Historically, the expansion of the American frontier symbolized a unity between political liberty and economic growth, at the same time as it justified the violent expropriation that continues to define the country's racial and distributional politics.
In a 1998 article, environmental historian DONALD J. PISANI analyzes these dynamics through the monopolization of California's mining industry, arguing that legislation enacted during the California Gold Rush shaped the trajectory of property relations in the American West.
From the piece:
"Those who flocked to California at the end of the 1840s carried with them strong ideas about the nature of property, the right of American citizens beyond the pale of law to govern themselves, and the power of American citizens to make their own rules concerning the acquisition and use of public lands—including those containing mineral deposits. Nevertheless, Congress had authorized the sale of lead and copper lands. Would it now authorize the sale of gold-bearing land to the highest bidders? This was the question that faced the U.S. Army in California when gold was discovered in January 1848.
In the late 1840s and early 1850s, free mining provided reasonably equal access to wealth. But during the 1850s, as corporations increasingly dominated mining, the law changed from encouraging economic democracy to protecting capital. Perhaps the best example was the legal permission to "follow the vein." Initially California's mining camp codes limited hardrock miners to part of a vein, often one hundred feet. As early as 1852, however, Nevada County modified its laws to encourage miners to follow a vein downward to any depth and in any direction, even if they tunneled under an adjoining claim. The new laws were designed to protect investors from financial loss when only the tail end of an out cropping was located within their claim. For decades after the golden years of the mining industry had passed, these monopolies enjoyed disproportionate power in the legislature."
Link to the open access article.
- "War and emancipation brought profound change not only to the lives of enslaved people but also to broader patterns of economic development, forms of governmental activity, and, above all, property relations." Emma Teitelman examines the "transregional wave of land enclosures" that took place during reconstruction. Link. (Stay tuned for Teitelman's forthcoming piece in Phenomenal World.)
- Paul Gates' History of Public Land Law Development offers a comprehensive account of legislation regulating the use of the public domain. Link.
- "The claim club or squatters' association has long occupied a place in western history. No historian, however, has fully explored the social interactions in these frontier groups." Allan G. Bogue examines the dynamics within the squatters associations which proliferated across the West in the early 19th century. Link. And Alan Derickson's excellent book tells the history of hardrock miners' self-organized health and welfare programs, which emerged in the following decades. Link.