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International Socialism, Summer 1995


Peter Morgan

How the West was won


From International Socialism 2:67, Summer 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


C. Milner II, C. O’Connor, M. Sandweiss (eds.)
Oxford History of the American West
Oxford University Press 1994, £30.00/$39.95


There are many images of the American West. It is a land which has been inhabited for some 30,000 years, but it is the most recent history on which our images of the West are based. This is not surprising – the West’s transformation from a predominantly hunter-gatherer society into one of the most important regions of the Pacific Rim and the world capitalist system has been phenomenal.

There are various reasons for this transformation. Hollywood leads the way in presenting the right wing view which tells of the cowboys, Davy Crockett characters, who, as strong and self reliant individuals, carried the fight for white America into new and hostile territories. But there is another history of the ‘Wild West’ which is captured marvellously in the book The Oxford History of the American West. [1] This tells of ruthless expansion and exploitation, as the West witnessed the conquering and decimation of the Native American population by the newly arrived Europeans. The book then describes the emergence and development of a capitalist system which is more brutal and oppressive than that which it replaced.

The impression often given is that this was a land of vast spaces, a natural wilderness largely uninhabited, where the native population was uncivilised, unable to adapt to changes to the environment and incapable of resisting the intrusion by the new settlers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Parts of the South West of America were inhabited by the Acoma and the Pueblo Indians who occupied what is now known as Arizona and New Mexico. California was home to the Modocs, the Maidus and the Pomo Indians. The Pacific North West was rich in farming areas and timber and many communities flourished – such as the Eyaks, Tlingitis and Haidas. The Plains were occupied by the Lakota and Cheyenne Plains people (who first encountered white people in the early 18th century), and these were later joined by the Kiowas and the Comanches. And the largest Native American nation of the modern American period was the Dine, known as the Navajos, who were scattered over a large portion of North America.

The conquest of these people by the Europeans brought changes to their way of life. Not least of these were the many diseases that the Europeans brought with them. In California the native population was reduced by at least half – from 300,000 to 150,000 between 1769 and 1821; along the Pacific North West ‘the destructive force of smallpox, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases hit various Native American groups in epidemics that ran their course in a year or two’. [2]

But despite the effects of war, disease and disruption of the Native American way of life, the contact with the Europeans brought other more positive changes to their existence. Farming, for example, was greatly enhanced by the introduction of many new crops. By adopting many of these new crops the Indians enriched their economy and their diet. Trade with the Europeans opened new ways of life for the Native Americans, a point made by Leacock in her examination of the Monagnais-Naskapi of Quebec. [3]

The relationship between the new Europeans and the native population wasn’t static as shown in the first section of this book entitled ‘Settlement’. The Native Americans learnt to speak European languages. The European people had a more advanced economy. They had better technology and more sophisticated weapons, and were more experienced at warfare. But they encountered resistance – often in the form of prolonged and bloody wars (the Pequot Wars of 1637 to 1638, the Anglo-Powhatan Wars) or in the form of smaller, more localised battles. However, for the real conquest of the American West and the beginnings of capitalist expansion we need to look east. When you examine the carve up of America some 300 years ago, its capitalist culture today is no surprise.

The Dutch, British and French all realised the potential for the advancement of capitalism in America and the profits that this could bring. By 1606 James I committed the crown to the colonisation of North America which was to be divided by the Virginia Company (in practice two companies).

The Dutch were interested not so much in the land but in the trade values of the commodities, especially in the fur trade. And the French also saw the emergence of the cities as the key to development. They left a trail of cities from Montreal to Detroit, St Paul to Kansas City; they established New Orleans in 1718 and St Louis in 1764.

Thus there was a clash between the new and old ways of life, between two economies that could not live harmoniously side by side. The development of capitalism was to destroy all that was put in its way – the pursuit of profit was to rip asunder the old ways of existence. But how did the new ruling class facilitate the development of the new system?

