Propaganda & Historians

As I'm writing my American Environmental History lecture on the Transportation Revolution, gasoline prices are hovering just above $2 per gallon. For the last few years, they've been about double that. Petroleum industry analysts explain that this dramatic drop at the gas pump is due to overproduction by oil-producing nations who have dumped so much oil on the market that the price has dropped from about $100 per barrel in the summer of 2014 to about $45 in late January, 2015. Pundits warn that this glut is temporary and that prices will rise again. Some worry that before they do rise, the low prices will destroy the shale oil and tar sands extraction industries they claim are vital to American energy independence. Others, convinced that tapping these sources does more harm than good, hope low prices shut down fracking and tar pipelines. They worry that the low prices making these techniques less attractive might also reduce the urgency of alternative energy initiatives such as wind and solar, and fuel options like ethanol.

But the argument about energy independence, renewability, and ethanol isn't new -- it has been going on for nearly a century. As I mentioned in
this week's lecture, Samuel Morey's 1826 internal combustion engine burned ethyl alcohol because it was readily available. Henry Ford and Charles Kettering both expected their future cars would burn alcohol fuels. Ford saw it as a way to support American farmers and use grain surpluses that were depressing prices. Kettering's statement that alcohol was the best way to convert solar energy to fuel reflected a belief that it was better to live on annual solar "income" than to become dependent on drawing down fossil fuel "capital." And both men worried that gasoline would involve the United States in the affairs of faraway regions. A speaker at a 1936 conference sponsored by Ford remarked that the biggest known oil reserves were "in Persia…and in Russia. Do you think that is much defense for your children?" (my source for much of this was Bill Kovarik's excellent website)

Since energy is such an important and contentious issue today, why aren't we more aware that these debates are not new? General-purpose American History textbooks have a lot to cover, it's true. They can't go into detail on every issue. Checking the indexes of several popular textbooks reveals that if they address the petroleum industry at all, it's usually just to mention that Standard Oil pioneered horizontal business integration and that John D. Rockefeller eventually controlled 90% of the industry. But even respected histories of technology like Vaclav Smil's 2005 book,
Creating the Twentieth Century, tell the story of early internal combustion as if gasoline was the only fuel used until the end of World War I, when diesel trucks began entering the market. In Smil's history, there was no solution to the "violent knocking that came with higher compression. That is why all pre-WWI engines worked with compression ratios no higher than 4.3-1 and why the ratio began to rise to modern levels (between 8 and 10) only after the introduction of leaded gasoline."

But ethyl alcohol fuels were already widely used before the beginning of the petroleum boom dominated by Standard Oil. Engineers at both Ford and General Motors were aware that ethyl alcohol ran at high compression ratios without knocking. So how is it possible that historians --even historians of technology -- seem to be unaware of the battles fought in the early years of the twentieth century over what American drivers would put in their tanks?

Part of the answer, I think, is that the winners of those battles left more records for historians than the losers. History depends on evidence. A history of the petroleum industry can be based on mountains of documents in academic libraries and corporate archives. Books about companies like Standard Oil, written by both supporters and opponents, could fill a library. The makers of ethanol in the early twentieth century, on the other hand, left few documents. And finding the story of alcohol in the archives of Ford or General Motors requires dedication and persistence. A good percentage of the records left by these companies, after all, are not objective accounts at all. They're advertisements, public relations statements, and internal documents  arguing not about what could be done, but about what they wanted to do.

As a result, the history we read tells the story of an apparently inevitable, unstoppable journey to the petroleum-powered world we have today. This type of history celebrates the winners while at the same time excusing them, because if it hadn't been Rockefeller, it would just have been somebody else. And that's the biggest problem. When we believe the present was inevitable, we lose the ability to imagine alternatives. In the past, and also in the present and the future.

Headwaters History

(Preliminary notes from The Mississippi Headwaters Region: Scenes from the Past, Harold T. Hagg, 1986)

The North West Company's fort on Leech Lake was enclosed by a stockade 13 feet high and 150 feet square. (11)

The fur trading posts…were the earliest centers of agriculture in the Northwest…George H. Monk, a clerk at Leech Lake, wrote in 1807: "The North West Company have an establishment at the west end of Leech Lake where five acres of ground produce 1,000 bushels of potatoes, 30 bushels oats or rice, cabbages, carrots, beets, beans, pumpkins and Indian corn. The Company have introduced horses, cats and hens into this quarter."

The historian mentioned seems to be Grace Lee Nute. Cf. "A Description of Northern Minnesota by a Fur Trader in 1807," Minnesota History Bulletin, 5 (Feb 1923), 28-39.

