American West Revision Notes

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American West Revision Notes

Remember, when you are revising for the American West unit, that it is best tackled by dividing it up into the various sections. However, remember that all these things happen at the same time, and this may be very important for certain question types.

The Indians

Why they were on the Plains

  • They were originally forced onto the Plains by the rapid growth of the East of America in the early 1800s

  • The Plains were given to the Indians, and in 1832 the US government established the Permanent Indian Frontier. The land was supposed to be protected for life; however the US government also hoped that by pushing the Indians onto the Plains that they would no longer be an irritation to “white society”

  • The whites brought with them many diseases and so threatened the Indians, they would be safer on the Plains

  • The Plains were empty of other people but full of Buffalo, which they would use to survive

The Buffalo

  • The Indians used every part of the Buffalo – none was wasted

    • The bones were used as arrowheads and knives

    • The hide was used for clothes and tipi covers

    • The dung was used for fuel

    • The intestines were used as buckets!

  • The hunting of the Buffalo was very difficult – the Indians would have to follow the herds wherever they went. They could not kill too many at a time either, or else there would not be enough to sustain them


  • The Indians did not believe you could own land – therefore being nomadic was part of their lifestyle

  • The Indians lived in tipis

  • These were designed to withstand the extreme conditions of the Plains

  • They were cool in the summer yet warm in the winter. They were shaped like a cone so they would not fall over in the high winds

  • Everything was done inside the tipi – sleeping, cooking and often the tipi would fill up with very dense smoke due to the open fires

Religion and lifestyle

  • The Indians believed in Polytheism – that there is more than one God

  • The most famous religious ceremony was the Sun Dance – this was performed in order to get help from the spirit world

  • The Sun Dance was performed in a circle – the circle was sacred to the Indians

  • Women were very important – they did most of the work, including all the food preparations and keeping of the homes. The men’s’ roles were simply to fight and hunt

  • They believed in Polygamy – you were allowed to have more than one wife. Many men had at least three or four wives

  • During battle, the Indians scalped their enemies – this was believed to be removing the spirit of his enemy so that he could not go into the afterlife

Problems they faced

  • The gradual invasion of white settlers – trailblazers and homesteaders interrupted their lifestyle and that of the buffalo

  • The US government always wanted the principle of Manifest Destiny to be invoked one day

  • The Indians and the government would never get along whilst their lifestyles were so different – polygamy vs monogamy; polytheism vs monotheism; the right to own land, etc etc

The First Settlers

Mountain Men and trappers

  • These were the first adventurers and explorers – they relayed information about the Plains back to the East – they made a good living out of selling the Beaver skins back in the East

  • They helped set up the first Trails – for example what would later become the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail

  • The US government believed in Manifest Destiny – the idea that whites should own the entire country and so regularly helped out the trailblazers

The Gold Rush

  • In 1848 gold was discovered in California – by the end of the year 10 000 people were crossing the plains to dig for gold

  • Within a year, over 100 000 people had crossed the plains. These were known as the forty-niners

  • As the West developed there were many problems:

    • Racism – many different cultures and races clashed over land rights and taxations placed on foreign miners

    • Poor living conditions – so many people rushed to the area so quickly that conditions were very poor with many living in dirty tents. Diseases spread quickly

    • Law and order – there was no proper system of law. Miners turned rapidly to heavy drinking and gambling. Murders and claim-jumping was very common

    • Vigilantes – gangs developed that took the law into their own hands – many were as bad as the criminals they were attacking

  • The Gold Rush did help to “open up” the West – more and more industries were set up in the West, San Francisco became a financial centre that rivalled New York and it also paved the way for the increased development of the railroads

The Mormons

Who were they?

  • A religious group started by Joseph Smith in 1830 – aka The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints

  • He had seen a vision of the angel Moroni who told him to go and find some golden plates. He found and translated the plates to form the Book of Mormon. It said how Israel tribes migrated to America and that Jesus went to America after he rose from the dead. Eleven people were allowed to see the plates to prove that Smith was not lying

  • They were hated in the East because of their beliefs –

    • You are allowed Polygamy – it was the will of God – Joseph Smith had ten wives

    • The number of Mormons grew very quickly

    • They had their own army

    • Smith ran for President – people were worried that if they became too powerful they would enforce their beliefs on the people of America

    • They believed that they were God’s chosen people

    • They were very hard-working and became very successful – this made many jealous

What happened in the East?