The National Legislature passed two of the most important laws in the history of westward expansion. The Ordinance Acts of 1785 and 1787 meant the division and selling off of large tracts of land at extremely cheap prices for the developing capitalists. Large areas of land were surveyed, thousands of acres at a time, grouped into regions and then sold off, sometimes for as little as nine cents per acre. Once an area had 60,000 inhabitants, they could then petition for statehood and establish their own legislator. It was, as Elliot West notes, the ideal geometry for wheeling and dealing and encouraged the search for profit. Public auctions were held where speculators scrambled over each other as they sought vast tracts of land to develop. [4]

The Native Americans, although formally protected in Clause Three of the Ordinance, were actually forced from the lands they had occupied for hundreds of years. As West states:

We shall protect the Indians and their ancestral lands, the government promised, and we shall lay out the means, step by step, for that land to be sliced up, cleared by the axe, and broken to the plough, then laid over by the English common law, and parliamentary republicanism … A policy that could make such promises, all within the same pair of documents, had moved beyond contradiction to schizophrenia. [5]

There was no limit to the greed from the new capitalists. An infamous, but not untypical, transaction occurred in 1795, ‘when a bribed Georgia legislature sold more than 35 million acres reaching to the Mississippi for half a million dollars, or just over a penny an acre’. [6] Over the coming decades there were enormous profits to be made from the development of such land.

Improvements in the transportation network, as the new capitalists saw the benefits of developing an extensive canal system, led to increases in the urban population. In Indiana and Ohio the population mushroomed from just over 50,000 in 1800 to over 2 million by 1840 (from 1 percent of the nation’s population to 14 percent). New canals brought great opportunities for trade because cattle and manufactured goods could be transported easily. [7] The ‘canal counties’ prospered and were crucial to the economic development of the region at the time. Cattle trading flourished in the old South West. Profits were high as cattle was transported to the West Indies and cities along the Atlantic coast. And many towns turned towards the manufacture of goods that couldn’t be brought over primitive roads.

Westward expansion was now part of an expanding capitalist economy, emanating from Europe and the Atlantic coast. It was an area instantly desirable for squatters, wealthy landlords and capitalists alike. War was launched with ferocity against many of the Native American tribes, and government policy was dictated by the needs of profits. By the mid-19th century the US had solidified its military and political domination as the tide of white migration grew, and the market economy took hold on the towns – it was the solid basis needed for the capitalist expansion of the West.


The expansion of the United States beyond its western frontier is the story of the development of American capitalism by a capitalist class which saw the enormous potential for profits. It is also the story of the emergence of an industrial working class whose history is often neglected, yet is every bit as militant as that of the working class in Europe.

Throughout the 19th century the US government proceeded to extend its domination over the West by acquiring land. The Native Americans continued to resist, forcing the US government to change its policy from outright warfare to the removal of Native Americans to reservations, predominantly west of the Mississippi. But for this to proceed, the US government had to have a legal right to large areas of the American West.

The US government proceeded to purchase large tracts of land often at minimum prices. The Louisiana Land Purchase of 1803 (purchased from the French government) stretched along the Mississippi from (what was to become) Louisiana in the south to the Canadian border at North Dakota. It was a huge area covering thousands of square miles, rich in mineral reserves and potential profits. This enormous acquisition of land doubled the territory of the United States at a stroke.

What followed was an unprecedented period of land seizure and annexation:

On 14 May, 1804, an era of American exploration and expansion began … Through purchase, treaty annexation, and war, the federal government added extensive territory beyond the original Louisiana Purchase. [8]

America went to war with Mexico, which resulted in the annexation of Texas in 1845. It was a war that was unpopular in parts of the east, with demonstrations by Irish workers in New York, Boston and Lowell against the annexation of Texas. During the war itself some 9,207 soldiers deserted from the US army. As the war veterans returned home, the speculators moved in to buy land warrants given by the government to the soldiers. As Howard Zinn explains:

Many of the soldiers, desperate for money, sold their 160 acres for less than $50. The New York Commercial Advertiser said in June 1847, ‘It is a well known fact that immense fortunes were made out of the poor soldiers who shed their blood in the revolutionary war by speculators who preyed upon their distress’. [9]

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848 by which the Americans took half of Mexico at a cost of $15 million. The Texas boundary was set at the Rio Grande, and California and New Mexico were ceded. Later on Britain gave up Oregon and Russia ‘sold’ Alaska.

There was also the ‘slight’ problem of what to do with the Native Americans. Initially the Indian Bureau was part of the Department of War. However, the government saw the effectiveness of the reservation policy as a means to pacify the resistance of the Native Americans. It led to the annihilation of many Native American tribes, which is mentioned by Milner although he doesn’t go into the full scale of murder and genocide that was to characterise the ruthless expansion of American capitalism. The US government’s policy against the Native Americans was, as Zinn explains, absolutely central to their economic ambitions:

Indian removal was necessary for the opening up of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of the modern capitalist economy. Land was indispensable for all this. [10]