After the War of 1812, muskrat fur replaced the nearly extinct beaver, and "The American Fur Company gradually took over the old British trading sites…The Leech Lake post on Pine Point on the west side of the lake was, according to Lieutenant James Allen…'one of the most valuable posts of the north for the American trade.'…There were small trading houses on the west shore of Lake Bemidji and at Lake Winnibigoshish." (11-12)

The American Fur Company was reorganized in 1834 and trade with the Ojibway [sic] was controlled by the company's "Northern Outfit." The furs were shipped out by the Lake Superior route. William A. Aitken supervised the fur business around the Mississippi headwaters…In 1842 the American Fur Company failed but the old Northern Outfit kept the Ojibway business. Soon, however, rival traders were competing in the north country and a new organization, the Chippewa Outfit, absorbed the Northern Outfit." (12)

In 1855 the Ojibwe "ceded a vast area" of land in what is known as the lumberman's treaty, and pine forests were opened for cutting "as rapidly as surveys could be extended." This was the beginning of the end for the Indians. Although they had often been taken advantage of by traders (who sold them goods on credit at high rates of interest), they lost their ability to move freely across the landscape. This set the stage for the classic conflict between usufruct rights and ownership that had become a staple of Indian affairs in the East.


On his 1832 mission, Indian agent Schoolcraft was charged with brokering a permanent peace between the Sioux and the Ojibwe. He was also "to have as many Indians vaccinated for smallpox as possible." (18) Dr. Houghton, the expedition's physician, reportedly vaccinated over two thousand headwaters Indians against smallpox. (20)


It's interesting that the fur traders had mostly stuck with the Ojibwe names of the lakes, just switching them to French. The lake that was the source of the Mississippi was called Omushkos (Elk) by the Indians and Lac la Biche (Elk Lake) by the French.  Itasca is a word Schoolcraft apparently made up: a combination of the words Veritas and Caput, for the true head of the Mississippi. Schoolcraft liked renaming the lakes he visited. Lake Irving was apparently named in honor of Washington Irving. Andrusia is named after Andrew Jackson.


Names to remember: Thomas B. Walker, John S. and Charles A. Pillsbury, Edward W. Backus, Henry C. Akeley, Thomas H. Shevlin, Frederick Weyerhaeuser. (probably read William Cronon chapter on Chicago lumber industry  again)

Walker gained vital info about the opportunities up north as a government surveyor of the upper Mississippi valley in the 1860s. Walker "was reputed to be the largest owner of pine land in the northern Headwaters." (23) So how do we get from Walker to Potlatch?

"Charles F. Ruggles was probably the most colorful. 'I am the lion,' he said, 'and I want the lion's share.' A bachelor, Ruggles had many eccentricities." (23)
"Loggers invaded the Pine River region soon after the Civil War. The logs were driven down the waterways to sawmills at Brainerd, Little Falls, and Minneapolis. During the 1890s a logging railroad, the Brainerd and Northern Minnesota, was built from Brainerd to tap the pine timber to the north. In 1896 it reached Walker…In 1898 the Brainerd and Northern Line was completed to Bemidji." (25-6)

The Great Northern also reached Bemidji in 1898.

"Drives down the Mississippi and Schoolcraft Rivers brought millions of feet of logs to Lakes Bemidji and Irving where they were hoisted from the lakes and shipped by rail to Brainerd." (26)

Cass Lake, Solway and Bagley were on the Great Northern line, Turtle River, Blackduck and Kelliher on the Minnesota and International. Logs on the Turtle River were also floated down to Cass Lake.

In 1899, Walker built the Red River Lumber Company mill in Akeley. It had a capacity of 375,000 board feet per day.

"The first large sawmill in Bemidji was that of the Crookston Lumber Company, owned by the Shevlin-Carpenter interests. It began operating in 1903 and during its first few years had an output of 35 to 45 million board feet annually." (27) This was on the land taken from Shaynowishkung and his family.

Loggers came every winter seeking work. A December, 1900 newspaper article said, "They come on every train, on foot, and on horseback. For a month past, trains from the west dump their passengers at Bemidji and give our streets the appearance of an Oklahoma land rush." (29)

"In 1901 drives down the Mississippi and Schoolcraft Rivers brought about 130,000,000 feet of logs to Lakes Irving and Bemidji." (34)

Walker and Akeley built their own spur line off the Great Northern, 3 miles west of Solway, to their mill at Akeley. In 1908 they had 4-5,000 men in the woods. (36)

Minnesota logging peaked in 1905 and had dropped in half by 1915. (37) So, a short-term boom.

In 1912 100 carloads of logs from the Crookston camps were shipped daily down the Minnesotan and International Railroad  to the two Crookston mills in Bemidji. By 1915 these mills employed 500 men in the summer and had an annual cut of 100 million board feet. (37)

All too rapidly the machines greedily gobbled up Minnesota's original forests. Probably not more than two-thirds of the pine was harvested; the remainder was wasted. Destructive and wasteful logging was the rule and it is usually blamed for the rapid disappearance of the timber. But most of the waste was the result of forest fires, sometimes accidental but more often intentional. Fires set for land clearing frequently spread to green standing timber, destroying vast amounts of it. Inadequate forest fire protection and a tax structure not adapted to forest lands contributed largely to the "cut out and get out" practice of the pineland owners. (37)

Beginning in 1910, one after another of the mills shut down until a long final blast of the Crookston Mill's whistle in October, 1926 signaled the end of large-scale lumber manufacturing in Bemidji and the closing of the last large sawmill in the Headwaters area. (38)