Western Expansion (1860–1895) for AP U.S. History (page 2)

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Updated on Mar 4, 2011

Farming on the Great Plains

In the ideology of Thomas Jefferson, the yeoman farmer was the central figure in the development of the American character. The abilities, fortitude, and luck of the yeomen were severely tested as they moved to the Great Plains. Many settlers who went west were immigrants with families (unlike the single male immigrants who lived in New York, Boston, and other Eastern cities).

The harshness of life on the plains was simply too much to bear for many settlers and their families. Temperatures ranged from over 100 degrees in the summer to bitter cold in the winter, and many of the sod houses built by settlers did little to keep out the heat or the cold. Having enough water was a constant problem, with some of the water collected in barrels or buckets carrying "prairie fever" (typhoid fever). In a single year, a settler and his land might be attacked by fierce blizzards, howling dust storms, and locusts or grasshoppers. The rosy picture of life on the Great Plains presented in recruitment brochures found in New York or in Currier & Ives prints popular in the East were a harsh contrast with reality. By 1900, two-thirds of the homestead farms failed, causing many ex-farmers to return to the East.

How did the settlers who survived on the Great Plains manage to do so? Survival on the plains largely depended on cooperation with other settlers who lived nearby. Groups of men would put up new barns and construct fences; women on the plains would get support from wives of other settlers. In short, successful farmers on the plains were no longer the individual yeomen envisioned by Jefferson.

The Transformation of Agriculture on the Plains

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.

Women and Minorities on the Plains

As stated previously, most settlers came to the plains as families (there were a tiny number of women who filed for land claims on their own). Diaries of many women who lived on the plains spoke of the loneliness of their existence, especially in the non-harvest periods when many men left for other work and women were left on the farms. Perhaps the greatest novel describing prairie life is O Pioneers! (1913) by Willa Cather. This book describes both the tremendous challenges and the incredible rewards found in life on the prairie. An equally compelling vision of prairie life is Giants of the Earth (1927) by O. E. Rolvaag. In this novel, the harshness of prairie life drives the wife of an immigrant settler to madness and to eventual death.

It was in the Western states that the first American women received the vote. In 1887, two towns in Kansas gave women the vote (with one of them electing a woman mayor to a single term in office). The state constitution of Wyoming was the first to give women the vote on a statewide basis.

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.

Mining and Lumbering in the West

The rumors of gold at Pike's Peak, Nevada, silver at Comstock, Nevada, and other minerals at countless other locations drew settlers westward in the quest for instant riches (it should be noted that a large number of Californians traveled eastward for exactly the same reason). People of all backgrounds, including women and some Chinese who had left their jobs in railroad construction, all took part in the search for riches. Stories of the wild nature of many early mining towns are generally accurate; stories of the failure of most speculators to find anything to mine are almost always true. Most prospectors who did find something in the ground found it much too difficult to dig for and then to transport; oftentimes they sold their claims to Eastern mining companies, such as the Anaconda Copper Company, which did the work for them. For many of these companies, minerals such as tin and copper became just as profitable as gold and silver to mine.

Lumber companies also began moving into the Northwest in the 1870s to start to cut down timber. The lumber industry benefited greatly from the federal Timber and Stone Act, passed in 1878. This bill offered land in the Northwest that was unsuitable for farming to "settlers" at very cheap prices. Lumber companies hired seamen from port cities and others who had no interest in "settling" to buy the forest land cheaply and then to transfer the ownership of the land to the companies.

Ranching in the West

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 Plight of Native Americans

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.

The tribe that resisted the onrush of settlement most fiercely was the Sioux. In 1865, the government announced their desire to build a road through Sioux territory; the following year, tribesmen attacked and killed 88 American soldiers. After negotiations in 1868, the Sioux agreed to move to a reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Yet, in late 1874, miners searching for gold began to arrive in the Black Hills. The chief of the tribe, Sitting Bull, and others of the tribe left the Dakota reservation at this point. General George Custer was sent to round up Sitting Bull and the Sioux. He and his force of over 200 men were all killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June of 1876. This was the last major Native American victory against the American army. Large numbers of federal troops were brought into the region, returning the Sioux to their reservations.

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.

Other tribes such as the Nez Perce also initially resisted, only to be eventually driven to reservations. Nez Perce warriors ending up taking part in elaborate Ghost Dances, which were supposed to remove the whites from Native American territories, return the buffalo, and bring ancestors killed by the whites back to life. The Ghost Dances terrified white settlers who viewed them and served to bring more federal forces into territories nominally controlled by Native Americans.

The killing of herds of buffalo by white settlers for food, hides, and even for pure sport did much to destroy Native American life, since Native Americans depended on the buffalo for their very existence. A fatal blow to the remaining land owned by Native American tribes was the 1887 Dawes Act. This act was passed in the spirit of "civilizing" the Native Americans and was designed to give them their own plots of land to farm on. The real intent of the legislation was to attempt to destroy the tribal identities of Native Americans. Many Native Americans had little skill or interest in farming; many eventually sold "their" land to land speculators.

In 1889, there were still 2 million acres of unclaimed land in "Indian territory" in Oklahoma. On April 22, a mad rush took place by white settlers staking out claims on this territory (those who staked claims that day were called "boomers"; settlers who had entered Indian territory a day or more early to stake their claims were called "sooners").

By the end of the century, virtually all Native Americans had been placed in reservations. Many young Indians attempted to dress, talk, and act like white men in schools established by white reformers.

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