Forget rugged individualism: corporations owned the Old West, agribusiness dominated the 19th-century landscape, and speculators looted the public trust.
So writes environmental historian Isenberg (History/Temple Univ.; The Destruction of the Bison, 2000), observing that the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862 did little to prevent the West from being carved into resource-extractive estates. In this setting, California suffered “enclosure,” much as the highlands of Scotland had; Indians were pushed aside, valuable properties appropriated and the government molded to benefit the largeholders. In Northern California, the driving forces were not only agricultural interests, but also companies devoted to removing ore and timber. They prospered, while their workers and tenants suffered; as Isenberg points out, for example, the miners who worked the first wave of the Gold Rush were earning $20 a day in 1848, but only $3 a day in 1856 (and that second number, he notes, “represents only the wages of those who earned enough in the gold country to remain there”). One cause was the replacement of labor-intensive forms of extraction with machinery; on the American River, placer mining technology took the place of humans, and soon whole mountains were washed into the San Francisco Bay. Timber companies removed huge quantities of redwood trees, once they had overcome an odd problem: at first, the things were too big to cut and transport. In Southern California, the land was similarly damaged, but this time owing to cattle overgrazing, an economy that failed to make anyone particularly wealthy. Yet these very instruments of degradation and extraction spurred Californians to set pace for the nation in establishing environmental laws and conservation organizations; “much of the agenda of the wilderness movement,” Isenberg writes, can be seen as a “reaction to or a negation of the most prominent forms of industrial resource exploitation in the nineteenth-century West.”
A strong complement to the work of William Cronon, Richard White, Patricia Nelson Limerick and other modern historians of the American West.