More than any other region of the country, the American West has been associated in the popular mind with the white race. The West had long been considered a land of opportunity, of cheap land and seemingly limitless natural resources. Millions of people went West, transforming the region from a supposed wilderness to the newest, most modern region of the country. American Indians, Whites, African-Americans, and Asians met in the West, making the region the most racially diverse in the nation. Yet increasingly the region was considered a stronghold for "real" whites, the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic whites of Northern European ancestry. The region was thus a stark contrast to the sprawling, overcrowded, and dirty cities of the East. These Gilded Age cities of steel and industry were teeming with irredeemably foreign immigrants who had been attracted by the promise of a better life. Hailing from Eastern and Southern Europe, these new immigrants were reshaping American cities and siphoning away the hereditary claim to power of Anglo-Americans by the irresistible force of their numbers. Indeed, one key difference between the minority groups of the West and the new immigrants was of the East was that the latter had larger numbers and the power of the ballot. In the American West no other racial group was in a position to challenge whites. American Indians were relegated to reservations and denied the right to vote, African-Americans were so numerically small that they wielded little power, and Asian Americans were ineligible for citizenship and barred from entering the country in large numbers after 1882. That left Hispanics as the only ethnic or racial group with any political power, but only in New Mexico did they achieve any semblance of control. In marked contrast to the East, the West was said to be populated by the best native-born Anglo-Americans and a select few foreign immigrants who had been culled from the rest of the immigrant population by the rigors of the Westward movement. Westerners, therefore, looked askance at Eastern cities and their non-Anglo population and came to consider the West a refuge, a white man's country. This had not always been the case, and, indeed, antebellum Americans, several generations earlier, wondered about the efficacy of adding the West to the nation.
The reluctance and trepidation of some Americans toward the West was the result of commonly held beliefs about the effect of environmental conditions on race. Americans believed that the American Indians of the West were unquestionably savage, and the Hispanics of the Southwest, a region acquired by the United States after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, were considered a degenerate and lazy race of mongrels. Both supposedly inferior groups had fallen into their current states in part because of the environment of the West. The Great Plains, Washington Irving declared in the 1830s, were devoid of agriculture and therefore of civilization. Richard Henry Dana and other Americans felt that the benevolent climate of the Southwest drained away racial vigor. Dana, in fact, predicted that Americans who settled in California would soon be as lazy as the native Hispanic population.
Despite the rapid settlement of Anglo-Americans in the West following the 1848 discovery of gold in California, these negative interpretations of the West proved remarkably resilient. To counter these early nineteenth-century views, Western promoters and intellectuals invented the myth of the West as a white man's country.
Promoting the continued settlement of the region by desirable whites, whether native born or foreign, became the work of the largest landowners in the region, the railroads. Railroads, with millions of acres at their disposal, desperately wanted to attract settlers to their lands—especially farmers. Settlement would be beneficial to the lines because settlers would pay for the land and then, in turn, create a market for the railroad to ship goods over the rail lines. Beginning in the 1870s, the various transcontinental and trunk railroads began an active campaign to attract settlers.
Celebrating the West as a white man's country set up clear racial and ethnic lines. The West, Westerners claimed, was free of the machine politics, crime, and corruption that was supposedly characteristic of Eastern immigrant communities. There was room, however, to embrace other cultures in the region.
The dominance of Americans of Northern European extraction was no accident. It was a concerted effort to ensure the West was attractive to desirable peoples. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)