N is for Nester – You cannot read more than a handful of Westerns without coming across the word. The classic Western novel Shane by Jack Schaefer is a story of nesters versus cattlemen. The mythology of the West is in large part the story of the nester against the open range men and it is as old as the Greek or Hindu myths of the wild versus the tame. It was written in the Biblical story of Esau (the wanderer and hunter) duped of his birthright by his brother Jacob (the settled farmer).
Nester in the Western novel refers to settlers, or more accurately to squatters. Now these squatters are not the counterculture, urban occupiers so trendy 10 to 20 years back in various European capitals. These are poor dirt farmers easily recognizable in the haunting black and white faces that stare out from photos of the infamous dust bowl era of the 1930s. Before the US Civil War the old order of landed gentry ruled the South. Southerners always opposed free land laws, fearing the poor would be given an escape from the advantages the planter class held in Antebellum America. The war ended that system and their power.
The west was settled largely by granting Northern tycoons vast tracks of land along a railroad right of way (Transcontinental Railroad Act of 1862) to the Pacific as payoffs for building the pathways for the iron horse (see previous post). The poor man of both North and South was appeasedby allowing him possession of public lands based on a three step procedure (Homestead Act of 1862) : file an application, improve the land, and file for deed of title. This two pronged legislation settled the entire West (more than half the nation’s land mass) in just under 40 years. It peaked with the Sooner land rush of 1889 in Oklahoma.
So in a sense the Western tale of cattlemen against nesters and its allegorical interpretation of the untamed man against civilization is more even that myth. In America it was a retelling of the progressive Northern Yankee (the granter of squatters rights to the nester) defeating the backward and bucolic Southern Rebel (the Texas cattleman living off rounded up mavericks).
It is why, in the end, all these stories end like Schaefer’s Shane; with the nesters victorious, but offering a small nod to the tragic passing of the cattlemen’s way of life. Too bad for the Indians that no one asked them if they needed help from nesters in settling these lands.
Check back tomorrow for Open Range to see more of this aspect of the Old West.