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It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A…
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"It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American… (original 1991; edition 1993)

by Richard White

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207395,016 (4.03)1
A centerpiece of the New History of the American West, this book embodies the theme that, as succeeding groups have occupied the American West and shaped the land, they have done so without regard for present inhabitants. Like the cowboy herding the dogies, they have cared little about the cost their activities imposed on others; what has mattered is the immediate benefit they have derived from their transformation of the land. Drawing on a recent flowering of scholarship on the western environment, western gender relations, minority history, and urban and labor history, as well as on more traditional western sources, It?s Your Misfortune and None of My Own is about the creation of the region rather than the vanishing of the frontier. Richard White tells how the various parts of the West?its distinct environments, its metropolitan areas and vast hinterlands, the various ethnic and racial groups and classes?are held together by a series of historical relationships that are developed over time. Widespread aridity and a common geographical location between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean would have provided but weak regional ties if other stronger relationships had not been created. A common dependence on the deferral government and common roots in a largely extractive and service-based economy were formative influences on western states and territories. A dual labor system based on race and the existence of minority groups with distinctive legal status have helped further define the region. Patterns of political participation and political organization have proved enduring. Together, these relationships among people, and between people and place, have made the West a historical creation and a distinctive region. From Europeans contact and subsequent Anglo-American conquest, through the civil-rights movement, the energy crisis, and the current reconstructing of the national and world economies, the West has remained a distinctive section in a much larger nation. In the American imagination the West still embodies possibilities inherent in the vastness and beauty of the place itself. But, Richard White explains, the possibilities many imagined for themselves have yielded to the possibilities seized by others. Many who thought themselves cowboys have in the end turned out to be dogies.  … (more)
Member:bobreinhardt
Title:"It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West
Authors:Richard White
Info:University of Oklahoma Press (1993), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 684 pages
Collections:Your library, Storage
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Tags:US History, US West, Box 09

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"It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West by Richard White (1991)

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This history of the American West is divided into five parts: "The Origins of the West," "The Federal Government and the Nineteenth-Century West," "Transformation and Development," "The Bureaucratic Revolution in the West," and "Transforming the West." In the third section, "The Economic Structure of the West," White talks about the paradoxes embedded in the very fabric of the Western economy:

The late-nineteenth-century western economy was a study in contrasts. On the one hand it was very much a creature of the world economy: its sources of capital, the markets for western production, and most products of the products that westerners consumed all lay outside the West itself. On the other hand, western communities and western producers lived and worked far from the centers of this larger economy in remote, isolated, and rugged areas. Often living in rude shacks and dugouts, western workers and farmers lacked many of the basic refinements of life in the East. What most families called home often amounted to a small rectangular space of 300 square feet. Yet when the miner left his shack and went to work, he employed the last industrial technology. When the farmer stepped outside his sod shanty, he often used the most modern farm machinery. Social paradoxes also abounded. The West was identified with individual opportunity and personal advancement, but very early in its history the region contained class-conscious workers who believed that their lot could be improved only if the conditions of all workers changed. (p. 270)

The economy was marked by large and small enterprise, working in the same environment.

In "Organizing Production," White discussed the reasons for the failure of the bonanza farms, which represented the corporate form in ranching. In the 1870s and 80s in North Dakota, Minnesota and California, these farms were "a way of making money not a way of life" (p. 272) and did not fare well under the harsh economic conditions of falling wheat prices in the late 1880s and early 1890s. The flexibility of smaller family farms, by adopting modern machinery and sticking it out in the bad times lead to the re-emergence of household farming. The same happened with cattle ranching at the time as well.

"Small Business" also marked the landscape dominated by large corporations. Small loggers brought their product to the corporate sawmills. Though the wholesale business soon was dominated by eastern manufacturers, many local concerns held out well into the 20th C. Small merchants in the retail trade, though tied to the larger national economy for their product, sold their wares to the local workers. As the example of saloons tied into the national economy for their purchase of liquor (but not beer at first), the efficiency of transporting booze on the rails meant that it was less expensive to ship than refined flour. Many made the small investment to set up a saloon, then foundered. The owners of saloons seemed to change frequently.

Though these retailers were self employed and small farm labor was household labor, the wage laborer was the mainstay of a corporate economy. "Labor" remained segregated along gender lines. Though women often had to pitch in and do "men's work," male union members considered it a disgrace to have wife who worked for wages. Most of the women who did work for wages did so serving men -- as wives, boarding house keepers, waitresses, laundresses, dance hall girls and prostitutes. The work that men did in the mines was high paying, but subject to the fluctuations in the market and very dangerous.

