"The Western wilds, from the Alleghenies to the Pacific," wrote the
historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1903, "constituted the richest gift ever spread out before
civilized man." It was a gift, he had argued ten years earlier, from which America derived all
that was distinctive in its brief history: democratic institutions, national unity, a rugged
independence, and individualism. Turner had propounded his famous "frontier thesis" at a
propitious moment and place: in 1893, at a meeting of the American Historical Association
during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. What more apt site for reflection on "the
first period in American history"? Four hundred years earlier, Columbus had inaugurated the
westward route; now the 1890 census disclosed that a distinct "frontier line" no longer existed.
No more "Western wilds" lay ahead of the American nation.
Had the gift run out? A mere three generations earlier, it had seemed inexhaustible: Thomas Jefferson
and others among the revolutionary generation guessed it would take a thousand years to reach the Pacific.
They counted on free land as perpetual assurance of independence from Europe, of unending prosperity
flowing from a vast inland empire. Agriculture then seemed to most Americans the truest foundation of
national wealth, and uncharted acres beyond the Appalachians stirred visions of a Western "garden" tended
by yeoman-farmers. The vision become policy, and through purchase, exploration, and conquest,
Had the gift run out? A mere three generations earlier, it had seemed inexhaustible: Thomas Jefferson and others among the revolutionary generation guessed it would take a thousand years to reach the Pacific. They counted on free land as perpetual assurance of independence from Europe, of unending prosperity flowing from a vast inland empire. Agriculture then seemed to most Americans the truest foundation of national wealth, and uncharted acres beyond the Appalachians stirred visions of a Western "garden" tended by yeoman-farmers. The vision become policy, and through purchase, exploration, and conquest,
expansion proceeded steadily westward. The founders timed their calculations by a pre-industrial clock. But railroads, appearing in the 1840's and 1850's, stepped up the tempo, and the discovery of gold in California in 1849 inspired a veritable "rush" toward the western edge of the continent.
Of course, in the rush it became clear that the gift would be costly. A war with Mexico in 1848, and persistent, apparently fanatical resistance from native inhabitants, the North American Indians, indicated what price in violence and its shabby rationalizations the westward route would exact. What had seemed "vacant," "unredeemed," and "virgin" land often disclosed places of habitation by societies with different but no less self-justifying practices of land ownership and sustenance. With different notions of possession, Indians saw their land as already possessed, occupied, integrated with a human culture. The gift, in short, had to be wrested by force. The period of expansion and settlement witnessed incessant warfare. Indeed, fighting intensified in the decades following the Civil War, ending only with the collapse of Indian resistance by the early 1890's. The year 1893 marked, then, not only four hundred years of "progress" but also of destruction: the end not only of "frontier" but of independent native societies.
The westward route had drawn its unshakable sanctions from both religious and economic indicators, from "mission" as well as "progress." "The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent," trumpeted William Gilpin in 1846; he repeated the resounding phrase in 1873 in The Mission of the North American People. Journalist, adviser to pre-Civil War Presidents, publicist for railroads and for a "Northwest Passage" to Asia, Gilpin described that destiny in providential terms: "to establish a new order in human affairs." That prospect was a key plank in the evangelical Protestant "Home Mission" movement represented by Josiah Strong, who in Our Country (1886) expatiated on Gilpin's theme: "Like the star in the East which guided the three kings with their treasures westward until at length it stood still over the cradle of the young Christ, so the star of empire, rising in the East, has ever beckoned the wealth and power of the nations westward, until today it stands still over the cradle of the young empire of the West." The star standing still would mark the end of profane time. The mission promised
nothing short of sacred redemption, the remaking of "West" into a temple of God.
It was also, as Theodore Roosevelt explained in his popular The Winning of the West (1889), a half-mystical imperative of "race-history," a culminating moment in the drive of "the English speaking peoples" for dominance in the world. The work of the new racial mix called "American"--an Anglo-Saxon mix in which English strains held sway--"Western conquest" had begun simultaneous with the appearance of this new breed, "at the moment when they sprang into national life." The pioneers responded to racial urges: "In obedience to the instincts working half blindly within their breasts, spurred ever onward by the fierce desires of their eager hearts, they made in the wilderness homes for their children, and by so doing wrought out the destinies of a continental nation."
In his momentous address in Chicago, Frederick Jackson Turner drew on such popular beliefs, the scattered dreams of an agrarian empire, of a providential mission for a newly forged race of white fighters and settlers. His vision coincided with Roosevelt's in many ways, though only Turner transposed the prophesied destiny into a different discourse. Reviewing Roosevelt's book in 1889, he had argued that "American history needs a connected and unified account of the progress of civilization across the continent." The nation needed, that is, a coherent, integrated story of its beginnings and its development. Connectedness, wholeness, unity: these narrative virtues, with their implied telos of closure, of a justifying meaning at the end of the tale, Turner would now embody in the language of historical interpretation. And an interpretation not merely accurate according to the canons of historical writing but serviceable according to the needs of politics and culture: the needs of the nation at a moment of crisis. "Aside from the scientific importance of such a work," he added in his review, "it would contribute to awakening a real national self-consciousness and patriotism." Neither apocalyptic in style nor explicitly visionary in purpose, Turner would speak in the tempered voice of "science," in the perspective of a belated recognition: now that the story had run its course, the historian stood poised in the White City of the Chicago Exposition to gather its meaning, to trace the "significance of the frontier in American history."
It is difficult to ignore the irony of the occasion, of Turner in Chicago, proclaiming what would become the most vital interpretation of the United States for at least the next fifty years. The moment proved a cultural as well as a scholarly event: a drama of confrontation. A scholar born and bred in the Middle West, nurtured by the rural culture of Wisconsin, where his father owned a newspaper and ran for political office, Turner urged his fellow historians to break with "eastern" intellectual proclivities, to pay more mind to "western" experience. Only recently had the profession itself emerged, with the founding of the American Historical Association in 1884. Turner himself came to his task in 1893 shaped as much by the structures of the profession as by his youth on the frontier. As a graduate student in the East, at the new center of advanced historical studies at Johns Hopkins, and as an assistant professor at the state university in Wisconsin (he would later move to Harvard), he had cut his teeth within a newly organized world of academic scholarship.
