American Old West

American Old West
American Old West
A black-and-white photograph of a cowboy posing on a horse with a lasso and rifle visible attached to the saddle
The cowboy, the quintessential symbol of the American Old West, circa 1888
Other names Wild West
Location Western United States
Date mid 1830s – 1920

The American Old West, or the Wild West, comprises the history, geography, people, lore, and cultural expression of life in the Western United States, most often referring to the latter half of the 19th century, between the American Civil War and the end of the century. After the 18th century and the push beyond the Appalachian Mountains, the term is generally applied to anywhere west of the Mississippi River in earlier periods and westward from the frontier strip toward the later part of the 19th century. Thus, the Midwest and American South, though not considered part of the Western United States today, have Western heritage along with the modern western states. More broadly, the period stretches from the early 19th century to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920.[1]

Through treaties with foreign nations and native peoples, political compromise, technological innovation, military conquest, establishment of law and order, and the great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast (Atlantic Ocean to Pacific Ocean), fulfilling advocates' belief in Manifest Destiny. In securing and managing the West, the U.S. federal government greatly expanded its powers, as the nation evolved from an agrarian society to an industrialized nation. First promoting settlement and exploitation of the land, by the end of the 19th century the federal government assumed stewardship of the remaining open spaces. As the American Old West passed into history, the myths of the West took firm hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike.


The term "Old West"

This map shows the area of the American West

The American frontier moved gradually westward decades after the settlement of the first immigrants on the Eastern seaboard in the 17th century. The "West" was always the area beyond that boundary. Scholars, however, sometimes refer to the Old West as the region of the Ohio and Tennessee valleys during the 18th century, when the frontier was being contested by Britain, France, and the American colonies. Most often, however, the "American Old West", the "Old West" or "the Great West" is used to describe the area west of the Mississippi River during the 19th century.[1]

Acquiring the Frontier

Advancing frontier and the Louisiana Purchase

During European settlement of North America in the 17th century, the western frontier was the crest of the Appalachian Mountains, the initial geographical impediment to expansion. While the eastern seaboard was being tamed, the area west of these mountains received little concern and speculation. After the American Revolutionary War, the conflict among European powers over the vast American continent and its riches gave way to the new nation of the United States. With peace came an impetus for westward expansion, as veterans returned to areas seen during the war, and land hungry settlers traveled to newly available lands in New York and across the Appalachians.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the American frontier was approximately along the Mississippi River, which bisects the continental United States north-to-south from just west of the Great Lakes to the delta near New Orleans. St. Louis, Missouri was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel westward, and a principal trading center for Mississippi River traffic and inland commerce.

The new nation began to exercise some power in domestic and foreign affairs. The British had been driven out of the East after the American Revolutionary War but remained in Canada and threatened to expand into the Northwest. The French had left the Ohio Valley but still owned the Louisiana Territory from the Mississippi River west to the Rockies, including the strategic port of New Orleans. Spain's dominion (New Spain) included Florida and the territories from present-day Texas to California along the southern tier and up to what later would be Utah and Colorado.[2]

With a stroke of the pen, Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States (elected in 1800), more than doubled the size of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 which acquired land France had acquired from Spain just three years earlier. Napoleon Bonaparte had begun to consider it a liability, since the slave rebellion in Haiti and tropical disease undermined his Caribbean adventures. Robert R. Livingston, American ambassador to France, negotiated the sale with French foreign minister Talleyrand, who stated, "You have made a noble bargain for yourselves, and I suppose you will make the most of it".[3]

The price was $15 million (about $0.04 per acre), including the cost of settling all claims against France by American citizens.[4] The purchase was controversial. Many of the Federalist Party, the dominant political party in New England, thought that the territory was "a vast wilderness world which will... prove worse than useless to us" and spread the population across an ungovernable land, weakening federal power to the detriment of New England and the Northeast. But the Jeffersonians thought the territory would help maintain their vision of the ideal republican society, based on agricultural commerce, governed lightly and promoting self-reliance and virtue.[5]

Jefferson quickly ordered exploration and documentation of the vast territory. He charged Lewis and Clark to lead an expedition, starting in 1804, to "explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce".[6] Jefferson also instructed the expedition to study the region's native tribes (including their morals, language, and culture), weather, soil, rivers, commercial trading, animal and plant life.[7]

The principal commercial goal was to find an efficient route to connect American goods and natural resources with Asian markets, and perhaps to find a means of blocking the growth of British fur trading companies into the Oregon Country. Asian merchants were already buying sea otter pelts from Pacific coast traders for Chinese customers. An expansion of inland fur trading was also anticipated.[8] With news spreading of the expedition's findings, entrepreneurs like John Jacob Astor immediately seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor's "Fort Astoria" (later Fort George), at the mouth of the Columbia River, became the first permanent white settlement in that area. However, during the War of 1812, the rival North West Company (a British-Canadian company) bought the camp from Astor's agents as they feared the British would destroy an American camp. For a while, Astor's fur business suffered. But he rebounded by 1820, took over independent traders to create a powerful monopoly, and left the business as a multi-millionaire in 1834, reinvesting his money in Manhattan real estate.[9]

Fur trade

Fur trading at Fort Nez Percés in 1841

The quest for furs was the primary commercial reason for the exploration and colonizing of North America by the Dutch, French, and British.[10] The Hudson's Bay Company, promoting British interests, often competed with French traders who had arrived earlier and had been already trading with indigenous tribes in the northern border region of the colonies. This competition was one of the contributing factors to the French and Indian War in 1763. British victory in the war led to the expulsion of the French from the American colonies. French trading continued, however, based in Montreal. Astor's move into the Northwest was a major American attempt to compete with the established French and English traders.[11]

As the frontier moved westward, trappers and hunters moved ahead of settlers, searching out new supplies of beaver and other skins for shipment to Europe. The hunters proceeded and followed Lewis and Clark to the Upper Missouri and the Oregon territory; they formed the first working relationships with the Native Americans in the West. They also added extensive knowledge of the Northwest terrain, including the important South Pass through the central Rocky Mountains. Discovered about 1812, it later became a major route for settlers to Oregon and Washington.[12]

The War of 1812 did little to change the boundaries of the United States and British territories, but its conclusion led to the nations' agreement to make the Great Lakes neutral waters to both navies. Furthermore, competing commercial claims by the UK and the U.S. led to the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. This resulted in their sharing the Oregon territory until a decades later resolution. By 1820, with the fur trade depressed, distances to supply increasing, and conflicts with native tribes rising, the trading system was overhauled by Donald Mackenzie of the North West Company and by William H. Ashley. Previously, Indians caught the animals, skinned them, and brought the furs to trading posts such as Fort Lisa and Fontenelle's Post, where trappers sent the goods down river to St. Louis. In exchange for the furs, Indians typically received calico cloth, knives, tomahawks, awls, beads, rifles, ammunition, animal traps, rum, whiskey, and salt pork.[13]

The new "brigade-rendezvous" system, however, sent company men in "brigades" cross-country on long expeditions, bypassing many tribes. It also encouraged "free trappers" to explore new regions on their own. At the end of the gathering season, the trappers would "rendezvous" and turn in their goods for pay at river ports along the Green River, the Upper Missouri, and the Upper Mississippi. St. Louis was the largest of the rendezvous towns. An early chronicle described the gathering as "one continued scene of drunkenness, gambling, and brawling and fighting, as long as the money and the credit of the trappers last." Trappers competed in wrestling and shooting matches. When they would gamble away all their furs, horses, and their equipment, they would lament, "There goes hos and beaver." By 1830, however, fashions changed in Europe and beaver hats were replaced by silk hats, sharply reducing the need for American furs.[14] Thus ended the era of the "Mountain men", trappers and scouts such as Jedediah Smith (who had traveled through more unexplored western land than any non-Indian and was the first American to reach California overland). The trade in beaver fur virtually ceased by 1845.[15]

Settling the West

Federal government and the West

While the profit motive dominated the movement westward, the Federal government played a vital role in securing land and maintaining law and order, which allowed the expansion to proceed. Despite the Jeffersonian aversion and mistrust of federal power, it bore more heavily in the West than any other region, and made possible the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. Since local governments were often absent or weak, Westerners, though they grumbled about it, depended on the federal government to protect them and their rights, and displayed little of the outright antipathy of some Easterners to Federalism.[16]

The federal government established a sequence of actions related to control over western lands. First, it acquired western territory from other nations or native tribes by treaty, then it sent surveyors and explorers to map and document the land, next it ordered federal troops to clear out and subdue the resisting natives, and finally, it had bureaucracies manage the land, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Land Office, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Forest Service. The process was not a smooth one. Indian resistance, sectionalism, and racism forced some pauses in the process of westward settlement. Nonetheless, by the end of the 19th century, in the process of conquering and managing the West, the federal government amassed great size, power, and influence in national affairs.[17]

Early scientific exploration and surveys

Plate from Birds of America

A major role of the federal government was sending out surveyors, naturalists, and artists into the West to discover its potential. Following the Lewis and Clark expeditions, Zebulon Pike led a party in 1805-6, under the orders of General James Wilkinson, commander of the western American army. Their mission was to find the head waters of the Mississippi (which turned out to be Lake Itasca, and not Leech Lake as Pike concluded). Later, on other journeys, Pike explored the Red and Arkansas Rivers in Spanish territory, eventually reaching the Rio Grande. On his return, Pike sighted the peak named after him, was captured by the Spanish and released after a long overland journey. Unfortunately, his documents were confiscated to protect territorial secrets and his later recollections were rambling and not of high quality.[18][19] Major Stephen H. Long led the Yellowstone and Missouri expeditions of 1819-1820, but his categorizing of the Great Plains as arid and useless led to the region getting a bad reputation as the "Great American Desert", which discouraged settlement in that area for several decades.[20]

In 1811, naturalists Thomas Nuttall and John Bradbury traveled up the Missouri River with the Astoria expedition, documenting and drawing plant and animal life. Later, Nuthall explored the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Oregon Trail, and even Hawaii. His book A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory was an important account of frontier life. Although Nuthall was the most traveled Western naturalist before 1840, unfortunately most of his documentation and specimens were lost. Artist George Catlin traveled up the Missouri as far as present-day North Dakota, producing accurate paintings of Native American culture. He was supplemented by Karl Bodmer, who accompanied the Prince Maximilian expedition, and made compelling landscapes and portraits.[21] In 1820, John James Audubon traveled about the Mississippi Basin collecting specimens and making sketches for his monumental books Birds of America and The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, classic works of naturalist art.[22] By 1840, the discoveries of explorers, naturalists, and mountain men had produced maps showing the rough outlines of the entire West to the Pacific Ocean.[23]

