Reopening the Frontier
Homesteading in the Modern West
Brian Q. Cannon
The offer of free farmland after World War II may not have sparked the same stampede that it did in frontier days, but, as Brian Cannon shows in this path-breaking study, postwar homesteading continued to shape the modern West in important ways.
Between 1946 and 1966, the Bureau of Reclamation opened up over 3,000 farms on irrigated public lands in the West to returning servicemen. Although involving fewer people than those flocking to western cities, this mini-land rush represents an important continuity in western tradition through the cultivation of values-hard work, security, independence, family stability-long associated with frontier life. Cannon examines these new agricultural settlements and the values they reflected and reinforced, following them through the end of the twentieth century and exploring specific key homesteading and federal reclamation projects.
“Offers a fresh look at the persistence of an influential western idea, illuminating and illustrating the persistence of the yeoman ideal in America through homesteading.”
—American Historical Review
“A unique and creative book.”
—Western Historical QuarterlySee all reviews...
“Cannon has established himself as one of America’s preeminent historians of agriculture and the modern West. This book adds to this well-deserved reputation. . . . An excellent work, one that scholars interested in land use, agriculture, and homesteading myths and realities will find useful.”
—Great Plains Quarterly
“This well-written book should be read by anyone interested in the history of agriculture or the modern American West.”
—Annals of Wyoming
“Cannon makes a convincing case for the continuity of the frontier as an element of Western life.”
—Journal of Arizona History
“A most important book for all interested in twentieth-century America. One might even call it fundamental to any full understanding of the modern American West.”
—Montana The Magazine of Western History
“Cannon’s insightful and sensitive treatment impressively captures the hopes, dreams, and struggles of these latter-day pioneers. . . . A fine addition to the history of the West, environmental history, and rural and agricultural history.”
—David B. Danbom, author of Born in the Country: A History of Rural America
“An excellent and essential sequel to Paul W. Gates’s magisterial History of Public Land Law Development and well worthy of serious consideration by various prize committees.”
—Allan G. Bogue, author of Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down
“A unique and well-written work that should be read by historians and other students of the West, its land development, and the impact of the federal government.”
—Walter Nugent, author of Into the West: The Story of Its PeopleSee fewer reviews...
Cannon describes how the Bureau of Reclamation used lotteries to make available free land that had previously been part of Indian reservations, used for Japanese internment, or abandoned by unsuccessful settlers. He then traces the new homesteaders' experiences in establishing a farm, "proving up," and gaining title to the land, contrasting the realities of modern homesteading with iconic views of the frontier.
Combining archival research with oral history, Cannon opens up genuinely human vistas in the homesteading process. He chronicles the hard life that many of the settlers faced and details wrangling over water policy—which both influenced and was influenced by westerners' shifting perception of the frontier—as well as the impact of shifting values and priorities on agricultural communities. Examining a number of homesteading efforts, he focuses particularly on the failed Riverton Project in central Wyoming, where after fifteen years a group of settlers petitioned Congress for restitution; and the Klamath Project in northern California, where attempts to open new homesteads aroused nationwide opposition from wildlife and sportsmen's organizations.
Cannon concludes by examining the continued appeal of homesteading even in the twenty-first century, as individuals seeking to reorient their lives—and local governments seeking to repopulate their districts—have reinvented homesteading. Reopening the Frontier opens up a little-studied aspect of modern western history to show that the pioneer spirit lives on.