Presentation on theme: "Myth #6: The west was settled by exceptional and individualistic American initiative, not by government handouts."— Presentation transcript:
Myth #6: The west was settled by exceptional and individualistic American initiative, not by government handouts.
Reality: The frontier could not have been settled without large scale assistance from the federal government. Congress created 2 types of federal assistance to settle the west – The Homestead Act of 1862 and the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.
The Homestead Act of 1862 Anyone could file for 160 acres of free land that was yours after 5 years if you built a house on it, dug a well, plowed 10 acres, fenced a portion, and lived there. Settlers could obtain the land without residence by paying $1.25 per acre. Between 1862-1900, homesteaders settled a small percentage of land. At most, farmers acquired 1 of every 6 acres and possibly only 1 in 9 acres. The railroad companies and land speculators obtained the bulk of the land.
The Pacific Railroad Act - Land Grants The Pacific Railroad Bill 1862 Congress gave the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads huge land grants – 400-foot right-of-ways plus ten square miles of land (ten sections) adjacent to the track for every mile of track built, not in a continuous swath but in a "checkerboard" pattern. The railroads also received land for stations, machine shops, roundabouts, and other structures, as well as earth, stone, timber, and materials for construction. Altogether, the railroads received millions of acres of free land.
How did these frontier myths become the basis for what we believe about the frontier? In 1883, Buffalo Bill Cody brought his gaudy and romanticized version of the Wild West to the World. In 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau announced the disappearance of a contiguous frontier line. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered what came to be called the “Frontier Thesis.” Beginning in the 1940s, historians heralded Turner’s thesis and built a historical understanding that dominated the American interpretation of the West.
Buffalo Bill Cody and the Wild West Show Buffalo Bill's Wild West promised "a year's visit West in three hours.” Every show included Indian attacks on a wagon train (saved by Buffalo Bill), a lonely homestead (saved by Buffalo Bill) an authentic Deadwood Stagecoach (also saved by Buffalo Bill), plus a buffalo hunt, Pony Express riders, & Mexican vaqueros. The finale was a re-enactment of "Custer's Last Stand," with Buffalo Bill himself charging onto the battlefield at the end while the tragic words "TOO LATE" were projected onto a screen behind him.
According to Historian Richard Wright… "This is a show about the conquest of the West, but everything that the audience sees is Indians attacking whites. It's a strange story of an inverted conquest... a celebration of conquest in which the conquerors are the victims. And there's something... deeply weird about this.... It's conquest won without the guilt. We didn't plan it; they attacked us, and when we ended up, we had the whole continent.”
U.S. Census Bureau and the end of the frontier… In 1890 the superintendent of the U.S. Census announced that rapid western settlement meant that "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line."
Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” While “civilizing” the frontier - “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” - Anglo Americans developed unique cultural traits: "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism."
To Turner… Individualistic democracy - created by individuals who were forced to rely upon their own wits and strengths - was the most important effect of the frontier. American exceptionalism was embedded in the “civilizing” efforts of Manifest Destiny. The frontier, then, was the key to understanding U.S. history. It was a place full of rugged, exceptional individualists who, with the help of God, were destined to spread democracy across the continent.
Traditional Historical Interpretation of the frontier: Historians writing from the 1940s-1950s saw everything good and progressive about America in the westward movement - brave, exceptional men taming an empty land who moved west to plant noble American institutions amidst a harsh and forbidding environment and in so doing, conquered every obstacle along the way. In short, this interpretation was that westward expansion was a great era of progress in American history.
And this progressive image does not change until the 1980s… Revisionist Historians writing in the 1980s, 1990s, and the present see the westward movement of the 19th Century as representing everything bad about America - white men dragging their women against their will across the continent, raping the environment, killing Indians, dispossessing Hispanics, discriminating against Chinese. In other words, Progress is not always progressive.
Over the past 30 years, historians have begun to ask. “What was the price of progress?” On the positive side, progress indicated that millions of families became economically independent and some even found wealth, while other Anglo- Americans explored and modernized the growing nation. On the negative side, many pioneers experienced a difficult and dangerous life on the frontier, the natural environment suffered severe degradation, and the Plains Indians were defrauded of most of their land and much of their tribal sovereignty.