Trans-Mississippi West, 1860-1890
Source: Library of Congress
What is now the United States has
always had a West,dating back thousands of years to the initial
settlements on the continent, but our concern is not with those Wests but with
the West that has come to symbolize so much in US history, the mythical
West, the West of "Cowboys and Indians". This was the
Trans-Mississippi West between 1860 and 1890, the end of the continuous
frontier according to historian Frederick Jackson Turner.1 Romantic myths about these thirty years have been the subjects of novels,
movies, radio and television programs, tall tales, and other stories. These taught, erroneously, that violence among "whites", especially gunfighters was common,
and the West, the "Wild West," was tamed by gun-toting cowboys. It wasn't. 2 The US Army subdued the
Native Americans who resisted the invasion of and taking of their lands, but little effort has been given to portraying Native Americans as resisting unprovoked aggression.
They lost and losers don't write history or create myths. The everyday myth of the West had had a
profound influence on US life and, even, the imaginations of non-USers.
The Trans-Mississippi West differed from
earlier "Wests" in that it was the frontier of an urban, industrial
society instead of a rural, agrarian society. Thus, the contrast was striking. In years past, moving westward was mostly a change of locale not a dramatic change
to different geographical variables. People, dissatisfied with their everyday lives could look westward and
fantasize that life was simpler and better and more like "the good old
days." Nostalgia is powerful. The geography of this West was more inhospitable-drier, more
rugged, with few trees, and more extreme weather patterns. People had to endure more to survive on the openness of the Plains cut off from "civilization."
this west was the Great Plains but with some land beyond the Plains. The
Great Plains start in eastern North Dakota and extend to the Texas Panhandle.
They stretch from the Mexican border north into Canada. As one moves from east
to west across the Great Plains, they grow higher, drier, and less fertile.
Because the vegetation was mostly short grass with almost no trees, people
mistakenly think this land of gently rolling hills to be flat, for they can see
for miles. This West also extends beyond the plains into the Rocky
Mountains and its inter-mountain plateaus and into the Southwest, where there
are true deserts.
For many years, the only people of European descent who visited or lived in this area
were the Hispanics along the Santa Fe Trail or fur trappers, but that changed in
1859-1864 because gold was discovered. People flocked into present-day Nevada,
Idaho, Colorado, Montana, and Arizona seeking get rich by mining gold; others went to live off the miners
such as merchants, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. The merchants made more money
than these miners, of course, for they would charge what the market would bear.
When this surface mining petered out, some left but some stayed. Settlements
needed the big mining companies with their abundant capital and technological
skills to sink shafts into the ground and systematically extract the ore.
and for any other enterprise in the this west, transportation was essential.
Transportation is always essential for economic development, but
transportation mechanisms were even more important in this vast, hostile
region. By 1861, stage coaches and wagon trains were crisscrossing the area but
they were limited in number, service, and scope. Even more limited
was the famous Pony Express which could
transport a letter from Independence, Missouri to San Francisco, California in
ten days. However, parcels had to be very light for the relay riders to carry
them and the cost was very high. The Express only lasted from 1859 to 1861, so it is a thing of legend and heroics, but it did
point out that swifter means of communication were needed.
were the key to the settlement of this west. They were fast and they could transport heavy goods, such as ore, cheaply. The first transcontinental railroad was
completed when the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad met in
1869, having started in 1862 with mostly US government and some private funds. The nation was
finally united and the national government could control it by sending an army
across the rails very quickly. Moreover, telegraph lines went along the tracks,
providing an even faster means of communication. Having been given alternate
sections (a section is 640 acres) of land on each side of the track, the railroad
companies found it expedient to encourage settlement so they could sell the
land. A similar policy was followed for most transcontinental railroads. US citizens, in essence, paid for these railroads.In the
1880s, the Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka, and
Santa Fe railroads were built. In 1893, the Great Northern Railroad was
completed. These corporations developed the west using land agents and advertisements both in the United
States in Europe. More land was settled
because of their efforts than by any other means.
invasion of settlers with their superior technology and numbers destroyed the
culture and many of the people who had lived on the plains for centuries. Once
immigrants themselves, they now faced a more powerful civilization which would
push them into large concentration camps called reservations. Both sides could
be bloody and commit atrocities, but the worst atrocity was the Sand Creek,
Colorado Massacre of 1864 when Cheyenne men, women and children were killed and
their bodies mutilated by the US Army while trying to surrender to it. The most
serious opponents to US expansionism were the Sioux of the northern plains and
the Apache of the Southwest. The Sioux wars began in Minnesota in 1862 and
lasted until 1876, finally ending after they unsuccessfully tried to enforce the
treaty with the US government which granted them the Black Hills of South Dakota in
perpetuity. The US reneged because gold had been discovered. Although they beat
an army led by George Armstrong Custer, they lost the war.A brief sketch of these wars is available online from the
Smithsonian Institution's "Western Indian Wars". http://amhistory.si.edu/militaryhistory/printable/section.asp?id=6.
The US Army also has a history of this warfare in "Winning the West: The Army in the Indian Wars, 1865-1890", http://www.history.army.mil/books/AMH/AMH-14.htm.
