Time to Revisit the Rural West

By David M. Kennedy, Faculty Co-Director, The Bill Lane Center for the American West

A century has passed since the scholars assembled by President Theodore Roosevelt issued the landmark Report of the Country Life Commission. Prompted in part by the agrarian upheavals that had convulsed the American countryside in the preceding decade, the 1909 Report confirmed the Populists’ complaints about the strikingly diverging ways of life in urban and rural America. It highlighted several  “deficiencies” that afflicted rural communities, including a gathering flight to the cities, economic insecurity, inadequate health care, poor schools, rutted roads, cultural torpor, and the near-total absence of increasingly common urban amenities like electricity, indoor plumbing, and telephones.

Many of those “deficiencies” (or their modern-day equivalents) have stubbornly persisted in rural America, especially in the sprawling western hinterlands that stretch from the Pacific coastal mountain ranges to the mid-continental prairies.

It’s time to revisit the rural West, once a mythical beacon of hope for sodbusters, cowboys, prospectors, and lumberjacks, and still a place where their ways of life flourish and hope continues to track  the setting sun.  But much of the rural West remains the landscape of loneliness, of anemic public services, shrinking opportunity, and environmental degradation – not to mention some of that old-fashioned populist disenchantment.

The Rural West Initiative of The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University is undertaking an extensive documentation of western rural life in the twenty-first century. We will emphasize those issues that have for too long gone under-studied by scholars and under-reported in the mainstream media. We expect there to be some surprises. And we hope to begin conversations that will lead to some salutary results.

We begin with population. In 1893, little more than a decade before the publication of the Report of the Country Life Commission, the young historian Frederick Jackson Turner stepped up to a podium at the Chicago World’s Fair to deliver what is arguably the single most famous paper in the annals of American historical scholarship: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.”

“In a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census for 1890,” Turner began, “appear these significant words: ‘Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement, etc., it cannot, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.’ This brief official statement,” Turner declared, “marks the closing of a great historic movement.” Or did it?

Turner believed that the three-century-long process of pushing the frontier westward had constituted an epic march through time that had peopled the continent while deeply molding the nation’s values, institutions, and its very character. Now that the frontier was officially closed, he famously wondered what forces might shape the next chapters in the nation’s history. But when he spoke in Chicago, he could not have imagined that the next century would see a robustly rejuvenated westward movement – or that time’s vector might actually reverse itself in the region of America’s last frontier.  

Like so many of his contemporaries, Turner was in thrall to the idea of progress. Faith in progress had deep roots in western culture, dating especially to the Enlightenment era. It received an enormously powerful booster shot when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, just two years before Turner was born. By 1893 the doctrine of progress was the highest orthodoxy; it has persisted with scarcely diminished authority right down to our own time.

Since the Enlightenment, most European and American historians have been preoccupied with change – not surprisingly, since they have lived in an environment where time itself seems to have been wondrously accelerated by the engines of the great revolutions, political and industrial, launched in the eighteenth century. Those same historians have also often made an unexamined elision between the observation that change has occurred and the judgment that improvement has resulted. The conception of time most common among modern historians has been teleological, informed by a sense of irreversible advancement toward a future all but guaranteed to be both materially and morally superior to the past.

In this attitude historians have simply reflected the kind of congenital optimism that has pervaded the western world for the last several centuries, nowhere more so than in America.  In short, this conception of history, of the meaning of time’s arc, is part of a larger intellectual orientation that has many components: belief in the mission of western rationalism to beneficially amplify the power of science and technology; confidence in the logic of democracy to pacify relations among citizens and among nations; an expectation that time’s advance will inevitably lead to upgraded standards of living, increased human dominion over nature, even to mastery over the constraints of biology, including victory over disease and perhaps over the ultimate mysteries of birth and death. In this sense there is a deep affinity linking the work of scholars as apparently disparate as Karl Marx, Francis Parkman, and Frederick Jackson Turner.1 And Turner was scarcely alone in believing that the American West was the locus classicus where those expectations about time’s course would most dramatically play out.

