Modern history

Chapter 10

Invitation to the West

The West, at bottom, is a form of society, rather than an area.

—Frederick Jackson Turner

I have fallen in love with American names,

The sharp names that never get fat,

The snakeskin-titles of mining claims,

The plumed war-bonnet of Medicine Hat,

Tucson and Deadwood and Lost Mule Flat.

—Stephen Vincent Benét, American Names*

FIRST to define terms. It would seem that we have been in western regions a long time already, but actually in one sense California, Oregon, and Washington are not “the West” at all. In Portland I actually heard a lady say that she was “going West” on a brief trip—and she meant Utah! People on the Pacific Coast think of themselves as belonging to the “coast”; the “West” is quite something else again. Let us, however, be more inclusive. Of course the West comprises all the eleven states that lie wholly or in part west of the Continental Divide from any national point of view. But of these the three fronting the Pacific are a special case, and so, as we shall see at the very end of this book, are the Southwestern states of Arizona and New Mexico. Normally, when saying “West” with any discrimination, we mean the eight Rocky Mountain states—Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Arizona. Of these eight, I am considering only four in the chapters that follow—Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and the high king of them all, Colorado—though we shall spill over the edges a good deal in this introduction.

There are other definitions. For instance Wendell Berge, assistant attorney general of the United States in charge of antitrust affairs, calls fifteen states “western” in his book Economic Freedom for the West. He includes Kansas, Nebraska, and both Dakotas. Then, by another accepted classification, there are ten “Missouri River” states—the obvious ones plus Kansas, Iowa, and a small part of Minnesota—which Great Muddy drains.

If we forget state lines, demarcation of the West is much easier—almost too easy. It is simply that third of the continent west of what is probably the most singular of all American frontiers, the line of the 98th meridian. Some authorities choose the 100th meridian, not the 98th, but the greatest authority of all, Professor Walter Prescott Webb, author of The Great Plains, says the 98th, and so the 98th it shall be. This fascinatingly sharp line, this altogether knifelike meridian, marks the division between country that has more than twenty inches of rainfall per year, and country that has less. The West is short-grass country, and (with the exception of a limited enclave in Washington and Oregon) it has the primitive and overwhelming problem of lack of water.

Americans are apt to take the West for granted. We learned about Buffalo Bill in childhood; we go to the circus and to “westerns.” But suppose the man from Mars, “that well known alien” as Clare Boothe Luce once called him, should never once have heard the word “West,” and could not perform the instinctive and automatic associations to it that are native to almost every American. Suppose one had to explain as to a child, and account for, the aroma of such names and phrases as Fort Laramie, the Pony Express, Custer’s last stand, the Pawnee Fork, Jim Bridger, the covered wagon, Kit Carson, Cripple Creek, Sitting Bull, the “wild” West itself.

Two things made the West more than any other—the transcontinental railroads and the Homestead Act of 1862. And long before the Homestead Act, under which something like one hundred million acres were distributed, was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which assured democratic institutions and local self-rule to the frontiersmen, and set the pattern for a century of development. As every school child knows, the Homestead Act made land free to settlers,1 except for a purely nominal charge. Nothing quite like this ever happened in history before. The immense westward migrations that created the United States, which were themselves of unprecedented and unique caliber, were based on the promise of free land in the public domain. Homesteading still exists, although the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 withdrew much of the acreage remaining and established co-operative grazing districts, on the ground that it was range land, not fit for farming. This was necessary because so many million acres had been destroyed by wanton overuse, by stupid and greedy agricultural techniques.

The spine of the whole mountain area is, of course, the Rockies, and a curious south-north current, if that is the proper word, pulls it together and gives it the homogeneity of a true region. There are people alive today who can remember when there was not a fence between the Mexican border and Canada. Draw a line Santa Fe-Pueblo-Denver-Laramie-Butte-Great Falls; this line, following the shadow of the continental divide, is the West’s heart line. Here is the great preponderance of both wealth and population. Literally 85 per cent of the people of Colorado live within a fifteen-mile strip along the divide. Of course—roughly speaking—this was also the route of the old cattle trails; it is the route today of cheap Mexican labor, migrating north each year to work the beet fields, and of expensive mechanized combine teams, that follow the same direction southward, harvesting the wheat. Eighty per cent of the river water of the United States rises in this region—yet agriculture is all but impossible without irrigation.

