The Transformation of the West

Territorial Government

The private profit motive dominated the movement westward, but the federal government played a supporting role in securing land.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the level of federal involvement in the governance of the West

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The president appointed territorial governors.
  • A territorial governor acted as a militia commander, a local superintendent of Indian affairs, and the state liaison with federal agencies.
  • Elected legislatures dealt with more local issues.
  • The General Land Office and the Forest Service managed federal lands.
  • The Homestead Act granted 160 acres to each settler who improved the land for five years.
  • The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 provided tracts of 80 acres to railroad companies for building the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • The Morrill Act of 1862 provided land grants to states to begin colleges of agriculture and engineering.

Key Terms

  • Land Scrip: A form of credit granting its holder entitlement to certain tracts of land.
  • Homestead Act: One of three U.S. federal laws that gave an applicant ownership (at no cost) of farmland called a "homestead," which was typically 160 acres of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River.

The Federal Government and the West

The private profit motive dominated the movement westward, but the federal government played a supporting role in securing land through treaties and setting up territorial governments, with governors appointed by the president. The federal government first acquired western territory from other nations or native tribes by treaty, and then it sent surveyors to map and document the land. By the twentieth century, Washington bureaucracies—such as the General Land Office in the Interior Department and, after 1891, the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture—managed the federal lands. After 1900, dam building and flood control became major concerns.

Transportation was a key issue, and the army, especially the Army Corps of Engineers, was given full responsibility for facilitating navigation on the rivers. The steamboat, first used on the Ohio River in 1811, made inexpensive travel possible using the river systems, especially the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. Army expeditions up the Missouri River in 1818–1825 allowed engineers to improve the technology.

Territorial Governance After the Civil War

With the war over, the federal government focused on improving the governance of the territories. It subdivided several territories, preparing them for statehood, following the precedents set by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. It standardized procedures and the supervision of territorial governments, taking away some local powers, and imposing much "red tape," growing the federal bureaucracy significantly. Federal involvement in the territories was considerable. In addition to direct subsidies, the federal government maintained military posts, provided safety from Indian attacks, bankrolled treaty obligations, conducted surveys and land sales, built roads, staffed land offices, made harbor improvements, and subsidized overland mail delivery. Territorial citizens came to both decry federal power and local corruption, and at the same time, lament that more federal dollars were not sent their way.


Camp Supply stockade, 1869: This image shows Camp Supply, which was located in Indian Territory (now present-day Oklahoma).

Territorial governors were political appointees and beholden to Washington so they usually governed with a light hand, allowing the legislatures to deal with the local issues. In addition to his role as civil governor, a territorial governor was also a militia commander, a local superintendent of Indian affairs, and the state liaison with federal agencies. The legislatures, on the other hand, spoke for the local citizens, and they were given considerable leeway by the federal government to make local law. These improvements to governance still left plenty of room for profiteering. As Mark Twain wrote in 1913 while working for his brother, the secretary of Nevada, "The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two." Corrupt associations, or "Territorial rings," of local politicians and business owners buttressed with federal patronage, embezzled from Indian tribes and local citizens, especially in the Dakota and New Mexico territories.

In acquiring, preparing, and distributing public land to private ownership, the federal government generally followed the system set forth by the Land Ordinance of 1785. Federal exploration and scientific teams would undertake reconnaissance of the land and determine Native American habitation. Through treaty, land title would be ceded by the resident tribes. Then surveyors would create detailed maps marking the land into squares of six miles on each side, subdivided first into one-square-mile blocks, and then into 160-acre lots. Townships would be formed from the lots and sold at public auction. Unsold land could be purchased from the land office at a minimum price of $1.25 per acre.

As part of public policy, the government would award public land to certain groups such as veterans, through the use of "land scrip." The scrips could be traded in the financial market, often at below the $1.25 per acre minimum price set by law, which gave speculators, investors, and developers another way to acquire large tracts of land cheaply. Land policy became politicized by competing factions and interests, and the question of slavery on new lands was contentious. As a counter to land speculators, farmers formed "claims clubs" to enable them to buy larger tracts than the 160-acre allotments by trading among themselves at controlled prices.

In 1862, Congress passed three important bills that impacted the land system. The Homestead Act granted 160 acres to each settler (whether a citizen or noncitizen, and including squatters and women) who improved the land for five years, for no more than modest filing fees. The law was especially important in the settling of the Plains states, although many farmers purchased their land from railroads at low rates. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 provided for the land needed to build the Transcontinental Railroad. The land given to the railroads alternated with government-owned tracts saved for distribution to homesteaders.

The Diversity of the West

European immigrants and black freedmen moved to the western portion of America in search of new opportunities, while dispossessed Hispanics struggled to survive in their stolen homeland.

