Between 1841 and 1860, about half a million people migrated from the East across the Great Plains to the American West. For generations, their story was told as a high romance, intrepid pioneers "winning" civilization from an empty, harsh land, persevering through self-reliance, ingenuity and dogged determination.
But in an extraordinary literary confluence 30 years ago, a collection of academic historians, three of them recipients of MacArthur "genius" grants, transformed that history. For starters, they noted that the land wasn't empty, either of people or developed resources. Various groups of American Indians had lived on the land and utilized its resources for millennia. The westering settlers, happily assisted by their government, stole the land from the indigenes, whose rights they ignored and whose existence they marginalized, creating debilitating dependencies that plague Native communities still today. Moreover, when other countries stood in the way of American appropriation of the land — Britain in the Northwest, Mexico in the Southwest — the government swept them aside, through threat and intimidation, or aggressive war.
As for self-reliance, every aspect of American expansion west was heavily, consistently and proudly paid for and nurtured by the federal government. The Army protected the western trails, provided emergency medical treatment for travelers and new communities, housed people in times of crisis and otherwise monitored westward movement. The U.S. Marshals Service provided law enforcement. The Army Signal Corps guaranteed communication with the older settled regions of the country.
When the settlers found themselves in need, they turned to the government for sustenance. Forts along the western trails provided shelter from Indians and weather calamities. Medical personnel at the forts and later in towns helped fight infectious disease, treat those injured in accidents and performed emergency surgeries. Concession merchants in the forts helped those overwhelmed by circumstances to right themselves and carry on.
And the government subsidized the construction of the transcontinental railroads, mostly with land grants, many of which enriched corporate investors whose descendants continue to profit from them today. Also, Congress arranged for a land distribution program that favored large-scale purchasers, and doled out small parcels of marginal land to unsuspecting novices.
When private companies would not invest in large-scale projects such as dams and irrigation systems, or when the projects simply overwhelmed the capital capability of would-be investors, the government stepped in and built the dams and moved the water, as it continues to do today.
In another tremor, the scholars pointed out that most of the western migrants lived in communities with other people, and with the amenities of the culture they knew. And many, perhaps half, of the people who went west soon turned around and went back home, often enough having failed to make a go of it even with government support.
When the historians finished their work, "last frontier" and "frontier myth" had disappeared from the western history lexicon. The major new narrative text to come out of the movement did not even use the word.
Unsurprisingly, not everyone was happy with the reconfiguration. In 1991, art historian William Truettner curated an exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art, "The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier," showing how artists visually revised the conquest of the West so as to favor western expansion. Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, then on the Appropriations Committee, was so outraged by what he called the "politicization of American history" that he threatened to cut off Smithsonian funding.
There was much in these new realizations that applied to Alaska. Alaska Native land claims were ignored until the modern era. Most migrants who came to Alaska lived in towns, including most of the gold trekkers in the Klondike (Dawson, Yukon) and Nome and Fairbanks. The federal government provided all manner of assistance, including protection by the Army, law enforcement, telegraph connection with the rest of the world, and the weekly payroll of the Alaska Railroad, Anchorage's lifeblood. From 1940 to 1970, virtually the only other payroll in Alaska came through the military. The Alaska pipeline was possible only when Congress authorized it after an extensive redesign carried out under the supervision of the Interior Department.
These are all essential, historic elements that are now transforming the Alaska story.
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Works on which this column is based include Donald Worcester, "Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity and the Growth of the American West" (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985); Patricia Nelson Limerick, "Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West" (New York: W.W. Norton, 1988); Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own" (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991); William Cronin, "Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992).
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