Tag Archives: Western History

Breaking the Sphere

Distribution of Population in 1890, US Census

Population density of the United States according to the 1890 census (xciv).

“Nearer the soil, Western life told quite a different story. There was more homesteading after 1890 than before. A number of extractive industries–timber, oil, coal, and uranium–went through their principal booms and busts after 1890. If one went solely by the numbers, the nineteenth-century westward movement was the tiny, quiet prelude to the much more sizable movement of people into the West in the twentieth century.” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 2000

“Whereas the traditional notion poses the common as a natural world outside of society, the biopolitical conception of the common permeates equally all spheres of life, referring not only to to the earth, the air, the elements, or even plant and animal life but also to the constitutive elements of human society, such as common languages, habits, gestures, affects, codes, and so forth.” -Hardt & Negri, 2009.

American historians at the turn of the century rushed to interpret the 1890 census as one of the most important moments in US history. Frederick Jackson Turner argued in 1893 that the census marked the “closing” of the frontier, and Charles Beard would later write in 1933 that this “closing” was one third of a “triple revolution in agriculture” between first the abolition of slavery and third the “subjection of farmers to the process of capitalist economy” (Beard II 271).

But closure is only an interpretation of the census report’s findings. Comprised of twenty-five volumes, the introductory preface to the first volume, called “Progress of the Nation,” instead declares the following: “Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent and its westward movement it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in census reports” (xxxiv). The 1890 census declared simply that it would no longer record a frontier line.

Previous reports had actually measured frontier lines. According to the 1890 census, “the length of the frontier line in 1880 [was] 3,337 miles” (xxxvii), was 1,178,068 miles in 1870 (xxvi), and so on. The wording in the proclamation about 1890 is telling. The frontier line had been “broken into by isolated bodies of settlement,” a phrasing that hides those who actually went into the frontier while framing it as a fragile object that has been broken. The writing goes out of its way not to implicate settlers in the population increase, instead referring to “isolated bodies of settlement” to suggest groups of people who then share responsibility for settlement.

The frontier line was a literal demarcation between “settled” and “unsettled” land, which the census defined simply by population density. One table (xxxiii) lists the population density of each state and territory. In Utah, for example, the “Total area of settlement [of] 2 or more [people] to the square mile” was 27,580 square miles; the total area containing 6 to 18 people per square mile was 1,208, and the area consisting of 18 to 45 people per square mile totaled 718. There is nothing listed for a population density of more than 45 people in Utah, as opposed to Pennsylvania, which totaled 35,152 square miles inhabited by 45 to 90 people.

Equating settlement with population density meant that 718 single square miles of Utah inhabited by at most 45 people each was enough to make the territory “settled.” According to the census, every state or territory in the west had enough population density to qualify as such. If 27,580 people could survive in Utah, it was no longer legally recognized as wilderness. This implicitly established an evaluative scale for the economic potential of land. While it mattered to the federal government who was on what land (women, Native Americans, and other groups were recorded, though they could not legally vote in 1890), what was just as important was how many people were on the land, which became the primary distinction between wilderness and settled society.

By highlighting the experiences of people considered between the boundaries of wilderness and settlement, Beard and Turner both pioneered an early vision of social history that emphasized the experiences of workers and farmers. But they also left much to be desired. Another American historian a generation later, Staughton Lynd, writes that Beard and Turner, “the twin giants of modern American historiography. . . systematically minimized [slavery’s] importance” in their analyses (Lynd 135-136), and Patricia Nelson Limerick critiques Turner’s limited vision of the frontier.

For Turner, the frontier was the state of nature, which reinforced a Eurocentric understanding of the west’s indigenous communities, but for Beard, the frontier was essentially the commons. He writes of the 1890 census that “the disappearance of cheap or free land” was a tragedy because “by one legal phrase or another and by administrative procedure, the federal government prepared the way for the rapid seizure and exploitation of all the remaining lands on the western frontier” (II 269-270). In this sense, the closing of the frontier meant the privatization of the commons just before the Gilded Age. For Beard, this closure was a penultimate phase, rather than a finalizing one.

But Beard still treats the land the way Turner does, as free to white settler colonization. Both historians are in agreement with the census report’s declaration that the frontier was broken because of population growth, and all three tend to treat this breaking as a step in progress. Once this frontier was broken, they reasoned, it could be used. In this sense, “settlement” was about the deployment of a workforce, the presence of a monitored population subject to US law.

