Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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His name was Francis G. Newlands, and the surname fit. A congressman from Nevada, Newlands was the chief sponsor of the 1902 Reclamation Act. The legislation, often referred to as the Newlands Act, established a National Bureau of Reclamation and charged this agency with constructing dams and irrigation projects in the western United States. By these works, the Newlands Act, trumpeted its proponents, would reclaim the region from arid nature, opening new lands for farmers and restoring the American dream for generations to come. It did not turn out that way, but millions of hopes and dollars continued to be invested in the conquest of the Great American Desert.

The watering of the West involved more than hydraulic engineering. It rested as well on faith. That was attested to by the biblical metaphors its advocates employed. Reclamation, it was said, would transform an inhospitable desert into a fertile garden, would create a “promised land,” would deliver “salvation.” The watering of the West required belief in new “scientific” propositions, many of which turned out to be dubious. It entailed, too, assigning added responsibilities to experts, often in the employ of the federal government, who took charge over not only the manipulation of western waters but also the management of western lands and the regulation of other natural resources. All this made westerners ever more dependent on federal stewardship and federal expenditures—and ever more resentful of federal oversight.

A broken promised land

The Newlands Act was hardly the first time that government action summoned extravagant rhetoric and unrealized expectations about the transformation of the West and the salvation of the nation. A century earlier, Thomas Jefferson had prophesied that the vast West would safeguard the agrarian virtue of the United States by offering “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” In the succeeding generation, similar pronouncements about the future of the West as a haven for family farmers attended the enactment of federal laws that lowered the price of land, reduced the minimum acreage required for purchase, stretched installment payments over more years, and granted some squatters the right to “preempt” ownership of property that they had farmed. The chorus of cresting hopes peaked with the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of “free” land to those who would occupy and improve it.

Yet time and again, the actual workings of these laws did not deliver on these promises. In the early republic, wealthy, well-connected speculators obtained the most land and the best land. Later in the nineteenth century, railroad corporations took the blame for thwarting the dreams of yeomen. The lobbying (and bribes) of these enterprises secured them over 175 million acres from federal and state governments. For railroad executives, this was fair inducement for extending tracks across the continent; for their enemies, it was evidence of the corruption of American government. There was much truth in these allegations. Still, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, environmental hurdles played as large a role as political treachery in undermining the promises made on behalf of western lands.

The obstacle was the Great American Desert, the designation by which Americans disparaged the territories that the United States had acquired first through the Louisiana Purchase and then by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Prior to the Homestead Act and the construction of railroad lines to the Pacific, most of this region lay beyond the realm of American agriculturalists. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States was home to around one and a half million farmers, fewer than 8 percent of whom lived west of the Mississippi River. (These numbers did not include Indians, many of whom were, of course, farmers.) The vast majority of these farmers worked soils just to the west of the Mississippi or in the eastern parts of Texas. In the 1840s and 1850s, would-be farmers edged further out onto the Plains, despite misgivings about the fertility of prairie and the expense of fencing land where wood was scarce. Still, farmers largely remained to the east of the 100th meridian, where the Great American Desert was thought to become too arid for agriculture. Far more farmers headed to the Pacific slope, where wetter climes beckoned. Only in the Mormon settlements in the Great Basin did American farmers establish an agricultural colony in the heart of the Great American Desert.

Not agriculture but other opportunities initially lured settlers into (as opposed to across) the Great American Desert. As in California, precious metals were a particularly powerful draw, and the Gold Rush set a pattern for subsequent mining bonanzas. New strikes in Colorado, Nevada, Montana, and the Dakotas also inspired large numbers of men (and a handful of women) to hurry to these sites in pursuit of quick fortunes to be made from mining or from selling goods and services to miners in the towns that sprang up around diggings. As in California, riches eluded most prospectors. The earliest phase of rushes in which individuals could excavate metals with minimal equipment and expertise soon yielded to more heavily industrialized means of extracting ore, and boomtowns generally busted when mines gave out.

While mines came and went, the mining industry flourished in the interior West. At the end of the century, this industry accounted for 10–15 percent of employment in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Arizona. Gold and silver held the most glamour, but copper and coal mines became ever more important as the industrialization of the nation progressed.