A group of young men
broke out of the reservation and launched the Ghost Dance rebellion in 1890, but this was a minor
upheaval. The Sioux way of life was doomed anyway for the buffalo was exterminated
by the settlers and the basis of the Sioux economy was this mighty beast.
wars lasted until 1885 in part because the terrain was tougher and because of
the effective leadership of their chief general, Gerónimo.
the US government passed the Dawes Act, a measure designed to make yeomen
farmers out of the American Indian. It extinguished tribal authority and tribal
land ownership. The US could not tolerate communal land ownership no matter how
old the practice was. Instead, the head of a family was given 160 acres to
farm, an insufficient amount on the plains, and the land was held in trust for
twenty-five years so unscrupulous people could not take advantage of these
people who were being forced to learn a new way of life. By 1934, it was clear
that the Dawes Act had failed and the Indian Reorganization Act was passed to repair some
of the damage.
open range cattle industry began before the
buffalo herds were killed and the people of the plains put on reservations. The open range cattle industry was part
of the dynamic US economy, meeting the demand for an ever-increasing meat
supply by a population getting wealthier and more able to afford meat. Although surrounded by myth, it was
simply a boom-bust episode. The cowboys, who were boys, not men, herded
longhorn cattle which grazed on unoccupied grassland. They learned their trade
from Mexicans, who had a long tradition of raising cattle in dry conditions.
Ironically, the very American cowboy and his language—rodeo, lasso, hoosegow,
The Cattle market came into existence when the
railroad reached Kansas in the 1860s. Cowboys
would drive cattle 1500 miles to Sedalia, Missouri or Dodge City, Kansas, both
rail heads, so they could be sold. The cattle lost much weight on these cattle
drives. Crooked people would feed the cattle salt and then let them drink their
fill just before selling them. Since they were sold by weight, this
"watering of the stock" could yield extra profit if undetected.
Another alternative, however, came to be driving them further to fatten them on
the grasslands of Kansas or Nebraska, the Dakotas, or Wyoming.
land was dry with little vegetation, the range land became overcrowded.
Cattlemen's associations were formed to deal with the problem but, by the early
1880s, farmers, who fenced land with barbed wire, and vast flocks of sheep
limited the open range. When blizzards struck in the winters of 1885-86 and
1886-87, millions of cattle froze or starved. Realizing that the open range
system no longer worked, cattlemen turned to systematic fencing which also
allowed them to genetically modified cattle with better meat.
the battle of the this west. Between 1865 and 1895, more land was settled than
in all of US history before that combined. Some farmers, but not that many, received
land through the Homestead Act which granted 160 acres to the head of a family
if the farm was cultivated for five years. In this west, however, almost no one
could survive on 160 acres, which might have been sufficient in the east. So Congress passed additional land laws in an
effort to help settlers and special interests. The Timber Culture Act (1873)
allowed the farmer to get an additional 160 acres as long as 40 acres were
planted with trees. Part of this was because some erroneously believed that
planting trees would increase rainfall! The Desert Land Act (1877) sold 649
acres at twenty-five cents an acre with a
three-year pay off period to prospective persons who would irrigate land . The Stone and Timber Act sold non-farm land at $2.50
an acre and proved very valuable to speculators and other non-farmers. Few
farmers got land directly from one of these acts. They generally got it from
intermediaries, particularly railroad companies.
farmers moved onto the Great Plains, they, unknowingly, did so during one of
its wet cycles, a period of relatively greater rainfall. In 1887, there was the
first of a series of dry summers. Many farmers went broke. Some left. Some
demanded that the government help them.
myth has been that westerners were individualistic, competent, sincere, honest,
straight-shooters, and quick to fight, but the reality is different. Westerners
always asked for government aid-subsidies, cheap loans, cheap land, army
protection, dams and irrigation works eventually, among other things. Crime
existed in all sections of the nation and small communities policed each other
whether they were in Texas or New York. Churches, schools, law enforcement were created as soon as
possible. In general, the western myth was part
of the agrarian myth, the belief that virtue only resides on farms or in small
towns and villages and that cities are corrupting. Both myths argue that
"common sense" is more important than education.
myth is true. Country and Western music dwells on sexual and marital
infidelities, double dealing, and drug abuse (alcohol is the most abused drug
in the United States) because, as its devotees attest, it deals with life as it
is. John Wayne became a political icon but, unlike many Hollywood stars, he
avoided serving in World War II. He was very successful in portraying the mythical cowboy.
Why has the
Western myth persisted? It has a long history. As this west was developing,
people were becoming more literate and wealthier and could use their increased
leisure time to read newspapers, magazines, and cheap western novels. These
stories were rarely written by people with any direct experience with that west
nor would the veracity of the stories ever be questioned, for few went to that
part of the country. People wanted to believe that there was once a simpler,
more honest time when men fought evil (often portrayed in terms of people like
the Apache and the Sioux) and good triumphed over evil. The knight errant
became a stock feature of Western fiction. Radio and cinema used stories of the
West because they were popular and easy to tell. The good guys wore
"white hats." Television adapted many radio programs, like "Gunsmoke," and broadcast them. Movies found Westerns a
sure money maker.
endures because people react to the complexities of modern life.