Keith Hunt - America - How the West was won Restitution of All

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America - the West

Divided Up


From the book "What Is America?" by Ronald Wright


While their former countrymen were conquering Mexico, the
Latter-Day Saints had been busy building their desert holy land.
Under Brigham Young's able leadership, they had laid out the grid
of Salt Lake City and begun ditching water to their fields from
the "Jordan" and other streams feeding the lake.
These irrigation works are often said to be the first in North
America, but the Mormons were following indigenous practice,
whether they knew it or not. (They probably did: not far south of
Utah, ancient Americans had been building irrigation systems
since the time of Julius Caesar. The elaborate Hohokam canals of
Arizona were so well built that white settlers put them back to
work in the 1860s. Phoenix was named in recognition of this
rebirth.) The new Israel did a lively trade, provisioning
overland trekkers to the California goldfields. The colony began
to prosper and to draw new members, some from as far away as the
slums of England. Brigham Young became bold enough to tell the
world about the Lord's endorsement of polygyny, "one of the best
doctrines ever proclaimed."


So it may have seemed in Utah; most outsiders were appalled. "It
is a scarlet whore," thundered one congressman: "It is a reproach
to Christian civilization, and deserves to be blotted out." Under
the treaty that ended the Mexican War, Utah had become part of
the United States: the Mormons had escaped the American empire
for only one year. Polygamy was against federal law, and that -
plus Brigham Young's harassment of American officials - gave the
new President James Buchanan reason to deny Utah statehood and
send an army to enforce the writ of Washington in 1857.


But that was far from the whole story. Only months before, the
Supreme Court had handed down the infamous Dred Scott decision,
ruling that slaves were property, not persons, and thus
unprotected by the freedoms of the Constitution even in free
states. A Northerner with Southern sympathies, Buchanan decided
to take a leaf out of Jackson's book and sacrifice a marginal
group on the altar of national unity, hoping to eclipse
"Negro-Mania with the ... excitements of an Anti-Mormon Crusade."


The Third Mormon War (or Utah War) never came to a straight
fight. The worst violence happened at a desert watering hole
called Mountain Meadows, where a California-bound wagon train was
butchered by "Indians," most of whom were Mormons in disguise.
Brigham Young was deposed as territorial governor but not
deported. The federal appointee who took his seat was no match
for his machinations: the Prophet still ran Utah.


Among the celebrity visitors who trekked to Utah to see the new
American religion was the eccentric English Orientalist Sir
Richard Francis Burton. Disguised as a "dervish," Burton 
had recently penetrated Islam's forbidden cities of Mecca and
Medina-a journey for which unbelievers were likely to pay with
their lives. The perils of Mormondom were nothing to such a man;
the worst, in his view, being Salt Lake City's sanctimonious
gloom and the lack of a bar at his hotel. Burton, who favoured
polygamy for his own reasons, regarded Mormons as underdogs and
liked the Islamic echoes in their "faith of the poor." He
ignored, or did not see, the Saints' less saintly side: their
plundering of Indians and Gentiles, their endorsement of slavery
(despite earlier abolitionist leanings) and their ban on blacks
in the priesthood (which stayed in effect until 1978).

"The Prophet," Burton wrote admiringly, had "stood up to fight
with the sword of the Lord ... against the mighty power of the
United States."


That power soon had to pull back to fight the Civil War. The
Saints hailed the conflict as fulfilling prophecy that the
Gentiles would destroy themselves and Christ would come back to
Earth. Though the war did give the Mormons time to consolidate,
the decisive "coming" in Utah was that of the railroad in 1869.
Little by little, the City of God reached terms with earthly
powers: in 1890 the Lord again changed his mind about polygyny;
plural marriage went underground, and, in 1896, Utah became a
state at last. Some Mormons continued to practise "plural
marriage" quietly, and a few still do-in remote "fundamentalist"
Mormon strongholds such as Bountiful, British Columbia. There are
now about 12 million Mormons worldwide, and the faith still

Thirty years before the Civil War, in one of his most prophetic
insights, Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw that the moral
contradictions and headlong drive of white America might lead to

     The future of the New World belongs [to] a restless,
     calculating, adventurous race which sets coldly about deeds
     that can only be explained by the fire of passion, and which
     trades in everything, not excluding even morality and
     religion. A nation of conquerors that submits to living the
     life of a savage without ever letting itself be carried away
     by its charms, that only cherishes those parts of
     civilisation and enlightenment which are useful ... and
     presses forward to the acquisition of riches, the single end
     of its labours ...
     It is a wandering people whom rivers and lakes cannot hold
     back, before whom forests fall and prairies are covered in
     shade; and who, when they have reached the Pacific Ocean,
     will come back on its tracks to trouble and destroy the
     societies which it will have formed behind.


