Within the Western genre, there have been multiple expressions of the common man and woman seeking to resist the power of eminent domain – i.e. that power, granted to a governing state by itself, by which the state seizes private property for public use. Land can also be taken from a private landowner for use by a corporation if the state believes that corporate use serves the public good.
In a number of Western films, historical outlaws such as Jesse James are framed as social bandits that strike against railroad corporations who had unfairly seized land from homesteaders. The reaction from those corporations to that challenge, as seen with the extended super-posse chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), can reach the level of cold, faceless assassins who will cut down anyone who risks the ability of a company to generate expanding profits.
The positioning of Western outlaw as a defender of common folk is drawn from the experience, as the book Gunfight at the Eco-Corral (2012) notes, of the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act. That act, signed by then-US President Abraham Lincoln, authorized government financial support for the construction of a transcontinental railroad by private railway corporations. An 1864 amendment to the Act gave a railway the power via eminent domain to take a two-hundred foot-wide “right of way” across privately-owned land. Landowners who were in the path of either the westward-building Union Pacific or eastward-building Central Pacific would lose their land and then need to seek compensation for that property. The second episode of the current season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, which is based upon the building of the Union Pacific in the post-Civil War West, showcased the issue of eminent domain as a family of Mormon homesteaders refused to give up their land to the railroad.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil across the American West from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas has led to a 21st century stand by Westerners against the practice of eminent domain. Many landowners and Indigenous nations along the proposed route for Keystone oppose the pipeline in order to protect local soil and water from leaks of an intrinsically abrasive and toxic substance.
Since the announcement of the pipeline, Westerners have been making a number of dramatic stands against TransCanada, the Canadian corporation seeking to build the pipeline. In October of 2012, a 78 year-old great-grandmother, Eleanor Fairchild, was arrested and charged on her own ranch when she stood in the way of bulldozers set to work on the Keystone route. The US government has already approved a southern section of the pipeline but that has been resisted by private landowners. Ms. Fairchild never signed an agreement with TransCanada and when she faced the bulldozers, a judge ruled that TransCanada could seize her land thru the right of eminent domain and Fairchild could be charged – with trespassing on her own land.
On September 21st of this year, a number of protests took place across the US and Canada against the proposed northern section of Keystone – this section would require the approval of the Obama administration in order to be built. At the site of one protest, which took place in Nebraska on the private land of the Hammond family, a solar-powered barn was constructed directly in the path of the pipeline as a statement that clean energy alternatives to tar sands oil exist. If President Obama were to approve Keystone, there is the real possibility the six-generation Hammond ranch could be seized via the power of eminent domain and the solar barn torn down for the pipeline. The following video clip provides the words of the Hammond family themselves, as they make their stand:
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)