Chapter 25

The Conquest of the West

1865-1896

 

Indians and White on the Plains

In the West, soldiers spread cholera, typhoid, and smallpox to the Indians.  They also reduced the bison population through hunting.

The federal government tried to appease the Plains Indians by signing treaties with the "chiefs" of various "tribes" at Fort Laramie in 1851 and at Fort Atkinson in 1853.  The treaties marked the beginning of the reservation system in the West.

Indians usually recognized no authority outside their own family; "tribes" and "chiefs" were fictitious names made up by white people.

In the 1860s, the government grouped the Plains Indians into smaller plots of land: mainly the "Great Sioux reservation" in Dakota Territory, and the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.

 

The Indians Fight Back

At Sand Creek, Colorado in 1864, Colonel J. M. Chivington's militia killed 400 innocent Indians.

In 1866, a Sioux war party attacked and killed Captain William J. Fetterman's command of 81 soldiers and civilians in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains.

The Battle of the Little Bighorn was a rare Indian victory in the plains wars.

In 1876, Colonel George Armstrong Custer's Seventh Cavalry was slaughtered as they tried to suppress the Indians after the Sioux attacked settlers who were searching for gold in the "Great Sioux reservation."

The Nez PercÚ Indians were sent to a dusty reservation in Kansas in 1877.

The "taming" of Indians was accelerated by the railroad, white men's diseases, and alcohol.

 

Bellowing Herds of Bison

After the Civil War, over 15 million bison grazed the western plains.  By 1885, fewer than 1000 were left after the bison had been slaughtered for their tongues, hides, or for amusement.

 

"Kill the Indian and Save the Man"

President Grant announced the "Peace Policy" in 1869 to peacefully encourage Indians to assimilate to white culture. The policy tried (but failed) to limit military engagements on Indian reservations. In 1871, Congress declared that the U.S. would no longer recognize the sovereignty of Indian tribes or negotiate treaties.

By the 1880s, the nation began to realize the horrors it had committed on the Indians.  Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor in 1881 which told of the record of government ruthlessness in dealing with the Indians.  She also wrote Ramona in 1884 which told of injustice to the California Indians.

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 dissolved many tribes as legal entities, wiped out tribal ownership of land, and set up individual Indian family heads with 160 free acres.  If the Indians behaved like "good white settlers" then they would get full title to their holdings as well as citizenship.  The Dawes Act attempted to assimilate the Indians with the white men.  The Dawes Act remained the basis of the government's official Indian policy until the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.

In 1879, the government funded the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

 

Mining:  From Dishpan to Ore Breaker

In 1858, minerals including gold and silver were discovered in the Rockies, prompting many "fifty-niners" or "Pike's Peakers" to rush to the mountains in search of the precious metals.

"Fifty niners" also rushed to Nevada in 1859 after gold and silver were discovered at Comstock Lode.

Women gained the right to vote in Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896), long before the women of the East.

Frontier mining played a vital role in bringing people and wealth to the West.  The discoveries of gold and silver also allowed the Treasury to resume specie payments in 1879 (payments for silver).

 

Beef Bonanzas and the Long Drive

Transcontinental railroads enabled live cattle to be transported to the East from Texas. The cattle were butchered once they arrived in an Eastern city.

Cattle-raisers organized the Wyoming Stock-Growers' Association to make the cattle-raising business profitable.

 

The Farmer's Frontier

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed a settler to acquire as much as 160 acres of land by living on it for 5 years, improving it, and paying a nominal fee of about $30.  Instead of public land being sold primarily for revenue, it was now being given away to encourage settlement of empty spaces and to provide a stimulus to the family farm.

Much of the land given away by the Act had terrible soil and the weather included no precipitation.  Many homesteaders were forced to give their homesteads back to the government.

The 100th meridian was an imaginary line running from the Dakotas to Texas that separated the wet East from the dry West. "Dry farming" was the practice of using shallow cultivation to grow crops in the dry western environment. Over time, it depleted and dried the soil.

Tough strains of wheat flourished in the West, and new federally-financed irrigation projects caused the Great American Desert to bloom.

 

The Far West Comes of Age

The West experienced tremendous population growth from the 1870s to the 1890s.  Colorado was admitted as a state in 1876 after the Pike's Peak gold rush.

From 1889-1890, the Republican Congress, seeking more Republican electoral and congressional votes, admitted six new states:  ND, SD, MT, WA, ID, and WY.  Utah was admitted in 1896, after the Mormon Church formally banned polygamy in 1890.

Many "sooners" illegally entered the Indian lands in the district of Oklahoma.  On April 22, 1889, the district was opened to the public and thousands came.  In 1907, Oklahoma was admitted as the "Sooner State."



The Fading Frontier

In 1890, an American frontier line was no longer evident; all the unsettled areas were now broken up by isolated bodies of settlement.

Western migration may have caused urban employers to maintain high wages to discourage workers from leaving to go farm the West.

Western cities grew as failed farmers, failed miners, and unhappy easterners sought fortune in cities.  By 1880, the area from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast was the most urbanized region in America, measured by the percentage of people living in cities.



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