In O. E.Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth, a small caravan of Norwegian immigrants stopped on the prairie, and the riders got down from their wagons. They scanned the landscape in all directions and liked what they saw. It was beautiful, all good plowland and clean of any sign of human habitation all the way to the horizon. After so much hoping and planning, they had finally found their place in the new land. One of the men, Per Hansa, still had difficulty comprehending what was happening:
This vast stretch of beautiful land was to be his--yes, his. . . . His heart began to expand with a mighty exaltation. An emotion he had never felt before filled him and made him walk erect. . . . ‘Good God!’ he panted. ‘This kingdom is going to be mine.”
Countless others who went to the West reacted like Rölvaag's Per Hansa. They entered the Promised Land with high expectations, possessed the land and were possessed by it. They changed the land and in time were changed by it.
The influence of the West on the American mind has interested historians ever since Frederick Jackson Turner read his momentous essay in 1893 to a meeting of the American Historical Association. In the essay, Turner concluded: "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” Turner went on to describe in some detail the various ways the western environment changed the frontiersman, molding him into the American. The processes and result of this evolution were in the end, by implication, favorable.
Writing in the early 1890s, Turner did not detect one of the most important themes, if not the most important, of the westward movement, a theme which would have immense impact on the shaping of the American character. This was the belief that the resources of the West were in‑ exhaustible. Henry Nash Smith, in his influential Virgin Land, caught the point that Turner missed:
The character of the American empire was defined not by streams of influence out of the past, not by a cultural tradition, nor by its place in a world community, but by a relation between man and nature‑-or rather, even more narrowly, between American man and the American West. This relation was thought of as unvaryingly fortunate.
This cornucopian view of the West was the basis of the frontiersman's attitude toward and his use of the land. The typical trans‑Mississippi emigrant in the last half of the nineteenth century accepted the assumption of exhaustible resources. Yet the view of the West as an everlasting horn of plenty had been proven false long before the post‑Civil War exodus. For example, commercial hunting of the sea otter along the California coast, which had begun in 1784, reached its peak around 1815; by the mid-1840s, the numbers of the animals had declined alarmingly, and the otter was soon hunted almost to extinction. The beaver's fate was similar. Soon after Lewis and Clark told about the teeming beaver populations in western streams, trappers moved westward to harvest the furs. They worked streams so relentlessly that the beaver began to disappear in areas where it had always been plentiful.
By 1840, the beaver had been trapped virtually to oblivion. No mountain man in the 1820s would have dreamed there could ever be an end to the hardy little animal. Yet unbridled exploitation had nearly condemned the beaver to extinction. The lesson was lost on Westerners.
Pioneers were not noticeably swayed by the arguments of the naturalists, who publicized the wonders of nature or went further and pled for its preservation. William Bartram, a contemporary of Jefferson, wrote eloquently about the beauty of American nature in his Travels. Originally published in 1791, his book was more popular in Europe than in the United States, which had yet to discover its aesthetic environment. John James Audubon had more influence in this country upon publication of his Birds of America series (1827‑1844) and his subsequent call for protection of wildlife. Francis Parkman, while not famed as a naturalist, wrote firsthand accounts about the scenic West and the Indian inhabitants who lived in harmony with nature. It is no wonder that Parkman, who was enthralled with the outdoors, admired Indians and mountain men more than the settlers he encountered during his western travels.
There was indeed a whole body of romantic literature and art during the first half of the nineteenth century that might have persuaded Americans that environmental values could be measured in terms other than economic. William Cullen Bryant wrote with such depth of feeling about the simple pleasures of the outdoors that he is still known as one of our foremost nature poets. The founding spirit of transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote in his first book, Nature:
In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man. . . . In the woods, is perpetual youth.... In the woods, we return to reason and faith . . . . The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. . . . In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.
Emerson's contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, was even less restrained in his adoration of untamed nature when he wrote: "In Wildness is the preservation of the World." At the same time, Thomas Cole and the Hudson River school of landscape painters captured on canvas the essence of nature that the romantic writers had recorded in prose and poetry. And farther west, beyond the Mississippi River, George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, and Alfred Jacob Miller were painting the exotic wilderness that increasingly drew the attention of Americans.