  • They were attacked in their first “holy city” Kirtland after the collapse of their bank in 1837

  • They moved to Missouri but stayed only one year as they were attacked and their leaders were put in prison

  • Brigham Young took the Mormons to Nauvoo but again they were persecuted. In 1844 Smith and his brother were arrested. Non-Mormons attacked the prison and killed the brothers

  • Young realised he had to take the Mormons away from the East and started leading them towards the Great Salt Lake in the West

Why Salt Lake City?

  • The area was uninhabited, and so no one would attack them any more

  • The land was almost entirely useless and so was not wanted by anyone else – this made it safe for the Mormons

  • The Salt Lake Valley was still owned by Mexico, so the US government should now leave them alone

The settlement

  • Every family was to build their own wagons

  • Search parties were sent ahead to gather resources such as wood together before the bulk of the people arrived

  • Land was shared out equally

  • An irrigation system was built to supply the people with fresh water

  • Travellers who crossed the valley were charged taxes

  • Taxes would b paid to the church

The problems

  • In 1848 the Salt Lake Valley was handed over to America by Mexico

  • The US government wanted to make the Mormons submit to their laws

  • The Mormons and the government clashed violently in 1857 – fearing a full scale war, the US government allowed the Mormons to practice their own religion and live their own way but their territory (Utah) was not allowed to become a state whilst they still practiced polygamy

  • In 1890 the Mormons finally abandoned polygamy. Utah was admitted as a state by 1896

Cattlemen and Cowboys

The Growth of the Industry

  • The cattle were originally looked after by the Mexican vaqueros

  • During the Civil War the cattle were left unattended, but they managed to survive and breed greatly – by 1865 it was estimated that there were at least 5 million “longhorns” in Texas

  • By 1865 the construction of the railway was under progress – ranchers were promised ten times the local price if they could get their cattle up to the railway to supply the North, where there was an increasing demand for beef

  • The ranchers began driving their cattle up the Plains along the new trails that were being developed –

    • The Goodnight-Loving Trail

    • The Shawnee Trail

    • The Chisholm Trail

    • The Western Trail

  • Joseph McCoy set up “cow towns” along the railroad – towns that were specifically set up to receive the cattle herds from Texas – Abilene was the first of these in 1867

The Cattle Drive

  • The drive could take up to two months

  • Average herds were about 2-3000 head in size

  • It was a great responsibility for the cowboys as the loss of only a few cattle would cost the rancher a lot of money

  • There were many threats to the safety of the herd:

    • Stampedes were the biggest danger – they could stampede several times a night and would often travel miles before they could be stopped

    • The weather and the landscape were very harsh – hot winds, torrential rain and hail storms

    • The Indians posed a serious threat – in 1870 the Cheyenne Indians stampeded a valuable herd and drove them off

    • Rustlers – they stole cattle and branded them with their own marks

    • Settlers – there were constant clashes, especially with the Homesteaders

The changes in Cattle herding

  • The open range – to save time and money, cowboys began herding and breeding the cattle further North than Texas on the open ranges of the Plains

  • John Iliff helped produce a more sturdy cattle by cross breeding the Texas Longhorn with Herefordshire cows from England

  • Towards the 1880s, there was dramatically less grass on the Plains than was needed to sustain the number of cattle being reared there

  • After 1885 the demand for beef began to fall and so did the prices

  • In the winter of 1886-87 many cattle died due to the severe weather conditions

  • In 1874 barbed wire was invented – this would help keep control of the herds on the Plains

  • Soon after windpumps were invented which provided regular and easy access to fresh water

  • The role of the cowboys changed dramatically – they were no longer needed in such great numbers and their jobs became little more than ranch handymen, fixing fences and such. The wild and free life of the cowboy had finally come to an end

The Homesteaders

What was the attraction of the Plains?

