HIST 1302 Topic One: The Settlement of the West
The settlement of the continental United States was haphazard at best. First, white
settlers, the first settlers, moved from the East Coast to the Mississippi River Valley.
Then Texas (Tejas) and the West Coast was settled. The heartland, what we call today
the Great Plains was settled last. Furthermore, before 1860, that area was used as a
catch all for the Native Americans (The Trail of Tears, etc.). Why was the Great Plains
settled last? Why did white settlers ignore such a huge tract of land for such a long
In 1820, Stephen Long, after an expedition to explore the Platte River, which is a
tributary of the Mississippi River which runs through Nebraska, eastern Colorado and
Wyoming, declared it "unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people
depending upon agriculture." He called the Plains "The Great American Desert".
In fact, the Omaha chieftain Big Elk told Long:
"Here I am, my Father; all these young people you see around here are yours;
although they are poor and little, yet they are your children. All my nation loves
the whites and always have loved them. Some think, my Father, that you have
brought these soldiers here to take our land away from us but I do not believe it.
For although I am a poor simple Indian, I know that this land will not suit your
farmers. If I even thought your hearts bad enough to take this land, I would not
fear it, as I know there is not wood enough on it for the use of the whites."
Most white Americans considered the Great Plains unfit for habitation because of the
strange geography. There were no trees, no mountains, no hills, and not very much
water; just miles and miles of flat prairie grassland. The Plains had weather that white
explorers had never encountered before. In the summer, huge rolling thunderstorms
that produced tornados large enough to pick up houses and throw them over rainbows.
In the winter, snow storms (blizzards) could last for days, stranding you until your
supplies ran out, or causing hypothermia. In autumn the rivers were just trickles of
water, or even ran dry, but in spring, when the snows from the Rocky Mountains were
melting, these rivers were torrents of water and even overflowed their banks. The wild
life was unfamiliar also. Coyote, buffalo, jackalope: all of these were animals that
Easterners had not encountered before.
What really made the Plains uninhabitable, however, was the soil. In actuality, the soil
of the Great Plains was nutrient rich. This was because approximately 660 TYA, the
Yellowstone supervolcano erupted, covering half of what is the now the United States in
mineral rich ash (by the way, were are overdue for another eruption, which is why I
vacation in Europe). Another thing that made the soil of the Plains so fertile was the
"natural fertilizer" made by the millions of buffalo herds wandering the plains. On the
other hand, hundreds of thousands of years of buffalo tramping up and down the Plains
had compacted the top soil into a hard, brick like substance called sod. The iron plows of
the 1820's could not cut through this prairie sod to get to the nutrient rich soil
underneath. Hence the central section of the United States was settled last.
Settling the Plains
What happened? By 1865, the end of the Civil War, approximately 350k natives lived
west of the Mississippi River, the majority of them on the Great Plains. And by the end
of the Civil War, white settlers were already flowing into the Great Plains. The Great
American Desert had become the Great American Eden.
One explanation was the Homestead Act, passed in 1862. To refresh your memory, the
Homestead Act granted free land to anyone over 21, was head of a family, and had
never taken up arms against the U.S. in the Dakota Territories. If you could show proof
that you had improved the land for five years, then you could file for title and the land
was yours.
Another reason why the West could be settled was the Transcontinental Railroad. This
was another bill signed during the war years, and the railroad was completed in 1869.
The Transcontinental Railroad allowed supplies, like food, building and farming supplies,
newspapers, manufactured goods like cloth, fuel such as coal (not wood), and
everything else white settlers needed to farm the Great Plains.
The greatest innovations that helped farmers settle the plains, however, was
technology. We already mentioned the railroads, which was crucial to everyday survival
(read The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder). On the other hand, remember that
prairie sod? Iron plows couldn't cut through it, but steel could. With the manufacture of
steel and steel plows, farmers could cut through the sod to get to the fertile soil
beneath. Furthermore, this sod was so durable, that until supplies came in to build
houses, the first settlers used this sod to make houses (they cut the stuff into bricks).