Unmoved by praise of the aesthetic quality of the environment, frontiersmen were even less impressed by warnings that its resources were not without end. Every American generation since the colonial period had been told of the virtue of using natural resources wisely. An ordinance of Plymouth Colony had regulated the cutting of timber. William Penn had decreed that one acre of trees be left undisturbed for every five acres cleared. In 1864, only a moment before the beginning of the migration that would cover the West within one generation, George Perkins Marsh published his book, Man and Nature, the most eloquent statement up to that time of the disastrous result that must follow careless stewardship of the land. “Man has too long forgotten,” he wrote, "that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste." That is, man could and should both cherish and use the land, but he should not use it up. The significance in Marsh's warning was the recognition that the land could be used up.
While American ambassador to Italy, Marsh had theorized that ancient Rome's fall could be traced to the depletion of the empire's forests. He predicted a like fate for the United States if its resources were similarly squandered. Marsh's book appears to have been widely read by American intellectuals and probably favorably influenced the movements for national parks and forestry management. In it, indeed, were the seeds of the conservation movement of the early twentieth century. Yet it is unlikely that many frontiersmen read or were aware of‑-or at least they did not heed‑-Marsh's advice.
Pioneers heard a different drummer. They read descriptions about the West written by people who had been there. Lansford W. Hastings's glowing picture of California and Oregon thrilled thousands:
In view of their increasing population, accumulating wealth, and growing prosperity, I can not but believe, that the time is not distant, when those wild forests, trackless plains, untrodden valleys, and the unbounded ocean, will present one grand scene, of continuous improvements, universal enterprise, and unparalleled commerce: when those vast forests, shall have disappeared, before the hardy pioneer; those extensive plains, shall abound with innumerable herds, of domestic animals; those fertile valleys, shall groan under the immense weight of their abundant products: when those numerous rivers shall team [sic] with countless steam‑boats, steam‑ships, ships, barques and brigs; when the entire country, will be everywhere intersected, with turnpike roads, rail‑roads and canals; and when, all the vastly numerous, and rich resources, of that now, almost unknown region, will be fully and advantageously developed.
Once developed, hopeful emigrants learned, the area would become the garden of the world. In the widely‑distributed Our Western Empire: or the New West Beyond the Mississippi, Linus P. Brockett wrote that “in no part of the vast domain of the United States, and certainly in no other country under the sun, is there a body of land of equal extent, in which there are so few acres unfit for cultivation, or so many which, with irrigation or without it, will yield such bountiful crops.”
Other books described the routes to the Promised Land. The way west was almost without exception easy and well‑watered, with plenty of wood, game, and grass.
There was not just opportunity on the frontier. Walt Whitman also saw romance in the westward migration:
Come my tan‑faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp‑edged
Pioneers! 0 pioneers!
For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us
Pioneers! O pioneers! . . .
We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep
the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil
Pioneers! 0 pioneers! . . .
Swift! to the head of the army!‑-swift! spring to your
places, Pioneers! 0 Pioneers!
The ingredients were all there: danger, youth, virgin soil. Well might frontiersmen agree with Mark Twain who wrote that the first question asked by the American, upon reaching heaven, was: “Which way West?” Thoreau also thought a western course a natural one:
When I go out of the house for a walk . . . my needle . . . always settles between west and south‑southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side. . . . westward I go free. . . . I must walk toward Oregon.
Emigrants felt this same pull but for different reasons. Thoreau’s West was a wild region to be enjoyed for itself and preserved untouched, while the West to the emigrants was a place for a new start. The pioneers would conquer the wilderness and gather its immeasurable bounty. This did not imply that Westerners were oblivious to the beauty of the land. Many were aware of the West's scenic attractions but felt, with the influential artist Thomas Cole, that the wilderness, however beautiful, inevitably must give way to progress. In his "Essay on American Scenery," Cole described the sweet joys of nature--the mountains, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and sky.
The essay, dated 1835, is nostalgic. Cole closed his paean with an expression of "sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away . . . desecrated by what is called improvement." But, after all, he added, "such is the road society has to travel." Clearly, Cole, like most of his nineteenth‑century readers, did not question the propriety of "improvement" or the definition of "progress".
The belief in the inexhaustibility of western resources was superimposed on an attitude toward the land that Americans had inherited from generations past. In the Judeo‑Christian view, God created the world for man. Man was the master of nature rather than a part of it. The re‑ sources of the earth‑-soil, water, plants, animals, insects, rocks, fish, birds, air‑-were there for his use, and his proper role was to dominate. It was natural then for God’s children to harvest the rich garden provided for them by their Creator. They went into the West to do God's bidding, to use the land as he willed, to fulfill a destiny.