  • Some moved to the West to escape from poverty or religious persecution

  • Letters home encouraged more and more people to follow onto the Plains

  • People were attracted by the various articles in newspapers and magazines which portrayed amazing images of the West

  • The Plains were obviously habitable, this had already been proved by both the Indians and the early settlers such as the mountain men and trappers

  • The railway companies were anxious to attract settlers – they needed to sell the land to finance the railroads

  • The Homestead Act 1862 – this gave away land free of charge as long as you built a house on the land and live there for five years. Each plot was 160 acres in size

Life on the Plains

  • The problems:

    • Lack of water and very hard earth

    • Shortage of building materials

    • Extremes of weather – scorching hot summers and freezing winters

    • Prairie fires and plagues – these could both destroy crops in no time at all

    • Protecting the crops – especially against the cattle trails

  • The solutions:

    • New crops – they grew harder types of wheat such as Turkey Red Wheat which could survive the harsh conditions better

    • Better machinery – stronger ploughs were built that would churn the earth

    • Fencing the land – this protected it against any wild animals

    • Wimdpumps – these provided water to the land and homesteaders

    • Dry farming – this was a method by which they conserved the water in the soil through ploughing soon after heavy rain

Conflict on the Plains

Why did the Indians and the Americans hate each other?

  • The US government believed in Manifest Destiny, that whites should own all of America

  • Ranchers grazed their cattle on the land where the buffalo used to graze – many buffalo were wiped out because of the lack of food

  • The US government usually supported the white settlers in any conflict with the Indians

  • Miners were digging for gold in land that was owned by the Indians

  • The homesteaders took a lot of land away from the Indian tribes – the government gave them this land

  • The Us government tried to destroy the Indian culture by forcing them onto reservations and making them reliant upon handouts

  • The US army were often brought in to help the white settlers in conflicts with the Indians

  • Thousands of buffalo hunters invaded the Plains – by 1885 there were only 200 buffalo left on the Plains. In 1840 there were an estimated 13 million

  • Indian children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools where they were taught life in the “white man’s world”. If parents tried to stop their children from going their rations were stopped

  • The railroads divided up the Plains and invited more settlers onto the Plains. They also helped supply the army and facilitate its fast deployments and movements

The Indian Wars

  • Permanent Indian Frontier 1840 - all land given to the Indians

  • 1848 gold rush

  • First Fort Laramie treaty 1851

  • 1857 gold rush

  • Fort Lyon treaty 1861

  • Little crow’s war 1862 – revolt by Santee Sioux against bad conditions on reservations

  • Cheyenne Uprising 1863 – revolts against conditions on reservations. Wagon trains attacked for food

  • Sand Creek Massacre 1864 – at least 163 killed of which at least 110 were women and children – us army attacked despite white flag being raised

  • Red cloud’s war 1867 – Sioux attacked travellers on the Bozeman trail and forced withdrawal of army

  • The Second Fort Laramie treaty 1868 - us government abandon Bozeman trail, Sioux given permanent reservation in Dakota

  • The winter campaign of 1868

  • Sheridan and Custer attack black kettle’s winter camp – the Battle of Washita this was exactly the same as the events at Sand Creek

  • Gold in Dakota - 1874

  • The Battle of Little Big Horn 1876

  • Defeat of Custer and the 7th cavalry

  • The Dawes Act 1887 - divides land into 160 acre allotments, some of these given to Indians. Now they were forced to learn to farm - completely destroys way of life

  • 1890 Wounded Knee - End of the Indians’ wars and they are finally defeated.

Why did the Indians lose?

  • The US army were greater n number than the Indians, especially in major battles

  • The Indians did not work together as a collective unit – some tribes actually joined forces with he US army against their “common enemy”

  • The US army changed and manipulated their tactics – they fought during the night and the morning and even mounted campaigns in the depths of winter when the Indians were not expecting it

  • The Indians kept attempting to sort things out peacefully through treaties but were then left open to attack when the treaties were not honoured

  • The Indians were less well armed than the US army and were unable to replace their losses in the same manner as the army

  • The Indians were never able to fight long campaigns – they had their families to look after and feed – their whole way of life depended on the males

Timeline of the American West





Birth of the United States of America

13 Eastern colonies defeated their British Rulers and won the War of Independence. They would become the founding states of the new nation.


Joseph Smith sees vision of Moroni

Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion. Smith claimed that, after seeing a vision of an angel called Moroni, he discovered some hidden gold plates bearing inscriptions. He secretly translated the plates four years later.


