Monday, February 23, 2009

Week 5 The 1930s and the Changing Frontier

When did the frontier close? Turner thought that the frontier closed in 1890, citing the federal census definition of people per acre. Limerick argued that there was more continuity than discontinuity around 1890s, especially because more federal land was distributed after 1890 than before -- and also because there are now fewer people per acre in much of the west than there were in 1890. Limerick also pointed out that there may not be one definable closing of the frontier.

But this week's reading by John Mack Faragher and Robert Hine argues that the 1930s were actually a significant turning point in the history of the American frontier. 

In the 1930s, decades of overplowing the Great Plains led to the environmental crisis known as the "Dust Bowl," when wind tore off the topsoil, 24 million farm acres turned to desert, and the rural west was faced with economic collapse. Farmers moved from the Great Plains states in desperate search of work in California. This image by Dorothea Lange shows some of the desperation of the Dust Bowl refugees, a very different pioneer image than those that Turner wrote about. If you're still looking for a subject for your second midterm, consider the 1940 movie, "Grapes of Wrath." It's a different vision of the frontier than Turner ever had, but it is still a vision of westering in hopes of economic mobility.

The federal government responded to the crisis of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl with new farming laws and new funding for giant development projects, such as the Hoover Dam, which provided construction work, electricity, and industrial development. (It also led to the dominance of Henry J. Kaiser's Kaiser Corporation, a building contractor who eventually designed the healthcare that many of you now use.) 

The government has always been involved in subsidizing the west, including funding Indian removal, railroad development, government land-sales, and irrigation projects that were all crucial to European settlement of the American west.

"During any week, some Western politician or businessman will deliver a speech celebrating the ideal of regional independence," Limerick wrote in Legacy of Conquest, but that politician or businessman will be historically ignorant, supporting Turner's myth that slid into John Wayne's acting, while ignoring the long history of western dependence on the government and corporations. Limerick concluded, "Especially in the American West, where the federal government, outside capital, and the market have always been powerful factors of change, the limits on personal autonomy do not seem like news. And yet ... in a region where human interdependence has been self-evident, Westerners have woven a net of denial."

In the 1930s, though, it was hard to deny the corporate and governmental forces that built the monumental Hoover Dam, which was then the world's largest concrete structure and largest electric-power generator. Look at that photo of the Hoover Dam and think of how much it contradicts Turner.

The 1930s, our reading points out, also marked a change in Indian policy, from forced assimilation to slightly more respect for Native traditions. Here is a 1970 image from Judy Baca's "Great Wall of Los Angeles" mural, showing Indians interacting with government agents and market agents. After 1934, Indians on reservations were finally allowed to speak their own language, elect their own leaders, practice their own religions, and raise their own children. (Before that, Indian children were removed from their families and placed in boarding schools that hoped to assimilate them into a different norm.) For Indians, 1934 was certainly a turning point in western history.

Another turning point: after 1935, the federal government stopped selling off or giving away public lands, lands which the government had been distributing since 1784. This, according to your reading in Faragher and Hine, "truly marked the passing of the nation's long era of frontier settlement."

Yet Limerick points not to land distribution but to tourism and nostalgia as indicators of the end of the frontier. Here is a 1931 photo of the rededication of Mission San Diego. After the mid-1800s, many California missions had crumbled with neglect. In the 1920s, automobile tourists and white Anglos eager to promote California history recreated the missions as tourism spots. 

El Camino Real is not really the route of the padres: that route varied with the seasons, and was privately owned by the 1920s. The El Camino Real that we drive on today is a recreation of a mythic past, promoted by a white woman who owned a concrete company and the only bell-foundry west of the Rockies. El Camino Real was designed to pass as many shops as possible, while nostalgizing a version of California past -- a version that happened to ignore many Indians and Mexicans of the present.

The 1920s and 30s was also when California schools began to teach mission history. When you were in 4th grade, you probably built your own mission. Did it include the whipping posts or mass graves? Did it include the automobiles or tourists? Trying to see that complete view of our past is the challenge of college history and especially American Studies.

The 1930s was one turning point. The 1940s, with the wartime economy, was another. We'll read about that later, especially when we study Disneyland and Fast Food Nation. Different scholars have differing perspectives, and you should eventually reach your own perspective, while thinking about both continuity and change in America's western frontier.

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