Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Environmental Destruction, Lawlessness and Disorder in the Wild West

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below I tell of the chaos created by the Anglo conquest of the American West.


As early as 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, cowboys led the first great cattle drives from Texas to Missouri, where the livestock were put on trains bound for the Eastern markets. Cattle drives became the industry norm by the following year, aided in large part by the construction of the Kansas-Pacific Line in Abilene, Kansas. Previously forced to march cattle across Missouri to the nearest depot, cowboys could now simply cross the Indian Territory to the new railway station, which was 150 miles closer to the vast ranches in Texas. The invention of the refrigerated rail car in the 1870s turned Chicago into the famed cattle and “hog butcher of the world,” allowing trains to pick up beef and pork processed in the Windy City and ship the goods to the four corners of the country.

High profits in ranching, however, carried a heavy price. “The introduction of cattle, sheep, and goats was, in many regions, a shock to the ecological system from which it never quite recovered,” observed historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. Overgrazing and the repeated planting of the same grasses to feed livestock led to depletion of nutrients in Western soils, the erosion of topsoil, the removal of trees needed to anchor topsoil, and other factors that would create the devastating Dust Bowl in the Plains states in the 1930s.

Large ranchers would soon graze their cattle on millions of acres of free, unfenced public land, cutting into the grazing land left for the buffalo that the Plains Indians depended on for food and clothing. These moves increased Indian poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, needing wide-open spaces to feed their growing herds, cattle ranchers also fought "range wars" with farmers and sheep ranchers. In the 1880s, ranchers in the Plains suffered through record cold weather; thousands of cattle froze to death. In the 1890s an oversupply of beef caused prices to spiral downward. Ranchers abandoned the cattle trails, cut the size of their herds, and started buying or renting land, using barbed wire to fence in their livestock and feeding them hay or other feed stored for the winter. These barb-wired ranches further disrupted buffalo migratory patterns, contributing to their disappearance from the Plains. Ranchers also began breeding Angus and Hereford cattle that were significantly meatier than the leaner longhorns the cowboys had driven in the cattle drives. The increased volume of meat produced more than made up for the increased shipping costs ranchers encountered after the abandonment of cattle drives. The brief age of the cowboy disappeared as rapidly as it had arisen.

Before the Civil War, mining served as a major engine of the West’s economic growth. The 1858 discovery of gold in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado, and subsequent finds near modern-day Denver and Boulder, drew 100,000 prospectors into the area. Residents declared the birth of the state of Jefferson and applied to Congress for admission to the Union, but the Civil War delayed action, with Colorado not made a territory until 1861 or state until 1871. At the same time as the Colorado strikes, gold discoveries in Nevada sparked rapid population growth in that area as well, so that by 1864, just six years after the mines opened in Carson City and Virginia City, Nevada became the newest state.

Scientific discoveries in the Northeast also added impetus to Western migration. Profitable copper mines opened in Montana and Arizona partly as a result of several late 19th-century inventions including Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in 1876 and Thomas Edison's light bulb in 1879. These inventions created a demand for thousands of tons of copper wire. Mining towns sprang up across the western frontier.

Western bloodshed joined with violence against nature. Tombstone’s unexpected economic boom turned quickly to bust, and the aftermath left ugly ruins. Searching for ever-deeper veins of silver, miners in 1881 hit an underground river, forcing mining companies to purchase expensive pumps in order to keep the mines from flooding. By the end of the 1880s, a glut in the silver market drove prices for the precious metal rapidly downward, and the busy buzz of Tombstone’s boomtown days gave way to an eerie quiet. Mining companies left behind burned-out mills, waterlogged mines and abandoned homes, the townspeople migrating in search of the next rich strike.

The hydraulic mining used at the Comstock Lode, a rich source of silver found in California in 1859, poisoned salmon streams and filled the soil with toxic metals. To fuel metal smelting, loggers stripped forests near Virginia City, Nevada. Mercury mining poisoned San Francisco Bay. Elsewhere, hydraulic mining of copper created huge heaps of tailings, poisoning the soil and leaving an often barren, strip-mined landscape, with mountains reduced to ugly streams of muddy ooze.