Learning Objectives

Examine the racial and cultural diversity of western settlers

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The railroad offered the Chinese lower wages and more dangerous jobs than white workers.
  • Significant numbers of Japanese arrived in California as permanent settlers.
  • In the Old West, many Finns went to Minnesota and Michigan, Swedes to South Dakota, Norwegians to North Dakota, Irish to Montana, Chinese to San Francisco, German Mennonites to Kansas, and German Jews to Portland, Oregon.
  • African Americans served in all capacities in the West, including as fur traders, miners, cowboys, Indian fighters, scouts, woodsmen, farmhands, saloon workers, cooks, and outlaws.
  • The all-black town of Nicodemus, Kansas, was founded in 1877.
  • Dispossessed Hispanics lived in border towns with barrios of intense poverty.

Key Terms

  • buffalo soldier: An African-American soldier in the U.S. Army, serving in one of a number of segregated units under white officers in the period after the U.S. Civil War up to the final racial integration of the U.S. military at the end of the Korean War.
  • Exodusters: African Americans who fled the Southern United States for Kansas in 1879 and 1880. After the end of Reconstruction, racial oppression and rumors of the reinstitution of slavery led many freedmen to seek new places to live.
  • Tejanos: A term used to identify a Texan of Spanish or Mexican heritage.
  • barrio: A Spanish word meaning "neighborhood."
  • Migrant worker: An agricultural laborer who travels from place to place harvesting seasonal crops.

European Immigrants

European immigrants to the United States in the 1800s often lived in communities in which individuals had similar religious and ethnic backgrounds. For example, many Finns went to Minnesota and Michigan, Swedes to South Dakota, Norwegians to North Dakota, Irish to Montana, Chinese to San Francisco, German Mennonites to Kansas, and German Jews to Portland, Oregon.

African Americans

The photo shows a line up of hundreds of soldiers. The caption of the photograph says

Buffalo Soldiers: Buffalo Soldiers who participated in the Spanish-American War.

African Americans served in westward expeditions as fur traders, miners, cowboys, Indian fighters, scouts, woodsmen, farmhands, saloon workers, cooks, and outlaws. The famed Buffalo Soldiers were in the all-black regiments of the U.S. Army (with white officers). They served in numerous western forts. About 4,000 blacks came to California during the Gold Rush.

The Exodus of 1879, also known as the "Kansas Exodus" or the " Exoduster Movement," was the mass movement of African Americans from states along the Mississippi River to Kansas in the late nineteenth century. It was the first general migration of blacks following the Civil War. One of the most important figures of the Exodus was Benjamin "Pap" Singleton. To escape the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Jim Crow laws, which continued to make them second-class citizens after Reconstruction, as many as 40,000 Exodusters left the South to settle in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Colorado.

In the 1880s, blacks bought more than 20,000 acres of land in Kansas, and several of the settlements made during this time still exist today (such as Nicodemus, Kansas, founded in 1877). This sudden wave of migration came as a great surprise to many white Americans, who thought that black Southerners were free in name only. Many blacks left the South with the belief that they were receiving free passage to Kansas only to be stranded in St. Louis, Missouri. Black churches in St. Louis, together with eastern philanthropists, formed the Colored Relief Board and the Kansas Freedmen 's Aid Society to help those stranded in St. Louis to reach Kansas.

The "Kansas Fever Exodus" refers specifically to 6,000 blacks who moved from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas to Kansas. Many in Louisiana were inspired to leave the state when the 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention decided that voting rights were a matter for the state (not federal ) government, thereby clearing the way for the disenfranchisement of Louisiana's black population. The Exodus was not universally praised by African Americans. Indeed, Frederick Douglass was a critic of the movement. Douglass did not disagree with the Exodusters in principle, but he felt that the movement was ill-timed and poorly organized.


The California Gold Rush encouraged large migrations of Hispanic and Asian people, which continued after the Civil War. Chinese migrants, many of whom were impoverished peasants, provided the major part of the workforce for the building of the Central Pacific portion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Most of them went home by 1870 when the railroad was finished, but thousands stayed in America. They also worked in mining, agriculture, and small businesses, many living in San Francisco. Significant numbers of Japanese also settled in Hawaii and California permanently.


Many Hispanics who had been living in the former territories of New Spain lost their land rights to fraud and governmental action when Texas, New Mexico, and California were formed. In some cases, Hispanics were simply driven off their land. In Texas, the situation was most acute, as the "Tejanos," who made up about 75 percent of the population, ended up as laborers employed by the large white ranches that took over their land. In New Mexico, only six percent of all claims by Hispanics were confirmed by the Claims Court. As a result, many Hispanics became permanent migrant workers, seeking seasonal employment in farming, mining, ranching, and the railroads. Border towns sprang up with barrios of intense poverty. In response, some Hispanics joined labor unions, and in a few cases, led revolts. Known as the California "Robin Hood," Joaquin Murieta led a gang in the 1850s that burned houses, killed miners, and robbed stagecoaches. Starting around 1859 in Texas, Juan Cortina led a 20-year campaign against Texas land grabbers and the Texas Rangers.

