Myth: Early Americans built this land on rugged individualism.
Fact: They were helped a great deal by the government and a strong community spirit.
The U.S. government played a vital role in settling the West, including massive land purchases and giveaways, the Homestead Act, the Pony Express, agricultural colleges, rural electrification, telephone wiring, road-building, irrigation, dam-building, farm subsidies, and farm foreclosure loans. Without such help, settling the West would have been nearly impossible.
Most Americans have accepted the myth that early Americans were rugged individualists, pioneers who blazed trails into the Western hills and overcame adversity on the strength of their own self-reliance.
'Tain't necessarily so.
Entire books could be written about how white Americans got rich off the labor of their slaves, all the while waxing rhapsodic over the virtues of self-reliance. Volumes could be written about the early American women who created extensive social networks and church groups to help each other's families, all the while their men were entertaining the conceit of rugged individualism. But this is an essay devoted to the government's contribution to early American survival, so it will address that topic only: (1)
From the start, the West was not conquered by rifle-toting pioneers, but by the U.S. Army. (Hardly a government "success," to be sure, but the point here is that the stereotype of the lone pioneer conquering the West is a myth.) The government made massive land purchases, without which the conquest of these territories would have been even bloodier. It spent $15 million on the Louisiana Purchase, $25 million on the Texas/California purchase, and $7 million for the Alaska Purchase.
The government then turned around and sold this land below cost, at considerable loss to itself. The Preemption Act of 1841, the Graduation Act of 1854 and the Homestead Act of 1862 all gave away land to pioneers for a song.
The government also played a crucial role in developing these lands. When it came to connecting the Great Lakes to the Eastern seaboard with canals, the government funded or financially guaranteed three fourths of the $200 million project. It also gave each state 30,000 acres of land to build agricultural colleges. It would be difficult to overstate how important these colleges were in advancing agricultural education and techniques among the farmers. With their help, American farmers were quickly able to create a working agricultural economy. Meanwhile, the government provided mail services like the Pony Express that interconnected this economy.
At the farthest edges of the frontier, the settlers were literally lawless; gun-fighting and dueling were rampant. It was only when the government moved in that law and order and a sense of community were established. Disease, attacks from Native Americans and economic chaos at the frontier often turned towns into ghost towns overnight. Not surprisingly, group survival proved more effective than true hermitism. Historian John Mack Farragher described life on the frontier as "a community experience Sharing work with neighbors at cabin raisings, log rollings, hayings, husking, butchering, harvesting or threshing were all traditionally considered communal affairs [A] 'borrowing system' allowed scarce tools, labor and products to circulate for the benefit of all." One pioneer told prospective settlers: "Your wheel-barrows, your shovels, your utensils of all sorts, belong not to yourself, but to the public who do not think it necessary even to ask a loan, but take it for granted."
The government continued to develop the West in the early 20th century. It constructed dams and subsidized huge irrigation projects. During the Great Depression, rural electrification programs brought electricity to farmers, which enabled them to use power tools, refrigeration and household appliances to make their work and personal lives easier. The government also built highways into the West, and wired the countryside for telephone service. The government saved countless small farmers by giving them loans to stall foreclosures and tide them over the rough times. And it began paying huge farming subsidies that continue to this day.
Even then, it was not the small pioneer, but the major corporation that settled the West, often with vast help from the government. By the turn of the century, the government had distributed a billion acres of land, but only 147 million became homesteads. Sociologists Scott and Sally McNall estimate that "probably only one acre in nine went to the small pioneers." Some 183 million acres were ultimately given to the railroad companies. (It was these federal giveaways that created the major logging companies, not family businesses.) Four out of five transcontinental railroads were built in this way, and Congress approved loans up to $48,000 per mile to build them.
The West has a rich tradition of dependency on government. As historian Stephanie Coontz says: "It would be hard to find a Western family today or at any time in the past whose land rights, transportation options, economic existence, and even access to water were not dependent on federal funds." Paradoxically, however, the West has also enjoyed a long tradition of anti-government sentiments. When John Wayne punched out "Mr. Government Bureaucrat" in a Hollywood Western, he was acting out the misplaced rage of many Western Americans.
In closing, the story of the Montana Freemen is especially revealing. This is the radical anti-government militia that kept the FBI at bay in an armed stand-off that lasted for months. It turns out that they had stalled foreclosure on their farms for ten years by accepting $676,082 in government farming subsidies and loans.
Apparently, government assistance makes one ungrateful.
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1. This essay is based on Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 73-76.