First published in 1966, this thin volume was already a classic when I read it in grad school. It's available only as a used book now, but it should not be forgotten. Douglass North was a pioneer in the use of statistical evidence, rather than anecdotal armchair impressions and ideological preconceptions, for the writing of social history. His "New Economic History" is clearly not current; it has been supplanted by numerous later studies, aided by computer data processing, but its central conclusions are still valid, i.e. that government investment in exploration, research, and infrastructure were of paramount importance in the economic growth of the USA, especially following the Civil War and especially in the growth of the trans-Mississippi West. On example will have to suffice; in chapter VIII, North declares that "ever since 1887, with the passage of the Hatch Act, the federal government and numerous state agencies have expended substantial sums of money in agricultural research." He goes on to show that such investments of public money have paid enormous dividends in the growth of agricultural productivity.
So.. Who did win the West? Hollywood and the mythmakers of the libertarian branches of America's political parties would have us believe that cowboys, dirt farmers, and capitalism did it all. North's analysis suggests otherwise. Without the federal priming of the pump - in water management, road building, military occupation, and basic scientific research such as the surveys of resources conducted by Clarence King and John Wesley Powell - the winning of the West would have been slower, more painful, and less profitable. Even when no short-term gains from federal expenditures were obvious, the long-term gains were huge and of a sort that simple free-market capitalism could not have generated.