Though it is limiting to conflate the frontier with the commons, its perception as such explains why many progressive historians responded to its perceived closure as a significant turning point. If the frontier was acted upon as a kind of commons, then its closing would have spelled good news for those in power in the United States, because it finally meant access to the entirety of its previously obscure resources. By measuring the frontier by population density, this good news for those in power meant comparatively bad news for most settlers and signified apocalypse for Native Americans. The closing of the frontier was a process of opening the west to the full violence of what Wallace Stegner labeled “the path of empire.”

Yet another American historian, William Appleman Williams, calls this process of expansionism the defining feature of American history, declaring that the “culture has been unable, after almost 300 years, to develop any conception of success—or fulfillment—except the idiom of the endless chase itself. It was all a footnote to Madison: ‘extend the sphere’” (Williams 124). America, including any articulation of the frontier, is about growth for its own sake, and transforming the meaning of growth into the converse meaninglessness of satisfaction or stasis.

The frontier at the turn of the century, then, was considered the absence of influence, extended and measured through the strategic quantification of mouths to feed per square mile. This created an official policy in the US government of no longer marking the existence of a frontier in its regularized measurement of the country. The absence of the frontier meant the dissolution of both land and people (as Beard and Turner failed to recognize) not subject to American expansion, beyond the scope of the sphere. When the century ended, many historians seemed to wonder how much more of the continent the US could break.

Beard, Charles. The Rise of American Civilization. MacMillan Company, 1933.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Harvard University Press, 2011

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Something in the Soil. W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Lynd, Staughton. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

United States. Census Bureau. “Population Part I.” 1895.

Williams, William Appleman. Empire as a Way of Life. Oxford University Press, 1980.

The Leviathan of Deseret

Brigham Young with Unknown Woman

Photo of Brigham Young with unknown wife, whose face was scratched out of the photo for unknown reasons.

“Almost from the beginning, in spite of Brigham Young’s determination to shake the dust of the United States from his feet and leave the mobocrats and Gentiles far behind, Mormon and Gentile were mixed in Salt Lake Valley. The wilderness to which the Saints fled betrayed them. One blow, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, put them back in the country they had fled from. Another, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, threw them squarely in the path of empire, and from that moment until the end of the century two ways of life clashed in the stronghold of the Saints.” -Wallace Stegner, 1942

On July 24, 1849, Mormons in Salt Lake City declared their independence on the two-year anniversary of the city’s founding. On that morning, the Saints celebrated with cannon fire and hymns. Women held banners reading “Hail to the Chieftain” as church president Brigham Young marched into the city. In addition to reciting the Declaration of Independence, Young raised a blue and white sixty-four-foot-long flag his wives had hastily crafted to inaugurate their new, independent state, which they called Deseret, meaning “honeybee” according to the Book of Mormon.

The short-lived State of Deseret encompassed modern-day Utah and Nevada, and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California, reaching to the coast so Deseret could have a seaport. But Brigham Young was not the only colonist in the newly annexed southwest territories.

Decades earlier, the military explorer Zebulon Pike lauded the region in northern Mexico for its abundance of resources, and his portrayal lasted in settler imagination. In the 1820s and 1830s, US settlers encroached upon northern Mexico, partly to expand Southern plantation economies into the west, despite the fact that the 1821 Mexican Constitution outlawed slavery. In 1836, a militant alliance of pro-slavery settlers established a rogue republic in northern Mexico, accomplishing what Aaron Burr had been accused of planning to do decades earlier. In 1837, the US formally recognized this Republic of Texas, and in 1846 decided to annex northern Mexico altogether, initiating the Mexican-American War.

Meanwhile, the 1848 Gold Rush motivated settler expansion even further west, but unlike in Texas, California’s territorial leaders opposed slavery, excluding it in their 1849 State Constitution. The US frontier was an ideological wilderness more than a literal one. In Congress, the decision to grant statehood to territories was almost entirely about the expansion of slavery, so the desert between Texas and California could tip the region’s political balance.

It was into this desert that Brigham Young led the Latter-Day Saints, fleeing the Midwest following the 1844 assassination of the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith. Under Young, the early Mormons colonized the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, which for them became an American Zion that, unlike Texas and California, the US did not move to recognize.

