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Title pageAbout the Book

Rusling, James Fowler.

Across America; or, The Great West and the Pacific Coast.


New York: Sheldon & Company, 1875.



James Fowler Rusling left his New Jersey law practice in 1861 to join the Union Army. He rose swiftly to become the quartermaster of General Sickles' Third Corps. He then served in the West, and by the end Civil War he held the brevet rank of Brigadier General. He did not immediately leave the Army, and the Quartermaster's Department ordered him in July 1866 to make a tour of western military installations and outposts with the aim of examining procedures and thus reducing Army spending. Rusling was gone for a full twelve months and traveled some fifteen thousand miles, returning to Washington D.C. by sea via Panama. He provided a full report to the Army and the U.S. Congress, and many of his recommendations were enacted. Almost ten years after his journey, back at his law practice, he wrote a comprehensive account of his travels. He noted first that a decade later the new transcontinental railroad link made obsolete the kind of slow, arduous adventure he had taken through Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico by stagecoach, Army ambulance, and horseback. His observations, attention to detail, and fine aptitude for description provide a valuable representation of the economics, culture, and politics of a continent on the verge of great change.

With his clerk and a magazine editor as traveling companions, General Rusling left Washington D.C. on July 24, 1866 and made his way through the Mid-west, through an Ohio he considered far superior to Indiana and Missouri, with their populations of new residents tainted with the decadence of slavery. Kansas he pronounced as well worth the struggle of the Civil War. After his inspections at Fort Riley, he and his party, riding in an Army ambulance with an escort of five infantrymen in a following wagon, left for the west in mid-August. They encountered no hostile Plains Indians, and throughout, Rusling derides as exaggerated the constant danger warnings from settlers, calling them "Big Injun" stories. He does make an enjoyable and incident free inspection tour of the Nebraska and northeastern Colorado installations, including Fort Kearny and the new Fort McPherson, together with Fort Sedgewick at Julesburg and Fort Morgan. He concludes that the Plains will soon become a great American range for beef cattle that will be exported around the world.

From Kearny he travels to Denver by stagecoach at a cost for a single fare of $150. He gives a detailed and interesting description of booming Denver and its surrounding mining sites like Central City. The miners fascinate him with their habits of work and leisure colored with their characteristic slang. He pronounces these men "fit to be the pioneers of empire." He is, however, disturbed that the mines themselves are not seeming to make much progress in 1866 and need to do much better with the remarkable resources at hand so as to pay off the national debt. General William T. Sherman arrived in the city at the same time on his own survey of Indian Affairs, and the two, who had served together in the war, spent a month in late September and early October 1866 camping in the Colorado Mountains. His enthusiasm for areas such as the Garden of the Gods, now Colorado Springs, is unbounded; they will become America's Switzerland, he says. Before leaving Colorado for Utah, Rusling was present with Sherman at the signing of the treaty that the temporary commander of Fort Garland, the famed frontiersman Christopher "Kit" Carson, had negotiated with the Utes. Rusling is able to visit the Ute villages, barter for souvenirs, and dance in their celebrations. He is also able to confirm his low opinion of the Native Americans that he has been gathering throughout his journey. They are, he writes, "little above animals that roam" and "infinitely below the colored race, even of the cotton states."(135) He provides a useful character word sketch of Carson, who is himself of the opinion that all Indian troubles the whites cause by their actions and their examples, citing the November 1863 Sand Creek Massacre as indicative. (Historians of the Navajo experience in the mid-1860's might refer here to Carson's own involvement in their removal to New Mexico.)

Rustling's party moved on to Salt Lake City with stops at the Overland Trail forts of Halleck, which was already being dismantled, and Bridger, the old private fort (named for its owner Jim Bridger) that had become a U.S. Army installation in 1858. Rusling arrived in the Mormon capital on October 18, 1866 and was delayed there when he contracted a bout of fever. This gave him the opportunity to study at some depth what he calls the "Mormon Problem," and he devotes most of two chapters to the matter. Tensions between the Mormons and the federal government had not eased since the 1857-58 "Utah War" in which armed Mormons, upset with the influx of settlers along the Overland Trail and allegedly massacring wagon trains such as at Mountain Meadow, had resisted President Buchanan's efforts to install a non-Mormon territorial governor. This almost instigated armed conflict between the militia and the 2,500 federal troops under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston sent to enforce that order. While he was there, Rusling observed the annual militia muster and saw that it was still under Mormon control. He attended services at the Tabernacle and had a conversation with Brigham Young, whom he judges as a man worthy of admiration, whatever else. And there seems to be much else. Rusling was in Salt Lake City when Dr. J. K. Robinson, a well-respected "gentile" medical practitioner then suing the Mormon controlled council, was harassed and finally lured on a false house call to be murdered on October 22, 1866. This latest outrage Rusling calls (with the only italicized emphasis in the book) "the logical fruit of the habitual teachings of Mormon chiefs and leaders." (187) He finds the Mormon religion to have little religion in it but a "crude materialism," sees Mormon leaders as "bigoted and ignorant," and considers Mormon polygamy genetically unhealthy and a reduction of American women to the status of Orientals. They are industrious and thrifty with the best homes he had seen since leaving Missouri, and there is no drunkenness, gambling, or prostitution in the city. Still, in conversation with a harassed federal judge who cannot find a jury that will convict a Mormon for any crime, he agrees that the laws of the nation must be enforced, come what may, and that it may take measures such as those taken against "Dixie."

