United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Comparison of U.S. History Textbooks

Consider adding Top Hat’s U.S. History textbook to your upcoming course. We’ve put together a textbook comparison to make it easy for you in your upcoming evaluation.

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Read the fully unlocked textbook below, and if you’re interested in learning more, get in touch to see how you can use this textbook in your course today.

Chapter 17: The Conquest of the West

Pre-Chapter Discussion - Level 5

What images or themes come to mind when you think of the American West? What do you think were the most important developments that led to the conquering of the West?

Chapter Objectives

  • Define the West in American history
  • Understand the role played by the Federal government in the settlement and development of the West
  • Examine the myriad groups – including miners, farmers, ranchers, and big business – that sought economic gain in the West
  • Comprehend the social and political evolution of western settlements, and how new territories and states were brought into the union by 1890
  • Gain insights into the many wars fought against Native Americans, and how the same western settlement that benefited millions of people also came at the expense of the indigenous tribes of North America
  • Understand the distinctive society and economics of the West, and how/why they changed over time
  • Examine the many myths of the West – how they originated and why they have lasted so long
  • Explore the origins of the environmental movement in America that came after enormous devastation caused by Western settlement

Figure 17.1: Andrew J. Russell’s famous photograph of construction and railroad crews celebrating completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the United States. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads joined at Promontory Summit (or Point), Utah on May 10, 1869. [1]

Railroads, Republicans, and the West

As a symbol of American expansion, the railroad represented the seemingly limitless promise of technology to span great distances and help open the West for development during the 19th century. Largely immune to weather, railroads operated year round and at night, crossed terrain impossible for wagon trains or pack animals to traverse, and did so at a speed that no other means of transportation save steam ships could match. Railroads proved decisive in accelerating the conquest of the West that had begun when the first European explorers landed in North America , opening enormous economic opportunities for farmers, ranchers, miners, and others after the Civil War. By connecting the major cities of the eastern United States with seaports on the Pacific coast, railroads also made possible greater trade with the Far East, and they ensured the eventual defeat of Native Americans by transporting soldiers, supplies, and settlers westward at a pace that overwhelmed the indigenous tribes of the continent.

Yet this period of American history, so prominent in films, television shows, songs, and stories, is hardly the only one in which settlers pushed westward in North America, exploited the environment, or fought Native Americans. Instead, it actually represents one of the final chapters in a story that began when Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, or at least when European colonists first set foot in what became New England, New France, and New Spain. All of those men and women went westward seeking fame, fortune, or a new life, and inspired their descendants to do the same. So when we think about what the “West” represents historically, it is important to note that it should never be thought of as existing in a single time or place. Instead, the idea of the West is ever-changing and can be many things, including a geographic place such as California, a new frontier ready to be explored like the New World, or a town, state, or region where people could break with the world they knew and start again as prospectors, miners, farmers, soldiers, outlaws, traders, or almost anything else. The American West represented all of those things and many more, and it drew people to the farthest reaches of North America for several centuries. The mad rush westward reached a conclusion of sorts in 1890, when the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed because agents could no longer determine a clear boundary between settled and unsettled or unexplored land within the United States. That conclusion was never inevitable, and might have come later than it did were it not for technological forces that accelerated the advance of settlers and proved impossible for Native Americans and the environment to hold back. The most important of those forces was the railroad.

One of the most significant moments for railroad development in the United States came in 1869, when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined their tracks at Promontory Point, Utah and completed the first transcontinental railway. Amasa Leland Stanford, Central Pacific president and later founder of Stanford University, drove a ceremonial final spike made of gold to join the last sections of track, and for the first time, an uninterrupted ribbon of steel crossed the continent (Figure 17.1). A massive national celebration ensued, with almost every major American city hosting parades, particularly in the North. Chicago held a procession seven miles long, while New York City fired 100 cannons and residents danced in the streets. In San Francisco, business leaders wasted no time before utilizing the railroad to send Japanese tea and other Asian products eastward to cities like Chicago, beginning an economic boom of staggering proportions. San Francisco, for example, imported $7.4 million worth of goods in 1860. By 1890, that figure reached $49 million, primarily because the railway provided a means to reach metropolitan centers, and therefore consumers eager for new products, east of the Mississippi, bringing waves of new settlers westward in return.

This rapid expansion helped make the United States a major player in Far Eastern and global trade, fulfilling the vision of Republican lawmakers who had argued for vigorous federal support of new infrastructure and the support of new industries and technologies to create jobs and fuel the growth of banking and industry. They were consistently blocked or at least slowed by Democrats from the South who had feared any threat to slavery and the economic power of Southern agriculture prior to the Civil War. But when the war began and representatives from the eleven states of the Confederacy went home, Republicans dominated Congress and the handful of Democrats elected by the North. They used their newfound independence almost immediately to pass laws that opened the West to rapid development even during the war, and Republicans remained in a majority long enough to see their vision pursued well into the 1870s. That vision brought wealth and opportunity to millions of settlers, but came at the expense of the environment and Native Americans.  

17.01 - Level 1

In what year was the first transcontinental railroad in the United States completed?

17.02 - Level 2

Click on the state where the first transcontinental railroad was officially completed.

The West During the Civil War

Given the monumental scale of the American Civil War in terms of lives lost and property destroyed, along with the very real risk of losing that the North confronted, it is interesting to note that the United States fought the war without abandoning western expansion. Much of the pre-war United States Army remained garrisoned in frontier outposts while volunteers and a handful of regular army officers and soldiers fought the Confederacy, and the federal government continued to support the construction of railroads, ports, and other infrastructure. In fact, the Civil War had relatively little impact on most western states and territories. Virtually all of the landmark battles and campaigns were fought east of the Mississippi River, while trade between northern cities and the growing towns in California, Oregon, and Washington accelerated.

Moreover, most Americans living west of the Mississippi River were decidedly pro-Union and supported the addition of new territories and states that outlawed slavery. Being pro-Union, however, did not mean pro-African American, for most whites were racists and believed in the idea of black inferiority. Those that were anti-slavery often held those views because they believed that where slavery existed, free (or wage paying) labor could not, and their vision of the West included opportunities for white settlers to own land as ranchers and farmers. Still, the consequence of these views is that when the Civil War began, only Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, which all had large slave populations, sided with the South. Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Kansas, California, Oregon, Dakota, and Nebraska remained loyal by large margins, while Missouri (bitterly divided and home to sizeable numbers of slave owners, especially in its southern counties) did so by a narrow margin. Most of the loyal states and territories also raised troops to support the Union cause, including Kansas, which suffered significant Confederate raids yet still recruited seventeen regiments for military service between 1861 and 1865. 

17.03 - Level 2

Click on the western states and territories that remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

The only areas in question were Indian Territory, the federal land set aside for Native Americans in what is today Oklahoma, and New Mexico, whose small population largely sympathized with the South and confronted more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers posted there when hostilities began. A small band of rebels brought events to a head in New Mexico when they met at Mesilla in March of 1861, rejected both the U.S. and their own territorial governments, and declared the formation of a new territory called Arizona that would side with the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy responded by sending troops under Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley to support them (Figure 17.2). Sibley’s troops bypassed U.S. forces at Fort Craig, occupied Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and were then forced to retreat by an ad hoc force of Mountain Men and prospectors following a narrowly contested battle at Glorieta Pass in March of 1862. The small engagement ended any major threat to New Mexico, and proved significant because it forestalled a possible Confederate push toward California that might have altered the course of the war in the West significantly.

Figure 17.2: Confederate general Henry Hopkins Sibley [2]

After Glorieta Pass, Union and Confederate forces focused on Indian Territory. Factions within each of the Five Civilized Tribes (the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Choctaw) were bitterly divided by the war. Some were strongly pro-Southern, having lived in the South prior to their removal or relocation to Indian Territory, and a small number of them owned slaves. Others supported the rebels because they did not trust the United States. In the middle were those, like Cherokee Principal Chief John Ross, who hoped to stay neutral and avoid the fighting, while large numbers supported the Union (in part because they hoped it would help assure the United States would stand by previous treaties) or were against slavery as a matter of principle. Warriors fought on both sides, with more than 7,000 joining the Confederate army. These included Stand Watie, a Cherokee who became the only Native American on either side to rise to the rank of Brigadier General. The war thus produced a maelstrom of conflicting views that divided all of the tribes and ultimately weakened them, forcing their families to choose sides in the same way as Americans in Ohio, Georgia, or any other territory or state. When the war began, the Union abandoned Indian Territory and then slowly re-asserted control in a series of minor campaigns and battles. Pro-Confederate forces were eventually defeated along with a Confederate army at Honey Springs in July of 1863. Notorious guerrilla raids and skirmishes continued almost until the end of the war, but Union forces were never again seriously threatened. When the guns finally fell silent in Virginia in 1865, Indian Territory, like most of the West, had long been under the control of the United States. 