As the empire grew, so did the pressure on its contradictions.
One by one the Indian Removal, the conquest of Mexico, the taking
of California and the westward march of Mormons, Texans,
goldminers and other colonists wrenched open the suture between
North and South. Texas was a slave state, Utah became a slave
territory and the former homelands of the Civilized Tribes had
become not so much republics as forced-labour plantations. By
1860, of the South's 12 million people, 4 million-one-third of
the totalwere slaves.
Europeans had not practised servitude on such a scale since the
days of pagan Rome. Its revival - which would not have happened
without the Columbian bonanza of loot, labour and land - belied
western civilization's ideal of moral progress. Tocqueville's
outrage was well aimed (if not wholly accurate) when he wrote, "I
reserve my execration for those who, after a thousand years of
freedom, brought back slavery into the world once more." Though
thralldom had never died out and has existed in many societies,
the forms it took in the New World after 1492 were among the
worst in history.

The first American slaves were indigenous Americans, but they
died away too soon to be a significant labour pool except in
Mexico and Peru. Four-fifths of the Africans taken to the New
World were shipped after 1700. Betweenthen and about 1810, by
which time the trade (though not slavery itself) had been banned
by the British Empire and the United States, at least 6 million
slaves crossed the Atlantic. As many as one in three may have
died on the way. Another 2 million were taken after 1810, mainly
to Brazil and some unlawfully to the American South.

Quite apart from its moral stink, slavery was inefficient. During
his travels, Tocqueville had been struck by the contrast in
wealth and development on opposite sides of the Ohio River. "The
only reason," a local explained to him, "is that slavery reigns
in Kentucky, but not in Ohio. There work is a disgrace, here it
is honourable." A Louisville merchant agreed, identifying the
weakness that would doom the Southern system: "Slavery is even
more prejudicial to the masters than to the slaves.... If the
South is not as industrialized as the North, that is not because
slaves cannot work in factories, it is because slavery deprives
the masters of ... energy and spirit."


By the time of the Civil War, the South had become an archaic,
rural and exposed society. The slaveholding states had only 8
million free citizens to the North's 19 million. The North had
embraced the Industrial Revolution. Understanding this disparity,
President Abraham Lincoln expected a quick victory before antiwar
feeling tied his hands. But the South put up a much tougher fight
for its way of life than the North had expected. One reason was
patriotism: the South was well on its way to becoming a separate
nationality. Another was fear: the South dreaded a black
uprising, a great settling of scores for what everyone knew, deep
down, was wrong.
The Civil War needs no retelling here, except as it influenced
American expansion and the emerging world order.

It haunts America just as the Great War haunts Europe, and for
similar reasons: it was not a fight against an outlandish foe who
could be demonized and dropped in the oubliette of history;
rather, it was between kin, sometimes literally. And its impact
on society was immense. More than six hundred thousand soldiers
died: ten times the number who fell in Vietnam and seventy times
more when adjusted for population.

Despite "Gone with the Wind" kitsch and "Lost Cause" nostalgia,
the Civil War is the one aspect of America's past that America
takes seriously: "our only felt history," in Robert Penn Warren's
memorable words, a "history lived in the national imagination."
In his 1996 book, "Exterminate All the Brutes," the Swedish
writer Sven Lindqvist draws a link between nineteenth-century
colonial atrocities and the horrors of the two World Wars. In the
twentieth century, he argues, Europeans reaped on their own turf
a harvest of racial hubris and mechanical slaughter which they
had sown years before overseas. Their easy victories over
tribesmen - for example, at Omdurman in 1898, where a Sudanese
army was mown down by Gatling guns before it could get within
musket shot of the British - fostered an illusion that technology
had made war simple and one-sided and that the deaths at the far
end of the gunsight did not matter. "This kind of war was full of
fascinating thrills," recalled Winston Churchill, who had been at
Omdurman. "It was not like the Great War. Nobody expected to be
killed." Nobody white, that is.

A similar link can be drawn between America's "easy" victories
over Indians and its slide into the Civil War, which, like the
World Wars, Vietnam and Iraq, was wrongly foretold to be simple
and quick. The age of the machine gun had not quite dawned by
1861, but the gunboat, the railway and the percussion-cap rifle
had all been at work for some time. Like European imperialists in
Africa, Americans had grown used to enemies with obsolete
weapons, little ammunition and no artillery. The leaders of both
North and South shared this colonial conceit. Indeed, the Union
president, Abraham Lincoln, and the Confederate president,
Jefferson Davis, had served together during the Black Hawk War of
the 1830s. (As for racial hubris, the governor of Iowa kept Black
Hawk's skeleton hanging up in his office.)