Book of Mormon published

The translation of the inscriptions was published in 1830 in the 'Book of Mormon'. The official name of the religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints but they are more commonly known as Mormons.


Indian Removal Act

The US Government decreed that the Indian tribes could freely inhabit the Great Plains. A Permanent Indian Frontier was established on the eastern edge of the Great Plains in 1832.


Mormons in Kirtland, Ohio

Within just a year, Joseph Smith had recruited a thousand ne members to his religion. Smith chose Kirtland as the place to set up the Mormon ‘zion’ (holy city). They were constantly attacked.


Economic Depression

An economic depression caused the collapse of many banks in the East. People lost their savings, wages fell and unemployment rose. The Mroman Bank also collapsed and caused many non-Mormons to attack the religion. The Mormons were driven out of Kirtland.


Mormons in Independence, Missouri

The Mormons were not welcome from the beginning. As violence increased, the Mormons formed their own secret police force called the Danites.


Nauvoo founded

The Mormons built their 'holy city' in Illinois. They called their city Nauvoo. By 1842, the Mormon army was 2,000 strong.


Fort Bridger established

Jim Bridger, a former mountain man, built Fort Bridger on the Oregon Trail. Fort Bridger contained a store where travellers could purchase supplies as well as a workshop and forge where wagons could be repaired.


Great Migration

About a thousand people made the journey West to Oregon. This was the highest number of migrants to make the journey west in one year so far and became known as the Great Migration.


Joseph Smith Killed

Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, and his brother were shot and killed while imprisoned for destroying a printing press.


Manifest Destiny

John O'Sullivan, editor of the New York newspaper 'The Morning Post', first used this phrase to express the long held belief that white Americans had a God-given right to occupy the entire North American continent.

1846 - 1847

Mormons move to Salt Lake

Following the death of the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young decided to take the Mormons away from the persecution they faced in the East and to build a new life for them at the Great Salt Lake. 


Gold discovered in California

James Marshall, a carpenter employed by John Sutter to build a mill at Sutter's Fort, discovered gold. Initially news of the discovery was kept secret but once it became known 90,000 people from the East flocked to California hoping to find gold and make their fortune. Those who arrived in 1849 became known as the 'Forty-niners'.


Perpetual Emigration Fund

The Mormons set this up to encourage Mormons from Britain, Europe and other parts of America to Salt Lake City.



Wells Fargo established the stagecoach which allowed travellers to pay to be transported by stagecoach.


Fort Laramie Treaty

This treaty between the US Government and the Indian tribes redefined the Indian homelands. The treaty stated that these lands would belong to the Indians and that they would not be entered by white settlers. The Indians were to be given provisions for a period of ten years as compensation for the loss of land.



The first homesteaders began to move onto the Great Plains.


Mountain Meadows Massacre

A wagon train of settlers from Missouri was massacred. The Mormons claimed it was the Indians, but the Government were convinced it was the Mormons. In order to avoid all-out war, the Mormon religion and practices were allowed. Utah could not become a State of the USA though until polygamy was scrapped.


Pony Express founded

The Waddell and Russell freight company established the Pony Express. Relay stations were set up across north America and riders carried mail from one station to the next.


Fort Wise Treaty

This treaty established the Sand Creek Reservation for the Cheyenne tribe.

1861- 65

US Civil War

The Northern States fight the Southern States over various issues, including the abolition of slavery. The North would eventually be victorious. During the war, the Longhorn cattle in Texas would continue to breed.


First Telegraph

The first telegraph message was sent across America


Pacific Railways Act

This Act established two companies whose purpose was to construct a railway across America. The Union Pacific Railway was established in the East to build the railway to Missouri and then continue west. The Central Pacific Railway would build the railway from Sacramento and then continue east.


The Homestead Act

This Act offered anyone prepared to settle in the West 160 acres of land for free provided they built a home and farmed the land for five years.  


Little Crow's War

This was a revolt by the Santee Sioux led by chief Little Crow in protest against the reservations.

The Santee Sioux had moved onto a reservation that had poor land and their crops failed. Compensation payments that had been promised by the government had not been delivered and the tribe faced starvation.

In August 1862 the Santee Sioux warriors attacked the government Agency. They continued to attack white settlers and the army for three months before being defeated by the army.