Question 17.04

17.04 - Level 5

Why were some Native Americans drawn to the Confederacy? Why did others support the Union? If you were a Native American living at this time, what might have influenced your support for either side in the conflict?

Click here to see the answer to Question 17.04.

17.05 - Level 1

Which of the following territories held the greatest sympathy for the Confederate cause?








New Mexico

The Federal Government and Expansion

Republicans in Congress and in the White House used that control to revolutionize the West. As noted in Chapter 16, they passed the Homestead Act in 1862, promising 160 acres of federal territory to settlers who lived on the land and developed it over five years. The act was an expression of the “free soil” principles that animated the Republican Party at the time, and it stimulated a wild rush westward by immigrants and Americans eager to own their own farms and ranches. More than 400,000 families eventually registered for land, and though some were already wealthy, a sizeable portion of the applicants were poor and hoping for a better life. The act proved decisive in speeding the development of the interior portions of the United States.

In the same year, Congress also created the Department of Agriculture to support farmers and ranchers and passed the Morrill Act, which allocated 17,400,000 acres of federal land to states for sale to support the creation of agricultural schools. The institutions that emerged, known collectively as land-grant colleges, were designed to promote literacy, train teachers, and further scientific and agricultural knowledge, particularly in ways that assisted farmers. Congress supported these efforts with a wide array of geological survey expeditions, often led by U.S. Army officers, to map uncharted areas of the West and investigate natural resources. These efforts proved a boon to individual settlers, though many more failed in pursuing dreams of wealth than ever succeeded. The most significant beneficiaries of federal efforts instead proved to be big corporations who had the money and technology to fully exploit the resources identified by the government, and often did so with government subsidies and the protection of the United States Army. The firm of Phelps Dodge, for example, invested in enormous copper mines throughout the West and created thousands of low-paying, dangerous jobs in towns like Bisbee, Arizona. Phelps Dodge succeeded, as did so many other larger businesses, because the company had access to the latest technology and the support of national and international banks, which allowed them to mine on a scale no individual could match.

As was often the case in the West, however, the success of Phelps Dodge proved a mixed blessing. They created millions of dollars in wealth, but that wealth remained concentrated primarily in middle and upper-level management positions. They employed thousands of miners, but were vigorously anti-labor and anti-union, and they stoked racial animosities by paying workers different wages and employing them in jobs of varying degrees of danger based largely on their race or nationality. Chinese and Irish miners, for example, were more likely to find themselves in the lowest paid, most dangerous jobs, as were Mexicans or Native Americans, a fact which occasionally produced fights and even riots. Finally, digging mine shafts thousands of feet underground led to the wholesale destruction of mountain sides, spurred deforestation to produce the timber needed to support the mines, and polluted rivers and streams that were diverted to make way for the mines or simply ruined by chemicals and minerals as a byproduct of the mining process. It took millions of gallons of water, for example, to separate gold or silver or other minerals from the dirt that surrounded them, and the runoff usually became so dirty it could not be used for drinking water or for agriculture. Companies simply dumped it in lakes or streams and moved on, leaving future generations with the task of cleanup and determining whether the wealth they created was worth the cost. 

17.06 - Level 1

Which 1862 Congressional act provided for the allocation of 160 acres of federal land to qualified individuals willing to live on and develop the property?


Western Farming Act


Dawes Act


Homestead Act


Morrill Act

Trade and Tariffs

Republicans also sought to stimulate industry and trade in the more heavily populated eastern United States and to protect American businesses that traded overseas. They raised protective tariffs on a wide array of products, including wool, sugar, tobacco, steel, and textiles, forcing foreign manufactures to pay import fees that they passed on to consumers. The result was that American goods were generally less expensive than imports inside the United States, giving domestic businesses an enormous competitive advantage. This kind of legislation had historically been opposed by Southerners, who rightly feared retaliatory foreign tariffs on American exports, which typically included a high percentage of agricultural products like southern cotton. France, Great Britain, and other countries had imposed such tariffs on American exports for decades. Yet again, with the South unrepresented in Congress, these concerns were swept away, and the Federal Government played an expanded and important role in stimulating and directing economic growth from the 1860s onward.

Some of that growth extended overseas, where American whalers and the United States Navy had their eyes on Hawaii, and to Japan, where Commodore Matthew Perry had opened two ports to trade with the United States in 1854. Trade with Japan led inexorably to greater contact with and interest in China, which in turn stimulated even more demand for developing seaports on the American Pacific coast.

Figure 17.3: William H. Seward, who served as U.S. Secretary of State between 1861 and 1869, and before that as Governor of New York and a U.S. Senator. Seward adamantly opposed slavery and ranked among the most powerful leaders of the early Republican Party. [3] ​​

One of the leaders in promoting a vision of expanding American trade overseas was William H. Seward, who served as the U.S. Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Johnson between 1861 and 1869 (Figure 17.3). Seward actively promoted expansion in the Pacific, and he convinced the Senate to ratify the Burlingame Treaty with China to protect U.S. missionaries and provide for the emigration of Chinese laborers, who were needed to help build railroads and clear land in California and other western states. Seward also negotiated for the purchase of Alaska from Russia, a move which drew widespread ridicule from critics who described the newly acquired land as “Seward’s Folly” or “Seward’s Icebox.” The move proved surprisingly farsighted, however, as it assured that the United States would have only one northern neighbor (Canada) and that Americans would have access to the enormous natural resources in Alaska. Seward set the tone for Republicans who followed in his wake during the nineteenth century, most of whom advocated for American expansion in the Western Hemisphere and beyond. 

17.07 - Level 3

The federal land acquisition known as “Seward’s Folly” eventually became important to American interests during which 20th century conflict?


Vietnam War


Cold War


World War I


Iraq War

17.08 - Level 1

Match the following people with the event they are most closely associated with.


Commodore Matthew Perry


Opening Japan to western trade


William H. Seward


Purchase of Alaska from Russia


Brigadier General Henry H. Sibley


Battle of Glorieta Pass


Amasa Leland Stanford


Driving the golden spike into place at Promontory Summit in 1869

Tying the Union Together

Within the United States, Congress energetically supported efforts to improve infrastructure that had begun before the Civil War. And though the United States government encouraged private corporations to build railroads, canals, and highways, as well as to improve communications via mail or the telegraph, it also heavily subsidized these projects with loans, grants of land, tax breaks, or outright payment to support improvements it deemed vital to the public interest.

Prior to the Civil War, new initiatives included supporting the famous Butterfield Overland Mail, a stagecoach service that took passengers and mail from Memphis and St. Louis to San Francisco. The service lasted from 1857 to 1861 and provided for faster and less expensive transportation and mail delivery than the Clipper Ships that rounded South America or the companies that transited the Gulf of Mexico and the Isthmus of Panama on their way to California. It competed with Central Overland California and Pike’s Peak Express Company, another stagecoach line that eventually created the famous Pony Express, a rapid mail service that connected St. Joseph, Missouri with Sacramento, California and reduced the time for messages to move between the eastern seaboard and the Pacific Ocean to ten days. The Pony Express achieved lasting fame in western lore, utilizing riders carrying mail pouches on horseback at breakneck speed from one relay station to another until they tired and were replaced by another. The express ran day and night, but lasted only 19 months and failed after the completion of a transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 made the company obsolete. The founders of each of these ventures were William H. Russell, Alexander Majors, and William B. Waddell, each of whom first made their fortunes in the freight business. By 1858, they had 3,500 covered wagons, 4,000 men, and 40,000 draft oxen supplying forts and towns throughout the West, though they struggled with constantly evolving technology and the need for government subsidies to make a profit. It is a measure of the fluid nature of business on the frontier that all three made great fortunes only to eventually lose them, dying in obscurity and debt.

Other entrepreneurs followed in their wake, however, and the great need seen by all was for a transcontinental railroad. Congress approved supporting the Union and Central Pacific railroads in building a direct connection between Chicago and San Francisco when it passed the Pacific Railroads Act of 1862, and subsequent legislation created railways throughout the western United States. It did so by granting millions of acres of federal land directly to the railroad companies and supporting their construction efforts with 30 year government bonds. The laws soon made railroad corporations the largest landowners in the West, granting them control over more than 1/10 of the entire United States and the ability to determine the site of new towns by virtue of where they chose to build water and coaling stations for their trains. They also received considerable public land on either side of their tracks, which they could in turn sell, rent, or use to build towns or operate businesses (banks and hardware stores, for instance), also adding to their income.

