The Final Frontier


*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.’


*According to Turner, the Frontier was what made America different and special.  He said ‘The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.’  According to Turner, in America, the frontier was where democracy was created, and where it was born anew every time the frontier advanced.  As the edge of settlement moved westward, people were obliged to start anew, but without the trappings and conveniences of the settled world, they had to work side by side and discovered equality.  These newly democratised men, in turn, came back to the old seats of power and renewed and invigorated them with democratic ideals all over again.


*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.


*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 (managed by Thomas Durant) west from Omaha.  Chinese coolies built the Central Pacific (run by the Big Four, most famously Leland Stanford) 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.


*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.


*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, 2018.