Mexican rule and Texas independence

Criollo and mestizo settlers of New Spain declared their independence in 1810 (finally obtaining it in 1821) from Spain's crumbling American colonial empire in the Americas (which were not yet thought of as being divided in North, Central and South America), forming the new nation of Mexico which included the New Mexico territory at its north. A hoped for result of Mexico's independence was more open trade and better relations with the United States where previously Spain had enforced its border strictly and had arrested American traders who ventured into the region. After Mexico's independence, large caravans began delivering goods to Santa Fe along the Santa Fe Trail, over the 870-mile (1,400 km) journey which took 48 days from Kansas City, Missouri (then known as Westport).[24] Santa Fe was also the trailhead for the "El Camino Real" (the King's Highway), a major trade route which carried American manufactured goods southward deep into Mexico and returned silver, furs, and mules northward (not to be confused with another "Camino Real" which connected the missions in California). A branch also ran eastward near the Gulf (also called the Old San Antonio Road).[25] Santa Fe also connected to California via the Old Spanish Trail.[26]

The Mexican government began to attract Americans to the Texas area with generous terms. Stephen F. Austin became an "empresario," receiving contracts from the Mexican officials to bring in immigrants. In doing so, he also became the de facto political and military commander of the area. Tensions rose, however, after an abortive attempt to establish the independent nation of Fredonia in 1826. William Travis, leading the "war party," advocated for independence from Mexico, while the "peace party" led by Austin attempted to get more autonomy within the current relationship. When Mexican president Santa Anna shifted alliances and joined the conservative Centralist party, he declared himself dictator and ordered soldiers into Texas to curtail new immigration and unrest. However, immigration continued and 30,000 Americans with 3,000 slaves arrived in 1835.[27] A series of battles, including at the Alamo, at Goliad, and at the San Jacinto River, led to independence and the establishment of the Republic of Texas in 1836. The U.S. Congress, however, refused to annex Texas, stalemated by contentious arguments over slavery and regional power. Texas remained an independent country, led by Sam Houston, until it became the 28th state in 1845.[28] Mexico, however, viewed the establishment of the statehood of Texas as a hostile act, helping to precipitate the Mexican War.

The Trail of Tears

The expansion of migration into the Southeast in the 1820s and 1830s forced the federal government to deal with the "Indian question." By 1837 the "Indian Removal policy" began, to implement the act of Congress signed by Andrew Jackson in 1830. The forced march of about twenty Native American tribes included the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Seminole). They were pushed beyond the frontier and into the "Indian Territory" (which later became Oklahoma). Of the approximate 70,000 Indians removed, about 20% died from disease, starvation, and exposure on the route. This exodus has become known as The Trail of Tears (in Cherokee "Nunna dual Tsuny," "The Trail Where they Cried"). The impact of the removals was severe. The transplanted tribes had considerable difficulty adapting to their new surroundings and sometimes clashed with the tribes native to the area. In addition, the Smallpox Epidemic of 1837 decimated the tribes of the Upper Missouri, weakening them, and allowing immigrants easier access to those lands.[29]

The Indian removals were justified by two prevailing philosophies. The "superior race" theory contended that "inferior" peoples (i.e., natives) held land in trust until a "superior race" came along which would be a more productive steward of the land. Humanitarians espoused a second theory stating that the removal of natives would take them away from the contaminating influences of the frontier and help preserve their culture.[30] Neither theory showed any understanding of the natives' intimate connection with their land nor the deadly effect of social and physical uprooting. For example, tribes were dependent on local animals and plants for their food and their medicinal and cultural purposes, which were often unavailable after moving.

President Andrew Jackson

In 1827, the Cherokee, on the basis of earlier treaties, declared themselves a sovereign nation within the boundaries of Georgia. When the Georgia state government ignored the declaration and annexed the land, the Cherokee took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled Georgia's laws null and void in the Cherokee nation, but the state ignored the ruling. The court also ruled that the tribes were "domestic dependent nations" and could not make treaties with other nations. Furthermore, it was up to the federal government to protect those rights, making the tribes, in effect, wards of the federal government. President Jackson, having just signed the Indian Removal Act, failed to enforce the court ruling, illegally abdicating to the states the right to make policy regarding the tribes.[31] In effect, Jackson refused to honor the federal government's commitment to protect the southern tribes and to act in its proper role in dealing with the tribes as sovereign, though dependent, nations.[32] Jackson justified his actions by stating that Indians had "neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvements."[33]

The only way for a Native American to avoid removal was to accept the federal offer of 640 acres (2.6 km2) or more of land (depending on family size) in exchange for leaving the tribe and becoming a U.S. citizen subject to state law and federal law. However, many natives who took the offer were defrauded by "ravenous speculators" who stole their claims and sold their land to whites. In Mississippi alone, fraudulent claims reached 3,800,000 acres (15,000 km2). Some of those who refused to move or take the offer found sanctuary for a while in remote areas. To motivate natives reluctant to move, the federal government also promised rifles, blankets, tobacco, and cash. Of the five tribes, the Seminole offered the most resistance, hiding out in the Florida swamps and waging a war which cost the U.S. Army 1,500 lives and $20 million. Through war, abandonment, and the removal policy, the federal government acquired about 442,800,000 acres (1,792,000 km2) of native land in the East from 1776 to 1842.[34]

Oklahoma Land Rush

In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison authorized the opening of 2,000,000 acres (8,100 km2) of unoccupied lands in the Oklahoma territory acquired from the native tribes. On April 22, over 100,000 settlers and cattlemen (known as "boomers") lined up at the border, and with the army's guns and bugles giving the signal, began a mad dash into the newly opened land to stake their claims (Land Run of 1889). A witness wrote, "The horsemen had the best of it from the start. It was a fine race for a few minutes, but soon the riders began to spread out like a fan, and by the time they reached the horizon they were scattered about as far as the eye could see". In a day, the towns of Oklahoma City, Norman, and Guthrie came into existence. In the same manner, millions of acres of additional land was opened up and settled in the following four years.[35]

The Antebellum West

Indian policy and attitudes

No sooner had the federal government created the "Indian Territory", than whites began to encroach upon the boundaries, traders began to sell prohibited liquor and settlers took shortcuts across Indian land on their way to Oregon and California. As the migrants moved across the Great Plains. Their livestock trampled Indian land and ate crops. Some tribes struck back by raiding livestock and by demanding payment from settlers crossing their land. The federal government attempted to reduce tensions and create new tribal boundaries in the Great Plains with two new treaties in the early 1850, The Treaty of Fort Laramie established tribal zones for the Sioux, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Crows, and others, and allowed for the building of roads and posts across the tribal lands. A second treaty secured safe passage along the Santa Fe Trail for wagon trains. In return, the tribes would receive, for ten years, annual compensation for damages caused by migrants.[36]

The Kansas and Nebraska territories also became contentious areas as the federal government sought those lands for the future transcontinental railroad. In the Far West settlers began to occupy land in Oregon and California before the federal government secured title from the native tribes, causing considerable friction. In Utah, the Mormons also moved in before federal ownership was obtained.[37] During their flight West, the Mormons established an outpost called Winter Quarters with permission from Big Elk of the Omaha tribe. This set a precedent for such agreements; however, when the Mormons exhausted local timber supplies they were asked to move from the land. Their occupancy in the area that soon became the Nebraska Territory lasted from 1846 to 1848.[38]

Native American chiefs, 1865

A new policy of establishing reservations came gradually into shape after the boundaries of the "Indian Territory" began to be ignored. In providing for Indian reservations, Congress and the Office of Indian Affairs hoped to detribalize Native Americans and prepare them for integration with the rest of American society, the "ultimate incorporation into the great body of our citizen population."[39] This allowed for the development of dozens of riverfront towns along the Missouri River in the new Nebraska Territory, which was carved from the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Influential pioneer towns included Omaha, Nebraska City and St. Joseph.

White attitudes towards Indians during this period ranged from extreme malevolence ("the only good Indian is a dead Indian") to misdirected humanitarianism (Indians live in "inferior" societies and by assimilation into white society they can be redeemed) to somewhat realistic (Native Americans and settlers could co-exist in separate but equal societies, dividing up the remaining western land).[40] Dealing with nomadic tribes complicated the reservation strategy and decentralized tribal power made treaty making difficult among the Plains Indians. Conflicts erupted in the 1850s, resulting in the Indian Wars.[41]

Frémont's expeditions

John Charles Frémont, son-in-law of powerful Missouri senator and expansionist Thomas Hart Benton, led a series of expeditions in the mid 1840s which answered many of the outstanding geographic questions about the West. He crossed through the Rocky Mountains by five different routes, reached deep into the Oregon territory, traveled the length of California, and into Mexico below Tucson. With the help of legendary scouts Christopher "Kit" Carson and Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, and German cartographer Charles Preuss, Frémont produced detailed maps, filled in gaps of knowledge, and provided route information that fostered the "Great Migrations" to Oregon, California, and the Great Basin. He also disproved the existence of the mythical Rio San Buenaventura, featured on old maps, which was a large river believed to drain all of the West and which exited at San Francisco into the Pacific.[42]

Manifest Destiny and the early migrations

Camping on the prairie. 1846

Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was pre-ordained by God to expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. The concept was expressed during Colonial times, but the term was coined by newspaperman John O'Sullivan, and became a rallying cry for expansionists in the 1840s. It was a moral/religious as well as political/economic justification for growth, regardless of the social and legal consequences for Native Americans. Implicit is the position that the American claim supersedes―by God's favor―that of foreign nations or the native peoples. O'Sullivan wrote, "Away, away with all these cobweb tissues of rights of discovery, exploration, settlement, continuity, etc.... The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self-government entrusted to us".[43]

The Polk and Tyler administrations successfully promoted this nationalistic doctrine over sectionalists and others who objected for moral reasons or over concerns about the spread of slavery. Starting with the annexation of Texas, the expansionists got the upper hand. To gain the acceptance of Northerners, Texas was even promoted by expansionists as a place where slavery could be concentrated, and from where blacks and slavery would eventually leave the U.S. entirely, solving the problem forever.

Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, among others, did not vote for conquest and expansion, and preferred co-existence with friendly foreign powers sharing the continent. John Quincy Adams believed the Texas annexation to be "the heaviest calamity that ever befell myself and my country".[44] However, Manifest Destiny's popularity in the Midwest states and the addition of federal encouragement overcame the opposition and created a climate which helped start the "Great Migrations" to Oregon, California, and the Great Basin.[45]

Also spurring settlers westward were the emigrant "guide books" of the 1840s featuring route information supplied by the fur traders and the Frémont expeditions, and promising fertile farm land beyond the Rockies. Independence, Missouri became the starting point for caravans of "Chicago" and "Prairie Schooner" wagons which traveled the Oregon and California trails. Starting in late 1848 over 250,000 settlers passed over the California trail to California.[46] The trip was slow and arduous, but unlike the depiction in films, generally absent of Indian attacks. One Oregon pioneer wrote, "Our journey is ended. Our toils are over. But... no tongue can tell, nor pen describe the heart rending scenes through which we passed".[47] On the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) journey, settlers had to overcome extreme climate, lack of food and clean water, disease, broken down wagons, and exhausted draft animals. The Oregon territory, filling up with Americans, was ceded to the U.S. in 1846 by Great Britain, which was anxious to fix the northern boundary at the 49th parallel. Oregon gained statehood in 1859.[48]

Re-enactment of Mormon pioneers 1912

Brigham Young, also influenced by Frémont's discoveries and seeking to escape persecution, led his followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the "Mormons") to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, bypassed by other immigrants headed to Oregon, because of its aridity. Eventually, nearly one hundred Mormon settlements sprang up in what Young called "Deseret", which later became Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, and Nebraska. The Salt Lake City settlement served as the hub of their network, and was proclaimed "Zion, the seat of God's kingdom on earth".[49] The communalism and advanced farming practices of the Mormons enabled them to succeed in a region other settlers rejected as too harsh but which Frémont believed to have great potential. During the gold rushes of the 1850s, Salt Lake City became an important supply point, adding to its economic strength.[50]

In California, the twenty-one mission settlements established by the Catholic Church had failed to attract sufficient Mexican settlers who had viewed the region as too remote. The Spanish aristocracy (the "californios") controlled the territory through vast land grants on which large cattle ranches spread. Manned mostly by Christianized Indians supervised by the friars, the ranches supplied English and American merchant ships with hides and tallow. The few Americans in the area were mostly traders, merchants, and sailors, many from "Yerba Buena" (renamed San Francisco in 1846). Although Presidents Jackson and Tyler's efforts to buy California from Mexico had failed, American settlers started to enter the territory by 1841. The Bartleson-Bidwell Party brought the first overland family migrations to Sacramento, California, followed by several more caravans which established the California Trail. Thousands of settlers and miners made the trip in the following decade after the discovery of gold.[51] When Frémont's third expedition brought him to California in 1845, he joined the Bear Flag Revolt, and allied with other American forces, captured and controlled considerable California territory. In 1847, a counter-revolt by "rancheros" failed. At the same time that the Mexican War was underway in the central Southwest, Mexico decided to formally cede California to the U.S. in the Treaty of Cahuenga.[52]

The Mexican War

A crisis with Mexico had been brewing from the time Texas won its independence in 1836. The annexation of Texas by the United States brought feelings on both sides to a boil. Additionally, the two nations disputed the border, the U.S. insisting on the Rio Grande and Mexico claiming the Nueces River, 150 miles (240 km) north. Also, an international commission decided that American settlers were owed damages in the millions of dollars for past wrongs by the Mexican government, which it refused to pay.[53] President Polk attempted to use the debts as leverage in offering to buy the Mexican territories of New Mexico and California, while he made a show of force along the border area. Negotiations got nowhere, and as Polk prepared to ask Congress to declare war, the Mexican cavalry began an attack on American outposts. After the declaration of war, Whigs accused the President of imperialism and claimed that the administration had employed "an artful perversion of truth—a disingenuous statement of facts to make people believe a lie".[54] Northerners also feared the extension of slavery into the new territories, though the linchpin of slavery—the plantation—seemed improbable in the dusty plains of Texas.

General (and later president) Zachary Taylor was ordered to the scene and his troops forced the Mexicans back to the Rio Grande. Then he advanced into Mexico where several battles ensued. Also General Winfield Scott undertook a naval assault on Veracruz, then marched his 12,000 man force west to Mexico City, winning the final battle at Chapultepec. Some advocated for the complete take over of Mexico by the U.S., but practical arguments as well as racism prevented the attempt. The "Cincinnati Herald" voiced the racist sentiment asking what would the U.S. do with millions of Mexicans "with their idol worship, heathen superstition, and degraded mongrel races?"[55]

The surrender by Mexico took place on September 17, 1847. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in 1848, ceded the territories of California and New Mexico (which included the states-to-be of Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming) to the United States for $18.5 million (which included the assumption of claims against Mexico by settlers). The Gadsden Purchase in 1853, covering southern Arizona and New Mexico, pushed the border southward and acquired land for an anticipated railroad route, and had the unintended effect of heightening conflicts with southern Apaches now habitating U.S. territory. The Mexican War was the smallest but deadliest of American wars—one in six American soldiers died from bullets or disease—but the spoils of that war were substantial.[56] The completed Mexican cession covered over half a million square miles and increased the size of the U.S. by nearly 20%. Managing the new territories and dealing with the slavery issue were challenges which lay ahead. The Compromise of 1850 kept California a free state and allowed Utah and New Mexico to make their own decisions regarding slavery. It also imposed some border adjustments.[53]

Gold rushes and the mining industry

On January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of the mill he had built for John Sutter. Sutter, a Swiss entrepreneur, had acquired a land grant for over 49,000 acres (200 km2) near present day Sacramento and built himself what was, in effect, an independent principality. According to Sutter's reminiscence, "Marshall pulled out of his trousers pocket a white cotton rag which contained something rolled up in it... Opening the cloth, he held it before me in his hand... 'I believe this is gold,' said Marshall, 'but the people at the mill laughed at me and called me crazy.' I carefully examined it and said to him: 'Well, it looks like gold. Let us test it.'"[57] Prior to this discovery, gold mining in the United States had been limited to primitive mines in the Southeast, especially in Georgia. Word spread quickly across the United States, after Polk told Congress in December 1848, "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service."[58]

The word also reached experienced miners in South America and Europe, who quickly headed to California. Thousands of "Forty-Niners" reached California, many along the California trail, boosting the population from about 14,000 in 1848 to over 200,000 in 1852. San Francisco was the main port of arrival, with Asians, South Americans, Australians, and Europeans making long ocean journeys, and the town grew from 800 to 20,000 people in eighteen months, with only a fractional number of women and children. Experienced foreign miners sometimes taught the willing American amateurs, but most newcomers arrived, grabbed some supplies, and headed willy-nilly to the gold camps without the slightest idea of what mining entailed.[59]

As in many other boomtowns, rapid growth in San Francisco resulted in hastily erected housing, mob rule, vigilante justice, hyper-inflated prices, environmental degradation, and considerable squalor. Field conditions for miners were even worse. They lived in log cabins and tents, and worked in all kinds of weather, suffering disease without treatment. Supplies were expensive and food poor, subsisting mostly of pork, beans, and whiskey. These highly male, transient communities with no established institutions were prone to high levels of violence, drunkenness, profanity, and greed-driven behavior. A weekend's entertainment with a prostitute and plentiful drink could cost hundreds of dollars, not including gambling losses, wiping out a month or more of found gold.[60]

Without courts or law officers in the mining communities to enforce claims and justice, miners developed their own ad hoc legal system, based on the "mining codes" used in other mining communities abroad. Each camp had its own rules and often handed out justice by popular vote, sometimes acting fairly and at times exercising vigilantism—with Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese generally receiving the harshest sentences.[61] As miner John Cowden wrote, "Very few ever think of stealing in the country of plenty and those who do so are immediately strung up."[60]

San Francisco harbor c. 1850. Between 1847 and 1870, the population of San Francisco increased from 500 to 150,000.

Prostitution grew rapidly in the Western boom towns, attracting many female workers from the East and Mid-West. In many towns, the ratio of "honest" women to men was 1 to 100, thereby encouraging the flesh trade. Until the 1890s, madams predominately ran the businesses, after which "pimps" took over, and the treatment of the women generally declined. The openness of bordellos in western towns depicted in films was somewhat realistic, though the true appearance of most prostitutes was far less attractive than those depicted by Hollywood starlets. Gambling and prostitution were central to life in these western towns, and only later―as the female population increased, reformers moved in, and other civilizing influences arrived―did prostitution become less blatant and less common.[62]

The Gold Rush radically changed the California economy and brought in an array of professionals, including precious metal specialists, merchants, doctors, and attorneys, who supplemented the numerous miners, saloonkeepers, gamblers, and prostitutes. A San Francisco newspaper stated, "The whole country... resounds to the sordid cry of gold! Gold! Gold! while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes."[63] Gold fever was a widespread affliction among all classes. Black Elk recalled, gold was "the yellow metal that makes whites crazy." Later rushes, though notable, possessed less of the "lunacy" and urgency of the California strikes.[59] The extraordinary size of early finds (including nuggets of over 20 lb (9.1 kg). each), the surprise of the finds, and the abundance of surface gold helps explain that irrational fervor. Most of the gold discoveries of the California Gold Rush were achieved through placer mining, the finding of nuggets and grains loosened from rock by nature through erosion and carried down streams from the Sierras. This was relatively easier and required less capital and expertise than vein mining, which required drilling down into rock and breaking gold and silver loose.[64] Over 250,000 miners found a total of more than $200 million in gold in the five years of the California Gold Rush.[64][65] As thousands arrived, however, fewer and fewer miners struck their fortune, and most ended exhausted and broke.

Camps spread out north and south of the American River and eastward into the Sierras. In a few years, nearly all of the independent miners were displaced as mines were purchased and run by mining companies, who then hired low-paid salaried miners. As gold became harder to find and more difficult to extract, individual prospectors gave way to paid work gangs, specialized skills, and mining machinery. Bigger mines, however, caused greater environmental damage. In the mountains, shaft mining predominated, producing large amounts of waste. Independent miners began to leave California in the 1850s as mines gave out, and moved on to new finds in Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado.[66] An exception were the Chinese. After white prospectors left the placer mining areas, many Chinese miners, previously excluded by racism, found the freedom to buy up the old claims and re-work them.[67]

The discovery of the Comstock Lode, containing vast amounts of silver, resulted in the Nevada boomtowns of Virginia City, Carson City, and Silver City. The wealth from silver, more than from gold, fueled the maturation of San Francisco in the 1860s and helped the rise of some of its wealthiest families.[68]

Following the California and Nevada discoveries, miners left those areas and hunted for gold along the Rockies and in the southwest. Soon gold was discovered in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, and South Dakota (by 1864). Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills, was an archetypical late gold town, founded in 1875. In 1876, Wild Bill Hickok, accompanied by Calamity Jane, came to town and cemented Deadwood's fame when he was murdered there ten days later.

