Roots of the Sagebrush Rebellion

It was supposed to be for the common man. That’s what Thomas Jefferson thought when he forged the deal that made the 800,000 square miles of Louisiana Territory the property of the United States. “The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on,” he wrote to James Madison in 1785. “The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”
But, in much of the interior West, Jefferson’s vision went largely unrealized. The American ideal, the democratic association of free men on free land, stalled in the Western wilderness.
The confrontation over federal land is older than the occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, older than the face-off at Cliven Bundy’s ranch, older than the Sagebrush Rebellion that arose in the 1970s and the often heated debate over the Taylor Grazing Act in the 1920s and 1930s. It is a contest between greed and the public interest that stretches back to Lewis and Clark and the opening of the West.
It took a huge bank account and a focused mission to survive, let alone prosper, on these vast, untamed landscapes. That is why the West was opened, not by a few intrepid settlers, yearning to breathe free, but by a succession of well-funded companies that explored and exploited the frontiers and eventually stripped them of anything that could be converted to profit.
These days, we celebrate the free trapper as the apotheosis of American liberty. We choose to ignore the far-flung corporate conglomerates that forced their way into the heart of the continent: the Hudson’s Bay Company; the North West Company; the Missouri Fur Company; William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company; and the powerful American and Pacific fur companies, formed and backed by the New York entrepreneur John Jacob Astor.
When Astor incorporated the American Fur Company in the spring of 1808, he invested $1 million in the firm. Soon thereafter, he established the Pacific Fur Company to exploit the fur trade between the Columbia River and the Far East, investing another $400,000 in that plan, which included the purchase of a new ship. The fur trade was big business.
The unrelenting pressure on furbearing animals, especially the beaver, had a predictable effect. As early as 1826, naturalist John D. Godman predicted that the beaver was headed for extinction. “A few individuals may, for a time, elude the immediate violence of persecution,” he wrote, but the species would eventually be lost “in the fathomless gulf of avarice.”
When beaver became scarce, the European market turned to other fibers to manufacture hats, and the great beaver hunt in the Rockies came to an end.
So ended the first great wave of development on the public domain in the American West. The beaver, whose pelts had built an empire, had been hunted to the brink of extinction. The men who had set the traps were gone, a large proportion of them the victims of violent deaths, the rest fading away on hardscrabble farms in Missouri or Ohio or Oregon as they mourned the passing of a life they loved and had spent their best years to destroy. The profit from 30 years of toil and danger was in New York and London, in the vaults of the big companies that had run the business. It was a pattern that would become all too familiar over the next century.
The beaver trade died just as American enthusiasm for the Elysian fields of Oregon began to take hold. In 1846, the United States finally settled the long-standing border dispute with Britain, and the boundary between the two nations was set on the 49th parallel. At the same time, the U.S. took almost half of Mexico by force, adding another 500,000 square miles to the public domain. California joined the union in 1850; Oregon followed in 1859, and visionaries began to talk about the need to tie the East and West together. Wagons and sailing ships weren’t enough, the thinking went. The solution was at hand, the miracle of the age: the railroad.
Congress authorized $93 million worth of bonds, with the principal and interest guaranteed by the federal government, to encourage the big rail companies to build the transcontinental lines. Why this outpouring of generosity? Our eighth-grade history books told us that it was a simple commitment to the idea that the nation should be united by rail, and there’s little doubt that a patriotic impulse was one of the motives the railroad magnates shared.
Another was sheer greed. The railroaders distributed $250,000 in bonds around Washington, D.C., to congressmen and other key officials who could help sweeten the deal. The bonds were worth nothing if the transcontinental line wasn’t built; they were worth plenty if it was.
State and federal governments were also generous with land grants. The railroads west of the Mississippi were given 175 million acres along potential routes. Combined with the control the railroads had over routes and choices of town sites, this allowed company insiders to reap huge profits in real estate.
The deals that were made to complete the three great transcontinental rail lines were “leveraged” to the hilt, which meant main players borrowed far more than they could pay back — unless the rail project yielded an immense profit — and many of them found ways to evade any personal financial responsibility to investors through limited liability corporations and other means. The key players in just the California part of the shell game that built the Union Pacific transcontinental line came away with $10 million in clear profit.
The chicanery, bribery and fraud eventually led to scandals. More than 30 members of Congress had taken gifts of shares from the company, but no one was indicted and only two members of Congress were even censured. The organizers at the California end of the line avoided a similar investigation when all the records of their finance and construction company were mysteriously destroyed in a fire.
The lack of adequate capital to back the rampant speculation surrounding the transcontinental railroads was largely to blame for the financial panic of 1873 and the six-year depression that followed. As always, the brunt of the downturn fell on people of modest means. More than 18,000 businesses closed their doors, small farms failed, and wages in the railroad sector and elsewhere were slashed.
It took more than 2,000 wooden ties to build a mile of track and at least 30 poles to string the telegraph line alongside. It’s been estimated that between 20 and 25 percent of all timber cut in the last third of the nineteenth century found its way into railroads. The demand was so intense that the mountains within 30 miles of the tracks in Wyoming were almost denuded. Ties floated down local streams wherever possible, scouring creek beds, which then became smothered with silt from the surrounding hillsides.
Once again, the common folk shouldered the brunt of the cost of the great project, in money, heartache and blood. The environment sustained a heavy blow, and a handful of wealthy speculators reaped the profit. ♦
— Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Circle of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Circle of Chiefs are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
— Chris Madson is a freelance writer specializing in conservation and hunting subjects. He lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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