The other major innovation was the drill. It is a myth that the Great Plains receives
plenty of rainfall; it doesn't. And the rivers flow in a general west to east fashion, from
the Rockies to the Mississippi. Therefore, the farmers had to drill for water and create
irrigation systems to keep their crops alive. They also needed wells for drinking water. It
wasn't a bucolic lifestyle by any means. It was very hard work. On the other hand,
between 1865 to 1890, ten states were carved out of the Great Plains and 430 million
acres were settled.
But wait. What about those 350k natives living on the Great Plains. Well, let's talk about
them next.
Native Policy before the Civil War: Reservation Policy
The various "Indian Removal Acts" meant that the vast majority of Native Americans
lived between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River Valley. Some were
indigenous to the area; others were forcibly removed to what was known as "Indian
Territory". To keep tribal rivalry to a minimum, reservations were created for each
Native nation. Furthermore, each Native American Nation had autonomy under the
guardianship of the U.S. government. That is, on their own reservation, tribal customs,
laws, culture, government, religion and traditions held sway. Think of it this way. Texas
is an independent state within the United States, with a state government. In the same
way, the Sioux Nation had the same kind of benefits on their reservation; they just
didn't send representatives to Congress.
White people weren't allowed into Indian Territory without a permit from the federal
government. This changed however, when gold was found in California in 1849. White
settlers, mostly men, ignored the permit law and raced to the West Coast. The federal
government was forced to create corridors through Indian Territory to minimize
conflicts between whites and natives. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1853) was
passed, Native Americans were pushed out of those territories also. By the Civil War,
Natives tribes owned less than 10% of the land that they held in 1840.
Peace Policy
The great "Indian Wars" started when gold and silver, mainly silver, was found in the
Rocky Mountains. Long considered sacred places by the natives, when miners invaded
the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the Natives went to war. The U.S. government felt
it had no choice but to defend the miners.
In 1858, war broke out with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho because mineral wealth was
found in Pike's Peak country, which was sacred to both tribes. The war lasted until 1864.
After the war was over, Chief Black Kettle brought his people down to a place called
Sand Creek to camp. A U.S. soldier, Col. John Chivington, and his men, after drinking
heavily all night, attacked Black Kettle's band while they slept. Even though the Natives
raised the United States flag and a white flag, the massacre continued. The Sand Creek
Massacre, or Chivington Massacre, was an atrocity. The soldiers there did unspeakable
things to the dead. About two-thirds of those killed were women and children, some still
in the womb. An inquiry about the massacre was held, and Chivington was condemned,
but no official action was taken against him. The results of the massacre was that the
Arapaho and the Cheyenne now started to attack white settlements in revenge for the
Black Sands Massacre.
In 1866, a war between the effective Sioux Nation and the U.S. started. Miners invaded
the Black Hills region, sacred to the Sioux tribe. The U.S. army built forts to protect the
road connecting various mining towns in the Black Hills region. The powerful Sioux
chieftain Red Cloud, however, was able to neutralize these forts. The result was the
Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which created the Great Sioux Reservation, including the
Black Hills. We can say that Red Cloud was the only Native Chief to win a war against the
Concerns about the native question, and all the massacres, led to the creation of the
Peace Commission of 1867. The Peace Commission created two major reservations, one
in South Dakota and one in Oklahoma.
In 1876, the Second Sioux War started. Again, miners moved into the Blacks Hills. Two
Sioux chieftains, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Rain in the Face, moved against them and
the army. It was during the Second Sioux War that the most famous U.S./Indian battle
was fought, the Battle of Little Big Horn. Col. George Armstrong Custer brought his force
of roughly 210 men against a Sioux army of at least 2500 braves. None of Custer's men
survived. Immediately after the battle, Custer was immortalized as "Victorian Hero". We
now know that he was an idiot. Indeed, even in his own day, seasoned generals such as
President Grant criticized his actions on the battlefield.
