America’s Long Journey: Cowboys and Indians and nesters

Nineteenth century (1900 back to 1800)

Cowboys and Indians and nesters

In the mid-20th century, movies and television ran Westerns as staples, several series appearing week after week, for years. Kids routinely got toy six-shooters and just as routinely played Cowboys and Indians. The Wild West, at least the Wild West as re-imagined by Hollywood, had a firm grip on the people’s imagination. Perhaps it represented an ideal of freedom from urban crowding and suburban conformity, freedom from bureaucracy and office routine and dull postwar reality after the exciting World War II years. Nobody would be idealizing the Depression years, nor the Roaring Twenties that had roared so conspicuously over the cliff. Not much enthusiasm for a war to end wars that had paved the way for a bigger and more desperate crusade 20 year later, and that brought us back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders, a moment in time. But there was a time after the Civil War and before the frontier disappeared into a seamless web of (dull) civilization. This was the 1870s and 1880s, which looked increasingly romantic.

The reality wasn’t quite as romantic as Hollywood would later paint it. If you look at The Old West in terms of economic and social forces, it retains a certain appeal, but it is a long way from Hopalong Cassidy.

First, the Indians. Plains Indians, unlike their Eastern counterparts, were nomadic, their homes light, quickly assembled and quickly taken down. Within the broad confines of their own more or less defined tribal areas, they moved along with the seasons, and with the buffalo, and according to whatever else moved them. Their way of life seemed to stem from time immemorial, but in fact was transitional. It depended upon two things they got from Europeans, and then from Americans: horses, and firearms.

The horse came to the plains Indians only beginning in the 1500s, when the Spanish, who brought horses to the new world, began losing them to raids and runaways. But the Indians adapted to the new animals so well, and reshaped their lives so thoroughly around their new mobility, that they became what been described as the finest light cavalry the world has ever known. By the time white settlers came pouring across the plains in the wake of the Civil War, and earlier, during the 1840s when white settlers in trains of horse-drawn wagons crossed the plains on their way to Oregon and California, and even earlier than that, when the mountain men began to trap beaver in the Rocky Mountains, and even earlier than that, when Lewis and Clark came by at the beginning of the century to get a sense of what the newly acquired Louisiana territory included, Indians had had horses so long that it seemed as if they had always had them. Still, the horse was a European import.

So were firearms, and this cultural acquisition did not work out as well as the horse had. Indians were nomads; hunters. Their way of life made no provision for a manufacturing industry, and yet, in acquiring firearms, they had become dependent upon a product of industry. Firearms without fresh cartridges were useless, and the Indians had no way to manufacture cartridges, and no interest in changing to be able to do so. Firearms also broke, or wore out, or were lost or stolen, and needed to be replaced. The only ways Indians had were purchase or theft. Widespread theft wasn’t practical, and purchase amounted to being fleeced, as purchasers dependent upon particular traders are always fleeced. (The price of a new rifle was sometimes set at the height of a rifle in beaver skins packed flat.)

The logic of trade resulted in Indians hunting more and more in order to obtain cartridges that allowed them to hunt more and more. Although modern romantics like to think of Indians as natural ecologists who lived in harmony with nature, etc., etc., when economic push came to economic shove, they joined the French Canadian and American trappers in trapping and shooting the beaver, for instance, to the point of extinction. In the case of the Indian, as in the case of the white trapper, it was a matter of inexorable economic logic. The real and tangible needs of the few outweighed the abstract and invisible needs of the whole. They always do, unless there is a countervailing pressure from somewhere, and that implies a larger view and an exponent of the larger view. Among the whites, Thoreau was one, as we shall see. So was John Muir. So were a few others. Surely some Indians must have understood what was happening as well, but an oral society leaves us no written records to consult.

In any case, there was a more fundamental conflict. The Indians were nomadic hunters and the whites were farmers and ranchers, settlers, who could only see undivided land as pre-civilization. (Indeed, that hasn’t changed. European patterns of land ownership have made us nearly unable to think in terms of land that is not owned. If nobody has title, it is presumed to be owned by the government. What’s more, America simplified European forms of land ownership, omitting whole classes of provisional or conditional ownership and replacing all with ownership in fee simple. Only later would we begin to rediscover the advantages of restrictions on ownership, in such things as land trusts, easements, etc.)

