UNITED STATES HISTORY
How the West Was Won
*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, primarily cultivating corn, beans, and 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, thanks in part to the development
of new rifles and heavy bullets with a large charge of gunpowder
specifically designed for buffalo hunting).
*From the days of Manifest Destiny in the 1840s, Americans had
moved across the Great Plains and through the Rockies to reach the
West Coast. After the end of the Civil War, white settlers
poured west, not only to the Pacific Coast, but also to fill up
the plains and Rockies Mountains, particularly after the
completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
*This disrupted the traditional way of life for many American
Indians, and eventually they fought back. However, like all
earlier Indian attempts at resisting white settlement, they failed
because the Indians did not unite against white
encroachment. Furthermore, they now faced veterans of the
Civil War, including such generals as Oliver Otis Howard, Phil
Sheridan, and William Tecumseh Sherman (who became Commanding
General of the US Army after Grant became president; Sherman was
later replaced by Sheridan). Many of those generals,
particularly Sherman and Sheridan, made a point of driving the
buffalo to extinction in order to starve the Indians.
*The Indians made many savage attacks on white settlers, killing,
scalping, and kidnapping men, women, and children. They also
attacked wagon trains, and stole supplies and horses.
*In Colorado, there were tensions between settlers and Indians
during the Civil War. The Denver newspaper printed a
front-page editorial advocating the "extermination of the red
devils" and urging its readers to “take a few months off and
dedicate that time to wiping out the Indians.” The
territorial government responded to with a policy of shooting
Indians on sight. The man most responsible for implementing
this policy was Colonel John Chivington (who supported killing
Indian children with the statement that nits make lice).
*The Colorado War (1864-1865) was fought between the Colorado
Territory and the Cheyenne Indians (particularly the faction of
Cheyenne known as the Dog Soldiers, who traditionally pinned
themselves to the ground where they planned to fight by sticking a
long arrow through the back apron of their breechcloth)—as well as
a few other Indian tribes allied with the Cheyenne such as the
Arapaho and the Sioux.
*The war began with a Coloradan incursion into Indian lands
(partly in response to Indian horse thievery). Some Cheyenne
leaders, particularly Black Kettle, realised there was no way to
fight the United States, and tried to make peace.
*However, Colorado soldier continued burning Indian towns and
attacking Indian camps. The most infamous attack was called
the Sand Creek Massacre, in which Chivington’s men slaughtered
helpless women, children, and old men led by Black Kettle who were
trying to negotiate a peace. When Chivington’s men attacked,
Black Kettle flew the American flag and a white flag, but many of
his people were cut down anyway, and scalps and other body parts
were cut off as souvenirs.
*This united many Indians against the Americans (and turned many
Americans against warfare against the Indians when the
details—including the collection of Indian scalps by white
soldiers—became known; some who heard of this began to ask, "Who is
the savage?"). Soon Colorado was fighting a defensive
war, with towns and even military forts being raided before the
Indians withdrew into Nebraska to fight again another day.
*Later, some Cheyenne continued to fight under the leadership of
Roman Nose, a war leader with a magic war bonnet that protected
him from white bullets as long as he avoided all white
tools. Before the Battle of Beecher Island (17 September,
1868), an Indian woman had stuck an iron fork into his food, so he
was reluctant to fight because he had not had time to purify
himself. However, he finally did so, leading a charge
against the US Army in which he was killed.
*This was part of a campaign to crush the Cheyenne by General Phil
Sheridan. In November, 1868, he sent George Custer to pursue
Cheyenne warriors into their winter camps along the Washita
River. There was a fierce battle along the Washita, during
which some Indian women picked up weapons, which gave Custer’s
soldiers in the 7th Cavalry an excuse to shoot down women and
children alongside the men (both armed and unarmed). Black
Kettle and his wife were among those killed in the Battle of
*When a small group of Custer’s men rode off in pursuit of one
group of Indians and did not return, Custer made no effort to find
them, angering some of his men (including an officer named
Frederick Benteen, who later did not hurry to support Custer at
the Battle of the Little Bighorn).
*The next summer, the Cheyenne were forced onto reservations,
although some would go on the warpath again to fight Custer
alongside the Sioux in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
*The Sioux of Minnesota and the Dakota Territory were another
enemy of the United States, and had been since the 1850s.
They allied with the Cheyenne after the Sand Creek Massacre, as
they had already been fighting the US Army on their own
lands. Although they had been temporarily defeated in 1862
(and had 38 of their warriors hanged in the largest mass execution
in US history), they continued to fight the US Army off and on
throughout the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s.
*In 1866, Red Cloud and his Sioux led Captain William Fetterman
into an ambush and killed him and his men.
