Editor’s Introduction Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American West has a geography, history, and culture all its own. It has inspired legions of artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, and historians to attempt to capture something of its essence and communicate the results to the wider world. The West has been the subject of the wildest speculations as to what it might hold for the future of the nation, just as it has been the site of some of the most devastating actions by commercial interests and government bodies. For every “amber wave of grain” rustling in the American consciousness, there has been, it seems, an equal and opposite unleasing of dark forces across the land.

The American West has a geography, history, and culture all its own. It has inspired legions of artists, writers, photographers, filmmakers, and historians to attempt to capture something of its essence and communicate the results to the wider world. The West has been the subject of the wildest speculations as to what it might hold for the future of the nation, just as it has been the site of some of the most devastating actions by commercial interests and government bodies. For every “amber wave of grain” rustling in the American consciousness, there has been, it seems, an equal and opposite unleasing of dark forces across the land.

The West, it might be argued, begins at the western edge of the Mississippi River Valley. That demarcation, however, would include much of what today is commonly understood to belong to the Midwestern United States (Missouri and Iowa, for example). Although, historically speaking, the Midwest was indeed once regarded as the West, for the period covered by the present volume (1836–1900) a different approach is needed. We identify the West as starting basically with the Great Plains region. More specifically, we point to the ninety-eighth meridian, which divides Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas into eastern and western portions. To the east lies a relatively moist section containing tall prairie grass, and to the west lies a relatively dry section containing short prairie grass. Rainfall in the western portion is generally below twenty inches per year, making regular crop production difficult or impossible. Past the Great Plains, we then encounter the vast expanse of the high plains and Rocky Mountains, followed by the Great Basin and Range area and, finally, the Pacific border states. All told, the West is comprised of seventeen states plus Alaska. During most of the period treated in this book, however, it consisted of just a few large “territories.”

As for the human dimension, the West has long been a crossroads of cultures. A great many American Indian nations already inhabited the land when Spanish explorers and settlers first arrived from Mexico. Indeed, much of what is now the southwestern United States was Mexico at the time. From the East came people from European countries and, later, from the United States itself. From the Far East, or East Asia, came Chinese settlers to California, followed by Japanese. African Americans arrived in the West as soldiers and cowboys in the nineteenth century. In the Southwest, in particular, there was considerable blending of peoples and cultures. However, the encounters between racial and ethnic groups were not always peaceful; Indian wars, white hostility toward Hispanics and Asians, and other instances of racial violence attest to that. At the same time, ethnic diversity has profoundly shaped the West's social and cultural makeup and history.

Westward Movement

Between 1836 and 1900, the U.S. population surged westward in a series of migrational phases, each representing a more complex mixture of technology, economics, and social forces. Opportunity—or perceived opportunity—was the main draw that brought men and women from Europe and the eastern United States into the sparsely settled West. It was thought that nature's resources were so plentiful that settlers need only apply their muscles, smarts, and courage to improve themselves and their families' prospects. Opportunity was present in many different forms, and these accounted for the nature of the various migrational phases of settlement of the frontier region. In the earliest phase, there were trappers and fur traders who sought profit in the form of animal hides—from beaver pelts and deerskins to bear and buffalo hides. Close behind them came miners, searching the streams and mountain slopes for telltale signs of the presence of precious metals, especially gold and silver. Fortunes could be made at the prospecting trade, and many tried their hand at it. From the 1840s, as well, came caravans of covered wagons, filled with dreamers seeking fertile farmlands in distant Oregon and California. Although few in number, these travelers played critical roles in blazing trails and paving the way for later settlers.

