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Manifest Destiny and Expansion: 1815–1887

California Gold Rush and Westward Expansion

Effects of the Gold and Silver Rush on the American West

The Gold Rush of 1848 and the Silver Rush of 1859 drew thousands of people from around the world to America's West.

The California Gold Rush of 1848 and the Nevada Silver Rush of 1859 sparked major population growth in the American West. In 1848 thousands of people immigrated to California seeking their fortunes. Sutter's Mill, where the Gold Rush began in January, was located on John Sutter's land near the Sacramento River. James Marshall, who was building a saw mill for Sutter, first spotted the gold. The two formed a partnership and pledged to keep the discovery secret. But word soon got out and spread rapidly. By May, droves of Western prospectors had arrived. Then miners from far-flung places such as Chile and Peru and merchants from Hawaii and China showed up. All in all, in 1849 approximately 80,000 forty-niners, or Gold Rush fortune seekers, arrived from all over the world. By 1853 it is estimated 250,000 people were in the region. They came by sea to booming San Francisco or overland across the Plains.

The prospectors formed rough mining camps. Each prospector sought to find gold and stake a claim. The claim was meant to guarantee the right of the claim holder to mine for gold in the specified location where the gold was found. Even so, mining camps became known for lawlessness and violence over disputed claims. Some people immigrated to the region to provide goods and services to the miners, and today their businesses still exist. For example, an emigrant from Germany, Levi Strauss, realized prospectors needed strong, tough work clothes and made and sold them to the miners. Henry Wells partnered with William Fargo to set up banking services in San Francisco.

Eventually, the Gold Rush slowed down. Gold was harder to find, and mining businesses replaced the lone miner. Some mining towns organized town governments, and law and order prevailed. However, with the Gold Rush waning, many mining towns became ghost towns.

Then, in 1858–59 a series of finds in Colorado drew the notice of another generation of goldseekers in what became known as the Pike's Peak Gold Rush. Fueled by a recession in the East and new treaties with Plains Indian tribes, tens of thousands headed west to find their fortunes in the Rockies. The rush was over within six months, but it had long-lasting effects. In 1861 the Colorado Territory was formed, and the Native American tribes in the region lost their lands to the United States.

The Silver Rush struck in 1859 in Nevada. The Comstock Lode, a rich deposit of silver named after Henry Comstock, who partially owned the lode's location, was massive. Mining towns such as Virginia City and Washoe quickly sprang up. The lode was enormously profitable for some individuals and made the United States the largest silver producer in the world in the 19th century. The annual output during the Comstock Lode's peak years was about $36 million. To handle it, the U.S. government established a branch mint at nearby Carson City. With the large population growth, Nevada was quickly organized into the Nevada Territory in 1861 and became a state in 1864.
Prospectors dealt with severe hardships such as disease and a lack of clean water in their search for gold. Some who abandoned mining would go on to make their fortune selling goods and services to other prospectors.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-04487

Transcontinental Railroad and the Settlement of the West

Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, and passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 opened the West to more settlers. Together they illustrate the active role of the federal government in promoting westward expansion.

In 1863 the United States started building a railroad to connect its East Coast with its West Coast. Until the completion of the railroad, people traveled from east to west by overland stagecoach or by ship. There were two shipping routes. The first took travelers south and around South America, and the other other took them to Panama and then across land to Panama's west coast, where they picked up a northbound ship. Either way, the journey was costly, long, and difficult.

The Union Pacific Railroad began laying track at the eastern end in Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific started at the western end in Sacramento, California. The companies received government bonds for financial support and large parcels of land. Their lines met in Promontory, Utah, where on May 10, 1869, a ceremonial 17.6 carat golden spike was driven and a Western Union telegrapher sent the following message far and wide, "DONE.". The Union Pacific, unable to start laying track until after the Civil War, hired former soldiers and Irish immigrants to do the demanding work. The Central Pacific hired mostly Chinese immigrants for the job but paid them less than white workers. The Chinese workers later became settlers in the western lands.

The Transcontinental Railroad cut travel time from the East Coast to the West Coast from six months to two weeks. That ease of traveling West brought more people to the region. It also meant an easier and faster method of shipping freight. Demand for goods rose as a result, and the U.S. economy grew.

Impact of Westward Expansion on Native American Tribes

More and more settlers arrived in the West, displacing Native Americans and reducing their access to traditional food sources.

The railroad brought an end to many traditional Native American ways of life. The growing population of settlers, who needed land for farming and towns, steadily displaced Native Americans. Furthermore, railroad access to the West encouraged hunters to travel there to hunt the huge bison herds. Plains Indians relied on the bison for food and clothing, and these hunters greatly diminished the roaming herds. This clash of cultures resulted in fighting with the Native Americans, and the U.S military was called upon to protect and secure the land for white settlers.

In addition, the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862 drew large numbers of diverse settlers to the interior of the West. The act granted 160 acres of land to citizens in regions such as modern-day Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. People applying for the grants had to agree to farm the land for five years, thereby improving it. The homesteader had only to be a head of a family or 21 years of age. This meant U.S. citizens, including freedpeople, new immigrants intending on becoming citizens, single women, and people of all races and backgrounds were eligible. Much to the concern of Native Americans, it meant more and more people settling in the West.