*The largest of these conflicts was the Great Sioux War of
1876-1877. It is sometimes also known as the Black Hills
War, as it centred around white intrusions into the Black Hills of
South Dakota, where gold had recently been discovered, partly by
an Army expedition led by George Custer. When Sioux leaders
complained, President Grant offered them $25,000 to move to
Oklahoma, which they refused. In response, Grant agreed that
the Army could stop evicting white settlers from the Black Hills,
officially opening the area to a gold rush.
*The Sioux fought back under the leadership of Sitting Bull, a
respected medicine man, and Crazy Horse, a war chief. When
George Custer attempted to attack an Indian settlement led by
Sitting Bull, he fulfilled Sitting Bull’s prophecy that the US
Cavalry would come into their settlement and be killed.
Custer had been misinformed by the local US Indian Agent about how
many hostile Indians were in the area (because many Indians had
left their reservations and so were hard to count), and other
troops meant to reinforce him had been delayed by Crazy
Horse. With poor information, no support from other forces,
and an inflated sense of his own abilities, Custer rode into a
trap on the Little Bighorn River in Montana.
*On 25 July, 1876, Custer and half his men in the 7th Cavalry were
killed (including two of his brothers) in Custer’s Last
Stand. Although it was not as bad a defeat as St Clair’s
defeat in 1791, it was romanticised for the rest of the 19th
century, as Custer’s widow and popular Wild West shows told the
story of his heroism rather than his foolishness. Despite
this, the US Army soon overwhelmed the Sioux, ending the Great
Sioux War in 1877. Crazy Horse died under arrest by the US
Army not long afterwards, but Sitting Bull went on to become a
celebrity among his own people and white society.
*In the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce Indians had been granted
the right to live in Northeastern Oregon in 1873, but in 1877 the
US government changed its mind and ordered the Nez Perce remaining
in the area to move to Idaho. Although one of the Nez
Perce’s main leaders, Chief Joseph, told US General Oliver Otis
Howard that he did not think ‘the Great Spirit Chief gave one kind
of men the right to tell another kind of men what they must do,’
he agreed to the removal. Some of his people, including
other important chiefs, though, fought back, and eventually the
whole tribe attempted to flee to Canada.
*Howard and General Nelson Miles chased them through the mountains
in retribution for the death of a few white men, and the Nez
Perce’s supposed Allies turned against them, helping the US Army
in exchange for money. Finally Chief Joseph was forced to
surrender, sending (at least according to legend) a famous message
to General Howard:
Tell General Howard I know his
heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am
tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed.... The old men are
all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on
the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets;
the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of
them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no
food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I
want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of
them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear
me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From
where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.
*In the American Southwest, particularly
Arizona, the Apache had resisted white encroachment since the late
1600s by stealing their property and massacring isolated settlers,
travellers, and miners. Although the Apache were considered
some of the cruellest of all Indians in their treatment of white
prisoners (whom they often killed), they were treated cruelly as
well—Mexico placed a bounty on Apache scalps in 1835.
*By the late 1870s, most Apaches had been forced onto
reservations, but in 1881, 700 of them fled for Mexico under the
leadership of Geronimo. He returned the next year and helped
many more Apache escape the reservation. He led raids on
Mexican and American towns until the US Army brought in over 5,000
regular soldiers and thousands more militia to hunt him
down. He finally negotiated a surrender with soldiers under
the command of General Miles in 1886, and along with many of his
warriors, was sent to Florida. Although he was eventually
allowed to reunite with his wives and children and even to travel
some (and even became a minor celebrity, selling signed
photographs of himself at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair), he was
never allowed to return to his homeland, and died as a prisoner of
the United States.
*Although to many Americans, Custer was a martyr and Howard and
Miles were heroes, some had always criticised America’s Indian
policies. One of the most successful critics was Helen Hunt
Jackson, who had met a western Indian chief, Standing Bear, when
he came to Boston to describe how his people had been forced from
the Black Hills after the discovery of gold there and to ask for
better treatment for his people in 1879. In 1881, she
published A Century of Dishonor, describing the
mistreatment of America’s Indians since colonial times. She
sent copies to members of Congress at her own expense, and many
people began to become a little more sympathetic to the Indians—of
course, it was easy to do so now when all the Indians but Geronimo
had been defeated, and he was on the run.
*Finally the government decided that the only way Indians could
get along with settlers was if they settled down on farms and
lived as whites did. Such assimilation was eventually
promoted by the Dawes Act of 1887 (although the idea was not new
then). The Dawes Act let Indians have reservation land: 160
acres to farm—plenty of land back east, but not enough in the arid
West. Reservation land that was not needed for this could be
opened to settlement by whites. Indians were also encouraged
to attend schools like the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania to
learn to act, dress, speak, and think like whites.
