Stegners View of the True Hero of the West

The West -” home on the range where the deer and the antelope play; where seldom is heard a discouraging word and the sky is not cloudy all day.” The romantic idea of the land west of the hundredth meridian has often inspired songs and poetry, like this one, about idyllic conditions in this dry “paradise.” Often these ideas did not prove to be completely accurate, and a very few people attempted to present the facts to the public to dispel the romantic ideas of an effortless existence in these western lands. John Wesley Powell was one of these people. Wallace Stegner viewed Powell as a champion for science and one of the true heroes of this time because he did not follow the romantic ideas that so many of his contemporaries held about settlement in the West.

One of the men Stegner presented as the epitome of Western romanticism was the Honorable William Gilpin, who eventually became the first territorial governor of Colorado. Throughout Stegner’s book, he used Gilpin as a contrast to Powell, who represented science. Gilpin was the example of the people that Stegner believed to be enamored with the idea of the West as a huge frontier, able to support millions, without looking at the facts and examining the situation from a scientist’s point of view. He pointed out several differences in Powell and Gilpin that illustrate how he believed Powell to be the hero, even though he was never recognized as one, and Gilpin to be a dreamer.

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Stegner gave several examples to prove that the loudest promoters of settlement were often ignorant of the lands in which they lived, which proved that they were in fact, unable to determine whether the West was ready to be settled. One of the examples Stegner used was the fact that Gilpin believed all Indian tribes to be the same. In his zeal to promote Western settlement, he made the statement that with settlement in these lands came a unity of the people of the United States. Native American races were his examples, saying that they exhibited a “perfect identity in hair, complexion, features, religion, stature, and language” (p. 3). Powell, however, knew that this was not the case from studying the different races and using scientific methods. In his studies, he determined that they were, in fact, very different. He discovered literally hundreds of distinct languages, peoples of different skin color and eye color, and very different religions and customs (p. 8).
Another example of how inept Gilpin was in determining whether or not the West could be settled was in his statement that all of the United States was known to its citizens (p. 2). He disregarded the fact that many maps made of the West had gaps and empty spaces that no white man had yet explored. Powell was one of the first to try to fill in the gaps without accepting the idea that the West was completely known to the United States. He explored several rivers and many areas of land, taking notes, identifying new plants and animals, and filling in the blanks on maps that had been forgotten or ignored for one reason or another. Gilpin attempted to fill in these blanks with romance and claimed that the West was well-known and was beckoning easterners to settle its vast lands.

Gilpin promoted settlement loudly in the West, making unsupported claims about the wealth of the area. He claimed that firewood was in abundance underground and that all settlers had to do was to dig to obtain it (p. 3). They could dig for water also because, according to him, the West had great underground artesian wells that would provide enough water for millions of settlers (p. 7). If this was not enough water, there was always the possibility of irrigation because of the plentiful water supplies from the melting snow on the mountains.He made the statement that “agriculture was effortless,” clinging to the idea that “rain followed the plow” (p. 4). Using these unsupported claims, he declared that there were no longer any hindrances to settlement on the plains (p. 3). Powell disputed all of these ideas, using facts to disprove him. He fought in Congress, stating facts and arguing against the idea of rain following the plow. He also predicted that out of all the land that they had planned to irrigate, only twelve percent would be irrigated (p. 343). In his arguments against the great ideas about settlement on the plains, he stated that the United States government and the Gilpins of this day were “piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights for there is no sufficient water to supply the land.” (p. 343).
Powell’s ideas were not welcome to Gilpin and those like him. When he presented his facts that did not support settlement, he was booed (p. 343). Those pushing settlement in the West did not want to hear about the conflicts, the land problems, the water problems, and the unknown parts of the country (p. 218). Stegner even claimed that Gilpin, “after half a lifetime in the West, could see through a glass eye so darkly that he denied geography, topography, meteorology, and the plain evidence of his senses, and his advice to America and his dream of the future floated upward on the draft of his own bombast.” (p. 50). Unfortunately for Western settlers, Gilpin’s ideas were more popular in that day than were Powell’s. The ignorance of the settlers and the outright refusal of Gilpin and his contemporaries to listen to reason helped to cause tragedies that could have been otherwise avoided.

Many of Powell’s predictions proved to be correct, and he had a much clearer and more practical way of utilizing Western resources. Only twelve percent of the land has been irrigated, just as Powell stated would occur. Rain did not follow the plow, as Gilpin and his supporters adamantly claimed, and settlers on the plains often experienced droughts and sometimes struggled to merely survive.Many lives were lost and farmers often found themselves losing their land because they were unprepared to settle in the lands that were promoted as being a paradise.
Although Powell attempted to prove that the West was not ready to be settled and presented facts to support his case, Gilpin and his contemporaries would not listen to reason. Their lofty ideals about the romance of the West spread across the nation like wildfire, and the romance still exists today.With the asset of hindsight, Stegner knew the facts about western settlement, and because Powell was one of the few who tried to present these facts to a nation unwilling to listen, he viewed Powell as a hero.


Bibliography:
West of the Hundreth Meridian by Wallace Stegner