Deseret fused state and religion by absorbing the latter into the former. Dale Morgan argues that the Mormons “elaborated their ecclesiastical machinery into a political government; Brigham Young, president of the church, was governor; Herbert C. Kimball, first counselor, was chief justice of the Supreme Court” (34), such that political offices were filled exclusively by church leaders. Morgan makes careful note of how Deseret differed from other territorial governments. In Deseret, “except for the governor. . . no provision was made for remunerating officeholders. Officials served at their own expense” (34). In one moment, Young established a state in which he was simultaneously governor, church president, and the only public official who would be paid.

As such, Young was in a position to explain to his congregants on Sunday what was best for them, then on Monday wait for officeholders to draft laws reflecting what he suggested was best for them the previous day. Furthermore, the constitution was not democratically decided upon. Before the July 24 celebration, “Mormon leaders quickly wrote a state constitution [and] fabricated the results of a constitutional convention purportedly held the previous March” (Turner 197). The makeshift Constitution was dictated to, rather than ratified by, those who would celebrate it.

The State of Deseret became an apparatus of LDS leadership, rather than a separate entity. If the Saints acted as an ideologically interested party, then Deseret foreshadowed the party-state alliances that shaped so many twentieth century totalitarian governments.

The Church’s control was indeed far-reaching. In Deseret, land “might be privately held, but water and timber were held in common and allocated by church authorities. The church leadership ordained the founding of towns and farms” (Limerick 283). Deseret’s leadership rapidly and efficiently compartmentalized both land and people, creating something similar to the monarchical commonwealth that Thomas Hobbes describes in his political treatise Leviathan, in which citizens willingly rescind their rights to a single ruler with absolute authority over them for their own collective protection.

Or, at least, it was almost this way. Wallace Stegner suggests that Deseret’s Constitution was actually an appeal to bypass statehood procedures. Young did not want to be part of the US; he even stated that he was “prophet enough to prophesy the downfall of the Government” that had driven him out. The hastily drafted Constitution was a territorial performance for the federal government in the hopes that they would leave Deseret out of its debates over statehood and slavery. However, Deseret had always been engaged in this debate.

After Deseret disbanded, Young delivered a fiery speech in 1852 defending slavery not for economic reasons (plantations could not thrive in the desert), but to separate people on the basis of race. Mormons believed that Africans were the descendants of Cain, and had been cursed by God to a life of servitude. Race is foregrounded in Mormon doctrine. Believing they are God’s chosen people, early Mormons “imagined a chosen identity for themselves” linked directly to ancient Israel (Reeve 38-39). This doctrine of “believing blood” led Mormons to identify with a religious heritage, such that by 1860, “Brigham Young most fully enunciated an Anglo-Saxon-Israelite identity for the Saints” (Reeve 40). Had Deseret lasted, it would definitely have become a slave state for exclusively religious reasons, tipping the balance against the nation’s abolitionists.

Had Deseret lasted.

In the Compromise of 1850, California became a free state, Texas lost territorial New Mexico, and Deseret was shrunk to the Utah Territory. Brigham Young remained governor until 1858, when Utah almost started a civil war and he stepped down as another compromise. During the actual Civil War two years later, Young briefly recommenced the State of Deseret, believing the Union would dissolve in a divine apocalypse. Although this did not happen, the rigidity of Deseret’s laws, its fusion of state and religion, had a lasting influence over the west.

And yet, Brigham Young believed that he was destined by God to spread his family westward to the coast, ordered the extermination of Native Americans in the land he claimed, and built cities in the arid desert. He was the embodiment of Manifest Destiny, more than Texan ranchers or California’s gold miners, and as such, he demonstrated for the Union the violence inherent in westward expansion, the apocalyptic frenzy of its only logical conclusion. Maybe that’s why Utah was not granted statehood until nineteen years after Young’s death.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Penguin Books, 1976.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Morgan, J. Dale. The State of Deseret. Utah State University Press, 1987.

Reeve., W. Paul. Religion of a Different Color. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Stegner, Wallace. Mormon Country. Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1942.

Turner, John G. Brigham Young. Harvard University Press, 2012.

Imagining the Frontier Before Drawing It

“Up to our own day, American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.” -Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893

“Like many historians, Turner was interpreting the past in light of recent events. This presentism had great benefits and also great risks. History was bound to to go on. . . Turner himself moved on. In his later essays, he kept adding ‘more history’ as it accumulated. . .” -Patricia Nelson Limerick, 1987

On February 19, 1807, Vice President Aaron Burr was captured after escaping his earlier arrest when President Jefferson accused him of treason for his role in a conspiracy to colonize parts of Mexico. Seven days later, on February 26, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and the members of his expedition into the Southwest (which Jefferson ordered) were captured by Spanish authorities and taken to Chihuahua, then under Spanish control. He used the opportunity to analyze New Spain’s weaknesses for the possibility that the US would try to colonize parts of Mexico. The American Frontier, as Turner insists in his “Frontier Thesis,” shaped American historiography, but in 1807, what became the frontier was a highly militarized border zone.