Between the discovery of gold in California in 1848 and the discovery of ‘black gold’ (oil) in Texas at the turn of the century, the American West was transformed from a largely agricultural economy into a modern urbanised capitalist economy. Minerals were discovered and transport and communication continued apace which helped develop and accelerate the economy. As Bryant argues in his excellent chapter, ‘Entering The Global Economy’, ‘Capitalism emerged as the prevailing force in world history by the 19th century and as the all pervasive aspect of American life, especially in the West’. [11]

Mining was one area in which huge fortunes could be made. Each discovery of new minerals saw a rush of prospectors in pursuit of rapid gain – California saw its population expand from 14,000 when gold was discovered in 1848 to 250,000 by 1852. Waves of pioneers also swept into Nevada, Idaho, Montana and Dakota territory seeking gold and silver. The huge investment in mining meant, ‘The trade surplus generated by the western mining companies encouraged the expansion of credit and brought the United States into the mainstream of the world economy’. [12]

But there was also a transformation in the mining economy itself as the individual prospector was rapidly replaced by the wage labourer as mining companies and other capitalists moved in. [13]

For this new class of labourers life was hard, monotonous and dangerous. It was insecure employment. The wages were low and the workforce highly mobile. As Bryant states:

Mine owners in the West, not unlike those who controlled mines in the East, the United Kingdom and continental Europe, moved slowly, if at all, to install safety devices and open air vents to improve timbering … The absence of concern for the welfare of the workers could be found throughout capitalist economies in the 19th century. [14]

An itinerant or floating workforce became the norm and there was often discrimination against Chinese and immigrant workers. All the ingredients were there for class conflict.

Miners formed their own federation called the Miners Protective Association which sought better wages, shorter hours and safer conditions. Soon the ideals and demands of the federation were taken up by thousands of miners throughout the West. In Idaho in 1892 miners struck for recognition, and seven were killed fighting the troops. Within a decade the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) was formed and had 50,000 members. It fought to stop intervention by the military in disputes: ‘… they [the WFM] would serve as the starting point for the more militant Industrial Workers of the World … and Idaho won settlements for better wages and safer working conditions under the leadership of the future militant William "Big Bill" Haywood’. [15]

The West was being integrated into the world capitalist system through better transport and communication networks.

As early as the 1850s, California had entered a global capitalistic economy. Trade with Asia heightened demands for an overland route to the West coast. [16]

The answer to these demands was to come from the development of the rail network across America. The construction of the east-west rail link was one of the greatest subsidised capital investment projects by the American government in the 19th century. It was also to generate enormous profits for a small number of companies both east and west; it helped oil the wheels of capitalist development in America in the second half of the 19th century; and it was one of the greatest financial scandals in the history of Congress.

The Pacific Railroad Act proposed to construct the Central Pacific Railroad from San Francisco across California to the Sierra Nevada, enter Nevada and go eastward to meet a line beginning at the Missouri River. Thousands of workers flooded to the project – particularly Irish and Chinese labourers. They laid four lengths of rail per minute:

But the object was not to construct the best or more efficient route but to move quickly, at the least expense. The trackage was not ballasted with rock, the bridges were often flimsy and the ties were generally untreated and frequently of poor quality. [17]

Despite the short cuts the expense was enormous and initial government loans failed to meet even the minimum of costs (or, more importantly, generate enough profits). Thus the rail companies had to secure more government funding – to secure it they resorted to bribery and theft.

The Union Pacific Company started in Nebraska and built west. It received 12 million acres of free land and $27 million in government bonds, and created a bogus company to raise more funds. The other rail company, the Central Pacific, started on the west coast and went east. They spent $200,000 in bribes in Washington to get 9 million acres of free land. They also convinced President Abraham Lincoln that the Sierra Nevada began near Sacramento, so that the federal subsidy was $48,000 per mile, not 16 dollars. To top it all, both railroads used twisting routes to get even more subsidies from the towns they went through.

There was also a human cost to this story. In 1889 records of the Interstate Commerce Commission showed that 22,000 rail workers were injured or killed in the construction of this railroad. [18] But with the completion of the transcontinental rail lines the west coast ports grew in importance as links in an expanded trade network. By 1900 the West was linked to all areas of the United States, Mexico and Canada, and also had access to the trade routes of Latin America and Europe:

Indeed, the urbanisation of the West reflected the coming of the railways, with cities as diverse as Dallas, Los Angeles, Tacoma and Denver largely owing their existence, and their growth, to the presence of railways tapping their hinterlands. The detractors of the railways decried their ‘capricious’ rate making, corrupt financial activities, and political involvement, but the iron and, later, steel rails gave the region the transportation base necessary to form a viable segment of the world economy. [19]

