SETTLING THE WEST
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 a webpage devoted to the government's contribution
to early American survival, so this essay will address that topic only:
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 my point 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 even more on others.
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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This article is based on Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were
(New York: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 73-76.