A Plundered Province Revisited

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The pelts of beaver, the dust of placer gold, the tongues and hides of buffalo, the proteinaceous feed of native grass, the smeltings of precious and commercial minerals, the viscous gush of oil: these have been the elementals of the American West shipped eastward to enrich the nation while the West historically went begging, went bankrupt, struggled to recover before being exploited anew. Bernard DeVoto defined the cycle of mercantilism and misuse in a celebrated essay in Harper’s in 1934. “The Plundered Province,” he titled it, coining a bitterly resented phrase. Today the cycle repeats again, at greater scale and perhaps for the last time, and now its justification is energy and the name of the plunder is coal.

Not all the West was colonized. The Far West eventually found its own resources and developed them, and the money stayed at home. Rather, it was the continental West, the West that lay between the Mississippi and the Sierra Nevada, the West of mountains and basins and mesas, and finally the West of too little water and too few trees, the Great American Desert of honest maps: the West of the Great Plains, and particularly today of the northern Great Plains—Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas—where unitized two-hundred-car coal trains shuttle tirelessly from monstrous channels ripped into the earth, where mine-mouth power plants spread palls of ash and sulfur across the Big Sky. Where the profit, electrified, flashes eastward and westward on the wires.

DeVoto caught the drift of it, a dust of infuriation that would have been ground since childhood into his tough Utah hide—for the exploitation of Western resources was a fact of Western life from its earliest beginnings—but he thought the time was coming when the West would teach the East a lesson. “The Plundered Province” spoke its anger to America at the bottom of the Great Depression, and the lesson was to be humility. The Westerner had learned, DeVoto wrote, “that there are other limits than the sky” to what Americans might do. “The sublimate of our entire experience was just this,” he capsulized sarcastically: “here was a swamp and look! here is Chicago.” The Westerner knew otherwise. “He is a tough, tenacious, overworked, and cynical person, with no more romance to him than the greasewood and alkali in which he labors. He is the first American who has worked out a communal adaptation to his country, abandoning the hope that any crossroads might become Chicago. The long pull may show—history has precedents—that the dispossessed have the laugh on their conquerors.”

Prescient though he otherwise was, DeVoto didn’t reckon with the coal. The United States is the Middle East of coal, and the weight of its reserves, 72 per cent of its known and estimated reserves, lie in the West. Now the conquerors turn to those reserves and the dispossessed aren’t laughing. There are precedents in that history, too.

The West was passed over before it was settled, because it was the place where the rules of settlement changed. Emigrants used it as a convenient highway and crossed it hastily for the promising gardens of Oregon and California. Walter Prescott Webb summarized its distinguishing features at the beginning of his masterful analysis of its history, The Great Plains : “a comparatively level surface of great extent,” “a treeless land,” “a region where rainfall is insufficient.” Eastern and Midwestern Americans, accustomed to humid, forested land, saw little value in the prairie. “If it ain’t fit for trees, it ain’t fit for plowing.” But even that early, even before the emigration to the Far West began, men found resources to exploit: beaver, trapped out of the West’s mountain valleys to enrich not the trappers but the Astors of the early fur companies—beaver mined until the mine was exhausted. And after beaver, contemporary with the emigration itself, buffalo, perhaps as many as 16 million buffalo, 50,000 of them slaughtered for their tongues alone, the great herds finally trimmed near to extinction in the 1870’s when a Yankee technician contrived to tan the thick bullhides for belt leather to convert to useful motion the steam power of Eastern factories.

 
 

The West was settled late, Webb demonstrated, because technology was the key to its domination—technology and the capital its expense required. Barbed wire first, and with it the repeating rifle and the revolver, and then the technology of mining and smelting and of the railroad, and with the railroad the politics of government land. As the capital moved westward and was translated into investment, its rate of interest went up, from 2 or 3 per cent annually to 2 per cent a month, in boom times even 2 per cent a day . The West was always bankrupt. It stood in relation to the East precisely as colonies have stood in relation to the imperial nations that manipulate them: as debtors, as mines of raw material, as sinks for expensive manufactured goods. Always the balance of payments has been unequal, always the operating principle a rush to lucrative depletion.