Likewise, while many mining camps disappeared, more enduring mining centers birthed metropolises that continued to attract industry, commerce, and people. San Francisco and Denver were the largest of the cities that outlived their boomtown origins, but they were not alone in acting as magnets for migrants. So great was the growth of cities and towns in the West that by the end of the nineteenth century the region boasted a higher proportion of urban dwellers than any other part of the United States save the Northeast.

The growth of cities and the development of mining (as well as other industries generally based on the extraction and processing of various raw materials) offered no comfort to those who clung to older variants of the American dream. This was not the West as Thomas Jefferson had imagined its future to the thousandth generation. His “empire for liberty” depended on this region being populated by yeoman farmers, who were in Jefferson’s creed the “chosen people.” A region dominated by urban dwellers and industrial wage workers seemed instead the realization of Jefferson’s worst nightmares.

Preferable from the perspective of latter-day Jeffersonians were the inroads made by livestock raisers. While farmers remained wary of the Great Plains, stock raisers more readily embraced it as a fenceless feeding ground for cattle and horses. Following the Civil War, cowboys moved hundreds of thousands of head of cattle north from Texas to take advantage of the abundant forage and to deliver fattened stock to rail depots in Kansas. With Indians being confined to reservations and bison slaughtered to near extinction, cattlemen took control over more and more of the Plains and sent more and more animals to graze on the open range.

What followed was a familiar pattern in the nineteenth-century West: an enterprise that rose with the extraction of an abundant resource declined or was forced to move on to new locations when nature’s bounty gave out. That had happened to the fur trade when overtrapping reduced the supply of beavers, and it repeated in the booms and busts that followed the discovery and depletion of minerals at one or another site. For cattle, the introduction of so many head overwhelmed the grasses on which the animals depended.

For the post–Civil War cattle industry, the problem of overgrazing was compounded by other environmental challenges. In drier years, grasses withered during the heat of summer droughts, while harsher winters on the Great Plains took an even greater toll on animals. The worst came in 1887, when a prolonged deep freeze killed millions of stock. This “great die up” left the western cattle industry reeling.

Competition from farmers and their fences contributed as well to the closing of the short-lived heyday of the open range. Further enticements from the federal government helped farmers overcome their fear of grasslands. Responding to complaints about the inadequacy of 160-acre parcels in semiarid terrain, Congress passed modifications to the Homestead Act that offered larger tracts. New technologies also persuaded farmers to cultivate the Plains, as machines made planting and harvesting more efficient and the invention of barbed wire reduced the cost of fencing fields.

Along with these new laws and new equipment, railroad corporations encouraged farmers to take up lands in drier parts of the West. After receiving immense land grants to build multiple lines across the western half of the United States, railroad companies faced the challenge of selling their acreage and creating customers for their freight-hauling services. Aggressive and deceptive marking campaigns followed that hyped scientific studies and technological advances. Real estate agents for railroad companies touted “dry farming” as one answer to the problem of too little rainfall. They also proclaimed that the improvements brought by Americans would answer farmers’ prayers for more precipitation. Rain, railroad propagandists contended, “would follow the plow.” That is, turning over the soil would release moisture into the air. So would the steam generated by railroad engines. The result would be more rainfall and positive, permanent climate change.

For a while, faith appeared to be rewarded. In the 1870s and early 1880s, the Great Plains enjoyed wetter than normal years, tempting more farmers to take up lands in areas previously considered too arid. But in the late 1880s, drier conditions returned. A drought in 1889 ruined many farmers, who discovered to their dismay that dry farming worked best in wet years. Or as one popular lament put it, “in God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.”

Reclamation and conservation

Even as boosters waxed optimistic about the transformation of the Great American Desert, others offered more downbeat assessments about the malleability of the West’s nature. These observers insisted that rather than simply altering the West, Americans must alter their ways. They recognized that supplies of water and other vital resources were limited and needed to be managed differently. This led in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth to challenges to customary legal doctrines governing the appropriation of water. More far-reaching were shifts in attitudes and political economy as conservation of a permanent public domain and irrigation of the West became national priorities.