In considering "Working Conditions," White points out that

Western workers, like workers throughout the United States in the nineteenth century, often contributed their health, their limbs, and even their lives to economic development. To examine the workplaces of western mines, mills, and forests is enter a chamber of horrors. The technologies that increased productivity also increased the carnage of the workplace. (p. 280)

Working long hours with heavy machinery amidst noxious fumes and dust, miners had high death rates and in the early 20th C only lived to an average of 42.7 years. Loggers died from falling trees and snapped cables. Working in the blistering sun and sleeping on straw, farm laborers' conditions were squalid if not as dangerous.

The west also developed a "Dual Labor System," in which well-paid skilled and managerial jobs went to white males and a lower tier of low pay jobs went to non-white workers. Chinese laborers worked on the Central Pacific Railroad in Nevada and California. Chinese entrepreneurs were run out of the fishing business in California. The exception of successful entrepreneurs like the Chinese Potato King, Chin Lung, were also dependent on the dual labor system because this is what drove the wages of Chinese labor down so low and allowed him to thrive. In the cities, most Chinese worked at laundries, in domestic service and in the factories. Racial solidarity along class lines between white laborers and Chinese labor was a victim of free labor ideology, as whites thought the condition of labor was only temporary on their climb up the social ladder.

"Social Mobility" was however, largely a myth in the West. Historians have recently found that wealth distribution in the late 19th and early 20th C West was very similar to that in the East and Western workers advanced only very little in their lives. Brief '49er boom that drove upward mobility in the early 1850s was marked by many more failure stories than success stories in San Francisco. More often than not, it was not a story of "rags to riches." Those who could come with some start up money, like the German Jews, were usually more successful.

"Class Consciousness and the Creation of a Working Class" is aided and abetted by commonality of experience and takes place easiest where populations are homogeneous. Diversity and ideology posed barriers to the rise of class consciousness in the West. Ethnic solidarity was often the most highly prized marker of identity, with Cornish miners likely to be more proud to be "Cornish" than to he a "miner." When Unions did succeed, as in Butte, Montana, "The Gibraltar of Unionism," it was due to ethnic solidarity (in Butte it was the Irish). Skilled workers often divided against the unskilled as well.

"Unions" developed most often out of the craft tradition in the West as they did in the East. Skilled miners in Butte, Montana and ethnically homogenous SF workers formed powerful (if conservative) unions focused on worker concerns over "bread and butter issues" rather than overthrowing capitalism. In response to the cuts in miners' wages in the economic downturn of the early 1890s, mine workers from Utah, Colorado and Montana met at Butte to form the Western Federation of Miners (WFM). WFM radicalism focused mainly on maintaining wage scales and working hours. Miners unions, however, differed from the Eastern craft unions in their openness to organizing across "craft lines." They left the AF of L in 1897 only to return in 1911 after having suffered defeats in strikes at Cripple Creek and Coeur d'Alene. "The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was organized by the leadership of the WFM as a syndicalist organization that would unite all the world's workers and rush in the workers' millennium. William "Wild Bill" Dudley Hayward and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn ("The Rebel Girl") lead the IWW in acts of civil disobedience, landing themselves in jail. These Wobblies, as IWW members were called, attracted the migratory workers in the West. IWW strikes often failed, but they engendered fierce loyalty in their workers. Ironically, the successful strike by Wobblies in the Washington and Idaho Timber Industry in 1917 lead to the end of the IWW. Having interrupted wartime biplane production, Wilson stepped in and jailed the union leaders. The IWW got the 8 hour day, but state governments passed anti-union legislation that made the IWW and similar syndicalist organizations illegal. The Red Scare following the Bolshevik Revolution only made maters worse.

"The Western Economy" was therefore marked by conflict and contest. Corporate success not unalloyed, as some sectors of the economy remained dominated by family concerns, though most middle class citizens were convinced that their interests were in concert with those of the large corporations. The costs of increased efficiency were seldom reckoned a the time. That would come later.

