A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Shortly after the United States purchased the vast Louisiana Territory in 1803 from France, the feeling was that this gigantic piece of property would not be completely settled for at least 500 years. That was not the case. In 1903, there was no roundup organized by the Western South Dakota Stockgrowers Association in either Gregory or Lyman counties.  At the WSDSGA meeting in 1904, the increasing number of homesteaders crowding onto the public domain in South Dakota was an important topic of discussion.

The political leaders and many citizens at the beginning of the 1800s had no idea how strong the desire was for folks to own their own farm and to move west.  Only fifty years after the Louisiana Purchase, that small Republic presided over by President Jefferson had become a giant among the nations of the world.

Spanning the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific, it consisted of millions of acres of virgin forest, towering snow-capped mountains, mighty and powerful rivers, forbidding and mysterious deserts, and rich and fertile valleys and plains — and all their resources.

During the last half of the 1800s, the Nation committed itself to disposing of the newly acquired land and its resources as quickly as possible.  The land and resources were passed into the hands of any individual or corporation who would put them to productive use.

Laws which were designed to divest the Nation of much of the public domain quickly followed each other through Congress.  Prodded along by the promise of land and wealth, thousands flocked to the west.  Explorers, fur trappers, and traders quickly penetrated the newly acquired trans-Mississippi West.

One of the most famous phrases of the 19th century was “Go west young man; go west and grow up with the country.”  It reportedly inspired thousands of Americans to seek their fortune beyond the Mississippi River.

This famous quote is attributed to Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune.  However, no one has ever been able to find any written evidence that this advice originated with him, although he was a strong supporter in the development of the new lands west of the Mississippi.

It is one of the most commonly quoted sayings from the 19th century and had some influence on the course of American history.

In 1839, John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant arrived in California.  He had received a grant of 50,000 acres of land from the Mexican government.  He began building a self-sufficient ranch at the junction of the Sacramento and American rivers (present site of Sacramento).

The transfer of California from Mexico to the United States in 1846 did not affect Sutter — at first.  He continued to expand his ranch; however, in 1848 some glittering stones were found below the water wheel of his sawmill.  It was gold and the rush was on!

San Francisco became a ghost town — everyone headed to the American River and the “Mother Lode of California.”  In the east, more than sixty ships were chartered for the long and dangerous trip to California.  Men left their wives, abandoned the comforts of home, and headed to the “El Dorado on the Pacific.”

Of those who played a big part in the settlement of the West, the prospector, cowboy, and homesteader (sodbuster) clearly stand out.  They illustrate the efforts of thousands of pioneers who gave substance and reality to the phrase — “from sea to shining sea.”

Many living in the Dakotas and the Great Plains today may not be aware how the prospectors (the forty-niners) impacted those living in the middle of America during the last half of the 1800s.  Today their impact is felt in America and all around the world.

For those early prospectors, life was harsh.  A problem which these hardworking prospectors had was having clothes which would endure anything.  An immigrant from Bavaria opened a dry goods company in San Francisco at the height of the California Gold Rush.  He recognized their need and he and a tailor combined a copper rivet at the stress points with tough denim, leading to the first manufactured waist overalls in 1873.  Today, we call them “blue jeans.”

What started as an invention for the American worker became the uniform of progress for the miner, cowboy, rancher, farmer, truck driver and everyday men and women.  At first, sales of the jeans were largely confined to those working in the west.  Soon others started wearing them.  A big boost in sales came in World War II when blue jeans were declared an essential commodity and were sold only to those engaged in defense work.

President Reagan longed for the time that he spent at the ranch in California where he could wear his blue jeans and ride is favorite horse.

The next time you slip on a pair of blue jeans, think about their origin and the two men who combined heavy denim and copper rivets to produce the most popular world-wide piece of clothing.

The first name of the owner of the dry goods company in San Francisco was “Levi.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 29, 2021