“Americans by the hundreds of thousands packed up and moved, pinning their hopes on the American West. In the three decades following 1870, this westward stream of migration swelled into a torrent, spilling across the remainder of the prairies, moving on to the Pacific coast, and eventually flooding back onto the Great Plains. During this brief span of time, more land was settled than in all the previous history of the country. Between 1870 and 1900, eight new states entered the Union—Colorado, Montana, North and South Dakota, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah—leaving only three territories—Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona—in the continental United States” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 646).
Heading West: Men, Women, and Machines
“To encourage farmers to settle on the Great Plains, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862. This act allowed any citizen or any immigrant intending to become a citizen to get title to 160 acres of land by paying a small fee, living on the tract for five years, and making a few improvements. It also allowed settlers to pay $1.25 an acre and own the land immediately. Homesteading proved to be very difficult. About a third of those who tried to develop homesteads eventually failed. On the Great Plains, rain was scarce and a farm or ranch of 160 acres was too small to be economical” (www.digitalhistory.uh.edu). “Heading West” was a risky business. In order to succeed, one had to overcome blizzards, tornadoes, grasshoppers, hailstorms, drought, prairie fires, death, and disease; luck often had much to do with whether an immigrant family “made it”
Even fetching (and finding) water could prove to be the most arduous and backbreaking of tasks out in the wilderness
The costs and expenses of farmers made farmers habitual debtors and kept most trapped in a circle of poverty for a long time
In fact, for many who went out west, the American dream never materialized for them because by the 1870s much of the best land had been taken, given to the railroad companies, thus leaving the majority of homesteaders with only the least desirable land
Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.
The railroad companies were very heavily subsidized by the federal government (often between $16-$48,000 for every mile of track laid)
Construction of the railroad provided many opportunities for financial chicanery, corruption, graft, and bribery. The greatest financial scandal of the nineteenth century grew out of the railroad's construction. The president of the Union Pacific helped found a construction company, called Credit Mobilier, which allowed investors, including several members of Congress, to grant lucrative construction contracts to themselves, while nearly bankrupting the railroad.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad changed the nation. Western agricultural products, coal, and minerals could move freely to the east coast. Just as the Civil War united North and South, the transcontinental railroad united East and West. Passengers and freight could reach the west coast in a matter of days instead of months at one-tenth the cost. Settlers rushed into what was previously considered a desert wasteland. The 1890 Census would declare that the American frontier had disappeared. The railroad was a major cause.
The Harsh Reality of Western Life: Tenants, Sharecroppers, and Migrants
“Landownership, the symbol of the American dream in the nineteenth century, remained an elusive goal for many Americans—newly freed slaves, immigrants arriving from Europe and Asia, and Mexicans on the Texas border. In the post-Civil War period, as agriculture became a big business tied to national and global markets, an increasing number of dispossessed laborers worked land that they would never own” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 651).
Tenancy—renting—and sharecropping—working the land for a share of the profits—in the west became a way of life for blacks and whites alike, a way of life that kept them in a perpetual cycle of indebtedness
After the 1880s, ranch life in southern Texas (and in many other parts of the west) essentially gave way to a growing number of agricultural wage workers, many of whom were immigrants
The dispossessed—those with no land and no hope of owning their own land—became a growing part of the workforce in the United States by the end of the 1800s
Rural America Changes
“In the late nineteenth century, America’s population remained overwhelmingly rural. The 1870 census showed that nearly 80 percent of the nation’s people lived in areas of less than eight thousand inhabitants. In 1900, that figure had dropped to 66 percent. But while the percentage of rural inhabitants fell, the number of farms grew—from 2 million in 1860 to more than 5.7 million in 1900. A large part of this increase in farms was owing to the rapid growth in the West, but not all farmers lived ‘out west…’” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 653).
The “New” South’s Economy
“In the decades following the Civil War, the South struggled to regain its economic footing. The region’s economy, devastated by war and altered forever by the abolition of slavery, foundered at the same time the North experienced an unprecedented industrial boom” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 653)
Many Southerners, such as Henry Grady, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, called for a “New South” to be modeled on the industrial north. His message was well received by many men and women, black and white, who joined the national migration from farm to city, leaving the old plantations to go to ruin
Many textile mills were set up to compete with northern mills; Southern production of cloth soared
The South did dominate in tobacco production, however. For example, Julian Carr of North Carolina very successfully promoted his Bull Durham tobacco, a hugely popular advertising campaign that not only saw the bull on the trademark become an international symbol for smoking tobacco, but also created a new market for cigarettes. The Duke family capitalized on this growing market for cigarettes and within four years was selling 400,000 cigarettes a day!