Spurred by this financial windfall, the transcontinental railroad—the first in the world to span a continent—sped towards completion for the next seven years, with largely Chinese, Irish, and Mormon work crews laying as much as 400 miles of track annually. Trailing them across the vast Great Plains and the towering Sierra Nevada Mountains were camp followers who fed, clothed, housed, and entertained them. These camps were described by one writer as each being a “peripatetic Gomorrah” composed of “workers, bartenders, prostitutes, gamblers, speculators, outlaws, renegades, road agents, and outcasts.” As one contemporary put it, “Hell would appear to have been raked to furnish them”.

The vast fortunes made by railroad companies spurred a boom in rail construction that lasted until well into the 20th century (Figure 17.4). By 1870, more than 50,000 miles of track were completed, and new construction averaged 6,000 miles a year through 1890. By then, approximately 10 percent of all non-farm labor in the United States had some connection to the railroads, which possessed an insatiable appetite for steel, coal, lumber, and other commodities. At the turn of the century, almost no corner of the nation lacked rail service, with cities, towns, and states supporting federal subsidies with financial aid of their own to attract rail stations. No populated area seemed complete without one, and towns that were bypassed by the railroad risked isolation and eventual abandonment. 

Figure 17.4: A chart showing the rapid expansion of railroads in the United States between 1860 and 1880. Much of the new construction was in the West. Note the drop following the recession that began in 1873. Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 1975), 731.​​
17.09 Level 4

Why do you think that the crews that built the transcontinental railroad were mostly comprised of men from foreign countries?

Railroad companies made so much money in this period that they completely changed the landscape of American business. Their enormous size and geographic reach forced them to pioneer new organizational structures—particularly corporations and boards of directors—that allowed them to raise private capital and oversee thousands of employees scattered across vast distances. This model became standard in American industry and marked a significant expansion of private enterprise. Corporations in previous centuries were usually tied to specific purposes and tightly regulated, but much of that government oversight faded away in the nineteenth century. The largest corporations enjoyed enormous latitude, even in areas like public transportation in which society held a vital interest, and they often branched into other business ventures in order to diversify their assets. Many of them, particularly the railroads, were, to use a modern phrase, too big to fail, and their leaders became some of the wealthiest men in the country.

Gold and Silver

Even as they promoted transportation, lawmakers also sought to standardize and regulate the financial marketplace. They did so primarily by moving the United States to the gold standard, which required paper currency issued by the federal government to be backed by a corresponding amount of gold held in secure vaults. The United Kingdom of Great Britain had adhered to the standard for many years, while much of the rest of the world, including the United States, issued silver and gold coins of various weights fixed at a relative value. In 1873, however, correctly anticipating vast new discoveries of silver in the West that would alter the relative value of gold to silver, the U.S. Congress moved the U.S. to the gold standard. They ceased minting dollar silver coins, and retired Civil War paper money known as greenbacks over several years, replacing them with new notes from a growing array of national banks (Figure 17.5). After 1879, those new notes were exchanged for gold on request.

Figure 17.5: A five-dollar bill from 1878. This national note represents the new wave of currency that replaced greenbacks. [4]​

The new system delighted banks and the wealthy because it dramatically reduced the money supply by tying it to the available amounts of gold, thereby raising the value of currency. Advocates of silver denounced the plan because it made it more difficult for the working class to obtain cash, and they were right in the sense that the amount of circulating money per person dropped from $30.35 in 1865 to $19.36 in 1880. The drop fueled dramatic political battles over currency that dominated congressional and presidential campaigns in the 1870s and 1880s and may have provided part of the inspiration for L. Frank Baum’s famous American fairy tale, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900. In the book, the heroine Dorothy (a simple farm girl from Kansas) travels to the Emerald City (green, symbolizing money) wearing Silver Shoes (symbolizing silver—the shoes were changed to Ruby Slippers in the later film version of the story) and following the Yellow Brick Road (symbolizing the gold standard). 

Whether Baum actually had all of that symbolism in mind while writing is disputed by scholars, but the imagery is vivid and a useful way of considering the relative merits of gold and silver as a basis for national currency. For most Republicans, however, the debate never seemed so abstract. They considered the switch to the gold standard an unqualified success, because they feared inflation and instability and believed gold would make the United States more attractive to foreign investors. In that they were right, and U.S. businesses were suddenly able to attract more capital from overseas than ever before. Investors at home and abroad quickly poured money into western banking, mining, and railroads, supported businesses ranging from construction to manufacturing, and financed everything from transportation to communication. The development of the West accelerated yet again .  

17.10 - Level 2

Why did Congress convert the United States to the gold standard in 1873?


Because new discoveries meant plenty of gold would always be available


Because new discoveries of silver threatened to upset the relative value of gold and silver and allow more paper currency to enter the market


Because the gold standard would stabilize U.S. currency and encourage more international investors to pour their money into American businesses


Because the gold standard benefited the poor

17.11 - Level 3

Which of the following individuals would have most likely benefitted from the adoption of the gold standard for U.S. currency?


A small farmer in Kansas


A coal miner in Colorado


A railroad worker in California


A railroad executive in New York

Question 17.12

17.12 - Level 4

Explain the debate over the gold standard, and identify the ultimate “winners” and “losers” when it was adopted in 1873.

Click here to see the answer to Question 17.12.

Mining and Industry

The great American rush westward during the nineteenth century included men and women from every walk of life. Some began with nothing, others sought escape from their old careers chasing what newspapers proclaimed were boundless opportunities on the frontier. Some became mountain men, farmers, or ranchers, while others reinvented themselves as soldiers, pioneers, surveyors, and miners. Those that failed in one career sought others, each intent on finding wealth in what they saw as the untapped mountains, fields, and streams of North America. They rapidly pushed into unsettled areas that offered any hope of economic gain , and rarely hesitated to exploit the land or Native Americans. They saw nature and the indigenous peoples of the continent as barriers to be overcome, as obstacles standing in the way of their particular American dream. Those dreams often ended in failure, but generation after generation pursued them just the same, and miners often led the way.

Before the Civil War, the greatest mining rush occurred in California, when prospectors near Sutter’s Mill (a sawmill) found flakes of gold in 1848. One month later, California joined the United States as a territory courtesy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and when news of the discovery reached the east coast, the rush was on. Over the next seven years, more than 300,000 people descended on California seeking fortunes, usually by mining or selling supplies. By the middle of the 1850s the rush had played itself out, forcing those who failed to find gold to search for new areas to mine, change careers, or return to their points of origin (Figure 17.6).

Figure 17.6: Some of the most important railroads, cattle trails, and mining areas in the West

Many chose to continue searching for gold, and as settlers expanded across the West, new stories of easy access to gold and silver were plentiful. Newspapers fueled the boom/bust cycle of frontier mining towns that emerged by publishing rags-to-riches stories about prospectors who became fabulously wealthy on a regular basis, and the ensuing waves of eager prospectors swept into Colorado, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, and even British Columbia. More than 100,000 reached Colorado by 1859, but half of them were gone a year later. New towns appeared overnight and were gone within months, and they attracted remarkably diverse populations. College graduates might pan or dig for gold and silver alongside those with no formal education at all, or side by side with the young and the old, men and women outlaws, former slaves, slave holders, immigrants, and abolitionists, all united only by their greed in a rough-and-tumble environment where government and law enforcement were usually lacking. 

 Saloons and prostitutes were commonplace in areas where men might get rich one day and spend it all the next, and violence became endemic. And yet, no amount of failure by individual prospectors seemed to dim the enthusiasm of newcomers, who drove gold and silver rushes in Montana, Arizona, and even the Black Hills of South Dakota. The influx of outsiders rapidly expanded the population of western states, and often led to conflict with Native American tribes (like the Lakota Sioux in the Dakotas) that were promised land on which whites later found gold or silver. It also fueled the admission of new states to the union. California applied for statehood in 1849, shortly after the great gold rush, while Nevada grew so quickly because of the famous Comstock Lode, a gigantic silver and gold discovery under Mount Davidson, that it went from becoming a territory in 1861 to a state only three years later (Figure 17.7).