It is perhaps unsurprising that "Social Conflict" existed in the American West, yet the violence begotten by the conquest of the western territories by armed settlers fighting Indians and Mexicans is often overlooked and recast instead as a Wild West myth where violence is personal rather than institutional. Exclusion of Indians, Hispanics, Chinese and Japanese from political participation caused strains in the society which, when added to the tensions between ethnic workers and employers could erupt into open conflict which the excessive emphasis on "Personal Violence" can overlook. As was the case in early American settlements in Jamestown, male personal violence was concentrated in areas that were populated by young, single males. Often intoxicated, these men of the mining and cattle towns were devoted to the cult of violence. Dodge City and Ellsworth, Aurora and Bodie were such locations. Some towns, like Wichita, KS made guns illegal in town, practicing a form of 19th C gun control. In addition to the widespread rape of Indian women, literary sources also point to widespread domestic violence. The Myth obscures real conflict that was pervasive and social in origin.

"Vigilantes" often took law into their own hands in the west. Often the need to do so did result from real corruption. For example, the Plummer Gang in Montana was run by the Sheriff of Bannock, Montana, Henry Plummer. Despite the claims of all vigilante groups to be dealing with Bannock-like situations, there was also a class aspect of vigilantism. As middle class people complain today about the cost of prisons, do too middle class people then complained about the cost of law and order. San Francisco 1850s protests against a supposed crime wave were actually acts directed at the expulsion of Irish Catholics from the city by the native born protestants who formed the San Francisco Vigilance Committee. White points out that the tendency of the vigilante groups to label whole groups of people as degenerate and criminal shows the social bases and class aspects of vigilantism.

"Anglo-Hispanic Conflict" was evidenced through "Banditry." After the californios and Mexicans were expelled from the California mines in the 1850s, Mexican bandits began to attack the mines. A California gold miner turned journalist, the Indian John Rollins Ridge, fused several real bandits into the figure of the mythical bandit Joachin Murietta, champion of the oppressed. The racial conflict between Hispanic "bandits" and Anglo "vigilantes" followed the in Texas, where the Texas Rangers were formed to fight Tejanos and Mexican immigrants. The Cortina War in Brownsville, TX erupted when Juan Cortina attempted to defend a Mexican who was being pistol whipped by an Anglo. The conflict pitted the Rangers against the Cortinas.

"Social Banditry" in the form of Robin Hood was the true nature of Juan Cortina's struggles, yet many were simply criminals with no redeeming mission -- Billy the Kid comes to mind. Gregorio Cortez was another social bandit, about whom the Mexican Americans wrote the "Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" to celebrate the tragic flight of the man falsely accused of stealing a horse who killed a sheriff. In Missouri, Jesse James the former Confederate raider mostly attacked the banks and the railroads, thereby winning the sympathy of the jury of "well-to-do thrifty farmers" who acquitted his brother Frank of crimes he most surely committed. Other "social bandits" like Sam Bass in Texas and the Doolin-Dalton Gang in Oklahoma show the linkages between personal and social violence.

"Indian Hunting" was far more destructive than personal violence. Take for instance the California town of Aurora, where 17 people died from personal violence in the early 1860s and more than 200 Indians and 30 whites died in incidents that could be seen as racially motivated murders. Though the troops at Aurora conducted mass executions of Paiute Indian prisoners, on the whole the military was far less likely to commit atrocities. White develops the idea that Humanitarian Generals tried to stop the random bloodshed, while racist civilians in CA murdered Indians in campaigns that have genocidal overtones. All along the West Coast whites murdered Indians with complete impunity. Conservative estimates are that between 1848 and 1880, 4,500 Indians were murdered. Due to the need for labor in the Gold Rush, the Californians extended the Spanish mission system and exploited them mercilessly. Kidnapping and selling Indian women and children into slave labor, the Californians provoked "grim vendettas" against them that led to further bloodshed.

"Racial Violence" was also directed against "The Chinese." Anti-Chinese sentiment arose from the threat that white "free labor" felt from the Chinese laborers whom they claimed depressed wages. Workers united against Chinese to form "Anticoolie clubs" in the 1860s and 70s. Chinese laborers became scapegoats for economic downturns in the 1870s and by 1882, they had convinced congress to ban Chinese immigration for ten years -- the measure was regularly renewed thereafter. In Seattle, Anticoolie riots of white workers broke out and the Chinese were evicted from the city in 1886.

"Economic Conflict," though endemic to the capitalist system. Open competition is supposed to provide the best the market can offer. Yet, combinations of monopoly capital did not necessarily play by the rules. Railroads, mining and lumber companies all formed combinations for their own protection. At times the Railroads used armed employees to put through a rail line in the face of opposition. Conflict, however, was not good for business and at times the federal government intervened to restore order.

