The American Far West in the Twentieth Century

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In this richly insightful survey that represents the culmination of decades of research, a leading western specialist argues that the unique history of the American West did not end in the year 1900, as is commonly assumed, but was shaped as much-if not more-by events and innovations in the twentieth century. Earl Pomeroy gathers copious information on economic, political, social, intellectual, and business issues, thoughtfully evaluates it, and draws a new and more nuanced portrait of the West than has ever been depicted before.

Earl Pomeroy (1915-2005) was Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, and at the University of Oregon, Eugene. He wrote numerous groundbreaking books on the American West in the twentieth century, including The Pacific Slope and In Search of the Golden West. Richard W. Etulain is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West and Re-Imagining the Modern American West.

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Editorial Reviews

Deseret News
"Pomeroy. . . draws a new and more nuanced portrait of the West than has been depicted before. He uses extensive sources to show how the post-1900 West charted a path that was influenced by, but separate from, the rest of the country and the world."—Deseret News
The Historian

"Its value lies with its breadth and its insistence that we not lose sight of the important developments and experiences of the twentieth-century American West."—John Putman, The Historian

— John Putman

Stephen Aron
“Earl Pomeroy fathered the ‘New Western History’ by pushing historians of the American West into the twentieth century, and this expansive survey, covering the economic, political, and social development of the region, attests to the research that he accomplished and the scholarship that he inspired.”—Stephen Aron, UCLA and Autry Institute for the Study of the American West
William Cronon
“No historian in the past half century has written about the American West with greater insight or originality than Earl Pomeroy. We are lucky indeed that he has left us this posthumous volume as a final monument to the depth and range of his extraordinary scholarship.”—William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
The Historian - John Putman
"Its value lies with its breadth and its insistence that we not lose sight of the important developments and experiences of the twentieth-century American West."—John Putman, The Historian
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300120738
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/21/2008
  • Series: The Lamar Series in Western History
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 600
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Earl Pomeroy (1915–2005) was Emeritus Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego, and Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Oregon, Eugene. He wrote numerous groundbreaking books on the American West in the twentieth century, including The Pacific Slope and In Search of the Golden West. Richard W. Etulain is Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New Mexico. He is author of Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West and Re-Imagining the Modern American West and coauthor of The American West: A Modern History, 1900 to the Present. He lives in Portland, OR.

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Read an Excerpt

The American Far West in the Twentieth Century

By Earl Pomeroy

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2008 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12073-8

Chapter One

The West in 1901

Toward the end of the nineteenth century when Americans spoke of how the Far West was changing or had changed so much that it was no longer as distinctively western as it once had been, the idea that such changes would occur was about as old as western settlement itself. Settlers had only recently begun to move beyond the states bordering on the Mississippi River when social philosophers began to anticipate what might happen when all land good for farming by the standards of the time was in private hands, if not also private use, and thus, by the assumptions of an agricultural age, when settlement of the Far West was essentially complete.

Congress had just established the boundary of the permanent frontier. It did so on the premise that there was enough land east of the great bend of the Missouri River for settlement into the indefinite future, when in 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville warned of the crisis that American democracy would face when no more government land remained. John C. Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln agreed essentially on the importance of access to land for American institutions, the one defending it for slave owners, the other for free workers and farmers. By the time FrederickJackson Turner addressed his fellow historians on the subject in 1893, there was not much for him to do with the argument except to cast it in historical terms, relating ready access to land to the course of American development, and to announce that a time of testing had arrived, that the frontier line that had marked boundaries between areas of occupied and unoccupied land in earlier census reports was gone.

Over most of the nineteenth century, westerners looked on the advance of settlement and the changes that it brought with pride and impatience rather than with foreboding. Although, like Daniel Boone, they might grow restless and move on as soon as they saw the smoke of a neighbor's fireplace, they commonly welcomed the advancing prices for land and labor that encroaching neighbors paid. Even those who were not speculators in land or professional agents of such speculators, as Boone was, typically rejoiced in the transformation of wilderness into farms and towns. Apart from fur traders, a small and transitory breed, wilderness had few advocates. The principal range of opinion in a typical western community was from those who thought that it should and would become like the East (while remaining more virtuous and progressive) to those who argued that in essentials it had already done so. Again, apart from fur traders, there were few defenders of the Indian way of life, as distinguished from defenders of the rights of Indians to live and to enjoy the means of living in a European-American style, and these were likely to be easterners rather than westerners.