Particularly prescient were the observations of George Perkins Marsh and John Wesley Powell. Marsh’s 1864 volume Man and Nature linked the rise and fall of civilizations around the ancient Mediterranean to the use and depletion of forests and other natural resources. The book contained a clear moral for his contemporaries: if the United States failed to curb the destruction of woodlands and take more care of watersheds, it faced a collapse similar to those of Greece and Rome (and, though he did not know it, Cahokia). Powell’s message came in the form of an 1878 government report based on his surveying expeditions along the Colorado River. As Powell explained, aridity precluded the importing of traditional American practices into the West. Instead of the unfettered enterprise and small family farms that Americans venerated, successful settlement of these lands required greater regulation and more collective undertakings, especially in the construction and upkeep of irrigation works.

Powell found a hopeful example in the agricultural outposts established by Mormons around the Great Basin. The Mormons, Powell noticed, had built irrigation systems that provided sufficient water for thousands of farms. They had done so with little capital, equipment, or engineering expertise, overcoming these deficiencies through cooperative efforts under the auspices of their church. For Powell, the Mormons’ ability to bring hundreds of thousands of acres of desert land under cultivation reinforced the importance of collective enterprise and centralized supervision for water projects.

The Mormon model and other examples of irrigation from around the world did not, however, gain much favor among Powell’s compatriots. Because most Americans fixated on the theocratic dangers and heretical doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, especially the practice of plural marriages, they were not disposed to accept the wisdom of the Mormons’ water works. So, too, a global survey of irrigation projects in comparably arid regions yielded disturbing findings. Yes, world history provided evidence of how technology and engineering allowed agriculture to expand into previously inhospitable areas. And yes, in recent times, the British had made India a showcase for the possibilities of dams and irrigation. But these cases, both historical and contemporary, suggested that the more elaborate and grandiose the effort, the more despotic was the regime that carried it out and the more concentrated was the wealth and power that resulted from it.

While this was certainly not the society that most Americans sought, the desire for irrigation projects that could open more western lands was very strong. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, some farmers did emulate Mormon practices, banding together to construct small-scale systems. More often, westerners looked to county and state governments to undertake water projects. Still, by the end of the nineteenth century, most conceded that the scope of work overwhelmed the capacities of these entities. “Great storage works,” explained President Theodore Roosevelt, “are necessary” but “too vast for private effort” or individual states and so “properly a national function.” Roosevelt’s endorsement built support for Newlands’s bill, which had the added attraction of paying for itself through proceeds from the sale of public lands made more valuable by irrigation. At the same time, the Reclamation Act comforted those who feared the centralization of power and the further monopolization of resources by stipulating that no single owner could purchase water to irrigate more than 160 acres.

The Newlands Act, which inaugurated a new era in the damming of western rivers, is best understood as part of a broader shift in attitudes and policies about the western economy and environment. From the beginnings of European colonization of the Americas, newcomers treated nature as something to be exploited. The failure of Indians to fully profit from the resources around them was a frequently invoked justification for their dispossession. This mindset, which viewed wilderness as waste and nature as needing improvement, prevailed through the first century of the United States. It found expression in policies that opened the public domain for private gain and in judicial decisions that privileged the development of natural resources over the preservation of them. So long as Americans believed that new frontiers awaited their exploitation, they had little reason to question these attitudes or amend their actions. After the Civil War, however, alternative ideas earned a wider hearing. The judgments of Marsh and Powell, which reckoned with the limits of natural resources, increasingly resonated among American elites, if not yet among ordinary western Americans.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the sense that an era had ended and a new, uncertain one begun pervaded American arts and letters. That partially explained the appeal of the grand landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, which exalted and exaggerated the majesty of western mountains and canyons, while erasing any signs of the “improvements” that were transforming western scenery. The paintings and sculptures of cavalry, cowboys, and Indians by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell carried as well a nostalgic tinge. More directly capturing the zeitgeist, historian Frederick Jackson Turner used the Census Bureau’s 1890 announcement that the frontier had closed as a starting point for an 1893 essay that identified the frontier as the explanation for all previous American development. In this brief paper on “the significance of the frontier in American history,” Turner celebrated the ways in which the settlement of successive Wests had nurtured American democracy and molded the enterprising and pragmatic character of the American people. The announcement that the frontier had passed gave his essay an elegiac quality, leaving in doubt what would happen to these characteristics in a postfrontier future. Turner’s fellow historian of the western experience, Theodore Roosevelt, shared these concerns. An easterner whose own experience as a rancher in the Dakota Territory made him an exponent of the “strenuous life,” Roosevelt worried that absent the tests that came with “winning” Wests, American men, confined to urban settings, would slide into effeminacy.