Daniel Webster, that doughty New Englander, made some remarkably wrong guesses in his day, as we already know. Here is what he said once about the mountain area: “Not worth a cent. … A region of savages, wild beasts, shifting sands, whirlwinds of dust, cactus, and prairie dogs.”

East of West, sloping down from the titanic, Jovian Rockies, are the Great Plains. “The distinguishing climatic characteristic of the Great Plains environment from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Slope is a deficiency in the most essential climatic element—water,” says Professor Webb. One more word about this magical meridian. It cuts straight through six states, bisecting them as by a cleaver—the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. It is the eastern frontier of the West. Not only does it mark, with certain oscillations, the violently important twenty-inch rainfall line; it marks a dividing line for hail, prairie, windmills, jack rabbits. The western side, limited in rainfall, is cattle country; on the other, we touch the edge of corn. On the west the grass (short) is buffalo and grama; on the other (longer) it is bluestem-sod, bluestem bunch, wheat grass, and needle. To the one side, we are still in the West; on the other, we verge toward the Middle West and the Mississippi Basin.

But it will be quite some time before this book reaches so far. We still have a great deal of undiluted West to deal with.

Some Generalizations About the West

The West may be called the most distinctively American part of America, because the points in which it differs from the East are the points in which America as a whole differs from Europe.

—Lord Bryce

Throughout our whole history the United States has been facing westward.

—James Truslow Adams

(1) West means frontier. The word has more than mere geographical significance. For instance Amarillo, Texas, a thousand miles east of Santa Barbara, California, is at least a thousand times more “western.” And the West still carries the stigmata of a frontier civilization—it is the newest part of the nation, the most sparsely settled, the most individualistic, the friendliest. This is all shirt-sleeve country, he-man country, where the beds are usually double and where you drink beer straight from the bottle.


The frontier is, moreover, still a quite living reality to most Westerners. Custer seems almost as contemporaneous as Eisenhower. Indeed, only a little more than a generation separates today from the gaudiest events of western history. The newspapers reported in August, 1946, the death, at ninety-six, of a man who helped bury those killed by Sitting Bull at Little Big Horn. No one should ever forget how new this prodigious world of the West is, to say nothing of its prodigious pace of development.

In the early days the basis of all economy was the ownership of land. And having acquired property very quickly, the owners were more eager to hold onto what they had; hence the West’s retentive individualism. A derivative point is that, by and large, frontiersmen have an extremely personal outlook on life and politics. In urban areas, roughly speaking, a man depends on society for a livelihood; on the land (until the catastrophes of the 30’s at least) he depends largely on himself.

One point seldom made is that, whereas legend has bestowed on the frontiersmen all the furbelows of heroism and romance, in actual fact many who carved out the frontier were riffraff. It was not only the strong who went West but the weak too. The failures, those who could not earn livings in Tennessee or Missouri, the younger sons and the wastrels, all joined the westward trek. Many came, not because they were enterprising and courageous, but because they got squeezed out. Many frontiersmen were the nineteenth century equivalents of the Arkies and Oakies of today.

(2) An instinct toward nullification of statutes, contempt of authority, and lawlessness. Butte, for instance, like Reno as we know, never paid the slightest attention to prohibition, even pro forma. A tendency to direct action, if necessary to violence, lies very close to the surface of American character. Consider the Indian Wars. It is indeed an astonishing thing, as Professor Brogan has pointed out, that Canada which pursued roughly the same development as the United States never had any Indian wars at all.

(3) Nomadism. Americans are inveterate wanderers; no other nation on earth, especially since the advent of the automobile, has so many nomads; and the West is particularly nomadic. Also the automobile, by reducing distances and wiping out many small communities, helped kill the old frontier. The West’s dependence on the automobile is of course enormous. For instance Wyoming, though very poor, has more cars per capita than any other state.

