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A Year (1872) in Three Acts: Taking Bearings (The Classroom) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #6
A Year of Enduring Symbols, 1872.
A few prefatory words
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This week’s feature is The Classroom, and I'm heading to 1872. Read on.
1872: A Year of Paradox and Symbolism
Bernard DeVoto, a writer and conservationist of some renown in the 1940s and 1950s (and who I’ve written about here), made the case that 1846 was The Year of Decision, a sort of historical hinge on which American Destiny swung. In 1846, he pointed out, large slices of the nation moved west and smaller but more powerful ones chose war with Mexico, virtually guaranteeing the Civil War. I make no such grand claims of national destiny, but like DeVoto, I want to focus attention on a single year, too: 1872. If not a political bomb like 1846, 1872 produced symbols of the West that still hang over us.
Act I. Yellowstone
The far northwestern corner of Wyoming Territory was a strange place. The first non-Indigenous people to report on it likened it to the underworld, but soon they decided it was an interesting strange and only partially terrifying. Plunging waterfalls, colored pools, and steamy geysers made Yellowstone special. And that made it attractive…but to whom?
A local Montana party explored Yellowstone in 1870, and a myth grew up around their encounter with the land. Seduced by its beauty—and concerned because they saw others erecting fences—these men circled the campfire near where the Firehole and Madison Rivers converge and decided this special landscape should be open to all Americans, protected by the federal government.
It probably didn’t transpire quite like that, so altruistically.
One member of that party was employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad whose future route lay not that many miles north of the strange Yellowstone landscape. If the federal government prevented other corporations or the public from settling this area, the NPR stood to hold a virtual monopoly on tourist traffic. In fact, the railroad’s leader, Jay Cooke, worked to get Congress to act. With encouragement, Congress sent its own party through Yellowstone in 1871.
As excitement built with reports containing almost unbelievable scenes, Congress moved. By March 1872, President Ulysses Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Act. The law “set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” some 2.2 million acres. It gave the Secretary of the Interior control of the area and provided “for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.”
This was new. Since the 1780s, even before the states ratified the Constitution, federal policy concerning land focused on getting the public domain into the hands of individuals and companies. The national government was in the business of getting rid of its land holdings. Keeping some--like Yellowstone--took it down a different path.
Act II. Mining
More consistent with the older pattern and emphasis on disposing of the nation’s resources was the General Mining Act of 1872, signed by Grant a mere ten weeks later. Rather than prohibiting “spoliation,” the mining law all but guaranteed it.
Those mythologized miners in the West—the 49ers most famously—were technically trespassing and stealing. This could be overlooked for a while, but governments like to assert their authority.
Much of the mining law was pretty technical about size of claims and the process of creating and proving them. But it boiled down to this: For hard-rock mining—which was the main thing in the nineteenth century—the law authorized prospecting and claiming minerals virtually anywhere on the public domain. Claims could be made easily. And cheaply. Authorities rarely checked if they were on the up and up. If you wanted to, you could buy the land for $2.50 or $5.00 per acre. Not free. Not too far from it. And you could work a claim, take the minerals, and not pay anything for it. No royalties. No rents. Nothing. Quite a deal!
Over the years, some other regulations came into play. But much of its basic form still holds.
The result is millions of acres came out of the public’s hands and put into private entities’ control—an area equivalent to Connecticut. Not to mention the mineral wealth. Another important result was pollution, the waste from mining being a rotten scar left across the landscape. Few regulations restricted mining and milling operations for nearly a century after the General Mining Act passed. The accumulated mining detritus on mountains or in rivers across the public land left an often-dangerous legacy of pollution, a byproduct not accounted for on financial balance sheets.
And in that way, the General Mining Act captured well a nineteenth-century governing value: facilitate development without subsequent regulation or restoration.
Act III. American Progress
Myths like the miners or the supposed preservationists around the campfire sometimes need illustrations. The painter John Gast produced a painting in 1872 called American Progress that pictured the nation's myth dramatically. You’ve seen it before, I guarantee. It is a favorite image to teach with, because the symbolism is numerous and rich, so students “get” it quickly.
Take a look and what do you see?
So-called civilization lay in the east, with the rising sun. Cities and commerce and light emanate from there. Technology—railroads and telegraph lines—move westward along with the forerunners of more “civilization.” Leading the way is Lady Columbia, symbol of the nation, clutching a School Book to her breast, stringing wire behind her. All of this is chasing after Indigenous people and wildlife and wild lands, shrouded in symbolic darkness.
American Progress symbolizes how white Americans envisioned American history, the American West, the American future. This was the nation’s destiny manifest.
Gast, born in Berlin but immigrated to Missouri before 1850, became a famous lithographer and painter. American Progress was commissioned by George Crofutt who published travel guides to the American West, the sort of documents that accompanied those who were snuffing out the darkness. One suspects that neither Gast nor Crofutt gave a second thought to what was being taken or lost. Myths do that: reveal unquestioned truisms.
American Progress visually reveals manifest destiny, an ideology with roots that go back to initial colonization but made more explicit in the 1830s and 1840s when the United States fought with Mexico over the Southwest and argued with Great Britain over Oregon Country. The story certain Americans told each other of progress shines out from this image, a projection of grand illusions under the banner of progress.
American Progress does not depict mines, but it does include miners. And the trains wouldn’t be running without mines or miners. It does not show Yellowstone or parks, but it does suggest the grandeur of the landscape. Although the grandeur is dark and forbidding.
In 1872, all of these scenes existed simultaneously. Preserve beautiful places. Promote easy land development and exploitation. Encourage domination.
That is part of the paradox that is history: darkness and light, protect and disturb, progress and its opposite, all at once.
The history of these three items appear in many places, and I've told them so often I know it backward and forward. But for further reading, you can consult Megan Kate Nelson's new book on Yellowstone, Saving Yellowstone. John D. Leshy knows more about mining than just about anyone, and his new book Our Common Ground is a great place to start. I also recommend Christopher McGrory Klyza's Who Controls Public Lands?.
As always, you can find my books and books where some of my work is included at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
This newsletter previews an essay I have forthcoming soon in Zócalo Public Square. I'll be sure to share the link when it appears. Until then, here are two essays I've published at Zócalo before that might be of interest. One is on sheep and range wars in the West. And the other, a bit more relevant to this week's newsletter is about Glacier National Park:
America's National Parks Were Never Wild and Untouched | Essay | Zócalo Public Square — www.zocalopublicsquare.org In 1872, Congress created the first national park, Yellowstone, so that its scenic features would be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or
Taking Bearings Next Week
The Field Trip reported on next week explores a local town and its utopian history. You won't want to miss it.