This attitude of man‑over‑nature was not universal. Like most primitive cultures throughout history, it was not held by the American Indian. The Indian saw himself as a part of nature, not its master. He felt a close kinship with the earth and all living things. Black Elk, a holy man of the Oglala Sioux, for example, believed that all living things were the children of the sky, their father, and the earth, their mother. He had special reverence for "the earth, from whence we came and at whose breast we suck as babies all our lives, along with all the animals and birds and trees and grasses." Creation legends of many tribes illustrate the Indian's familial attachment to the earth and his symbiotic relationship with other forms of life.
The land to Indians was more than merely a means of livelihood for the current generation. It belonged not only to them, the living, but to all generations of their people, those who came before and those who would come after. They could not separate themselves from the land. Of course, there were exceptions. Some Indians fell under the spell of the white trader who offered them goods that would make their lives easier, not to say better. As they became dependent on white man's goods, the land and its fruits began to assume for them an economic value that might be bartered for the conveniences produced by the white man's technology. This is not to say that the Indian attitude toward the land changed. Rather it illustrates that some Indians adopted the white man's view.
To European‑Americans, the western Indians' use of the land was just another proof of their savagery. The pioneers had listened to the preachers of Manifest Destiny, and they knew that the nomadic tribes must stand aside for God's Chosen People who would use the land as God intended.
And so they returned to Eden. While some went to California and some to Oregon, the most coherent migration before the rush for California gold began in 1849 was the Mormon exodus to Salt Lake Valley. The latter was not typical of the westward movement. The persecuted saints entered the West not so much for its lure as because of its inaccessibility. In 1830, the same year that the Mormon Church was founded, Joseph Smith announced a revelation which would lead eventually to‑‑or at least foresaw-‑the great migration:
And ye are called to bring to pass the gathering of mine elect . . . unto one place upon the face of this land . . . [which] . . . shall be on the borders by the Lamanites [Indians]. . . . The glory of the Lord shall be there, and it shall be called Zion. . . . The righteous shall be gathered out from among all nations, and shall come to Zion, singing with songs of everlasting joy.
Mormons who trekked to the Utah settlements in the late 1840s and 1850s knew they were doing God's bidding.
Other emigrants were just as sure that the Lord had prepared a place for them. "Truly the God in Heaven," wrote an Oregon‑bound traveler in 1853, "has spread in rich profusion around us everything which could happify man and reveal the Wisdom and Benevolence of God to man." Oregon Trail travelers often noted in their journals that they were going to the "Promised Land". In A. B. Guthrie's The Way West, Fairman, who would be leaving Independence shortly for Oregon, proposed a toast "to a place where there's no fever." McBee, another emigrant, impatient to get started, responded:
‘Y God, yes. . . . and to soil rich as anything. Plant a nail and it'll come up a spike. I heerd you don't never have to put up hay, the grass is that good, winter and all. And lambs come twice a year. Just set by and let the grass grow and the critters birth and get fat. That's my idee of farmin’.
It seems that most emigrants, in spite of the humor, did not expect their animals or themselves to wax fat in the new land without working. God would provide, but they must harvest.
Following close on the heels of the Oregon Trail farmers, and sometimes traveling in the same wagon trains, were the miners. This rough band of transients hardly thought of themselves as God's children, but they did nevertheless accept the horn‑of‑plenty image of the West. Granville Stuart wrote from the California mines that "no such enormous amounts of gold had been found anywhere before, and . . . they all believed that the supply was inexhaustible." Theirs was not an everflowing cornucopia, however, and each miner hoped to be in the right spot with an open sack when the horn tipped to release its wealth.
The typical miner wanted to get as rich as possible as quickly as possible so he could return home to family, friends, and a nabob's retirement. This condition is delightfully pictured in the frontispiece illustration in Mark Twain's Roughing It. A dozing miner is seated on a barrel in his cabin, his tools on the floor beside him. He is dreaming about the future: a country estate, yachting, carriage rides and walks in the park with a lady, an ocean voyage and a tour of Europe, viewing the pyramids. The dreams of other miners, while not so grand, still evoked pleasant images of home and an impatience to return there. This yearning is obvious in the lines of a miner's song of the 1850s:
Home's dearest joys Time soon destroys,
Their loss we all deplore;
While they may last, we labor fast
To dig the golden ore.
