Saturday, January 9, 2016

You can lead a cowboy hat to history, but...

Why is there no Homeland Security in eastern Oregon? Because the feds are buffaloed. They should promptly restore peace and productivity to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, and start teaching American history 101 to occupiers - in jail.                                                     

The following's an abridged account of the ownership of western lands from The Kingdom in the Country. The setting's New Mexico but could be most anywhere in the intermountain West:                                                                       

      I went to bed in their spare room and propped the pillows up against the whitewashed wall. Stuffed animals sat in old milk crates, waiting for the owners' grandchildren. Beyond the window I could see hills flushed with the yellow light of a westward-trending moon and the dark crease of the draw which ran through the ranch, dry now. I thought of the Anglos who settled here in the early nineteenth century; they had contended with the Spanish for what they considered theirs. In 1845 a magazine editor named John L. Sullivan excoriated foreign countries for "limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."
Those multiplying millions were at first reluctant to die at the hands of savages, or to starve in country rough beyond their imagining; they had to be oratorically prodded out of Eastern cities. By the time of the Civil War most land in the West not too rough or dry to be plowed had come into private ownership, much of it through fraud. The Homestead Act at the end of a string of uncommonly wet years moved nesters into places normally unfit for farming or other human sustenance. Boosters like William Gilpin, the territorial governor of Colorado, proclaimed that moisture followed the plow and that firewood lay under the sand and that, in short, agrarian culture could modify the West's aridity and transform the landscape. It was a cruelly deceptive claim.
Tenacious dirt plowers and their suppliers, including disgruntled Southerners fleeing the aftermath of the Civil War, settled by the dozens along the Macho, where no families live today. Three derelict schoolhouses are testimony to the homesteaders' optimism. Eighteen inches of annual rain at the end of the last century had meant flowing streams year round, and flourishing grain; but that precipitation proved to be a fluke, and widespread disaster followed in the drier years. The owner of this house had himself been raised in one of the settlers' dugouts, a one-room house with a dirt floor, but he belonged to a very different tradition, that of the stockman, fencer of the range. His stepfather had bought up a number of homesteads early in the century, after extended drought ended the squatters' dreams.
John Wesley Powell, the first runner of the Colorado River and visionary of the settled arid West, advocated more land for homesteaders, to be sold or given to them according to the amount of available water. Where water was scarce, more land would help overcome the shortage of moisture and so of crops. But Congress stuck with its policy; too little land for homesteads created cemeteries in country where individual families could not make a living on a quarter-section or a half-section or even a whole section. Before the end of the century, cattle and sheep had come to dominate the West.
In 1890 the U.S. Bureau of the Census announced that for the first time it had been unable to discover a clear boundary between wild and settled areas. Officially, there was no longer a frontier. But the West as a state of mind remained important to Americans, whether or not they intended to go there. "American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier," Frederick Jackson Turner said in 1893, in a speech before the American Historical Association that left a lasting impression. Free land, he said, had made our unique democracy possible. "This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities . . furnish the forces dominating American character."
The evolution of public lands could be seen from the window of this spare room. The homesteads had clung to the river, where low meadows received water at least some of the year. They could be plowed, and wells dug, and a house built like this one, within sight if not the shade of cottonwoods. The higher country, away from water — the land nobody wanted — touched and mingled with the private holdings, but its ownership had been ignored or taken for granted.
No one wanted to buy this land when it was for sale. It had been free for the use up until the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act. Now the government leased it for far less than the cost of grazing rights on similar private land, but ranchers had always considered the public land theirs.
They still do.                                                                         
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