ADVANCED PLACEMENT AMERICAN HISTORY
The Final Frontier
history has always been based on
to Turner, the Frontier was what
*Furthermore, the Frontier was also a safety valve. When cities became too crowded or when some people did not fit into civilised society, they could always head west: there was a place to absorb surplus population (which also helped keep wages relatively high in the East).
*There are some problems with the Frontier Thesis. It was based on the assumption that there was free land in the West, thus ignoring that the land had belong to the Indians, who had to be dispossessed before it could be settled. It also ignored the fact that some other countries also had vast unsettled hinterlands, and that Russia, Australia, and Brazil did not develop in the same way that America did (although there are some similarity to America in the Australian and Brazilian experiences).
*Still, as Turner correctly observed, 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.
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
discovery of gold in
workers pushed the Union Pacific
(managed by Thomas Durant) west from
railroads allowed many ways of life to
thrive in the West. Although
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’
1858, the discovery of gold in
mining was initially the province of
hard-working individuals who hoped to find a lucky strike,
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
turned mining into yet another industry,
which provided many jobs, but many of them were unpleasant
One in eighty miners were killed in their work, and it was
said that the
make up for the dangers of mining, miners
formed some of the most successful unions in 19th
*Livestock were 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. Some mining towns were called Helldorados. 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.
settlers who came to farm the
*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.
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
grasses—sort of like igloos made of dirt.
A quarter section of land was also not nearly as
*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.
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).
*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.
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
*However, the West, and the desperation of its people, would still redefine American democracy one more time.