Tombstone, Arizona was another notorious mining town. Silver was discovered there in 1877, and by 1881 the town had a population of over 10,000. Wyatt Earp and his brothers arrived in 1879. They bought interests in the Vizina mine, water rights, and gambling concessions, but Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt were soon appointed as federal and local marshals. They killed three outlaw Cowboys in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the most famous gunfight of the Old West. In the aftermath, Virgil Earp was maimed in an ambush and Morgan Earp was assassinated while playing billiards. Wyatt and others, including his brother Warren Earp, pursued those they believed responsible in a vendetta and warrants were issued for their arrest in the murder of Frank Stilwell. Wyatt later pursued various business interests in Colorado, Idaho, California, Arizona, and Alaska. In his later years, a fictionalized biography written by Stuart Lake made him famous, while the 1957 film Gunfight at the O.K. Corral cemented his modern-day reputation as that of Old West's "toughest and deadliest gunmen of his day.".[69][70]

As gold and silver played out, the large work force of experienced miners gradually found work as industrial miners—working copper, iron, coal, and rare earth deposits which fueled a rapidly expanding national economy.[71] Working the deeper mines was extremely hazardous. Temperatures could exceed 150 °F (66 °C) below 2,000 feet (610 m) and many died from heat stroke. Poor ventilation concentrated a toxic brew of carbon dioxide, dust, and other compounds and caused frequent headaches and dizziness. Accidents, premature explosions, and cave-ins were common and deadly. About half the miners had lung disorders, shortening their lives to an average of 43 years. In the hard rock mines, accidents annually disabled 1 of every 30 miners and killed 1 out of 80, the highest rates of any U.S. industry.[72]

The Great Reconnaissance

The end of the Mexican War and the first migrations to California and Oregon prompted the federal government to undertake an additional series of surveys to chart the remaining unexplored regions of the West, to establish boundaries, and to plan possible routes for a transcontinental railroad. Much of this work was undertaking by the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers, Corps of Topographical Engineers, and Bureau of Explorations and Surveys, and became known as "The Great Reconnaissance." Debates ensued among advocates of the "northern route", "central route", and "southern route" for the railroad. Speculators were quick to follow the most activities of the surveyors and this prompted further migration and business development.[73]

Major requirements for the rail route were an adequate supply of water and wood, surmountable geography, and a politically and economically acceptable solution. The survey parties also had civilian scientists who collected specimens of flora and fauna along the way, for study by institutions like the Smithsonian.[74] In some instances, as in the Whipple Expedition, Indians provided assistance, but at other times, such as with the Gunnison Party, Indians harassed and killed surveyors. By 1855, a twelve volume report was issued but without any recommendation for a preferred route. The survey did offer many more alternatives than expected as well as providing a wealth of scientific knowledge which heightened public awareness of the West. It also spurred further settlement which ultimately increased conflict with the tribes of the Great Plains.[75]

Pony Express and telegraph

The Gold Rush and the subsequent spurt of migration to California hastened the need for better communications across the continent. Mail was being transported to San Francisco by ship from New York, with a land crossing across the Isthmus of Panama, normally a month's trip. Then the federal government provided subsidies for the development of mail and freight delivery, and by 1856, Congress authorized road improvements and an overland mail service to California. There was even an experiment to use camels for transportation. Commercial wagon trains began to haul freight out west. For mail, the Overland Mail Company was formed, using what was called the "Butterfield route", through Texas, then New Mexico and into Arizona, over the dangerous Apache Pass protected by Fort Bowie.[76] This route was abandoned by 1862, after Texas joined the confederacy, in favor of stagecoach services established via Fort Laramie and Salt Lake City, a 24 day journey, with Wells Fargo & Co. as the foremost provider (initially keeping the "Butterfield" name).

Map of Pony Express route

William Russell, hoping to get a government contract for more rapid mail delivery service, started the Pony Express in 1860, cutting delivery time to ten days. He set up over 150 stations about 15 miles (24 km) apart. Riders were required to be expert and weigh less than 125 lb (57 kg)., with an advertisement of the time asking for, "young skinny wiry fellows, not over eighteen... willing to risk death daily... Orphans preferred... Wages: $25 per week." If a relief rider was not available at the next station, the rider was required to change horses and keep going.[77]

The service was short-lived, however, as the continental telegraph was completed on October 24, 1861, just eighteen months later. Samuel F. B. Morse developed his telegraph system in the 1830s. It found acceptance by the mid 1840s, and over 50,000 miles (80,000 km) of wire were laid out to form a single national network. The telegraph and the Morse Code made possible the instantaneous transmission of information and the beginning of the tele-communications industry. The new national communication system soon proved a boon to newspapers, to freight hauling, to weather reporting, to law enforcement, and to the railroads.[78]

Though Russell did get a government contract, his business had considerable losses anyway and failed. After the Pony Express service folded, mail continued by overland coach and by sea. However, Wells Fargo (established in 1852) maintained special courier services across the Sierras for carrying gold and mail through the 1860s, and its banking, freighting, and business services flourished in California. It grew through the consolidation of other overland mail companies until the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 caused Wells Fargo to realign its services and delivery routes.[79]

Bleeding Kansas

Marais des Cygnes massacre of anti-slavery Kansans. May 19, 1858

By the mid-1850s, the Kansas territory had a population of only a few hundred settlers but it became the focus of the slavery question. Of its neighboring states, Missouri was a slave state and Iowa was not. With the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise which blocked slavery in Kansas, therefore leaving the decision up to Kansas. The stakes were high. Adoption of slavery in Kansas would have given the slave states a two-vote majority in the Senate and abolitionists were intent on blocking that. To influence the territorial decision, abolitionists (also called "Jayhawkers" or "Free-soilers") financed the migration of anti-slavery settlers. But pro-slavery advocates secured the outcome of the territorial vote by bringing in "Border Ruffians", rowdies from Missouri who stuffed ballot boxes and intimidated voters. The anti-slavers then sent Sharps rifles ("Beecher's Bibles") and ammunition to supporters in Kansas, leading to widespread violence and destruction which prompted the New York Tribune to call the territory "Bleeding Kansas."[80]

Dred Scott

The Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1857 declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional and that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from the territories, thus opening these areas to slavery again depending on the local vote. Despite the efforts by presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan to influence Kansas territorial governors to vote pro-slavery, Kansas voted to become a free state and the thirty-fourth state of the Union in 1861. The conflict also helped to foster the organization and development of the Republican Party in 1856, a mixture of free-soilers, expansionists, and federalists who opposed the extension of slavery into the Western territories. Abraham Lincoln, an early Republican, made clear his position on slavery in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates which helped propel him to the presidency in 1860, "Never forget that we have before us this whole matter of the right or wrong of slavery in this Union, though the immediate question is as to its spreading out into new Territories and States". Lincoln branded slavery as a "monstrous injustice" and a "moral, social, and political evil". In 1862, Lincoln signed a law prohibiting the spread of slavery into all the remaining territorial possessions. During Lincoln's administration, two other important acts were passed which impacted the West—the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act.[81]

Civil War in the West

At the outset of the American Civil War, Westerners looked to the Civil War to settle the question of slavery in their territories. But they also feared that the federal government would be too preoccupied with the war to worry about the stability of the territorial governments and that lawlessness might spread. The Dred Scott Decision had made the choice of making slavery legal in all of the land west of the Mississippi River, except for Kansas, Oregon, and California.[82]

A historical reenactment of the Battle of Picacho Peak in Arizona

Although most of the battles of the Civil War took place east of the Mississippi River, a few important campaigns occurred in the West. However, Kansas, a major area of conflict building up to the war, was the scene of only one battle, at Mine Creek. But its proximity to Confederate states enabled guerillas, such as Quantrill's Raiders, to attack Union strongholds, causing considerable damage.[83] Both sides attacked civilians, murdering and plundering with little discrimination, creating an atmosphere of terror.[84]

Settlers escaping the Dakota War of 1862

In Texas, citizens voted to join the confederacy. Local troops took over the federal arsenal in San Antonio, with plans to grab the territories of northern New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, and possibly California. Confederate Arizona was created by Arizona citizens who wanted protection against the Apache after the United States Army abandoned them to go fight in the South. At the Battle of Glorieta Pass, the Confederate campaign was defeated strategically by Union troops from Colorado and from Fort Union. Missouri, a Union state where slavery was legal, became a battleground when the pro-secession governor, against the vote of the legislature, led troops to the federal arsenal at St. Louis. When Confederate forces from Arkansas and Louisiana joined him, Union General Samuel Curtis was dispatched to the area and regained Missouri for the Union for the duration of the war.[85]

The decreased presence of Union troops in the West left behind untrained militias which encouraged native uprisings and skirmishes with settlers. President Lincoln appears to have had little time to formulate new Indian policy.[81] Some tribes took sides in the war, even forming regiments that joined the Union or the rebel cause, while others took the opportunity to avenge past wrongs by the federal government. Engagements were fought against natives in Utah against the Shoshone, all across New Mexico Territory against Apaches and the Navajo, conflict also occurred in Oregon.[85] Within the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, conflicts arose among the Five Civilized Tribes, some of whom sided with the South being slaveholders themselves.[84]

While the question of whether western territories would be free or slave-owning had preoccupied antebellum political debate, in 1862, Congress enacted two major laws to facilitate settlement of the West: the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railroad Act.

