Settling the West


The Wild West has long been the stuff of Hollywood legend: heroic sheriffs, untameable outlaws, and free-spirited cowboys living on the open range. The legacy of this period still permeates popular culture, even though, in reality, the era of the large-scale, cross-country cattle drive lasted only from 1867, when the first cattle shipping railhead was established in Abilene, Kansas, until the early 1890s, by which time railroads formed an efficient cargo network across the United States.

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Part 1: Westward Ho!


Cowboys were low-paid workers who drove thousands of Texan longhorns north to the Kansas Pacific railroad stations in Missouri and Kansas: Kansas City, Sedalia, Dodge City, Cheyenne, Wichita, and Abilene, which gained an especially lawless and decadent reputation thanks to its location at the center of the lucrative trade. Although shoot-outs were rare, these Western settlements needed policing, and men such as notorious gunfighter “Wild Bill” Hickok were soon brought in as marshals. Hickok only shot two men during his spell in Abilene, but along with fellow marshal Wyatt Earp and outlaws Jesse James and Billy the Kid, he gained iconic status when his exploits were glorified by reporters in the East.

Although cattle ranches exist to this day, long-distance cattle drives had become a thing of the past by the end of the century, as cattle were grazed on vast areas of the Northern plains, enclosed by barbed wire. Oil, lumber, and natural mineral mining transformed the West’s economy and vast numbers of the rural population steadily migrated to expanding cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco.


By the 1840s, the expansion of the United States was well underway, with the desire to “overspread the continent” evident in the number of settlers blazing a trail westward. This urge to extend boundaries had been formally articulated in an essay written by journalist John O’Sullivan for the United States Magazine and Democratic Review in 1845. Advocating the annexation of Texas, he spoke of “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying numbers.”

The presidential campaign of 1844 focused on expansion, with the annexations of Texas and of Oregon Country--northwestern territory held jointly by the United States and the United Kingdom--of particular interest. The Democrat James K. Polk campaigned under the slogan “Fifty-four forty or fight,” a reference to the line of latitude at Oregon’s northern boundary, and was elected over Whig Henry Clay, whose policy on expansion was less clear-cut.

“Manifest Destiny” became a belief and a moral ideal. It held that the divine mission of the United States was to spread freedom, democracy, and political power from one coast to the other. The phrase was used to promote the vision of expansion, its ideology shaped government policy, and the era between 1812 and 1860--when both Texas and Oregon were indeed annexed--became known as “The Age of Manifest Destiny.” But as territorial expansion gradually ceased to be America’s focus, the phrase came to embody the country’s vision of itself as a leader of the free world.


In January 1848, Californian ranch laborer James Marshall discovered what looked like gold lying at the bottom of a mill run. The owner of the ranch, John Sutter, confirmed his suspicions. Within weeks, Sutter’s ranch was deserted, his workers lured away by the promise of gold.

As the news spread, an enterprising Mormon, Sam Brannon, came up with a resourceful way of striking it rich. He published the discovery of gold in the newspaper he owned, and then walked the streets of San Francisco, yelling, “Gold! Gold from the America River!” The Gold Rush was officially on, and as would-be prospectors left town, Brannon sold them all the gold-digging equipment they could possibly need. Before long, he had made his first million.

By 1849, hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers were flooding into California. They walked the California Trail, sailed around Cape Horn, or trekked through the Panama shortcut. Many “49ers” were rewarded when they struck gold--billions of dollars’ worth in today’s currency--while other, less fortunate prospectors found only hard times, financial ruin, and even death. Tens of thousands of Native Americans also perished during this period, their traditional society and environment destroyed as fortune-seekers ravaged the land.

The Gold Rush changed the Californian landscape significantly: new towns and roads were built, new methods of transportation introduced, and a new agricultural wealth developed as prospectors stayed to farm the land.