(4) Economically the West lives mostly by the production of prime resources and raw materials—copper, other minerals, petroleum, cattle, wheat—and its reserves of coal and oil shale are so enormous as to be incalculable. West of the 98th meridian is 39.5 per cent of the total land of the United States, but only 9.5 per cent of the total farmed area. The West, despite irrigation, cannot feed itself; to live it must import not merely industrial products from the East, but also food. So its economy is of necessity a raw material economy. Berge,2 calculating on the basis of fifteen states, points out that the West provides 33.6 per cent of the nation’s cattle, 58.8 per cent of its sheep, 72.1 per cent of its sugar beets, 94.7 per cent of its copper, 90.5 per cent of its gold, 99.2 per cent of its silver, 28.3 per cent of its petroleum, 92.1 per cent of its mercury, 60.4 per cent of its zinc. On the other hand these fifteen states account for something less than 10 per cent of all American manufacturing, and something under 17 per cent of the total national income.

(5) Politics. Here we have several paradoxes to explore. This is the region par excellence of Jeffersonians in the literal sense, i.e. haters of too much government. Here, among these self-made men in the open spaces, a kind of direct personal democracy, with hatred of regimentation, has always flourished. One would thus expect that the whole area would have been stanchly anti-Roosevelt. But—though there were and are plenty of Roosevelt haters—FDR won not less than forty-one times out of forty-four western tries, counting the West as the eleven states behind the divide. He lost Wyoming once, and Colorado twice; these three defeats aside, he carried every Western state every time he ran.3

One reason for this is that the New Deal—and Roosevelt personally—did a lot for the West, for instance in hydroelectric development and irrigation. Another is that the great depression struck the whole West with savage fury; at one time, to cite a single example, 25 per cent of the population of Montana was on relief. Behind this was the deep general tradition of western liberalism; the direct primary, popular election of senators, the initiative, referendum, and recall were all western born as we know. Still another factor is that the West has always hated the “big money” power of the East—we shall talk about absentee ownership in a moment—and has usually stood for cheap money. Hence it approved the multifarious measures of the New Deal that favored debtor as against creditor, and tended to produce inflation.

One should not, however, exaggerate the western disposition to liberalism or radicalism. There are tories in Salt Lake City and Denver who make Hoover seem like an anarchist, and men like Millikin (Colorado) and Cordon (Oregon) are among the most extreme reactionaries in the Senate. Still, look at Wayne Morse and Glen Taylor, Murray of Montana, practically everybody from Washington as we have seen, both the Utah senators, both the New Mexico senators, and (in a kind of special category) O’Mahoney of Wyoming.

The western senators (and representatives) do not as a rule vote as a bloc. There is no united front like that of the solid South. What does happen is that there are blocs within blocs, representing silver and other such special interests, who trade votes among themselves. But recently western senators took a unanimous stand against, of all things, the Reciprocal Trade Treaties. Of the total of thirty-three negative votes on this question fourteen were western. Yet the West is supposed to be pro-New Deal and liberal ! Once again, there are no generalizations in American politics that vested selfishnesses cannot cut through. Both senators from Montana, Colorado and Wyoming, whether Republican or Democratic, together with those from the Dakotas, Kansas, and Nebraska voted to knock out the Hull program for tariff reduction. Reason? Wheat, sugar, beef carry great weight in these areas.

A point not without interest is that the eight mountain states had exactly 3.6 per cent of the national vote in 1940. Yet the sixteen senators of the region had a voting power equivalent to those of eight eastern states representing 50.5 per cent of the national vote.

The West has not, any more than any other section of the country, come to grips as yet with a problem that may well become the central problem of our times. It is that good Jeffersonians seek, as an ideal, to get along with as little government as possible. But what about the bomb? What kind of politics is the West going to have in the atomic era which makes the entire population infinitely more dependent on centralized authority than ever before in history?

All over the West, with its splendid individualism, its direct democratic procedures and its genuine interest in and regard for the community, I heard the phrase, “I’ve never voted a straight ticket in my life.” All over the West I found that a familiar cliché of the politicians, “that people vote to reject, not to approve,” was just as wrong as the clichés of professional politicians usually turn out to be.

A last detail in this field: most excitement in local elections in the West attends, not the race for governor, but that for sheriff. The sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer, and the job can be very lucrative.