The Postbellum West

Territorial governance after the Civil War

With the war over, the federal government focused on improving the governance of the territories. It subdivided several territories, preparing them for statehood, following the precedents set by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.[86] It also standardized procedures and the supervision of territorial governments, taking away some local powers, and imposing much "red tape", growing the federal bureaucracy significantly.[87]

Federal involvement in the territories was considerable. In addition to direct subsidies, the federal government maintained military posts, provided safety from Indian attacks, bankrolled treaty obligations, conducted surveys and land sales, built roads, staffed land offices, made harbour improvements, and subsidized overland mail delivery. Territorial citizens came to both decry federal power and local corruption, and at the same time, lament that more federal dollars were not sent their way.[88]

Territorial governors were political appointees and beholden to Washington so they usually governed with a light hand, allowing the legislatures to deal with the local issues. In addition to his role as civil governor, a territorial governor was also a militia commander, a local superintendent of Indian affairs, and the state liaison with federal agencies.[89] State legislators, on the other hand, spoke for the local citizens and they were given considerable leeway by the federal government to make local law, except in extreme cases, as when the Federal government suppressed polygamy by the Mormons in Utah.[90]

These improvements to governance still left plenty of room for profiteering. As Mark Twain wrote while working for his brother, the secretary of Nevada, "The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two."[87] "Territorial rings", corrupt associations of local politicians and business owners buttressed with federal patronage, embezzled from Indian tribes and local citizens, especially in the Dakota and New Mexico territories.[91]

Federal land system

In acquiring, preparing, and distributing public land to private ownership, the federal government generally followed the system set forth by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Federal exploration and scientific teams would undertake reconnaissance of the land and determine Native American habitation. Through treaty, land title would be ceded by the resident tribes. Then surveyors would create detailed maps marking the land into squares of six miles (10 km) on each side, subdivided first into one square mile blocks, then into 160-acre (0.65 km2) lots. Townships would be formed from the lots and sold at public auction. Unsold land could be purchased from the land office at a minimum price of $1.25 per acre.[92]

In theory, the system would provide a fair distribution of land and reduce large accumulations of land by private owners. In reality, speculators could exploit loopholes and acquire large tracts of land. There was no limit to purchases of the unsold land by speculators. Furthermore, settlers often got to the land ahead of the surveyors and became squatters, living on land they held no title to.[93]

As part of public policy, the government would award public land to certain groups such as veterans, through the use of "land script". The script traded in a financial market, often at below the $1.25 per acre minimum price set by law, which gave speculators, investors, and developers another way to acquired large tracts of land cheaply. Land policy became politicized by competing factions and interests, and the question of slavery on new lands was contentious. As a counter to land speculators, farmers formed "claims clubs" to enable them to buy larger tracts than the 160-acre (0.65 km2) allotments by trading among themselves at controlled prices.[94]

The federal government also began to give away land for agricultural colleges, Indian reservations, public institutions, and the construction of railroads. It also gave away land when a territory became a state, and it gave each state 30,000 acres (120 km2) for each senator and representative.[95]

In 1862, Congress passed three important bills that impacted the land system. The Homestead Act granted 160 acres (0.65 km2) to each settler who improved the land for five years, to citizens and non-citizens including squatters, for no more than modest filing fees. If a six months residency was complied with, the settler then had the option to buy the parcel at $1.25 per acre. The property could then be sold or mortgaged and neighboring land acquired if expansion was desired.[96] Though the act was on the whole successful, the 160-acre (0.65 km2) size of parcels was not large enough for the needs of Western farmers and ranchers, and it failed to address the needs of the mining and timber operations as well.


Early on after the California Gold Rush, the federal government decided to leave the regulation of mining claims to local governments. This was reversed by later acts, which helped legitimate land acquisition for all purposes but which also made it easier for speculators and swindlers, especially in the timber and ranching industries. Given the necessity of water for ranching, squabbles over water rights ensued and complicated the situation.[96] The railroads got much of the best land, and the land available to homesteaders was not always arable or commercially useful. On the whole, only about one-third of all Homestead Act claimants actually completed the process of obtaining title to their land.[97]

The Pacific Railway Acts provided for the land needed to build the transcontinental railroad. Since several routes were under consideration, the amount of land so provided was huge, over 174,000,000 acres (700,000 km2).[98] The land given the railroads alternated with government-owned tracts saved for distribution to homesteaders. In an effort to be equitable, the federal government reduced each tract to 80 acres (320,000 m2) because of its perceived higher value given its proximity to the rail line. Railroads had up to five years to sell or mortgage their land, after tracks were laid, after which unsold land could be purchased by anyone. Often railroads sold some of their government acquired land to homesteaders immediately to encourage settlement and the growth of markets the railroads would then be able to serve. However, the railroads were slow to build in some areas, waiting for the population to grow adequately on its own, before selecting final routes. This caused a "chicken-and-egg" situation which, in some cases, impeded rather than hastened settlement.[99] Congress also made loans to the railroads based on the mileage of rail.

The Morrill Act provided land grants to states to build institutions of higher education for agricultural purposes, in an effort to stimulate rural economic growth and the education programs to support it. The states would sell the bulk of the land to raise funds to build the institutions.[100]

The federal government even attempted to forest the prairies to make better use of undesirable land. Relying on the theory that planting trees would alter the climate enough to produce the rainfall need to sustain the forests long term, the government encouraged homesteaders to plant trees. When the "rain-follows-the-plow program" failed due to drought and pests, the federal government turned instead to more practical programs to develop irrigation, though large-scale irrigation projects came decades later.[101] But by the 1870s, the large land giveaways raised concerns about the management of remaining public lands, particularly those of unique value such as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, and the conservation movement was born. In 1872, Yellowstone became the first national park in the United States (and in the world).[102]

Transcontinental railroad

The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 finally hastened the transition of the transcontinental railroad from dream to reality. Existing rail lines, particularly belonging to the Union Pacific, had already reached westward to Omaha, Nebraska, about half way across the continent. The Central Pacific, starting in Sacramento, California, was extended eastward across the Sierras to link with the Union Pacific heading west. The two finally met at Promontory Summit, Utah on May 10, 1869. Leland Stanford, one of the prime backers of the Central Pacific, hammered the golden spike in triumph, linking the two lines. A cross-country trip was reduced from about four months to one week by the completion of the railroad.[103]

Building the railroad required six main activities: surveying the route, blasting a right of way, building tunnels and bridges, clearing and laying the roadbed, laying the ties and rails, and maintaining and supplying the crews with food and tools. The work was highly labor intensive, using mostly plows, scrapers, picks, axes, chisels, sledgehammers, and handcarts. A few steam-driven machines, such as shovels, were employed as well. Each iron rail weighed 700 lb (320 kg). and required five men to lift. For blasting, they used gunpowder, nitroglycerine, and limited amounts of dynamite. The Central Pacific employed over 12,000 Chinese workers, 90 percent of the work force. The Union Pacific employed mostly Irishmen. The crews averaged about two miles (3 km) of new track per day but they were driven to do more.[103] Each man lifted a few tons a day of weight. In the haste to complete the project, engineering errors caused collapsing roadbeds and badly graded curves. Substandard rails and ties were also serious problems. The defects became even more apparent with freight runs, causing many accidents, and the line eventually required millions of dollars to repair and replace bad track.[104]

The meeting of the lines on May 10, 1869

With grants and loans, the federal government stimulated the land and capital acquisition needed for the project. Leland Stanford, former governor and part of a group of businessmen known as the "Big Four", sold stock and bonds in the enterprise to finance construction, with the help of Wall Street money men like Jay Gould who connected with investors in the United States and Europe. The enterprise was considered risky, given the high construction costs, and the bonds need to yield high interest (similar to today's "junk bonds") to be attractive to investors.[105] The huge dollars involved in the project and the participation of so many groups out to profit resulted in substantial corruption and influence peddling. The owners of both construction companies, using mostly "other people's money", insured their own profits with shady dealing and with slush funds used to bribe government officials.

The worst corruption revolved around George Francis Train's Crédit Mobilier, the construction company for the Union Pacific, which, according to author Richard White, drew in "dozens of congressmen, a secretary of the treasury, two vice-presidents, a leading presidential contender, and an eventual president. It caused a scandal that remained an issue in four presidential elections".[106] Train's other enterprises, including the Credit Foncier of America, Train Town and Omaha's Cozzens Hotel, succeeded, further burnishing Train's image. While the Central Pacific-Union Pacific railroad succeeded, other transcontinental projects failed to reach the Pacific coast until many years later. The most notorious was the Northern Pacific project which failed to sell its bonds, resulting in the collapse of the Jay Cooke & Company investment house and helping to trigger the financial Panic of 1873.[107] The most profitable of the transcontinental lines was the Great Northern railroad which ran along the northern tier of the United States, providing freight service to the Northwest. The cost of moving freight on the Great Northern was 2.88 cents per ton early on, falling to less than 0.80 cents by 1907.[108]

Despite the engineering problems and political scandals, the transcontinental railroad was a big success in helping to open up the West. In the first year, 150,000 passengers made the trip for "pleasure, health, or business" and enjoyed the "luxurious cars and eating houses" as advertised by the Union Pacific. Settlers were encouraged with promotions to come West on scouting trips to buy land near the line and to use the rails for freight needs. The railroads had "Immigration Bureaus" which advertised the "promised land" abroad. Railroad "Land Departments" sold land on easy terms. The Great Plains, a harder "sell" than California or Oregon, was promoted as "prairie which is ready for the plow" and "a flowery meadow" only requiring "diligent labor and economy to ensure an early reward."[109]

The transcontinental railroad spurred the development of trunk and feeder lines and the rapid growth of Omaha specifically, creating a rail network extending from the city that eventually reached over most of the West. The railroads made possible the transformation of the United States from an agrarian society to a modern industrial nation. Not only did they bring eastern products west and agricultural products east, but they also helped the establishment of western branches of eastern companies. Mail order businesses grew rapidly, bringing city products to rural families, sometimes dominating local companies and forcing them out of business. The building and the operation of railroads, which required vast amounts of coal and lumber, spurred the timber and mining industries. Most industries benefited from the lower costs of transportation and the expanding markets made possible by the railroads. Railroads also had a profound social effect. Rail travel brought immigrant families to the West as women were less intimidated by the rail journey west than by wagon. The greater numbers of women and children migrating west helped stabilize and tame some of the wild frontier towns, as these settlers organized and demanded schools, law enforcement, churches, and other institutions supportive of family life.[110]

Life in the Old West

Social history

Migration after the Civil War

A False Front building in Chesaw, Washington.

After the Civil War, many from the East Coast and Europe were lured west by reports from relatives and by extensive advertising campaigns promising "the Best Prairie Lands", "Low Prices", "Large Discounts For Cash", and "Better Terms Than Ever!". The new railroads provided the opportunity for migrants to go out and take a look, with special "land exploring tickets", the cost of which could be applied to land purchases offered by the railroads.[111] As one farm wife stated, "There's nothing up there but Indians and rattlesnakes and blue northers and prairie fires".[112] The truth was that farming the plains was indeed more difficult than back east. Water management was more critical, lightning fires were more prevalent, the weather was more extreme, rainfall was less predictable.[113]

Most migrants, however, put those concerns aside. Their chief motivation to move west was to find a better economic life than the one they had. Farmers sought larger and more fertile areas; merchants and tradesman new customers and less competitive markets; laborers higher paying work and better conditions.


The Mormons sought a religious and economic utopia in Utah--an area not under any national government when they arrived. The U.S. took control in 1848 and for a half century there was a sort of warfare--sometimes violent--between the Mormons and the federal government over the issue of polygamy. In 1890 the Mormons finally gave up polygamy and peace ensued.[114] The Mormons grew by high birth rates and by successful missions, such as those in Scandinavia and England that brought in thousands of converts.