Part 2: Native American Resistance

In the three decades following the Civil War, millions of people poured into the trans‐Mississippi West. They came from farms and cities in the East and Midwest, as well as from Europe and Asia, lured by the promise of cheap land, riches in the gold fields, or just the possibility of a better life. Many traveled on the newly constructed transcontinental railroads, while others crossed the plains and mountains by wagon train or sailed around South America to arrive on the West Coast. They settled the Great Plains, the Southwest, and the Great Basin, enduring hardship, danger, and disillusionment. By the end of the nineteenth century, the western migrants had established new farming homesteads, communities, and industries. Although some of the settlers became hugely successful, many, if not most, failed to achieve the wealth of which they dreamed.


From the beginning, settlers and the Plains Indians misunderstood each other in several ways. Non‐Indians, for example, seldom respected the religions of the native tribes, which were polytheistic and included the worship of plant and animal spirits. Additionally, Indians lived under a complex kinship system of extended families that outsiders found difficult to comprehend. Most significant, however, were the settlers' and Indians' differing concepts of land ownership. A comparatively small number of Native Americans (fewer than 400,000) roamed over a vast stretch of territory that they claimed as a communal hunting ground; whites saw this as a waste of land and expected the area to be surveyed and sold to settlers in 160‐acre tracts. Because of such cultural differences, settlers viewed the native peoples of the West simply as savages and barriers to civilization.


As new territories and states were organized in the West, it became clear that Native Americans could not roam at will over tens of thousands of square miles that non‐natives were hoping to settle. Beginning in the 1860s, the federal government's policy was to establish small tracts of land for specific tribes and encourage them to take up agriculture. While many tribes did settle peacefully on such reservations, others resisted giving up their lands and way of life. Tribes who resisted included the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho on the northern Great Plains, the Apache, Commanche, and Navajo in the Southwest, and the Nez Percé in Idaho.

Although Native Americans never presented a united front, various tribes had a series of confrontations with the U.S. Army and settlers between the 1860s and 1880s that collectively became known as the Indian Wars. At Sand Creek in Colorado, for example, more than 300 Arapaho and Cheyenne men, women, and children were massacred by the militia in 1864 after the parties had agreed to peace terms. At the Battle of Little Bighorn in the Montana Territory, a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne killed all 200 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer in 1876. In the desert Southwest — New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico — the Apaches fought against settlers and soldiers for decades. Resistance there came to an end only with the capture of the Chiricahua Apache chief Geronimo in 1886.

On the Great Plains, the loss of the bison was an even greater threat to Indian survival than the wars with the U.S. Army. The Plains Indians relied upon bison for food, clothing, and shelter, and as a source of fuel (burning bison dung, or “buffalo chips”). Although the wanton destruction of the bison was not federal policy, army commanders in the field approved the practice as a means to destroy a key element of Indian life. Also, the railroads hired hunters such as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody to kill thousands of the animals to feed the workers laying the tracks for the transcontinental lines. When the railroads were completed, “sportsmen” shot bison from specially chartered cars. By 1875, more than nine million bison had been killed for their hides, which were in demand in the East for lap robes and machine drive belts. The species was almost extinct in another decade, and with the mainstay of their nomadic lifestyle gone, the Plains Indians had little choice but to accept life on the reservations.


The Indian reservation system established during the 1860s was a failure. Many of the reservations were located on marginal agricultural land that made it difficult for the tribes to develop self‐sustaining farming. Government promises to provide food and supplies went unfulfilled while unscrupulous Indian agents often cheated the very people they were expected to help. Under the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, the government abandoned its long‐standing policy of dealing with the tribes as sovereign nations; the new law was intended to promote agriculture among individual Native Americans by breaking up the reservations. The president was authorized to distribute up to 160 acres of reservation land to the heads of households or 80 acres to individual adults; the allotments were held in trust by the federal government for 25 years, after which the owner was given full title and citizenship. (Full citizenship was accorded the Five Civilized Tribes of Oklahoma in 1901, but it was not extended to all Indians until 1924.) The reservation lands not apportioned to Native Americans were sold to the public. Although it was hailed as an important humanitarian reform, the Dawes Act actually undercut the communal basis of Native‐American life and resulted in the loss of millions of acres of Indian land.