Figure 17.7: T.H. O’Sullivan took this photograph of settlements near the famous Comstock Lode, not far from Virginia City, Nevada, circa 1870. The mines in this area ultimately yielded more than $300 million in gold and silver. [5]

17.13 - Level 1

Match the following gold or silver strike with the state or territory in which it took place.


Sutter's Mill




Comstock Lode




Black Hills


South Dakota

Congress fueled the westward rush of miners by passing the General Mining Act of 1872. The act stipulated that anyone who discovered minerals on federal land could keep whatever proceeds they earned from the discovery and encouraged the myth of the lone, heroic, individual prospector battling nature and the odds to find fame and fortune. To be sure, some did. Marcus Daly emigrated from Ireland, worked his way west, and eventually settled in Montana to dig for silver. In time, he struck one of the largest veins of copper in the world, which became known as the Anaconda Mine. The strike made Daly extraordinarily wealthy and helped push the United States to the forefront of worldwide copper production by 1883. Copper proved a critical mineral in the industrial revolution because it was an excellent conductor of electricity, and Daly and many of his investors became fabulously wealthy. In Nevada, the famous riches of the Comstock Lode built Virginia City in only a few years. At its height, the city boasted a population of more than 20,000, a hundred saloons, a Shakespearean theater, numerous luxury hotels, a stock exchange, and more brothels than anyone could count. Yet by the 1880s it shrank precipitously as the mine returned less and less gold and silver and the mining camps emptied. Today it boasts fewer than 900 residents. Miners left behind debris, a landscape ravaged by digging, polluted water, and forests stripped of timber for houses and mine shafts. 

While they lasted, gold, silver, and copper rushes made fortunes for a select few and inspired thousands more to attempt to follow in their wake. George Hearst, for example, grew up in a slave-owning family in Missouri, then moved west to California in 1850 and prospered digging for quartz and running a general store. He made millions investing in silver, particularly from the Ophir mine (part of the Comstock Lode) in 1859 and later (1872) in the Ontario Silver Mine in Utah. He eventually became, for a brief time, a U.S. Senator from California, and was the father of William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper publisher.

The mines also generated enormous wealth for the suppliers and general stores that sold the tools and equipment needed to pan, dig, or simply live on the frontier. Blasting powder, shovels, foodstuffs, tools, and clothes were among the most popular items, as were tents, particularly those made of canvas and sold by a German immigrant named Levi Strauss . He sold so many canvas tents that he eventually pursued the design and construction of reinforced work pants, laying the foundation for the modern emergence of blue jeans.

 By 1890, the mining boom had largely ended. Sites where gold and silver could be easily accessed had for the most part been discovered, leaving little hope for individual prospectors and leaving the domain of deeper mines to large, often international corporations that had the money and technology to purchase land, the lobbyists to promote friendly state and federal legislation, the lawyers to battle for their rights in the courts, and the equipment to mine on a gigantic scale. They earned the largest share of all mining fortunes, just as their counterparts did in most other areas of business. 

The short period of the mining bonanza became the stuff of legend and spurred the rapid development of the West. That development generated wealth for some, shattered dreams for others, and came at the expense of the environment and eventually Native American Tribes in California, Utah, and Nevada. They were decimated by prospectors that seldom hesitated to kill natives living near lucrative mining sites, and by the destruction of streams and rivers by gravel, silt, and chemicals used in the mining process. The polluted water massacred fish and wildlife, causing more deaths among tribes dependent on traditional hunting and fishing, and new laws in many territories and states allowed for the capture and forced labor of Indians in mines. In California alone, more than 100,000 natives are thought to have died as a result of the great gold rush that began in 1849 alone, though the number will never be known for certain. Ultimately, the massive destruction associated with mining and the billions in new wealth that came with it are inextricably linked together. They remain the most significant legacy of the mining industry on the frontier.

Question 17.14

17.14 - Level 2

Describe the long-term environmental impact that mining had on the American West, and how this spurred the first environmental protections.

Click here to see the answer to Question 17.14.

Cowboys and Farmers 

While eager miners roamed mountain ranges looking for gold and silver, farmers and cattle ranchers scoured the Great Plains, eager to prove that the “Great American Desert” could produce food for an expanding nation. Merciless killing of millions of buffalo by hunters and the unwitting introduction of European cattle diseases like brucellosis decimated the herds and sped the arrival of cattle ranchers, who began settling in south Texas in the 1850s. By the mid-1860s, millions of cattle grazed there, and when railroads reached western Missouri, ranchers started driving their herds north to Sedalia to sell them. The distances involved were enormous. It was more than 1,000 miles from South Texas to Sedalia, for example, and it took as long as two months for cowboys to get their cattle to railheads. Yet cattle that survived these Long Drives to Sedalia fetched enormous profits—often as much as twelve times their original value—because of the insatiable demand for beef in eastern cities. These profits in turn drove more and more ranchers into the business. They hired cowboys (Figure 17.8) to drive their herds across Texas and Indian Territory annually, which in turn encouraged the railroads to keep pushing west. When the railways reached Abilene, Kansas, Texas cattle ranchers could drive almost straight north along the famous Chisholm Trail, and their exploits created a romantic image of cowboys that has endured to this day in books, magazines, films, and television shows. That image, one of rough independence and excitement, pales in relation to the reality that cowboys were generally poorly paid and worked long, dangerous hours on horseback.

Yet that reality seldom appeared in popular culture. Instead, cowboys were too often portrayed in books and magazines as Anglo or white (when as many as one third were African American or Latino) and seen as heroic symbols of freedom and independence in a West that disappeared far too quickly. Indeed, cowboys have been mythologized so often that they rank among the most distinctive and iconic figures in American history. However, they can also be seen as analogous to factory workers at the bottom of the economic ladder, working hard to generate profits that they seldom shared equitably with cattle and ranch owners. When they were paid, they often spent their money in short-lived boom towns that rivaled mining communities in their debauchery and shared a similar penchant for becoming ghost towns within a short period of time. These stories added to the mystical allure of the cowboy and were told long after the short era of the cowboy had essentially ended and the legend of the cowboy had become a permanent fixture of American life. 

Spotlight on Primary Source

In addition to the enormous wealth of books and magazine articles, photographs, television shows, and motion pictures that continue to celebrate cowboys as a central feature of American culture, there endures a rich tradition of cowboy music that connects modern America with its real or imagined frontier past. Among the most famous songs from that tradition is “Red River Valley,” a folk song with uncertain origins that first appeared on sheet music in 1896. Watch the video below and listen to a version sung by Faye Tucker (a country western star of the 1960s).

Question 17.15

17.15 - Level 5

Do you find the lyrics evocative of life on the West? Do they tell you anything about the difficulty of living in an era without modern transportation or communication, or about the loneliness of frontier life?

Click here to see the answer to Question 17.15.

The cowboy heyday ended on a large scale by the 1890s. Profits derived from feeding beef to voracious eastern cities predictably caused over-production of cattle, over-grazing of the land, and a boom-bust cycle that eventually drove many ranchers under. Unusually good weather and mild winters in the 1870s delayed the inevitable reckoning with the hazards of life on the Great Plains, which came with a vengeance in 1886 when record blizzards killed hundreds of thousands of livestock. As a result, and in part because cattle prices had been driven downward by over-production, it became more difficult for smaller ranchers to survive. The large ranches lived on and slowly adapted as the railroads reached into Texas, the cattle drives faded away, and barbed wire gradually eliminated the open prairie which had made the famous cattle drives possible.

Figure 17.8: J.C.H. Grabill took this famous photograph of a cowboy in Sturgis, Dakota Territory, in 1888. Cowboys enjoyed independence on the frontier, but faced myriad dangers and were generally not well paid. [6]

 Open prairie gradually disappeared because the Great Plains were flooded with settlers hoping to make a living by farming the land. The wisdom of this migration is open to question, because the Great Plains receives limited rainfall and is impossible to farm without steel-tipped plows. Early explorers deemed life on the plains impossible, and settlers in the early 1800s bypassed them on their way to California and Oregon. As the West filled, however, the demand for land grew to the point that newspapers, railroads, steamship companies, and government agencies conspired to portray and eventually sell the Great Plains as heaven for farmers (Figure 17.9). State and local politicians eager for their territory to become a state or for economic development were quick to echo these claims, and the Homestead Act encouraged anyone with a real or perceived knack for farming to migrate to the region. Immigrants with no chance of owning land in Europe were particularly interested and came by the thousands. Many were inspired to make the move by severe recession in northern Europe, and they came from as far away as Sweden, Norway, and Germany to create distinctive communities throughout the Midwest and the Great Plains. They brought new strains of wheat that handled extreme weather—wind, heat in the summer, and severe cold in the winter—better than native varieties. As it had with cattle ranchers, nature cooperated for a time by delivering mild winters and abundant rainfall through much of the 1870s and 1880s. Not all farmers succeeded, of course, but many did, at least for a time, and their success encouraged African Americans from the South to join them. Most hoped to escape endemic racism and violence and fled states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas for what many called the “promised land” on the Great Plains, where they hoped new freedom and economic opportunity awaited them. By 1880, more than 40,000 African Americans had relocated to Kansas alone in what historians call the Exoduster Movement, though others also settled in Oklahoma and Colorado. The movement was financed by prominent African Americans, including Benjamin Singleton of Tennessee and Henry Adams of Louisiana, and represents one of the first large-scale migrations of African Americans after the Civil War. 