The breakaway South formed the Confederate States of America with
its capital at Richmond, Virginia - the very place where, two and
a half centuries before, King Powhatan had ruled a smaller
confederacy from his Tower. The city on the James certainly had
historic prestige and fine buildings, but the location was
unwise. Only a hundred miles separated President Davis in
Richmond from President Lincoln in Washington City.
According to the secessionist theory of the Constitution, the
South - or any state - had the right to leave the Union. And many
Northerners were ready to let the South go. Could white
America have divorced calmly and left it at that? The answer must
be no; sooner or later the diverging nations would have fought it
out. For one thing, the Confederacy had dreams of building a
slave empire, incorporating Cuba and other Caribbean islands. The
North would not have brooked such a rival. So Lincoln made his
Faustian bargain, employing evil, empire, to destroy another
evil, slavery." 

The Confederates had early successes, won by brilliance and
daring against the odds, but after the losses of Gettysburg
one and Vicksburg, the South was doomed. Throughout 1864 the
North fought an "anaconda campaign" of attrition, bringing ever
more men, ships and weapons to bear on a shrinking front.
Finally, in April 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant - a kindly man,
a heavy drinker and sometime store clerk who disliked war but was
surprisingly good at it - accepted the sword of his adversary,
the more sober and equally gifted commander, Robert E. Lee, at
By the end, the Confederacy was in a state like that of Germany
in 1945: its fields burnt, its slaves freed, its railways torn
up, its cities in ruins.

Late in 1863, when it was becoming clear that the North would
win, the great orator and antislavery activist Frederick    
Douglass, who was himself a former slave, said that the work of
the "abolition war" would never be done "until the black men
of the South, and the black men of the North, shall have been
admitted, fully and completely, into the body politic of
America." For the dozen years of postwar Reconstruction, the
North came down hard on the South, and Douglass's dreamlater
Martin Luther King's and Barack Obama's - seemed almost within
reach. But the work of rebuilding America was hindered by the
corruption of carpetbaggers and war profiteers who bedevilled
Lincoln's successors. 


Meanwhile, a terrorist insurgency threatened to break out in the
conquered states. Death squads with ominous names and bizarre
rituals arose to restore white supremacy: the Pale Faces, the
White Brotherhood, the Knights of the White Camelia and the Ku
Klux Klan. By the late 1870s, it was clear that the price for
national reconciliation would be paid by African Americans.
Washington turned a blind eye as segregation and Jim Crow laws
overturned the new racial order, keeping the South a
white man's country for another hundred years.

Little by little, the subdued if unrepentant states were
readmitted to national life, a process that subtly changed the
language. When Walt Whitman had written "The United States
themselves are essentially the greatest poem" in 1855, he
reflected the usage of the time. After the war, the country's
name shifted from a plural to a singular noun: the United States
became itself. 


The Civil War did not affect only white Americans and former
slaves. Native Americans played a greater role than is
generally known, and on both sides. Sandwiched between Texas and
Missouri, the Civilized Tribes - by then re-established as
semisovereign nations in the Indian Territory - were inevitably
drawn into the invaders' war, splitting into pro-Union and
pro-Confederate factions. The last Southern commander to
surrender his sword was Brigadier General Stand Watie, a brother
of the Cherokee newspaperman known in English as Elias Boudinot.
On the winning side, the terms of surrender signed by Robert E.
Lee at Appomattox were written by Colonel Ely Parker, General
Grant's right-hand man and a Seneca chief of the Iroquois
League. As a young man, Parker had worked with Lewis Henry
Morgan on the ground-breaking ethnography League of the Iroquois,
which brought the ideas of the ancient Longhouse to the attention
of Marx, Engels and other Victorian thinkers.
When Ulysses Grant became president in 1869, he made Parker head
of Indian Affairs - the first Indian to hold the post, and the
last for a century. But neither Grant nor Parker could
stop the spiral of violence in the West, and their best
intentions were undermined by corrupt Washington contractors,
who, like their counterparts today, padded accounts and siphoned
off public funds.

With its easy money and lack of oversight, the four-year
emergency had corrupted all levels of American government.
It had also produced an industrial surge, especially in
weapons, shipbuilding and railways. And like all great wars, it
had bequeathed problems of debt and demobilization. The Union
alone had a million men under arms; they couldn't all retire at
once. Americans also realized that if they were to avoid fighting
each other again in future, they would need an outside enemy
against whom their divided nation could unite. So Washington
turned its war machine on the unconquered peoples of the West. 


