lengthened the list of counties with fewer than two people per square mile. Frank and Deborah Popper, social scientists at Rutgers University, argued that "settling the prairies . . . was the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental mistake in United States history" and that the region should revert to "buffalo commons" since in any case "almost two-thirds of today's Plains farms and small communities may vanish by 2020." Plains people responded by cussing the messenger, insisting that "Our landscape is a powerful source of spiritual renewal." The Poppers named this reaction "Prairie Zen." As a National Park Service veteran observed, "For many Plains people, deep down inside, it's still 1870. Self-reliance and caution are profoundly important to them; outside interference, profoundly suspect." But the facts have long been clear to those young enough to vote with their feet. For decades now, population has fallen, and median ages have risen. Few remain even to remember the Agrarian Myth and homesteading.
Several fault lines distinguish people's ideas about the West. One separates those wedded to the victory narratives of Buffalo Bill, Turner, or novelist Zane Grey, from demythologizers who are more aware of "the manifold ways in which one people's ambitions are fulfilled at the expense of another's." A parallel fault line divides those who see the frontier narrative as progressive and ennobling from those who stress conflict, conquest, and environmental depletion. Another line splits those who define "the West" as myth or state of mind from those who anchor it in historical and geographical fact. Still another separates those who define the West as the interior, exclusive Dodge-to-Sierras country, from those who see it extending from the Great Plains to the Pacific. The former think it really ended around 1915. The latter will tell you that it is still happening.
The Angeleno's view of the world is certainly more cosmopolitan than the 1970s' perspective from midtown Manhattan in Saul Steinberg's cartoon. But neither says much about history or about the migrations that have peopled the West. It is time to get to the story, keeping in mind that the West in question here is the Plains-to-Pacific West, the census's West plus the Great Plains, the left half of the map of the United States. Millions of people went there, motivated in most cases by homesteading, gold rushing, California dreaming, nostalgia, or unembellished wage earning. That is the where and the why. Who
peopled the West, and when? Those are questions for a demographic history, which is as follows.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Into the West by Walter Nugent. . Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.