westward expansion terms



1840 – 1890

Terms and Concepts

Barbed wire:

invented by Joseph Glidden in 1874 – fence wire with sharp, evenly spaced points which prevented free-ranging cattle from invading farmers’ fields and ruining their crops

Boom town:

a town that grows very, very fast (usually in a few weeks or months), usually associated with mining towns

Dawes Act:

1887 federal law that gave Native Americans the right to own property, plus the right to an education, and promised them full American citizenship if they settled down on farms, gave up their tribal memberships, and adopted a white, “European-type” way of life. This was intended to help Native Americans become more like white, mainstream Americans, to assimilate into American culture, but unscrupulous officials and speculators often cheated the Indians and forced them onto very poor land. Many Native American children were forcibly removed from their parents’ homes and forced to attend mission schools, where they were forced to speak only English and dress and act like whites. This forced schooling destroyed much of

Native American culture. Native Americans were not granted full US citizenship until 1924.

Dry farming:

a way of plowing land that preserves/saves water

Ghost Dance:

a new Sioux Indian religion that became popular right before the great Battle of Wounded Knee.

A Sioux prophet, Wovoka (a Paiute Indian) promised that if Indians performed this ritual, the buffalo would return and all native lands would be restored, and that the white man would be finally defeated. Many Ghost

Dancers believed that performing the dance made them impervious/invulnerable to bullets.

Great Plains:

once known as The Great American Desert, then as the Garden of the West, this a vast area of land in the west-central USA that consists of broad, flat grasslands with little constant rainfall but very fertile soil – is very cold in the winter and blistering hot in the summer. Although many settlers flocked to the Great

Plains after the Civil War, believing the theory that “rain will follow the plow”, long droughts and recurring swarms of locusts (which ate everything in sight, from crops and plants to the farmers’ clothing) drove many settlers to abandon their homesteads and move back east or push further west.

Homestead Act:

1862 law that gave 160 acres of land to any person willing to “prove” the land – to improve the land by building a home on the claim and farming it and planting a certain number of trees on it


a person who received land from the US gov’t. in return for “proving” it or farming it

Long drive:

herding cattle from the Texas plains to railroads in Missouri and other Midwest states for shipping to eastern cities (and eventually the slaughterhouses in Chicago) – it covered nearly 600 miles from San

Antonio, Texas to Abilene, Kansas and took 11 to 13 weeks – the cattle were sold at the railhead for eight times the price they would have fetched in Texas.

Morrill Land Grant Acts:

laws made in 1862 and 1890 to create agricultural colleges by giving federal land to states

Open range:

a vast area of unfenced land where cattle ranchers used to allow their cows to roam and graze freely

Range wars:

violent skirmishes fought between ranchers and farmers, because the ranchers wanted the plains to stay open and unfenced, to ensure unlimited grazing for their cattle. The invention of barbed wire and its widespread adoption by farmers effectively put an end to these range wars.


slang term for sod houses, or houses made by cutting blocks of hard sod or turf from the ground.

Since the Great Plains had few trees there was no wood available to build homes for the pioneers, so soddies or dugouts (homes made by digging out a hillside) were the most common form of housing.

Manifest Destiny:

a term coined in 1845 by journalist John L. O’Sullivan that indicated that it was God or

Providence’s plan for Americans to spread westward over the entire continent –

“the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”

Black Hills of the Dakotas:

this land had been given to the Sioux and Cheyenne by the federal government – promised to these tribes in perpetuity. Gold was discovered in these hills in 1874, and the gov’t. then tried to buy back this land. When the Indians refused to sell, the U.S. army, led by General George A. Custer, attacked a band of Sioux in June 1876 at the Little Bighorn River. The Native Americans, led by Crazy Horse and

Sitting Bull, defeated and killed Custer and h is men – and provoked an intense U.S. gov’t. effort to wipe out the tribes militarily and push them onto reservations. By 1887 the Native Americans had all been forced to live on these poor areas of land.

Mining Empire:

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, California (1848), and in Colorado in 1858 (near

Pike’s Peak), fueled a massive gold rush in the west, drawing thousands of Americans and immigrants to seek their fortunes in the gold fields. Between 1860 and 1890 $340 million in gold and silver was mined in

California, Colorado, and Nevada.