By 1868 General Philip Sheridan of the Army of the Potomac was
out in Oklahoma, uttering his notorious words, "The only good
Indians I ever saw were dead."

We are now speaking of the West in the modern sense of the
word - the Great Plains where the horse Indians hunted the

In the American myth that Hollywood has sold to the world, these
are the only real Indians: wild, nomadic, noble and unchanging.
Forget all that. The horse Indians were never typical of America,
and their life was built on change. Many of them - including the
Cheyenne, the Sioux and the Arapahowere refugees from the invaded
East, obliged to take up buffalo hunting when their farmland had
been overrun by whites. Their culture was a brief and brilliant
response to a shifting world, a hybrid flower that bloomed and
died within a hundred years.

Of course, a few people had been living on the Plains ever since
the end of the last Ice Age. But they hunted on foot and had only
dogs to drag everything - tipis, lodge poles, food, the
elderly - on small travois across the ocean of grass. When the
first horse appeared in the eighteenth century, they named it
"holy dog." The horse shrank distance, carried goods, and
turned footsloggers into knights. The Plains Indians quickly
became as skilled on horseback as Mongolians, growing rich on the
great herds of buffalo, trading meat for corn and guns.


The white expansion onto the Plains was also driven by a
combination of new needs, opportunities and means. Just weeks
after the American conquest of Mexico, a gold strike at Sutter's
Mill in California had set off the wildest goldrush since the old
Spanish conquests of Mexico and Peru. Prospectors and adventurers
rolled west in tens of thousands, heedless of the "permanent"
Indian frontier, spreading the usual plagues of disease, alcohol
and violence. By the end of the Civil War, it was clear that the
Western mountains held enormous wealth not only the traditional
gold and silver but other minerals newly in demand as the world
industrialized. The whites also saw that the land was not as
barren as they had thought; some parts were indeed desert, but
much of the West was a savannah of deep, black earth kept
treeless by the buffalo.

Anyone who drives across the Great Plains today can't fail to be
staggered by their extent - some million square miles, more than
the entire area occupied and claimed by the United States before
the Louisiana Purchase. It seems impossible that nineteen-
century armies could find, let alone subdue, the Western nomads
in a single generation. Yet the Indians weren't the only moving
target; so, in a different way, was the civilization that
attacked them.

White numbers and technology were taking off as the Columbian Age
began to bear its greatest fruits. Having grown at compound
interest in the Old World for two centuries, the stolen wealth of
Mexico and Peru had now returned to the New - to feed, finance,
equip and populate the new American empire. In 1830 the United
States had 13 million people; in 1860, 31 million; and by 1900,
76 million - more than any European country. Just thirty years
after the Indian Removal, the railway joined the coasts and split
the buffalo, which shied at the gleaming rails. The first
motorcar crossed America thirty-four years after the first train.


In the eighteenth century, both whites and Indians had used the
same weapons: smooth-bore muskets with powder and ball. But as
the Industrial Revolution accelerated, the arms race became ever
more one-sided. While the Indians were still using muskets, the
whites had repeating rifles; by the time the Indians acquired
rifles, the whites had machine guns. The Sharp rifle, the
Gatling gun and the steam train were the brightest stars in a
constellation of inventions that enabled white America to take
the West.


The decisive weapon, however, was nothing more glamorous than a
new tanning process, perfected in 1871. Buffalo leather suddenly
became part of the world economy, prized for machinery belts and
army boots. The United States government realized it could subdue
the Plains tribes by letting freelance hunters (many of whom were
Civil War veterans) kill off their food supply. "It would be a
great step forward in the civilization of the Indians," said
Senator James Throckmorton, "if there was not a buffalo in
existence." He got his wish. Whites with repeating rifles wiped
out the great herds - perhaps 30 million animals - in just ten
years, taking the hides and leaving the flesh to rot. By 1890
only a few hundred buffalo were left. The Indians had a Hobson's
choice: starvation or surrender. Often it was both, on
reservations little better than death camps.


The definitive general history of this period is Dee Brown's 1970
bestseller, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," which quotes
extensively from eyewitnesses on both sides.  The race war fol-
lowed much the same pattern as the one that began at Mystic,
complete with Puritan bloodlust. One of the worst massacres was
led by a Methodist preacher named John Chivington, who fell on a
sleeping village of friendly Cheyennes at Sand Creek, Colorado,
with these words: "I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is
right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill
Indians." What followed was the My Lai massacre of its time.
Coming early in the Western wars, Sand Creek quashed whatever
hopes of peace the tribes still held. It set the stage for the
short-lived Indian victory over General Custer at the Little
Bighorn, the Ghost Dance crisis cult, and the final squalid
murder of Sioux prisoners at Wounded Knee.

