Category Archives: the West

164: Louis Hunter’s Steamboats on the Western Rivers

In Steamboats on the Western Rivers: An Economic and Technological History, Louis Hunter situates a detailed history of the development of steamboat technology in the social, technological, and economic context in which it developed; he argues that “the growth of the West and the rise of steamboat transportation were inseparable; they were geared together and each was dependent upon the other.”

Using contemporary newspapers, census documents, traveller accounts, and other primary sources form about the 1780s to the end of the 19th century, Hunter shows that steam transportation technology was the result of many people’s contributions (both English and American), not just those of a few great men.  He also shows that in America, steam navigation started on the Atlantic seaboard but quickly moved inland to the Western rivers, where steamboats dominated inland transportation and commerce for a generation; and he argues that from 1925 to 1850 the steamboat was the main technological agent in developing the Mississippi basin from a “raw frontier society” to “economic and social maturity.”  Finally, he claims that the Western steamboat was known worldwide as the “typical” American steamboat partly because it was so important to the economy of the region and partly because it was unique in its design, construction, and operation.  Published in 1949, this book was the scholarly survey of the development of steam navigation on the Western rivers that pulled together technology, operations, and governmental intervention into a consistent whole.

Americans were having a hard time with transportation in the early 19th century, so that’s where American steam innovation tended.  Hunter begins with early development in steam propulsion and the business of carrying – John Fulton patented his version of the steamboat and secured a monopoly with New Orleans, only to have it overturned in 1817 when Henry Shreve built his own boats and started running them on the Mississippi without permission.  In 1918, a steamboat boom started after Shreve reported 30-50% returns after only a year in operation.  Competition, economic depression, and improvements in steamboat technology reduced rates considerably through 1825, but boats were able to run faster and thus still turn profits.  By 1820, steamboats were well-established on the “trunk lines” of the river system (Mississippi and Ohio); by 1830 they had expanded into major tributaries and taken on most passenger and freight trade.  Keelboats remained the main transportation in smaller, shallower tributaries, and flatboats continued to be the main shipping method for bulky, low-value products until the Civil War.  By the 1840s, writers were saying that steam had “colonized the West” because it economically connected Westerners to the east and politically, via faster communication, to each other.

By the 1850s, steam had reached its golden age.  They had cast iron hulls instead of wooden ones and new high pressure boilers that led to fantastic accidents, and their opulent rooms were readily accessible to anyone who could pay the (widely fluctuating) fare, so travellers’ accounts are full of stories of the wide variety of class and race and occupation they met in steamboats.  The business of steamboating had also evolved from individual owners to small corporations that ran packet lines up and down the rivers.  However, Hunter points out that steamboats were also complicit in the growing industrialization of the West, especially in their division between cabin fare and deck passage – deck fare was 1/4 of the price of cabin fare, but deck passengers were usually the first to die in accidents, and they also had to help the crew.  And other transportation modes were beginning to have a substantial impact on the Western river trade: beginning in the late 1830s, canals diverted northern East-West freight, and railroad lines began connecting to steamboat towns in the 1840s, so that by 1860 Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis, Vicksburg and New Orleans were all connected by rail.

While steamboats were profitable during the Civil War, railroads all but destroyed them afterwards: steam fare was cheap, and getting into the steam business required a low capital investment, which meant high competition and low profits in an industry already tainted by boiler explosions in the early 1850s.  Further, rails could promise what steamboats couldn’t: speed, regularity, frequency, reliability, year-round service, through-booking, direct service that could expand anywhere, not just on natural waterways, and such massive networks that they could run part of their systems at a loss just to kill local competition.  They’re also not above building extremely low bridges over waterways.  While barges are still used in the 20th century, steamboats were over before the end of the 19th century.

Although Hunter’s account is remarkably uncomplicated with respect to race and gender, and a discussion of slavery is conspicuously absent, his book otherwise shows how a transportation technology uniquely suited to the American West contributed both to the physical construction of American empire and to the construction of an American ideology based around individualism, technology, and capitalism on the landscape.


154: Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire

Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West is a history of the development of the American West through the lens of water management technology.  Building on substantial archival research, Worster argues that

The West, more than any other American region, was built by state power, state expertise, state technology, and state bureaucracy.  That is another way of saying that it has been, and is, the most thoroughly modern of American regions, and therefore that its experience, particularly in the matter of water, has been most instructive for deciphering the confused messages of that modernity.