"Conflict on the Cattle Ranges" was widespread, but here too the myth has it all wrong. Cattle ranchers were not fighting farmers, they were fighting sheep ranchers and small cattle ranchers. Wyoming's big ranchers formed the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association to drive out small ranchers. In the late 80s and early 90s, things became violent. In 1889 they took their struggle outside the courts in Johnson County by lynching James Avrell (a local homesteader) and Ella Watson (a prostitute known as Cattle Kate because she allegedly swapped sex for cattle) for cattle rustling. This was followed in 1892 with a fiasco where a group of hired killers was sent by the Stockgrowers with a list of people to kill in Casper. They managed to kill only one person on the list (Nate Champion) and one of the hired guns ended up killing himself.

"Class Conflict" marked the warfare that raged between miners and the owners. Unions fought armed Pinkerton agents and the national guard. Striking mineworkers at Coeur d'Alene, Idaho stormed the Frisco and Gem mines, overpowering the guards and scabs. The Mine Owners Protective Association (MOA) easily convinced the government to declare martial law, sending in the Idaho National Guard to break the strike. Much of the support for the workers that had come from the middle class merchants in town was eroded by MOA during the 1890s and into the 20th C. Strikes in Cripple Creek, CO in 1893 (over lengthening the working day from 8 to 10 hours) and in 1903 (over the owners' refusal to allow WFM to organize mill workers) pitted the WFM against the national guard as well. The Cripple Creek miners resorted to cooperative stores that angered local merchants and moved them to form a Citizens' Alliance. Cooperating with the owners, the Citizens' Alliance helped the militia break the strike. After the strike they had lost much of the business from miners that they had before. Citizens' Alliance Lesson of Cripple Creek is that merchants lived off workers not corporate largesse. Many other violent conflicts rocked the west at the turn of the century, conflicts which were clearly class conflicts.

In the Fifth Section, White offers a coda dedicated to "The Imagined West" which could be of used to an enlarged understanding of the understanding of the West as it is reflected today. Sections include "1950s culture of the West," "Myths and the West: Local Imaginings," "Myth and the West: National Imaginings," "The Pictorial West," "The Female West," and "Modern Imagination."
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
Maybe still the preeminent textbook on the American West. ( )
  lateinnings | May 21, 2010 |
The West that Hollywood doesn't want you to know about! The race lines were drawn all the harder; the cowboy was just a footnote; and hardy pioneer spirit leeched off of government money. John Wayne would roll in his grave, but it's about time somebody put the great adventure into its sociological bed.
1 vote ccjolliffe | May 24, 2007 |
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Full title (1991): "It’s your misfortune and none of my own" : a history of the American West.
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A centerpiece of the New History of the American West, this book embodies the theme that, as succeeding groups have occupied the American West and shaped the land, they have done so without regard for present inhabitants. Like the cowboy herding the dogies, they have cared little about the cost their activities imposed on others; what has mattered is the immediate benefit they have derived from their transformation of the land. Drawing on a recent flowering of scholarship on the western environment, western gender relations, minority history, and urban and labor history, as well as on more traditional western sources, It?s Your Misfortune and None of My Own is about the creation of the region rather than the vanishing of the frontier. Richard White tells how the various parts of the West?its distinct environments, its metropolitan areas and vast hinterlands, the various ethnic and racial groups and classes?are held together by a series of historical relationships that are developed over time. Widespread aridity and a common geographical location between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean would have provided but weak regional ties if other stronger relationships had not been created. A common dependence on the deferral government and common roots in a largely extractive and service-based economy were formative influences on western states and territories. A dual labor system based on race and the existence of minority groups with distinctive legal status have helped further define the region. Patterns of political participation and political organization have proved enduring. Together, these relationships among people, and between people and place, have made the West a historical creation and a distinctive region. From Europeans contact and subsequent Anglo-American conquest, through the civil-rights movement, the energy crisis, and the current reconstructing of the national and world economies, the West has remained a distinctive section in a much larger nation. In the American imagination the West still embodies possibilities inherent in the vastness and beauty of the place itself. But, Richard White explains, the possibilities many imagined for themselves have yielded to the possibilities seized by others. Many who thought themselves cowboys have in the end turned out to be dogies.  

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