Migrant Workers

Migrant workers in the United States have come from many different sources, and have been subject to different work experiences. Prior to restrictions against the slave trade, agriculture in the United States was largely dependent on slave labor; contrary to popular myth, slavery, while more prominent in the Southern plantation system, was used in both the North and South as a way of supplying labor to agriculture. However, over the course of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the slave trade was banned and slaves emancipated, foreign workers began to be imported to fill the demand for cheap labor.


Migrant workers: A family of migrant workers in California.

There were many sources for cheap labor. Workers from China were the first group to be brought to the United States in large numbers; however, the federal government curtailed immigration from China with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. At the turn of the twentieth century, workers from Mexico and the Philippines began to enter the United States to work as cheap agricultural laborers. Other sources of cheap agricultural labor during this time were found in unskilled European immigrants, who, unlike Chinese, Mexican, or Filipino laborers, were not brought to the United States to work specifically as cheap laborers but were hired to work in agriculture nonetheless. Many European migrants who worked as agricultural laborers did so with the goal of eventually purchasing their own farms in the United States; however, due to the difficulty farmhands faced in accumulating capital, they often did not reach this goal.

The experiences of migrant laborers in agriculture during this period varied. Workers from England experienced little difficulty, as they shared a common language and Protestant religion with many Americans and, thus, faced little prejudice and assimilated into American society easily. On the other hand, workers from Catholic countries, such as Ireland and Germany, were subject to a number of prejudices. Employers viewed Mexican workers, who continued to be brought into the United States on a temporary basis during the twentieth century, desirably, as they generally did not strike or demand higher wages and, therefore, were seen by managers as being satisfied with their working conditions. However, the use of Mexican migrant laborers declined during the Great Depression, when internal migrant workers from Dust Bowl states moved west to California, taking jobs normally filled by Mexican migrants.

Ranchers, Cowboys, and Cattle

During the late 1800s, many range wars erupted between ranchers over water rights, grazing rights, and property and border disagreements.

Learning Objectives

Interpret the significance of range wars in late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Until the invention of barbed wire in the 1870s, ranchers let their livestock graze on open-range public land.
  • Unbranded cattle were known as "mavericks" and could become the property of anyone able to capture and brand the unmarked animals.
  • The cowboy tradition grew out of the established Hispanic system of hacendados and vaqueros in the Southwest.
  • The Homestead Act of 1862 brought in an increased number of ranchers.
  • The earliest cowboys traveled on the Santa Fe Trail.

Key Terms

  • Homestead Act of 1862: One of three U.S. federal laws that gave an applicant ownership (at no cost) of farmland called a "homestead," which was typically 160 acres (65 hectares or one-fourth section) of undeveloped federal land west of the Mississippi River.
  • vaqueros: (Spanish pronunciation: [baˈkeɾos]; Portuguese: vaqueiros [vaˈkejɾu]) Horse-mounted livestock herders of a tradition that originated on the Iberian Peninsula. Today the vaquero is still a part of the doma vaquera, the Spanish tradition of working riding. The vaquero traditions developed in Mexico from methodology brought to Mesoamerica from Spain, and also became the foundation for the North American cowboy.

The Open Range


Cattle roundup: A cattle roundup in Colorado, ca. 1898.

The prairie and desert lands of what is today Mexico and the western United States were well suited to " open range " grazing. For example, American bison had been a mainstay of the diet for the Native Americans in the Great Plains for centuries. Likewise, cattle and sheep were simply turned loose in the spring after their young were born and allowed to roam with little supervision and no fences. They were then rounded up in the fall, with the mature animals driven to market and the breeding stock brought close to the ranch headquarters for greater protection in the winter. The use of livestock branding allowed the cattle owned by different ranchers to be identified and sorted. Ranching dominated western economic activity beginning with the settlement of Texas in the 1840s.

Along with ranchers came the need for agricultural crops to feed both humans and livestock. Hence, many farmers came West along with ranchers. Many operations were diversified, with both ranching and farming activities taking place. With the Homestead Act of 1862, more settlers came West to set up farms. This created some conflict because increasing numbers of farmers needed to fence off fields to prevent cattle and sheep from eating their crops. Barbed wire, invented in 1874, gradually made inroads in fencing off privately owned land, especially for homesteads. On the Great Plains, there was some reduction of land open to grazing.

Range Wars

A range war is a type of armed conflict, typically undeclared, which occurs within agrarian or stock-rearing societies. The subject of these conflicts is the control of "open range" land. Typically triggered by disputes over water rights or grazing rights for this land, these wars often involve farmers and ranchers. Formal military involvement, other than to separate warring parties, is rare. Range wars were known to occur in the American West. Famous range wars included the Lincoln County War, the Pleasant Valley War, the Mason County War, and the Johnson County Range War, and sometimes were fought between local residents and gunmen hired by absentee landowners.

