Today, July 13, is one of those funky holiday days. It’s Go West Day.
This term actually came from an editorial piece written by Horace Greenly. Greenly was a well-known figure in the mid-19th century, as he was the editor and publisher of the New York Tribune and even ran for presidential candidate against Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. So Greenly was considered a voice of authority at that time. On this day in 1865, faced with a recently ended Civil War which left many soldiers destitute, he advised them to leave their hometowns for brighter horizons in the Midwest and West which had, a few years earlier, opened up with the Homestead Act.
It’s no wonder Greenly’s words “Go West, young man, go West” resonated with so many Americans in the post-Civil War era. The West was seen not only as virgin territory to settle and explore (which would appeal to many young Civil War veterans looking for adventure) but also as a place to start a new life. The Homestead Act gave the option of acquiring acres of land for a small fee, though once the settlers reached that land, they were on their own in terms of paying for the necessary tools and equipment it took to work that land. Still, for a young man just starting out in life with no money and no assets, it wasn’t a bad deal.
Photo Credit: Painting of a small town where the train and wagons are heading West, print, 1868, Currier & Ives: Library of Congress website/Public domain
There’s no doubt that “Go West, young man” also appealed to others for darker reasons. If a man or woman wanted to escape dire circumstances, they could do no better than to “go West”. Criminals who committed a crime in one state might go West to escape punishment, as even though the constitution demanded states extradite a fugitive to the state in which the fugitive committed the crime, whether this was done was up to the governor’s discretion.
Similarly, someone seeking to escape a non-criminal but uncomfortable situation was attracted to the idea of “going West”. In the 1949 film version of Henry James’ novella Washington Square (1880), when Morris (Montgomery Clift) discovers Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) is disinheriting herself in order to run away and elope with him, he promises to return to take her away, then goes home, packs his bags, and hops on a boat to California. In other words, to avoid marrying a woman he only intended to marry for the inheritance she would get, he flees West.
Although the protagonist for my Adele Gossling Mysteries has, in a sense, already “gone West” (she was born and raised in San Francisco), she nonetheless follows the “go West” call when she decides to leave the big city for the small town of Arrojo, California in order to find peace and small pleasures. Considering her constant involvement in crime-solving, peace and small pleasures aren’t exactly what she gets!
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