In his argument, "West" meant the pioneer sturdiness, independence, scorn of social constraint: "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom." Turner celebrated these heroic masculine traits even as he lamented the passing of the conditions which produced them. And he did so in a manner which not only described their demise but also dramatized it. For there, in the great new metropolis of Chicago, he performed a decidedly urban feat. The style itself of his discourse--neither a narrative in the grand manner nor a monograph freighted with citations, but an essay of analysis--represented the historian as a professional, one who performs his work according to academic standards. Moreover, the frontier thesis presupposed both a subject--"society"--and an outlook toward it neither romantic nor sentimental but "scientific," a view based on presumably sound Darwinian assumptions of evolution and organism, a subject available for research, for collective investigation. Unlike Roosevelt, Turner does not speak of "half-blind instincts" but of environment and institutions.
"In a very real sense," Richard Hofstadter has observed, "the Turner thesis and the historical profession grew up together." In its account of "progress" from simplicity to complexity, from "frontier" to "society," the thesis thus offered an account of its own origins. Indeed, Chicago itself seemed a product of the logic Turner described: "At last the slender paths of aboriginal intercourse have been broadened and interwoven into the complex mazes of modern commercial lines; the wilderness has been interpenetrated by lines of civilization growing ever more numerous. It is like the steady growth of a complex nervous system for the originally simple, inert continent." Thus the very propounding of the thesis in the new metropolis of Chicago declared the conclusion of a process, the inevitability of its end.
Thus we can see that in the contours of its argument as well as in the sinews of its sentences, the Turner thesis belongs to the new world made palpable and vivid in Chicago in 1893; it is of a piece with White City. Like the Columbian Exposition, the Turner thesis portrayed an America at a critical juncture. Both affirmed drastic change since the days when it might have been possible to imagine the nation as a society of freeholders. Both embraced the change--the rise of cities, industrial capitalism, corporate forms of business and social activities--and yet they attempted to preserve older values and traditional outlooks. Both served cultural missions: White City overtly, indeed in the very forms of culture, of high art and architecture; the Turner thesis covertly, in the guise of professional "scientific" discourse.
But the specific crisis Turner faced in the deepest levels of his argument centered on the paradox typified by Chicago. If the frontier had provided the defining experience for Americans, how would the values learned in that experience now fare in the new world of cities--a new world brought into being as if blindly by the same forces which had proffered the apparent gift of land? Would the America fashioned on the frontier survive the caldrons of the city? Turner responded to the challenge by an act of distillation. To be sure, he argued, the story of the frontier had reached its end, but the product of that experience remains. It remains in the predominant character, the traits of selfhood, with which the frontier experience had endowed Americans, that "dominant individualism" which now must learn to cope with novel demands. The thesis projects a national chararacter, a type
of person fit for the struggles and strategies of an urban future.
The prominence Turner gives to character, to a "composite, nationality," in the resounding conclusion of the essay, clarifies, his strategy. His response to the crisis of having reached the end of the frontier story shows in the meaning he gives to "land," treating it as he does less as an economic resource (he hardly mentions minerals and extractive industries in his 1893 essay) than as an environmental force, virtually as a character in its own right. "The wilderness masters the colonist," he writes. And the process he describes rings of a ritual event, a set of actions echoed throughout American fiction and poetry in recounted excursions into an archaic wilderness, in Cooper's tales of Natty Bumpo, in Faulkner's The Bear, in "The River" and "The Dance" in Hart Crane's The Bridge. The colonist arrives a "European," but instantly commences a descent, stepping from the railroad car into a birchbark canoe, shedding "civilized" clothing and habits. He descends, strips himself of "society," transforming himself into the very image of "land" he then sets out to transform into the image of "progress." This descent and ascent, this "continual beginning over again" and "perennial rebirth" at the "meeting point between savagery and civilization" becomes, for Turner the authentic source not simply of a process which culminates in Chicago but of the sound fiber of American character itself. Thus, he writes, "the frontier is the line of the most rapid and effective Americanization," giving rise to "a composite nationality for the American people." The "connected and unified account" of the American past required by the times coheres, then, in the figure of the typical, the composite American.
Seeking a "connected and unified account" of the American past at a time of disunity, of economic depression and labor strife, of immigrant urban workers and impoverished rural farmers challenging a predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant economic and social elite, Turner thus arrived at his conception of the American character as an emblem of national coherence. The nation incorporated itself, he insisted, through that figure and its traits of inventive individualism. To be sure, the account slights crucial aspects of the Western experience stressed by later historians. It fails to acknowledge cultural multiplicity; in the Southwest alone, Anglo-Americans, Spanish Americans, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Indians all contributed to a heterogeneous
culture. It makes its claims on the basis of a decidedIy partial experience--of chiefly Anglo-Saxon settlers and farmers flowing from New England into the Midwest. Moreover, the thesis ignores or obscures the real politics of the West, where, as Howard Lamar has shown, federal territorial policy held much of the region in a dependent, colonial status (prior to admission to statehood) through most of the post-Civil War period. "By 1889," writes Lamar, "every territory in the West was calling its federal officials colonial tyrants and comparing its plight to that of one of the thirteen colonies." Turner's frontier, then, is as much an invention of cultural belief as a genuine historical fact: an invention of an America "connected and unified" in the imagination if nowhere else. The invention proclaims that, even in Chicago, some fundamental residue of the nation persists, an idea of hardy manhood, of inventive genius and originality. Only partially hidden within its overtly "scientific" historical discourse of uncertainty and concern over America in a time of cities, immigrants, and corporate power.
