- Historic Sites
Does The West Have A Death Wish?
Before there were Western states, there were public lands—over a billion acres irrevocably reserved for the people of the United States. The Sagebrush Rebels are the most recent in a series of covetous groups bent on “regaining” what was never theirs.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
The Western states formed from these acquisitions are today called the public land states. At no time did they have title to any of the public lands within their borders, except for the territory granted to them by the federal government. Nor did they ever have a voice in the administration of these ” unappropriated and unreserved ” lands. A condition of stateship, in fact, was that the territorial governments renounce all claims to those lands not already given to them by the federal government. Wyoming’s state constitution, ratified in 1890, is typical: “The following article shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of this state: The people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof. ”
This is not to say that the United States did not frequently bestow lands upon the states. The country was then in the business of disposing of lands. Dispositions were made for schools, for roads, and for the laying of railroad tracks. Most important, after the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed, the land was either given or sold cheaply to homesteaders who promised to put the raw acres to the plow in return for the right of private ownership. The goal at one point was to distribute parcels of federal land to all who sought them for agricultural purposes. During the years of disposition, about 80 per cent of the public domain was given away. The plan foundered as more settlers crossed the hundredth meridian, that vital east-west demarcation signifying the place where less than twenty inches of rain falls during a year. The forests, which require at least thirty inches of annual rainfall, dwindled and yielded the way to thick grasses or else draped mountainsides at higher elevations farther west, where melting snow could provide them with sufficient moisture. Where rainfall accumulated to less than five inches a year, even the grasslands were doomed and surrendered to the deserts. Conventional methods of raising crops could only fail in these arid and semiarid plains, without large irrigation projects. So settlers, eager to re-establish a life similar to the one they had known near the humid Atlantic coast, merely passed through this open and empty region.
Not all were blind to the natural advantages of the plains, however. Zebulon Pike, during his exploration of the region around 1806, noted that “the inhabitants would find it most to their advantage to pay attention to the multiplication of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, all of which they can raise in abundance, the earth producing spontaneously sufficient for their support, both winter and summer, by which means the herds might become immensely numerous.” By the mid-1800’s pioneers were beginning to discover for themselves the value of Pike’s observation. The story goes that some travelers were trapped on the high plains by the early onset of winter. They settled in until spring and regretfully turned their oxen and cattle loose to die. But when spring came, the livestock were recovered, fat and glossy, having been fed well on the bounteous grasses that protruded above the snow or that could be dug for with hooves. The sun-dried grasses that swayed like wheat remained nourishing all winter, as “protein cured on the stem.” It is said that based on this knowledge some people stayed right where they were or located next to rivers and set about raising cattle, which they sold to military posts and Indian reservations.
More important, however, was the overflow of cattle from Texas, where the Spanish had established ranching more than a century before. With the defeat of the South during the Civil War, the Texas operations began moving their herds over the plains to link up with the cities to the north and east. The burgeoning North was hungry for meat and had plenty of money to pay for it. From about 1866 to 1876 the cattle business spread over western Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. The physical basis of the industry was the public domain, with its abundance of free grass and where a man’s right to this grass depended on whether he claimed it and the water near it first. Within fifteen years the cattle industry became the power to be dealt with in the West. In 1875 the Buffalo Livestock Journal (Wyoming) declared that “cotton was once crowned King but grass is now. … If grass is King, then the Rocky Mountain Region is its throne and fortunate indeed are those who possess it.”
The cattle kingdom… formulated its own law, called the code of the West, and it did it largely upon extralegal grounds.”—Walter Prescott Webb
The operating expenses of cattle raising consisted of a corral, some cowboys, and a branding iron. The economics were as simple. A fully grown steer ready for market in 1883 brought between forty-five and sixty dollars. If sold to a booming mining camp, it could fetch one hundred dollars. The same animal at birth was worth about five dollars. For four years it had roamed the plains and grazed the free grass of the public domain. With hardly any expense to its owner, the steer became an element of great fortune. When land could be used so freely, there was little reason to buy it, and in those years, cattlemen bought less than one per cent of the land they used for their business. Stockmen’s groups at the time considered ownership of much land undemocratic, for it would create enormous estates, reminiscent of those established by European royalty. Better to leave it free and open. Better, at least, for a while.