The South also developed an iron and steel industry, which grew up mainly around the area surrounding Birmingham, Alabama
Although it appeared on the outside that the South was making improvements, it was all pretty much a sham. Only a few Southerners made any real money from the new industries because control of these industries was in Northern hands. Thus, in reality, instead of thriving, the South found itself reduced to virtually the status of an economic colony of the North (low wages, absentee ownership, and little control over policy or pricing)
In the post Civil War period the South became even more dependent upon cotton; before the end of the century, the south was producing almost three times as much cotton as before the War. Unfortunately, the world demand for cotton had decreased, so the prices plummeted and thereby created much poverty in the region
“The promise of cheap land lured many settlers west at the same time the growing cities acted as a powerful magnet, particularly to young people, pulling them off the farm. By the 1890s, depopulation caused a growing chorus of alarm. Many feared that a way of life was dying…” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 656)
This was a common phenomenon all across “old America” as it was perceived that the best and the brightest were heading west in droves to make their fortunes, leaving the dim and the dull behind
These migrations didn’t really have too great of an affect, however, because of new technological advances. For example, in the countryside, a farmer with a machine could now do the work of several farmhands. But that’s not to say farmers prospered – they did not. Many had to leave their farms and go in search of work elsewhere. This was seen as a symbolic defeat for both personal and economic reasons For those that managed to stay, they had to change their ways – now diversified farming was out and specialized, commercial farming was in. American agriculture had entered the era of “agribusiness” –that is, farming as big business
The Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of self-sufficient, independent farmers was replaced by the ideal of money, farming for profit. Farm journals, agricultural societies, and educators pushed farmers to act more like businessmen, to specialize and consolidate and make money!
Farmers soon discovered that cash crop farming had its dangers – now if the crop failed they were in big trouble, not to mention the fact that the soil was much more rapidly depleted
Because of this agricultural revolution, production soared. By the late 1900s, Americans raised more than four times the corn, five times the hay, and seven times the wheat and oats than they had before the Civil War
The new farmer existed in a web of dependency, not only on the weather and credit but increasingly on a world market; when the demand dropped, the farmers suffered. Furthermore, the protective tariff that was endorsed by every Republican president from Lincoln to Taft hurt the farmers as it drove up the prices of manufactured goods, thereby meaning that almost everything the farmer purchased, from plows and reapers to kerosene and calico cost more because of the tariff
Now that the nature of farming had changed to agribusiness, would democracy itself be at risk as more and more people went to the cities?
A Clash of Cultures
“Once the West is situated within its historical context, however, once it is seen as a particular place at a particular time, reality supersedes myth, and the West appears to be not so different from the rest of the country. The problems and issues facing the nation at the beginning of the twentieth century—growing power of corporations, ethnic and racial animosity, the exploitation of labor and of natural resources—all played themselves out under western skies” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 658).
Immigrants, Locals, Cowboys, and Ranchers
“’West’ has always been a relative term. Until the gold rush of 1849 focused attention on California, the West for settlers lay beyond the Appalachians and east of the Mississippi in the lands drained by the Ohio River, a part of the country that we now call the Old Northwest. But by the last three decades of nineteenth century, the west increasingly referred to the land across the Mississippi, from the Great Plains to the Pacific Ocean” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 658).
The racial mix of immigrants who came to the west was extremely diverse, so not surprisingly, prejudice and racial hostility erupted into violence on the frontier, just as they did in the cities.
The sheer number of races that came together in the west produced a complex racism. In fact, one historian contends that there were no less than eight oppressed groups in the West—Indians, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, blacks, Mormons, strikers, and radicals
The story of mining in the West is a tale of one rush after another in western lands rich with gold, silver, lead, zinc, and copper. Boomtown to ghost town was a familiar pattern that played out in just a few short years. Labor as well as land was harshly treated; miners in the West worked for low wages in terrible conditions. When the miners went on strike for better conditions, they were often dealt with by state troops.
Cowboys and ranchers, far from the popular depiction of being free and living easy, were essentially gobbled up by big business and left penniless (many cowboys were African Americans and Mexicans)
Thus not only was the West a place of poverty and big business, but it was also a place of great bloodshed because there were already people living there…
“In the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson initiated the policy of Indian Removal by pushing the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole tribes off their lands in the southern United States. Jackson’s Indian removal forced thousands of men, women, and children to leave their homes in Georgia and Tennessee and walk hundreds of miles to lands across the Mississippi River. So many died of hunger, exhaustion, and disease along the way that the Cherokees called their path ‘the trail on which we cried.’ At the end of this trail of tears stood the Great Plains. Here, the government promised the Indians, they could remain ‘as long as grass shall grow.’” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 660). Once again, the United States would not keep its promises to the Native Americans….