An invention of cultural myth, the word "West" embraced an astonishing variety of surfaces and practices, of physiognomic differences and sundry exploitations they invited. The Western lands provided resources essential as much to industrial development after the Civil War as to cultural needs of justification, incentive, and disguise. Land and minerals served economic and ideological purposes, the two merging into a single complex image of the West: a temporal site of the route from past to future, and the spatial site for revitalizing national energies. As myth and as economic entity, the West proved indispensable to the formation of a national society and a cultural mission: to fill the vacancy of the Western spaces with civilization, by means of incorporation (political as well as economic) and violence. Myth and exploitation, incorporation and violence: the processes went hand in hand.
The gift of geography to American society consisted of unimaginable natural wealth in the manifest form of a picturesque landscape. Of course, nature is manifestly neither romantic nor
picturesque: the descriptive terms convey cultural meanings that live in perceptions. American painters had fastened onto conventions of landscape painting in the antebellum period with a uniqe intensity, and produced, in the Hudson River School, a body of work which lent to American terrain an almost mystical power. They depicted nature as the stage of dramas of growth and decay, of aspiration and defeat--and invested it with emotions appropriate to visions of national destiny. Landscape painting served as an approximation to the heroic historical canvases that academic European art crowned as the highest, most spiritual of paintings. The habit of confronting history in American nature found an even more grandiose scale, as painters and explorers turned their eyes toward views newly disclosed in expeditions in the Far West. In his experiences recounted in Mountaineeringin the Higb Sierras (1872), geologist Clarence King found evidence of geological upheavals aeons old, cataclysms representing a history more antique and awesome than any possessed by European societies. In the path of America's future seemed to lie a natural history that gave to the Western settlement a biblical cast.
The term "natural wealth" implies another cultural perception, another way of interpreting the strata of rock and mineral deposits that gave to the mountain and desert regions of the West a look of prehistoric enchantment. Ways of interpreting the land tend to become equivalents to acting upon it, consuming it as an aesthetic object, as a resource. King's memoir registers an often tortured division of outlooks, in his case between aesthetic (and moral) perception and scientific knowledge. The division took another form in popular publications that flooded the country, especially as the nation approached the centennial year of 1876. In William Cullen Bryant's preface to Picturesque America (1874), a lavish two-volume set of texts and reproductions of paintings in steel engraving, we read:
By means of the overland communications lately opened between the Atlantic coast and that of the Pacific, we have now easy access to scenery of a most remarkable character. For those who would see Nature in her grandest forms of snow-clad mountain, deep valley, rocky pinnacle, precipice, and chasm, there is no longer any occasion to cross the ocean. A rapid journey by railway over the plains that stretch westward from
The buried contradiction here between the appeal of wild grandeur and the comfort of mechanized access to the site where such an appeal can be satisfied is not merely comic in its blithe leap over wagon tracks and rotting carcasses that marked a mode of access only a few years past; it indicates a special kind of denial of social fact that afflicted sections of American culture in these years. Thus the railroad, the prime instrument of the large-scale industrialization which re-created American nature into "natural resources" for commodity production, appears as a chariot winging Americans on an aesthetic journey through the new empire. Tourism, already implicit in the landscape conventions, becomes yet another form of acting upon the land.
The "vast, trackless spaces," as Whitman put it, of open land, forest, and mountain--the Great Plains and the Rockies--not only fired the imagination but figured quite concretely in the industrial program. While perceptions of Western space often diminished the sense of human significance and worked their effects on the hardy folk who people the legends of Western settlement, perceptions of potential wealth inspired more calculating responses. The federal government had sponsored systematic exploration of unsettled regions as early as the Lewis and Clark expeditions in 1804-6. Mapmaking preceded settlement and had perhaps an even greater effect on conceptualization of the land than landscape paintings. About 1845, the government, outfitted army explorations to find suitable routes for railroad lines to the Pacific.
The overt aim of these early probings was to chart the way to an agricultural empire--a "new garden of the world"; they explored regions for settlement and military defense. Reflecting a different emphasis and a new set of needs, explorations during, the Civil War and continuing to the end of the century were
That policy held ambiguities and contradictions. Undertaken at first on behalf of agricultural settlement, it fostered in fact a massive industrial campaign. As Henry Nash Smith has shown, by the Civil War the West had gathered to itself connotations of a peaceful New World garden, a symbolic wish for prosperity safe from the tragedies of Europe. Fertile soil on the high plains, open spaces, seemingly "virgin" lands beckoned the independent yeoman Jefferson had celebrated as America's best hope, and seemed an assurance of permanent tranquillity. The logic of events in the 1870's and 1880's disclosed, however, not an agrarian but an industrial capitalist scenario. Penetrating the West with government encouragement, the railroad and the telegraph opened the vast spaces to production. Following the lead of the railroads, commercial and industrial businesses conceived of themselves as having the entire national space at their disposal: from raw materials for processing to goods for marketing. The process of making themselves national entailed a changed relation of corporations to agriculture, an assimilation of agricultural enterprise within productive and marketing structures. The rapid appearance of grain elevators after the
1850's indicated the change and its character; the need for storage facilities, and for standardized grading and weighing and inspecting, implied sales in high volume, direct purchases by dealers from farmers, and a distant exchange for commercial transaction. Agricultural products entered the commodities market and became part of an international system of buying, selling, and shipping. The farmer's work in every section of thenation thus gained a cosmopolitan character. Marketing and exchange left his hands, the work now of dealers and brokers. Where processing was necessary, as in meat and tobacco, mass producers soon incorporated the entire process, from farm to factory to consumer.
Especially with the opening of vast fertile tracts in the Westernplains, farmers turned to "cash crops," attempting to anticipate prices in commodity markets centered in distant cities here and abroad. The effect of almost instantaneous telegr aphic communication of prices on his plans and expectations was often cataclysmic. Controlled by private corporations, the new technologies came to be enemies of the farmer; steep rates for elevator storage, for railroad transport, for middleman services, claimed the better part of his harvests, even in years of bumper crops. Overmortgaged, overcapitalized, overmechanized, independent farmers even on the fertile plains increasingly felt the chill winds of financial disaster in the very place once promised as a New World garden.
