Tony Vagneur: What conquered the western lands? Farming, gardening come to mind
We’ve had some good snows lately, but don’t let that lull you into complacency because Spring! will be here before your knees get tired of flexing through the bumps. And with spring, comes gardens.
It was a big deal, my father arriving at my mother’s garden plot with a plow pulled by a large team of draft horses, turning the soil over for another year of planting. The large horses, full of stored energy after a respite following the end of the winter cattle-feeding season, were a handful.
Along with the stomping of the huge feet, there was the clicking of the harness as they moved, the slice of iron plow shares through earth, the guttural grunts of the horses as my dad’s voice urged them onward to their task. Their sweaty, musky scent filled the air as they passed close by, but the most pungent and memorable to me was the escaping aroma of the earth, freed to the air after a winter of captive slumber. My mother was pleased.
Going back, looking at it objectively, hunter-gatherers gave up a lot to settle down to farming, or so it would seem. To free-spirited hunting-gathering people, the idea of going “to work” in the “garden” must not have been a high priority, not one necessarily of choice, but likely it was population growth that spurred people to begin thinking in terms of surpluses. Hunter-gatherers gave up the independence of the hunt, but also gained, as well. They could stay, relatively speaking, in one spot, moving only with the harvest of certain crops. There was always, famines and droughts excepted, enough to eat.
The change likely started in Egypt around 12,000 B.C., people discovering the process of gathering seeds spilled from mature grains. They learned to replant those seeds, to create more of the grain the next season. Very simplified explanation, for sure, but that’s how it worked.
Over thousands of years, the concept of farming evolved, until in the early 1600s, Europeans brought the concepts of “modern” farming practices to America. There was order in how crops were planted; rows of vegetables and fruits were, for the most part, straight; the use of irrigation canals, learned from the Romans, increased productivity; planting and gardening were, of all the things in the new country, orderly.
Homesteading and the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the conquering of the frontier, took farming out of the east and brought it westward, where it had successes and failures. 160 acres was too much land for some people; for others in arid, desert areas, 160 wasn’t enough. 80 acres was plenty in Iowa, 800 not enough in eastern Colorado. It was an ill-conceived government mandate and, which as we clearly know, one prescription very seldom works for the entire country.
At the time, 90% of the populace made their living farming, so in the spirit of creating a better life for themselves, the majority of settlers heading west were farmers, or wanted to be. It wasn’t all about farming; there were deeper reasons, such as the lure of increased freedom, enhanced opportunity, exploration, control over one’s destiny, reaching for adventure. Many were successful, many returned to whence they came. The myths were being formulated.
In the spirit of Manifest Destiny, how best to defeat the wilderness? Stake out your 160; plow up the ground where native grasses grew and plant crops, where herds of bison once roamed. Much of it was subsistence farming, just getting by, if even that. Crop rotation was unknown to many of these newcomers, used to the rich soil of the east, and thin, grassland dirt was soon depleted of fertility. Unreliable rainstorms didn’t help.
They sold their worn-out soil and rudimentary homesteads to arriving newcomers and moved further west, hoping for better times, or went home. The newcomers, generally more knowledgeable about the arts of agriculture, thanks to technological advances in the east, were able to resurrect many of these farms into productive operations. Luck helped.
In the end, farming is what gave America control over much the untamed, uncivilized, wild west. It wasn’t about learning the lay of the land, figuring out where man may, or should, fit in. It was about turning the native land into a place that fit the European imagery of what the west should be. In the end, farming gave America what it wanted – control over the West. Sure, there were gold and silver strikes, and of the relative chapters written, those were potent, but relatively short-lived. Everyone needed to eat.
Never mind the collateral damage, such as removal of the Natives from what was theirs. We didn’t even ask; we just greedily took. We even appropriated the maize they grew. Maybe it could be said we conquered the land west of the Mississippi through farming. Or gardening, if you prefer.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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