(6) Cattle. There should be a special rubric for this, because almost the whole of the less-than-twenty-inch-rainfall area is cattle (and sheep) country. Look at any map adequate in such details: the cattle line, rainfall line, short-grass line, are coterminous, almost to the inch. But let us save discussion of cattle in general until we reach Texas, which is by far the greatest cattle state. In passing, however, it is impossible not to mention that the struggle between farmer and cattleman, for instance over fencing, is at the bottom of western political development almost everywhere. Again in passing, think what words and phrases cattle culture has given to the language—outfit, take the hide off, panhandler, riding herd, hogtied, cowed.4

(7) Women, who have always played a particularly active role in western politics. The woman suffrage movement had its first impetus in the West—Wyoming had votes for women as early as 1869; Montana was the first state to have a woman representative (Jeannette Rankin), and Wyoming was the first with a woman governor. Equality for women of course derives straight out of the circumstances of frontier life.

(8) The weather. This plays a role in western life almost impossible for an Easterner to appreciate. The implacable violence of western weather, its changeableness, the irreversible impact of what may be its sudden attack, is a preoccupation never far away; here indeed man does face nature. While I was in Colorado 6.31 inches of rain fell in ninety minutes in the Eleven Mile Canyon area; this was the fiercest storm on record in the state. In Montana, there are records of snow in July, and Butte in one year registered forty degrees below zero on one day, forty above a few days later. In 1916 central Montana had subzero weather for thirty-two days in a row, and what is believed to be the lowest temperature ever recorded in the western hemisphere is the sixty-three below of one Montana town. Another, not far away, once registered 117 degrees above. Flash floods, blizzards, prolonged drought—these are a few among the perils of western weather. And behind everything is the question of rainfall. Water equals life.

(9) I mentioned above that prohibition was never enforced in several western towns; nevertheless prohibition was, and is, a substantial issue. Considerable areas of several western states are dry under local option, and several cities are “charter dry.” Why should the reckless, come-easy go-easy West, where a saloon is almost as conventional an attribute to a landscape as a church in New England, have this impulse? First, the early Populists were mostly dry, and several of the historic western liberals, like Bryan and Norris, were fanatic drys. Second, the economic influence of women, who strenuously resented and opposed the transmutation of wages into alcohol. Third, a general reformist tendency—the same influence, in a different dimension, that brought direct primaries and state-supported schools—especially among the Scandinavians who were prominent early settlers.

(10) Catholic influence is, except in largely Irish towns like Butte and of course excepting the Southwest and the southern (Spanish-American) counties in Colorado, comparatively minor on the whole. Similarly there is less Jewish influence in the West than anywhere else in the United States.

(11) Except in war-boom cities the Negro problem, that most Laocnönlike and unruly of all American problems, hardly exists in the West. As of 1940, the total Negro population of Wyoming for instance was only 956, of Idaho 595. But the few Negroes who do live in the West live, by and large, fairly well; for instance the proportion of Negroes owning their own homes in Denver is the highest of any American city.

(12) Exodus. A great and disconcerting issue is the flow outward of brains, youth, and talent. The bright youngsters in education or law or finance, finding opportunities to be far greater in the East, move out. The western universities find it almost impossible to keep their best professors. So the area becomes arid intellectually as well as otherwise; the hinterland is impoverished in brains as well as capital; and it is easier for the older generation to maintain a standpat attitude, since the leaven of youth is largely gone.

Freight Rates and “Colonial” Economy

This weighty topic is full of thorns and pitfalls. Expressed in a sentence it is that the West, like the South, considers itself seriously discriminated against by the industrial East, through such factors as unfair freight rates and absentee ownership.

A small anecdote is to the point. I heard it first in Georgia, but it applies equally to Utah or New Mexico. A man dies and is buried, an archetypically local citizen. Then it is found that his shoes came from New England, his shirt and underclothes from upper New York state, his eyeglasses from New Jersey, and his false teeth from Pittsburgh. The casket was made of Michigan pine, and its nails came from Hartford, Connecticut. The car leading him to the grave was manufactured in Detroit, and the pastor read the last services from a Bible printed in New York from paper made in Maine. All that the “typical” citizen contributed to his own funeral was his corpse; all that the community contributed was the hole in the ground.

