ADVANCED PLACEMENT 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 Washita.

*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 Wars.

*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 slavery.

*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 succeeding decades.

*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 Seward’s Folly.

*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 marched unimpeded.

*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 State.

*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 desperate.

*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 valve. 

*However, the West, and the desperation of its people, would still redefine American democracy one more time.

This page last updated 15 October, 2020.
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