European immigrants built communities of similar religious and ethnic backgrounds. For example, many Finns went to Minnesota and Michigan, Swedes to South Dakota, Norwegians to North Dakota, Irish to Montana, Chinese to San Francisco, German Mennonites in Kansas, and German Jews to Portland, Oregon.[115]

The California Gold Rush set off large migrations of Hispanic and Asian people which continued after the Civil War. Chinese migrants, many of whom were impoverished peasants, provided the major part of the workforce for the building of Central Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad. They also worked in mining, agriculture, and small businesses, and many lived in San Francisco. Significant numbers of Japanese also arrived in California.[116] Some migrants intended to make their fortune and return home and others sought to stay and start a new life.

Many Hispanics who had been living in the former territories of New Spain, lost their land rights to fraud and governmental action when Texas, New Mexico, and California were formed. In some cases, Hispanics were simply driven off their land. In Texas, the situation was most acute, as the "Tejanos", who made up about 75% of the population, ended up as laborers employed by the large white ranches which took over their land. In New Mexico, only six percent of all claims by Hispanics were confirmed by the Claims Court.[117] As a result, many Hispanics became permanently migrating workers, seeking seasonal employment in farming, mining, ranching, and on the railroads. Border towns sprang up with barrios of intense poverty. In response, some Hispanics joined labor unions, and in a few cases, led revolts. The California "Robin Hood", Joaquin Murieta, led a gang in the 1850s which burned houses, killed miners, and robbed stagecoaches. In Texas, Juan Cortina led a 20-year campaign against Texas land grabbers and the Texas Rangers, starting around 1859. Instead of the reality of Hispanic life, in the United States the public's image became one of quaint peasants happy with their lot.[116]

Among the first African-Americans to arrive in the West were deserting sailors and slaves of white prospectors who came during the California Gold Rush, numbering about four thousand by 1860. However, the number of blacks in the West remained at only a few thousand throughout the 19th century. Blacks did participate in nearly all segments of Western society but many lived in segregated communities. They served in expeditions that mapped the West and as fur traders, miners, cowboys, Indian fighters, scouts, woodsmen, farm hands, saloon workers, cooks, and outlaws. The famed Buffalo Soldiers were members of the Negro regiments of the U.S. Army and they played a substantial role in fighting the Plains Indians and the Apache in Arizona. Relatively few freed slaves, known as "Exodusters", became prairie settlers in all-black towns like Nicodemus, Kansas.[118]


Childhood on the American frontier is contested territory. One group of scholars, following the lead of novelists Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder argue the rural environment was salubrious. Historians Katherine Harris[119] and Elliott West[120] write that rural upbringing allowed children to break loose from urban hierarchies of age and gender, promoted family interdependence, and in the end produced children who were more self-reliant, mobile, adaptable, responsible, independent and more in touch with nature than their urban or eastern counterparts. On the other hand historians Elizabeth Hampsten[121] and Lillian Schlissel[122] offer a grim portrait of loneliness, privation, abuse, and demanding physical labor from an early age. Riney-Kehrberg takes a middle position.[123]

Bison versus cattle

Ralph Morrison, a hunter killed and scalped by Cheyenne in December 1868, near Fort Dodge, Kansas

The rise of the cattle industry and the cowboy is directly tied to the demise of the huge bison herds of the Great Plains. Once numbering over 25 million, bison were a vital resource animal for the Plains Indians, providing food, hides for clothing and shelter, and bones for implements. Loss of habitat, disease, and over-hunting steadily reduced the herds through the 19th century to the point of near extinction. Overland trails and growing settlements began to block the free movement of the herds to feeding and breeding areas. Initially, commercial hunters sought bison to make "pemmican", a mixture of pounded buffalo meat, fat, and berries, which was a long-lasting food used by trappers and other outdoorsmen. Not only did white hunters impact the herds, but Indians who arrived from the East also contributed to their reduction. Adding to the kill was the wanton slaughter of bison by sportsmen, migrants, and soldiers[citation needed]. Shooting bison from passing trains was common sport[citation needed]. However, the greatest negative effect on the herds was the huge markets opened up by the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Hides in great quantities were tanned into leather and fashioned into clothing and furniture. Killing far exceeded market requirements, reaching over one million per year. As many as five bison were killed for each one that reached market, and most of the meat was left to rot on the plains and at trackside after removal of the hides. Skulls were often ground for fertilizer. A skilled hunter could kill over 100 bison in a day.[124]

By the 1870s, the great slaughter of bison had a major impact on the Plains Indians, dependent on the animal both economically and spiritually. Soldiers of the U.S. Army deliberately encouraged and abetted the killing of bison as part of the campaigns against the Sioux and Pawnee, in an effort to deprive them of their resource animal and to demoralize them.[125]

The sharp decline of the herds of the Plains created a vacuum which was exploited by the growing cattle industry. Spanish cattlemen had introduced cattle ranching and longhorn cattle to the Southwest in the 17th century, and the men who worked the ranches, called "vaqueros", were the first "cowboys" in the West. After the Civil War―with railheads available at Abilene, Kansas City, Dodge City, and Wichita―Texas ranchers raised large herds of longhorn cattle and drove them north along the Western, Chisholm, and Shawnee trails. The cattle were slaughtered in Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. The Chisholm Trail, laid out by cattleman Joseph McCoy along an old trail marked by Jesse Chisholm, was the major artery of cattle commerce, carrying over 1.5 million head of cattle between 1867 and 1871 over the 800 miles (1,300 km) from south Texas to Abilene, Kansas.[126] The long drives were treacherous, especially crossing water such as the Brazos and the Red River and when they had to fend off Indians and rustlers looking to make off with their cattle. A typical drive would take three to four months and contained two miles (3 km) of cattle six abreast.[127] Despite the risks, the long Texas drives proved very profitable and attracted investors from the United States and abroad. The price of one head of cattle raised in Texas was about $4 but was worth more than $40 back East.[128]

Photograph from the mid-1870s of a pile of American bison skulls to be ground into fertilizer.

By the 1870s and 1880s, cattle ranches expanded further north into new grazing grounds and replaced the bison herds in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Nebraska and the Dakota territory, using the rails to ship to both coasts. Many of the largest ranches were owned by Scottish and English financiers. The single largest cattle ranch in the entire West was owned by American John W. Iliff, "cattle king of the Plains", operating in Colorado and Wyoming.[129] Gradually, longhorns were replaced by the American breeds of Hereford and Angus, introduced by settlers from the Northwest. Though less hardy and more disease-prone, these breeds produced better tasting beef and matured faster.[130][131]

Then disaster struck the cattle industry. A terribly severe winter engulfed the plains toward the end of 1886 and well into 1887, locking the prairie grass under ice and crusted snow which starving herds could not penetrate. After their livestock died by the thousands, great syndicates and “barons”, already under pressure from declining prices and tightening credit, were financially ruined. Many of them had spent much more each year than they made to expand their land and cattle empires, but now they were forced to liquidate most of their remaining holdings just to pay for living expenses and to help satisfy a host of demanding creditors.[132]

Sheep grazing took over as sheep were easier to feed and needed less water. However, sheep also helped cause ecological changes that enabled foreign grasses to invade the Plains and also caused increased erosion. Open range cattle ranching came to an end and was replaced by barbed wire spreads where water, breeding, feeding, and grazing could be controlled. This led to "fence wars" which erupted over disputes about water rights. Cattlemen and sheep ranchers sometimes engaged in violence against each other as did large and small cattle ranchers, culminating in the Johnson County War.[133]

Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and others on the Dodge City Peace Commission

Anchoring the booming cattle industry of the 1860s and 1870s were the cattle towns in Kansas and Missouri. Like the mining towns in California and Nevada, cattle towns such as Abilene, Dodge City, and Ellsworth experienced a short period of boom and bust lasting about five years. The cattle towns would spring up as land speculators would rush in ahead of a proposed rail line and build a town and the supporting services attractive to the cattlemen and the cowboys. If the railroads complied, the new grazing ground and supporting town would secure the cattle trade. However, unlike the mining towns which in many cases became ghost towns and ceased to exist after the ore played out, cattle towns often evolved from cattle to farming and continued on after the grazing lands were exhausted. In some cases, resistance by moral reformers and alliances of businessmen drove the cattle trade out of town. Ellsworth, on the other hand, floundered as the result of Indian raids, floods, and cholera.[134]

The early years of male-dominated life in cattle towns gave way to a more balanced community of farm families and small businesses as the boom passed. Though lawlessness, prostitution, and gambling were significant in cattle towns, especially early on, the greed factor in the mining towns added an extra element of danger and violence. Since these towns grew rapidly, law and order often took a while to establish itself. Vigilante justice did occur, but in many cases, it subsided when adequate police forces were appointed. While some vigilante committees served the public good fairly and successfully in the absence of law officers and judges, more often than not vigilantism was motivated by bigotry and base emotion and produced imperfect justice directed at those considered socially inferior.[135] Indian hunting and race riots against the Chinese were severe manifestations of vigilantism.[136]

A contemporary eyewitness of Hays City, Kansas paints a vivid image of a cattle town:

"Hays City by lamplight was remarkably lively, but not very moral. The streets blazed with a reflection from saloons, and a glance within showed floors crowded with dancers, the gaily dressed women striving to hide with ribbons and paint the terrible lines which that grim artist, Dissipation, loves to draw upon such faces... To the music of violins and the stamping of feet the dance went on, and we saw in the giddy maze old men who must have been pirouetting on the very edge of their graves."[137]

To control violence, sometimes cowboys were segregated into brothel districts away from the main part of town. Cattle rustling was a serious offense sometimes punished by lynching. However, free-shooting brawls, also known as "hurrahing", were not as frequent as in the movies. In Wichita, handguns were outlawed within city limits and in many towns some form of gun control existed. Also unlike in the movies, marshals rarely shot outlaws, especially in the middle of Main Street in a showdown. Famed lawmen such as Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Wild Bill Hickok, and less remembered ones like Michael Meagher, Thomas James Smith, and Bill Tilghman actually averaged only one or two killings in a year.[138]

Code of the West

A new code of behavior was becoming acceptable in the West. People no longer had a duty to retreat when threatened. This was a departure from British common law that required citizens to have their back to the wall before they could protect themselves with deadly force.[139] In 1876 an Ohio court held if attacked a citizen was not "obligated to fly". The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the legality of "no duty to retreat".[140] The code of the West dictated that a man did not have to back away from a fight, needing to retreat no further than "the air at his back", and could pursue an adversary even if it resulted in death.[141][142][143]