By positioning water as technology rather than nature and the West as a federally-funded, man-made landscape, Worster both deconstructs the West’s self-image as independent and free of government control AND reconstructs the region not as a colony of the East but as the seat of a global American empire.

For Worster, the American West is a “modern hydraulic society,” a “social order based on the intensive, large-scale manipulation of water and its products in an arid setting.”  Versus Thoreau’s vision of a Western society based on free, self-defining individuals and egalitarian community organization, the West as hydraulic society is “coercive, monolithic, and hierarchical,” run by the elite owners of capital and business.  In addition to a sharply divided class structure, the West also has a sharp division between technology and nature, as evinced in the irrigation canal, whose smooth, abstract flow is fenced off from animals, humans, and life in general, while the communities that surround it are in comparative disarray.  Worster traces the development of this “techno-economic” landscape by first contextualizing it among other hydraulic societies, where elites used irrigation and flood control to control the social order, and then tracing the 150 year intensification of water control in the American West through 3 phases:

  • Incipience (Mormon migration in 1847 to 1890s): dependence on local skills and means, isolated communities and limited of small rivers, failed attempts by private corporations to harness rivers
  • Florescence (1902, when the Federal government took control of Western rivers via the National Reclamation Act, to WWII): Federal government provides capital and engineering expertise to “lift the region to a higher plateau of development;” corporations and quasi-corporations finally succeed in farming rivers for profit; a sharply divided class structure develops
  • Empire (1940s to the present): government and private wealth form a powerful alliance and bring every major river under their unified control; goal is to create an unparalleled hydraulic society.
Capitalism was critical to the development of the West because it moved rivers from a riparian system with usufruct rights (only people who live along a river can lay claim to it) to a system of prior appropriation (whoever gets to a river first can have it, even if s/he doesn’t own property along it).  It also rewarded destruction of some landscapes and relocation of some people to harness water for others – a remarkably anti-democratic project in the name of democracy.  Further, because water in the arid West was scarce, social power was tied to toil and large capital investments, which some saw as rugged individualism but Worster sees as American empire: absolute domination of nature by elites who spout individualism but take money from the Federal government to support their power.
By constructing the West as a “hydraulic society” and an American empire, Worster successfully demythologizes the West.  He also makes me never want to live much further west of the Mississippi than I already do, even if LA is the center of a global cultural and economic empire, because that empire is based on total technological domination of nature.

85: Neil Foley’s The White Scourge

Neil Foley’s The White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture uses whiteness studies as a model for investigating intraethnic divisions and the interactions between race, class, and gender in central Texas cotton culture between 1820 and the early 1940s, when the industry moved from small family farms run by white tenant families and white, Mexican, and black sharecroppers, to agribusiness dominated by nonwhite workers.  Foley pulls his title from a book that characterized poor white cotton farmers as the scourge of the south, but he argues that “the scourge of the South and the nation was not cotton or poor whites but whiteness itself – whiteness not simply as the pinnacle of ethnoracial status but as the complex social and economic matrix wherein racial power and privilege were shared, not always equally, by those who were able to construct identities as Anglo-Saxons, Nordics, Caucasians, or simply whites.”

The book complicates both black/white and South/West geographical and cultural binaries.  Central Texas was southern in its reliance on cotton farming and the sharecropping system, but Mexican sharecroppers and the arid lands to the west and south complicated Southern racial binaries and culture. White cotton farmers experimented with Mexican labor soon after the Texas Revolution; by 1910 white supremacists were calling Mexicans the “second color menace” and trying to prevent them from becoming culturally white.  At the same time, poor whites were being constructed as the “white scourge” because they occupied the same economic class as Mexican and black sharecroppers; their manliness and whiteness were threatened by their inability to become yeoman farmers.  The creation of industrial “factories in the field” in the 1920s, which combined technology and deskilled Mexican and black labor and thus further displaced white sharecroppers, further detached poor whites from the agrarian ideal of white yeoman farmer.  In the 1930s, landlords and owners of these factory farms took advantage of New Deal loopholes and evicted white sharecroppers from their lands, replacing them with cheaper non-white labor.  This last step in the process is dramatized in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, where the “fall from agrarian whiteness and yeoman manhood” are linked to losing farmlands.

