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american history
the wild west

*at the end of the civil war, about 250,000 american indians lived in the great american desert.  many were nomadic plains indians, but some lived more settled lives and practised agriculture.  what were the major indian crops? (corn, beans, squash)  although white people saw them all as indians, they saw themselves as many different cultures, but cultures with the first claim on the land and its resources.


*at first the american government tried to limit who could trade with the indians and settle in the west, but this was futile as the discovery of gold and a desire for land made people rush west.  instead, indians were forced onto reservations, usually on poor land without sufficient access to buffalo and other game (much of which was hunted nearly to extinction by settlers and railroad builders).


*look at page 163.  where were the largest reservations? (oklahoma, arizona, south dakota)  what modern state was formed from indian territory? (oklahoma)


*during the civil war, the sioux tried to fight against white encroachment by attacking settlements in minnesota, and the government responded with force. 


*in 1864, colorado militia under colonel john chivington attacked a camp of cheyenne and arapaho indians at sand creek and massacred them (men, women, and children) even after they raised an american flag to show they were friendly.  other indians were not:  in 1866, red cloud and his sioux led captain william fetterman into an ambush and killed him and his men.


*most of the time, indians attacked small settlements or ambushed small groups of soldiers.  the most famous exception was at the battle of the little big horn in 1876 when george custer led his 250 men into a large camp of 2,000 indians led by crazy horse (even though his guides and scouts had suggested he not go that way).  his ignorance and arrogance led to the loss of all his men in custer’s last stand.


*when the full might of the army was turned loose, the indians usually lost.  after custer’s last stand, crazy horse and his men were forced to surrender, as they could not survive a winter at war.


*in 1877, chief joseph led the nez perce on a march to the canadian border, where they hoped to find freedom, after they were told they would have to move to a smaller reservation.  they were caught and sent to oklahoma after chief joseph made his famous speech of surrender, saying ‘i will fight no more forever.’


*finally the government decided that the only way the indians could get along with settlers was if they settled down on farms and lived as whites did.  this was known as assimilation and was eventually promoted by the dawes act of 1887 (although the idea was not new then).  the dawes act allowed indians off reservations and gave them 160 acres to farm—plenty of land back east, but not enough in the west.  indians were also encouraged to attend schools like the carlisle school in pennsylvania to learn to act, dress, speak, and think like whites.


*many indians did not want to do this or to stay on their reservations, particularly as the indian agents who were supposed to help them were often corrupt.


*the last battle between indians and the us army was at wounded knee, south dakota in 1890, where indians were engaged in a religious ritual called the ghost dance which they thought would banish whites from the great plains and bring the buffalo back.  the army thought this was a plot to start another war, tried to arrest the leaders, but killed them and over 100 others instead.  this was the end of indian warfare.


*the united states was so dedicated to moving the indians off their land because so many americans were moving west. 


*some had moved west when gold, and later other minerals, were discovered (either to mine or to provide goods and services to the miners).  this provided many jobs, but many of them were hard and unpleasant.  runoff from the mines also tended to foul water that farmers and livestock depended on.


*other people did move west to farm.  what government policy encouraged this?  (homestead act offered 160 acres to any farmer who would dig a well, live there land 5 years, and build a road)


*the government also helped built the transcontinental railroad between 1863 and 1869, linking omaha and sacramento (each of which connected to other rail lines in the east and west) after crossing the great plains and blasting through the rockies and the sierra nevada.  although private companies built the railroad, they had land grants and loans from the us government.  other government.  other railroads later crossed the continent, too, and helped fill the west up with settlers.


*the railroads created cow towns in the west (mostly in or near kansas), where cattle were driven by cowboys from as far away as texas, colorado, or montana to be shipped east to chicago to be butchered.  cow towns such as dodge city, kansas, were famous for their violence—many of the famous stories of the wild west actually occurred there and in similar places.


*cowboys were needed to round up cattle for each drive as well, because until the 1880s, cattle roamed free in an open-range system, with only different brands burned into their hides to tell their owners apart.  what ended the open-range system? (newly-invented barbed wire, demanded by farmers who wanted to protect their land; over-supply of beef in the 1880s also drove down prices until bad weather (freezing winters and drought in the summers) destroyed many ranches in the late 1880s)


*many ranchers disliked farmers, who they saw as taking up their land.  they called them ‘sodbusters’ because many built their first houses out of sod piled up sort of like dirt igloos.


*cattle and sheep ruined farmers’ crops.  sheep ate grass so close to the ground that no more grew for the cattle.  farmers’ barbed wire cut up the open ranges that ranchers had enjoyed.  mine runoff made water unfit to use.  this often led to violence between different groups, sometimes known as range wars.


*by 1890 so many americans had moved into the west that the census bureau announced that the frontier had closed:  although there were still vast open spaces, settlers could be found in almost any part of the us (even though many were still isolated).  the wild west was not so wild any more.

this page last updated 23 august, 2011.
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