Pleasant Valley War

The Pleasant Valley War, sometimes called the "Tonto Basin Feud," "Tonto Basin War," or "Tewksbury-Graham Feud," was a range war fought in Pleasant Valley, Arizona, in 1882 to 1892. The war involved two feuding families: the ranchers Grahams and Tewksburys. The Tewksburys, who were part Indian, started their operations as cattle ranchers before branching out to sheep, and racial slurs were bandied about from the early years of conflict.

Pleasant Valley is located in Gila County, Arizona, but many of the events related to this feud took place in neighboring Apache and Navajo counties. Other neighborhood Arizona parts, such as Holbrook and Globe, were the setting of its bloodiest battles. Although the feud originally was fought between the Tewksburys and the Grahams against the well-established cattleman James Stinson, it soon involved other cattlemen associations, sheepmen, hired guns, cowboys, and Arizona lawmen. The feud lasted for about a decade, with its most deadly incidents occurring between 1886 and 1887; the last-known killing took place in 1892.

The Pleasant Valley War had the highest number of fatalities of such civilian conflicts in U.S. history, with an estimated total of 35 to 50 deaths, and the near annihilation of the males of the two feuding families. The Pleasant Valley War was one of the deadliest and well-known range wars. It was also a reason Arizona's statehood was postponed for another decade. Years after its end, the feud remained a subject of many books and articles, and a number of gunmen made a name of themselves for their participation.

Johnson County War


"The Invaders": This image shows a group of Johnson County War invaders, 1892.

The Johnson County War, also known as the "War on Powder River" and the "Wyoming Range War," was a series of range conflicts that took place in Johnson, Wyoming, between 1889 and 1893. The conflicts started when cattle companies ruthlessly persecuted supposed rustlers throughout the grazing lands of Wyoming. As tensions swelled between the large established ranchers and the smaller settlers in the state, violence finally culminated in Powder River Country, when the former hired armed gunmen to invade the county and wipe out the competition. When small-time farmers and ranchers, as well as the state lawmen, received word of the gunmen's initial incursion in the territory, they formed a posse of 200 men to fight back the gunmen, which led to a grueling standoff. The war ended when the U.S. Cavalry, on the orders of President Benjamin Harrison, relieved the two forces.

One of the most well-known range wars of the American frontier, the Johnson County War has since become a highly mythologized and symbolic story of the Wild West, and over the years, variations of the storyline have come to include some of its most famous historical figures. Its themes and elements of class warfare have served as a classical basis for numerous popular novels, films, and television shows of the Western genre.

End of the Open Range

In the north, overgrazing stressed the open range, leading to insufficient winter forage for the cattle and starvation. This was particularly true during the harsh winter of 1886–1887, when hundreds of thousands of cattle died across the Northwest, leading to a collapse of the cattle industry. By the 1890s, barbed wire fencing was standard in the northern plains, railroads had expanded to cover most of the nation, and meat-packing plants were built closer to major ranching areas. This made long cattle drives from Texas to the railheads in Kansas unnecessary. Hence, the age of the open range was gone, and large cattle drives were over. Meanwhile, ranches multiplied all over the developing West.

The end of the open range was not brought about by a reduction in land due to crop farming, but by overgrazing. Cattle stocked on the open range created a tragedy of the commons as each rancher sought increased economic benefit by grazing too many animals on public lands that "nobody" owned. However, cattle were a nonnative species, and the grazing patterns of their ever-increasing numbers slowly reduced the quality of the rangeland; this was in spite of the simultaneous massive slaughter of American bison that occurred. In the winter of 1886–1887, as livestock that were already stressed by reduced grazing died by the thousands, many large cattle operations went bankrupt, while others suffered severe financial losses. Thus, after this time, ranchers also began to fence off their land and negotiated individual grazing leases with the American government so that they could keep better control of the pasture land available to their own animals.

Pioneer Women

Pioneer women took care of child-rearing, fed and clothed the family, managed the housework, and fed the hired hands.

Learning Objectives

Examine the role of women in the West

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Women played an integral role in pioneer life in the West, both in the field and in the home doing domestic tasks. Social gatherings available to pioneer women and their families included barn raisings, corn huskings, quilting bees, political meetings, church activities, and school functions.
  • Pioneer women also worked as teachers, boarding house landladies, laundresses, and seamstresses. Demand for prostitutes, mainly in mining areas, drew women from throughout the country and world to the West.

Key Terms

  • Mining Camps: A community that houses miners, usually created around a mine or a quarry for the extraction or smelting of ore.