The promise embodied in the idea of the West as a yeomen's garden had seemed so much the closer to fulfillment with the passage of the Homestead Act by the Civil War Congress in 1862, which offered 160 acres of the public domain to individuals for the nominal fee of $10. Republicans had joined with Free Soil Democrats in supporting the measure with two goals in mind: toprovide an agricultural "safety valve" for surplus or discontented urban workers, and a Western population base for an enlarged domestic market for manufactured goods. Free or cheap land hadtempted some labor spokesmen in the antebellum years to envision cooperative colonies in the West as an alternative to the wage system, and such a notion remained a plank of some labor organizations as late as the 1880's. But from the very beginning of the administration of the Homestead Act, it was clear that a society of small homesteaders in the West was not its functional
goal. The act did not provide necessary credit for people without savings to take up their cherished 160 acres. And its clauses permitted land grabbing by speculative companies, and the eventual concentration of large tracts in private hands. As historian Fred Shannon has shown, perhaps only a tenth of the new farms settled between 1860 and 1900 were acquired under the Homestead Act; the rest were bought either directly from land or railroad companies (beneficiaries of huge land grants), or from the states.
Rather than fostering a region of family farmers, the Homestead Act would prove instrumental in furthering the incorporation of Western lands into the Eastern industrial system. Until the practice was discontinued in 1871, the Republican Congress had enthusiastically donated more than a million and a half acres of public domain in the form of "land grants" to railroad companies operating west of the Mississippi. In turn, the railroads became private colonizers in their own right, selling off large sections of their grants to individuals and companies. Responding to business lobbies, Congress passed additional acts between 1866 and 1873 virtually giving away lands and rights of access to mining and timber interests. Continuing government-sponsoredsurveys of exploration culminated in the establishment in 1879 of the United States Geological Survey, whose voluminousreports and maps facilitated the private development of lands rich in timber, oil, natural gas, coal, iron ore, and other minerals. Privatization of the public domain continued as large companiesbought out or pushed aside individual entrepreneurs, replacing small-scale mining, timber cutting, and farming with capital-intensivemethods. Hit-or-miss prospectors and miners found themselves slowly forced into day labor in Eastern-owned mines and factories employing improved machinery for more efficient extraction and processing--an experience Mark Twain recounts from his own days in the Nevada Comstock region in Roughing It (1871). New methods of mining, drilling, loading ores by automatic machinery, shipping oil through long-distance trunk lines, appeared in short order, stepping up the tempo of a massive conversion of nature into the means and ends of industrial production.
Thus, incorporation took swift possession of the garden, mocking those who lived by the hopes of cultural myth, and those who
thought of machines as chariots for tourists.Abuses in the treatment of land did arouse an outcry for control and regulation, but not until the basic apparatus of exploitation already stood in place. A movement for preservation and the protection of certain regions as national parks emerged in the 1870's; with John Wesley Powell (who explored the Grand Canyon region) and John Muir as leading advocates, Congress established Yellowstone National Park (1872) and preserved Yosemite as well (1890). Powell and others, including a growing number of landscape architects, as J. B. Jackson has pointed out, proposed plans for orderly land use of remaining public resources, especially water supplies for desert regions. But public planning was anathema to Congress and private entrepreneurs, who did not flinch from public subsidy of business. So the unimaginable wealth of nature's gift was funneled by the people's representatives into private hands.
The West poured its resources into the expanding productive system, contributing decisively to the remaking of that system into a national incorporated entity. Wheat and cattle enterprises came under control of Eastern capitalists, for whom the agricultural surplus provided a major source of new capital. Newly established meat-packing companies in Chicago and other Midwestern metropolises won direct control of the large herds which were their raw material. By the 1890's, food production and processing had joined mining as a capital-intensive, highly mechanized industry. The translation of land into capital, of what once seemed "free" into private wealth, followed the script of industrial progress, however much that script seemed at odds, in the eyes of hard-pressed farmers, with the earlier dream.
Another process of transformation occurred in the same decades: a remaking of the image of the West, a funneling of its powers into popular culture. The region emerged in popular consciousness as "Wild West," a terrain of danger, adventure, and violence. Through dime novels, themselves a modem artifact of mass production, and traveling Wild West shows such as Buffalo Bill's, the image impressed itself: the West as exotic romance. Especially through the dime novels, a cast of stock characters appeared: desperadoes, savage Indians, prospectors, Indian scouts and cavalrymen, marshals or "regulators," saloonkeepers, dance-hall madames, cowpunchers, and a mob of townsfolk, easily swayed toward lynchings and posses. These popular fantasies
appealed to a broad stratum of Eastern readers, for whom the West served as an image of contrast to Eastern society. A simple Populism often colors these tales, in which villains appear as wealthy Eastern bankers and capitalists allied with the most notoriousoutlaws, and heroes often speak in praise of "honest workingmen," of "labor" in its contests with "capital." Often fugitives from Eastern injustice, men prove themselves in the West, where only personal merit and ability count. The very wildness of the West allowed native ability and honesty their due. The heroic owes nothing to social station, and often outlaws prove themselves heroes in the Robin Hood mold.