The occupation of western lands might have proceeded at a relatively slow pace were it not for the discovery of gold in 1848 at a spot—Sutter's Mill—downstream from California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Most of the tens of thousands of “forty-niners” who subsequently arrived on the scene failed to find riches there and so turned instead to farming or shopkeeping. They established a sufficient population base to allow California to win statehood in 1850. Others, not yet ready to give up prospecting, headed out of the state in search of wealth in Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Over the two decades after 1849, these remote mining camps bloomed into permanent settlements, as shops and services popped up, and farmers flocked in to buy supplies and food. The “boom towns” associated with gold mining could and did produce conditions of squalor. Yet, by the last quarter of the century, the geographically-scattered mining industry had come under the control of large capitalized companies that made use of heavy machinery and scores of employees, all connected to the industrialized East via the railroads.

Another significant environmental impact was made by the next group of settlers, the pioneer families who farmed the land. Impelled westward by a desire for economic improvement and the search for adventure, they viewed undeveloped spaces as the enemy of progress. To them, every rock or tree was a barrier between themselves and opportunity. Thus, they cut down the forests and broke up the prairie sod in order to build their cabins, raise their crops, and expand their holdings. When neighbors or social conflicts pressed in on them, they often chose to move on and begin the settlement process anew, selling their land to a second wave of farmers who came more fully equipped with capital and machinery. These latter, more permanent settlers would then complete the forest clearing and fence in their property, expand their homes, and build roads to connect their communities to the railroads and eastern markets. As commercial activity continued to grow, another group of frontier settlers appeared—the merchants, millers, blacksmiths, distillers, lawyers, and so on. Eventually, the presence of white settlers was evident throughout the backcountry.

About the same time as the miners and early settlers arrived, cattlemen came looking for fresh fields in which to fatten their expanding herds. The cattle industry in the West was based on the use of the open range as a pastureland. Concentrated between the years 1865 and 1890, ranching was also founded on the presence of the transcontinental railroad and its many feeder lines. From Texas, the main source of cattle production, herds were pushed north to the railroads over the Chisholm Trail and other paths. Decade by decade, though, the wire fences and plowed fields of the settler cut into the cattlemen's domain, driving the ranchers farther west and diminishing the open range. The ranchers fought back, generally unsuccessfully, using threats, guns, wire cutters, and lawsuits. Ultimately organized, the range cattle industry soon became big business, involving substantial capital investment and large corporate entities. The local slaughterhouse passed into history as large regional packinghouses arose to prepare and transport beef for the national market.

Indian Wars

The Indian Wars that took place in the West after the Civil War represented the end-phase of over 200 years of Indian-white conflict. They were carried out by the United States for three reasons: 1) to “pacify” a region in order to make it safe for whites; 2) to place Indians on reservations; and 3) to keep them there. The issue was largely economic, but also, in part, political. It was fueled by the encroachment of westward-migrating whites on traditional Indian lands, or hunting grounds, and by the unsavory conditions present on the reservations. The treaties of the 1860s, under which Native Americans were expected to reside on designated reservations while providing half of their food by hunting, were thoroughly undermined by the rapid pace at which the West was being developed. For virtually every promise written into a treaty, there was a new, contradictory fact on the ground: a gold find, a needed passage for whites, a tract of land ideal for railroad development, and so on. Most of the final Indian Wars unfolded in far-flung regions of the West: the Modoc War (1872–73), in northern California and southern Oregon; the Great Sioux War (1876–77), in the Black Hills; the Nez Perce War (1877), in northern Idaho and surrounding regions; the Bannock War (1878), in southern Idaho and northern Nevada; and the Apache Wars of the 1880s, in the Southwest. This is why the US campaign against Native peoples was also political; it was a means, simply, to clear the land of Indians and facilitate white possession of the continent, “from sea to shining sea.” The last remaining Indian Territory (apart from the reservations) vanished in 1889, when the western half of what is now Oklahoma was declared available for land claims by incoming settlers.

