Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The 1800's: How far have we come?

This week we're featuring a guest post by one of the Museum's volunteers.

By Susie Linford, Volunteer Interpreter, Spirit of the West

The stories of those who came to the High Desert in the 1800’s, depicted throughout our Hall of Exploration and Settlement, appear to be frozen in time, but a closer look at the “back stories” reveals circumstances that are the origins of what we confront today.  Although we can’t know the past exactly as it was, with some scrutiny, these stories can inform and reassure us about our responses to the world we live in now.

Economic Depressions and Speculative Bubbles

People don’t usually leave home when living there is good. From the mid 1800’s on there were constant economic upheavals causing depressions; speculative boom and bust cycles; a decrease in the value of farm lands and other commodities causing banks to fail; plunging many into steep poverty. This displaced hundreds of thousands of people and put them on the trails heading to the wilderness of the American West.

They came from all over the world and (most of them) stayed to form a heady mixture of risk taking, verbose people who argued and debated nearly everything, especially what it meant to be an American.  They moved across vast distances larger than their native countries and then they often kept moving from farmlands to gold camps to homesteads.

Nineteenth Century westerners were a restless, mobile, vigorous mix of nationalities and races, and now and then, they shot each other, but that was just their way.   In the century that followed, their descendants would invent Hollywood, the Atomic bomb and the Internet and become a superpower in a fast changing, volatile world.

The Federal Government Versus States’ Rights

When the Union of the United States was formed, many states were leery about how much they would be controlled by Washington.  Sixty years later after the issue was thought to have been solved by the Constitution, long, windy, emotional speeches and debates objected to a federal government and a President (Lincoln) that presumed to have the right to regulate their affairs.

Opposition to the President was heated and aggressive. Every aspect of his appearance and character was unflatteringly portrayed in print and cartoon sketches. Predictions were strong that he was leading the nation on a path of destruction, damnation and ruin.

The same arguments against the power of the federal government to regulate the states can still be heard in the halls of government today.

"Immigrants Go Home!"

By the 1880’s the number of immigrants increased rapidly from Asia and from Europe. They were eager to work for any money even at the worst of jobs, and there   weren’t many jobs. Arguments about the rights of immigrants to take jobs away from citizens were heated. Laws were passed that restricted immigration and immigrants were often attacked and even killed in many gold camps in the west.

American English

Many Americans including new immigrants took pains to speak and write English in order to assimilate in their new country. But others, especially those living on a frontier, didn’t see a big need for “book larning.” This didn’t keep the trail emigrants from writing, and from their diaries we can puzzle out what they meant when they said,   “We hit thet chickin wit a hamer, and thin Mudder cookd thit.

Those who came west with an excellent education and who helped set up small schools that offered a good and sometimes even a classical education contrast this.

Booze, Drugs, Vice and Virtue

In the 1800’s in the west there are several saloons on every block and men drinking in them morning and night. There were also churches on nearly every corner, and the majority of citizens got their once-a-week bath (water was scarce in the west) on Saturday night and attended church on Sunday.

Opium, morphine, cocaine and heroin were not illegal and were even thought to have some beneficial mind-expanding properties, much like many people today believe that weed seeds are innocent commodities. Patent medicines were laced with both alcohol and opiates, and the local doctor provided the remedies. Self-medication was common for the many ailments and injuries suffered in the west.

American Identity – Who are We?

The debate over our American identity has been discussed and debated since George Washington had to talk wearing wooden false teeth. Every generation holds forth on this with the elder generations predicting that our national identity is in decline and is even following in the footsteps of the Romans.  

In the Nineteenth Century Europeans characterized Americans as brash, coarse, boorish, churlish, arrogant, verbose, prone to spitting tobacco juice everywhere and shooting their guns off in public places.   Americans offered their daughters and their fortunes in exchange for aristocratic titles and in atonement for being so vigorous and rich. 

Jenny Jerome, heiress to a fortune dug out of western mines, made such a match. Her son, Winston Churchill, demonstrated many allegedly American characteristics of defiance, persistence and courage despite the odds (he also wrote and talked a lot). He commented on and demonstrated the notion of “vigor,” that life force and vitality that was so, so, well, American.

The people who settled the west in the 1800’s passed on many of their codes for responding to economic depressions, ongoing waves of immigrants, arguments over the balance of powers between the federal and the states’ governments, a fondness for self medication, poor grammar, an ongoing debate over our national identity with gloomy predictions and allusions to what the near future will hold (nothing good).

In all of this is a hybrid vigor of people who can and do disagree, reinvent themselves, take risks and do things that haven’t been done before, all the while alternating between self congratulation and self criticism.

And if an old-timer from the west were to be asked what he made of all of this, he might respond, “Yep, and ain’t it grand.”  Which is, of course, extremely arguable. 

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