Drying in the Wilderness
How Unshakable Myths About the West and Its Settlers Helped Lead to California’s Current Environmental Crisis
In 1868, the West was a mythical place, a land associated with boundless acreage for the speculator, infinite glory for the intrepid mountaineer, and rich veins of ore for the prospector. Just a few years before the American centennial, very little was actually known about what lay beyond the 98th meridian. This invisible line––which runs through the heart of Texas and cuts the corners off Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska––was at that time on the far side of America’s western border. Maps depicted the area with a few chicken-scratches for hypothetical mountain ranges and designated it with the words The Great American Desert.
As European explorers ventured into India and Africa, an American self-styled naturalist named John Wesley Powell took it upon himself to map the unexplored territory of the West and catalog its resources. Powell was an unlikely mountain man. Although physically fit, with a barrel chest and the full beard that was his trademark, he’d lost an arm as an officer in the Civil War, and much of his scientific training consisted of reading voraciously from books sold by traveling salesmen. With his characteristic energy, Powell mustered a small group of hunters and former Civil War soldiers, including his brother, to mount a cartographic expedition down the length of the Colorado River. The success of this expedition made Powell, for a brief time, a national hero, and gained him the financial support he needed for his most ambitious undertaking—to map the entire West, including every stream, river, and pool of runoff.
At this time, the American government was in thrall to the expansionist goals expressed in the idea of Manifest Destiny: Americans had the divine right—the responsibility—to expand across the continent. The futurist writer and governor of Colorado, William Gilpin, did his part to aid Manifest Destiny. A speculator who believed his landgrabs to be divinely sanctioned, he vividly described the West to Eastern newspapermen and eager audiences as a second Eden, a fertile land with bountiful aquifers deep below the desert surface. Gilpin played fast and loose with scientific facts, inventing rainfall, diverting streams, and telling anxious farmers not to worry about rumors of aridity, because “the rain followed the plow.”
Powell, however, recognized early on that the West would be inhospitable to traditional large-scale farming, and foresaw that irregular rainfall would create a reliance on irrigation. This meant that the West would come to be defined by water rights. Without government regulation, he warned Gilpin and others in Washington, wealthy speculators would gain complete control over water, creating a feudal system that left farmers in the dust.
Powell published his preliminary findings in a federal report, still believing that there was time to create a plan for sustainable Western development. But while Powell believed he was writing a scientific report, to the government it was a dangerous manifesto. The federal commission had wanted him merely to create a map of irrigable land. But Powell’s report showed far less of that land than was hoped for, and his analysis of the problem and how to solve it resulted in a guide for limited, regulated settlement of the West. The commission responded by slashing Powell’s budget from $720,000 to $162,500. Powell’s report was, as his biographer Wallace Stegner later wrote, “loaded with dynamite.”
It wasn’t merely that Powell had overstepped. His recommendations threatened to undermine the myth of American individualism—a myth that had made many on the government commission very wealthy men. In contrast to the image of the lone cowboy staking claim to his 160 acres, Powell painted a picture of collective and socially coordinated settlements. Since rivers and streams were the only dependable source of water, Powell believed they should be cooperatively owned. Since cattle needed far more grazing room in dry, sparsely seeded Western lands, he suggested communally owned land for grazing, with a cooperative roundup (a method later perfected by Mexican ranchers and adopted by Texas cattlemen).
Though Powell argued for collective interests, he was a man alone. His visionary ideas for a sustainably farmed West fell on deaf ears. By 1878, the territory’s water-rich land was already being bought up by wealthy speculators.
As the turn of the century approached, settlement throughout the West continued mostly unimpeded, though few homesteaders knew what they were getting into. Instead of an Eden of fertile plains and hidden springs, they found barren ground and drought. Along the rail-lines, settlers were met with a paucity of timber, and ruinous prices at dry-goods stores.
It’s a credit to the strength of Manifest Destiny, and a testament to the desperation of early settlers, that those who crossed the 98th meridian and didn’t find the Eden they’d expected just kept going west: walking, riding, and often climbing mountains until they ran out of earth. California was settled both by destiny and by default.