When the land has yielded its riches:
Then home again, home again,
From a foreign shore,
We'll sing how sweet our heart's delight,
With our dear friends once more.
Miners' diaries often reflected these same sentiments, perhaps with less honeyed phrases but with no less passion. A practical-minded argonaut, writing in 1852 from California to his sister in Alabama, explained his reason for going to the mines: “I think in one year here I can make enough to clear me of debt and give me a pretty good start in the world. Then I will be a happy man.” What then? He instructed his sister to tell all his friends that he would soon be “back whare [sic] I can enjoy there [sic] company.” Other miners thought it would take a little longer, but the motives were the same. A California miner later reminisced:
Five years was the longest period any one expected to stay. Five years at most was to be given to rifling California of her treasures, and then that country was to be thrown aside like a used-up newspaper and the rich adventurers would spend the remainder of their days in wealth, peace, and prosperity at their eastern homes. No one talked then about going out “to build up the glorious State of California.”
The fact that many belatedly found that California was more than worked-out diggings and stayed--pronouncing the state glorious and themselves founding fathers--does not change their motives for going there.
There was a substantial body of miners, perpetually on the move, rowdies usually, the frontier fraternity boys, whose home was the mining camp and whose friends were largely miners like themselves. They rushed around the West to every discovery of gold or silver in a vain attempt to get rich without working. Though they had no visions of returning east to family and fireside, they did believe that the West was plentifully supplied with riches. It was just their bad luck that they had not found their shares.
Their original reason for going to the mining camps and, though they might enjoy the camaraderie of their fellows, their reason for staying, was the same as that of the more genteel sort of miner who had come to the western wilderness, fully expecting to return to the East. More than any other emigrant to the West, the miner’s motive was unabashed exploitation. For the most part, he did not conserve, preserve, or enrich the land. His intention, far from honorable, was rape.
The cattleman was a transition figure between the miner who stripped the land and the farmer who, while stripping the land, also cherished it. The West to the cattleman meant grass and water, free or cheap. The earliest ranchers on the plains raised beef for the eastern markets and for the government, which had decreed that the cow replace the buffalo in the Plains Indians’ life-style. The Indians, except for a few “renegades,” complied, though they were never quite able to work the steer into their religion.
It was not long before word filtered back to the East that fortunes could be made in western stock raising. James Brisbin’s Beef Bonanza; or, How to get Rich on the Plains, first published in 1881, was widely read. Readers were dazzled by the author's minutely documented “proof” that an industrious man could more than double his investment in less than five years. Furthermore, there was almost no risk involved:
In a climate so mild that horses, cattle, and sheep and goats can live in the open air through all the winter months, and fatten on the dry and apparently withered grasses of the soil, there would appear to be scarcely a limit to the number that could be raised.
Experienced and inexperienced alike responded. Getting rich, they thought, was only a matter of time, not expertise.
Entrepreneurs and capital, American and foreign, poured into the West. Most of the rangeland was not in private ownership. Except for small tracts, generally homesteaded along water courses or as sites for home ranches, it was public property. Though a cattleman might claim rights to a certain range, and though an association of cattlemen might try to enforce the claims of its members, legally the land was open, free, and available.
By the mid-1880s, the range was grossly overstocked. The injury to the land was everywhere apparent. While some began to counsel restraint, most ranchers continued to ravish the country until the winter of 1886‑1887 forced them to respect it. Following that most disastrous of winters, which in some areas killed as much as 85 percent of range stock, one chastened cattle king wrote that the cattle business "that had been fascinating to me before, suddenly became distasteful. . . . I never wanted to own again an animal that I could not feed and shelter." The industry gradually recovered, but it would never be the same. More land was fenced, wells dug, and windmills installed. Shelters for cattle were built, and hay was grown for winter feeding. Cattle raising became less an adventure and more a business.
In some cattlemen there grew an attachment, if not affection, for the land. Some, especially after the winter of 1886‑1887, began to put down roots. Others who could afford it built luxurious homes in the towns to escape the deficiencies of the countryside, much as twentieth‑century townsmen would build cabins in the country to escape the deficiencies of the cities. Probably most cattlemen after the winter of 1886-1887 still believed in the bounty of the West, but a bounty which they now recognized would be released to them only through husbandry.
