Dax: Don’t label me an outsider (column)
Writers on the Range
Granville Stuart first came West with his father and brother in 1852, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields of California. Granville was born in Virginia, but had called Illinois and Iowa home before traveling farther west.
The senior Stuart returned to Iowa after a year, but Granville and his brother had yet to tire of the prospecting life, and they moved north to the Klamath River Valley in 1854 looking to strike gold.
After three years without much to show for their efforts, the Stuart brothers quit their claim and started back to Iowa. As luck would have it, Granville took sick, and winter snows made the Rocky Mountains impassable. The Stuart brothers wintered in the Beaverhead Valley in what is now Montana. They stayed on, and by the time gold was discovered in nearby Alder Gulch in 1863, they were well established and able to take advantage of the hordes of prospectors who flooded the territory with the same hopes that their father had carried to California over a decade earlier.
As Montana grew, Granville Stuart’s stature grew along with it, and over the remaining 50 years of his life, he secured for himself a permanent place in the state’s history. In addition to writing a number of books about the early days, he helped found the Montana Historical Society, served as a lieutenant colonel in the territorial militia, spent five terms in the Territorial Assembly, and even dabbled in ranching. By the time he died in 1918, he had earned the moniker “Mr. Montana,” a title still attributed to him.
Today, no one would question Stuart’s Western credentials. His story is the kind that is often romanticized, a reminder of a period of Western history still celebrated for its mythic qualities. It is because of stories like his that the West maintains such a strong and personal connection to its history.
But herein lies the modern dilemma. We still celebrate Stuart’s story, but if anyone tried to follow in his footsteps today, the label “outsider” would follow him wherever he went. His place of birth would always have the potential to undermine any position or opinion he might have on a regional issue, no matter how thoughtful or carefully crafted it might be, and the place his parents lived would always mean more than where he chose to make his own home. After 30 years or more of living in Utah, Oregon, Wyoming or Montana, he would still be considered an outsider.
The West honors pioneers like Stuart, but no longer celebrates newcomers, regardless of their entrepreneurial drive. Instead, the powerful people are those who can claim third-, fourth- and fifth-generational ties to the region. They hold the keys to the kingdom and are reluctant to cede any power to those who can’t make similar claims.
There is, of course, an inherent irony built into these claims of ancestral ties to the West. Not only do the people who make them tend to overlook or dismiss the far-stronger claims of Native Americans, but they also sidestep the fact that their authority exists only because one of their forefathers was once a newcomer, too.
In the 19th century, Granville Stuart’s experience of bouncing around the West until he finally found a home was typical. No one would have criticized his rootlessness, or suggested he wasn’t welcome. Stuart’s story is an archetype of the Old West, and it exemplifies the way many people still envision the region. But today, the heirs of the settlers no longer welcome those who have followed in their footsteps.
As of this month, I can now call my fifth Western state home. I grew up in New York (where no one would think to leverage any claims of Dutch heritage for personal gain), but have since lived in Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and now, New Mexico, chasing adventure and work opportunities at each stop. Everywhere I live in the West, I am regularly reminded that I am not “from here,” and as a result, my opinions always carry with them a kind of asterisk.
For a few years, I was all too willing to accept this judgment. But no longer. I’ve spent the better part of a decade living 2,000 miles away from my friends and family and birthplace. I came out here on purpose, to make a home in a place that I love. So, screw it, I’m a Westerner, too, and I’m here to stay.
Michael Dax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in New Mexico.
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