Family Life

On the Great Plains, very few single men attempted to operate a farm or ranch; farmers understood the need for a hard-working wife and numerous children to handle the many chores. This meant women were fully employed in farm-centered labor, including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the housework, and feeding the hired hands.

The includes statues of five women who range considerably in age.

Monument to pioneer women: This Omaha monument honors pioneer women.

During the early years of settlement, farm women played an integral role in assuring family survival by working outdoors with the men. After a generation or so, women increasingly left the fields, thus redefining their roles within the family. New conveniences such as sewing and washing machines encouraged women to concentrate on domestic roles. The scientific housekeeping movement was promoted across the land by the media and by government extension agents, as well as through county fairs which featured achievements in home cookery and canning, advice columns for women in the farm papers, and home economics courses in the schools.

Although the eastern image of farm life on the prairies emphasizes the isolation of the lonely farmer, in reality, rural folk created a rich social life for themselves. They often sponsored activities that combined work, food, and entertainment such as barn raisings, corn huskings, quilting bees, Grange meetings, and church and school functions. Women organized shared meals and potluck events, as well as extended visits between families.


Childhood on the American frontier is contested territory among academics. One group of scholars, following the lead of novelists Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder, argue the rural environment was salubrious to a growing child.

Historians Katherine Harris, in Long Vistas: Women and Families on Colorado Homesteads (1993), and Elliott West, in Growing Up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier (1989), write that a rural upbringing allowed children to break loose from urban hierarchies of age and gender, promoted family interdependence, and in the end, produced children who were more self-reliant, mobile, adaptable, responsible, independent, and in touch with nature than their urban or eastern counterparts.

On the other hand, historians Elizabeth Hampsten, in Settlers' Children: Growing Up on the Great Plains (1991), and Lillian Schlissel, with Byrd Gibbens and Elizabeth Hampsten, who wrote Far from Home: Families of the Westward Journey (2002), offer a grim portrait of loneliness, privation, abuse, and demanding physical labor from an early age. Pamela Riney-Kehrberg takes a middle position in Childhood on the Farm: Work, Play, and Coming of Age in the Midwest (2005).



Fannie Porter: Portrait of Fannie Porter, a San Antonio madam, ca. 1900.

Entrepreneurs set up shops and businesses to cater to miners. The most famous were the houses of prostitution found in mining camps. Prostitution was a growth industry, drawing in sex workers from around the globe, who were pulled in by the money despite the harsh and dangerous working conditions and low prestige. For some, it was a practical decision; others had little choice in the matter. Chinese women, for example, were frequently sold by their families and taken to the camps as prostitutes; they had to send their earnings back to their families in China.

In Virginia City, Nevada, a prostitute named Julia Bulette was one of the few who achieved "respectable" status. She nursed victims of an influenza epidemic; this brought her acceptance in the community and the support of the sheriff. The townspeople were shocked when she was murdered in 1867; they gave her a lavish funeral and speedily tried and hanged her assailant.

Until the 1890s, madams predominantly ran the businesses, after which male pimps took over, and the treatment of the women generally declined. The common depiction of the openness of bordellos in western towns shown in films is somewhat realistic, allowing for fantasy elements such as the casting of Hollywood starlets. Gambling and prostitution were central to life in many western towns. Only later—as the female population increased, reformers moved in, and other civilizing influences arrived—did prostitution become less blatant and less common. After a decade or so, the mining towns attracted respectable women who ran boarding houses, organized church societies, worked as laundresses and seamstresses, and strove for independent status.

The American Indian Wars

The American Indian Wars were a series of conflicts between American settlers, the U.S. federal government, and the native peoples.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the sources of conflict that led to the American Indian Wars of the nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The American Indian Wars mainly occurred in Texas, Arizona Territory, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, California, the Dakotas, and Washington.
  • Forts providing protection for white migrants and a base for the U.S. military included Fort Laramie in Wyoming, Fort Kearny in Nebraska, Fort Huachuca in Arizona, Fort Sill in Oklahoma, Fort Smith in Arkansas, Fort Snelling in Minnesota, Fort Union in Montana, Fort Worth in Texas, and Fort Walla Walla in Washington.
  • Conflicts occurred between white settlers and the Shoshone and Ute of the Great Basin; the Nez Perce of Idaho; the Sioux, Arapaho, Crow, and Lakota of the northern plains; the Apache and Navajo of the Southwest; the Comanche of Texas; and the Cheyenne of the Great Plains.
  • Many of the most well-known of these conflicts occurred during and after the Civil War until the closing of the frontier in about 1890.
  • The Great Sioux War, also known as the "Black Hills War," was a series of battles and negotiations that occurred between 1876 and 1877 involving the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne in conflict against the U.S. military and American settlers.