5. This gold-plated Colt revolver belonged to Theodore Roosevelt. On one side of the handle is the monogram “TR”; on the other is a buffalo head, in celebration of Roosevelt’s experiences as a rancher in the Dakotas and a hunter. Roosevelt’s time on the Plains shaped his enthusiasm for the rugged tests of manhood that “the winning of the West” imposed. He championed these views in the histories of westward expansion that he wrote and in the conservation and reclamation policies he put in place when he served as president of the United States.

In politics, Roosevelt championed imperialism abroad and conservation at home as the antidote to emasculation and the foundation for a more sustainable extractive economy. He gloried in the manhood-making aspects of military combat and spoke anything but softly in favor of acquiring colonies overseas that could keep United States expansionism alive, while also providing new markets for American products. With the last acquisition of territory by the United States dating to the purchase of Alaska in 1867 (from Russia for the price of two cents per acre), and with Americans now filling arable lands from sea to sea, Roosevelt looked beyond the continent for the next phase of American expansion. His attention fastened on the Caribbean and the Pacific. Both of these areas had long drawn the attention of American expansionists, but at the end of the nineteenth century the focus gained renewed force. Roosevelt applauded the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 and, during the Spanish-American War, put words into action, leading his contingent of “rough riders” into battle in Cuba. As president, Roosevelt remained steadfast in his support for the projection of American power beyond the North American mainland.

Domestically, he pushed hard for protecting “wilderness” areas in conditions like those portrayed by Bierstadt and Moran. A sojourn in unspoiled places, he believed, would give Americans the opportunity to replay the national epic of heroic struggle with nature that had made the United States great—at least while on vacation from their more mundane, urban jobs. The practice of safeguarding the most monumental landscapes had commenced decades earlier with the setting aside of Yosemite Valley in 1864 and the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Another milestone arrived with the passage of the 1891 Forest Reserve Act, which placed some lands in the West under permanent federal ownership and supervision. Roosevelt’s administration considerably expanded both these initiatives, adding 110 million acres to the forest reserves, which after 1905 came under the aegis of the newly christened United States Forest Service.

Headed by Gifford Pinchot, the Forest Service served as a model for a new age in which federal officials oversaw a permanently public domain. The supervision by federal agents was not meant to end extraction of resources from these lands. Rather, the “gospel of efficiency” that Pinchot instilled in his agents sought to regulate logging and grazing and protect watersheds through scientific management. Thus did Pinchot’s Forest Service promise to revitalize the nation. Its expert balancing of conservation and regulation would ensure the long-term health of America’s natural splendors and the long-term wealth of the industries that depended on finite resources in a postfrontier era.


6. This brochure nicely captures the promise that federally supported irrigation would turn regions previously considered too arid for agriculture into “fine fruit and farming land” with “a permanent water supply provided by the United States government.”

Watering in the early twentieth century

For all the anxieties about an era ending, the closing of the frontier and the turning of the century brought more evolution than revolution in policies and practices. Conservation and reclamation certainly enlarged the federal footprint in the West. In practice, though, conservation proved more conservative and reclamation less radical than proponents had hoped or opponents feared. Although denunciations of federal interference with the free enterprise of westerners grew louder, government agencies generally accommodated extractive interests. And in spite of the Newland Act’s provisions directing reclamation’s benefits to small farmers, agribusinesses and urbanites were the clearest winners in early twentieth-century water wars.

One sign that the times were not really changing was the continuing influx of homesteaders. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, homesteaders laid claim to more acreage than during the entire nineteenth century. In part, this was because homesteaders could now claim more acreage, thanks to a 1909 law that doubled the amount of land available to individuals. The federal government further encouraged homesteading by reducing from five years to three the time that claimants had to wait to gain title to their properties. By the 1920s, these inducements helped propel a new surge of farmers who pushed agriculture into the higher and drier portions of the Plains and the even more arid Southwest.

Even where federal policies precluded additional transfers of public lands, the workings of government agencies perpetuated many long-standing practices. Forest Service agents faced considerable hostility from timber executives and ranchers. The anti–federal government rhetoric directed at them was often heated. But Forest Service management was not really so threatening. The ethos of efficiency, after all, valued sustainable development. Regulation also curtailed the cutthroat competition that destabilized extractive enterprises. Moreover, prominent resource users found their way onto local forest advisory boards, positions from which they could strongly influence decisions about logging and grazing capacities.