Cheyenne Uprising

The Cheyenne had agreed by the terms of the Fort Wise Treaty 1861 to move onto the Sand Creek Reservation. However, the land was very poor and survival for the Indians was virtually impossible. In 1863 faced with starvation, they began to attack wagon trains and steal food.


Sand Creek Massacre

An armed force, led by Colonel Chivington, attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek. The motive for the attack was punishment for the raids on wagon trains. 163 Indians, including women and children, were killed and mutilated.


The Long Drive

Texas cattlemen used cowboys to drive cattle to the northern states. The Goodnight - Loving Trail was established.


Red Cloud's War

The Sioux chief, Red Cloud, was furious when white settlers began using the Bozeman Trail which passed through the Sioux hunting grounds and began attacking travellers. Red Cloud was further angered when a line of forts was constructed to protect the travellers and increased the attacks. By spring of 1868 the government was forced to withdraw the army and abandon the forts.


Medicine Creek Treaty

Four Indian tribes, including the Cheyennes, agreed to give up their land and move to small reservations in the south-east of the Plains.


Abilene founded

Joseph McCoy, a Chicago cattle dealer, founded the 'cow town' of Abilene.


The Winter Campaign

Realising that the Indians never fought during the Winter months, the army decided to mount a Winter Campaign to try to catch them by surprise and force them into submission.


Fort Laramie Treaty

This treaty defined the territory of the Sioux Indians. It gave them the Black Hills of Dakota and the Bighorn mountains.


Completion of the Railway

 The transcontinental railway was completed. A ceremony, known as the 'golden spike ceremony' because a golden spike was used to join the East and West railways, was held at Promontory Point in Utah.


Abilene bans Cowboys

Fed up with the lawlessness, drunkenness, brawls and gun fights, the people of Abilene banned cowboys.


Timber Culture Act

This Act was an extension to the Homestead Act offering 160 acres of land for free provided that at least 40 acres was planted with trees.


Gold in the Black Hills

Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota (the sacred land of the Sioux Indians).


Barbed wire invented

J F Glidden invented barbed wire. This invention meant that large areas of land could be fenced relatively cheaply.


Battle of the Little Bighorn

The army decided to attack the Indians camped in the valley of the Little Bighorn. The attack was to be made from three sides. General George Armstrong Custer who led one of the attacking forces decided to attack without waiting for the other two forces to arrive. Custer split his force into three and advanced on the Indians. At some point Custer's group were attacked. Custer and all his men were killed.


Desert Land Act

This Act allowed farmers to buy 640 acres of land at a cheap price in areas where there was little rainfall and irrigation schemes were needed to farm the land.


Brigham Young dies

After the death of Young, the US Government launched more vigorous attacks on Polygamy.

1886 – 1887

The “Big Freeze”

This winter was extremely harsh. Cattle and cowboys died in the snow, ice and freezing temperatures


Dawes Act

This Act split up most of the remaining Indian land into 160 acre plots. Some of the plots were given to Indians but much of the land was allocated to white settlers.


Oklahoma Land Rush

In April, the US Government opened up 2 million acres in the former Indian territory of Oklahoma. Between 50,000 and 100,000 people dashed to stake a claim to the land. In 1893, a further 6 million acres were opened up.


End of Polygamy

The Mormons finally abandoned their policy of polygamy. Utah becomes an official state of the USA by 1896.


Wounded Knee Massacre

A group of soldiers opened fire on a group of Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation in Wounded Knee Creek killing 153 Indian men, women and children.


Johnson County War

The Johnson County war was a range war fought by rival ranchers over cattle and land.

Cattle ranching had been firmly established in Johnson County since the 1870s and many ranch owners had become wealthy and influential. During the 1880s they wanted more land and tried to buy-out small time ranchers and farmers. Those small-time ranchers and farmers who resisted were accused of cattle-rustling and some were hanged.

In 1892 the cattle barons had hired a vigilante group to get rid of the 'rustlers'. The small time ranchers and farmers formed their own army to counter the vigilante group. The army of small time ranchers and farmers managed to force the vigilante group back to their base and hold them under siege. The situation had to be resolved by the intervention of the US cavalry to free the vigilantes

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