*As the frontier closed, some Indians on the reservations turned
to the teachings of a Paiute Weather Man named Wovoka, who (after
receiving visions from God) taught that Indians who led a pure
life and rejected white ways of living could bring about a return
of a West full of wild game and peaceful living, and be guaranteed
a reunion with dead family members in the afterlife. God
would allow the President of the United States to continue ruling
in the East, but the Indians would again rule the west. A
major outward part of Wovoka’s teachings was performing a
religious circle dance, known among the Sioux as a Spirit Dance
and to white as the Ghost Dance.
*Some Ghost Dancers wore shirts that they thought would protect
them from bullets, and some Ghost Dancers refused to follow order
to leave their lands as Sioux lands, partly because they believed
that their dancing would renew the Earth in the coming
spring. Among the Indians who refused to leave the land they
thought was reserved for them was Sitting Bull, and many people
believed he was behind the movement and that it was a secret plot
against the United States and white settlement.
*Sitting Bull was arrested and shot in the process on 15 December,
1890. Two weeks later, as the last Sioux who had refused to
move surrendered, troopers from the 7th Cavalry surrounded them at
Wounded Knee Creek. When the Indians were ordered to
surrender their rifles, one of their medicine men began dancing
and told his followers to put on the shirts that would make them
immune to bullets. A deaf Indian refused to give up a gun he
had paid for and could not understand the orders that were given
to him. Soldiers tried to take the gun away from him, but he
resisted, and someone fired a shot. Soon the soldiers began
shooting into the crowd, even though most of them were unarmed.
200 Indians were killed or wounded, as were 69 soldiers.
*Many people (including Nelson Miles, one of the highest ranking
officers in the Army) believed this was a deliberate massacre of
the Indians, but this was never proven. The Battle of
Wounded Knee is generally considered the last battle of the Indian
*American history has always been based on expansion, as America
has always been a place that was explored, expanded, and settled
in recent historical memory, an idea most famously expressed by
one of the most influential American historians, Frederick Jackson
Turner. In 1893, he posited his famous Frontier Thesis in
“The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” arguing
that the frontier served as a safety valve for America surplus and
restive population and also was where American democracy was
created anew each generation.
*While some have criticised Turner, he was certainly correct that
American history up to the end of the 19th century was a history
of continuous westward expansion, and this was (usually)
consciously encouraged by the government, especially after the
Republicans came to power and the Civil War settled the issue of
*One of the first acts of Abraham Lincoln’s administration was the
passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered 160 acres (a
quarter-section) for only a small filing fee (initially $18) to
any farmer who would build a house and live on and farm the land 5
years. After the best land along the rivers was taken,
further homestead acts in 1909 and 1916 allowed settlement of 320
of dry land for farming or 640 acres for ranching. These
acts lasted until 1976 (1986 in Alaska).
*The discovery of gold in California had already encouraged
Americans to move west, and the Homestead Act encouraged
more. Even more Americans took advantage of the Homestead
Act after the completion of another Republican project, the
Transcontinental Railroad, authorised in 1862, begun in 1863, and
finished in 1869.
*Irish workers pushed the Union Pacific west from Omaha.
Chinese coolies built the Central Pacific east from
Sacramento. As the two teams got closer, they played pranks
(sometimes deadly ones) on each other. They met at
Promontory Summit, Utah, on 10 May, 1869, and drove in the final
Golden Spike with a silver sledgehammer. They were financed
by large loans from the federal government (which were eventually
repaid) and generous land grants—131,000,000 acres from the
Federal government and 49,000,000 acres from state
governments. The railroad owners grew rich, partly through
dishonest schemes such as the Credit Mobilier fraud.
Nonetheless, the country was, at least, linked from sea to shining
sea, and more railroads were built across the continent in
*The railroads allowed many ways of life to thrive in the
West. Although the California Gold Rush of 1849 drew a
quarter of a million people to California within 4 years, it was
far from the only great miners’ rush. In 1858, the discovery
of gold in Pike’s Peak, Colorado sent thousands to that territory,
and the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859 opened
one of the most profitable mines in American history. Later,
the discovery of gold in Alaska in 1896 would finally justify
*Western mining was initially the province of hard-working
individuals who hoped to find a lucky strike, and the
price-gouging merchants who lived off them. Soon, though,
major lodes were taken over by big mining companies, who could
afford the equipment needed to dig out and process the ore.
They turned mining into yet another industry, which provided many
jobs, but many of them were unpleasant and dangerous. One in
eighty miners were killed in their work, and it was said that the
streets of Butte, Montana were paved with Irish bones.
*To make up for the dangers of mining, miners formed some of the
most successful unions in 19th century America, particularly the
Western Federation of Miners, formed after a violent strike at
Couer d’Alene, Idaho. Runoff from the mines also tended to
foul water that farmers and livestock depended on.