Figure 17.9: A 19th century railroad poster designed to recruit new immigrants to Texas. Railroads, banks, steamship lines, state and local governments, and community leaders throughout the West used similar approaches, portraying western lands as utopias where the farming and ranching were easy and anyone could find success. [7]

17.16 - Level 2

Click on the state that was the most common final destination for whose participating in the “Exoduster Movement”.

In the long run, however, the odds were stacked against all of the farmers on the Great Plains. They were generally poor and typically began farming by borrowing money from banks to buy equipment, seeds, and food for their families. They therefore incurred debt from the very beginning and usually ended up in a cycle of loan repayment and renewal that proved hard to break. Farmers tended to grow the same crops in the same regions of the country, and they typically overplanted based on a desire to make as much money as possible. The resulting overproduction, coupled with access to railroads and the telegraph that made agricultural markets truly global, drove prices so low that thousands went broke by the 1880s. Farmers might have had several good years in a row, but sooner or later most faced a drought, a hailstorm, an invasion of grasshoppers, a flood, a year when the world market over-produced and drove down prices, or some other calamity that made it financially difficult to continue. Still, they kept coming well into the early 20th century, hoping to find more economic success than they had in whatever town or situation they had come from previously, and those that were the most astute or the most fortunate held on and sometimes prospered. Banks, large grain operators, and the railroads made money on each of them.

17.17 - Level 1

Which of the following was a challenge for farmers on the Great Plains?


The climate


Owing money to banks


Lack of control over the prices they received for their crops

17.18 - Level 2

Which of the following features of the American cowboy have been frequently misrepresented in contemporary popular culture?


Their racial composition


The dangerousness of their work


Their compensation

The West and the Environment

The speed with which the Great Plains and the West were developed and the scale on which settlers and ranchers and miners altered the environment is difficult to comprehend. Consider the fact that the Great Plains stretches from approximately the Rocky Mountains to the 96th meridian and from the Rio Grande River to southern Canada. The region encompasses more than 500,000 square miles of land, and Americans overwhelmed almost all of the areas that could support human settlement in just over a generation. Miners destroyed entire mountains, ranchers bred millions of cattle that grazed on native plants, and farmers plowed under hundreds of millions of acres of topsoil. They did so in an effort to make ends meet and support their loved ones, or perhaps to make a fortune along the way, and most saw themselves in a struggle with nature that technology would ultimately help them win.

In some cases, they were right. Large corporations found success mining for extended periods, as did the largest cattle ranchers and even some farmers. By 1900, almost half of the sheep and cattle in the U.S., one third of all cereal crops, and just under three-fifths of all wheat came from the Great Plains, and pundits argued that the region had proven itself a haven for all types of agriculture and ranching. But the model was never sustainable. Most farmers found that the Great Plains were simply never meant for the traditional 160 acre farm. That size operation, the model North American farmers had relied on for family farms all the way back to the 18th century, was too small to produce enough food and profit for dry land farmers and too large for most small farmers to irrigate affordably. The effort eventually became, in the words of one historian, “the largest…agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” Worst of all, the monumental scale of farming on the Great Plains destroyed so much topsoil that it laid the foundation for disaster in periods of extreme drought. Such a period came in the 1930s with disastrous results, long after thousands of farmers had abandoned the Great Plains and thousands more had replaced them in the relentless American quest for more wealth. 

Environmental Protection

In the midst of this manic settlement, there were moments when Americans talked openly of over-development and the need to balance economic growth with the protection of natural resources for future generations. In 1864, for example, Congress gave portions of the Yosemite Valley to California for the state to preserve for public use and recreation, and in 1872 it created the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (Figure 17.10). The first national park in the world, Yellowstone rapidly became a source of enormous economic gain for Wyoming. The Northern Pacific Railroad, which had lobbied for creation of the park as a tourist attraction, began shuttling tourists in from cities all over the United States. Yellowstone attracted poachers and hunters and squatters as well as tourists, but it prompted greater discussion of environmental protection that eventually led to the creation of even more national parks in the 20th century. At the same time, the establishment of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which grew out of the 1871 U.S. Fisheries Commission, provided the government with a means to begin to protect native wildlife and fish from destruction at the hands of industry, hunters, and fishermen.

Figure 17.10: An 1889 photograph of the rapids on the Lewis Fork of the Snake River, part of the Yellowstone National Park [8]
17.19 Level 1

Why did Congress create Yellowstone National Park?

The Final Conquest of Native Americans

The peoples most affected by all of these efforts to conquer, control, and develop the West were Native Americans, the indigenous tribes that had called North America home for thousands of years prior to the arrival of either Europeans or Americans. From the moment Columbus reached the New World, they were seen as a barrier to civilization by most settlers, and tribes were gradually destroyed by disease and war or forced to submit or migrate to areas too remote for the white man to reach. Those areas seldom stayed remote for long, however, and between 1865 and 1890, another chapter in the tragic tale unfolded for Native Americans. (Figure 17.11). If the United States provided opportunities for millions of Americans by developing the West, it did so only at a terrible cost to native people. 

Figure 17.11: “Fort Laramie,” by Alfred Jacob Miller. The painting provides an idealized vision of the American West, with the fort and Native Americans co-existing peacefully. Relations between area tribes, merchants, and the United States Army varied over time, and the fort, like most on the frontier, evolved in size and prominence as Americans flooded the West in the middle and late nineteenth century, then declined until it was abandoned in 1890. [9]

Native Americans and the West

It is worth remembering that white European and eventually American settlement of North America did not proceed in an orderly, linear fashion. It occurred in fits and starts from 1607 onward and formed a consistent pattern only in that tribes were routinely forced to abandon good farming and hunting lands by war, population pressure, disease, or political and legal means. Some tribes, like the Lakota Sioux, were forced so far westward they had to adopt a new way of life on the Great Plains . Others, like the Comanche, had adopted horses and dominated trade networks throughout much of the southern plains long before Americans arrived in large numbers to challenge them. When settlers initially bypassed the plains to migrate to California and Oregon in the 1830s, it meant taking the battles against Native Americans to the Pacific. That in turn meant that the final battles were fought in the interior of the continent, in regions like Arizona that were settled by whites last.

The Civil War played a crucial role in this process, unleashing many of the forces that accelerated western settlement and leaving frontier settlers feeling vulnerable because so much military and federal government attention remained focused on the Confederacy. At the same time, a sad pattern of corruption and betrayal continued in many of the dealings between government officials and native people, to the extent that few treaties between tribes and individual states or the federal government endured because whites seldom held up their side of the bargain. There were exceptions, of course, but not enough to make a difference.

In 1862, for example, corruption in Minnesota provoked an uprising by the Dakota Sioux, who faced starvation because of a consistent denial of promised supplies by government agents, who too often sold them for a profit and pocketed the proceeds. Warriors attacked farms throughout the state, killing more than 400 whites and unleashing a wave of hysteria among settlers. Thousands fled, and the people of Minnesota reacted with a vengeance. They sentenced 307 captured Dakotas to death, and though President Lincoln commuted the majority of the sentences, 38 were still executed in the largest mass execution in American history. The Dakota were then expelled from Minnesota and abandoned their reservation to find refuge with other tribes.

Newspapers spread word of the fighting across the frontier, rattling farmers in other territories and states and fueling the already common desire of many whites to get rid of Native Americans once and for all. Sporadic raids by native warriors, many of whom would not be controlled by their tribal chiefs, also fueled a cycle of vengeance across the frontier that made calls for peace difficult to heed, and the frontier teetered on the brink of widespread warfare.

