How The Cliven Bundy Saga Exposes America’s Most Enduring Myth

Rancher Cliven Bundy pulls in a rope while on horseback at a protest area near Bunkerville, Nev. Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal, John Locher)
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When the anti-government rancher Cliven Bundy stepped before the cameras to “tell you one more thing I know about the Negro,” he also stepped into far-reaching and noxious American historical myths about self-sufficiency, race, and rugged individualism. Bundy’s actual words – delivered in a Western drawl by a man in cowboy hat and boots, against a backdrop of sagebrush and desert scenery – were mostly the same old “government makes people dependent” arguments that saturate the right-wing blogosphere and FOX News.

But there was something else embedded in Bundy’s observations about “the Negro” that bears mentioning.

Students of the history of the American West have long known that the strong, rugged individualists that populate our movies, TV shows, and myths always depended on government – to give them ownership of their farms and ranches, to subsidize private corporations like railroads for access to markets, for federal troops for protection from Indians, and federally funded dams and canals for irrigating their fields and sustaining their livestock and towns.

The idea that Bundy’s pioneer ancestors somehow made their fortunes (“built that”) without any help, before the invention of government assistance, the Bureau of Land Management or federal regulations, is preposterous.

Bundy’s claims also echoed Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks to wealthy contributors during the 2012 campaign, when the Republican nominee intimated that nearly half of Americans believe they are victims and entitled to a range of government support to which they have become dependent. But Romney’s division of Americans into “makers” and “takers” gets a lot more complicated if you examine
our country’s complex history of clearing, settling and subduing the West.

lincolnThe question of what to do with the nearly unfathomable bounty of public lands west of the Mississippi River (land both bought and conquered by the United States at the expense of Native Americans) roiled our nation’s politics almost exactly 150 years ago. In May 1862, the first Republican President – Abraham Lincoln – signed the Homestead Act, passed by a Republican Congress only after Southern representatives had resigned their seats and their states seceded from the Union (the legislation was rightly viewed by Southerners as profoundly anti-slavery, since a West settled by independent proprietors would always vote to keep slaveholders out).

The Homestead Act was one of the most far-reaching and important pieces of legislation ever enacted in the United States. It was also undeniably a massive
(and successful) social welfare program. It gave an applicant ownership – at no cost! – of farmland made up of 160 acres of undeveloped federal land. The
land wasn’t what some on the libertarian right would archly call a “handout”: a
would-be homesteader was required to file an application, improve the land by
building fences and structures, and, after five years’ residency and toil, file
for a permanent deed of title. But it was a government program designed both to settle the West with farmers and ranchers and to dispose of the public lands. “Winners” were undoubtably picked.

In a remarkably bold and broad stroke, homesteads were technically made available to all heads of household who had never taken up arms against the U.S. government, so claimants could include women, immigrants who intended to become citizens, and ex-slaves. Eventually the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads and distributed 270,000,000 acres (420,000 sq. mi) of federal land for private ownership between 1862 and 1934, a total of 10 percent of all lands in the United States. But as anyone who has read Little House on the Prairie or O Pioneers! knows, making it on the Great Plains or in the Mountain West as a homesteader was difficult work. Blizzards, grasshoppers, withering droughts, financial panics, and plain old bad luck prevented a full 60 percent of those filing claims from successfully “proving up” and taking ownership of their land.

African American homesteaders

Those who were successful tended not to be the urban working class, formerly-enslaved blacks, or the indigent (the parts of society the originators of the homestead laws had in mind in the 1840s and 50s). Instead, when the program really got going in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was immigrants from Europe who joined farmers from the Ohio and Mississippi valleys in populating the plains and West with homesteads. Making a farm work required significant agricultural know-how, and enough capital to get to your claim, buy seed, acquire tools, and put up a surplus in case of hard times. These factors all discriminated against the extremely poor, which included most people of color.

The government offered several revisions and updates to the original Homestead Act after 1862, including a Southern Homestead Act of 1866 (a failed program intended to turn ex-slaves and sharecroppers into landowners), the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 (enacted to enable dryland farming in the Plains and Mountain West), the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916 (to allow ranchers 640 acres of land for grazing purposes instead of the normal 160).

In the last century several different models were tried to encourage ranchers like Bundy’s ancestors to use public lands – property owned by all Americans, in common – to graze cattle, including the U.S. Grazing Service (a creation of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934) and today’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), founded in the 1940s. Both federal agencies installed token costs per head of livestock called a grazing fee, and issued grazing permits that were periodically renewed.

Cliven Bundy tore up his grazing permit in 1992 because he disagreed with its terms. Since that time he has grazed his cattle with no permit on government lands. This makes him worse than a “moocher” – it makes him a trespasser, on property that every one of us owns in common.

The two most visible legacies of the Homestead Act and its successors remain our nation’s huge rural middle class and the checkerboard grid of quarter-sections you can see from the window of an airplane flying seven miles up. But a third can be found hidden in our current, still-unresolved debates about race and the role of government.

Jonathan Earle is associate professor of history and director of the University of Kansas’ Honors Program.


Suggested reading:

Patricia Nelson Limerick, “The Legacy Of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West

Dennis McLane, “Seldom Was Heard an Encouraging Word, A History of Bureau of Land Management Law Enforcement.”

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