Turner conceived of the frontier not simply as a boundary that demarcated physical space on the map. For him it was above all a place of renewal, where the confrontation with untamed nature repeatedly catalyzed the unfolding of American democracy. Populating the trans-frontier region represented the triumph of the future, understood as “civilization,” over the past, understood as empty or “free” land that awaited the quickening touch of Europeans before it could enter the stream of history. (Westerners themselves, on the other hand, have been known to suggest that the “frontier” did not mark the place where the West began, but the place where the East petered out.)2

In fact, the westward movement largely stalled between Turner’s time and World War II, as the line of settlement approached the fabled 100th Meridian, beyond which lay the arid lands of the North American continent. There the arrival of large populations awaited the federal government’s great infrastructural investments in dams and interstate highways in the twentieth century. Among the things Turner could hardly have foreseen was the stupendous resurgence of the westward movement with the advent of the Second World War – a massive human migration that made westerners out of one-third of Americans by the dawn of the twenty-first century. And he might have been even more perplexed that most of those westerners lived in cities; indeed, the West has been the most urbanized of America’s four major regions since the 1880s. 

But for the most stunning demonstration of how vulnerable Turner’s basic assumptions were – and beyond that, how empirically dubious is the whole modernist attitude toward time itself — one need only look to the current census data on population distribution in the American West as seen in the first visualization here, "The Contraction and Expansion of the Rural West: 1850 to 2008."3 It shows something that Turner would have had great difficulty imagining in 1893: that history has in effect reversed itself throughout much of the rural West.

Using the nineteenth-century census definitions of “unsettled area” that the Superintendent of the Census and Turner relied on (fewer than two inhabitants per square mile), we find that the trans-frontier region has effectively never fully disappeared from the West. In a broad, wedge-shaped zone stretching from central Montana and the western Dakotas through much of Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and down to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, we see the population of many rural counties has hovered along the “frontier” line, sometimes going back and forth between the censuses. (In much of the West’s Great Basin, population densities have never exceeded two-persons-per-square mile.) Paradoxically, the West is now both the most urban region (measured by where people live) as well as the most rural region (measured by how much territory is classified as rural).

We also see clearly the de-population of the American heartland that has perplexed and concerned many contemporary observers. It would have astonished the young Turner. And its causes and consequences remain to be fully understood – an important part of our agenda at the Rural West Initiative. 
The persistence of a trans-frontier region and the steady depopulation of some rural counties has already prompted some unorthodox proposals, including a scheme to hasten the work of human removal and re-constitute the north-central Plains as a “Buffalo Commons,” where million-head bison herds will once again rumble across the grasslands.

It seems unlikely that this vision will be fully realized. But the existence of an extensive empty rural West a century after Turner and the Superintendent of the Census declared it to be — well, history — is a powerful reminder that history can still deliver some surprises. Look for more surprises in future reports from the Rural West Initiative.


1. For an elegantly concise statement of this view, see Richard Mowery Andrews’ review of Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, in The New York Times Book Review, May 18, 1975, 1.
2. As Turner should have known (indeed, as he did know but chose not to acknowledge as a relevant datum), but as historians over the last few decades have emphatically insisted, there were inhabitants in all those blank spaces on the map – Indians.  As Patricia Limerick in particular has eloquently argued, Turner’s uncritical reliance on the Superintendent of the Census’s categories of measurement facilitated a narrative of expansion and development and the spread of civilization, rather than a narrative of encounters, displacement, and conquest. (Limerick 1987) 
3. The New York Times,  December 1, 2003,  A18.

Citation for this essay: David M. Kennedy, "The Rural West Initiative," from Visualizing the Rural West, April 2010, Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University, http://www.stanford.edu/group/ruralwest/cgi-bin/drupal/introduction