In Colorado, the fighting escalated when territory militia commanded by John M. Chivington attacked a band of Cheyenne led by Black Kettle along Sand Creek in November of 1864. Like many tribes, the Cheyenne were divided into bands that sometimes disagreed over the best course of action to take with regard to whites. Some, like Black Kettle, pushed for accommodation, arguing that resistance was hopeless and that war would lead only to the annihilation of the tribe. Others, particularly young warriors, often wanted to fight instead. Chivington’s men made no distinction between natives like Black Kettle who sought peace and those who wanted war. They killed more than 100 Cheyenne without provocation, slaughtering and scalping large numbers of women and children and relatively few warriors. Black Kettle had sought protection from the U.S. Army, and he had been assured that his village would be safe if he flew an American flag above his teepee. It mattered not at all to Chivington and his men. Captain Silas Soule, who witnessed the attack and was among the few not to participate, said later that “It was hard to see little children on their knees having their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized.” Chivington’s men returned to Denver, where they hung Cheyenne scalps and genitals inside theatres and celebrated with a city parade. Soule was murdered weeks later for criticizing the campaign.

Then the frontier exploded. The Sand Creek Massacre enraged the Cheyenne, who joined with the Arapaho and Sioux to attack white settlements in Colorado, Nebraska, and Wyoming. U.S. Army units struggled to combat them, and one, under the command of Captain William Fetter man, stumbled into a Sioux ambush in 1866 that killed him and all 79 of his men. The ambush led to the closure of the Bozeman Trail, the main route into Montana.

Years of fighting followed. The Army struggled to combat the tribes, which could generally move faster and always knew the terrain better. Led by General Philip Sheridan, who rose to prominence during the Civil War, Army units experimented with winter attacks that took advantage of the fact that the tribes generally remained stationary in cold months and were therefore vulnerable to raids that destroyed their teepees, buffalo hides, and ponies. These tactics helped defeat the Southern Cheyenne at the Battle of the Washita (Figure 17.12) in 1868, but elsewhere the pattern of raids and negotiation and then more raids continued.

Figure 17.12: An artist’s imagining of the November 27, 1868 attack by the Seventh U.S. Cavalry on Black Kettle’s camp along the Washita River in Indian Territory originally published in Harper’s Weekly Magazine. The winter attack killed Chief Black Kettle and approximately 103 Cheyenne, most of whom were women, children, and old men. It played a key role in breaking the will of tribes to resist on the Southern Great Plains. [10]

Throughout the period, fighting remained steady. The United States Army fought more than 950 engagements on the frontier between 1865 and 1890 and thousands more skirmishes that were too small to make their way into official records. This does not include fights involving territorial or state militias, or raids and fights involving native warriors and private citizens that were undoubtedly numerous and widespread. In the far West, the Digger, Snake, and Bannock tribes in California, Oregon, and Idaho, as well as the Ute in Utah and Nevada were subdued following mining rushes. The Apache and Navajo in the Southwest resisted more strongly, relying on mountainous terrain in Arizona and New Mexico to help shield them from pursuing columns (Figure 17.13). The Army remained relentless, however. It built forts throughout the West and incorporated both civilian and Native American Scouts – including the “Seminole Scouts” and warriors from the Arikara and Gros Ventres tribes among others– to pursue hostile bands until they surrendered or were destroyed.

Congress also approved the formation of several regiments of African American soldiers to help subdue Native Americans. Known as “Buffalo Soldiers” by many tribes, including the Apache, Cheyenne, and Comanche, they included the 9th and 10th Cavalry and four regiments of infantry that were later reorganized into the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. The term “Buffalo Soldier” may have emerged from the perceived similarity between the hair of the some of the troops and that of bison, or from the fact the soldiers sometimes wore buffalo hides in winter, or for other reasons. Whatever its origins, the term quickly became an honored title that was and is celebrated by all of the units which trace their lineage to the four original regiments. These units were the first all-black regiments raised by the Army in peace time, including African American enlisted men and both white and black officers. The “Buffalo Soldiers” distinguished themselves throughout the American West, fighting in most of the significant campaigns against Native Americans and producing nineteen Congressional Medal of Honor recipients. Interestingly, service in the Army also proved one of the few routes open to African Americans seeking higher incomes and admission to the middle class, and the Army seldom lacked for recruits eager to join the Buffalo Soldiers.

Figure 17.13: Major General George Crook, who distinguished himself fighting during the Civil War and against Native Americans. The Apache nicknamed him Nantan Lupan, “the Grey Wolf.” Ironically, Crook is barely known by most Americans, in contrast with George Armstrong Custer, who led five companies of the Seventh Cavalry to annihilation in 1876. [11]

For Buffalo Soldiers and the rest of the Army on the Great Plains, the fighting reached a crescendo in the 1870s. Tribes in that region, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, and others, were the finest light cavalry in the world. They were fast, could fight from horseback, and were so elusive that the Army seldom caught them except in the winter. What ultimately spelled doom for the tribes was the combination of American military power, a system of forts that forced tribes on to smaller and smaller reservations, the destruction of the buffalo, and the ability of the railroads to bring in more supplies, settlers, and soldiers year after year. Farmers contributed by gradually fencing in the open prairie that the tribes needed to preserve their freedom and their opportunity to track buffalo herds, and over time, Indian resistance truly became more and more futile (Figure 17.14).

Figure 17.14: A map featuring many of the most prominent Army forts, Native American tribes, and frontier battles between 1860 and 1890. ​​

17.20 - Level 3

Click on the battle that effectively ended Native American resistance on the Plains.

Grant's "Peace" Policy

While the Army battled Native Americans throughout the West, some reformers attempted to change government policy and make it more humane. Many were inspired by the mistreatment of the tribes and by massacres at places like Sand Creek and again on the Marias River in 1870, when soldiers killed and burned approximately 200 Piegans (or Blackfeet) in Montana. Public outrage in many eastern cities followed, and newly elected President Ulysses S. Grant responded by announcing a peace policy that he hoped would address the problems the government faced with Native Americans.

Reformers from groups such as the Women’s National Indian Association argued that Indians could be “saved” if they became Christians and were assimilated into mainstream white society. The solution, they said, was to eliminate tribal languages, culture, and customs, and to create schools that could teach Native American children the ways of the dominant society so they might be accepted and able to advance socially and economically. Critics suggested that such efforts were condescending and arrogant, and they were, but many reformers genuinely believed that such an approach offered the only way save the tribes from extinction. They established schools throughout the United States, including the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which served as the flagship federal boarding school for Native Americans from 1879 to 1918. Government agents forced many tribes to send their children to these schools to learn English along with farming and housekeeping skills, and the schools punished them if they spoke their native tongue or wore native clothing. Such efforts understandably provoked a backlash among many tribes and coincided with corruption and inefficiency among some of the new Indian Affairs agents selected by the Grant administration. To be sure, many were an improvement over those who came before, and most meant well, but they accomplished little in terms of assimilation into what remained a decidedly racist white culture, but a great deal in terms of destroying native ways forever. They also reflected the dominant mainstream view of Native Americans that the tribes represented a problem to be solved rather than nations or groups of human beings with whom the government might reasonably negotiate and share North America. In that light, Grant’s “peace” policy represented another form of cultural assimilation, one that the United States would not have pursued with a country or people it considered equals. 

Spotlight on Primary Source

One of the most moving accounts of the impact missionary schools had on many Native American children came from Zitkala-Sa (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, the name given to her by Quaker missionaries). Zitkala-Sa (whose name translates as “Red Bird”) was a Yankton Dakota Sioux born in 1876 who attended White’s Manual Labor Institute between 1884.and 1887 and then returned to study and eventually teach there from 1891 to 1895. Throughout her life, she found herself caught between the majority white world of the school and the world of her family that that the dominant society seemed intent on destroying (Figures 17.15 and 17.16).

Click here to read Zitkala-Sa’s article entitled “The School Days of an Indian Girl.”

Figure 17.15: A 1901 photograph of Zitkala-Sa taken by Joseph Keiley and published in his book Camera Notes, Volume 5, Number 1. The image utilizes photogravure, a specialized process featuring copper plates and light sensitive gelatin that produces richer, more detailed images than traditional photography. [12]

Figure 17.16 Zitkala-Sa with her violin in 1898 [13]

Question 17.21

17.21 - Level 4

What does Zitkala-Sa's portrayal of life at the school tell you about the intent of the missionaries? Why did they do what they did? Zitkala-Sa eventually became an accomplished orator, violinist, and writer, and embraced many aspects of the education she received at her school. Does this make the story of her assimilation more complicated in your view? Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Question 17.21.