Key Terms

  • Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859: Later known as the "Colorado Gold Rush," the boom in gold prospecting and mining in the Pikes Peak country of western Kansas Territory and southwestern Nebraska Territory of the United States.
  • Treaty of Fort Laramie: Also called the "Sioux Treaty of 1868," an agreement between the United States and the Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brulé bands of Lakota people; the Yanktonai Dakota; and the Arapaho Nation that was signed in 1868 at Fort Laramie in the Wyoming Territory, guaranteeing to the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, and further land and hunting rights in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana.
  • Red Cloud: A war leader and a chief of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). He led as a chief from 1868 to 1909. One of the most capable Native American opponents the U.S. Army faced, he led a successful campaign in 1866–1868 known as "Red Cloud's War" over control of the Powder River Country in northeastern Wyoming and southern Montana.
  • Great Sioux War of 1876: A series of battles and negotiations that occurred between 1876 and 1877 involving the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne and the United States.

Before the Civil War, the western United States had been penetrated by U.S. forces and settlers via the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail, and as a result of the Mormon emigration to Utah and the settlement of California and Oregon.

Relations between American migrants and Native Americans were generally peaceful. In the case of the Santa Fe Trail, this was due to the friendly relationship between the Bents of Bent's Fort and the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and in the case of the Oregon Trail, to the peace established by the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Signed in 1851 between the United States and the Plains Indians and the Indians of the northern Rocky Mountains, the treaty allowed passage by migrants and the building of roads and the stationing of troops along the Oregon Trail.

The Pikes Peak Gold Rush of 1859 introduced a substantial white population into the front range of the Rockies, supported by a trading lifeline that crossed the central Great Plains. Increasing settlement following the passage of the Homestead Act and the building of the transcontinental railways following the Civil War further destabilized the situation, placing white settlers into direct competition for the land and resources of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West.

As in the East, expansion into the plains and mountains by miners, ranchers, and settlers led to increasing conflicts with the indigenous population of the West. Many tribes—from the Ute of the Great Basin to the Nez Perce of Idaho—fought Americans at one time or another. But the Sioux of the Northern Plains and the Apache of the Southwest provided the most celebrated opposition to encroachment on tribal lands. Led by resolute, militant leaders such as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, the Sioux excelled at high-speed mounted warfare.

During the American Civil War, U.S. Army units were withdrawn from the West to fight the war in the East. They were replaced by the volunteer infantry and cavalry raised by the states of California and Oregon, by the western territorial governments, or by the local militias. These units fought the Indians, holding the West for the Union, and defeating the Confederate attempt to capture the New Mexico Territory.

Indian Wars and Conflicts During the Civil War


Chief Quanah Parker of the Kwahadi Comanche: Portrait of one of the great American Indian leaders during the American Indian Wars.

The series of conflicts in the western United States between Native Americans, American settlers, and the U.S. Army are generally known as the "American Indian Wars." Many of the most well-known of these conflicts occurred during and after the Civil War, until the closing of the frontier in about 1890. However, regions of the West that were settled before the Civil War, such as Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, California, and Washington, saw significant conflicts prior to 1860.

At least 310 battles were fought between settlers and Native Americans within Arizona's boundaries, the most of any state. Also, when determining how many deaths resulted from the wars in each of the American states, Arizona again ranked highest. At least 4,340 people were killed, including both settlers and Indians—more than twice as many as occurred in Texas, the second-highest-ranking state. The Apache caused most of the deaths in Arizona.

Great Sioux War of 1876

The Great Sioux War of 1876, also known as the "Black Hills War," was a series of battles and negotiations that occurred between 1876 and 1877 involving the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne and the United States.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, signed with the United States by Lakota and Northern Cheyenne leaders following Red Cloud's War, set aside a portion of the Lakota territory as the Great Sioux Reservation. The Black Hills region was reserved for their exclusive use. The treaty also provided unceded territory for Cheyenne and Lakota hunting grounds.

The growing number of miners and settlers encroaching on the Dakota Territory, however, rapidly nullified the protections. The U.S. government could not keep settlers out. In 1874, the government dispatched the Custer Expedition to examine the Black Hills. The Lakota were alarmed at his expedition. Before Custer's column had returned to Fort Abraham Lincoln, news of their discovery of gold was telegraphed nationally. Prospectors, motivated by the economic panic of 1873, began to trickle into the Black Hills in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty. This trickle turned into a flood; thousands of miners invaded the Black Hills before the gold rush was over.

In May 1875, Sioux delegations headed by Spotted Tail, Red Cloud, and Lone Horn traveled to Washington, D.C., in an eleventh-hour attempt to persuade President Ulysses S. Grant to honor existing treaties and stem the flow of miners into American Indian territories. The U.S. leaders said that Congress wanted to pay the tribes $25,000 for the land and have them relocate to Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma). The delegates refused to sign a new treaty with these stipulations.