Re-enactment of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

In reality, the main activity of law enforcement in cattle towns was knocking down drunks and hauling them away before they hurt themselves or others. They also disarmed cowboys who violated gun control edicts, tried to prevent dueling, and dealt with flagrant breaches of gambling and prostitution ordinances.[144] When the cattle were not in town, Wyatt Earp and other lawmen might be heading up street repair projects or doing other civic chores, or tending to their own business interests.[135]

Most justices of the peace were poorly schooled in law, politically corrupt, and depended on assessing fees and fines to make a living. The better ones ruled by common sense and experience, but could be inconsistent as they did not refer to statutes to guide their rulings. Federal judges tended to have better qualifications and were more inclined to follow written law. However, the West also inherited the Anglo-American system of jury trials for serious cases in spite of the fact that most potential jurors were biased by their personal relationships and acquaintances and/or struggling to make ends meet, a combination which made honest and impartial jurors difficult to find in the best of circumstances.[145]

Some of the banditry of the West was carried out by Mexicans and Indians against white targets of opportunity along the U.S. –Mexico border, particularly in Texas, Arizona, and California. Pancho Villa, after leaving his father's employ, took up the life of banditry in Durango and later in the state of Chihuahua. He was caught several times for crimes ranging from banditry to horse thievery and cattle rustling but, through influential connections, was always able to secure his release. Villa later became a controversial revolutionary folk hero, leading a band of Mexican raiders in attacks against various regimes and was sought after by the U.S. government. The second major type of banditry was conducted by the infamous outlaws of the West, including Jesse James, Billy the Kid, the Dalton Gang, Black Bart, Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and hundreds of others who preyed on banks, trains, and stagecoaches.[146] Some of the outlaws, such as Jesse James, were products of the violence of the Civil War (James had ridden with Quantrill's Raiders) and others became outlaws during hard times in the cattle industry. Many were misfits and drifters who roamed the West avoiding the law. When outlaw gangs were near, towns would raise a posse (like in the movies) to attempt to drive them away or capture them. Seeing that the need to combat the gunslingers was a growing business opportunity, Allan Pinkerton ordered his detective agency to open branches out West, and they got into the business of pursuing and capturing outlaws, like the James Gang, Butch Cassidy, Sam Bass, and dozens of others. Pinkerton devised the "rogues gallery" and employed a systematic method for identifying bodies of criminals.[147]


Central to the myth and the reality of the West is the American cowboy. His real life was a hard one and revolved around two annual roundups, spring and fall, the subsequent drives to market, and the time off in the cattle towns spending his hard earned money on food, clothing, gambling, and prostitution. During winter, many cowboys hired themselves out to ranches near the cattle towns, where they repaired and maintained equipment and buildings. On a long drive, there was usually one cowboy for each 250 head of cattle.[127]

Before a drive, a cowboy's duties included riding out on the range and bringing together the scattered cattle. The best cattle would be selected, roped, and branded, and most male cattle were castrated. The cattle also needed to be dehorned and examined and treated for infections. On the long drives, the cowboys had to keep the cattle moving and in line. The cattle had to be watched day and night as they were prone to stampedes and straying. The work days often lasted fourteen hours, with just six hours of sleep. It was grueling, dusty work, with just a few minutes of relaxation before and at the end of a long day. On the trail, drinking, gambling, brawling, and even cursing was often prohibited and fined. It was often monotonous and boring work. Food was barely adequate and consisted mostly of bacon, beans, bread, coffee, dried fruit, and potatoes. On average, cowboys earned $30 to $40 per month. Because of the heavy physical and emotional toll, it was unusual for a cowboy to spend more than seven years on the range.[148] As open range ranching and the long drives gave way to fenced in ranches in the 1880s, the glory days of the cowboy came to an end, and the myths about the "free living" cowboy began to emerge.[149]

Many of the cowboys were veterans of the Civil War, particularly from the Confederacy, who returned to ruined home towns and found no future, so they went west looking for opportunities. Some were Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and even Britons. Nearly all were in their twenties or teens. The earliest cowboys in Texas learned their trade, adapted their clothing, and took their jargon from the Mexican vaqueros or "buckaroos", the heirs of Spanish cattlemen from Andalusia in Spain. Chaps, the heavy protective leather trousers worn by cowboys, got their name from the Spanish "chaparreras", and the lariat, or rope, was derived from "la reata". All the distinct clothing of the cowboy—boots, saddles, hats, pants, chaps, slickers, bandannas, gloves, and collar-less shirts—were practical and adaptable, designed for protection and comfort. The cowboy hat quickly developed the capability, even in the early years, to identify its wearer as someone associated with the West.[150] The most enduring fashion adapted from the cowboy, popular nearly worldwide today, are "blue jeans", originally made by Levi Strauss for miners in 1850.[151] It was the cowboy hat, however, that came to symbolize the American West.[152]

The modern rodeo or "Frontier Day" show is the only American sport to evolve from an industry. It exists on both the amateur and professional level, and it remains a favorite form of entertainment in many towns of the West. Rodeos combine the traditional skills of the range cowboy — calf and steer roping, steer wrestling, team roping, bronco riding, and horsemanship with the showmanship of bull riding, and barrel racing.[153]

Warfare in the Old West

Military forts and outposts

Fort Bowie in 1893.

As the frontier moved westward, the establishment of U.S. military forts moved with it, representing and maintaining federal sovereignty over new territories. The military garrisons usually lacked defensible walls but were seldom attacked. They served as bases for troops at or near strategic areas, particularly for counteracting the Indian presence. For example, Fort Bowie protected Apache Pass in southern Arizona along the mail route between Tucson and El Paso and was used to launch attacks against Cochise and Geronimo. Fort Laramie and Fort Kearny helped protect immigrants crossing the Great Plains and a series of posts in California protected miners. Forts were constructed to launch attacks against the Sioux. As Indian reservations sprang up, the military set up forts to protect them. Forts also guarded the Union Pacific and other rail lines. Other important forts were Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Smith, Arkansas, Fort Snelling, Minnesota, Fort Union Montana, Fort Worth, Texas, and Fort Walla Walla in Washington. By the 1890s, with the threat from Indian nations eliminated, and with white populations increasing enough to provide their own law enforcement, most frontier forts were abandoned.[154] Fort Omaha, Nebraska was home to the Department of the Platte, and was responsible for outfitting most Western posts for more than 20 years after its founding in the late 1870s. Fort Huachuca in Arizona was also originally a frontier post which is still in use by the United States Army. During the Mexican Revolution, the United States was forced to build a new series of twelve forts for protection along the Mexican-American border. Fort Naco in Naco, Arizona was one of these. At this time in the southwest United States, towns were still being established and all wilderness was still considered frontier.

Indian Wars

A painting of Fort Snelling.

As settlement sped up across the West after the transcontinental railroad was completed, clashes with Native Americans of the Plains and southwest reached a final phase. The military's mission was to clear the land of free-roaming Indians and put them onto reservations. The stiff resistance after the Civil War of battle-hardened, well-armed Indian warriors resulted in the Indian Wars.[155]

According to Gregory Michno, author of the Encyclopedia of Indian wars: western battles and skirmishes, 1850-1890, there were more conflicts with native Americans in the states bordering Mexico than in the interior states. Arizona ranked highest, with 310 known battles fought within the state's boundaries between Americans and the natives. Also, when determining how many deaths resulted from the wars, in each of the American states, Arizona ranked highest. At least 4,340 people were killed, including soldiers, civilians and native Americans, over twice as many as occurred in Texas, the second highest ranking state. Most of the deaths in Arizona were caused by the Apache. Micho also says that fifty-one percent of the Indian war battles between 1850 and 1890 took place in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, as well as thirty-seven percent of the casualties in the county west of the Mississippi River.[156]

In the Apache and Navajo Wars, Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson fought the Apache around the reservations in 1862. Skirmishes between Americans and Apaches continued unil after the turn of the century. Kit Carson used a scorched earth policy in the Navajo campaign, burning Navajo fields and homes, and capturing or killing their livestock. He was aided by other Indian tribes with long-standing enmity toward the Navajos, chiefly the Utes. He later fought a combined force of Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne to a draw at the First Battle of Adobe Walls, but he managed to destroy the Indian village and winter supplies. On June 27, 1874 'Bat' Masterson and a small group of buffalo hunters fought a much larger Indian force at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

Chief Sitting Bull

Red Cloud's War was led by the Lakota chief Makhpyia luta (Red Cloud) against the military who were erecting forts along the Bozeman trail. It was the most successful campaign against the U.S. during the Indian Wars. By the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), the U.S. granted a large reservation to the Lakota, without military presence or oversight, no settlements, and no reserved road building rights. The reservation included the entire Black Hills.

Captain Jack was a chief of the Native American Modoc tribe of California and Oregon, and was their leader during the Modoc War. With 53 Modoc warriors, Captain Jack held off 1,000 men of the U.S. Army for 7 months. Captain Jack killed Edward Canby.

The Great Sioux War of 1876-77 was conducted by the Lakota under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. The conflict began after repeated violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868) once gold was discovered in the hills. One of its famous battles was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which combined Sioux and Cheyenne forces defeated the 7th Cavalry, led by General George Armstrong Custer.

The end of the Sioux Wars came at the Wounded Knee Massacre on December 29, 1890 where Sitting Bull's half-brother, Big Foot, and some 200 Sioux were killed by the 7th Cavalry. Only thirteen days before, Sitting Bull had been killed with his son Crow Foot in a gun battle with a group of Indian police that had been sent by the American government to arrest him.[157]

Other engagements between Americans and native Americans occurred after the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 which is considered the final trial of the American Indian Wars. The period came to an end in 1918 after the skirmish in Arizona locally called the Battle of Bear Valley. In the fight, the 10th Cavalry captured a group of Yaquis and killed their chief. In 1907 two soldiers from Fort Wingate, New Mexico skirmished with Navajo rifleman and in 1911 they quelled an uprising in Chaco Canyon. Also in 1911 the Last Massacre occurred when a family of hostile Shoshones killed three ranchers in Nevada. A posse was formed and after an engagement popularly called the Battle of Kelly Creek, the Shoshone family of twelve was mostly killed with the exception of three children.

Johnson County War

"The Invaders" of The Johnson County Cattle War. Photo Taken at Fort D.A. Russell near Cheyenne, Wyoming May 1892.