The opening of the rail line gave a great boost to capitalist expansion in the West. The expansion of mining and the increasing urbanisation of the American population brought demand for lumber. By the 1880s firms from New England, the Great Lakes and San Francisco began to secure the right to large tracts of land for lumbering:

The completion of the Northern Pacific meant that the lumber from the Northwest could be shipped to the Plains states to compete with the Chicago lumber market. The days of the lumber giants began. [20]

Other areas of the economy expanded and developed as the result of government intervention. There were huge investments in banking and agriculture – the 1880s were known as the ‘Golden Age of American Beef’. But all this expansion was done at a cost – some of it mentioned above with the appalling conditions of workers forced to labour for long hours, in unsafe conditions for poor pay.

But the growth of capitalism also created a concentrated, disgruntled workforce. Karl Marx wrote to a friend in America that nowhere else in the world was class conflict – ’the upheaval most shamelessly caused by capitalist oppression’ – taking place with such speed as in California. [21]

Colorado, for example, experienced a period of ‘thirty years war’ between 1884 and 1914 as miners fought their bosses by rioting and the use of dynamite. The Western Federation of Miners (WFM) mentioned above were at the forefront against the repressive mine owners. At Cripple Creek the WFM representative killed 13 strikebreakers with the use of dynamite. At Ludlow the Rockefeller controlled Colorado Fuel and Iron Company fought against the United Mine Workers and, with the use of the militia, killed 13 women and children: ‘Enraged by the tragedy, hundreds of miners and their sympathisers roared across the mining counties in a spasm of property destruction that ended only when federal troops were sent in by President Woodrow Wilson to restore order’. [22]

Other areas suffered similar upheavals. The miners of Coeur d’Alene of Northern Idaho fought back against the mine owners by dynamiting their costly machinery. The state governor called in the troops and martial law was declared. In Los Angeles at the turn of the century two American Federation of Labour militants blew up the Los Angeles Times building, killing twenty people, in protest at the company’s fierce open shop policy. But the public outcry and backlash against this bombing set the union back.

These struggles went hand in hand with the arrival of thousands of immigrants to America. Despite their great poverty [23], many easterners were drawn to the West. Kathleen Conzen in her chapter on A Saga of Families documents much of the migration that occurred at this time as many families took all they possessed to what they saw as a new, better future. And as Allan Bogue notes in his chapter An Agricultural Empire:

For most westering Americans, the decision to emigrate involved the vision of a verdant farm and a thriving family. Land was the lure. Settlers learned of the agricultural possibilities of the West in myriad ways. Land speculators advertised their western holdings within handbills, pamphlets and newspaper stories … Eastern newspapers featured letters from the West, sometimes from former residents happily re-established on the new frontier. [24]

In 1889–90 six new states, all in the West, entered the Union (United States) – Washington, Montana, North and South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming. And in 1890 the US Census Bureau announced that the frontier had been closed – that is, there no longer existed a boundary to move beyond and to explore new territory.


For the West, the 20th century has been a century of striking contrasts – between an explosion of investment and economic expansion which created enormous rewards for a few, and a growing and, on many occasions, fighting working class whose labour built this expansion and who quite rightly fought on many occasions to share in what was theirs.

At the beginning of the century the West’s economy was still heavily dependent on the massive reserves of natural resources. In the mineral industry some 90 percent of America’s reserves were located in the West. But natural sources of energy, such as coal, faced a new rival when in January 1901 a wildcat driller named Captain Anthony Lucas discovered an enormous oil field in Beaumont, Texas, which spewed forth oil at such pressure it took six days to cap and control. As the oil gushed into the Texan sky it was proclaimed as the eighth wonder of the world. Oil frenzy gripped Texas and California, a frenzy not seen since the discovery of gold 55 years earlier:

Speculative mania seized all parts of the state. Petroleum was eventually found under more than half the counties of Texas, and it replaced cotton as the primary contributor to the state’s economy. Petrochemical production became the state’s largest manufacturing industry. From hundreds of small companies, three eventually emerged to dominate the Texas oil industry: Gulf, Texaco and Humble (now part of Exxon, the modern name for Standard Oil of New Jersey). [25]

And California was not far behind with new discoveries made almost every year through to the 1920s:

A speculative frenzy gripped southern California as production in the state soared from 5 million barrels in 1900 to 15 million barrels in 1914, and that was only the beginning. From the San Joaquin Valley to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, new finds gave rise to … industrial giants like Union Oil of California and Standard Oil of California – now Chevron – which was originally only one more part of John D. Rockefeller’s giant Standard Oil monopoly. Between 1901 and 1940 California ranked first among American oil producing states for 14 years … Oil refining became the state’s chief manufacturing industry, and the man-made harbour at San Pedro became one of the nation’s chief oil-shipping ports. [26]

Oil discovery and production were to put the West Coast at the heart of one of the most important parts of the capitalist system for decades to come. But how was this ‘black gold’ to be transported to the various parts of the globe? Here we witness the beginnings of enormous state spending and intervention which were to be features of industrial capitalist economies in the 20th century. ‘Uncle Sam’ was to become more active than the ‘pioneers’ of the 18th and 19th century could have imagined.

