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The Pathway Of The Waters

It is pleasant to dwell upon the independent character of Western life, and to go back to the glories of that land and day when a man who had a rifle and a saddle-blanket was sure of a living, and need ask neither advice nor permission of any living soul. These days, vivid, adventurous, heroic, will have no counterpart upon the earth again. These early Americans, who raged and roared across the West, how unspeakably swift was the play in which they had their part!

No fiction can ever surpass in vividness the vast, heroic drama of the West. The clang of steel, the shoutings of the captains, the stimulus of wild adventure--of these things, certainly, there has been no lack. There has been close about us for two hundred years the sweeping action of a story keyed higher than any fiction, more unbelievably bold, more incredibly keen in spirit.

What Was That West?

Historian, artist, novelist, poet, must all in some measure fail to answer this demand, for each generation buries its own dead, and each epoch, to be understood, must be seen in connection with its own living causes and effects and interwoven surroundings. Yet it is pleasant sometimes to seek among causes, and I conceive that a certain interest may attach to a quest which goes further than a mere summons on the spurred and booted Western dead to rise. Let us ask, What was the West? What caused its growth and its changes? What was the Western man, and why did his character become what it was? What future is there for the West to-day? We shall find that the answers to these questions run wider than the West, and, indeed, wider than America.

We are all, here,--Easterner and Westerner, dweller of the Old World or the New, bond or free, of to-day or of yesterday,--but the result of that mandate which bade mankind to increase and multiply, which bade mankind to take possession of the earth. We have each of us taken over temporarily that portion of earth and its fullness which was allotted or which was made possible to him by that Providence to which both belong. We have each of us done this along the lines of the least possible resistance, for this is the law of organic life.

The West was sown by a race of giants, and reaped by a race far different and in a day dissimilar. Though the day of rifle and ax, of linsey-woolsey and hand-ground meal, went before the time of trolley-cars and self-binder, of purple and fine linen, it must be observed that in the one day or the other the same causes were at work, and back of all these causes were the original law and the original mandate. The Iliad of the West is only the story of a mighty pilgrimage.

What, Then, Was The First Transportation Of The West?

When the Spaniard held the mouth of the Great River, the Frenchman the upper sources, the American only the thin line of coast whose West was the Alleghanies, how then did the West-bound travel, these folk who established half a dozen homes for every generation?

The answer would seem easy. They traveled in the easiest way they could. It was a day of raft and boat, of saddle-horse and pack-horse, of ax and rifle, and little other luggage. Mankind followed the pathways of the waters.

The Record Of The Average Line Of West-Bound Travel.

Bishop Berkeley, prophetic soul, wrote his line, "Westward the course of empire takes its way." The public has always edited it to read that it is the "star of empire" which "takes its way" to the West. If one will read this poem in connection with a government census map, he will not fail to see how excellent is the amendment. Excellent census map, which holds between its covers the greatest poem, the greatest drama ever written! Excellent census map, which marks the center of population of America with a literal star, and which, at the curtain of each act, the lapse of each ten years, advances this star with the progress of the drama, westward, westward!

Why This Average Line Took The Course It Did.

The first step of this star of empire (that concluded in 1800) barely removed it from its initial point upon the Chesapeake. The direction was toward the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The government at Washington, young as it was, knew that the Ohio River, reached from the North by a dozen trails from the Great Lakes, and running out into that West which even then was coveted by three nations, was of itself a priceless possession. It was a military reason which first set moving the Pennsylvania hotbed of immigrants. The restless tide of humanity spread from that point according to principles as old as the world. Having a world before them from which to choose their homes, the men of that time sought out those homes along the easiest lines. The first thrust of the outbound population was not along the parallels of latitude westward, as is supposed to have been the rule, but to the south and southeast, into the valleys of the Appalachians, where the hills would raise corn, and the streams would carry it. The early emigrants learned that a raft would eat nothing, that a boat ran well down-stream. Men still clung to the seaboard region, though even now they exemplified that great law of population which designates the river valleys to be the earliest and most permanent centers of population. The valleys of Virginia and Maryland caught the wealthiest and most aristocratic of the shifting population of that day. Daniel Boone heard the calling of the voices early, but not until long after men had begun to pick out the best of the farming-lands of North and South Carolina and lower Virginia. The first trails of the Appalachians were the waterways, paths which we do not follow or parallel, but intersect in our course when we go by rail from the Mississippi valley to that first abiding-place of the star.

The real mother of the West was the South. It was she who bore this child, and it has been much at her expense that it has grown so large and matured so swiftly. The path of empire had its head on the Chesapeake. But let us at least be fair. New England and New York did not first settle the West, not because the Chesapeake man was some superhuman being, but because the rivers of New England and New York did not run in the right direction. We may find fate, destiny, and geography very closely intermingled in the history of this country, or of any other. Any nation first avails itself of its geography, then at last casts its geography aside; after that, politics.

Portrait Of The First West-Bound American.

