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Private Property in America

Settling the American west would have been vastly different without the uniquely Anglo-Saxon emphasis on land ownership. For all of the American emphasis on Progress, forging new frontiers, and repudiating the evils of Europe, many American paradigms are firmly rooted in Old World idealism. American ideas of private property stretch back as far as the Book of Genesis in which God gave man the animals to name, thus bestowing dominion over them. Man was the owner of the earth set forth to cultivate it and to multiply. John Locke in his The Second Treatise on Government (1690) wrote that "people are entitled to hold, as property, whatever they produce by their own initiative, intelligence, and industry" (Beatley, 191). This was the beginning of many mindset wars between the Europeans and the original inhabitants of the land. Where British had formally delineated common law on land ownership and contractual agreements, the Native Americans' relationship with land was characterized by a spiritual geography and a right in historical time. Thomas Jefferson then perpetuated this so-called "natural right" in his ideal of the American yeoman, a self-sufficient and independent farmer.

Fall Plowing
Grant Woods' "Fall Plowing" (1931)

Jefferson felt that by owning property, a man was responsible to no man but himself, avoiding the despotism associated with a feudal or slave-system. In order to create a nation of small farms, first the United States purchased the new land, then sold it cheaply to the people to plough these yeoman farms. The Homestead Act of 1862 and other legislation divided and allocated this land while simultaneously perpetuating in law principles of possession, dominion, and cultivation. However, the creation of laws of eminent domain, taxation, and escheat has implied that the government is the primary owner. Here lies the integral paradox in American land law. This is also the heart of the problem of the subsidized American western farmers. Moreover, the American private property bill defined a taking as a percentage diminution of fair market value of a property. This too reflects the assumption that wilderness has little or no market value. The idee fixe of improving the land has firm roots in American intellectual history. Fixing nature with anything from a hydraulic society to a lawn mower retains the status quo, whereas letting nature persist in wilderness is stigmatized by literature, social groups, and political institutions. As in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Willa Cather's O Pioneers!, the wilderness is a typological evil that must be overcome while civilization and farming are the keys to a goodly life. In addition, Hector St John de Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer reported that farming is a patriotic virtue to the American as "Ubi panis ibi patria is the motto of all emigrants" (Letters, 69). The eastern pastoral ideals were unfortunately mistransplanted to the desert of Washington State and other arid homestead acres.

Jefferson
Although often used in peace trades, these coins became a symbol of ownership and American-Native relations.

Moreover, the sense of ownership is manifest in language and symbol. The coin of Jefferson's face, the planted flag, or sign claims land for a country. As language is the definitive characteristic of human nations, the names that are given become vessels of ownership and containment. Naming of natural geography often implies a sort of ownership. During the Lewis and Clark Expedition the rivers were all denoted as being named after the captains themselves, or Jefferson or Madison. The Shawpatin River changes names to the Lewis River after the Corps of Discovery. It was also known as the Shoshone and known is commonly referred to as the Snake River. Similarly, the Columbia itself, named for the Boston trading ship in 1792 captained by Robert Gray, was first called the Great River of the West then the Oregon River by Europeans and Americans. Centuries before the Columbia had such names as the Nch'i-Wina given by the First Peoples. N. Scott Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain described the significance of language to the Kiowa tribes of the West:

"A word had power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning; it gives origin to all things. By means of words can a man deal with the world on equal terms. And the word is sacred. A man's name is his own; he can keep it or give it away as he likes" (Momaday, 33).

Today the side portrait of Washington is printed and reprinted on road signs throughout Washington State, Lewis & Clark's faces denote their trailways. The region is littered with early American history while the Native American history is removed and caged. The myths and symbols reverberate throughout the landscape, but it is only the legend of the hegemony. By imposing ideas of private property on a seemingly empty landscape, Americans were able to establish right and, later, create a usable past out of a sifted memory.




Daughter of Ice Jeffersonian Imagination Native Understanding Lewis & Clark Journals Early Explorers Private Property

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