Take the Long Way ‘Round
by Michael Cain
Alternate history stories that explore the (possibly) large consequences of small changes in events have been popular for a long time. The earliest known example is in Livy’s history of ancient Rome, where he speculated about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had decided to expand westward rather than to the East (Livy believes the ancient Romans would have stopped him). More recently, Harry Turtledove – Publisher’s Weekly calls him “The Master of Alternate History” – has written the eleven-novel Southern Victory series that begins with the South not losing the American Civil War  based on the simple change that Northern troops do not accidentally come into possession of a copy of General Lee’s plan for his Maryland Campaign, and proceeds as far as an alternate version of World War II.
In a comment last week I made what was supposed to be a throw-away remark that US history might have turned out differently ifWyoming’s South Pass didn’t exist. A couple of people asked for a guest post on the subject. Demonstrating just how little common sense I have, I decided to give it a try. The South Pass is a 100-mile-wide gap in the Rocky Mountains in southern Wyoming  that can be easily crossed. How easily? The picture to the left is looking west through South Pass. One is inclined to ask “What mountains?” South Pass was the route for the Oregon, California, and Mormon pioneer trails; the Pony Express; the transcontinental telegraph line; the Overland Stage Company; the first transcontinental railroad; and today, Interstate 80.
What would the alternatives have been if, instead of the broad pass, this stretch of the Continental Divide were like Colorado’s Front Range to the south or Wyoming’s Wind River Range to the north, with only narrow rugged passes a half-mile or more higher? Two other routes were considered for the transcontinental railroad, which pretty much define all of the viable options for heavy traffic across the Divide. The southern route  looped down almost to the Mexican border and was an important consideration in the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. The northern route looped up almost to the Canadian border and required construction of significant tunnels – and a couple of bankruptcies – to be viable. The northern route was unsuitable for pioneer passage because the travel season was too short. The southern route was almost as bad because the desert areas were too wide for slow-moving wagons to cross.
Imagine yourself in the US at the beginning of 1850 in our time line. South Pass is functioning as an efficient gateway through which an increasing stream of people are heading west: to Oregon from 1836; to California from 1843; to the Great Salt Lake valley from 1847. The stream became a relative flood when gold was discovered in California. More than half of California’s explosive population growth in the two years since 1848 has been overland migration, in large part Midwestern farmers who are strong Union supporters. Large Eastern business interests are already envisioning the real possibility of a rail line running in a remarkably straight line from Chicago to San Francisco. In short, the area from the middle of California north to Seattle has been and is being “Americanized” rapidly by way of the South Pass.
Now imagine the differences if the South Pass isn’t there. The US westward migration largely came to a halt at the Rockies. Midwestern farmers didn’t head to Oregon or northern California. The Mormons didn’t make it to the Great Salt Lake valley. There was no pressing need to split the Northwest with Britain. Without American settlers in northern California, the Mexican-American War may have a very different shape. If the US had occupied California anyway, the Southern Emigrant Trail along the Gila River becomes much more important when gold is discovered as the only viable land route to California. The jump-off point for any planned transcontinental railroad is likely to be in a slave state, not a free one.
From those, we can build a Turtledove-like scenario. The Compromise of 1850 is more favorable to the South since Southern sympathizers are in the majority in California and the Utah Territory. Large business interests in the North are more willing to tolerate slavery in the Southeast for the time being because (a) they want access to the southern route for the railroad and (b) they recognize that slavery, even if legal, is less practical in the Southwest. When the Civil War breaks out, Confederate sympathizers seize the inland territories in California including the gold fields. With California gold for cash payments , either Britain or France is willing to recognize the Confederacy, help break blockades as necessary, etc. The Confederacy wins, or at least doesn’t lose, but gains possession of the Southwest and California (at a minimum, the southern half of California). This is a much more substantial territorial gain than in Turtledove’s scenario.
This geographic arrangement has important resource consequences down the line. Turtledove declined to deal with a similar situation in his series. I don’t suppose I can really fault him for that; successful novelists who focus on resources are pretty rare. But there’s no way to realistically ignore that at the opening of the 20th century, this version of the CSA would have controlled what were then the two most significant petroleum stocks in North America: Texas and Southern California. The USA would be a country with declining petroleum output while the CSA would be growing production rapidly. Any 20th-century conflicts that pit the USA against the CSA would hinge on that fact, more so as the century progresses. The WWII analog wouldn’t be about the USA and CSA fighting in freaking Ohio; it would be about the USA’s attempt to strike down the west side of the Mississippi and seize the oil fields and refineries of east Texas. The opening act of a war would be turning off the oil spigots feeding the USA, much as the US in our time line cut off Japan.
Myself, if I were writing fiction, I’d be more inclined towards the idea that when the Civil War breaks out, the California Territory – not state – would use the opportunity to declare its independence. The gold is still a significant resource as are all of the other assets that have made California so attractive. In many ways, an independent California is more attractive to the European powers than the CSA. Assuming that the partition of the Pacific Northwest with Great Britain had yet to be done, this would be a good opportunity to do that with the Columbia River as a natural dividing line. A surprising number of the 49ers were French, which gives that country an interest if there are far fewer Americans on the ground. With the USA busy, either Britain or France could have fairly casually brushed aside the Pacific Squadron. Absent the South Pass, a land campaign against an independent California is a more difficult task.
A final thought: apologies to LWA; Brigham Young didn’t get a pulse cannon in this version, although he probably needed one since the Mormons’ escape hatch wasn’t there.
 The South wasn’t ever going to win the war in the sense of conquering the North, no matter what changed. The North’s edge in men and material was simply too large. What the South needed to accomplish – and did in the Turtledove version of history – is get the North to give up on the idea of forcing the Confederate states back into the Union.
 There are sub-passes like Bridger Pass within that 100-mile width, but for my purposes all of them are “the South Pass”.
 The Southern Emigrant Trail across the southern portions of what are now New Mexico and Arizona was “discovered” by the US Army during the Mexican-American War and opened to civilian use after the war. Substantial numbers of people from the South reached California over this trail after the discovery of gold, although the total numbers were small compared to the number that went through South Pass.
 During the first three and half years of the Civil War, more than $170M worth of California gold was shipped to the Union by sea. There were at least two plots by Confederate sympathizers to seize gold shipments leaving San Francisco.