Foley thus shows how poor whites, Mexicans, and blacks complicated whiteness in central Texas.  With the shift from small family farms run by whites, blacks, and Mexicans to white-owned factory farms that exploited Mexican labor, poor whites became detached from their land and the economic independence that came with it.  Here, whiteness fractured along class lines and become more of a matrix than a monolith.

62: Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land

Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth, is an American Studies classic.  In it, Smith both explains and justifies the American Studies myth-and-symbol method as the way to access and interpret American culture, and he applies this method to a study of the myth of the American West.  He argues that the difficulty of the myth of the American West, which is actually a subset of a larger agrarian tradition coming out of Jeffersonian democracy, is that it “accepted the paired but contradictory ideas of nature and civilization as a general principle of historical and social interpretation.”  In other words, American culture comes out of an unresolved tension about what to do with the machine in the garden.

For Smith, myths and symbols are larger and smaller units of the same thing: “an intellectual construct that fuses concept and emotion into an image.”  Further, these images are not just the world of a single mind; they are collective representations, symbols pointing to a particularly American worldview.  This worldview itself has a history, and analyzing its various incarnations in connection with their historical context helps us understand it.  In other words, myth and symbol is of necessity interdisciplinary, because it situates literary analysis within history.

By way of example, Smith analyzes one of the most persistent myths in American culture: “that our society has been shaped by the pull of a vacant continent drawing population westward,” and thus that America is a “continental nation rather than a member with Europe of an Atlantic community.”  To interrogate this myth and the role is plays in creating a unique American culture, Smith analyzes and contextualizes a wide range of texts, including the Lewis & Clark expedition, Walt Whitman’s poetry, various iterations of the “leatherstocking” or frontiersman, including Daniel Boone, Charles Webber, Kit Carson, Deadwood Dick, and Buffalo Bill (the last two of whom he links to the new dime novels in the mid-to-late 19th century), and the “master symbol of the garden.” He ends by discussing the Turner thesis as a critique of the myth of the West as an untouched, biblical garden.

Virgin Land is one of the earliest American Studies books, and it does have its problems, most notably an uncritical use of “we” to mean everyone in America, a severely undertheorized idea of how media and mass culture work (he thinks mass culture comes from the bottom up and thus represents the masses), and an existence that is restricted to the discursive realm.  But in setting agrarian and industrial traditions against one another, it sets up productive tensions between nature and civilization and between civilization and true democracy; further, Smith’s analysis suggests that national consciousness has a history, and that landscape and culture mutually shape one another.  Replace national consciousness with ideology and you have a remarkably current picture of many concerns in American Studies today.

35: Patricia Limerick’s Legacy of Conquest

A Westerner studying at Harvard, Patricia Limerick wrote The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West with three main goals: to knit together the Old West of frontiers, cowboys, and conquest and the complex, 20th century west into a coherent history; to warn against the dangers of the narrative of Progress for the West, environmentally and culturally; and to finally overturn the Turner thesis and shift the focus of Western history from the frontier-as-process to the West-as-place.  She achieves these goals by synthesizing existing scholarship in a variety of historical subdisciplines, including urban, social, business, labor, Chicano/a, Indian, and environmental, and by taking the West’s many regions and perspectives into account.

Much of the book, then, involves dispelling myths of the Old West by retelling the history of the West from a variety of perspectives.  Limerick investigates the ideology of Western independence, which can only exist in a national and international context; real estate and property as the emotional center of Western history; and writing mining as labor history.  Most importantly – she spends the second half of the book writing a history of the West from Native Americans’ perspective.  While she pulls from Native sources somewhat, her main strategy is to read Anglo sources from a Native American perspective; the result is a portrayal of resentful  people reduced to dependency on a single centralized agency, choosing rationally from among a dwindling number of opportunities.

With this new, synthetic history of the West as a place instead of a mobile frontier or a cowboys-and-indians fantasyland, Limerick argues that the West is a “place undergoing conquest and never fully escaping its consequences,” and that “Western history has been an ongoing competition for legitimacy – for the right to claim for oneself and sometimes for one’s group the status of legitimate beneficiary of Western  resources.”  In other words, the West has long been shaped by a competition between different ethnic groups for property rights, even as the Western frontier functions as a kind of creation myth for white America.  This book thus complicates American narratives of Progress and manifest destiny even as it reclaims the West for historical study.