Federal policy for addressing the “Indian question” had long included the goal of breaking up the tribes to speed the integration of Native Americans into general society. Not until passage of the Dawes Allotment Act (1887), however, was the legal status of “domestic dependent nation” with respect to Indian tribes abandoned in favor of allotting plots of reservation land to individual Indians. While, in practice, federal guardianship of American Indians remained in effect, by 1890 Indians came to be viewed quite differently by the American people. They were now their own agents, for better or for worse. Sales of lands quickened, and vast quantities passed into the hands of speculators and developers. The peopling of the “Last West,” as the remaining western territories are sometimes called, brought several new states into the nation: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington in 1889; Idaho and Wyoming in 1890; Utah in 1896; Oklahoma in 1907; and New Mexico and Arizona in 1912. The railroads had much to do with this, as millions of acres of Indian lands were seized and sold cheaply to private interests.

As Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in her Indigenous People's History of the United States:

Under the crust of that portion of Earth called the United States of America—“from California… to the Gulf Stream waters”—are interred the bones, villages, fields, and sacred objects of American Indians. They cry out for their stories to be heard through their descendants who carry the memories of how the country was founded and how it came to be as it is today.

Law and Order

From the mid-1860s, cattle ranching expanded dramatically across the western plains, and the cowboy reigned supreme. The cowboy was the rugged individualist par excellence, the American frontiersman on horseback. He was a trailblazer, a horse trader, a seat-of-the-pants naturalist, and a plainspoken follower of the cowboy code of ethics—which stated, among other things, that one must live each day with courage and that some things, such as one's reputation, are not for sale. The cowboy was, at the same time, a hard-living, hard-drinking, rather raw individual who occasionally skirted the law or took the law into his own hands.

Inevitably, the American West is described as a region of lawlessness and violence. Frontiersmen used guns for hunting and self-defense and made use of their fists, knives, and six-shooters to settle disputes. Settlers typically landed in the region before the hiring of officers of the peace or the creation of courts of law, and even when those two institutions of government were in place (along with a mayor) they could be sketchy affairs often prone to quid pro quo arrangements (i.e., money or favors in return for political deeds). Indian tribes, wary of white incursions into their homelands, embarked on raids and acts of revenge at the edges of the settlements. Meanwhile, the settlers themselves practiced traditions of feuding, self-defense, and revenge—or what one could call vigilante law and order. With little structural pressure on the lawless minority of outlaws, criminals, and violent youths to conform, frontier violence was indeed inevitable.

Some settlers entered the western frontier with adequate experience in the eastern backwoods to enable them to adjust to almost any demand put upon them. Others came with virtually no preparation for the harsh conditions they encountered, and adjustment was hard or impossible. Thousands of migrants from eastern communities attempted to set themselves up directly in the Wild West only to experience all manner of frustration and heartbreak. Those who did last were often obliged to devise their own system of law and order, however faulty it may have been.

National Heritage

It is often remarked that the experience of the western frontier, over the two centuries during which it was an active frontier, left an indelible mark on the “American character.” This has been the argument, at least since 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his provocative paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Since then, historians have sought to uphold or refute Turner's thesis. It is easy, of course, to see certain widely recognized national character traits, such as rugged individualism, self-sufficiency, and confidence in the face of the unknown as having their roots in the frontier experience. On the other hand, it should also be recognized that frontiersmen and -women could be provincial, barely literate, suspicious of outsiders, opinionated, possessive, and nationalistic. Turner seemed to recognize as much when he noted that Americans exemplify a kind of individualism that extends “beyond its proper bounds” and sometime show a “lack of highly developed civil spirit” in their actions. Still, Turner seems to have admired the “coarseness and strength” of the American character, claiming that it was the direct result of settlers having successfully conquered the frontier. That may be so, but today, we recognize many other influences as well.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982. Print.
  • Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. An Indigenous People's History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014. Print.
  • Lamar, Howard R., ed. The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven: Yale UP, 1998. Print.
  • Tate, Michael L. Indians and Immigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trails. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2006. Print.
  • Wellman, Paul I. A Dynasty of Western Outlaws. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1986. Print.
  • The West. Dir. Stephen Ives. PBS/WETA, 1996. Film.
  • Wooster, Robert. The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783–1900. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2009. Print.
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