Biases for "development"-rapid transformation of land not yet divided up for the settled kinds of uses that Europeans understood, that is, into mines, pastures, farms, and towns-were natural when, despite ample publicity, the Far West during its most celebrated rushes and great migrations increased in population far less than the Middle West. The area that later became the sixteen contiguous states north and west of Texas, more than one-half of the continental United States, had fewer recorded inhabitants of European descent in 1850 (178,918) than the state of Iowa (192,214); in 1860 (759,860) than the state of Wisconsin (775,181); in 1870 (1,492,083) than the state of Missouri (1,721,295). Wisconsin increased in population nearly three times as much in the 1840s as California, although many Wisconsin boys went to the gold mines. Since much good land near the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes remained unoccupied, much of the Far West long attracted more adventurers than home seekers.

While Americans generally, and westerners more than other Americans, continued to applaud development, over the last third of the nineteenth century, advancing population transformed some of the most remote wilderness so rapidly as to arouse both admiration and concern. In the fifteen years after the Civil War, hunters destroyed twenty to thirty million of the plains buffalo, and with them the livelihood of the Plains Indians; herds of cattle took their place. By the later 1880s, cattlemen were beginning to make way for further changes as they lost free use of open range and as farmers began to plough under the last remaining buffalo grass. The advocates of the national parks, beginning with Yellowstone (1872), were more interested in preserving unusual and especially startling and grotesque examples of nature's variety-the geysers of the Yellowstone, the big trees of the Yosemite (whose admirers were making considerable progress in destroying them), the Grand Canyon of the Colorado-than in maintaining the experience of living in primitive style or in contact with nature; but they represented a growing sense that the Far West as it had been was rapidly disappearing and that something of value might go with it. Well before John Muir organized the Sierra Club (1892), whose members at first devoted themselves more to hiking and camping in the wilderness than to defending it, publishers were finding a market for depictions of life in the Wild West, such as those by Frederic Remington and Theodore Roosevelt, whose work even when they first went west in the early 1880s conveyed a strong sense of nostalgia.

In the 1880s and still more in the 1890s, much of the Far West seemed both maturing and overextended. Falling prices for wheat, livestock, and silver on world markets and drought on the high plains intensified the effects of the depression of 1893. Instead of occupying more land, many farmers abandoned what they had. Over the West as a whole, the line that census reporters had drawn to set off a zone of sections with no more than two inhabitants per square mile reappeared. Miners and cattlemen could ascribe their troubles to public policies, but the collapse of the boom of the 1880s in Kansas and Nebraska followed droughts so severe and prolonged as to revise judgments of the quality of the land itself. Settlers abandoned towns planned to lead in the occupation of western counties. A cattleman bought an entire deserted town in southeastern Kansas, an editor in Abilene reported. "He stabled his horses in the post office, and his herds were sheltered in the double rooms of a 'general merchandise emporium.'" 2 One-fifth of the counties in the state lost population in 1895-1900, more than two-fifths during the next five years. In Nebraska, settlers who had remained during three years of drought fled after the "hot wind" of July 1894; children of school age decreased by more than 55 percent between 1890 and 1895.

Yet the Far West as a whole remained a land of opportunity throughout the nineties. Settlers left some farmlands but moved onto others. The rush into Oklahoma, which began in 1889, continued as the government opened successive areas of former Indian lands to homesteading in the 1890s; Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory together gained more than twice as many migrants as the plains states to the north lost. The influx reached more than half a million persons, nearly as many as had moved into Washington, Oregon, and California in the great migrations of the 1880s. All but three of the other fifteen states and territories gained population beyond natural increase; Idaho and Arizona gained substantially more than in the 1880s, the population of Idaho nearly doubling. Such influxes represented more than flight from misfortune elsewhere. Despite the problems of silver miners, the mining industry as a whole expanded as never before, quite apart from the rushes into the Yukon and Alaska that began in 1897. The big slump in silver was in price rather than production, which increased after 1894 to levels higher than any before 1890-93. Copper improved in both respects, production more than doubling over the decade and prices exceeding recent predepression levels. Far western employment in mining increased over the decade by more than half (56.3 percent), with Alaska accounting for less than a seventh of the increase.