Among all those who went into the West to seek their fortunes, the frontier farmers carried with them the highest hopes and greatest faith. Their forebears had been told for generations that they were the most valuable citizens, chosen of God, and that their destiny lay westward. John Filson, writing in 1784 about frontier Kentucky, described the mystique of the West that would be understood by post‑Civil War emigrants:
This fertile region, abounding with all the luxuries of nature, stored with all the principal materials for art and industry, inhabited by virtuous and ingenious citizens, must universally attract the attention of mankind" [There,] like the land of promise, flowing with milk and honey, a land of brooks of water, . . . a land of wheat and barley, and all kinds of fruits, you shall eat bread without scarceness, and not lack any thing in it.
By 1865 the Civil War had settled the controversy between North and South that had hindered the westward movement, the Homestead Act had been passed, and the Myth of the Garden had replaced the Myth of the Desert. By the grace of God and with the blessing of Washington, the frontier farmer left the old land to claim his own in the new:
Born of a free, world‑wandering race,
Little we yearned o'er an oft‑turned sod.
What did we care for the father's place,
Having ours fresh from the hand of God?
Farmers were attracted to the plains by the glowing accounts distributed by railroads and western states. Newspapers in the frontier states added their accolades. The editor of the Kansas Farmer declared in 1867 that there were in his state "vast areas of unimproved land, rich as that on the banks of the far famed Nile, . . . acres, miles, leagues, townships, counties,‑‑oceans of land, all ready for the plough, good as the best in America, and yet lying without occupants." Would‑be emigrants who believed this sort of propaganda could sing with conviction:
Oh! give me a home where the buffalo roam,
Where the deer and the antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.
There was a reason for the sky's clarity, the emigrants learned when they arrived on the plains. It was not long before many had changed their song:
We've reached the land of desert sweet,
Where nothing grows for man to eat;
I look across the plains
And wonder why it never rains.
And, finally, sang to the cadence of a "slow, sad march":
We do not live, we only stay;
We are too poor to get away.
It is difficult to generalize about the experience of pioneer farmers. Those who continued their journeys to the Pacific Coast regions were usually satisfied with what they found. It was those who settled on the plains who were most likely to be disillusioned. Their experience was particularly shattering since they had gone to the West not just to reap in it but also to live in it. Most found not the land of milk and honey they expected, but, it seems, a life of drudgery and isolation.
The most persistent theme in the literature of the period is disenchantment. This mood is caught best by Hamlin Garland. In Main‑Travelled Roads, Garland acknowledged two views of the plains experience when he wrote that the main-travelled road in the West, hot and dusty in summer, muddy and dreary in fall and spring, and snowy in winter, "does sometimes cross a rich meadow where the songs of the larks and bobolinks and blackbirds are tangled." But Garland’s literary road is less cluttered: "Mainly it is long and wearyful, and has a dull little town at one end and a home of toil at the other. Like the main‑travelled road of life it is traversed by many classes of people, but the poor and the weary predominate."
The opposite responses to the plains are more pronounced in 0. E. Rölvaag's Giants in the Earth, one of the most enduring novels of the agricultural West. Per Hansa meets the challenge of the new land, overcomes obstacles and rejoices in each success, however small. He accepts the prairie for what it is and loves it. Meanwhile, his wife, Beret, is gradually driven insane by that same prairie.
Where Per Hansa saw hope and excitement in the land, Beret saw only despair and loneliness. "Oh, how quickly it grows dark out here!" she cries, to which Per Hansa replies, "The sooner the day's over, the sooner the next day comes!" In spite of her husband's optimistic outlook, Beret's growing insanity dominates the story as it moves with gloomy intensity to its tragic end. It is significant that Per Hansa dies, a victim of the nature that he did not fear but could not subdue.
Willa Cather, the best‑known novelist of nineteenth‑century prairie farm life, treated relationships between people and their environment more sensitively than most. While her earlier short stories often dwell on themes of man against the harsh land, her works thereafter, without glossing over the severity of farm life, reveal a certain harmony between the land and those who live on it and love it. Her characters work hard, and suffer; but they are not immune to the loveliness of the land.
The histories of plains farming dwell more on processes than suffering, but accounts that treat the responses of the settlers to their environment generally verify the novelists' interpretations. According to the histories, the picture of desperation painted by Garland and Rölvaag applies principally to the earliest years of any particular frontier region. By the time sod houses acquired board floors and women were able to visit with other women regularly, Cather's images are more accurate.