The Panama Canal was begun in 1905 and opened in 1914 at a cost of $365 million – federal money had done what private money couldn’t. The canal improved access to the Pacific and the Atlantic and to all the great markets of the world. By 1919 the federal government had helped the West increase its share of national petroleum production from 29 percent to 68 percent.

Aided by access to the Panama Canal, timber production in the West grew from 10 percent to 35 percent of the nation’s timber industry. [27] War was good for the West. The First World War brought unparalleled demands for the West’s resources – both oil and timber production increased rapidly. Agricultural production reached record levels, ship building in the Pacific Northwest expanded at a pace not seen before, and in 1916 William E Boeing founded a small company that eventually became the world’s major manufacturer of passenger aircraft.

But it was the Second World War that proved to be greatest stimulant to the West’s economic transformation. Schwantes explains:

No event in the 20th century, not even the great depression or the New Deal, brought more dramatic economic changes to the West than World War Two. [28]

In 1937 the aircraft company Lockheed built 37 planes. Between 1941 and 1945 they produced 18,000. Uncle Sam poured billions of dollars into shipbuilding in California with employment in the San Francisco shipyards expanding from 4,000 to 260,000. At the peak of production the yards stretching from San Francisco Bay to the Columbia River launched a new ship every ten hours.

Employers were desperate for labour. One Boeing official said, ‘We hired anybody who had a warm body and could walk through the gate’. [29] Boeing’s workforce reached 55,000 during the peak of wartime production, 46 percent being women. Nearly a quarter of a million blacks, many from the South, moved west during the war in search of work. Many ended up working in the shipyards of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond.

The Second World War produced an economic boom in the West and it laid the foundation for the expansion of military spending that was to continue after the war ended, ‘In a real sense,’ argues Schwantes, ‘World War II never ended’. [30] The levels of federal expenditure in the war industry continued after the carve up of the world by the superpowers. In fact, it was this territorial division that created the third great war of the 20th century – the Cold War – which continued the boom, expansion and transformation of the West’s economy:

From the 1940s through to the 1980s, federal investment in science, defence, reclamation, and highways all combined to further industrialise and urbanise the West. The rising tide of federal investment in sophisticated military and aerospace technology was especially pronounced in southern California, in the urban Southwest and Texas and around Puget Sound … Cold war fears kept many of the West’s defence plants busy, notably those of the aerospace giants, Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas, all of which manufactured jet aircraft, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and space equipment. In the 1960s, shortly after the National Aeronautics and Space Administration [NASA] was organised, the federal agency spent 50 percent of its funds in California. [31]

The significance this level of state and defence spending had on the US economy as a whole was considerable. As Chris Harman has explained elsewhere [32], the amount of expenditure on arms produced a boom in the American economy and the West was the main beneficiary. It led some to argue that the problems of the cyclical capitalist crisis of booms and slumps had been eradicated. As the 20th century progressed, however, this idea was blown apart as the American economy was hit by the slump in the world economy in the 1970s.

The older mineral industries were particularly badly affected by a slump that was to last into the 1980s. The West suffered its most severe economic recession since the 1930s, the working class being at the sharp end. Nevada suffered its worst slump in mining in 40 years. Arizona produced 60 percent of all the copper in the US, but when foreign copper flooded the market in the 1970s the Arizona mines were decimated, closures shook the economy and thousands were thrown on the dole. It was a story that was repeated throughout much of the West as the American economy went from boom to bust, recession dawned and the ‘American dream’ became, for millions, a living nightmare.