Still more people moved onto farms than into mines. The labor force in agriculture in the western territories and states increased by 358,989 persons-more than the total for Nebraska and the Dakotas-or nearly two-fifths, while total population increased by slightly more than one-fifth. The increase was second only to that of the boom of the 1880s, and just 42,637 (10.6 percent) less. The number of new farms in the mountain and Pacific divisions was greater than in any previous decade. The ratio of farms to population dropped from 1 to 21.5 in 1890 to 1 to 17.7 in 1900, against ratios of 1 to 13.8 and 1 to 13.3 nationally. The ratio in the Far West in 1890 had been 1 to 25.6.

Continuing growth did not mean that the West offered essentially the same kinds and degrees of opportunity as in old Wests, or even that it offered or seemed to offer as much as other sections in the 1890s. Much of the East and the older Middle West still attracted more newcomers than western states with unoccupied land; in the 1890s, for instance, New York received more migrants than Oklahoma, New Jersey more than California. The changes in some older states, particularly changes associated with industrialization and immigration, were so great that fast growing as the West was, it constituted a kind of refuge from unaccustomed change, developing along more traditional lines.

The western states, moreover, seemed recently to have crossed some significant thresholds of maturity and to be approaching others. The admission of a state to the Union long had seemed a significant coming of age, in which Congress at once conferred status and privilege equal to those of the older states and recognized that the people of the former territory were numerous, prosperous, experienced, and wise enough to manage their own affairs and to assume the burdens of state government. Simply because of political expediency or prejudice in Washington, statehood might come artificially early or late, as to Nevada, which in 1900 had fewer inhabitants by far than any other state or territory although it had been a state since 1864 after only three years as a territory; or to New Mexico, which after fifty years as a territory had more residents than any of four states, including one of the original thirteen. Nevertheless the historians of a state commonly reserved their most detailed chronicles for territorial times, as if life thereafter moved into standardized national channels.

As the twentieth century began, Congress had recently admitted seven new states: North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming in 1889-90, and Utah in 1896. The three continental territories that remained were as populous and otherwise as mature as some of their neighbors and clearly would not have long to wait for statehood. Oklahoma (admitted 1907), in fact, had more inhabitants in 1900 than any of sixteen states, including six on and near the Atlantic Coast. New Mexico and Arizona, which became the forty-seventh and forty-eighth states in 1912, were forty-third and forty-sixth in population and as territories had had their own legislatures since 1850 and 1863; the governor's palace at Santa Fe, built in 1610 and still in use, was the oldest governmental building on the continent other than the headquarters of Indian tribes in the same region.

Neither Alaska nor Hawaii seemed as close to statehood in 1901 as New Mexico and Utah had seemed when Congress first organized them half a century earlier. Promoters of Alaska claimed that it offered much to farmer-immigrants, then as earlier and later; President Theodore Roosevelt joined them in predicting in Seattle in 1903 that it would be one of the most populous states within the lifetimes of his hearers, supporting as many inhabitants as the Scandinavian peninsula, which then had well over seven million, more than the Pacific, mountain, and northern plains states and territories at the last census. But when Roosevelt spoke, its inhabitants were fewer than 1 percent as many; they remained so few, scattered, and transient-most of them living by fishing, hunting, and mining (7.1 percent by farming)-that Congress authorized them to elect a legislature only in 1912, and until after the early 1930s they were still fewer than they had been in 1900. Hawaii, in contrast, was growing faster than most of the West, and a larger part of the population lived on farms there than anywhere in the United States outside the lower South, Texas, Oklahoma, and Indian Territory. It had become more American under the native monarchy than Alaska had been Russian under the tsar. Impatient to get on to Samoa, Robert Louis Stevenson had felt "oppressed with civilisation" among the "beastly haoles" of Honolulu when he stopped there in 1889, four years before American missionaries and planters consolidated their control by proclaiming a republic. But most of the immigrants were male Oriental contract laborers ineligible for citizenship, who depressed levels of wages while the sugar planters who employed them controlled nearly all the arable land. In its economy and in its social structure, dominated by a few large landholders committed to a single crop cultivated by gang labor, it invited comparison with the slaveholding antebellum South rather than the West. "Hawaii is a paradise," Jack London wrote a few years later, but "a paradise for the well-to-do.... For the person without capital, dreaming to start on a shoe-string ..., Hawaii is the last place in the world. The shoe-string days are past." Congress had established a complete territorial government in 1900 despite the misgivings of leaders of the American minority who, in the words of one of them, did "not want to be swamped by Portuguese and natives." Although Honolulu recalled the winter resorts of southern California, and Juneau and later Fairbanks the mining camps of the Rockies, neither Hawaii nor Alaska fitted common expectations of westernness. Most Americans, like the governmental agencies that compiled information on them in separate categories, regarded them as distinct from their continental neighbors.

