“The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be”

David G. at Juvenile Instructor (the blog, not the periodical) has just posted Mormonism’s Unbroken Past: Transcending the 1890 Rupture, noting that 1890 is as historically significant to the Mormons as that year is to the wider history of the West: For us, the 1890 Manifesto marked as great a shift in outlook, traditional Mormon historical thinking goes, as the 1890 “closing of the frontier,” declared in 1893 by Western historian Frederick Jackson Turner, signaled in the development of all that was distinctively American.

This is an artificial break in both fields of history, David writes, discussing a group of Mormon historical writings that “transcend the 1890 barrier” by showing how issues in the Mormon 20th century “have roots in an unbroken past.” I agree with David – 1890 is a convenient but artificial division, and it is misleading to write as though 1890 marked such a clean break in our history as we have sometimes treated it.

I have no reason to believe that George Q. Cannon was familiar with Turner’s 1893 essay, yet an 1899 editorial for the Juvenile Instructor (the periodical, not the blog) echoes Turner in declaring the recent closing of the frontier. Where Turner regrets the end of forces that have shaped American character and destiny, doubting whether anything in the future could be found to nourish a continued American uniqueness, Cannon claims a central Mormon role in the closing of that frontier, looking forward to a future marked with “many another change that is freighted with good to mankind.”

For Cannon, the end of the frontier was only one more revolution in the rolling forth of the stone cut out of the mountain without hands.

The “Wild West” Has Ceased to Be.

Two years ago the people of Utah celebrated the semi-centennial, that is, the fiftieth anniversary, of the founding of the commonwealth. In July, 1847, the Pioneers came; in July, 1897, their descendants and the other inhabitants of the State they made possible, united by hundreds of thousands in doing honor to them and their deeds.

As everybody knows, the Latter-day Saints were the first to push out into the far west with the intention of colonizing. It is not yet fifty-five years since they crossed the Mississippi. That mighty river was then, on the western side, the practical limit of population, of civilization, of home and of organized community in the United States. Let us add five years to the time since the “Father of Waters” formed this boundary. That would make it sixty years ago – and in writing and remembering, it is easier to say sixty than fifty-five.

Sixty years isn’t much in the life of a country or a nation. In some countries it takes that long to work out a single reform. for instance, it is just a year less than sixty since the penny post was established in the united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – that is, a uniform system and rate of postage for all parts of the dominion. Yet after all these years there are still the colonies of Australia and the Cape of Good Hope which are not included in the penny post connections of the British Empire. There was a great amount of congratulation last Christmas when all parts of the empire except the two countries named were brought within the reach of this cheap convenience and necessity. The United States has already done better than that in Cuba and the Philippines: In less than a year after the declaration of war with Spain, letters from Havana or Manila to Salt Lake City cost no more for transmission than from Ogden or Provo.

But this is a digression. It is alluded to merely to show that it takes time to accomplish national improvements and reforms. Yet it serves to illustrate by striking comparison the stupendous change that has been wrought in the condition of our continent within a little more than half a century. On this side of the Mississippi river lies two thirds of the area of the United States; and sixty years ago it was practically an unknown region. There was not a bridge over that river nor over any others of the streams west to the Pacific Ocean; there was not even a traveled road. Buffalo roamed by millions over the plains; and these, with antelope, prairie dogs and Indians, made up the sum of life and population. California’s gold had not been heard of; neither had the grain, fruits and vegetables, nor the timber, coal and minerals of the vast empire of which Utah now forms a part. Omaha and Denver and Salt Lake City were not only not in existence – they were not even dreamed of; even Chicago had hardly as many thousands of people as it has millions today. The West was indeed “wild” – it was boundless, trackless, and in many parts barren and forbidding.

What a change these brief sixty years have brought! Now there is no “wild West.” There is no western frontier, save the Pacific’s strand, and even that is o’erleaped in recent months of annexation and conquest. The buffalo has disappeared forever, and of the Indians there remains only a shadow of their former number. Five great lines of railroad unite the oceans with trans-continental bands of steel, traversing plains and piercing mountain ranges where formerly only the howl of the wolf wakened the echoes. Nineteen states and four territories have been carved out of the region in question, and they contain over sixteen millions of population, living in nearly two hundred cities of more than five thousand people each, five of these cities having more than a hundred thousand inhabitants each, to say nothing of smaller towns, villages, settlements and individual homes, ranches, etc. Moreover, the people of the West are far richer in proportion to numbers than are those of the East: more of them own their own homes; they inhabit the granary of the world; and their burden of debt is much lighter than is that of the inhabitants of the other side of the great river. In proportion to numbers they have more schools, and every state and territory has its normal schools, colleges, and universities – with an average of illiteracy far below that of even cultured and wealthy New England. Here is found nearly every known mineral, of a value exceeding the treasures of Biblical Ophir and Tarshish; while thousands of square miles of waving grain, smiling gardens and prolific orchards furnish a source of wealth more certain and even more abundant than the precious metals themselves.

Years ago, when the trans-Mississippi country was still unexplored and uninhabited, though the leaders of the Latter-day Saints had already some thought of entering it, Thomas Benton declared, in a burst of eloquence almost prophetic, that the “way to the East [that is, the Orient] is from the West.” The situation today fulfills his prediction. The oriental nations are best reached form Pacific Coast ports of the United States; and the great ocean is ploughed by international shipping carrying a commerce that means the eventual leveling and elevating and enlightening of the most stubborn and secluded of the nations of the old world.

The part which the Latter-day Saints have performed in making possible and working out this great transformation is so important as to receive general credit now whenever the subject is discussed. They are the recognized pioneers and leaders in the movement which led to the development of the country. That there is no longer any “wild West” is due primarily to them. Their destiny put them in the front rank in this, as in many another change that is freighted with good to mankind. The world is sometimes slow to recognize merit and to bestow honor where it belongs; but it comes at last, as is shown in the fact that no congress, convention, celebration or any other public event on this side of the Mississippi is regarded as complete without the prominent participation and assistance of the people who settled Utah fifty-two years ago.

The Editor.

“Editor” [George Q. Cannon], “The ‘Wild West’ Has Ceased to Be,” Juvenile Instructor, 1 May 1899, 295-297.


Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — please click here for comments.