The Newlands Act similarly did not live up to its revolutionary billing. Although the Bureau of Reclamation completed a number of impressive projects that expanded western agriculture, the restrictions on who received the water from them were readily evaded. In the early twentieth century, the concentration of landholdings proceeded. Agribusinesses rather than yeoman farmers dominated the region more than ever.

Nowhere were these trends more apparent than in California. That state’s agricultural production grew to lead the nation, but small family farms were few. The agricultural workforce was instead peopled by seasonal migrant laborers, often immigrants from Asia and Mexico. Their impoverished, transient existence little resembled the yeoman ideal elevated by Jefferson and supposedly resurrected by Newlands. Yet through the first third of the twentieth century, the conditions of agricultural laborers in California attracted relatively little public notice or political attention.

What did cause an uproar in California and beyond was the 1906 application by municipal authorities in San Francisco to construct a dam across the Tuolomne River in Hetch Hetchy Valley. After the devastation of that year’s earthquake and fire, San Francisco officials saw the project as essential to the rebuilding. Although the dam would flood a portion of Yosemite National Park, its benefits in the form of abundant and affordable water and electric power for the Bay Area’s growing population clearly outweighed the loss of a remote section of Sierran wilderness. That, at least, was how San Francisco’s leaders viewed it, in accord with the utilitarian calculus employed by conservationists like Gifford Pinchot. Unexpectedly, however, the plan ran into fervent opposition led by naturalist John Muir. Like Pinchot, Muir was close to Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Muir and Roosevelt toured Yosemite together in 1903. But Muir insisted that the preservation of unspoiled wilderness served a higher purpose than efficiency and long-term economic sustainability. For Muir and those who rallied behind his banner, the damming of Hetch Hetchy was akin to destroying “the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart of man.”

The battle over Hetch Hetchy raged for years. Congress approved the project in 1913, but opponents did not relent in their campaign to halt construction. When the dam and aqueduct were completed in 1923, they delivered water and power more than 150 miles away to San Francisco and surrounding communities. Still, the intense debates revealed enduring divisions within the ranks of conservationists. Disappointed about Hetch Hetchy, Muir’s followers readied for future fights to preserve, as opposed to simply conserve, the nation’s scenic “temples.”

While San Francisco’s designs on Hetch Hetchy grabbed headlines, municipal leaders in Los Angeles more quietly schemed to bring water from afar to their city. Founded by Spanish missionaries and soldiers in 1781, Los Angeles had remained a small village with a predominantly ranching economy through the Spanish and Mexican eras. There was little indication that this status would change during the first decades of American rule. Without a natural harbor or a navigable river into the hinterland, Los Angeles lacked the attributes on which other nineteenth-century American cities rose. Only the most deluded civic promoters predicted that it would ever rival San Francisco or even San Diego as a Pacific metropolis. But the arrival of railroad lines and the expansion of citrus growing brought a population and economic boom in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Turning delusion into reality, boosters built a harbor that furthered Los Angeles’s remarkable spurt. With its population passing one hundred thousand in 1900, the growth outran the supply of local water available from the often dry Los Angeles River. As in San Francisco, real estate interests and city officials looked to the Sierras. Their focus fastened on the Owens River along the eastern slope of the mountains, and there Los Angeles agents secretly commenced buying up leases.

By the time ranchers and farmers in the Owens Valley discovered the plot, it was too late. Their protests, including attempts to destroy the aqueduct from the Owens River to Los Angeles, failed to stop the project. Unlike Hetch Hetchy, the fate of the Owens Valley also failed to galvanize a national movement. In 1913, waters from the Owens, traveling across 233 miles of harsh desert and over several mountain ranges, first reached Los Angeles. Agriculturalists in the Owens Valley were left high and dry. Los Angeles, by contrast, maintained its extraordinary ascent, surpassing San Francisco to become the West Coast’s leading city. The population of Los Angeles vaulted over the 1 million mark in the 1920s.

The rivalry between San Francisco and Los Angeles overshadowed the commonality between them in the struggles for water. In both cases, as in the workings of the Newlands Act, the watering of the West favored those with wealth and power. In the West, as the saying went, water flowed uphill to money.

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