Perhaps the most destructive reform policy was the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. It ended collective ownership of tribal lands and divided reservations into 160-acre plots that were allotted to the head of each Native American family. The goal was to force the tribes to embrace farming, but in practice, the legislation proved an unmitigated disaster. Tribes that had more land than could be allotted based on their population lost the excess, which the government typically sold to white farmers and ranchers who made certain they bought the best available land while the tribes received the rest. Some Native Americans chose not to farm their land for 25 years as required by the law and instead sold it for pennies on the dollar, again reducing overall tribal land holdings. In Indian Territory, more than 15 million acres were seized from tribes by government commissions, which then opened the land for settlement by whites, paving the way for the creation of the Oklahoma Territory. By the 1930s, tribes had lost more than two thirds of the land originally promised to them, making the Dawes Act another chapter in the persistent exploitation of Native Americans by the United States.

The End of Native Resistance

All through the post-Civil War era, the pattern of war and submission continued. The Kiowa, Comanche, and other plains tribes were gradually forced onto reservations, while the Navajo returned to settle on tribal lands in Arizona. In California, the Modoc were defeated after an arduous campaign against the Army in 1872-73, leaving Sitting Bull and the Lakota Sioux among the final holdouts. The Sioux faced war the following year, when a gold strike in the Black Hills brought white prospectors by the thousands to land set aside for the Lakota. Fighting ensued, the government pressured the Lakota to sell their ancestral lands, and when the Sioux refused, what became known as the Great Sioux War of 1876 began. Bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho joined Sitting Bull in refusing to report to area federal agencies, and they eventually joined together in an enormous village on the Little Big Horn River with hundreds of warriors as well as celebrated war leaders Crazy Horse and Chief Gall. Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer and elements of the Seventh Cavalry found them there in June and Custer rashly attacked rather than waiting for reinforcements.

Custer divided his command multiple times in an effort to find and then perhaps surround or at least attack the camp from multiple sides, allowing his separated units to be attacked and ultimately defeated. Custer personally led five companies to oblivion on a windswept hill east of the main camp, while survivors of the regiment under Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen eventually united and formed a perimeter on a hill to the south. They fought for more than a day before supporting columns from other army commands were able to reach them. The Battle of the Little Big Horn became the most famous encounter between Native Americans and the United States Army and undoubtedly the most significant victory won by tribes on the Great Plains. Americans reacted to news of the disaster, which killed 268 U.S. soldiers, with shock and dismay. 

Sensationalized accounts in the press played up Custer’s heroism and the threat to settlers on the frontier, and the government mobilized to suppress the Sioux and their allies. Yet for all of its eventual fame and controversy, for all of the books and films and paintings of what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand” (including a famous portrait commissioned by Anheuser-Busch that hung in hundreds of saloons throughout the United States for decades), Little Big Horn proved incapable of preventing or even appreciably slowing the eventual defeat of the tribes. The Army descended on the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota Sioux, winter came, and in the end the tribes were forced back to reservations by exhaustion, starvation, or defeat. In the Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce surrendered the following year, and though Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apaches fought on until 1886 in the American southwest, the outcome was never really in doubt there either. Pitted against the relentless march of settlers, the power of the railroad, and the might of the United States Army, native peoples had very little chance to prevent their defeat or destruction no matter how skilled or brave in battle they might prove. 

17.22 - Level 1

What triggered the Great Sioux War of 1876?


Attacks by the Lakota on settlers in Texas


A gold strike in the Black Hills


A U.S. Army attack on a Comanche village in Indian Territory


Construction of a railroad in North Dakota

Tribes responded to the frightening loss of their culture and way of life in various ways. Some sought accommodation, while others focused on secretly practicing traditional customs and passing their language and history on to younger generations. Most selectively adopted white ways, embraced elements of Christianity, and sought contact with other tribes to foster greater unity amongst native people. This cultural blending culminated in the Ghost Dance Movement, a quasi-religious phenomenon that crossed tribal barriers and encouraged a belief that sacred dances might bring back the buffalo and drive away the whites forever, allowing Native Americans to return to their previous ways of life. The movement frightened whites, who remained fearful of uprisings and a return of tribal raids, and culminated in attempts to round up and disarm Lakota Sioux bands on the Standing Rock and Pine Ridge Indian Reservations in December of 1890. These attempts led to the death of Sitting Bull and an army attack on a Lakota encampment near Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December of 1890 (Figure 17.17). Units of the Seventh Cavalry using Hotchkiss mountain guns killed between 150 and 300 Lakota men, women, and children who had left their reservation in a tragic and unnecessary massacre that brought resistance on the frontier to a final, horrifying conclusion. 

Figure 17.17: The aftermath at Wounded Knee [14]

The West as Myth

By any measure, the period between 1865 and 1890 featured spectacular achievements and equally spectacular tragedy. On one hand, Americans conquered the West at an utterly amazing rate. In less than a generation, they completed the process of spanning a continent more than 3,000 miles across, filling it with farms and mines, and building thousands of miles of roads and canals and railroads alongside hundreds of towns and cities that provided homes and opportunity to millions of immigrants and native-born Americans. On the other hand, that conquest came at the expense of the lives of countless Native Americans and at dreadful cost to the environment. Millions sought fortune and opportunity in the West, but precious few found lasting wealth or stability unless they were associated with the larger banks and corporations, who found the frontier more profitable than anyone else.

This mixed record left Americans struggling with the challenge of which West they wanted to remember. Was it the myth of the wide open frontier open to anyone of talent, a land of larger-than-life heroes and heroines who embodied virtues like independence and courage, or was it the land of racism, violence, corruption, debauchery, blizzards and environmental degradation that represented the darker reality and was perhaps the price of endless greed? Both points of view have merit, as do countless others that lay between them. But most Americans have always chosen not to remember the West in such a complex manner. They much prefer the West of legend, and long before the frontier closed, that preference led them to buy dime novels that celebrated gunfighters and cattle drives and attend travelling shows that glorified the defeat of Native Americans and the conquest of mountains, river, and plains. Today, they find their legends on television and in motion pictures.

No entertainer better represented the phenomenon of these shows in the 19th century than Buffalo Bill Cody, whose famous Wild West show appeared all over the United States and traveled around the world (Figure 17.18). 

Figure 17.18: An 1899 poster advertising Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. Often imitated, Buffalo Bill first gained fame riding for the famous “Pony Express” in the 1860s. He performed all over the world and gave millions an image of the American West as a colorful playground of wild animals, Native Americans, outlaws, and rugged men and women who were crack shots with both pistol and rifle, pursuing lives full of adventure and independence. His shows perpetuated most of the myths regarding the American West that followed, many of which endure to this day. [15]

Audiences were thrilled to see Native Americans, cowboys performing roping, riding, and shooting feats of skill, and native animals like buffalo. Cody, who had served as a civilian scout in the U.S. Army and earned a Medal of Honor for bravery in 1872, insisted that the show was an accurate portrayal of life in the West. He included wildly popular renditions of attacks on frontier settlements and employed a dazzling array of sharpshooters and Native Americans that featured Annie Oakley and, for a few months in 1885, Sitting Bull (Figure 17.19). Oakley and Sitting Bull had met in Minnesota in 1884, and Sitting Bull became so impressed with the diminutive star that he adopted her as a daughter and named her “Little Sure Shot,” a name she used for the rest of her career. (Figure 17.20). Cody’s work made him world-famous and was echoed in countless newspapers and magazines before being picked up in the 20th century by television and film producers who made Westerns a staple of American entertainment. 

Figure 17.19: Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody in 1885 [16]​

Figure 17.20: Annie Oakley, the renowned shooting champion who became an international sensation performing with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Sitting Bull found her skills so amazing he ascribed them to supernatural powers. [17]


The impact that these Westerns have had on the popular understanding of the West is hard to measure but easy to understand. Virtually every American has seen film or television portrayals of cattle drives, Custer’s Last Stand, soldiers and Indians, evil cattle barons and wholesome farmers, and, of course, the heroic cowboy who battles injustice or the hazards of the elements and wins the love of a beautiful heroine. Almost all of those portrayals are rooted in actual events or meant to showcase life in a particular place or time, and the vast majority are inaccurate. They distort the past, shaping it into what we wish were true and in turn making us feel better about ourselves and making Hollywood or book publishers fortunes as a result. As the famous movie director John Ford once said when the historical accuracy of one of his movies about the U.S. Cavalry was contested, “Well, if that’s not the way it was, that’s the way it should have been.”