Launching the Fight for the Black Hills

Concerned about launching a war against the Lakota without provocation, the government instructed American Indian agents in the region to notify the various non-treaty bands to return to the reservation by January 31, 1876, or face potential military action. The U.S. agent at Standing Rock Agency expressed concern that this was insufficient time for the Lakota to respond, as deep winter restricted travel. His request to extend the deadline was denied. On February 8, 1876, General Sheridan telegraphed Generals Crook and Terry, ordering them to commence their winter campaigns against the "hostiles." The Great Sioux War of 1876–1877 had begun.

Wounded Knee Massacre

Major battles for the Black Hills included the Battle of the Rosebud, Battle of the Little Bighorn, Battle of Slim Butte, and the Fort Robinson Massacre. However, the most renowned, as well as the most brutal of the battles over the Black Hills, is the massacre that took place at Wounded Knee.

Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. U.S. Soldiers putting Native Americans in a common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions

Mass grave at Wounded Knee: A mass grave for Wounded Knee Massacre victims.

The Wounded Knee Massacre happened on December 29, 1890, near Wounded Knee Creek (Lakota: Čhaŋkpé Ópi Wakpála) on the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. On the day before, a detachment of the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment, commanded by Major Samuel M. Whitside, intercepted Spotted Elk's band of Miniconjou Lakota and 38 Hunkpapa Lakota near Porcupine Butte and escorted them five miles westward to Wounded Knee Creek, where they made camp.

On the morning of December 29, the troops went into the camp to disarm the Lakota. One version of events claims that during the process of disarming the Lakota, a deaf tribesman named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, claiming he had paid a lot for it. A scuffle over Black Coyote's rifle escalated and a shot was fired, which resulted in the 7th Cavalry opening fire indiscriminately from all sides, killing men, women, and children, as well as some of their own fellow troops. The few Lakota warriors who still had weapons began shooting back at the attacking troops, who quickly suppressed the Lakota fire. The surviving Lakota fled, but the U.S. Calvary pursued and killed many who were unarmed.

By the time the massacre was over, at least 150 men, women, and children of the Lakota Sioux had been killed and 51 wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later); some estimates placed the number of dead at 300.

American Indian Policy

As settlers moved west, Native American tribes were coerced into signing treaties that gave away their land.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the U.S. policy of assimilation of Native Americans

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Allotment and assimilation sought to limit tribal lands and incorporate native peoples into mainstream American culture.
  • The Bureau of Indian Affairs kept a commanding hold on all aspects of native life, with the goal of "civilizing" natives.
  • The Allotment Era resulted in the loss of more than two-thirds of tribally entrusted lands.
  • Eastern Indian tribes were forced from their homelands to barren areas that contained fruitless soils.

Key Terms

  • Allotment and Assimilation Era: A period (1887–1943) of apportioning tribal lands and incorporating native peoples into mainstream American society.
  • Dawes Act: A law, adopted by Congress in 1887, that authorized the president of the United States to survey Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians.

During the early nineteenth century, as eastern settlers of the United States felt the desire to explore westward, native peoples began to be forced out of their homelands to barren areas that contained fruitless soils. The reason given to justify the Indian removal, as stated by Thomas Jefferson, was to, "give them a space to live undisturbed by white people as they gradually adjust to civilized ways." The lands that natives resided on, Nebraska and Kansas territories, ended up being taken from the natives by the government and given to settlers. Native Americans signed treaties stating that they accepted downsized reservations or allotments, but their allotments were usually sold to white settlers by force. The outcome of this devastating removal cost the natives their tribal identity and independence.

The Allotment and Assimilation Era (1887–1943)

In 1887, the U.S. Congress passed the General Allotment Act, which is considered one of the earliest attempts aimed toward assimilation of native tribes. This act intended to give natives a sense of land ownership and integrate an agricultural lifestyle (much like that of the Americans and Europeans) into tribal cultures. Under the General Allotment Act, tribal lands were no longer under the control of tribal governments. Instead, the land was under the control of individual land owners. This period of allotment of tribal lands became known as the "Allotment and Assimilation Era" because the main goal of apportioning tribal land was to integrate native peoples into mainstream American society. Allowing native peoples to live their lives according to traditional practices and teachings on the reservation was forbidden; thus, assimilation became the epitome of Federal Indian Policy.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs kept a commanding hold on all aspects of native life, with the goal of "civilizing" natives. The Allotment Era resulted in the loss of more than two-thirds of tribal entrusted lands, which went from 138 million acres in 1871 to 48 million acres in 1934. The loss of land was mainly due to leasing and the eventual sales of tribal lands to white settlers. Allotment did not work because it was not something with which Indians were familiar. They didn't view the land as something to own; instead they viewed it as part of their extended family.

The Dawes Act

The Dawes Act (also called the "General Allotment Act" or "Dawes Severalty Act of 1887") was adopted by Congress in 1887 and authorized the president of the United States to survey Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. The Dawes Act was amended in 1891 and again in 1906 by the Burke Act.