Through such popular fictions, the West in its wildness retained older associations with freedom, escape from social restraint, and closeness to nature. The ideal of solitary endurance persisted, then, even in the face of rapidly encroaching Easternbusiness interests: persisted especially as a proto-populist image of opposition. Heroes such as Deadwood Dick easily assume roles of outlaw and lawman, of highway robber and town marshal, always maintaining his manly virtue. The prominence of disguises and false identities in the dime novel also suggests a distrust of appearances, an unwillingness to settle for fixed social roles and obligations. Not until the end of the century, when Eastern corporations had virtually accomplished their control of Western enterprises, did the image of the Western hero begin to shift, to accommodate itself to changed historical realities. And when the genre of the Western solidified into the form whichwould remain the staple of twentieth-century popular culture, it appeared as a fable of conservative values, a cultural equivalent to incorporation. The development is already complete in Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902). For Wister, Harvard graduate and intimate of Theodore Roosevelt (to whom the novel is dedicated), not only washes clean the literary crudities and thematic incoherences, indeed the very elements of popularity of the dime novel: he also turns the implicit egalitarianism of the earlier mode into an explicitly ruling-class vision. Wister's great tale of the cowboy hero who vaunts at once the values of personal honor and worldly success, who is prepared to kill to defend both his own reputation and his employer's property, completes the cultural appropriation of the West.
Wister appropriated freely from the popular tradition, clarifying character types, sharpening issues. In the dime novel the cowboy had been only one of many possible heroic roles along with scout, miner, outlaw, sheriff or marshal, detective. Fusing elements of several vocational types in his cowboy figure, including that of "foreman," or superintendent, over the band of migratory laborers who performed the cowpunching and herding on the ranches and plains, Wister re-created the cowboy as a romantic knight of the plains, a descendant of Sir Lancelot, as he put it in an article in 1895 on "the evolution of the cowpuncher." The medieval-image is more than an idle allusion. The cowboy figure stands in a definite relation to the settled society of the plains--a relation of knightly deference to the aristocratic owner, the "Judge," and to his interests. The cowboy-knight knows his place and accepts it, and yet also insists fiercely on his own honor: a right permitted him and respected by the Judge. The code duello has a sacred place in Wister's West, as it did in the dime novels, and the defense of manly honor justifies the Virginian's occasional, always reluctant but always cool, quick, and efficient use of his gun, just as defense of private property justifies, indeed demands. "The last romantic figure upon our soil," Wister's cowboy hero is also a deadly killer.
"It is but little over half a dozen years since these lands were won from the Indians," wrote Theodore Roosevelt in Hunting Trips of a Ranchman (1886) about the Dakota Badlands. The compression of vast social change within such a narrow compass heightens the sense for Roosevelt that he is living within history:
After bloody fighting and protracted campaigns they were defeated, and the country thrown open to the whites, while the building of the Northern Pacific Railroad gave immigration an immense impetus. There were great quantities of game, especially buffalo, and the hunters who thronged in to pursue the huge herds of the latter were the rough forerunners of civilization. No longer dreading the Indians, and having the railway on which to transport the robes, they followed the buffalo in season and out, until in 1883 the herds were practically destroyed.
Early cattlemen found themselves doomed by the same historical process: "The broad and boundless prairies have already been bounded and will soon be made narrow." And so history seemed for Roosevelt, for Turner, for countless others contemplating the westward experience, a foreclosed event, an inevitable advance from low to high, from simple to complex, and in more senses than one, from "Indian" to "American." For Turner, "West" offered a transparent text in which "line by line ... we read this, continental page from West to East," deciphering a "record of social evolution."
It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.
Thus "West" bespeaks a proof for "America" itself: the site where the process is laid bare, recapitulated at each successive "meeting point between savagery and civilization."
The proof was repeated over and over in countless popular prints such as "American Progress," published in 1873. Based on, a painting by John Gast, the print displays a frank and simple allegory. It illustrates, in the words of an explanatory text on the reverse side, "the grand drama of Progress in the civilization, settlement and history of our own happy land." The picture shows a chase. On the left, a herd of buffalo, a bear and a coyote, and a family of Indians and their horses flee before an array of Americans in various "stages" of "progress": guide, hunter, trapper, prospector, pony-express rider, covered wagon followed by stagecoach, and a farmer in a field already under plow and oxen. Three railroad lines, representing the transcontinentals, join the flow, which originates from the city and its factories, schools, and churches. On the left, the text explains, we find "darkness, waste and confusion." And in the center of the scene, its presiding image, looms a white, diaphanous figure, "a beautiful and charming Female"--we are told--"floating Westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the Star of Empire.'" Her knee raised
through her gown as if striding purposefully, she bears in one hand a book representing "Common Schools," and with the other "she unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the Telegraph" that are to "flash intelligence throughout the land." The Indians look back at her, the "wondrous presence" from which they flee. "The 'Star' is too much for them."
In this "progress," this proof of "America," the profoundest role was reserved not for the abundance of land but for the fatal presence of the Indian. The Indian projected a fact of a different order from land and resources: a human fact of racial and cultural difference, not as easily incorporated as minerals and soil and timber. Here was a significant array of people--significant in number, in capacity to inflict damage and entail large military expense--occupying a world so entirely at odds with that of white Americans that their very opposition made a frontal encounter necessary for a definition of America itself. "Civilization" required a "savagery" against which to distinguish itself. Thus, native American Indians differed from blacks and Asians in several important regards. Blacks could be understood as a special category of American: formerly enslaved but now enfranchised and (presumably) on the way to equality. Chinese, on the other hand, were clear "aliens" whose right to occupy space in the country was completely at the mercy of American sovereignty. Blacks and Asians could be understood, also, as capable of productive labor, this being the ground of both fear of competition from labor groups and hope of ultimate assimilation. Both groups were targets of intensifying racial hostility in these years, in growing Ku Klux Klan terror and Jim Crow laws in the South, and exclusion legislation against Chinese in California. But the Indian represented a special case in that the right to space lay bound up with the very right to exist.