Where was the basis for compromise between a way of life that depended upon the free movement of millions of buffalo across hundreds of miles, and one that depended upon land surveys, property lines, and fences? There was no way to square that circle. Either the Indians would remain upon the land, living their pre-industrial existence (yet ever more dependent upon the weapons, tools and conveniences their new industrial neighbors could provide, for a price), or they – and the thundering herds of buffalo upon which they depended – would have to go. It didn’t help that many whites looked upon the Indians as savages – in fact, “savage” was the accepted word for them, before the less prejudicial word “natives” came into use – but even if they had been accepted as equals, how could settlers and nomads coexist?

But before the farmers and the towns came the cowboys. In 1866, trading post owner Jesse Chisholm and Black Beaver, a Lenape Indian, collected some of the stray cattle that filled the Texas plains and drove them to railheads in Kansas to be shipped East, where cattle went for $40 a head, as opposed to $4 a head in Texas. Texas cattlemen eventually drove an estimated five million head of Texas cattle along the Chisholm Trail to Kansas and thence East to market.

Huge cattle ranches gradually grew up throughout the plains states, wherever water was available and Indian resistance was not too strong. (In some areas, sheep were raised rather than cattle, but there was a bitter hostility between cattle ranchers and sheep herders, as sheep ruined the land for cattle grazing and horsemen consider sheep herders, who worked mostly afoot, as lesser beings than those like themselves who lived in the saddle.) These ranches were unfenced, and relied upon cowboys to keep watch over the herds day and night, and at the proper time drive them to the nearest railhead to get to market. Cowboys and Indians thus resembled each other in many respects, but the differences were profound enough to keep them on opposite sides. Cowboys lived in bunkhouses when not night-herding or cattle-driving; they read newspapers and magazines when available; if they saw cities seldom, they still considered themselves, proudly, part of the new nation still being constructed. And of course they were proud of being white, except (as was not all that uncommon) when they were black. They clung to a superiority stemming from their being part of “civilized” rather than a “savage” society.

And with time came new forces, that sent the open range the way of the untrammeled herds of buffalo. The railroads brought towns, and towns were surrounded not by ranches but by farms, and farmers – sometimes contemptuously called “nesters” – were looked upon by the cowboys with as little favor as Indians or sheep-herders. Didn’t matter. Farmers were the future and cowboys, the past. It would take a while, a couple of generations, but by 1890 the census bureau announced that the frontier – a line of demarcation separating the settled from the unsettled part of the country – had disappeared. Cowboys (and cavalry) had overcome the Indians, but civilization had overcome the cowboys in turn.

3 thoughts on “America’s Long Journey: Cowboys and Indians and nesters

  1. I’m listening to “1491,” a new (2005) history of the Americas compiled from the research by Charles C. Mann (promoted by Howard Zinn, no less). I’m only on disc two, but it talks about the similarity of acumen and ability between the settlers and the Indians–they weren’t so different, with one way “better” than the other, and they really needed each other to survive. It’s a fun and fascinating listen–e.g., when Columbus came, there were probably more people living in the Americas than Europe; the hemisphere had already been “massively landscaped by human beings.” Probably nothing new for you, you’re such an historian–just an fyi.

    1. The thing that people don’t generally get is that in 1491 the New World was populated, civilized (though not citified) and prosperous. The English who arrived in Virginia and New England in the early 1600s never saw any of that, because by then, the native population was perhaps as little as 10% of what it had been, due to a century of epidemic after epidemic — measles and other things the Europeans were relatively immune to, and other diseases (Smallpox, for instance) that they weren’t immune to at all, but had developed a certain biological tolerance for. The Indians had no immunity whatever, and it decimated them, then came back and decimated the survivors, and on and on for more than a century!

      Long before some particularly diabolical Europeans DELIBERATELY infected tribes to remove them, their ancestors had set this genocide into motion accidentally.

      So what the English found, when the land was sufficiently depopulated to allow them to enter into a scarcely inhabited world, was what may be imagined after a century of repeated depletion by epidemics.

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