Want to see where the West was really won? You don’t have to go out West. All you need to do is take I-70 out from DC, drive through the tiny West Virginia finger that runs north from Wheeling, and then follow State Route 7 alongside the Ohio River until you roll into the town of East Liverpool, which is actually on the Ohio side of the river itself.
Now when you get into East Liverpool grab State Route 39 and follow it along the river until you reach a little stone monument (about a mile out of town) that marks something called the ‘Point of Beginning,’ which is where the West was actually won. This is the spot (the exact spot is 1,000 feet south of the monument which is now underwater) from which almost the entire remainder of the country was surveyed beginning in 1785. And why did the colonial government begin surveying and mapping the immense westward landscape three years before the Constitution was ratified and the United States came to exist? Because farmers, traders and all sorts of other folks were moving beyond the borders of the original colonies and the issues of who owned what piece of land and who could own what piece of land had to be resolved.
When we talk about the western part of the continental United States we’re not talking about some country’s little back yard. I recall, for example, driving through Monaco which covers roughly 2 square kilometers of land mass and thinking that it really didn’t matter, from a territorial point of view, whether this tiny sliver of soil was attached to France or not. But when we talk about the territory from the western bank of the Ohio River to the Pacific coast, we are talking about 1.8 billion acres of land, and that’s not geographic chump-change in anyone’s book.
The problem in 1785 however, is that all of this land had at one point belonged to the British Crown who, in typical feudal fashion, had given out hunks of it to this colonial administrator or that. But all of those arrangements became null and void by what happened at the Battle of Yorktown and its aftermath in 1781, and while it would be another seven years until the United States ratified its own independent status as a sovereign nation, deciding what to do with this enormous, largely vacant territory couldn’t wait.
Well, it wasn’t exactly vacant. There did happen to be a lot of human beings living in many parts of this extraordinary landscape, Jefferson referred to them politely as ‘dependent nations,’ but a Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. M’Intosh, decided in 1823, basically legitimized what had been going on for the previous hundred years or more, namely, that indigenous populations in colonial zones had no property rights at all. Oh well, oh well, oh well.
The push westward really began in earnest after we bought 827,000 square miles of territory from France in 1803. We then picked up the southwest from Mexico in 1843 and grabbed the northwest from Canada in 1846. All of this territory was initially owned by the government, much of it would be sold, rented or leased to private interests over the intervening years. Even Cliven Bundy and his idiot sons would end up leasing (but not paying for) land from the Feds. But the bottom line is that what made this immense transfer of land from public to private hands possible wasn’t the Colt Peacemaker or the Winchester Repeater – the guns that ‘won’ the West – it was the surveyor’s measuring rods and chains which were first used by employees of the Federal Land Office in 1785.
During the Age of Trump the gun industry will try its level best to argue that America owes its existence and freedom to gun ownership. After all, isn’t the whole point of gun ownership to help make America great again? And when were we greatest? When we won the West. Except the West wasn’t won with guns.