Perhaps the most noteworthy role of the 19th century western newspaper was that of town booster. Acting as the town booster, or “booming” the town, essentially meant proclaiming the virtue and merit of your hamlet for all the world to hear. The motive behind such action could lie in any number of places, as newspaper editor could boost areas for their personal benefit or be hired to crow on another’s behalf. Either way, the newspaper’s role in populating, and to a lesser extent civilizing, the West should not be overlooked.Moreover, although discussed below as a phenomena of the frontier West, the printers had long played an important part in disseminating populations in the East, as cities like Pittsburgh, PA and Lexington, KY owe their rapid 18th century growth to the efforts of community minded printers.
The “booster spirit” frequently led western printers down the path of the unknown, as transient printers generally “aimed not at the known needs of an existing community but at the needs some future community for which they so desperately hoped.” (Boorstein, 127). This desperate hope often led to taking certain liberties with the facts of an area, and barren, relatively lawless areas were sometimes billed as virtuous and well established. As one more realistic editor said of the more dubious claims of his peers, they “sometimes represented things that had not yet gone through the formality of taking place.” (Quoted in Boorstein, 127).
Despite this occasionally tenuous relationship with the truth, newspaper boomers were generally well-intentioned, and they talked up the towns they resided in because of a belief in the success that awaited the towns in the future. Indeed, the hyperbolized prose was often necessary to attract potential immigrants. Further, attempted booming was no exception to the rule, as “it was a rare town that did not have at least one weekly newspaper loudly proclaiming its existence.” (Dary, 80). Another well worn tactic was to end a community’s name in “city”, thus allowing the potential settler to believe that they were casting their lots with a metropolis on the brink.
The story of the boom of western mining towns mining towns is slightly different, as an editor’s hyperbolizing was superfluous when the settlers could be attracted by rumors of the presence of precious ore. Indeed, in these cases the editors came after something of a town had already been established, and instead of bringing the boom, their task was to maintain the boom. However, while an editor could endlessly tout the depth and quality of whatever vein of ore the community was built upon, should the successful mining of metals cease, the towns would often cease to be as well.
Although western migration continued to rise as the 19th century wore on, initially few migrants opted to stop and settle in the great plains state. Aside from the natural hesitancy in casting one’s lot on a barren foreboding frontier, conventional wisdom had long held that the western plains were ill-suited for cultivation; indeed, the area was known as the “Great American Desert.” Certainly, some refuted the notion of the desert, but nevertheless, it would take a concerted push by an organize force to dissuade Americans of the pervading mentality. While enterprising young printers deserve much credit for the boosting done on behalf of the western towns of the great plains, both the railroad industry and the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill encouraged would-be settlers to reconsider the merits of the central and western plains. For while the railroad’s interest in spurring immigration would be selfish in nature, northern free-soilers and abolitionists sought the eradication of the desert myth so as to protect American expansion form slavery. Indeed, if the area could initially be settled by those hostile to slavery, the spread of the southern institution would be temporarily staunched. (Emmons, 14).
The phenomena of the enterprising individual editor, acting on his own behalf to lure migrants westward, needs to be seen as an outgrowth of some of the more pervasive cultural currents of the day. Indeed, in the era following the Civil War new encouragement from a variety of gazetteers urged easterners and Europeans to make a new life for themselves in America’s now fruitful plains states. While many promoters appeared to be little more than hired help from the railroads, the vast majority were simply romantic american visionaries, clinging to the Jeffersonian belief of the yeoman farmer. The fact that immigration had now become so simple with the advent of rail travel only added to the sense of a preordained plan settle and cultivate the plains. The myth of the desert was ailing, and would soon be all but killed off by the efforts of a strange blend of big business, visionary politicians, and industrious individuals bent on filling in the continent’s vast middle.
By the end of the 1860s, railroad tracks ran the length of the country. Transnational travel, formerly a months long ordeal, could now be accomplished in a few days. The railroads, eager to hasten the development that would fill their almost empty coffers, organized a forceful campaign to encourage western settlement. The once foreboding desert was now described as paradise on earth, a land of fine soil, beautiful scenery, and incomparably rich soil; misleading to be sure, for if the plains “were unrecognizable as a desert, they were absurd as a garden.”(Emmons, 35) The newspapers, too played a role in the railroad led boom, as rail companies frequently either hired an editor to ride the rail and report on the land’s splendor. The language of such promotion stressed the comfort and virtue of life in the West.
Similar in method though differing in motive, the small town newspaper editor frequently capitalized on the new opportunities that the railroad had provided. . Indeed, booming became considerably easier when moving west no longer entailed great hardship. As the 1800s came to a close, and the far western United States began to seem less foreboding and relatively well established, newspapermen turned their attention to booming the great middle-- especially areas that now had railroad access, and states like Oklahoma and Texas became arguably the last phase of western boosting.
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