The character of that existence had presented challenges to white Europeans from the beginning. Were Indians true people, or demons, or "noble savages," happy innocents in a state of nature? Were their "tribes" similar to "nations," with whom treaties and land purchases might be negotiated? Essentially, the challenge concerned land, it came to a head very rapidly because the natives would fight fiercely and effectively against intrusions on their space, or violations of agreements reached with white governing bodies. The willingness of Indian tribes to enter into
compacts with white invaders indicated both a willingness and a readiness to coexist. Indeed, coexistence had altered Indian life in ways not entirely negative: the introduction of horses, for example, metal utensils and tools, woven cloth, storable and transportable food, and guns enhanced the ability to hunt, to procure food and produce clothing and shelter. But steady encroachment of white trappers, hunters, traders, and finally settlers on Indian lands increased tension and hostility and produced virtually constant warfare, with the consequence of severe changes within Indian social structure (the strengthening, for example, of chiefs and warriors, and the diminishing role of women in tribal decision making), and eventual defeat. The period after the Civil War marked the conclusion of overt hostilities (after intensified fighting in the 1870's), the forced acceptance by defeated tribes of a new reservation policy, and the onset of a long period of withdrawal and apparent passivity. The Indian, by 1893, seemed a "vanishing American."
Yet, while the figure may have receded, it hardly vanished. An Indian presence persisted as the underside, the lasting bad conscience, within the prevailing conception of "West," calling for repeated ritualistic slaying in popular "Westerns." For at all junctures the real history of expansion had translated a secret script within the idea of "progress" or "manifest destiny." Bearable only in the disguise of myth and ritual, that script revealed its potentially destructive horror in the period of intensifiedfighting just after the Civil War, particularly as reports of unspeakable atrocities, such as those by army troops under Colonel J.M. Chivington in a massacre at the Sand Creek reservation in Colorado in 1864, reached the East. In his first message to Congress in 1869, President Grant remarked: "A system which looks to the extinction of a race is too horrible for a nation to adopt without entailing upon itself the wrath of all Christendom and engendering in the citizen a disregard for human life and rights of others, dangerous to society." Official national policy stopped short of extermination; it settled for abolishing native ways of life and their obstructive practices of communal property holding. But even this limited form of violence could not be faced directly; it must be veiled, misunderstood as an event of another kind. The Turner thesis, which defines the land as "free" and identifies Indians with "wilderness," as a "common danger," is one such
veil: it fails to see Indians as other than undifferentiated "savio" in the path of "social evolution" from "frontier" to "city and factory system." To see Indians as "savage" is already to define them out of existence, to define them only in relation to their apparent opposite: "civilized" society.
The major events in Indian-white relations in these years were military and legal: more than two hundred pitched battles, not to speak of guerrilla warfare in outlying Western regions, and a reservation policy promulgated in 1887, to remain in effect until the 1930's. In each case, military action and legal solution, economic and cultural issues figured as unspoken but vital imperatives. The drama of these years was played largely on the Great Plains, but against a scenery put in place by the forced removal or expulsion of tribes east of the Mississippi in the decades before the Civil War. Executed by President Andrew Jackson in the 1830's, removal established an Indian Territory in the Southwest (now Oklahoma). The Southern tribes protested, lost an appeal to the Supreme Court, and had no choice but to accept the long march westward enforced by government troops. Chief Justice John Marshall's ruling (in 1831) was epochal: Indians were not "foreign nations" but "domestic dependent nations": "they are in a state of pupilage. Their relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian." In spite of previous treaties, Indians "occupy a territory to which we assert a title independent of their will." Or as the governor of Georgia put the matter in less judicious terms: "Treaties were expedients by which ignorant, intractable, and savage people were induced without bloodshed to yield up what civilized people had the right to possess by virtue of that command of the Creator delivered to man upon his formation--be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it."
Thus, well before the Civil War, the courts and Congress had settled the issue of conflicting "rights" by instituting as law a relation of dependency, a relation which included guarantees of protection as well as payments (in the form of annuities) for lands relinquished. "Protection," however, stood always at the mercy of "dependency," for the notion that "we assert a title independent of their will" implied that any future desire for Indian lands might well be satisfied by unilateral modification of treaties. Thus, removal imposed on Indians not only a forced abandonment
of a social order and economy--many of the Eastern tribes already practiced sedentary agriculture and had a federated structure of self-government--but also an inherent legal inferiority. They were declared both inside and outside the American polity: subject to its jurisdiction, but without rights of citizenship.
The removal policy committed the government to police and military action aimed both at keeping Indians within the prescribed limits of their new territories and ostensibly protecting those limits from white incursions. But incursions increased after the Civil War as cattlemen, miners, and farmers demanded access to lands they viewed as economically desirable. The heightened friction in the West in the 1860's and 1870's resulted from stark conflicts of interest between expanding capitalist enterprises and Indian needs for sustenance. Driven westward, formerly agricultural peoples such as the Eastern Sioux were compelled to adopt a seminomadic hunting economy, based on the great roving herds of buffalo on the Great Plains. The policy of protection dwindled after the Civil War into open support of white demands to rewrite treaty boundaries, to concentrate Indian tribes within shrinking areas and enclosures called "reservations." Consistent with its economic policies of land grants and subsidies, of Homestead Act and unrestricted immigration, the federal government sponsored military campaigns to win more land and resources for exploitation. Indian policy, then, followed the logic of incorporation: expansion into space for the sake of conversion of "nature" into "raw material."
The key features of that policy in the decades after the Civil War included stepped-up military action coupled with legislative clarification of the legal status of Indian societies--their status, that is, within the purview of American polity. What needs most to be stressed is the importance of this clarification to the process of incorporation: not only as a government-sponsored clearance of an obstruction to investment and economic growth but as a crucial cultural definition of America itself. The method of definition was unilateral and imperial; solutions were imposed, not developed by negotiation and compromise. The problem, of course, was understood as obstruction, both by inhabitation of desirable lands and by an aggressive defense of those lands. After
the Civil War, controversy arose within the national government about the most expedient solution. Earlier, in 1849, the governance of Indian affairs had been placed in the hands of the Department of the Interior; now military leaders like General William T. Sherman insisted that the Bureau of Indian Affairs be returned to the Department of War. Especially after the Sioux uprising under Chief Red Cloud in Montana and Wyoming, and the Cheyenne and Arapaho rebellion in Colorado--both following immediately after Appomattox--Sherman urged "the utter destruction and subjugation" of all Indians found outside their assigned reservations, "until they are obliterated or beg for mercy." Not only the need for costly military campaigns--millions of dollars for each expedition--but the notorious corruption of Indian agents seemed to argue for a transfer of authority to the army.