Portrait of Marsdin and assimilated Native Americans: Portrait of Marsdin (top right) and a group of students from the Alaska region.

The Dawes Act was named for its sponsor, Senator Henry L. Dawes of Massachusetts. The stated objective of the Dawes Act was to stimulate assimilation of Indians into American society. Individual ownership of land was seen as an essential step. The act also provided that the government would purchase Indian land that was in "excess" of that needed for allotment and open it up for settlement by non-Indians.

The Dawes Commission, set up under an Indian Office appropriation bill in 1893, was created not to administer the Dawes Act, but to attempt to get the Five Civilized Tribes, which were excluded under the Dawes Act, to agree to an allotment plan. This commission registered the members of the Five Civilized Tribes. The Curtis Act of 1908 completed the process of destroying tribal governments by abolishing tribal jurisdiction of Indian land.

After decades of seeing the disarray these acts caused, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration supported passage in 1934 of the Indian Reorganization Act. It ended allotment and created a "New Deal" for Indians, including renewing their rights to reorganize and form their own governments.

The End of the Frontier

The American frontier comprises the geography, history, and culture of the forward wave of American expansion that began with English colonial settlements in the early seventeenth century and ended with the admission of the last mainland territories as states in 1912.

Learning Objectives

Examine the concept of the frontier in U.S. history

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Cheap land became available for settlers after 1860, with government incentives such as the Homestead Act.
  • The question of slavery was a contentious issue among frontier states.
  • After farmland became hard to find, nearly 600,000 American farmers moved to the prairie frontier of the Canadian West from 1897 to 1914.
  • The frontier's impact on popular culture was enormous, as evidenced by dime novels, Wild West shows, and, after 1910, Western movies set on the frontier.
  • When the 11th U.S. census was taken in 1890, the superintendent announced that there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement, and hence no longer a frontier in the continental United States.

Key Terms

  • Prairie Frontier: An American territory that comprises the geography, history, and culture of the forward wave of American westward expansion from the original colonial settlements to the early twentieth century.
  • Wild West: An image of the Western United States, developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, that frequently exaggerates the romance and violence of the frontier.

History of the Frontier

Following the victory of the United States in the American Revolutionary War and the signing Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States gained formal, if not actual, control of the British lands west of the Appalachians. Many thousands of settlers, typified by Daniel Boone, had already reached Kentucky and Tennessee and adjacent areas. Some areas, such as the Virginia Military District and the Connecticut Western Reserve (both in Ohio), were used by the states as rewards to veterans of the war. How to formally include these new frontier areas into the nation was an important issue in the Continental Congress of the 1780s and was partly resolved by the Northwest Ordinance (1787). The Southwest Territory saw a similar pattern of settlement pressure.


A cowboy: The cowboy, the quintessential symbol of the American frontier, ca. 1887.

For the next century, the expansion of the nation into these areas, as well as the subsequently acquired Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country, and Mexican Cession, attracted hundreds of thousands of settlers. The question of whether the Kansas frontier would become "slave" or "free" was a spark of the American Civil War. In general before 1860, Northern Democrats promoted easy land ownership and Whigs and Southern Democrats resisted. The Southerners resisted Homestead Acts because they supported the growth of a free farmer population that might oppose slavery.

When the Republican Party came to power in 1860, it promoted a free land policy—notably the Homestead Act of 1862—coupled with railroad land grants that opened cheap (but not free) lands for settlers. In 1890, the frontier line had broken up (census maps defined the frontier line as a line beyond which the population was less than two persons per square mile).

The frontier's impact on popular culture was enormous, as evidenced by dime novels, Wild West shows, and, after 1910, Western movies set on the frontier. The American frontier was generally the most western edge of settlements and typically more free-spirited in nature than the East because of its lack of social and political institutions. The idea that the frontier provided the core defining quality of the United States was elaborated on by the historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who built his 1893 "Frontier Thesis" around this notion.

The End of the Frontier

When the 11th U.S. census was taken in 1890, the superintendent announced that there was no longer a clear line of advancing settlement, and hence no longer a frontier in the continental United States. Turner used the statistic to announce the end of the era in which the frontier process shaped the American character.

Fresh farmland was increasingly hard to find after 1890, although the railroads advertised some in eastern Montana. Historian Karel Bicha explains that nearly 600,000 American farmers sought cheap land by moving to the prairie frontier of the Canadian West from 1897 to 1914. However, about two-thirds of them grew disillusioned with Canada and returned to the United States. The admission of Oklahoma as a state in 1907 (upon the combination of the Oklahoma Territory and the last remaining Indian Territory), and the admission of Arizona and New Mexico territories as states in 1912, did not end the frontier. These areas contained plenty of unoccupied land, as did the territory of Alaska. Nevertheless, the ethos and storyline of the "American frontier" had passed.

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