The fact that pioneer farmers were not completely satisfied with what they found in the Promised Land does not alter their reasons for going there. They had gone into the West for essentially the same reason as the trappers, miners, and cattlemen: economic exploitation. Unlike their predecessors, they also had been looking for homes. Yet, like them, they had believed fervently in the Myth of Superabundance.
The irrational belief that the West’s resources were so great that they could never be used up was questioned by some at the very time that others considered it an article of faith. George Perkins marsh in 1864 warned of the consequences of a too rapid consumption of the land’s resources. In 1878, John Wesley Powell attacked the Myth of the Garden when he pointed out that a substantial portion of western land, previously thought to be cultivable by eastern methods, could be farmed successfully only by irrigation. Overgrazing of grasslands resulted in the intrusion of weeds and the erosion of soil, prompting many ranchers, especially after the devastating winter of 1886-1887, to contract their operations and practice range management. Plowing land where rainfall was inadequate for traditional farming methods resulted in wind and water erosion of the soil.
Before the introduction of irrigation or dry farming techniques, many plains farmers gave up and returned eastward. The buffalo, which might have numbered fifty million or more at mid-century, were hunted almost to extinction by 1883. Passenger pigeons were estimated to number in the billions in the first half of the nineteenth century: around 1810, Alexander Wilson, an ornithologist, guessed that a single flock, a mile wide and 240 miles long, contained more than two billion birds. Yet before the end of the century, market hunting and the clearing of forest habitats had doomed the passenger pigeon to extinction. Examples of this sort led many people to the inescapable conclusion that the West's sources were not inexhaustible.
At the same time a growing number of people saw values other than economic in the West. Some plains farmers struggling with intermittent drought and mortgage still see the beauty of the land. Alexandra in Cather’s O Pioneers! could see it: "When the road began to climb the first long swells of the Divide, Alexandra hummed an old Swedish hymn. . . . Her face was so radiant" as she looked at the land "with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.”
Theodore Roosevelt wrote often of the “delicious” rides he took at his Badlands ranch during autumn and spring. He described the rolling, green grasslands; the prairie roses; the black tail and whitetail deer; the songs of the skylark; the white-shouldered lark-bunting; and the sweet voice of the meadowlark, his favorite. Of a moonlight ride, he wrote that the "river gleams like running quicksilver, and the moonbeams play over the grassy stretches of the plateaus and glance off the wind‑rippled blades as they would from water." Lincoln Lang, a neighbor of Roosevelt's, had the same feeling for the land. He called the Badlands "a landscape masterpiece of the wild, . . . verdant valleys, teeming with wild life, with wild fruits and flowers, . . . with the God‑given atmosphere of truth itself, over which unshackled Nature, alone, reigned queen."
Even miners were not immune to the loveliness of the countryside. Granville Stuart, working in the California mines, was struck by the majestic forests of sugar pine, yellow pine, fir, oak, and dogwood. He described the songs and coloration of the birds and the woodpeckers' habit of storing acorns in holes that they meticulously pecked in tree limbs. He delighted in watching a covey of quail near his cabin each day. "Never was I guilty of killing one," he added.
Bret Harte lived among the California miners, and his stories often turn to descriptions of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. After the birth of "The Luck" in Roaring Camp, the proud, self‑appointed godfathers decorated the baby's "bower with flowers and sweet‑smelling shrubs, . . . wild honey‑suckles, azaleas, or the painted blossoms of Las Mariposas. The men had suddenly awakened to the fact that there were beauty and significance in these trifles, which they had so long trodden carelessly beneath their feet."
Success of some sort often broadened the frontiersman’s viewpoint. The miner, cattleman, or farmer who had succeeded in some way in his struggle with the land had more time and inclination to think about his relationship with it. Viewing his environment less as an adversary, the Westerner began to see what was happening to it.
At times, concern for the environment led to action. The mounting protests of Californians whose homes and farms had been damaged by the silt‑laden runoff from hydraulic mining finally led to the outlawing of this mindless destruction of the land. Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed New York’s Central Park, initiated an era in 1864 when he and some friends persuaded Congress to grant to the state of California a piece of land in California’s Sierra Nevada for the creation of a park, merely because the land, which included Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Trees, was beautiful and the public would enjoy it.