The gold rush in the 1840s sparked mass immigration to the West; land fever followed. Settlers repeatedly trespassed onto Indian land and then were surprised when they encountered hostility. The settlers demanded protection from the US Army and so 30 years of Indian wars ensued that culminated in the final removal of the Indians.
The Indian Wars on the plains lasted from 1861-1890, by which time there were only 250,000 Indians left from a population of about 2.5 million before Columbus’s arrival
Some people called for the outright extermination of Indians, but the government allowed “wiser counsel” to prevail and adopted a policy succinctly summed up by General William Tecumseh Sherman : “Rather remove all to a safe place and then reduce them to a helpless condition.” Thus, the government herded the Indians into reservations and left them to rot.
In many places Native American tribes put up resistance to the government’s policy of broken promises and removal; they were met by the US Cavalry and their vicious tactics of war
In essence, however, it was the railroads that was the primary cause for the Indians’ demise because when the railroads came – the companies hired buffalo hunters and saw to it that more than 60 million animals were slaughtered in 30 years. Without the buffalo—which constituted many of the Plains Indians’ way of life—the Indians had lost a central feature of their existence.
One of the best remembered examples of Indian resistance was at Little Big Horn where on June 25th, 1876, General George Custer and all of his 645 soldiers were killed by the Sioux nation. Custer had previously carried out attacks on Indian villages where women and children had been massacred.
Custer's "Last Stand" also marked the Plains Indians' last stand. The shocking news of Custer's defeat arrived in the east two days after the nation's centennial, and encouraged a thirst for revenge. The Plains Indians suffered a series of defeats following the battle. The Indian alliance was shattered and Sitting Bull and some of his people fled to Canada. Buffalo Bill Cody would advertise himself as the first soldier to scalp an Indian in retaliation for Custer's defeat. Within a year, nearly all the Plains Indians had been confined on reservations.
The West We Have Come to Imagine
“Even as the Old west was dying, the myth of the West was being created. The dime novel, a precursor of today’s paperback, capitalized on western heroes like Kit Carson, Wild Bill Hicklock, Calamity Jane, and deadwood Dick to entertain eastern readers seeking escapist fare” (James L. Roark, The American Promise, 663).
In 1893, Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show arrived in Chicago, popularizing the image of the West as a region of gun-toting scouts and cowboys and marauding Indians. For more than thirty years, from 1883 to 1916, Buffalo Bill's Wild West was one of the most popular entertainments. It toured the United States and Europe. It contained rodeo-like displays of cowboy skills, feats of marksmanship, riding and roping, and horse races. It also featured attacks on stage coaches and settler's cabins, a cyclone, and a prairie fire.
No region is more shrouded in myth than the area west of the Mississippi River. In popular films and best-selling novels, the late nineteenth century western frontier was represented as a place where heroic, ruggedly independent pioneers struggled against an unfamiliar environment and brought civilization to a savage wilderness.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the cowboy and the western lawman were the classic American heroes. While other episodes from the American past faded, such as the era of the whale-hunting harpooner or the lumberjack, the western frontier remained a staple of American popular culture.
The very first movie to tell a story, Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) had a western setting, and for thirty years, from 1939 to 1969, the Western was Hollywood's most widely produced action film, and John Wayne was Hollywood's most consistently popular star. Roughly a quarter of all Hollywood movies made before 1970 were westerns.
In 1893, three years after the superintendent of the Census announced that the western frontier was closed, Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian from the University of Wisconsin, advanced a thesis that the conquest of the western frontier had given American society its special character. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, marking the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World, Turner argued that the conquest of the western frontier as the nation's formative experience, which had shaped the nation's character and values. Western expansion accounted for Americans' optimism, their rugged independence, and their stress on adaptability, ingenuity, and self reliance.
In actuality, however, the settlement of the West had depended, to a surprising degree, on intervention by the federal government. The federal government had dispatched explorers to survey the region and cavalry units to confine Native Americans on reservations. It also provided land grants that funded railroad building, and, in the twentieth century, support for dams and other waterworks.
In his address on the significance of the frontier in American history, Turner referred to the Census Bureau's announcement that the frontier was now closed. He speculated that now that the frontier was settled, a crucial epoch in American history was over.
When John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic presidential election in 1960, he called on the country to enter a new frontier. Since that time, Americans have repeatedly searched for new frontiers--in outer space and cyberspace and even below the ocean's surface. The frontier remains a potent symbol more than a century after it physically disappeared.