Why, however, should the West want to become industrialized? The answer Westerners themselves give is simple enough—Why not? They see no reason for remaining indefinitely at the exorbitant mercy of the East for everything from dynamos to gloves to can openers. The West disclaims any desire to create any unreasonably ambitious or competitive autarchy. All it wants is fairer treatment, and a little more to say about its own price levels. During the war twenty-one billion dollars worth of industry was planted in the West (including the Pacific coast), mostly by the giant fingers of the government. Westerners saw the beckoning mirage of their own integrated steel industry, out of a combination of Kaiser at Fontana, the Geneva plant in Utah, and the iron works in Colorado. They proved that they could make aluminum for 11.3 cents a pound, as against 15½ in the East, largely because public power is cheap. They saw a chance to raise the standards of living, to absorb postwar unemployment, to reverse population trends. The West was, in C. Hartley Grattan’s phrase, “hell bent for industrialization,” but except in California—as of the moment of writing—it has been pretty well beaten down.

Freight rates make a savage little story. By arrangements made in the first instance by the railways themselves, but approved by the Interstate Commerce Commission, one of the most powerful public bodies in the country, the United States is divided into five freight territories. Take the class rate for shipment of goods in the eastern or “official” territory as 100. Then the rate in Southern Territory is 139, Western Trunk Line Territory 147, Southwestern Territory 175, and Mountain-Pacific Territory 171. Consider what this means in practice to the consumer, to you and me if we happen to live in the less-favored regions. Everybody has seen the words “F.O.B.”, Free on Board, in advertisements of multifarious types of goods. What these three letters mean is that an electric refrigerator, say, in Ogden, Utah, may cost you 20 per cent more than the same refrigerator in Indianapolis, because the manufacturer only pays the transportation costs from his plant to the railroad—the freight proper is paid by the purchaser. Consider some examples. Colorado itself refines plenty of gasoline; yet it has to pay for gasoline the price set in Oklahoma and also the theoretical cost of shipping it from Tulsa to Denver (“Tulsa plus”), even though it could be bought in Denver with no freight charges entering into the transaction at all. It is cheaper to send a piano, say, from Chicago to Seattle, on a train that must pass through the railway station at Helena, Montana, than from Chicago to Helena. There is a kind of craziness about this. Suppose you are a shopkeeper in Cheyenne, and you order a candy shipment from St. Louis. The freight will cost you more in Cheyenne than it would cost a retailer a thousand miles further west, in Portland and Seattle.

Here are some more general figures from Wendell Berge. “The rate on work clothing in carload lots from Macon, Georgia to Chicago, a distance of 817 miles, is $15.60 per thousand pounds as compared with a rate of only $11.20 from Philadelphia to Chicago, a haul of 814 miles. From Omaha, Nebraska, to Columbus, Ohio, a distance of 748 miles, the comparable rate is $18.70 per thousand pounds while the rate is $15.20 from Fitchburg, Mass., to Columbus, a distance of 743 miles…. Examples of such disparities among the principal rate territories could be multiplied almost endlessly.”

The reasons for these discriminatory rates, by which the West (also the South) think they are being unmercifully cheated, go back a long way. For many years the West had no industry of its own to speak of and hence, the railways say, it didn’t “deserve” cheap rates. It was “colonial” territory to be milked at will. The conflict is basic as between the railroads, who want freight rates to be as high and lucrative as possible, and industry and the consumer who want them low, and thus reflects one of the oldest of American issues, the rivalry between industry and agriculture. More specifically the rivalry today is between eastern industry which wishes to preserve its western markets in all their volume, and western agriculture which would like to process its raw materials nearer home. The western railways themselves assist in opposing industrialization of the West. Of course several western roads are eastern owned.