The 1892 Johnson County range war took place in Wyoming's Powder River country. The large ranches were organized as the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and hired killers from Texas; an expedition of fifty men was organized, which proceeded by train from Cheyenne to Casper, then toward Johnson County, intending to eliminate alleged rustlers and also, apparently, to replace the government in Johnson County. After initial hostilities, the sheriff of Johnson County raised a posse of 200 men and set out for the ruffians' location. The posse led by the sheriff besieged the invading force at the TA Ranch on Crazy Woman Creek. After two days, one of the invaders escaped and was able to contact the acting governor of Wyoming. Frantic efforts to save the besieged invaders ensued, and telegraphs to Washington resulted in intervention by President Benjamin Harrison. The Sixth Cavalry from Fort McKinney was ordered to proceed to the TA ranch and take custody of the invaders and save them from the posse. In the end, the invaders went free after the court venue was changed and the charges were dropped.[158]

Border War

American Magonistas who fought at the battles for Tijuana in 1911.

In 1910 the last conflict of the Old West began when Mexican Carrancistas rebelled against their government. Fighting spread all across Mexico and along the Mexican-American border, several battles were fought between American soldiers and citizens against Mexicans. On many different occasions Mexican bandits crossed the border and raided American settlements. Also, thousands of Americans joined the rebellion in Mexico and fought at all of the major engagements in the north including the Battle of Ciudad Juarez in 1911 and the Siege of Naco in 1914. In 1916 an army of American cavalry invaded Mexico as part of the Punitive Expedition, an attempt to capture the famous border bandit and rebel Pancho Villa. By the end of the revolution the Old West era was coming to an end with the rise of modern society in the region.

End of the Old West

Poster for Buffalo Bill Wild West Show

After the eleventh U.S. Census was taken in 1890, the superintendent announced that there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement, and hence no longer a frontier in the continental United States. However, according to author Samuel Eliot Morison, in 1890, when the frontier was declared "over", there was still thousands of square miles of unsettled land which took another few decades to populate or utilize.[159] In his highly influential Frontier Thesis in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner concluded that the frontier was all but gone.[160] But with the discovery of gold in the Klondike in 1896, a new frontier was opened up in the vast northern territory. Alaska became known as "the last frontier".

By century's end, the population of the West had reached an average of two people per square mile, which was enough to be considered "settled". Towns and cities began to grow around industrial centers, transportation hubs, and farming areas. In 1880, San Francisco dwarfed all other Western cities with a population of nearly 250,000. Over opposition from mining and timber interests, the federal government began to take steps to preserve and manage the remaining public land and resources, hence exercising more control over the affairs of Westerners.[135]

The mythologizing of the West began with minstrel shows and popular music in the 1840s. During the same period, P. T. Barnum presented Indian chiefs, dances, and other Wild West exhibits in his museums, However, large scale awareness really took off when the dime novel appeared in 1859, the first being Malaeska, the Indian Wife of the White Hunter.[161] By simplifying reality and grossly exaggerating the truth, the novels captured the public's attention with sensational tales of violence and heroism, and fixed in the public's mind stereotypical images of heroes and villains—courageous cowboys and savage Indians, virtuous lawmen and ruthless outlaws, brave settlers and predatory cattlemen. Millions of copies and thousands of titles were sold. The novels relied on a series of predictable literary formulas appealing to mass tastes and were often written in as little as a few days. The most successful of all dime novels was Edward S. Ellis' Seth Jones (1860). Ned Buntline's stories glamorized Buffalo Bill Cody and Edward L. Wheeler created "Deadwood Dick", "Hurricane Nell", and "Calamity Jane".[162]

Alfred L. Kroeber with Ishi in 1911. Ishi is believed to be the last Native American in Northern California to have lived the bulk of his life completely outside the European American culture.[163]

Buffalo Bill Cody grabbed the opportunity to hop on his own bandwagon and to promote his own legend as well as other Western stereotypes. He presented the first "Wild West" show in 1883, creating a caricature of the Old West with skits and demonstrations by Indians and cowboys hired for the occasion. He offered feats of roping, marksmanship, and riding, including those of sure-shooting Annie Oakley. Cody took his show to Europe and was wildly received, further spreading the myth of the West to nations abroad.[164]

Toward the close of the century, magazines like Harper's Weekly featured illustrations by artists Frederic Remington, Charles M. Russell, and others, and married them to action-filled stories by writers like Owen Wister, together conveying vivid images of the Old West to the public.[165] Remington lamented the passing of an era he helped to chronicle when he wrote, "I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever...I saw the living, breathing end of three American centuries of smoke and dust and sweat."[166]

The discovery, exploration, settlement, exploitation, and conflicts of the "American Old West" form a unique tapestry of events, which has been celebrated by Americans and foreigners alike—in art, music, dance, novels, magazines, short stories, poetry, theater, video games, movies, radio, television, song, and oral tradition—which continues in the modern era.

See also

  • Cowboy action shooting is a competitive shooting sport which originated in the early 1980s that requires shooters to compete using firearms typical of the mid-to-late 19th century including single action revolvers, lever action rifles (chambered in pistol calibers) and side by side double barrel shotguns or pump action shotguns with external hammers.
  • Cowboy hat a hat
  • Boss of the plains a hat
  • Historical reenactment : an activity in which participants recreate some aspects of a historical event or period.
  • National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum : museum and art gallery, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, housing one of the largest collections in the world of Western, American cowboy, American rodeo, and American Indian art, artifacts, and archival materials.
  • Reno Gang : Southern Indiana post civil war gang. First Train Robbers in US History. 10 members lynched by vigilante mob in 1868.
  • Rodeo : demonstration of cattle wrangling skills.
  • The Oregon-California Trails Association preserves, protects and shares the histories of emigrants who followed these trails westward.
  • Wanted poster : a poster, popular in mythic scenes of the west, let the public know of criminals whom authorities wish to apprehend.
  • Wild West Shows : a following of the wild west shows of the American frontier.
  • Chris Enss : author of historical nonfiction that documents the forgotten women of the Old West.
  • Zane Grey : author of many popular novels on the Old West
  • Karl May : best selling German writer of all time, noted chiefly for wild west books set in the American West.
Winnetou : American-Indian hero of several novels written by Karl May.


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  90. ^ Richard White (1991), p.173
  91. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.176-177
  92. ^ Richard White (1991), p.137
  93. ^ Richard White (1991), p.139
  94. ^ Richard White (1991), p.141
  95. ^ Richard White (1991), p.145
  96. ^ a b Richard White (1991), p.143
  97. ^ Richard White (1991), p.147
  98. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.639
  99. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.146-147
  100. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.640
  101. ^ Richard White (1991), p.151
  102. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.146
  103. ^ a b Robert M. Utley (2003), p.227
  104. ^ Richard White (1991), p.252
  105. ^ Richard White (1991), p.248
  106. ^ Richard White (1991), p.249
  107. ^ Richard White (1991), p.250
  108. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.994
  109. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.230
  110. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.231
  111. ^ Richard White (1991), p.196
  112. ^ Richard White (1991), p.209
  113. ^ Josephy (1965), p.347
  114. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.209-210
  115. ^ Richard White (1991), p.299
  116. ^ a b Robert M. Utley (2003), p.238
  117. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.239
  118. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.818-820
  119. ^ Katherine Harris, Long Vistas: Women and Families on Colorado Homesteads (1993)
  120. ^ Elliott West, Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier (1989)
  121. ^ Elizabeth Hampsten, Settlers' Children: Growing Up on the Great Plains (1991)
  122. ^ Lillian Schlissel, Byrd Gibbens and Elizabeth Hampsten, Far from Home: Families of the Westward Journey (2002)
  123. ^ Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest (2005)
  124. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.218-219
  125. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.219-220
  126. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.176
  127. ^ a b Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.269
  128. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.175
  129. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.181-182
  130. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.243
  131. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.177
  132. ^ Griske, Michael (2005). The Diaries of John Hunton. Heritage Books. pp. 40, 41, 46. ISBN 0-7884-3804-2. 
  133. ^ Richard White (1991), pp.345-346
  134. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.184
  135. ^ a b c Richard White (1991), p.330
  136. ^ Richard White (1991), p.344
  137. ^ Horan & Sann, Pictorial History of the Wild West, Bonanza Books, New York, 1964, p.52
  138. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.182-184
  139. ^ Brown, Richard Maxwell. (1994) Oxford History of the American West, p.393 ISBN 0-19-511212-1
  140. ^ Wallis Michael. Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride (2007), p.121 ISBN 0-393-06068-3
  141. ^ Utley, Robert M. High Noon in Lincoln: Violence on the Western Frontier (1987), pp.176-177
  142. ^ Sonnichsen. C.L. I’ll die before I’ll run: The Story of the great feuds of Texas (1962), pp.8-9 ASIN B001KCZ9QM
  143. ^ Holden William C. “Law and Lawlessness on the Texas Frontier 1875-1890 (1940), pp.188-203
  144. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.656
  145. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.655
  146. ^ Richard White (1991), p.336
  147. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.940
  148. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.268-270
  149. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.245
  150. ^ Reynolds, William and Rich Rand (1995) The Cowboy Hat book. Pg10 ISBN 0-87905-656-8
  151. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.272
  152. ^ Reynolds, William and Rich Rand (1995) The Cowboy Hat book. Pg.15 ISBN 0-87905-656-8
  153. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.1030-1031
  154. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.394-399
  155. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), p.559
  156. ^ Michno, pg. 367
  157. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.559-561
  158. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.602-602
  159. ^ Morison, pg 746
  160. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.256
  161. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), p.253
  162. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.303-304
  163. ^ Ishi: The Last Yahi[dead link] see also Uncontacted peoples
  164. ^ Robert M. Utley (2003), pp.253-254
  165. ^ Howard R. Lamar (1977), pp.1008-1009
  166. ^ Josephy (1965), p.407

Further reading

  • Lamar, Howard, ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West (1998); this is a revised version of Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West ed. by Howard Lamar (1977)
  • Mitchell, Lee Clark (1998). Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film'. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226532356. 
  • Jules David Prown, Nancy K. Anderson, and William Cronon, eds. Discovered Lands, Invented Pasts: Transforming Visions of the American West (1994)
  • Slotkin, Richard (1998). The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 080613030X. 
  • Slotkin, Richard (1960). Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806130318. 
  • Smith, Henry Nash (1950). Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-93955-7. 
  • Tompkins, Jane (1993). West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. Oxford University Press US. ISBN 0195082680. 
  • Witschi, N.S. (2002). Traces of Gold: California’s Natural Resources and the Claim to Realism in Western American Literature. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.. ISBN 0-817-31117-3. 
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1965). The Oxford History of the American People. Oxford University Press. 
  • Michno, F. Gregory (2009). Encyclopedia of Indian wars: Western battles and skirmishes 1850-1890. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company. ISBN 9780878424689. 

External links


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