Let us picture for ourselves this first restless American, this West-bound man. We must remember that there had been two or three full American generations to produce him, this man who first dared turn away from the seaboard and set his face toward the sinking of the sun, toward the dark and mysterious mountains and forests which then encompassed the least remote land fairly to be called the West. Two generations had produced a man different from the Old-World type. Free air and good food had given him abundant brawn. He was tall. Little fat cloyed the free play of his muscles, and there belonged to him the heritage of that courage which comes of good heart and lungs. He was a splendid man to have for an ancestor, this tall and florid athlete who never heard of athletics. His face was thin and aquiline, his look high and confident, his eye blue, his speech reserved. You may see this same man yet in those restricted parts of this country which remain fit to be called America. You may see him sometimes in the mountains of Tennessee, the brakes of Arkansas or Missouri, where the old strain has remained most pure. You might have seen him over all the West in the generation preceding our own.

The Equipment Of The Early American--His Skill With It.

This was our American, discontented to dwell longer by the sea. He had two tools, the ax and the rifle. With the one he built, with the other he fought and lived. Early America saw the invention of the small-bore rifle because there was need for that invention. It required no such long range in those forest days, and it gave the greatest possible amount of results for its expenditure. Its charge was tiny, its provender compact and easily carried by the man who must economize in every ounce of transported goods; and yet its powers were wonderful. Our early American could plant that little round pellet in just such a spot as he liked of game-animal or of red-skinned enemy, and the deadly effect of no projectile known to man has ever surpassed this one, if each be weighed by the test of economic expenditure. This long, small-bored tube was one of the early agents of American civilization. The conditions of the daily life of the time demanded great skill in the use of this typical arm, and the accuracy of the early riflemen of the West has probably never been surpassed in popular average by any people of the world. Driving a nail and snuffing a candle with a rifle-bullet were common forms of the amusement which was derived from the practice of arms.

This American, So Equipped, Moves Westward.

When the American settler had got as far West as the Plains he needed arms of greater range, and then he made them; but the first two generations of the West-bound had the buckskin bandoleer, with its little bullets, its little molds for making them, its little worm which served to clean the interior of the barrel with a wisp of flax, its tiny flask of precious powder, its extra flint or so. The American rifle and the American ax--what a history might be written of these alone! They were the sole warrant for the departure of the outbound man from all those associations which had held him to his home. He took some sweet girl from her own family, some mother or grandmother of you or me, and he took his good ax and rifle, and he put his little store on raft or pack-horse, and so he started out; and God prospered him. In his time he was a stanch, industrious man, a good hunter, a sturdy chopper, a faithful lover of his friends, and a stern hater of his foes.

How He Finds The Waterways Easy As Paths Westward.

In time this early outbound man learned that there were rivers which ran not to the southeast and into the sea, but outward, across the mountains toward the setting sun. The winding trails of the Alleghanies led one finally to rivers which ran toward Kentucky, Tennessee, even farther out into that unknown, tempting land which still was called the West. Thus it came that the American genius broke entirely away from salt-water traditions, asked no longer "What cheer?" from the ships that came from across the seas, clung no longer to the customs, the costumes, the precedents or standards of the past. There came the day of buckskin and woolsey, of rifle and ax, of men curious for adventures, of homes built of logs and slabs, with puncheons for floors, with little fields about them, and tiny paths that led out into the immeasurable preserves of the primeval forests. A few things held intrinsic value at that time--powder, lead, salt, maize, cow-bells, women who dared. It was a simple but not an ill ancestry, this that turned away from the sea-coast forever and began the making of another world. It was the strong-limbed, the bold-hearted who traveled, the weak who stayed at home.

Other Distances, Other Customs, Other Values.

This was the ancestral fiber of the West. What time had folk like these for powder-puff or ruffle, for fan or jeweled snuff-box? Their garb was made from the skin of the deer, the fox, the wolf. Their shoes were of buffalo-hide, their beds were made of the robes of the bear and buffalo. They laid the land under tribute. Yet, so far from mere savagery was the spirit that animated these men that in ten years after they had first cut away the forest they were founding a college and establishing a court of law! Read this forgotten history, one chapter, and a little one, in the history of the West, and then turn, if you like, to the chapters of fiction in an older world. You have your choice.

In those early days there were individual opportunities so numerous in the West axes and two cow-bells. Be sure it was not politics that made corn worth one hundred and sixty-five dollars a bushel, and sold a mile of ground for the tinkle of a bell. The conditions were born of a scanty and insufficient transportation.

The West Continued To Grow Down Stream, Not Up.

There was a generation of this down-stream transportation, and it built up the first splendid, aggressive population of the West--a population which continued to edge farther outward and farther down-stream. The settlement at Nashville, the settlements of Kentucky, were at touch with the Ohio River, the broad highway that led easily down to the yet broader highway of the Mississippi, that great, mysterious stream so intimately connected with American history and American progress. It was easy to get to New Orleans, but hard to get back over the Alleghanies.

Having The Mississippi For Its Road, The West Is Content.

