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How the West Was Won
Nearly all of the North American continent was unowned by the Indians when white entrepreneurs and adventurers arrived. For ownership results from the act of combining one's labor with an unused resource, and thereby appropriating that resource for one's private use. Simply asserting ownership based on one's temporary, infrequent, or imaginary presence, without performing the work necessary to define and maintain boundaries, and to employ the resource in the ongoing production of values, amounts to a false claim. If just-sort-of-being-there sufficed to define ownership, absurdities would obtain: the U.S. government could legitimately claim to own the moon by virtue of the fact that one of its astronauts once planted a flag in moon dirt; and the British Crown might assert ownership to all of the timber in North America suitable for masts in the King's Navy, as in fact it did claim in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
However, some Indians did establish bona fide property rights. Quite a few Indians engaged in farming: they'd plow some ground to plant, build huts, and make their living, which they supplemented by hunting the surrounding area. When the soil depleted, or perhaps when the game grew scarce, they would abandon their farms and houses and move on to more desirable country. While they occupied their fields and huts, these Indians owned property. When they abandoned their fields and houses, they gave up ownership, which they subsequently created in new farms and settlements. So when Andrew Jackson invaded the Chickawa settlements and farms, he violated their rights. When the U.S. Army forced the Nez Perce cattle and horse ranchers from their identifiable summer grazing lands in the Pacific Northwest, it violated their rights.
By way of contrasting example, however, the hunter warrior tribes of the Great Plains, the Blackfeet and Sioux, Crow and Cheyenne, lacked such legitimate claim to ownership of the vast area, comprised of many thousands of square miles, over which they wandered. These people lived, of course, primarily by hunting and warring, and by theft and conquest. The Blackfeet would journey 300 miles south to raid the huge horse herds of their enemy, the Crow—murdering, maiming and enslaving as they could. The Crow would return the favor at their earliest convenience. These tribal cultures were primitive and savage, and the lives of these Indians precarious and often short. Within their martial cultures, virtue consisted of the ability to endure pain and make war, rather than the ability to think clearly and innovate solutions. Some plains tribes forced elderly parents into the frozen snows of winter to starve.
When the Euro-American adventurers and settlers arrived in North America, the continent provided subsistence living for perhaps one million natives. The settlers often sought peaceful accommodation with the Indians, for example, by offering to purchase lands that the Indians did not legitimately own. However, the Indians often reacted with violence and hostility to any advance by white settlers into "their territory," and the U.S. government reacted with equal and opposite irrationalism, herding the tribes onto reservations. The rationale for creating reservations was to compensate the Indians for lands they had collectively "owned" and lost, by restoring to them "collective ownership" of reservation lands. Of course, this warped idea of ownership and collective rights was easily extended to require that members of the collectives take up residence where their tribe "belonged." And so the reservations, created under the banner of collectivism, became virtual prisons for the natives. The fact that reservation boundaries were subsequently altered to the satisfaction of whites illustrates the facetiousness of collective rights.
Atrocities and injustices were committed by both white Americans and native Indians in this tragic struggle. But still, the white advance was morally superior to the Indian resistance. For as George Reisman explains in his magnum opus Capitalism, the advancing civilization of the whites offered the prospect of good lives for everyone through voluntary inclusion in the division of labor. For the division of labor makes it possible to achieve incomparably greater security, material well-being, and justice, than life as a subsistence hunter-warrior ever could. In contrast to white civilization, the subsistence culture of the Indians required the members of tribes frequently and routinely to inflict cruelty and injustice on individuals of other tribes, and sometimes within their own tribe. Rather than accommodate living for everyone, the tribal cultures ensured death by starvation for any number beyond the limited carrying capacity of the land.
The Indians might have gradually integrated themselves into the division of labor, making their lives peacefully as farmers and ranchers, artisans and traders. And in fact, the Nez Perce of Washington had carved out a profitable niche, trading fresh horses and oxen for the worn out stock of incoming wagon trains. These Indian entrepreneurs would fatten their newly acquired animals on their customary rangeland, before profitably trading the animals back to whites. Virtually all tribesmen of these Nez Pierce bands owned private herds of cattle and horses, some numbering several hundreds. The Nez Pierce were, by all accounts, unusually intelligent, and were renowned horse breeders who developed the appaloosa, a beautifully conformed spotted horse, much admired and written about by early white commentators. In the spring, these stockmen would drive their herds north to the beautiful, rock-rimmed Wallowa Valley; when fall arrived, they would trail their animals south into customary wintering range in the snow-free desert of eastern Washington or Oregon. Although they retained some of the habits of nomadic hunters, trekking annually across the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo in eastern Montana, these individuals were well along the road to becoming private ranchers and livestock merchants. Their repeated use of the Wallowa Valley for ranching, and their improvement of this readily definable area by investing in livestock to harvest its grass, created a property right to that particular location. In time, no doubt with the assistance of courts, this ownership could have been redefined from ownership of the valley by a voluntary association of ranchers to the ownership of particular acreages by individual ranchers.
Regrettably, the U.S. Army drove the Nez Perce from their beautiful mountain valley pastures, much coveted by white farmers and gold miners. Under Chief Joseph, these resourceful people outsmarted and evaded much of the U.S. Army for months, as they desperately sought passage across Idaho and Montana, to Canada and freedom. The army finally caught up with them a few short miles south of Canada.
One can make clear sense of the conflicts that arose between primitive natives and their Euro-American competitors, but not without the principle of private property and its offspring, the division of labor. Unfortunately, many people who feel genuine sympathy for the past struggles of American Indians have been sold misleading ethical concepts. Thus, they have absorbed neo-Marxist dogma about collective rights and collective guilt; they have come to believe in Rousseau's Romance of the Primitive; and so they are led to slander the heroism and rationality that won the West.
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