The newly admitted states had joined the United States economically no less than politically, as the most distinctively western occupations became less picturesque and at the same time more dependable as employment. As Rodman Paul has said, by the early 1870s, a quarter century after the discovery of gold at Sutter's mill, mining in California no longer offered a brave adventure and an equal chance at riches but the set conditions of an eastern factory town. In the same years metallurgists and mining engineers took direction of the complex ores of the hard-rock mines of Montana, and gold and silver soon were byproducts of the smelters and refineries that fed copper and lead to eastern factories. Even during the Alaskan gold rush that followed the strikes on the Klondike in 1896, American copper exceeded gold in value, as it did until the Depression of the 1930s. In Alaska, miners stood out for several years, approaching a fourth of the local labor force in 1900, a far higher fraction than in any other part of the United States, but amounted to only about a sixth the increase in miners in the rest of the Far West in the 1890s. In the cattle country declining numbers of ranchers continued to move stock from Texas after the hard winters of 1886 and 1887, but the last long drive was in 1897, when barbed wire shut off the remaining highway to the northern ranges. Although limited open-range roundups continued for a few years-as late as 1906 in Montana-most of those cowboys who still roped calves did it chiefly for amusement or for exhibition at rodeos staged as adjuncts to state fairs and other celebrations. The more successful cattlemen stopped fighting settlers and imitated them, buying homesteads, growing hay, and stringing barbed-wire fences. They did not raise stock quite in traditional middle western style, but they were less independent of tradition than they had thought they could be.

The West's coming of age in crop agriculture, no less than in stock-raising, consisted in taking on new ways, in realizing that western climate conveyed new limitations as well as new opportunities, and at the same time in adhering or returning to conventional practices. It had been so at earlier stages. The pioneers of western Kansas and Nebraska in the 1870s and 1880s convinced themselves that old warnings against drought were out-of-date, that the climate had changed, even that rain had followed the plow into the Great American Desert; many of them also farmed much as they had farmed in the eastern counties and in Iowa and Missouri in their first years-growing more corn (maize) than wheat. In the early 1890s Mary Elizabeth Lease spoke in the context of the economy of the central Mississippi Valley states when she told Populist farmers to raise less corn and more hell. For many of her hearers in western Kansas, coming to terms with the country included raising more wheat as well, giving up an old preference in crops. Farther north, in the Dakotas, pioneers had imported the enthusiasm for wheat already dominant in Minnesota; some of them had to learn to plant maize and other grains when returns on wheat fell. The best opportunities in the Red River Valley around 1875 seemed to be in bonanza farming, in applying machines to land in enormous assembly lines of wheat production. Both in the Dakotas and in Kansas and Nebraska, drought and pestilence were persuading farmers by the early 1890s to shift to units of more conventional size, to diversify, and especially to grow fodder for livestock, as well as to use new techniques to grow old crops (often new strains). The wheat farmers of the Pacific Northwest suffered no such striking natural reverses, soon adapting to the rolling hills of the Palouse country machinery initially devised for the large-scale operations on the flatlands of the central valleys of California and the Red River Valley; and much of the land opened for settlement in the Oklahoma District of Indian Territory (1889; 1890-1907, Oklahoma Territory) was well enough watered to permit conventional Mississippi Valley farming practices and to attract substantial numbers of refugees from the high plains to the north, some of them in time to face drought again in 1890 and 1894.


Excerpted from The American Far West in the Twentieth Century by Earl Pomeroy Copyright © 2008 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Howard R. Lamar Lamar, Howard R.

Acknowledgments Richard W. Etulain Etulain, Richard W.

1 The West in 1901 1

2 Agricultural Frontiers: New Farms and Family Farmers 20

3 Agricultural Frontiers: Farming on New Scales 53

4 New Forms of Economic Growth 89

5 Economic Growth from the 1940s 116

6 The Urban Occupation of the West: Rails, Roads, and Cities 149

7 Rails, Roads, and Cities from the Second World War 185

8 Social Relations and Social Attitudes: Cultural Bases 225

9 Social Relations and Social Attitudes: Putting Down Roots - Agencies of Acculturation 264

10 Western Politics 300

11 Expanding Electorates 338

12 Frontiers of Land and Opportunity: The Variously Far West 376

Notes 405

Supplemental Bibliography David M. Wrobel Wrobel, David M. 535

Index 549

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