Merrill explores the American frontier

Public Meanings and Political Spaces

By Karen Merrill, Asst. Prof. of History

“Historians get very nervous about the future; there are no documents to refer to,” said Karen Merrill, assistant professor of history, when asked about how she foresees the future of public lands in the Midwest. Ever since people started settling in the Great Plains regions of the United States and the Native Americans and the bison were driven off, the West has been a place of controversy. Merrill explores the development of the region, a topic to which many American History texts only devote a paragraph or two, in her recent book, Public Meanings and Political Spaces. Merrill attacks the subject by focusing on the effects of four current major players in the West: the ranchers, the homesteaders, the environmentalists and the federal government.

Nowhere else in the continental United States are there so many acres and so few inhabitants. Throughout history, land has been used as a measuring tool of power and strength; nations have traditionally viewed land as a means to and a symbol of power, including the land in the Midwest. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented a lecture in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in which he described the closing of the frontier and its implications for the advance of civilization. The continued debate of his thesis is emblematic of the importance of the frontier within the context of the development of the United States. Public Meanings and Political Spaces sheds new light on old questions with its probing analysis of the American frontier.

Stressing the importance of nuance as a key to understanding the region, Merrill addresses the tendency of Americans to regard the Midwest as merely an endless corn field. In reality, the Midwest is a complicated matrix of politics and disputes, which in the past raged almost independently of the controversies affecting the rest of the country. Today, the population in the Midwest is dwindling and farmers and ranchers are struggling as large corporations buy up their property. Then again, less than 100 years ago, land in the Midwest was widely sought after by many individuals.

From the perspective of the rancher and the homesteader, the right amount of land was absolutely essential. Ranchers needed enormous acreage in order to feed their cattle and sheep, whereas farmers needed a separate proportion of the land in order to produce enough food for both the family and the market. For some homesteaders, 640 acres was more than enough, but for others, not nearly adequate. The notion of receiving so much land free of charge for merely building a house on the property and developing the land seemed like a phenomenal deal. However, merely building a house and developing the land proved to be more than many bargained for. Until the invention of barbed wire and a decrease in the cost of irrigation, many farmers never made it. Life was also hard for the ranchers, who, despite their generally greater amounts of capital and resources, often faced problems with local and national bureaucracy. After suffering heavy losses in cattle and being portrayed in the media as aggressors, public opinion turned against the ranchers. In fact, ranching in the Midwest was a brutal life for all participants, including the cattle. Ranchers fought with one another for land, water and grazing rights, and had to brand their cattle to lay claim to their property. In addition, ranchers also were accountable for their cattle and the damages incurred by them. The Midwest of today has changed a great deal, with ranches condensed and ranchers struggling to make a profit in the beef market. Dissatisfaction with today’s ownership arrangement has led to a mass exodus, affecting farmers and ranchers alike. Many politicians, due to their perpetual unfamiliarity with the Midwest, are unable to understand how to address the current problems. Although it took significant foresight for the government to bring some property under federal control, eventual conflict is inevitable when the government owns 85 percent of the land, as it does in Nevada. Given the state of affairs in the region, Merrill almost suggests that the United States should once again promote the settling of the Great Plains.