Even the defence industries suffered. There was much talk about a so called peace dividend after the end of the Cold War but instead of making the transition towards ‘civilian’ production, many defence industries closed down and cut back. It was estimated that the closure of the Davis-Monthan air force base in Tucson would cost 10,000 jobs and precipitate a mass exodus of 15,000 people. As Schwantes states:

For California, which as recently as 1989 had received almost one fifth of all federal defence contracts, the road to peace would obviously require some very painful adjustments … In the late 20th century, the region’s natural-resource-based economy left a distinctive signature on the land in the form of abandoned mines, sawmills, and once bustling towns that had withered or disappeared. [33]

Much of the American working class, not just those in the West, suffered during the 1980s as the Reagan years took their toll. As Sharon Smith points out, close to 40 million Americans have no health insurance cover whatsoever. The US now ranks twenty-second in infant mortality rates internationally, ‘so that by the end of the 1980s, while the US was still the richest nation in the world, by a number of measurements it was also among the most unequal, leading among major industrial countries in the gap between the richest and the poorest fifths of the population’. [34]

Much of that poverty is to been seen on the streets of the massive metropolitan cities that are now a feature of the American West. As The Oxford History of the American West shows, the growth of the city has been essential for the growth of the American capitalism – its economic expansion would not have been possible without a steady and concentrated supply of labour – a dramatic feature of 20th century American capitalist expansion. The growth of cities led to a growth of trade.

Los Angeles is the heart of the important Pacific Rim. The volume of imports and exports through Los Angeles and Long Beach tripled between 1970 and 1990. California is second only to New York as America’s banking and financial power. Governor Jerry Brown in the late 1970s referred to his state as ‘the Pacific Republic of California’.

The growth of Los Angeles is remarkable. Fuelled by federal funding Los Angeles grew from a town of 5,165 at the turn of the century to the metropolis of the 1990s. The federal government aided this development with the construction of the largest dam in the world – the 726 foot high dam in Black Canyon on the Colorado River. The ‘Boulder Dam’ became the supplier of much of the electricity for the city of Los Angeles and the surrounding area. The Los Angeles aqueduct was completed in 1913 and carried water 233 miles from the mountains.

The level of government investment used to develop the cities of southern California was enormous, and for many workers it was a cheap place to live: ‘No matter whether the original source was local, state or federal, the capital that had been invested … made it possible for Californians to enjoy astonishingly cheap water in the midst of desert landscapes that had never known before such abundance’. [35] It also demonstrates the extent to which the forces of production have enabled man to develop the earth’s natural resources to satisfy the needs of millions of people.

Thousands of workers now flooded to the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding cities in the search for work. Mike Davies describes the population explosion [36] and the social polarisation [37] which accompanied it in his book, City of Quartz. High levels of insecurity and poverty, combined with years of systematic racism and discrimination against a predominantly ‘immigrant’ population, created a ferment of anger that burst with such a dramatic impact onto the world stage in 1992.

But the Los Angeles riots are only the most visible example of a working class taking to the streets. The American West may have led the world in the development of the forces of capitalism, but, as this book illustrates, it has also given us some fine examples of working class resistance that rank alongside many of the greatest struggles of our time.

The IWW, or Wobblies as they became known, were born out of the struggle of the Western working class, although they did not limit their struggles to the West. But they particularly appealed to those who worked in the brutal conditions among the West’s camps and mills. At a time when the main national trade unions targeted skilled white labour, the IWW emphasised the solidarity of all workers – men and women, black and white, and Asians who were usually shunned because of their willingness to take low wages.

And the success of organising in the West made recruitment in the east easier – union membership rose from 40,000 in 1916 to 100,000 in 1918.

At the beginning of the century there was a large army of itinerant workers which numbered millions. [38] The IWW fought to organise this group of workers through the Agricultural Workers Organisation (AWO) in ‘one big agricultural union’ which sought to limit the hours of work, improve wages, win free transportation on freight trains and replace job by job arrangements with collective bargaining.

By the end of its second year of existence, the AWO could raise the demand that all hiring be done either through IWW halls or IWW delegates on the job site. De facto picket lines stretched hundreds and hundreds of miles, for any would be harvest hand without a red card was likely to be ejected from freight cars by IWW militants … the consensus was that workers without an IWW card were really scabs. [39]

Even when the bosses sought to recruit black labour, as they did in 1916 when they planned to bring 30,000 black workers from the South to crush the AWO in the lumber areas of Texas and Louisiana, the IWW met such a challenge head on: ‘Thirty thousand Negroes will come and 30,000 IWW’s will go back. The red card is cherished as much, and its objectives understood as well by a black man as a white.’

