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Why Have Americans Always Been So Obsessed with the Land?

March 7, 2018 in History

By H. W. Brands

his painting from 1795 depicts 'Mad Anthony' Wayne and his officers negotiating a treaty that opened up most of present-day Ohio to settlers, after Wayne's legion won a decisive victory over a confederation of Indian warriors. (Credit: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.

Something about land lies deep in the American psyche. Since the early 20th century most Americans have resided in cities and suburbs, yet the mystique of agrarian life draws millions to farmers’ markets and makes the family farm a touchstone of American politics. The cowboy, that rugged knight of the open West, remains an icon of American culture. Squabbles between developers and preservationists over land use become battles over the meaning and destiny of America.

That’s because they are battles over the meaning and destiny of America. The history of America’s land is the history of the country itself. America grew into its defining institutions even as it grew into its land. The land inspired American independence; it spawned American democracy; it undergirded America’s rise to world power. Land symbolized opportunity to generations of Americans, starting with colonists who never had the chance of owning property in Europe; the vast continent gleamed in their eyes and its frontier drew them west. When the open spaces filled up, Americans suffered an identity crisis: Without the frontier of open land, who would we be?

Colonel Washington Questions His Allegiance

George Washington knew the frontier well as it existed in 1763. He had surveyed lands of the Ohio Valley, then deep in Indian territory, and he had led a Virginia regiment in the French and Indian War, fought primarily on the frontier. At the war’s end, he expected to capitalize on his knowledge of the frontier by gaining legal title to thousands of acres in the West, which he would hold for resale at a higher value.

But then the British imperial government issued a proclamation declaring all territory west of the Appalachian mountains closed to settlement. The war had thrown Britain deeply in debt, and cost-cutting was imperative. Western settlement would cause further friction with the Indians, necessitating new spending on frontier defense. London couldn’t afford the latter, so it wouldn’t allow the former. The West was closed.

Washington already bristled under British rule. Though a gifted soldier, his colonial origins limited his advancement in the British army. This personal slight was suddenly compounded by the proclamation’s blow to his business plans. He had spent a great deal of effort—and no small amount of money—on his Ohio …read more


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