- Historic Sites
A Plundered Province Revisited
The Colonial Status—Past and Present—of the Great American West
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
Item: cattle—ÜIn just one year, 1883,” Webb noted, “twenty [cattle] companies with a capitalization of over twelve million dollars filed incorporation papers in Wyoming. The money came from New York, Boston, Chicago. But it also came from England, Germany, Scotland, and Holland.” The cattle grazed on public land. By 1900 they had grazed it to near destruction.
Item: land—of the nearly one billion acres of public domain between the Mississippi River and the Pacific slope, another historian says, “the government granted 91,239,389 acres to Western railroads, and of this total 88,296,745 acres were given to only four corporations—the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific …, Northern Pacific, and the Santa Fe.”
Item: minerals—in 1899, Anaconda Copper of Butte, Montana, became part of Amalgamated Copper, a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Oil. Amalgamated was dissolved in 1915, but Anaconda continued in Eastern hands. Although few hard numbers of early mineral production have escaped from corporate records, those few available are stunning. In 1922, all Montana mines produced more than $20 million in minerals. They paid a “net proceeds” tax to the state of Montana of only $13,559. In 1919, coal mines in Montana on Northern Pacific Railroad lands produced 3 million tons of coal valued at $7,757,103. Taxes paid: $682. The net proceeds tax, which was written into Montana’s constitution and which mining corporations manipulated to such obvious advantage, was not repealed until 1973.
“From 1860 on,” concluded DeVoto, “the Western mountains have poured into the national wealth an unending stream of gold and silver and copper, a stream which was one of the basic forces in the national expansion. It has not made the West wealthy. It has made the East wealthy. Very early the West memorized a moral: the wealth of a country belongs to the owners, and the owners are not the residents or even the stockholders but the manipulators. Gold, silver, copper, all the minerals, oil—you need not look for their increase in the West.… The place to look for that increase is the trust companies, and the holding companies.”
Nowhere was the exploitation of Western resources more extreme than in Montana. At the turn of the century, moving to consolidate its control of Butte’s copper mines, Amalgamated Copper discovered that a brash young entrepreneur named F. Augustus Heinze was tunneling into its ore veins from his own smaller mines next door. Amalgamated sued Heinze in civil court in Silver Bow County, confidently expecting to restrain him, only to find that he knew Montana’s odd mining laws better than any corporate lawyer, that he had the court’s judges, Edward Harney and William Clancy, in his pocket, and that Montana statutes allowed no change of venue in civil suits. Heinze countered Amalgamated’s charges with a maze of lawsuits claiming ownership of the contested ore veins because they surfaced on his property, and while the lawyers fought in court, and Harney found consistently in Heinze’s favor, he continued appropriating Amalgamated’s valuable ore.
Frustrated at law, Amalgamated attempted to buy Harney off: if he swore that Heinze had bribed him, $250,000 would sweeten his confession. Harney refused the bait, and Amalgamated got tough. On October 22,1903, it shut down all its mines. They would stay shut down, it announced to the shocked miners, until the Montana legislature passed a fair trials bill authorizing changes of venue in civil suits if either party questioned the objectivity of the judge. In the meantime, twenty thousand men found themselves out of work at the beginning of the harsh Montana winter.
Heinze fought back, and the governor of Montana attempted to negotiate, but in early December the legislature duly met and passed the fair trials bill, and having forced an entire state to its knees, Amalgamated condescended to reopen the mines.
“It was,” writes Montana historian K. Ross Toole, “a lesson for all of Montana, brutally and cynically exercised with swift ruthlessness. Montanans learned the lesson well, and nothing attests to that fact quite as adequately as the conduct of the state’s legislature for years to come.” For years to come—for decades to come—the Montana legislature acted subserviently in behalf of what Montanans called “the Company.” The Company took $250 billion in copper out of Montana in the first half of the twentieth century. Its taxes on that immense wealth amounted to no more than $300,000 to $400,000 a year.
Or consider Anaconda’s control of the Montana press. Stung by criticism in Montana’s boisterous early newspapers, the Company began in 1906 to buy them out. How many of the state’s newspapers Anaconda subsequently controlled no one knows. Upton Sinclair once estimated it was all but two; John G’fcnther later estimated half. In 1959, in any case, when a more sophisticated Anaconda prepared to sell its newspaper interests to a Midwest chain, it owned eight major Montana dailies with 55 per cent of the state’s total circulation.