Desperate to restore the past, the Plains tribes were attracted to a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance, which promised to restore the bison herds and protect Native Americans from the bullets of U.S. soldiers and settlers. The popularity of the religious revival among the Sioux concerned both the settlers and the Army because they feared it would lead to a resurgence in Indian resistance. When attempts to ban the Ghost Dance failed, more direct action was taken. Sitting Bull, who had fought against Custer at Little Bighorn and supported the Ghost Dance movement, was killed while being taken into custody by reservation police. Two weeks later on December 29, 1890, the Seventh Cavalry killed more than 300 Sioux men, women, and children at Wounded Knee Creek in the Dakota Territory. That confrontation marked the end of Indian resistance.

Throughout the twentieth century, Native Americans have comprised the poorest minority group in the United States. With their culture and religion either ignored or treated with contempt, many Indians did become Christians and have supported themselves through farming and ranching. Nevertheless, Native Americans continue to strive to maintain their tribal identities and languages despite all attempts to remake them in the “white man's” image.

Part 3: Closing the Frontier

By the end of the nineteenth century, the West was effectively settled. Railroads stretched across all parts of the region, from the Great Northern, which ran along the Canadian border, to the Southern Pacific that ran across Texas and the Arizona and New Mexico territories to link New Orleans and Los Angeles. The influx of homesteaders, ranchers, and miners swelled the census rolls and led to the admission of Nevada (1864), Colorado (1876), South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Washington (all four in 1889), and Idaho and Wyoming (1890) to the Union. New towns and cities created by the cattle or mining boom, such as Abilene, Denver, and San Francisco, dotted the trans‐Mississippi West.



Under President Andrew Jackson, Native American tribes from the Southeast had been resettled in what became Oklahoma. Long considered remote and unproductive, the land became increasingly valuable and, by the 1880s, the federal government was under pressure to open it to non‐natives for settlement. Congress responded by putting two million acres of the Indian Territory into the public domain. At noon on April 22, 1889, more than 50,000 men, women, and children (popularly known as the Boomers) on horseback, in wagons, and even on bicycles stampeded into what is now central Oklahoma to stake out their claims. Within a few hectic hours, all the available land was settled, with the choicest acreage actually going to the Sooners, those who had crossed the line before the official beginning of the land rush. An additional six million acres in the Oklahoma Panhandle called the Cherokee Strip was opened for settlers in 1893.


A year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau announced that the frontier was closed. The 1890 census had shown that a frontier line, a point beyond which the population density was less than two persons per square mile, no longer existed. The announcement impressed Frederick Jackson Turner, a young historian at the University of Wisconsin. In 1893, he presented a paper to the American Historical Association entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” In it he argued that the experience of the frontier was what distinguished the United States from Europe; the frontier had shaped American history as well as produced the practicality, energy, and individualism of the American character. Turner's claims about the effects of the frontier on American life influenced generations of historians, particularly in their appreciation of the role of geography and the environment in helping to shape national development.

With more people homesteading farms after 1890 than in the decades before, the Western experience was far from over. But with the approach of the new century, there was a new appreciation of the environment and the scenic values of the West. As the frontier officially disappeared, popular interest in preserving wilderness grew. Although Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming was established in 1872, California's Yosemite (1890) was the first national park specifically designed to protect a wilderness area. In 1891, Congress passed the Forest Reserve Act authorizing the president to close timber areas to settlement and create national forests by withdrawing the land from the public domain. President Benjamin Harrison immediately set aside 13 million acres under the legislation. Naturalist John Muir, who was a driving force behind the creation of Yosemite, founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the Pacific Coast's mountain ranges. For all the preservation sentiment, there were also trends developing that emphasized more fully utilizing the resources of the West. The twentieth century's large‐scale irrigation projects, dams, aqueducts, and power lines that would bring water and electricity hundreds of miles to the region's major cities would transform the West in ways that could not be imagined in 1890.