Final Days of the Native Americans: The Dawes Act and Assimilation
Eradication of the Native way of life was already underway even before the Battle of
Little Big Horn. The Plains Natives were dependent on one animal for their survival: the
buffalo, and they were being exterminated by the millions. Natives used every part of
the buffalo, and nothing was left to waste. As railroads started to cross the U.S.
however, both private railroad companies and the U.S. government put a bounty on the
buffalo. And buffalo were easy to kill. They had no natural predators in the wild, so it
was easy to go right up and shoot one. The herd would spook and run a few yards, but
then you could go and shoot another one. Why the mass killing of the buffalo? Well,
think of a train travelling 60 mph plowing into a herd of buffalo. Not good for the train,
and not good for the buffalo and not good for PR. A side effect was that as the number
of buffalo dwindled, the natives had to travel farther to find them. You can't tell a
buffalo herd, "hey, here is the reservation boundary, don't go past the imaginary line".
And if you followed the buffalo, then you had "jumped the reservation" and now were a
"bad Indian". Do you see the dilemma? Buffalo were as much a victim of westward
expansion and the Native Tribes. In 1865, here were 15 million buffalo roaming the
Great Plains. By 1883, there were less than 3000. Without the buffalo, the tribes could
not maintain their way of life and became dependent on government aid for food,
shelter, medical care, etc.
In 1887, the reservation policy was scrapped for a new model: assimilation. The Dawes
Act (1887) would provide each Native family with 160 acres of land, the means to farm
that land, and would grant the Natives citizenship. In return, Natives could not wear
their tribal clothes, had to anglicize their names, cut their hair, send their children to
school, could not perform their tribal ceremonies, religious services, dances, or speak
their native languages. All the land that was leftover after each family got their acres
was auctioned off by the government. This came to roughly 90 million acres.
The Dawes Act was a complete failure. The nomadic, hunting and gathering tribes just
could not adapt to an agricultural way of life, especially at a time when the U.S. was
going through a major shift to industrialism. Many of the Native families just sat on their
plots of land with no knowledge of what to do. The Dawes Act also changed gender
roles in Native American society. Before, women were the farmers/gatherers and men
were the hunters and they lived in matrilineal societies where women were the center
of kin groups, wielded political power, could divorce, and had guardianship of children.
After the Dawes Act, the Victorian pattern of family life where the woman was
subordinate and dependent on a patriarchal head of the family now became the norm
in Native society. Eventually, the reservation system was reinstated, but the Natives
never received those 90 million acres that they lost.
The bitter irony in all of this, is that as Native American culture was being erased, the
"Indian" was entering American folklore as the "noble savage". The Industrial
Revolution, the time of mass production, was producing novels, magazines, art, etc., for
mass consumption. And so we get our stereotype of the Indian: noble, proud,
uncorrupted by the evils of civilization (you'd never think of Sitting Bull riding in a
Mercedes, drinking a latte, driving to his hedge fund job). Indians can track anything,
they have a special relationship with nature, some can talk to trees and like Yoda, they
speak in cryptic but wise ways that we can't understand. This is our stereotype of the
Native American: Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Pocahontas to John Smith. And this
stereotype entered mainstream American culture at the very same time that we were
destroying the Native way of life.
The Romance of the West
If you strike off into the broad, free West, and make yourself a farm from Uncle
Sam's generous domain, you will crown nobody, starve nobody, and neither you
nor your children need evermore beg for something to do.
--Horace Greeley, New York Tribune
If we have myths about the Native Americans, they are wrapped up in myths about the
American West. Mention the West, or the Wild West to an American and certain images
pop into your head: cowboys, Indians, rolling prairies with mountains in the background,
gunfights, saloons with saucy ladies, crazy miners with their mule Jenny (why are they
always named Jenny), etc. It was the culture of the frontier and Americans hold on to it
like their favorite teddy bear. The problem is that it is all wrong. The Wild West was, and
is, a creation of the media. First books, then radio, then television and movies. It is no
more real than Tarzan swinging through the trees and talking to Cheetah. Yet Americans
need the IDEA of the West. A good question to ask yourself is why this is so?