In the long run, most portrayals of the West aimed toward popular audiences show people what they want to see and tell them what they want to hear, and since the audiences are predominantly white and American, they celebrate the alleged successes and glories of the West while ignoring the more complicated and much darker truth (Figure 17.21). Regardless of what people actually understand, however, the West and the United States were forever changed by the events on the frontier after the Civil War. By the time the 20th century began, the United States boasted a diverse, booming economy that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and beyond and a people that believed nothing could or should stand in the way of their dreams of economic success. That, perhaps, is the real legacy of the West.

Figure 17.21: A huge mountain of buffalo skulls waiting to be ground up for fertilizing in the 1880s. The widespread slaughter of the bison, which suited settlers and helped defeat Native Americans on the Great Plains, is symbolic of the rapid, destructive manner in which the United States settled and developed the West. [18]

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 17.01

Class Discussion 17.01 - level 5

Discuss the importance of the railroad in settling the West, promoting domestic and international trade, and defeating Native Americans. Is it fair to say the railroad was the single most important factor in driving American conquest of the West? Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 17.01.

Class Discussion 17.02

Class Discussion 17.02 - Level 4

List the most memorable television programs or movies that you have seen that depict life in the West. Which western myths did they perpetuate? What images of the American West do you see in popular culture today? Why are they still so powerful?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 17.02.

Class Discussion 17.03

Class Discussion 17.03 - Level 2

Consider the impact of the mining industry in settling the West. Which mines or discoveries were most important in helping to bring new territories into the union? What were the legacies of mining?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 17.03.

Class Discussion 17.04

Class Discussion 17.04 - Level 4

Consider the reasons why cowboys and cattle drives became so important by the 1870s and why their role on the frontier diminished by 1890. Given the relatively brief period they were significant, how do you account for the cowboy being such an iconic image in American history and culture?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 17.04.

Class Discussion 17.05

Class Discussion 17.05 - Level 5

Discuss in broad terms the pattern of relations between Native Americans and settlers on the frontier between 1865 and 1890. Was there an alternative to the approach settlers and the government took to their dealings with native tribes that might have averted some of the bloodshed and war?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 17.05.

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Suggested Additional Material

Hine, Robert, and John Mack Farragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2000.

Hyde, Anne F. Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2012.

Warren, Louis S. Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show. New  York: Vintage, 2006.

Wooster, Robert. The American Military Frontiers: The United States Army in the West, 1783-1900. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 17.04

Native Americans supported the Confederacy for many reasons. Some were from the South and believed in slavery. Others hated the United States government and were happy to fight against it for any reason. Those that supported the Union because they thought the Confederacy could not win, or because they hated slavery, or because they had treaties with the United States they wanted to honor. Native Americans were also influenced by the decisions of their families and friends, fear of reprisals, and a host of other issues. Students who argue they would have supported one side or the other need to consider the complexity of their choice, and understand that families and friends were often split by those decisions.

Click here to return to Question 17.04.

Answer to Question 17.12

This one is often tough for students. The best answers will explain that most Americans believed at the time that paper money and coins needed to be backed up by an equal amount of gold or silver held by the government. Gold was in limited supply, which meant less paper money could be produced. That, in turn, made the money more valuable, which meant prices were higher. Silver had been used during and after the Civil War because the need for currency was so strong. It was more plentiful, meaning more money could be printed and in turn, prices could be lower. Poor people generally liked lower prices. Bankers and the wealthy generally liked them higher. Gold was more accepted internationally, and was seen as more stable. Those supporting a gold standard won the day when it became clear more silver mines in the U.S. would mean a flood of silver based currency. At the same time, the fact that Great Britain adopted the gold standard and was the leading economic power of the time influenced many Americans as well. So, in 1873 Congress adopted the gold standard. It was stable, and it attracted a great deal of international investment, which was good for the economy and good for the rich. However, the change meant less paper money and higher prices, which hurt the working poor. 

Click here to return to Question 17.12.

Answer to Question 17.14

Mining created enormous environmental destruction, from the digging of the mines to the diversion of rivers and streams to the pollution created when water was used to sort minerals from dirt. Students need to understand the vast scale of these operations. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water and dirt were sifted and then discarded, creating pollution that damaged and killed trees and wildlife. Fear of this sort of devastation led to the first protections of places like Yellowstone, along with fears of tourism, ranching, farming, and hunting. 

Click here to return to Question 17.14.

Answer to Question 17.15

This question is wide open. Ideally, students will hear and feel the sense of loneliness and isolation inherent in the West. If they can envision the song being sung around a campfire at night by sad, broken-hearted people with no telephones, no televisions, no internet, no e-mail, and no smart-phones, and thus no likelihood of seeing or hearing from their loved one after they leave, then so much the better.

Click here to return to Question 17.15.

Answer to Question 17.21

The missionaries meant to break Native American children of their dependence on traditional culture and replace it with a commitment to Christianity and the assumptions and values of the dominant white society. Zitkala-Sa’s story is complicated because her assimilation was traumatic and painful and driven by arrogance as much as by good intentions. And yet, she loved learning, loved the violin, and embraced some aspects of “American” or “modern” life. It’s hard to argue her experience as good, but students ought to at least see that it was complicated and contained elements of joy despite her hardships. 

Click here to return to Question 17.21.

Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 17.01

Students should be able to discuss the role the railroads played in moving settlers, transporting military equipment, stimulating trade between the west coast and the more settled eastern United States, helping drive overproduction of agriculture and livestock, determining the location of new towns, and promoting immigration.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 17.01.

Answer to Class Discussion 17.02

This is obviously a wide open question. Ideally, students will see myths regarding cowboys, farmers, railroad tycoons, ranchers, women, Native Americans, gun fights, mining, or some other aspect of the West in the television shows and movies they have watched, and recognize western images (cowboys, mountains, wilderness settings, etc.) in many types of advertising (political, car and truck sales, cigarettes, outdoors equipment, etc.), the names of sports teams, or even lines of clothing.

Click here to return to Class Discussion 17.02.

Answer to Class Discussion 17.03

Students should be able to mention Sutter’s Mill and the Comstock Lode along with the role they played in bringing California and Nevada into the union, the boom/bust cycle of mining towns, and the impact mining had on the environment and Native Americans

Click here to return to Class Discussion 17.03.

Answer to Class Discussion 17.04

Students should be able to discuss the demand for beef in eastern cities after the Civil War, the availability of land in south Texas and the profits cattle ranchers could make driving cattle to northern railheads, the movement of the railroads into Kansas, and the other factors that led to the cattle boom, then explain the ensuing overproduction of cattle and climate-related disasters that spelled the end of the boom by 1890. Their explanation of the reasons the cowboy became so iconic can be much more interpretive, but should touch on the mythology of the frontier man as a free, independent individualist and how that conflicts with the reality most cowboys faced as underpaid, overworked employees at the bottom of the wage scale working dangerous outdoor jobs that were subject to the vagaries of the economy and the weather

Click here to return to Class Discussion 17.04.

Answer to Class Discussion 17.05

Students should be able to talk about white population pressure and expansion, the railroads, farming, and the steady push of native peoples westward or on to reservations. They should also mention the impact of the mining and cattle industries on driving settlement, and the broken treaties that often characterized tribal dealings with the government. At the same time, they may mention the clash of cultures, Native American raids on frontier settlements, and the positive impact opening the frontier had on many poor and immigrant families. The goal is to get them to see the interplay on the frontier as complex. The discussion of alternative policies is obviously speculative. Students may argue that given the racism and greed of the period no alternative was realistic, or they may argue that the government should have been more patient, negotiated in good faith, and found ways to abide their treaties in the same way they generally did with foreign governments. There’s no single right answer there. The idea is to get them to accept that nothing is inevitable. People have choices and those choices have consequences.   

Click here to return to Class Discussion 17.05.

Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of Andrew J. Russell - Yale University Libraries in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[4] Image courtesy of Antique Bank Notes in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of T.H. O'Sullivan in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of  the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[7] Image courtesy of University of Houston Digital Library in the Public Domain.

[8] Image courtesy of the Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, vol.9, 1889, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office in the Public Domain.

[9] Image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum in the Public Domain {PD-US}.

[10] Image courtesy of Unknown in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division in the Public Domain. 

[12] Image courtesy of Joseph Keiley in the Public Domain. 

[13] Image courtesy of Zitkala-Sa in the Public Domain. 

[14] Image courtesy of Trager & Kuhn in the Public Domain {PD-US}.

[15] Image courtesy of  the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division in the Public Domain.

[16] Image courtesy of the United States Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[17] Image courtesy of Baker's Art Gallery in the Public Domain {PD-US}.

[18] Image courtesy of Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library in the Public Domain.