JF Ptak Science Books Post 1711
[This is another in a series of posts prompted by a re-reading of Larry McMurtry's novel, Lonesome Dove. This particular addition was prompted by McMurtry's character Capt. Angus McCrae coming to a realization that he and his partner, Capt Woodrow Call, at the pinnacle of their careers, were just another bit of landscape to be passed by; Texas Ranger/cowboy/adventurer becoming the "New Indian".]
Judge James Hall said early on (in 1835) that the frontiersman would only be clearing the way for another kind of pioneer who would settle down and farm the land properly, and make the beginnings of American civilization in the west. Thomas Jefferson saw the same future for “our semi-barbarous citizens”—the frontiersman—as did the explorer and botanist J.R.Poinsett, who said simply that “the frontiersman is doomed.”
McCrae was very well aware of his own role in the paradoxical march of civilization on the frontier. He was the first of his type to see these new lands (on the cattle drive north from Texas to Montana); opening them meant that he would make them safe for other colonizers—farmers and bankers who would have a far more acquisitive sense of land and ownership than he or his partner Call would ever have. As the concept of private property grew greater, as more capital was invested, and as the land became more irretrievably “settled,” then the two Rangers would pose as much a threat to the monied land interests as the Indians had once posed to the earliest settlers. He knew that he was the first step in making the economics of the region as frictionless as possible, and that at some point, and pretty soon, he and all those like him would represent the friction in the cost of doing business.
It didn’t take long for this to happen; in the grand scheme of the development of the West the frontiersman's shadow was almost instantly filled by that of the cowboy, with barely 75 years filling the time between the beginning of the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the end of the great cattle drives. The hungry frontier pulled the adventurers away and concentrated its efforts on its greatest foe—the worker. The Atlantic Monthly charged in 1877 that America was at risk from a new type of “Indian”—the “savage” working class. It made that statement—in an unsigned article—soon after the dangerous railroad strike of 1877, stating that these classes needed to be attacked and re-educated to understand the new culture of incorporating America. McMurtry's self-medicating character McCrae understood the theory if not the extended history of the word “savage”—that it would be passed from one class to the next of any group that threatened to disturb the orderly march of culture and economic civilization, and that each preceding class of civilizer would, in turn, become the savage. “Savage” would pass from the Indian, to the unruly cowboy, and then on to the settlers of each successive (economic) frontier, as the competition turned from space to wages.
In a book that Call and McCrae could (but were extremely unlikely to) have read, The History of the United States, by George Bancroft (1866), it was said that the Indian was killed by civilization because he could not change “his habits.” Writing at the same time and for the same readers, Francis Parkman told his readers that the Indian is savage, but that the Indian is also part of a savage environment, though “he and his forest will perish forever” because he will be unable to learn the ways of civilization. Or, in the words of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who would let nothing get in the way of westward expansion—“civilization or extinction.”