The Pike Expedition began the year Lewis and Clark returned from their own expedition to the Northwest. Exploring modern-day Colorado, Pike lost members to abandonment or bad weather while wandering across the porous border into Mexico.

In his journals, Pike kept careful account of what he encountered, gathering information about local governments and geography. On their way to Chihuahua, Pike notes on March 27 that he “saw the Gazettes of Mexico, which gave rumors of colonel Burr’s conspiracies, the movement of our troops. . . stated in so vague and undefined a manner, as only to create our anxiety without throwing any light on the subject” (Pike, Journals, 240). He later notes on April 24 that he was reprimanded for discussing “subjects of religion or politics” but that he was held as a guest “under coercion of the Spanish government” and not as a prisoner of war. Pike then writes that he patriotically declared to Spanish authorities (over dinner with them): “To my government I am certainly responsible, and to no other” (246).

Because he was so dedicated to his government, Pike ended his 1810 account of his expedition by offering one final conclusion about US-Mexico relations:

Should an army of Americans ever march into the country, and be guided and governed there by these maxims, they will only have to march from province to province in triumph, and be hailed by the united voices of grateful millions as their deliverers and saviors” (Pike, Expedition, 806). As Vice President Dick Cheney put it two centuries later, “we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” This is how the US framed the frontier at the beginning of the nineteenth century: as a foreign nation in need of democracy and order.

Spanish colonial officers were suspicious of Pike’s discussions of politics with the locals because they feared that the US, which had separated from the English crown, would inspire Mexico to separate from the Spanish crown, as independence became increasingly popular in the region. Coupled with vague rumors that rogue US politicians planned to conquer sections of North America for themselves, the Spanish authorities had good reason to be suspicious. In 1810, independence movements spiraled into nationalist protests and a bloody war, forcing Spain to grant Mexican independence in 1821. Years later, the US would follow Pike’s advice and invade Texas and northern Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846. Unlike Pike predicted, though, the US military was not greeted as liberators.

Meanwhile, Aaron Burr and his compatriots were punished for trying to instigate exactly what Pike recommended. Jefferson’s exertion of control over who could, and who could not, conquer parts of New Spain demonstrates his role in creating the concept of the “American frontier” as a strategic borderland, rather than a raw, untamed wilderness.

New Western historian Patricia Nelson Limerick notes that the “opening of the Mexican borderlands to American colonists and merchants made the region into what it remains today: a true frontier, in the European sense, in which two nations confront each other and compete for control” (228). She goes on to detail Burr’s plot, alongside General James Wilkinson, to colonize parts of the continent and create a new nation using the available resources, admitting that when “Zebulon Pike set out to explore the headwaters of the Arkansas River in 1806, he might have been acting as Wilkinson’s agent” (229).

Intelligence about the borders of New Spain, then, became part of the ideological basis for the American frontier. The distance between Arkansas and Chihuahua was labeled the frontier because it was a borderland rather than a boundary, like the no-man’s land between trenches on the Western Front in World War One. Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” says more about how Americans viewed themselves in the 1890s than in the 1810s. The frontier was framed as contested territory. By the time Turner delivered his thesis, there was no longer a contest in federal or popular imagination.

But the frontier was also about quantification. First, the US had to map, measure, and count everything available in the frontier space, to determine where the gold, silver, copper, fur, timber, coal, and indigenous communities could be found, and where they could be removed to. Knowledge of the land preceded the frontier, rather than the other way around. This is the way American contradiction manifests in the frontier thesis: Americans wanted to discover land that had already been discovered, to be given access to the land they were told to imagine. A blank map could not be tolerated. It had to be filled out.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest. W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.

Pike, Zebulon. The Expeditions of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. Harper, 1895.

Pike, Zebulon. The Southwestern Journals of Zebulon Pike, Ed. Stephen Hart & Archer Hulbert. University of New Mexico Press, 2006.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In The Early Writings of Frederick Jackson Turner, Ed. Everett E. Edwards, University of Wisconsin Press, 1938.