*Ranching an important part of life in the West. In an area
that was often too dry for agriculture as practised farther east,
cattle could still be raised by the tens or hundreds of
thousands—and eventually by the millions—on the open range, with
only different brands burnt into the hides of the cattle to tell
their owners apart.
*In the years right after the Civil War, most of the large cattle
herds were in Texas, and cowboys of all backgrounds and races were
hired at low wages (paid at the end of the trail) to make the Long
Drive from Texas to the railheads of eastern Kansas, whence the
cattle were shipped to Chicago for butchering. Some cattle
trails were up to 1,500 miles long, and cattle usually walked only
15 miles a day, because to walk much faster (25 miles per day was
about the limit) would cause them to drop so much weight that they
would be hard to sell at a profit.
*Cow towns and mining towns were rough places where cowboys and
miners spent their pay in wild living, frequenting red light
districts and saloons. Justice tended to be rough and fast,
often administered by vigilantes and lynch mobs. Most of the
stories of the Wild West are set in such places.
*The days of the legendary Wild West were relatively brief.
As railroads spread, and meatpacking plants were built across the
country, long drives to a few cow towns were no longer
necessary. Worse, the success of the cattlemen had led to a
surplus of beef, and thus to both over-grazing and falling prices
and so to falling wages for cowboys. Furthermore, the
railroads also brought new settlers to the West, filling up the
open range where the cattle had grazed and the long drives had
*The settlers who came to farm the Great American Desert brought
with them a new development: barbed wire, first patented in
1867 and vastly improved in 1874. It allowed farmers to keep
wandering cattle out, and made the Long Drive much harder.
Perhaps even worse, it allowed farmers to keep their own livestock
in, and many preferred sheep to cattle. Cattlemen despised
sheep, because they ate grass down to its roots, so that no more
grew for the cattle. Some ranchers ordered their cowboys to
cut barbed wire.
*Conflict over property rights, water rights, and the use of land
for cattle ranching, sheep grazing, or crop production sometimes
broke out into violent range wars.
*The final nail in the coffin for the open range system was the
winter of 1886-1887, in which temperatures fell to -68°
Fahrenheit, killing so many cattle that it was known as the Great
Die-Up. Perhaps as many as 90% of western cattle died.
After this, cattle ranches were kept smaller to avoid
over-grazing. As fewer cowboys were required,
African-Americans and other minorities found it harder and harder
to work as cowhands.
*The farmers who filled up the frontier faced many
hardships. At first they lived in sod houses, made of bricks
of soil held together by the roots of prairie grasses—sort of like
igloos made of dirt. A quarter section of land was also not
nearly as productive in Kansas or North Dakota as it was in Ohio
or Iowa. Still, farmers had some things to help them.
*In 1837, John Deere developed a steel plough that made cutting
western sod possible. In the 1840s, Cyrus McCormick began
selling a horse-drawn reaper which allowed grain to be harvested
far more quickly. By the late 1800s, combination harvesters,
or “combines” made large-scale farming even more efficient, as a
single machine could reap, thresh, and winnow the grain, allowing
a single farmer to effectively plant and harvest 135 acres of
grain. In 1911, the first self-propelled combines made
farming truly modern.
*Improvements in fertilisers, irrigation, and even better breeds
of crops also allowed farmers to be more productive and,
sometimes, more successful.
*Western land was so desirable that people demanded even
more. In 1889, the Indian Appropriations Bill made
unassigned Indian lands part of the public domain (and thus open
to settlement). Indian Territory was opened to settlement at
noon on 22 April, 1889. Thousands of settlers gathered at
the border and buglers waited to blow the signal to begin.
At the bugle’s blast, the Oklahoma Land Rush began. However,
the men and women who had waited for the bugle found that many
settlers had ignored the date and were there already. These
people were called “Sooners” and Oklahoma is now called the Sooner
*However, farmers faced many challenges. Not only did they
face harsh winters and social isolation, but they were dependent
on the railroads to sell their products, and railroad cartels
often took advantage of this through pooling. To purchase
new machinery, fertilisers, seeds, and other supplies, farmers
often went deep into debt, counting on a good harvest to get them
back out. If the harvest failed (or if too many harvests
succeeded, driving down prices), farmers might lose their land and
livelihoods. In fact, in the late 1880s and early 1890s,
commodity prices around the world fell, making many farmers
*According to Frederick Jackson Turner, part of this frustration
was due to the end of a great historic era. He began “The
Significance of the Frontier in American History” with an
announcement from a recent bulletin of the Superintendent of the
Census for 1890 that the frontier had been 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 West no longer offered an escape or a safety
*However, the West, and the desperation of its people, would still
redefine American democracy one more time.
This page last updated 15 October, 2020.