The proposal failed, and the official policy under Grant and his successors proclaimed "peace": through education, missionary work by Christians invited to replace corrupt political appointees in Indian agencies, and through a reconception of the reservation as, in John Wesley Powell's words in 1874, "a school of industry and a home for these unfortunate people." Powell and others proposed a program of "civilizing these Indians" by inducing them "to work," and requiring that they learn English in order to bring them better within the domain, and control, of "civilization": "Into their own language there is woven so much mythology and sorcery that a new one is needed in order to aid them in advancing beyond their baneful superstitions; and the ideas and thoughts of civilized life cannot be communicated to them in their own tongues," wrote Powell. And, as a decisive measure aimed at diminishing the power of tribal chiefs and thus the coherence of Indian resistance, Congress in 1871 abolished the practice of treaty making with separate tribes, thus finally denying distinct tribes the legally troublesome status of "nation." From these measures it was thought that "peace" would follow. In fact, military campaigns continued unabated, against the Sioux under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the Great Plains, Geronimo and the Apaches in the Southwest, and, most tragically, against Chief Joseph and the Nez Perc‚ tribe in Oregon. It continued until the final defeat of the half-starved Sioux
after a Ghost Dance ceremony in 1890, a massacre of about two hundred men, women, and children, including the old leader Sitting Bull, at Wounded Knee creek in the Black Hills.
By the 1880's, an influential reform group had begun to make itself heard, a group of well-placed reformers, philanthropists, clergymen, and their wives, who shared an evangelical Protestant outlook, a passion for social order, and who called themselves "Friends of the Indian." By then, the United States Army had the upper hand, and a policy which may have resulted in genocide was narrowly avoided. Genocide was in fact the logical implication and obsessive ambition of what Melville in The Confidence Man had called "the metaphysics of Indian-hating," a frontier habit of unremitting racial hatred. Sherman's military policy and Theodore Roosevelt's inflamed rhetoric--"treacherous, revengeful, and fiendishly cruel savages," he wrote in 1886--were stages leading to potential holocaust. Indeed, military actions, frequent armed assaults against harmless villages and women and children, massacre and atrocity--often in response to isolated guerrilla raids by desperate and vengeful young braves--had the appearance if not the official sanction of genocide. And it was an open secret that the rapid destruction of the vast buffalo herds--as many as 13 million of those imposing, shaggy creatures roamed the plains at the time of the Civil War--satisfied not only the greed of commercial hunters, leather and fur manufacturers, and railroad carriers, but government desire for a speedy resolution to the "Indian problem." Denied opportunities and land for all but marginal farming, the Plains Indians had counted on the buffalo hunt for meat, hides for clothing and shelter, bones for utensils and ornaments. "Kill every buffalo you can," advised one army officer. "Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone." "Slaughtering buffalo is a Government measure to subjugate the Indians," noted one observer. By the early 1880's, the slaughter had effectively decimated the great Southern and Northern herds. The shaggy beast receded into legend, accompanied by tidy profits for hunters and dealers in hides--and a fatal destabilization of Indian society.
The alternative to violence proposed by the "Peace Policy" had in mind, as did Grant in his remarks about the horror of genocide in 1869, the effects of such rampant slaughtering of beasts and humans on the larger society. Like their fellows among the cultivated
elite and gentry throughout America, the "peace" party feared the consequences of violence, the chaos (as they saw it) of class conflict threatening in the industrial cities. A policy of military extinction might well unleash even stormier forces of disorder, such as those which had broken out in Chicago in 1886, at the riot in Haymarket Square. Instead of exterminating Indians, they proposed membership in American society in exchange for a repudiation of Indian ways. They offered, through the Dawes Severalty Act passed by Congress in 1887, to transform Indians by education and economic support into model Americans. The Dawes Act, in short, implied a theory and pedagogical vision of America itself.
That vision manifested itself in practical terms. To every male Indian "who has voluntarily taken up...his residence separate and apart from any tribe. . .and has adapted the habits of civilized life," the act offered not only an allotment of land for private cultivation but the prospect of full American citizenship. It offered a choice: either abandon Indian society and culture, and thus become a "free" American, or remain an Indian, socially and legally dependent. With a perverse accuracy, the act recognized the cultural power of tribal structures, of complex kinship systems, of shamanistic religion. As an alternative, it proposed, and thus helped promulgate, what it assumed to be the typical and culturally legitimate model of the male-dominated nuclear family based on private property. Linking citizenship with both propriety and property, the Dawes Act thus implied standards for the entire society.
By setting in motion a process of detribalization, the new law disclosed perhaps the rawest nerve in white-Indian relations: the conflicting practices in regard to property, especially land. The reformers on the whole shared with Roosevelt the view that Indians lacked a civilized sense of property, of spatial boundaries. "Where the game was plenty, there they hunted," wrote Roosevelt in accents in which romance clashes with economic interest; "they followed it when it moved away...and to most of the land on which we found them they had no stronger claim than that of having a few years previously butchered the original occupants." Reformers spoke of the despised "communistic" system of communal property relations. The vehemence aroused by Indians, fed for generations by tales of captivities and atrocities, of
barbaric practices, took aim in these years of Western expansion particularly against a way of life perceived as antithetical, alien, and threatening in its implications. Again, Roosevelt provides the most vivid and blunt instances of rage. The Dawes Act, he remarked in his first message to Congress in 1901, provided "a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass." The inner message had a wider audience in view. As he had made plain in 1889, "Indian ownership" was sometimes practiced by shiftless criminal whites as well: "To recognize the Indian ownership of the limitless prairies and forests of this continent--that is, to consider the dozen squalid savages who hunted at long intervals over a territory of a thousand square miles as owning it outright--necessarily implies a similar recognition of the claims of every white hunter, squatter, horse-thief, or wandering cattle-man." In 1886 he had warned: "The Indian should be treated in just the same way that we treat white settlers. Give each his little claim; if, as would generally happen, he declined this, why then let him share the fate of the thousands of white hunters and trappers who have lived on the game that the settlement of the country has exterminated, and let him, like those whites, who will not work, perish from the face of the earth which he cumbers." Work or perish: thus reads the inner script of the revised policy of "peace" toward the Indian.