The railroad also brought more settlement to the Pacific Northwest, supporting the growth of agricultural industries such as lumber. These changes led to conflict with indigenous tribes and pushed them off their lands. One such tribe was the Nez Percé, whose leader, Chief Joseph, listed his people's devastating losses when he surrendered in October 1877. The Nez Percé were ultimately moved to a reservation in Oklahoma.
At the Golden Spike Ceremony on May 10, 1869, workers met at Promontory Summit, Utah, to lay the last rail of the Transcontinental Railroad and to drive the last spike. Afterward, the workers toasted its completion, and the chief engineers shook hands.
Credit: Oakland Museum of California

Life and Culture of Great Plains Indians before Westward Expansion

Great Plains Indians had an established lifestyle and culture prior to westward expansion.

The Great Plains Indians lived on the large grasslands that make up the center of the United States. The area ranges from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from the Rio Grande northward to what is now southern Canada. Most Plains Indians originally lived in villages and farmed, hunted, and fished for food. This was before the Spanish brought horses to the region in 1650. Once they acquired horses, many Plains tribes gave up farming and their established villages and, on horseback, followed and hunted herds of bison. Others, attracted to the free-roaming way of life, migrated in tribes from the Northeast and Southeast. These groups included the Sioux, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Comanche.

The nomadic Native Americans altered their lifestyle to match the roaming bisons' migration. The various groups gathered only during the bisons' calving seasons. The rest of the time, the hunters traveled in small hunting groups. They lived in tepees: portable, cone-shaped tents that could easily be moved as the bison moved. Hunting was important for food and items made from different parts of the bison. With bison bones they made utensils, and from the hides women made clothing and buffalo robes.

Trading between the nomads and those who still lived in villages and trading with the British and French were common. Different tribes controlled the trade. The Cheyenne controlled the horse trading. The Sioux controlled the trading of skins from the Western tribes to the British and French for guns, blankets, and cloth. Some tribes even fought each other to control trade routes.

Belief in the spirit world was important to the Plains people. Most practiced animism, the belief that spirit beings inhabit all natural things, such as animals, plants, stars, and the moon and sun. To succeed in life depended on the intervention of the spirit beings. To get spirit help, a person went on a vision quest, which meant they went to an isolated place and fasted. The quest for supernatural power was common among the Plains tribes. Ceremonies and rituals were frequent. Later, during the period of wars with settlers, a Plains Indians' ritual called the Ghost Dance became greatly feared among the settlers and the U.S. government, who believed it would reignite the animosity of the Plains Indians toward the settlers and lead to war.
Initially, groups of Plains Indians used bows and arrows in an equestrian hunt. Later, guns, which were introduced through the fur trade, were adopted for this use.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-07508

Plains Wars

From the mid-19th century, the Plains Indians and the U.S. government fought each other for control of the Great Plains.

From the 1850s into the late 1880s, Native Americans and the U.S. government fought over control of the Great Plains. As more and more settlers arrived in the West and encroached on Native American territory, more and more clashes arose. There were horrific attacks both by settlers on Native Americans and by Native Americans on settlers. At the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, soldiers in the Colorado militia attacked and killed some 150 to 500 Cheyenne, mostly women and children. In 1866 Sioux warriors attacked a unit of U.S. soldiers, killing Captain William J. Fetterman and all 80 soldiers in his unit.

In 1868 the U.S. government and Native American leaders signed the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota and Dakota Sioux and Arapaho tribes. The treaty stipulated that the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota were not to be developed and were a possession of the Sioux and Arapaho tribes. That treaty brought peace for a few years. But in 1874 gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the United States broke the treaty. Conflicts resumed, which led to the defeat of Colonel George A. Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The U.S. government became more determined than ever to conquer the Plains Indians. It continued military attacks and encouraged bison hunting to destroy the Plains people's food supply. The tribes began to starve. By the 1880s many Plains groups were living on U.S. government reservations. Then Congress passed the Dawes Act in 1887, disrupting the reservation system. The act tore at the social fabric of tribal life by splitting up protected tribal land and distributing it to individual Native Americans, 160 acres to a household. The bill also stipulated that any land remaining after the grants to Native Americans could be sold to the general public. As a result, over the next five decades, more than 60 percent of land still in Native American hands in 1887 passed into non–Native American hands. With catastrophic consequences, Native Americans were cut off from traditional sites for fishing, hunting, and communal gatherings.

There was one final battle between government troops and Plains Indians. By the 1890s the Plains people had adopted a religious ceremony called the Ghost Dance, inspired by the spiritual leader Wovoka. They gathered in large groups and danced with the hope of returning to their former way of life. The U.S. government feared Ghost Dance gatherings would rekindle the Plains Wars. On December 29, 1890, troops attacked a Sioux camp at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Over 200 Sioux men, women, and children were killed in what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre. This battle effectively ended the Plains Wars.
The Ghost Dance was a connection to a time when bison were plentiful and white people did not exist. The cult surrounding it was influenced by pacifist Christian beliefs but became distorted by more warlike tribes, such as the Sioux.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-3726