I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012. The full collection is accessible here.

The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier

Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill

  • Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill, The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004). 

Terry Lee Anderson is an economist and professor at the Stanford School of Business. He is also the executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center and one of the leading advocates of free market environmentalism, which emphasizes the importance of respecting property rights and contends that the free market will do more to save the environment if left alone than environmental regulations, which at times even have adverse effects on the environment. The importance of property rights also plays a key role in Anderson’s treatment of western history in The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, which he co-wrote with a fellow economist. Peter J. Hill. In their study, Anderson and Hill look at the ways in which newcomers wrestled with the problems of settling a new land in which there are no set laws or governing institutions by creating and developing their own ways of interacting with one another economically and judiciously. The frontier, they write, “is the margin between the time or place where resources have no value and the time or place where they have positive value.” Their narrative is a product of New Institutional Economics, which looks at how institutions develop and subsequently affect the economy.

The Not So Wild, Wild West can be considered a work of New Western History because, like Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White, Anderson and Hill dispute Frederick Jackson Turner’s portrayal of the West. Their main contention revolves around Turner’s emphasis on the violent and lawless character of the West, which was supposedly a significant factor in the development of the Westerner’s allegedly independent and hardy character. However, Anderson and Hill do not agree with the findings of many New Western historians either because their theory of domination, which centers on conquest, environmental degradation, and aggression between classes and ethnicities, still focuses on the idea of the prevalence of violence in the West. Both of these types of treatments are not fully applicable because they do not explain “how individuals shaped their institutional environment and how the institutional environment, in turn, shaped the way people interacted.” (4) In regards to the west, these institutions revolve mainly around the concept of property rights and how individuals decide who can have access to and trade resources. Because there were no established ways of determining rights to property in the West, the settlers had to make their own. The crux of Anderson and Hill argument is that violence did not dominate the West because violence usually ended in a negative gain and thus did not provide a gateway for personal fulfillment. Instead, Westerners tended to participate in localized peaceful trade and cooperation, which allowed everyone to hypothetically gain their fair share. The heroes of Anderson and Hill’s tale are not the rough and tumble cowboys, but instead the institutional entrepreneurs, who created rules to govern and tame the environmental and technological limitations of the West.

In The Legacy of Conquest, Limerick places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of property in the settling of the West. It was the passion for property that drove people westward, not their desire for autonomy and excitement, she contends. Anderson and Hill elaborate on Limerick’s claim, illuminating the economic and organizational details behind the race for property ownership. Yet, even though Anderson and Hill allege that they are writing in opposition to the traditional western narrative, there are still many aspects of their examination of the West that are in sync with Turner’s Frontier Thesis. One of the similarities is that Anderson and Hill, like Turner, focus on the role of the common man in the West. These individuals are portrayed as being cut off from the governing bodies and the capitalist control of the East, thus resulting in a “bottom up” formation of property rights, which Anderson and Hill assert as more likely to protect natural resources and encourage widespread investment. Secondly, Anderson and Hill’s narrative still emphasizes the fact that the West, before the influx of settlers of European descent, was a lawless place, governed by nature. The institutional entrepreneurs of the story are heroized by Anderson and Hill because they bring civilization to the West, taming the environment with rules and formal concepts of possession.

Feature Photo: Wyoming Blues, Grand Teton 2011 by Don Graham, Flickr Commons

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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