Leaving Utah, Rusling travels into Idaho (where he notes that the settlers are trying to grow potatoes), and then down the Columbia River into Oregon (where the inhabitants require "webbed feet"), and finally on to Fort Vancouver, Washington. From there he takes a ship down the coast to San Francisco. On this journey, he sees steam rising from Mount St. Helens and is assured that this is merely snow melting since the mountain is not a volcano! He arrives in San Francisco on December 14, 1866. He notes that New York remains the focus of the Midwest, but from Denver and Salt Lake City west, San Francisco is the leader. The city excites him. San Franciscans follow few rules of fashion, open their stores on Sunday, and include the Jewish population far more completely than in the east. Most are fully for "territorial aggrandizement" including British Columbia, the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico and Panama, and celebrate Seward's recent Alaska Purchase. He does, however, find the Barbary Coast to be "shameful." He also addresses "the Chinese Question," noting that these immigrants are thrifty, intelligent, and hard working and that the Pacific Coast could not survive without their efforts. They deserve justice and to be freed from all laws restricting them.

Rusling's next assigned targets for inspection are the military posts of the southwest in Arizona and New Mexico. He takes a ship to San Diego on February 9, 1867, with a stop at Santa Barbara with its perfect climate and oil floating on the surface off its coast, clearly indicating its energy producing potential. He travels by road to Los Angeles, then a town of 5000 people. He is told that the county produces much of the three million gallons of wine made in California. He clearly considers Los Angeles to have a remarkable future, but at the moment development is slow. He then embarks upon his two months in an army ambulance into the desert, his least favorable leg of his whole journey. His first stop is Anaheim where land prices have gone from $2 to $150 per acre in ten years. To Yuma and beyond, however, Rusling finds himself unimpressed with the territories. The peaceful Indians need Christian missionaries desperately since whites have degraded them so badly. Hispanic culture is clearly not sufficient to the day for the New Jersey lawyer/general; sleepy Tucson, for example, should awaken to "remember that she is under Yankee government now." The area does need a railroad, he concedes, and the active Indian resistance that has 2500 federal troops facing around 5000 hostiles must be subdued. His inspections begin with a substantial delay due to the heavy flooding in central Arizona that, among other things, washed away much of the newly constructed Fort McDowell. From there, with a twelve-man escort, he travels to Prescott and to Fort Whipple just outside the town. This fort, built in late 1863, was becoming an important center of operations against the Apache, and Rusling actually joins a fruitless expedition under Colonel John Irvin Gregg and his Eighth Cavalry in pursuit hostiles who were never even sighted. He visits Fort Mojave, another important post guarding the Prescott road, and then returns across the desert to Los Angeles. Some Army installations in the desert were rather primitive; Rusling had stopped at Camp Rock Springs where the only officer lived in a cave and his twelve men in huts.

Rusling is extremely happy to be back in Los Angeles in April after these long and dusty two months. He leaves soon after for San Francisco and the last portion of his tour, into the mountains of Nevada and to Carson City and Lake Tahoe. He rewards himself at the last with a visit alone to what will become Yosemite National Park, pronouncing it a "national treasure." While there he meets John Mason Hutchins, the private landowner who offered the first tourist services in the area. Rusling also mentions meeting the famous geologist Josiah Whitney, then completing his mammoth geological survey of California. His duties completed, Rusling leaves San Francisco for Panama on June10, 1867 by steamship. His attitudes towards Hispanic-American culture are only reinforced at stops in Acapulco and in Panama. The canal, of course, is not yet built, but a fifty-mile railway completed in 1855, the enterprise of W. H. Aspinall, carried passengers from the Pacific to the Atlantic side to continue their journey. Rusling finally lands in New York City on July 4, 1867, which he calls a fitting moment for the end of an odyssey that has "enlarged and dignified, one's conception of the Fatherland." This encourages Rusling's final imperial pronouncement of the book as he holds forth that what he has seen "is only a prophesy of that Greater America, when we shall occupy the continent, from the Arctic down to the Isthmus, with teeming millions, and convert the Pacific practically into a Yankee sea." (477) His appendix contains valuable extended "end notes" as well as statistics and documents.

General Rusling packed experiences and observations about the America that was emerging in the West and the Pacific following the American Civil War. The nation was on the verge of an unprecedented growth in wealth and strength that would make it one of the so-called Great Powers before the end of the century. He does demonstrate some fine skills of both observation and writing that present us with a comprehensive snapshot of the moment with all its problems and promise. Perhaps most valuable of all is Rusling's willingness to share with his readers his powerful and unreconstructed feelings of Manifest Destiny and Yankee superiority. Not afraid to speak like many others of his time of an "American Empire," he illustrates in his own character and words a time in American history of remarkable confidence and ambition of the Anglo-Saxon "Yankee" to unite the continent under his leadership.

Researched and authored by John Osborne, Ph. D.


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