Mining camps drew diverse populations, with Anglos from across the country joining Civil War draft dodgers and deserters from the North, migrant Mexican workers from the New Mexico territory, Eastern and Southern European immigrants and imported Chinese labor. Mining towns often became anarchic centers of violence. The discovery of precious metals and ores often spurred both rapid economic development and lawlessness. The discovery of nearby silver in 1878 led to the breathtaking industrialization of Tombstone, Arizona, which lay fifty miles south of the Southern Pacific Railroad line. In spite of its distance from a main travel artery, prospectors swamped the region even as quartz mills dotted the surrounding landscape. From 1881 to 1882 Tombstone’s population exploded from just below 1,000 to perhaps as many as 14,000.

As housing, saloons and the other infrastructure of frontier towns rapidly rose in the desert landscape, new residents denuded the surrounding countryside in search of lumber for buildings and cordwood for cooking and warming hearths. Population growth attracted livestock ranchers, and a one-time isolated blip on the arid landscape gave birth to a vibrant livestock industry, which further stressed the local environment. Such breathtaking growth outstripped the development of local civic institutions. Crude economic competition, racial tensions, a lack of faith in the local justice system, and the notion of popular sovereignty also encouraged widespread Western violence.

The presence of silver and livestock attracted bands of robbers and cattle thieves organized into criminal gangs, such as the Clanton family and the McLaury brothers, that often preyed on the local Mexican population. Mostly Anglo men from Texas, these outlaws, often called by locals the “cow-boys,” held “feelings towards Mexicans [that were] so bitter that they had no compunction about stealing from them or shooting and robbing them,” as one resident observed. The cow-boys crisscrossed the Arizona-Mexico border, stealing cattle in Sonora in North Mexico and selling it in the United States, or vice-versa. These raids often resulted in murder, such as the mass killing of eight Mexicans in Skeleton Canyon in July 1881.

Mining regions often sought to improvise a legal system, well ahead of the establishment of a territorial or state government. In Jacksonville, Wyoming, for instance, miners elected a magistrate and a sheriff. The prospectors and miners served on improvised juries in criminal and civil cases. Any murderer, horse or mule thief, anyone who stole gold dust from a miner’s tent, or any items valued at more than $100 (around $1,300 today) faced a possible hanging. Thieves taking less than $100 faced having their heads and eyebrows shaved and expulsion from the mining camp. Many criminals, however, escaped these fates. As the historian Frederick Merck noted, “When crimes were detected, punishment was uncertain. A miner’s camp meeting was prone to gusts of feeling, rage in some cases, maudlin sympathy in others. Since crime was not effectively dealt with, vigilante committees had to be set up . . .”

Vigilante justice, however, remained part of Western life even after formal courts and government institutions had been established. According to Western historian Michael J. Pfeifer, 23 lynch mobs killed 36 persons in Wyoming between 1878 and 1918. Whites accounted for most of the victims, twenty-five, while mobs murdered four blacks, four Indians, and one Hispanic victim. In California from 1875 and 1947, 42 lynch mobs murdered 34 whites, fourteen Hispanics, eight Indians, three Chinese immigrants, and two African Americans. Complex social currents sparked Western lynchings, Pfeiffer argues. “Collective killings were sometimes performed by groups of working class white men suddenly aroused by news of a crime that seemed to offend wageworkers’ sense of social order,” Pfeiffer wrote. “Racial, ethnic, and gender ideologies had particular effect in transient settings where mobile, exploited workers often did not know each other well. Laborers such as miners, loggers, and railroad men relied instead on informal, hastily constructed reputations predicated upon personal friendship, and on the reflexive comfort of racial and ethnic solidarities amid temporary social crisis. Working class men might respond with nearly spontaneous lethal violence to alleged violations of sexual and gender etiquette, especially those tinged with racial and ethnic overtones.”

Outside of mining and logging camps, robberies and vengeance killings became part of the West's daily routine. One murder per night is estimated to have taken place at Gibson Station in the Indian Territory. The Indian Territory became known as the “Robber’s Roost” and a local proverb proclaimed, “There is no Sunday west of St. Louis – no God west of Fort Smith.”


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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