The transformation of the economy and the rapid industrialisation of the West led to many working class battles. In February 1919 Seattle was gripped by a general strike as 60,00 workers shut down the city and it became known as the Seattle ‘four day revolution’. The single most important strike of the 1930s and one of the most important in the West’s working class history was the great maritime strike of 1934 when the International Longshoremen’s Association challenged the hated ‘shape-up’ whereby the longshoremen turned up at the docks in the morning hoping to be selected by the company foreman for a day’s work. Some 3,500 longshoremen quit work, went on strike and were quickly joined by dockers from various marine unions. From Seattle to San Diego the ports were strikebound and a three day general strike saw 127,000 workers out in solidarity. In San Francisco in July 1934 pitched battles erupted between police and strikers, but the workers held firm and won most of their demands, including the end of the ‘shape-up’ system.

’The widespread militancy among urban and rural workers in the 1930s’, argues Deutsch, ‘laid the foundation for the civil rights and farm workers movements in the 1960s’. [40] A five year strike by Filipino grape farm workers near Delano, California, (against the advice of their leaders) led to considerable gains for low paid, poorly organised farm workers throughout the West. It was a strike that spread a ‘grape boycott’ to over 100 US and Canadian cities. The boycott was so popular it forced Senator Robert F. Kennedy to publicly support the strike and, with his wife, raise funds for the farm workers.

In 1994 Las Vegas hotel workers went on strike in recognition of their union. Up until the Second World War Las Vegas was nothing more than a dusty railroad town. But with a workforce that worked long hours, was badly paid, worked in poor conditions and was badly organised, Las Vegas grew into the gambling centre of the West. By the 1980s gambling accounted for 32 percent of all Nevada jobs, with another 25 percent in related employment – thus the gambling workers were central to the Nevada economy and in 1994 they had the confidence to flex their muscles, despite being a traditionally weak group of workers.


There has been an attempt throughout the 20th century to reinterpret the past and popularise the romantic image of the West to try and hide many of the brutal excesses of capitalist expansion.

There is much therefore in this book to recommend – the wonderful illustrations, in black and white and colour, and each chapter has an excellent comprehensive bibliography. A fascinating chapter on The Visual West by Brian Dippe looks at how artists have interpreted the West, The Literary West by Thomas Lyon examines how writers have portrayed the West through fiction. There is also a wonderful chapter on the history of Alaska and Hawaii, which only became states in 1959, but whose indigenous population suffered treatment as harsh and as brutal as the early Native Americans.

The Oxford History uncovers the hidden history of the West, like the black ‘buffalo cowboys’ who rode with the US cavalry, or of the 5,000 or more black cowboys who herded cattle and who, in 1880, constituted a quarter of the total cowboy population. We are also introduced to the Asian-Americans whose labour was vital to ‘conquering’ the frontier. They were central to the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad but were deliberately excluded from the famous photographs which celebrated the joining of the transcontinental line at Utah. This book reminds us of the brutal history of the Native Americans who are popularly confined to being mere supporting players in the Westerns, useful for Hollywood in that they help highlight the ‘superiority’ of the white culture and way of life.

This history is more enlightening than that which has been popularised by Hollywood. It is to be found in the struggles of the Mexican-American pecan shellers on strike in San Antonio, Texas, in 1938 against the introduction of mechanisation, when they fought to preserve jobs worth $3 an hour for a 54 hour week [41], or the workers organised in the Building Trades Council in San Francisco who, from the 1890s until after the First World War, ‘were the dominant force in the economic, political and social life of San Francisco … who frightened businessmen in Los Angeles’. [42]

The history of the West in the 20th century is full of such examples – the fight for gay rights in California, the struggle against the Vietnam War on the campuses, the urban ghetto uprisings of 1964 and 1965 (notably the Watts riots in Los Angeles), the growth of the Black Panthers in the East Bay area in the 1960s; the fights by the American Indian Movement when in 1969 they occupied Alcatraz Island in protest. We owe a great debt to the resistance of the Western working class, and for the history and experience they have given us.

Despite the glamour of Hollywood, Beverly Hills or the beaches of southern California, the burgeoning trade of the Pacific Rim or the make it rich quick visits to Las Vegas, the impact of the 20th century on the West has been to create a working class that is now more disillusioned than ever before, with the level of class polarisation at its starkest and where workers come together both at work and in the cities in numbers not even dreamed about before. The remarkable thing about the transformation of the West is that we can quite confidently say that when the workers rise again – as surely they will – they will wield a power more fearsome than ever before in their history.


1. C.A. Milner II et al. (eds.), The Oxford History of the American West, (Oxford 1994), hereafter referred to as OHAW. Each quote/reference taken from this book is named by author, title, and then chapter number.

