Just got this back with a favorable grade (98) and felt it may be nice to share. We actually had a while to do this, so it's generally much more polished than a timed essay would be, but with my procrastination and general unwillingness to edit there are still a few uncomfortable sentences and a rather hasty conclusion.
1992 DBQ - To what extent did the natural environment shape the development of the West beyond the Mississippi and the lives of those who lived there? How important were other factors?
Despite having gained an early reputation as a barren desert, the Great West quickly became the dominant target behind the expansionist campaigns of the United States during the 18th century. Swarms of frontiersmen travelled to the West, fueled by a multitude of prospective opportunities. Although artificial factors such as ideological motivations and railroads played an undeniably crucial role in shaping the West, their influence came about only as the result of the inherent economic potential of the region–through its natural resources such as gold and soil–which, along with the incredibly diverse climate, unarguably dwarfed all else in determining the trend of development in the West.
Just as it had been the old image of the desolate West which had repelled earlier would-be migrants, it was the new image of the fertile West which brought settlers into the region. The discovery of rich soil, grass, and minerals in the West led thousands of farmers, ranchers, and miners to settle there. The livelihood of these people depended almost entirely on the natural environment of the region, around which they were forced to shape their way of life. For example, the presence of desert between habitable lands created a largely unbalanced spread of population throughout the West (Doc. A). On favorable grounds such as San Antonio or San Francisco, dense concentrations of people would emerge in isolation, surrounded by nothing (Doc. D). Consequently, travelling to these areas before the arrival of the railroads became a formidable task often plagued with death and hardship, as the travelers were faced with miles of unending desert without any aid from established settlements (Doc. C). Moreover, aridity of the region made irrigation a necessity, and farms in places like California and the Southwest relied enormously on nearby rivers and streams for sustenance. Frequent droughts also constantly hampered the region, forcing many farmers to turn to such tactics as dryland farming. Ranchers suffered similarly, with the scarcity of water giving long drives a perpetual state of risk (Doc. I). Furthermore, the fact that there were not enough resources for both ranchers and farmers to share led to a bitter conflict between the two professions, which eventually culminated with the use of barbed wire and a transition from open-range to closed-range ranching. Likewise, the constant depletion of minerals in the mining business coerced those involved into a highly migratory lifestyle. Miners would flock to a mineral-rich region, create a town ‘overnight’, and leave when the minerals had been mined out.
The impact of the natural environment on the West didn’t stop there, however. In addition to determining the economical function of the region*, the environment affected the very roots of Western culture. The bitter competition over land and resources between whites almost entirely neglected the needs of the Indians already living on the land who, already decimated, were powerless to resist the intrusion (Doc. H). Also, the general scarcity of people in certain areas of the West (as a result of the difficulty in getting there) often led to early female suffrage in an attempt to swell the voting population to a number acceptable for statehood (Doc. F). Likewise, the fact that most settlements in the West were male dominated–and as a result highly volatile and rough–due to the nature of the professions practiced there similarly served to grant females the right of suffrage, with the argument that they would bring a more “moral” voice into the community.
Granted, however, natural factors were far from alone in influencing the settlement of the West. Without the railroads, the West could never have become as populated as it did. And while the creation of Western railroad tracks only came about after interest had been sparked in the region by its natural potential, the tracks were nevertheless essential in realizing and acting on the interest. Before railroads were available, the trek west had been done by wagon, and had deterred many with its length, risk, and hardship (Doc. E). Thus, the transcontinental railroad and its subsidiary lines were central to Western development. Not only did their completion result in a massive westward migration and the virtual overnight creation of towns, but the massive labor required to create the tracks prompted the railroad companies to recruit over 12,000 Chinese workers (many from China itself), and the need for a market for the completed railroad convinced the companies to actively encourage Western settlement by selling their land cheaply and setting railroad rates low enough to be affordable by virtually anyone (Doc. G). The government similarly promoted expansion into the West with the Homestead Act and other decrees, which also offered land at token prices. Even before the highly nationalistic and pro-expansionist regime under the Republican Party came into play during and after the Civil War, the government had been partial to expansionism through such leaders as James K. Polk. Polk’s seizure of Oregon from the British and the Southwest and California from Mexico reflected the growing popularity and power of Manifest Destiny in justifying expansionism, and set the scene for the American dominance of the West (Doc. B).
Ultimately, almost every aspect of the development of the West can be credited with having been influenced by the natural environment. From determining where one lived and what one did to what one could do, the environment always had the first word.
*The implication here that the first paragraph focused upon the natural effect upon the economy is a little flawed, but I didn't have anything better.