The Eden of the West

The Western frontier was the new Eden of the West for men and women escaping the civilized East. Just like the first settlers who ventured onto the shores of North America fleeing persecution in Europe, so too were the new settlers leaving behind the suffocating limitations of city life. Horace Greeley’s 1865 editorial encouraged the public and recent Civil War veterans to head West and colonize the land, “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” Fayette and Frances Roe came too proudly bearing the military emblem of Americanism in the pursuit of expansionism and settling the far West by clearing the country of the indigenous tribes and desperadoes. In effect, the Army prepared the land for American stylized civilization of law, order, and societal norms.

Between 1871 and 1888, Roe recounted a minimum of nineteen camp and army post transitions: Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Utah and Minnesota territories. Americans and immigrants headed Westward on the newly built railroads into the once upon a time inaccessible pristine wilderness and indigenous tribal lands.

Bridge construction on Helena and Northern approaching Marysville. Northern Pacific Railroad Company. 1880-1890. Courtesy of Denver Library

Bridge construction on Helena and Northern approaching Marysville.
Northern Pacific Railroad Company. 1880-1890. Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western Collection.

The expansion of the railroads also brought tourists to see Yellowstone National Park, the Rocky Mountains, and the sweeping Great Plains before it all disappeared beneath the blueprint of consumptive Progress. The Northern Pacific Railroad brought generals, congressmen, and even the President westward to see the rugged wilderness. 2nd Lieutenant Roe was upgraded to post quartermaster and commissary to supply and outfit all parties, large and small to Yellowstone Park.

General Sheridan and party at Old Faithful

General Sheridan and party at Old Faithful

By 1885, travel by military ambulances, jerkeys, and stagecoaches on the long stretches of the sweeping Plains were quickly disappearing with the rapid expansion of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads into Montana Territory.

Fort_Ellis_Montana

View of Fort Ellis, a military post situated on Mill Creek about three miles north of Bozeman, near the head of the Gallatin Valley, Gallatin County, Montana. Shows many one and two story frame buildings and outbuildings and a flag pole. 1870-1880. Courtesy of Denver Public Library

Fort Ellis, Montana Territory, March, 1883:
The railroad has been laid straight through the post, and it looks very strange to see the cars running directly back of the company quarters. The long tunnel– it is to be called the Bozeman tunnel–that has been cut through a large mountain.

Northern Pacific Railroad surfacing gang and construction workers. Helena, Montana. dated 1880-1890. Courtesy of Denver Library

Northern Pacific Railroad surfacing gang and construction workers. Helena, Montana. dated 1880-1890. Courtesy of Denver Public Library, Western Collection

The railroad cars run directly behind the company quarters at Fort Ellis, Montana Territory, and the Bozeman tunnel is being cut through the mountains; even the mountains cannot stand in the way of civilization. Garrison life has disappeared, and towns are changing with the times, filled with pretentious shops for the noveaux riches who dress elegantly with splendid jewels.

Frances laments leaving her beloved far West with Faye’s new appointment as Aide-de-Camp,

I love army life here in the West, and I love all the things that it brings to me–grand mountains, the plains, and the fine hunting.  I am almost heartbroken over it as it will be a wretched life for me–cooped up in a noisy city! The heat of Omaha Nebraska is unbearable. The officers wear civilian clothes and sits at a desk to busy himself with papers, and tries to make the world believe that he is happy…but life is dreary. Faye’s detail of four years, and the thought of living in this unattractive place for that length of time is crushing.

Seeing the inevitability of her fate, it was all too evident that once again boundaries were circling her free spirited life. The buffalo are no longer. Only their skeletons lie as bleached monuments to man’s unrestrained hand in the name of progress. Wildlife is disappearing, and the indigenous tribes are passing as well. Roe’s bigotry remains steadfast towards the indigenous people stating, “But I must confess that I have no regret for the Indians–there are still too many of them!”

Army Letters is a historical narrative about a lionhearted woman’s undefeatable strength in challenging her limitless borders; and therein lies the other tale. Roe’s unforeseen hand in the fate of her beloved Eden of the West. The certainty about our choices is that after we have made them, they turn around and make us.

Tweet