If the Southern system of chattel slavery had obstructed industrial progress, provoking a civil war, so the Indian system of communal ownership had inspired resistance to Western expansion; it, too, required destruction, and then a policy of "reconstruction" of the defeated natives into the image of their victors: their language and costumes, their names and religion, their laws regarding work and property. By the 1890's, then, the Indian had been incorporated into America no longer simply as "savage," a fantasy object of ambivalent romantic identification or racial hatred, but as "lowest order," outcast and pariah who represented the fate of all those who do not work, do not own, do not prefer the benefits of legal status within the hierarchies of modern institutions to the prerogatives of freedom and cultural autonomy.
At the same time, and typical of the discordances of the age, knowledge of Indian cultures accumulated rapidly in these years of brutal warfare and policy formation, in the reports and monographs of the newly formed Bureau of American Ethnology (directed
in its early days by John Wesley Powell). Like other academic disciplines and social sciences in these years, anthropology underwent swift professionalization, as ethnographers joined missionaries and Indian agents in native settlements, recordingand analyzing their languages, customs, religions, and social structures. And scattered in their reports lay information about a way of life which might well have contributed to evolving social and cultural critiques of industrial society. Indeed, in the studies of Lewis Henry Morgan, especially in his magisterialAncient Society, or Researcbes in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery tbrougb Barbarism to Civilization (1877), such a contribution begins to take shape. Morgan's formulations challenged popular stereotypes of the Indian, viewing him in a perspective of history and social change deeply at odds with popular providential thought, with notions of racial superiority, and with American self-congratulatory rhetoric. Morgan carried on his research and writing despite an unlikely conventional career as a Rochester, New York, lawyer and businessman, a railroad investor and occasional member of the New York State Legislature. Refusing all university positions, he remained more or less an amateur (although he did serve as president of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science), not exactly an outsider but sufficiently free of incipient professional standards to venture upon a bold theoretical enterprise in his effort to comprehend the great wealth of ethnographic data unearthed by nineteenth-century researchers. In his practical and political life, Morgan provided legal assistance to New York tribes and wrote legislation, as chairman of the State Committee on Indian Affairs, on their behalf. He never fulfilled his hope of appointment as national Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Morgan's researches led him to a belief in the unity of mankind, and toward an evolutionary scheme in which the forms of subsistence, the level of technology, provided the basis of socialchange and progress. Representing earlier stages of human society and culture, the American Indian thus provided a unique opportunity for "civilized" Americans to study their own distant origins. As he put it in the preface to his remarkable study of Indian domestic architecture, Houses and House-Life ofthe American Aborigines (1881): "In studying the condition of the Indian tribes in these periods we may recover some portion of the lost history
of our own race." Possessing neither the political society nor formal state of the "civilized" stage (and Morgan stresses the role of accident or fortuitous circumstances by which Semitic and Aryan peoples have arrived soonest at this condition), Indians have instead as their basic social unit what he called the gens or extended family: "a brotherhood bound together by ties of kin." Based on the arts of subsistence--hunting, gathering, some agriculture, and toolmaking--the gens functioned as communal units: "liberty, equality, and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles." About Indian dwellings he wrote: "It is evident that they were the work of the people, constructed for their own enjoyment and protection. Enforced labor never created them. On the contrary, it is the charm of all these edifices, roomy, and tasteful and remarkable as they are, that they were raised by the Indians for their own use, with willing hands, and occupied by them on terms of entire equality."
Morgan acknowledged in a letter that his work held "a tremendous thrust at privileged classes, who always have been a greater burden than society could afford to bear." "Since the advent of civilization," he wrote in the final paragraphs of Ancient Society, "the outgrowth of property has been so immense, its forms so diversified, its uses so expanding and its management so intelligent in the interests of its owners, that it has become, on the part of the people, an unmanageable power." Envisioning a "next higher plane of society," Morgan sees signs of its shape in forms already well established in America: "democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education." The next plane "will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes."
In the face of simplistic and simplifying prevalent notions of "progress," of "civilization" and "savagery," Morgan insisted on a historical debt, "that we owe our present condition, with its multiplied means of safety and of happiness, to the struggles, the sufferings, the heroic exertions and the patient toil of our barbarous, and more remotely, of our savage ancestors." Wishing to sweep away the "misconceptions, and erroneous interpretations," the "false terminology," which have "perverted, and even caricatured" knowledge of American aboriginal history, he
strove to place the Indian "in his true position in the scale of human advancement." Original errors of interpretation, he worried, have been implanted, and now "romance has swept the field."
Indeed, a fabric of fantasy, nostalgia, and idealization appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century
as a kind of shroud for the "vanishing American." It was a matter of faith for Huck Finn, in Mark Twain's
masterpiece of 1886, that an escape from Aunt Sally's desire to "sivilize" him lay ahead, in the Indian
Territory: a place imagined as one of endless adventure, play, and freedom. Such fantasies seriously
misconstrued the character of Indian cultures, but they do hold an important covert insight about the
majority culture rapidly consolidating its hold on American society in these years, that "to civilize"
entailed destruction or abrogation of that debt Morgan speaks of. Certainly, Frederick Jackson Turner's own
notion of "progress" and stages of civilization, as indeed of the "gift" of the wilderness to white
America, implies a simple passing over the inert body of Indian culture on America's way to the future. In
spite of Morgan's efforts, and perhaps inevitably, "Indian" remained the utmost antithesis to an America
dedicated to productivity, profit, and private property.