Western Expansion (1860–1895) for AP U.S. History
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Summary: 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.
Homestead Act (1862): bill that did much to encourage settlers to move west; 160 acres of land was given to any settler who was an American citizen or who had applied for citizenship, who was committed to farming the land for six months of the year, and who could pay the $10 registration fee for the land.
Massacre at Wounded Knee (1890): battle that was the last large-scale attempt by Native Americans to resist American settlement in the Great Plains region. Federal soldiers opened fire on Native Americans, killing more than 200.
Dawes Act (1887): act designed to break up Native American tribes by offering individual Native Americans land to be used for either farming or grazing.
Farmers' Alliances: organization that united farmers at the statewide and regional level; policy goals of this organization included more readily available farm credits and federal regulation of the railroads.
Populist party: formed in 1892 by members of the Farmers' Alliances, this party was designed to appeal to workers in all parts of the country. Populists favored a larger role of government in American society, a progressive income tax, and more direct methods of democracy.
Turner Thesis: 1893 thesis by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner suggesting that the innovations practiced by western settlers gradually became ingrained into the fabric of American society; democracy and self improvement were also central to western expansion, Turner claimed. In short, Turner suggested that many of the characteristics of the "American character" were created by westward expansion. Later historians questioned parts of this thesis.
Federal Legislation Encourages Western Settlement
Adventurous Americans had settled west of the Mississippi and out to the Pacific in the decades prior to the Civil War. However, several acts passed by the federal government in 1862 set the stage for the massive movement westward that would take place after the Civil War.
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.