How did westward expansion transform the nation? In the early 1800’s, Americans pushed steadily westward, moving even beyond the territory of the United States. They traveled by canoe and flatboat, on horseback, and by wagon train. Some even walked much of the way. American merchant John Jacob Astor created one of the largest fur businesses, the American Fur Company. His company bought skins from western mountain men. These adventurers were some of the first easterners to explore the map of Rocky Mountains and lands west of them. Mountain men lived lonely and often dangerous lives.
They trapped animals on their own, far from towns and settlements. Mountain men like Jedediah Smith, Manuel Lisa, Jim Bridger, and Jim Backwourth survived many hardships during their search for wealth and adventure. To survive on the frontier, mountain men adopted Native American customs and clothing. In addition, they often married Native American women. The Indian wives of trappers often worked hard to contribute to their success. Recognizing the huge economic value of the Pacific Northwest, the United States made treaties in which Spain and Russia gave up their claims to various areas.
The United States also signed treaties with Britain allowing both countries to occupy Oregon County, the Columbia River, and its surrounding lands. Settlers were encouraged to move westward after the Civil War by federal legislation such as the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres of land to American citizens who were committed to settling on the land and who could pay the $10 registration fee. However, farming on the plains proved much more difficult than many settlers thought it would be. Thousands of blacks moved west after the Civil War to escape life in the South; mining, ranching, and lumbering also attracted settlers to the West.
This westward expansion greatly affected the lives of Native Americans, who were removed to Oklahoma and South Dakota. Farmers in the West began to organize; Farmers’ Alliances and the Grange were established to protect farmers’ rights. The 1893 Turner Thesis (a well-known theory promulgated by a distinguished historian) proposed the idea that settlers had to become more adaptable and innovative as they moved westward and that these characteristics slowly became ingrained into the very fabric of American society.
The one act that gave land directly to settlers was the Homestead Act. This legislation allocated 160 acres to any settler who (1) was an American citizen, or who, in the case of immigrants, had at least filed for American citizenship; (2) was 21 years old and the head of a family; (3) was committed to building a house on the property and living there at least six months of the year; and (4) could pay a $10 registration fee for the land. After actively farming the land for five years, the farmer was given actual ownership of his 160-acre plot.
By 1900, nearly 610,000 parcels of land had been given out under the provisions of the Homestead Act, allowing nearly 85 million acres of land to go over to private ownership. A bill that indirectly gave land to settlers was the 1862 Morrill Land-Grant Act. To encourage the building of “land-grant” colleges in Western territories that had already been granted statehood, hundreds of thousands of acres of land were given to state governments. This land could be sold by the states to pay for these colleges. At 50 cents an acre (and sometimes less), settlers and land speculators received land from individual states.
The expansion of the railroad was closely tied to western expansion. In acts of 1862 and 1864, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads received grants of land to extend their rail lines westward. Part of the legislation also gave the railroads 10 square miles on both sides of the track for every mile of track constructed. This land was sometimes sold to settlers as well, sometimes at exorbitant prices. More importantly, success on the plains became increasingly dependent on the use of technology and the introduction of business approaches to agriculture.
The United States Department of Agriculture was established in 1862 and by late 1863 was distributing information to plains farmers on new farm techniques and developments. New plows and threshers (including some powered by steam) were introduced in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Slowly, control of agricultural production on the plains was taken from individual farmers as large bonanza farms developed. While individual settlers were interested in producing enough for their families to survive, bonanza farms usually produced only one or two crops on them.
Produce from these farms was sold to the Eastern United States or abroad. While individual settlers were being driven off the land because of the hardships of farming on the plains, bonanza farms were run as large businesses and had the technology and professional backing to be successful. Bonanza farms were plentiful by the late 1870s and demonstrated the transformation that had taken place in agriculture. These farms were truly capitalistic; their success was dependent on the machinery that existed on the farms and on the railroad that would take their crops away for export.
Farm production increased dramatically with the advent of bonanza farms. At the same time, the numbers of Americans involved in agriculture decreased (from nearly 60 percent in 1860 to 37 percent in 1900). The new business techniques practiced by bonanza farms were successful in the short term, but created problems for both bonanza farms and individual farmers in the future. Several times in the 1880s and early 1890s, there was simply too much grain being produced on these farms, dropping the prices drastically.
To remain economically successful, farmers proceeded to do the only logical thing: produce even more, which drove prices down even more. Many plains farmers in this period were unable to pay their mortgages, and farms were foreclosed. Bonanza farms usually had the technology for the production of only one or two crops and could not diversify; they too faced financial distress. Many farmers felt that federal policies had to do more to protect them, and thus started to organize to protect themselves. Thousands of blacks moved west after the Civil War to escape the uncertainty of life in the Reconstruction South.