The time of the West lasted only a short period of time, from 1865 to 1890, a scant 25
years. And yet, this era was and is imprinted on the American psyche. Three empires
rose and fell during this time period: mining, cattle ranching and farming.
Mining and the lure of riches, especially in the Rocky Mountains, drew individual miners
west. Mining towns sprang up near mining lodes, but these towns were ephemeral, only
lasting until the mines gave out. These mining towns were rowdy, and sometimes
violent. There were no formal institutions in these towns; that is, there was no mayor,
no sheriff, no judge, etc. Instead, the miners had an informal policy where order was
kept. These towns also had a gender imbalance. Roughly 90% of the population were
men and 10% were women. The women in these towns multi-tasked, working as cooks,
laundresses, seamstresses and of course, prostitutes. The job of mining was exceedingly
dangerous. One in eighty miners were killed on the job. Cave-ins, gas explosions, dust
particles, heatstroke, pneumonia (the air in the mine could be 98 degrees but the air on
the surface 60 degrees), all of these could be fatal. Very few became wealthy through
mining. The era of the individual miner was over by 1890. New advances in mining
technology, such as chemical mining, hydraulic pumps and dynamite, meant that large
companies could mine on a large scale. The era of the individual miner was over.
Cattle Ranching
The huge open prairies of Texas and Oklahoma meant that grazing cattle for beef was
now a viable option. This gave birth to the cattle ranching industry and the "cowboy".
We can't think of the Wild West and NOT think of the cowboy. He is the "great white
hero" of American folklore. He is John Wayne. He is Clint Eastwood (before he started
talking to chairs). He's handsome but a loner. He doesn't say much but he gets the job
done. He's sexy in that rugged, manly way. And it's all wrong. 25% of cowboys were
African-American and 10% were Hispanic. That means roughly one-third of cowboys
were from minority groups. And they were NOT handsome. From the pictures we have
of cowboys, they did not look like the Marlborough Man. First of all, there was no SPF
50 sun block, so their skin was like their saddle leather. And they were missing teeth
because they got knocked off their horses. They really were bow-legged. Furthermore,
no Pantene available at the local grocer, so their hair was stringy and tangled from
working outside all day. My point is that cowboys were NOT good-looking. The biggest
myth of all, however, was that cowboys were loners, individuals. Nothing could be
further from the truth. If you're trying to get 1000 cows to market, which was what a
cowboy's job was, you had to work as a team. You had to know where your fellow
cowboys were and you had to know how to work with the team to herd the cows in a
specific direction. Cowboys weren't individual, broody loners but men who worked
outside all day at physically taxing work and they worked as a collective unit. Like
mining, by 1890, the days of the cowboy were over. Two harsh winter in a row, 1885 to
1887, struck the cattle business hard, as did over breeding. What really put the cowboy
out of business, however, was the coming of the railroad into Texas and Oklahoma.
Cattle ranchers didn't need the specialized skills of the cowboy when they could just
load their cows onto trains and ship them to market towns of Dodge City or Wichita.
The day of the cowboy was over.
The Homestead Act of 1862 gave 160 free acres to any family who would improve the
land for five years. It was not enough to provide a living however. Farmers still needed
to mortgage the land for credit in order to buy machinery, seed, building materials,
irrigation pumps, etc. The cost of technology itself to farm was enormous: steel plows,
harvesters, threshers, grain silos, barb wire (we are in the middle of an Industrial
Revolution at the moment). Farmers were continually in debt as they bought equipment
to farm. Not only were farm families dependent on technology, but they were
dependent on the railroads. Railroads brought in everything from coffee to nails. There
were no resources on the Great Plains, so everything was had to be shipped in by rail,
food, cloth, farming supplies, newspapers, soap, etc. Because of the fact that farmers
bought on credit, there was a high failure rate among farmers. By 1887, debt overtook
prosperity and the farm boom was over.
The Myth of the Frontier
Ask yourself this. Why is the myth of the frontier, of the West, so important to
Americans? That is, why do Americans NEED the idea of "the West"? What does it say
about us as a society and culture?
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