2. P. Iverson, Native Peoples and Native Histories (Ch. 1,OHAW), p. 27.

3. Leacock states: ‘To the Indians, the trade opened up a source of new and more effective tools and weapons, of cloth which did not have to be tanned and worked, and of foods which could be more readily transported and stored. However, it demanded an unending flow of furs, and trapping fur-bearing animals began to displace the hunting of the large game in the Indian economy. Within a few generations the Indians near the earliest trade centres around Quebec had become dependent upon trade goods as the mainstay of their existence.’ E.B. Leacock, Myths of Male Dominance, (London 1981), p. 36

4. E. West, American Frontier (Ch. , OHAW), p. 125.

5. Ibid., pp. 125-126.

6. Ibid., p. 126.

7. R. Ranson, Public Canal Investment and the Opening of the old North West in D. Klingaman et al., Essays in Nineteenth Century Economic History, (Ohio Press 1975). In 1815 the West sent about one fourth of its 100,000 tons of agricultural exports to the East – all of it by canal. Fifteen years later western shipments to the East had risen to over 500,000 tons, or 60 percent of the total exports from the region.

8. C. Milner, National Initiatives (Ch. , OHAW), p. 156.

9. H. Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Longman, London 1980), p. 166.

10. Ibid., p. 125.

11. K. Bryant, Entering the Global Economy (Ch. 6, OHAW), p. 196.

12. Ibid., p. 198.

13. Ibid., p. 200. In California, for example: ‘The gold rush in California created wealth for the few and labour for the many. When the output of gold reached 80 million dollars in 1852, the economy of the region had been transformed. Demands for goods and services made San Francisco a city with merchants, bankers, ship owners, freighting firms, and manufacturers competing for a share of the wealth. Clipper ships sailing round the Horn could not deliver enough clothes, shovels, nails, mercury, and other necessities. The urbanisation of northern California initiated a pattern to be found across the west … The California gold rush set in motion the economic maturation of the West.’

14. Ibid., p. 208.

15. Ibid., p. 208.

16. Ibid., p. 209.

17. Ibid., p. 216.

18. See H. Zinn, op. cit.

19. K. Bryant, op. cit., p. 224.

20. Ibid., p. 226.

21. Quoted in R. Brown, Violence (Ch. 11, OHAW), p. 400.

22. Ibid., p. 411.

23. N. Ware, The Industrial Worker (Chicago 1990), p. 37.

24. A. Bogue, An Agricultural Empire (Ch. 8, OHAW), p. 285.

25. C. Schwantes, Wage Earners and Wealth Makers (Ch. 12, OHAW), p. 435.

26. Ibid., p. 435.

27. From C. Abbott, The Federal Presence (Ch. 13, OHAW).

28. C. Schwantes, op. cit., p. 452.

29. Ibid., p. 453.

30. Ibid., p. 455.

31. Ibid., p. 455.

32. The theory of the Permanent Arms Economy explained how post war arms spending created an economic boom in the major economies, ‘This expenditure of vast quantities of surplus value on arms had a peculiar effect on American capitalism, as was already clear in the course of the war. The amount of surplus value remaining in the hands of private capital after the state had taken its share of arms was actually higher than before, the organic composition of capital tended to fall and the rate of profit rose.’ C. Harman, Explaining the Crisis (Bookmarks, 1987), p. 79.

33. C. Schwantes, op. cit., p. 464.

34. S. Smith, Twilight of the American Dream, International Socialism 54, p. 15.

35. W. Cronon, Landscapes of Abundance and Scarcity (Ch. 17, OHAW), p. 620.

36. ‘Stretching from the country club homes of Santa Barbara to the shanty towns of the colonias of Ensenada, to the edge of Llano in the high desert and the Coachella Valley in the low, with a built up surface area nearly the size of Ireland and a GNP bigger than India’s – the urban galaxy dominated by Los Angeles is the fastest growing metropolis in the advanced industrial world.’ M. Davies, City of Quartz (London, 1992), p. 6.

37. ‘Social polarisation has increased almost as rapidly as population. A recent survey of Los Angeles households income trends in the 1980s suggests that affluence (incomes of $50,000 plus) has almost tripled (from 9 percent to 26 percent) while poverty ($15,000 and under) has increased by a third (from 30 percent to 40 percent).’ Ibid., p. 7.

38. C. Schwantes, op. cit., p. 438.

39. S. Bird et al., Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the Wobblies (London 1988), p. 32.

40. S. Deutsch et al., Contemporary People/Contested Places (Ch. 18, OHAW), p. 650.

41. Ibid., illustration, p. 650.

42. C. Schwantes, op. cit., p. 442.

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