Many who ended up in the plains and elsewhere lacked the finances and farming abilities to be successful, and faced many of the same racial difficulties they had faced in the American South. However, some black farmers did emerge successfully as plains farmers. The most prominent of the Southern blacks who went west was the 1879 group, the Exodusters (modeling their journey after that of the Israelites fleeing Egypt to the Promised Land). Less than 20 percent of this group became successful farmers in the plains region. In Texas, the ranching industry was profitable long before either farming or mining was fully developed.
Settlers there had learned cattle ranching from the Mexicans. Much of the romantic view many still have of the West comes from our vision of cowboys driving cattle on the “long drive” from Texas to either Kansas or Missouri (nearly one-third of the cowboys involved were either Mexicans or blacks). The long drive was economically inefficient, and with the removal of Native Americans and buffalo from the Great Plains in the 1860s and 1870s (to be discussed in the next section), many cattle ranchers moved their herds northward, allowing them to be closer to the cattle markets of Chicago, Kansas City, and St.
Louis. However, conflicts between farmers and ranchers soon developed. Farmers often accused ranchers of allowing herds to trample their farmland. The invention of barbed wire by Joseph Glidden in 1873 was the beginning of the end for the cattle industry; as farmers began to contain their farmlands, the open range began to disappear. A critical blow to the cattle industry occurred during two very harsh winters of 1885 to 1886 and 1886 to 1887. Many cattle froze to death or starved during these years, with some ranchers losing up to 85 percent of their cattle.
Those ranchers who survived turned to the same business techniques that had saved many plains farms; scientific methods of breeding, feeding, and fencing were now utilized. In reality, the independent cowboy present in our myths of the West also died during this transformation. The westward stream of settlers in the mid-1800s severely disrupted the lives of Native Americans. The migration patterns of buffalo, which the Native Americans depended on, were disrupted; settlers thought nothing of seizing lands that previous treaties had given to Native Americans.
Some tribes tried to cooperate with the onrush of settlers, while others violently resisted. It is unlikely that anything would have saved Native American territories from the rush of American expansionism. The completion of the transcontinental railroad required that rail lines run through territories previously ceded to Native American tribes. A congressional commission meeting in 1867 stated the official policy of the American government on “Indian affairs”: Native Americans would all be removed to Oklahoma and South Dakota, and every effort would be made to transform them from “savages” into “civilized” beings.
Conflict with the federal army occurred again in 1890 after the death of Sitting Bull. Some Sioux again attempted to leave their reservation; these tribesmen were quickly apprehended by the federal army. As the male Sioux were handing in their weapons, a shot was fired by someone. The soldiers opened fire on the Native Americans, killing over 200 men, women, and children in the Massacre at Wounded Knee. As stated previously, American farmers from the West were in economic trouble by the mid-1880s. Many farmers from the South shared their plight. Several policies originated in Washington that farmers felt greatly hurt them economically.
Congresses of this era favored high tariffs, which helped Eastern businessmen. Farmers felt they were hurt by the high tariff policy, as it kept foreigners from buying their produce. The issue that farmers were most upset about, however, concerned currency. After the Civil War, federal budget officials enacted a “tight money” policy and took the paper money used during the Civil War out of circulation. In addition, the dollar during this period was for the first time put on the gold standard, meaning that every dollar in circulation had to be backed by a similar amount of gold held by the federal government.
This action also served to limit the amount of money in circulation. These financial measures ensured that inflation would not occur, but Western farmers were convinced that depressed farm prices were largely a result of these policies. Several congressional acts to increase the coining and mining of gold and silver met with limited success and were opposed by the presidents of the era. By 1890, some leaders of the Farmers’ Alliances began to plan for political action on the national level. Alliance strength was particularly strong in the South, where four governors owed their election to Alliance support.
Forty-seven congressmen in the South were also strongly supported by the Alliance. In the plains states, Alliance candidates were successful on the local level. Alliance support extended to women as well; several women held important leadership positions at the top levels of the Farmers’ Alliances. The reelection of Grover Cleveland angered the agricultural interests greatly, as he announced his continued support of the gold standard during his inauguration speech. A great depression hit America in 1893, with workers from all parts of the country being laid off (in some cities up to 25 percent of laborers were unemployed).
Populist marchers joined with marchers from many groups protesting government financial policy in Washington in 1894. As the depression ended at the end of the decade, Populists and others in the agricultural sector began to recognize the massive changes that had taken place in the American economy since the end of the Civil War. The American economy was now a national economy and not a sectional one; the railroad had been largely responsible for this change. In addition, slowly, but surely, the United States was becoming an industrial nation and not an agricultural one.