Meantime the stout little government at Washington, knowing well enough all the dangers which threatened it, continued to work out the problems of the West. Some breathless, trembling years passed by--years full of wars and treaties in Europe as well as in America. Then came the end of all doubts and tremblings. The lying intrigues at the mouth of America's great roadway ceased by virtue of that purchase of territory which gave to America forever this mighty Mississippi, solemn, majestic, and mysterious stream, perpetual highway, and henceforth to be included wholly within the borders of the West. The year which saw the Mississippi made wholly American was one mighty in the history of America and of the world. The date of the Louisiana Purchase is significant not more by reason of a vast domain added to the West than because of the fact that with this territory came the means of building it up and holding it together. It was now that for the first time the solidarity of this New World was forever assured. We gained a million uninhabited miles--a million miles of country which will one day support its thousands to the mile. But still more important, we gained the right and the ability to travel into it and across it and through it. France had failed to build roads into that country, and thereafter neither France nor any other power might ever do so.

How Much Richer Was This West Than Dreamed.

How feeble is our grasp upon the future may be seen from the last utterance. The sum of $15,000,000 seemed "enormous." To-day, less than a century from that time, one American citizen has in his lifetime made from the raw resources of this land a fortune held to be $266,000,000. One Western city, located in that despised territory, during one recent year showed sales of grain alone amounting to $123,300,000; of live stock alone, $268,000,000; of wholesale trade, $786,205,000; of manufactures,--where manufactures were once held impossible,--the total of $741,097,000. It was once four weeks from Maine to Washington. It is now four days from Oregon. The total wealth of all the cities, all the lands, all the individuals of that once despised West, runs into figures which surpass all belief and all comprehension. And this has grown up within less than a hundred years.

The Westerner Raises More Than He Can Eat.

But now we must conceive of our Western man as not now in dress so near a parallel to that of the savage whom he had overcome. There was falling into his mien somewhat more of staidness and sobriety. This man had so used the ax that he had a farm, and on this farm he raised more than he himself could use--first step in the great future of the West as storehouse for the world. This extra produce could certainly not be taken back over the Alleghanies, nor could it be traded on the spot for aught else than merely similar commodities.

Here, then, was a turning-point in Western history. There is no need to assign to it an exact date. We have the pleasant fashion of learning history through dates of battles and assassinations. We might do better in some cases did we learn the times of happenings of certain great and significant things. It was an important time when this first Western farmer, somewhat shorn of fringe, sought to find market for his crude produce, and found that the pack-horse would not serve him so well as the broad-horned flatboat which supplanted his canoe.

How He Might Sell This Surplus Far From Home.

The flatboat ran altogether down-stream. Hence it led altogether away from home and from the East. The Western man was relying upon himself, cutting loose from traditions, asking help of no man; sacrificing, perhaps, a little of sentiment, but doing so out of necessity, and only because of the one great fact that the waters would not run back uphill, would not carry him back to that East which was once his home. So the homes and the graves in the West grew, and there arose a civilization distinct and different from that which kept hold upon the sea and upon the Old World.

What Was The West At This Time Of Down-Stream?

It may now prove of interest to take a glance at the crude geography of this Western land at that time when it first began to produce a surplus, and the time when it had permanently set its face away from the land east of the Alleghanies. The census map (see page 30) will prove of the best service, and its little blotches of color tell much in brief regarding the West of 1800. For forty years before this time the fur trade had had its depot at the city of St. Louis. For a hundred years there had been a settlement upon the Great Lakes. For nearly a hundred years the town of New Orleans had been established. Here and there, between these foci of adventurers, there were odd, seemingly unaccountable little dots and specks of population scattered over all the map, product of that first uncertain hundred years. Ohio, directly west of the original hotbed, was left blank for a long time, and indeed received her first population from the southward, and not from the East, though the New-Englander Moses Cleveland founded the town of Cleveland as early as 1796. Lower down in the great valley of the Mississippi was a curious, illogical, and now forgotten little band of settlers who had formed what was known as the "Mississippi Territory." Smaller yet, and more inexplicable, did we not know the story of the old water-trail from the Green Bay to the Mississippi, there was a dot, a smear, a tiny speck of population high up on the east bank of the Mississippi, where the Wisconsin emptied. These valley settlements far outnumbered all the population of the State of Ohio, which had lain directly in the path of the star, but the streams of which lay awkwardly on the scheme of travel. The West was beginning to be the West. The seed sown by Marquette the Good, by Hennepin the Bad, by La Salle the Bold, by Tonti the Faithful,--seed despised by an ancient and corrupt monarchy,--had now begun to grow.

Another West Beyond.

Yet, beyond the farthest families of the West of that day, there was still a land so great that no one tried to measure it, or sought to include it in the plans of family or nation. It was all a matter for the future, for generations much later. Compared with the movements of the past, it must be centuries before the West--whatever that term might mean--could ever be overrun. That it could ever be exhausted was, to be sure, an utterly unthinkable thing. There were vague stories among the hardy settlers about new lands incredibly distant, mythically rich in interest. But who dreamed the import of the journey of strong-legged Zebulon Pike into the lands of the Sioux, and who believed all his story of a march from Colorado to Chihuahua, and thence back to the Sabine? What enthusiasm was aroused for the peaceful settlers of the Middle West, whose neighbor was fifty miles away, by that ancient saga, that heroically done, misspelled story of Lewis and Clark? There was still to be room enough and chance enough in the West.