Excerpt: Making a Modern U.S. West

Sarah Deutsch is a professor of history at Duke University. She is the author of Women and the City: Gender, Space, and Power in Boston, 1870–1940 and No Separate Refuge: Culture, Class, and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American Southwest, 1880–1940. Her newest book, Making a Modern U.S. West (Nebraska, 2021), is now available.


How to Make the West Modern

By 1898 the United States had claimed the land west of the Mississippi for fifty years, yet New Mexico, Arizona, and Oklahoma were not yet states. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had declared the frontier closed in a widely influential speech he gave during Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, but vast spaces in the U.S. West remained sparsely inhabited. Settlers took out more homesteads after that speech than before it. Sometimes the homesteader could not do much with the land. Failures ran rampant in every decade. But the promise of land for the taking retained incredible allure.

The promise of access to land, as old as the United States itself and seductive even in decades when farmers lost everything, was not about a love of farming. Rather, landholding represented security—having, literally, a place—a claim as important to dispossessed Native Americans and Mexican Americans as to aspirant immigrant, native white, and African American settlers. It represented at the most fundamental level a sense of belonging, whether to a local community or to a national myth. Landholders saw themselves as valiant contributors to the national good with commensurate claims on the state. In turn, congressmen, senators, and presidents remained as committed to an agrarian ideal of independent small farmers as Jefferson had been.

Much of what transpired in the West between 1898 and 1940 concerned how to translate that dream into a self-consciously modern nation-state. To many Americans and would-be Americans, including policy makers, the West was simultaneously the greatest symbol of American opportunity, the greatest story of its past, and the imagined blank slate on which its future would be written. Turner had described the West as the crucible from which the U.S. democracy had been formed; at the same time, the disproportionate share of the West’s landscape owned by the federal government enabled government planners to launch new “scientific” programs of land use and population management. Those programs made the region a showcase for the nation as a forward-looking modern state, ready to be a leader among global leaders. The same opportunities that drew individuals and planners drew transnational capital, and during these years ever larger corporations had their own visions of what constituted a modern landscape.

Making a Modern U.S. West is about the contests over both that vision of the past and the various visions of the future. Visions, in this sense, have material consequences. From the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the Great Depression’s end, from the Mississippi to the Pacific, policy makers at various levels, large-scale corporate investors, and people on the ground struggled over who would get to define modernity, who would get to participate, and who would get excluded.

Shifting lines of inclusion and exclusion are central to this volume’s story of the West and to the function it performed for the burgeoning U.S. nation. The story of the rise of Jim Crow in this era—of a segregated South and a depiction of the population as divided into two “races,” Black and white—is usually told as a southern story. But the U.S. West played its own central and complicated role in the creation of that dominant national racial formation.

The ability to segregate, to categorize and demarcate, was part of the function of a modern nation-state. It enabled the state to know its own resources, including human resources, to count the population, and to know the population to count on. In the United States the modern era of demarcating began with an imperial adventure. In the standard view among historians who took their cue from Turner, the Spanish-American War stands as a marker of the West’s inability still to serve as the place of boundless opportunity, forcing the nation to seek newer frontiers of trade and commerce overseas. But crucial differences disrupted the seeming continuity of expansionism. What emerged from the congressional battles over how to deal with the people in the newly acquired territories was a reenvisioning of the American polity.

In 1898 the United States annexed Hawai‘i and gained the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico in the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War; in 1900 it acquired Samoa. For the first time, the United States gained territory with no intent fully to incorporate the territory or its inhabitants as citizens and participants in the republic. With the war, the United States shifted from a formal philosophy and policy of democratic incorporation of new territories and peoples (however imperfectly and slowly practiced) to an imperial philosophy of official colonization. There would remain deep differences between U.S. citizens and the nation’s colonial subjects.

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