The idea took hold, and other parks soon followed, Yellowstone in 1872 being the first public “pleasuring ground” under federal management. The new art of landscape photography showed Easterners the wonders of the West, without the hardships of getting there, and revealed to many Westerners a land they inhabited but had never seen. With the improvement in transportation, principally railroads, more and more people ventured into the West to see these wonders firsthand.
A growing awareness that unrestrained exploitation was fast destroying the natural beauty of the West and that its resources, by the end of the nineteenth century widely acknowledged to be finite, were being consumed at an alarming pace led to considerable soul‑searching. Frederick Jackson Turner, who had most eloquently described the influence that the great expanses of western land had on the shaping of American character, also hinted that the disappearance of available land was likely to cause some serious disruptions in American society. "The frontier has gone," he wrote, "and with its going has closed the first period of American history."
If the first phase of American history, in which a dominant theme was the advance of the frontier, ran from 1607 to 1890, the second phase began with the emergence of the conservation movement which would lead to the alteration of fundamental attitudes toward the land nurtured during the first phase. While based generally on concern for the environment, the movement split in the early twentieth century into two factions. One faction argued for wise management of the country's resources to prevent their being wasted.
This "utilitarian conservation" was not a break with the frontier view of exploitation. It was a refinement. While the frontier view was one of rapid exploitation of inexhaustible resources, the utilitarian conservationists rejected the myth of inexhaustibility and advocated the careful use of finite resources, without rejecting the basic assumption that the resources were there to be exploited. This view of conservation led to the setting aside and management of forest reserves, soil and water conservation projects, and irrigation and hydroelectric programs.
The other faction, whose ideology has been called "aesthetic conservation," clearly broke with the frontier past when its members argued for the preservation of areas of natural beauty for public enjoyment. This group's efforts bore fruit in the establishment of national and state parks, monuments and wilderness areas. There are indications that the two factions are drawing closer together in the umbrella ecology movement of the 1970s, perhaps eventually to merge.
It is senseless to compare nineteenth‑century frontier attitudes toward the land with today's more enlightened views. Faced seemingly with such plenty‑-billions of passenger pigeons, millions of buffalo, innumerable beaver, endless seas of grass, vast forests of giant trees, mines to shame King Solomon's‑-excess was understandable and probably inevitable. Excess in this case meant waste. Here the Turner thesis is most meaningful, for the belief in the inexhaustibility of resources in the West generated the unique American acceptance of waste as the fundamental tenet of a life‑style. For this, the frontiersman is not entirely blameless. But certainly, he is less blameworthy than the neo‑pioneer who continues, against reason and history, to cling hopefully to the myth of inexhaustibility. Yet there were examples, however few, and voices, however dim, that the frontiersman might have heeded. It remains to be seen whether Americans today have learned the lesson their ancestors, four generations removed, failed to comprehend.
There are few comprehensive surveys of the evolution of American attitudes toward the environment. Three useful sources are Stewart L. Udall, The Quiet Crisis (New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1963); Hans Huth, Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (Berkeley: University of California, 1957); and Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, rev. ed. (New Haven: Yale University, 1973), the last particularly concerned with the American response to wilderness. Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, which inevitably must be considered in any study of the relationship between Americans and their environment, is in his The Frontier in American History (New York: Henry Holt, 1921). Invaluable to an understanding of what Americans thought the West was is Henry Nash Smith, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (New York: Vintage Books, 1950). The most influential book of the twentieth century in the development of a land ethic is Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University, 1949).
Selections from historical materials and literature were blended in this study to illustrate western emigrants' expectations for and responses to the new country. In addition to titles listed in the text, literary impressions of nature are in Wilson 0. Clough, The Necessary Earth: Nature and Solitude in American Literature (Austin: University of Texas, 1964) and John Conron, The American Landscape: A Critical Anthology of Prose and Poetry (New York: Oxford University, 1974). Useful bibliographies of the literature of the westward movement are Lucy Lockwood Hazard, The Frontier in American Literature (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1927) and Richard W. Etulain, Western American Literature (Vermillion, S.D.: University of South Dakota, 1972). Bibliographies of historical materials are in Ray Allen Billington, Westward Expansion, 4th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1974), and Nelson Klose, A Concise Study Guide to the American Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1964).
This article originally published in The American West (May/June 1977). It was reprinted in American History: Pre-Colonial Through Reconstruction, Vol. I of Annual Editions. Guilford, Connecticut: The Dushkin Publishing Group, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1991, perhaps others.
Causes Harlan Hague Supports
Oxfam, Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, Central Asia Institute