What Was Lost When the West Was Won

On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and a small team set out from Green River, Wyo. The crew members could not have possibly known the enormity of the ordeal they would face as they descended the unmapped Colorado River, finally ending their journey three months and six days later. Their story would go down as one of the greatest adventures of all time. It would forever shape the West.

On his expedition, Powell realized something that Washington D.C. politicians had missed in their Homestead Act and plans for an empire from “sea to shining sea.” One could not apply the same rules that worked on the lush east coast to the arid deserts of the American West.

Powell understood that the only way to settle the West was to control the water and live within the bounds of the environment. For agriculture to happen, rivers needed to be dammed, ditches dug, and watersheds diverted. But Powell could not have predicted that his ideas would be misinterpreted to the point where the Colorado River no longer reaches the ocean.

The real legacy of the white man settling the West is not of adventure or the frontier. It is a story of commodification and control of the West’s resources, and of its people. It is a story of taking every inch of land and pulling the capital from it until a dried-up shell was all that was left. It’s a story about water, land, and death.

The same mindset that fueled white settlers to crush Indigenous Peoples and then destroy their territory and culture is alive in how we live in the West today. It can be seen in the way we continue to misuse and abuse natural resources, and it can be seen in the continued systemic oppression of reservations. It is pure arrogance and ignorance.

Three hours east of Colorado Springs lies one of the most stark and devastating reminders of the danger of this attitude. In 1864, five years before Powell began his historic journey, a group of 675 U.S. Calvary men killed between 70–500 Cheyenne and Arapahoe people, the majority unarmed women and children. This became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. It sprung from a place of misunderstanding and hate. No one took the time to learn about the Cheyenne, and thus they didn’t understand that these Cheyenne were peaceful and not harming anyone.

Never mind that the camp was flying an American flag with a white flag of surrender tied below it. Never mind that they posed no danger to anyone. They were killed because they refused to move from lands that had been promised to them in a treaty. They were killed because they represented a refusal to conform. The legacy of westward expansion has always been to submit everyone and everything to the control of the United States and punish those who don’t comply.

But the U.S. was not content with just controlling the Indigenous Peoples who lived in the West. They needed to control the very spirit of the land itself.

Take, for instance, the American bison — an animal synonymous with the West.

Like the very lands it roamed, it seemed to defy control. But Manifest Destiny would not tolerate such a bold refusal of power. The West was not something to be admired. It was a resource; any function beyond that was merely an afterthought. So, like the rivers they dammed, the fields they plowed, and the gold they mined, the bison were to be utilized. Within decades, a resource so unimaginably large that it was described as never-ending was gone.

Beyond this, the bison were a tool used to wipe out the Indigenous Peoples. Historians have widely acknowledged that U.S. politicians encouraged the destruction of the bison herds in order to destroy the tribes of the Great Plains and make way for cattle herds and farms. It was a merciless ploy.

One would think that after witnessing the travesties of massacres and broken treaties committed against Indigenous Peoples, the bison exterminated, and the Colorado River delta dried to a bone, maybe we could do better.

But the same arrogance that fueled the mistakes of the past exists today. How else can we explain the ridiculous over-allocation of the Colorado River’s water every year based off of an unrealistic compact created in 1922? How can we justify the lush golf courses of Phoenix or the depletion of California’s groundwater for agriculture?

What would it have been like if we had opened our eyes and seen the value of the world beyond a capital gain? Would the Colorado River reach the ocean? Would buffalo still roam freely across the plains? Would the Navajo people, as well as many others, not suffer from chronic poverty and possess all of their ancestral lands?

It’s time to throw off the outdated arrogance that tells us we can conquer our surroundings. As a society, if we could understand value beyond capital, and have a place for that value in our lives, that would be a start.

I think the Indigenous inhabitants of the West understood something that the white settlers never did: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Rather than understand the value of this, the U.S. exterminated it. Hopefully though, we can learn from the past and our society can also reach this level of transcendence someday.

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

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