The whole freight rates story was first broken open in the South, by former Governor Ellis Arnall of Georgia who recently brought suit in the Supreme Court charging a group of railroads with conspiracy to maintain discriminatory rates. It may be years before the case is finally adjudicated. The South, as we shall presently see, backed Arnall almost to a man. The West did not respond with any such unanimity when an attempt was made, in the summer of 1946, to create a common front between southern and western governors at a meeting in Denver. The governor of Colorado, an extreme conservative, imported the redoubtable William M. Jeffers, president of Union Pacific, to address the conference, whereupon Jeffers persuaded the western governors to lie low. In May, 1945, however, came what may turn out to be an important amelioration. Largely because of the fuss and public airing provoked by Arnall’s suit, which was made in the name of the state of Georgia, the Interstate Commerce Commission ordered a 10 per cent reduction in what are known as “class rates” in the South and West. Also the commission prescribed a uniform system of freight classification for the nation, including the West, something unknown before. Until this happened, a sewing machine could be classified as a sewing machine in one part of the country, but as quite something else in another, with different rates applying. This in a country as businesswise as the U.S.A.!

The other great western grievance is absentee ownership. The West produces raw materials in illimitable profusion; but it doesn’t get a fair share of the return by any means. Most of the giant western producers—Climax Molybdenum, Colorado Fuel and Iron, the three great copper companies (Kennecott, Anaconda, Phelps Dodge) that produce 84.5 per cent of the nation’s copper, and United States Potash, are all owned in the East, as are most of the oil concerns and utilities. This means, first, that the great preponderance of profits and dividends are sucked out of the West, though produced on the West’s own territory out of western resources. Professor Morris E. Garnsey of the University of Colorado wrote recently,5 “Such remote control clearly has the tendency to intensify the traditional business policy of emphasis on short-run profits. ‘Get control of the raw material, get it out as cheaply as possible, and haul it away as fast as possible. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. Never mind what we leave behind!’ Such is the common policy of absenteeism…. The interests of the local area are a secondary consideration. The region becomes a colonial dependency of an industrial empire.”

Finally, one should note carefully that the federal government is also a very large absentee owner. The United States itself is by far the greatest landowner in the nation; in the mountain states alone, it owns almost one half the total area. This can produce irritating problems. Officials in Washington who have never been West of the Mississippi make policy for a region of which they know nothing. Moreover this vast area is mostly exempt from taxes, and so contributes little to local revenue.

Footnote to the Past

One of the most prescient travelers who ever lived, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in 1835, more than a century ago, a passage which contains such overtones that I beg leave to quote it.6 The pace of history, always fast in the West, has never been faster than today. We may see from de Tocqueville’s calm wisdom not only how far we have come, but also where we may go.

Sometimes the progress of man is so rapid that the desert reappears behind him. The woods stoop to give him a passage, and spring up again when he is past. It is not uncommon, in crossing the new states of the West, to meet with deserted dwellings in the midst of the wilds; the traveller frequently discovers the vestiges of a log house in the most solitary retreat, which bear witness to the power, and no less to the inconstancy, of man …

I remember that in crossing one of the woodland districts that still cover the state of New York [sic], I reached the shores of a lake which was embosomed in forests coeval with the world.

Tocqueville proceeds at some length to describe the extraordinarily virgin quality and solitude of a tiny islet. Then—

I was far from supposing that this spot had ever been inhabited, so completely did Nature seem to be left to herself; but when I reached the center of the isle, I thought that I discovered some traces of man. I then proceeded to examine the surrounding objects with care, and I soon perceived that a European had undoubtedly been led to seek a refuge in this place … The logs which he had hastily hewn … had sprouted afresh; the very props were intertwined with living verdure … I stood for some time in silent admiration for the resources of Nature and the littleness of Man; and when I was obliged to leave that enchanting solitude, I exclaimed with sadness, “Are ruins, then, already here?”

M. de Tocqueville knew a lot. The history of the West has been in large part a race between man and the ruins he himself has made.

* Copyright, 1931, by Stephen Vincent Benet.

1 Also it served to make the whole West “a creature of the national government.” Cf. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, p. 166.

2 Op. cit., pp. 151 and 154.

3 Incidentally only two American presidents have been born west of the Mississippi River: Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman.

4 The other great western industry, mining, has also produced phrases, for instance “to pan out” and “pay dirt.”

5 “The Future of the Mountain States,” Harper’s Magazine, October, 1945.

6 Reprinted from Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Phillips Bradley. Volume I, p. 295. By permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright, 1945, by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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