The year of Wounded Knee, 1890, was chosen by the United States
Census to mark the closing of the frontier. With the final defeat
of the Western Indians, three hundred years of warfare for "free
land" came to an end. At the same time, the Creeks, Cherokees and
other Southern nations who had been driven to the Indian
Territory ("theirs forever ... under the most solemn guarantee of
the United States") were broken up by the Dawes Allotment Act,
and the "surplus" opened to a white stampede. 


Since the Removal, the Five Civilized Tribes had made good
progress establishing themselves in what is now Oklahoma,
building schools, hospitals and towns, with national legislatures
of stone and brick in high Victorian style. They had also freed
their former slaves and rebuilt after the destruction of the
Civil War. Their level of education was superior to the American
norm, and their communal land ownership acted as a social safety
net, keeping them free from the poverty of many frontier whites.
But as Senator Dawes noted, they lacked "selfishness" - that
essential ingredient of Anglo-American civilization. When the
Cherokee and Choctaw nations fought the Dawes Act in court,
Congress dissolved their national governments. When all Five
Tribes then applied to join the United States as an Indian state,
their request was denied. The Removal treaties had promised that
the Indian Territory would never "be included within ... limits
or jurisdiction of any [white] State."

Yet in 1907, once whites safely outnumbered Indians in the
territory, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed it the state of
Oklahoma. Despite all these attacks, the Five Civilized Tribes
are still a significant portion of Oklahoma's population today,
and they have revived their national governments as much as
possible. Their lands, however remain fragmented.


By one reckoning, the United States made 370 treaties with  
Indians and broke them all. Three centuries after Roanoke and
Jamestown, the conquest of North America was done. Much the same
had happened in Canada, the most violent episode being the war
against the Metis leader Louis Riel and his Indian allies in
Manitoba and Saskatchewan. There was less fighting north of the
forty-ninth parallel, but the extermination of the buffalo, the
building of a railway from coast to coast, and the settlement and
treaty process were all quite similar.

It was only in this last period that white America's oldest and
biggest lie had any truth: in the Far West, the settlers really
did face a "wilderness" inhabited by nomads. Until then,
Europeans had made their way across the continent by taking over
fields and houses emptied by disease, warfare or - where those
failed - by state-enforced ethnic cleansing. From Jamestown and
Plymouth to the edge of the Plains, the takeover was parasitic.


America's true pioneers were Indians. Indeed, the Civilized
Tribes sent west and robbed again fifty years later became the
first wave of "settlement."

The Far West had been left to hunters because neither Indians nor
whites could farm a grassland mown by buffalo and wildfire. For
the first time, the white man could not purloin "the
fruits of others' labours." Luckily for him, industrial
technology did the job instead. After the slaughter of the
buffalo, cattle briefly offered a tame substitute. But the open
range was soon diced into farmland by the invention of barbed
wire. The steel rope came west on steel rails. It also took
steel and steam to flay the earth itself - to slice through ten
thousand years of matted sod and turn the Prairie into wheat
fields. The same Mr.Gatling whose gun reaped Sioux and Sudanese
also made farm machinery and the first steam plough. And so the
Great Plains became a chessboard, its pawns set out by industries
and banks.


In 1987 a settler named Leroy Judson Daniels published his
memoirs when he was more than a hundred years old. Born in 1882,
breaking wild horses in Montana at fifteen, he saw the Great
Plains turn into monoculture: "What a sight in  the spring! Grass
as far as the eye could see, wild flowers of all kinds, wild
strawberries ... millions of prairie chickens and quail, wolves
and squirrels, foxes.... Of course, now we can see what we did to
that wonderful world ... took it away, destroyed what God and
nature gave man to support his life. Then there wasn't a fence

The winning of the West was immediately laundered into
entertainment, first by Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show and
ever since by dime-store novels and films. The last word on the
"conquest machine" must go to the great Sioux leader Sitting
Bull, who fought Custer at the Little Bighorn, toured Europe with
Cody in the 1880s, and died during a botched arrest two weeks
before Wounded Knee.

     The love of possession is a disease with them [the whites].
     They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich
     who rule.
     They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and
     fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their
     buildings and their refuse. That nation is like a spring
     freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all who are in
     its path.






Keith Hunt

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