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The Ranchers at Ground Zero for the Nuclear Age

Patricia McCarthy, CND

Photo: Marie-Claire Dugas

The Nuclear Age is seventy-five years old this summer – an anniversary not to be celebrated with anything but sorrow, regret and penance. There is much to be considered in our look at history. Usually the date for the start of the Nuclear Age is July 16, 1945 when the first atomic bomb was detonated at White Sands Missile Range. However the dawn of the disaster began earlier with the eviction of 110 farm families from their ranches in New Mexico in 1942.

The land confiscated by the United States government is 2.5 million acres, the size of Rhode Island, Delaware and Washington D.C. Approximately 25,000 head of cattle could be grazed in the area reserved for weapons’ testing. The year 1942 was a time of high patriotism in the United States. The ranchers were convinced that the government needed their land for five years or until the end of the war which ever came first. They were given less than two weeks to evacuate their property. They were given no moving expense money and were told they could only take household goods, vehicles and livestock. Everything else had to be left. Some were able to lease other land for their cattle; others were forced to sell cheap because buyers knew the situation of the ranchers was desperate.

In the relocation process, the ranch owners were not able to use their ranches for collateral so they were denied loans. The price of life stock plummeted. And the government lease agreements, which were very small, did not come for over 18 months. A rancher with 400 head of cattle was paid $200 lease money a year.

The original leases expired in 1949 and then the government signed new 20 year leases without any choice or option of not signing. In 1970 all grazing rights were revoked so the ranchers had no more claim to their own property. The government was keeping the property permanently. The ranchers demands for fair market value for their property was denied. They were paid according to the worth of the property at the turn of the century. One woman, Mary MacDonald told me she was offered $10,000 for the entire ranch of over 300 head of cattle, 60 horses and all the land, houses, irrigation system and other animals. She said one of her stud horses alone was worth the $10,000.

One hundred and ten ranchers and their families lost everything so the Nuclear Age could begin. In their own words:

“The first time they run us out, they didn’t give us any money; it was about two years before we got any money… They told us be off in ten days…So I think we got screwed every time I turned around.” (H.A. Wood)

“My attorney fees for the past 41 years run over $20,000.00. I have made countless trips trying to get this U.S. Government to honor their written agreement – all have been for nothing. Sometimes I feel that I should have been born a wild jackass or worthless inbred mustang – for by all accounts they have more rights than any of us ranchers.” (Dave McDonald whose home was the base of operations for the July 16th test.)

“Our financial loss over the years would be $75,000.00 per year for 33 years. Today the ranch would be worth one million dollars. If this confiscatory action had taken place in any other country, our government would have been the first to denounce such a violation of human rights.” (Price. F. Sanders)

“There is nothing quite like having to give up something you own – land that is all paid for and you’ve taken care of the best you know how and the cattle you can trace back to their great, great grandmother’s. Also a string of saddle horses you’ve known all their lives.” (Meldine Green Danley)

“In 1953 the rent the Army was to pay us was stopped and has not been paid since (1983). So you see we were harassed, ordered, commanded and told very unkindly sometimes what we had to do or else. I really think my husband was taken to a much earlier grave because of the stress and worry all this caused him. He was a rancher – a good one; it was his life and it was taken from him.” (Gineva Gililland)

“The government offered us $45,600. My brother said that wouldn’t even cover the price of the wells, buildings and fences!…This is an end of an era, end of family, end of roots, end of a heritage. I cried all 147 miles to Albuquerque.” (Priscilla B. Ortiz)

All are deceased now. Their families permanently displaced from their ancestral homes. This act of injustice repeated to over 110 ranchers was the beginning. From it would spring injustice upon injustice, touching every person in our world. This is the beginning of the Nuclear Age. Evil was unleashed.

Article first published by the Rhode Island Catholic


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