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Trans-Mississippi West, 1860-1890

Source: Library of Congress

What is now the United States has always had a West,dating back thousands of years to the initial settlements on the continent, but our concern is not with those Wests but with the West that has come to symbolize so much in US history, the mythical West, the West of "Cowboys and Indians". This was the Trans-Mississippi West between 1860 and 1890, the end of the continuous frontier according to historian Frederick Jackson Turner.1 Romantic myths about these thirty years have been the subjects of novels, movies, radio and television programs, tall tales, and other stories. These taught, erroneously, that violence among "whites", especially gunfighters was common, and the West, the "Wild West," was tamed by gun-toting cowboys. It wasn't. 2 The US Army subdued the Native Americans who resisted the invasion of and taking of their lands, but little effort has been given to portraying Native Americans as resisting unprovoked aggression. They lost and losers don't write history or create myths. The everyday myth of the West had had a profound influence on US life and, even, the imaginations of non-USers.

The Trans-Mississippi West differed from earlier "Wests" in that it was the frontier of an urban, industrial society instead of a rural, agrarian society. Thus, the contrast was striking. In years past, moving westward was mostly a change of locale not a dramatic change to different geographical variables. People, dissatisfied with their everyday lives could look westward and fantasize that life was simpler and better and more like "the good old days." Nostalgia is powerful. The geography of this West was more inhospitable-drier, more rugged, with few trees, and more extreme weather patterns. People had to endure more to survive on the openness of the Plains cut off from "civilization."

Essentially, this west was the Great Plains but with some land beyond the Plains. The Great Plains start in eastern North Dakota and extend to the Texas Panhandle. They stretch from the Mexican border north into Canada. As one moves from east to west across the Great Plains, they grow higher, drier, and less fertile. Because the vegetation was mostly short grass with almost no trees, people mistakenly think this land of gently rolling hills to be flat, for they can see for miles. This West also extends beyond the plains into the Rocky Mountains and its inter-mountain plateaus and into the Southwest, where there are true deserts.

For many years, the only people of European descent who visited or lived in this area were the Hispanics along the Santa Fe Trail or fur trappers, but that changed in 1859-1864 because gold was discovered. People flocked into present-day Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, and Arizona seeking get rich by mining gold; others went to live off the miners such as merchants, gamblers, thieves, and prostitutes. The merchants made more money than these miners, of course, for they would charge what the market would bear. When this surface mining petered out, some left but some stayed. Settlements needed the big mining companies with their abundant capital and technological skills to sink shafts into the ground and systematically extract the ore.

For mining and for any other enterprise in the this west, transportation was essential. Transportation is always essential for economic development, but transportation mechanisms were even more important in this vast, hostile region. By 1861, stage coaches and wagon trains were crisscrossing the area but they were limited in number, service, and scope. Even more limited was the famous Pony Express which could transport a letter from Independence, Missouri to San Francisco, California in ten days. However, parcels had to be very light for the relay riders to carry them and the cost was very high. The Express only lasted from 1859 to 1861, so it is a thing of legend and heroics, but it did point out that swifter means of communication were needed.

Railroads were the key to the settlement of this west. They were fast and they could transport heavy goods, such as ore, cheaply. The first transcontinental railroad was completed when the Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad met in 1869, having started in 1862 with mostly US government and some private funds. The nation was finally united and the national government could control it by sending an army across the rails very quickly. Moreover, telegraph lines went along the tracks, providing an even faster means of communication. Having been given alternate sections (a section is 640 acres) of land on each side of the track, the railroad companies found it expedient to encourage settlement so they could sell the land. A similar policy was followed for most transcontinental railroads. US citizens, in essence, paid for these railroads.In the 1880s, the Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroads were built. In 1893, the Great Northern Railroad was completed. These corporations developed the west using land agents and advertisements both in the United States in Europe. More land was settled because of their efforts than by any other means.

The invasion of settlers with their superior technology and numbers destroyed the culture and many of the people who had lived on the plains for centuries. Once immigrants themselves, they now faced a more powerful civilization which would push them into large concentration camps called reservations. Both sides could be bloody and commit atrocities, but the worst atrocity was the Sand Creek, Colorado Massacre of 1864 when Cheyenne men, women and children were killed and their bodies mutilated by the US Army while trying to surrender to it. The most serious opponents to US expansionism were the Sioux of the northern plains and the Apache of the Southwest. The Sioux wars began in Minnesota in 1862 and lasted until 1876, finally ending after they unsuccessfully tried to enforce the treaty with the US government which granted them the Black Hills of South Dakota in perpetuity. The US reneged because gold had been discovered. Although they beat an army led by George Armstrong Custer, they lost the war.A brief sketch of these wars is available online from the Smithsonian Institution's "Western Indian Wars". The US Army also has a history of this warfare in "Winning the West: The Army in the Indian Wars, 1865-1890", A group of young men broke out of the reservation and launched the Ghost Dance rebellion in 1890, but this was a minor upheaval. The Sioux way of life was doomed anyway for the buffalo was exterminated by the settlers and the basis of the Sioux economy was this mighty beast.

The Apache wars lasted until 1885 in part because the terrain was tougher and because of the effective leadership of their chief general, Gerˇnimo.

In 1887, the US government passed the Dawes Act, a measure designed to make yeomen farmers out of the American Indian. It extinguished tribal authority and tribal land ownership. The US could not tolerate communal land ownership no matter how old the practice was. Instead, the head of a family was given 160 acres to farm, an insufficient amount on the plains, and the land was held in trust for twenty-five years so unscrupulous people could not take advantage of these people who were being forced to learn a new way of life. By 1934, it was clear that the Dawes Act had failed and the Indian Reorganization Act was passed to repair some of the damage.

The open range cattle industry began before the buffalo herds were killed and the people of the plains put on reservations. The open range cattle industry was part of the dynamic US economy, meeting the demand for an ever-increasing meat supply by a population getting wealthier and more able to afford meat. Although surrounded by myth, it was simply a boom-bust episode. The cowboys, who were boys, not men, herded longhorn cattle which grazed on unoccupied grassland. They learned their trade from Mexicans, who had a long tradition of raising cattle in dry conditions. Ironically, the very American cowboy and his languageŚrodeo, lasso, hoosegow, etc.-are Mexican!

The Cattle market came into existence when the railroad reached Kansas in the 1860s. Cowboys would drive cattle 1500 miles to Sedalia, Missouri or Dodge City, Kansas, both rail heads, so they could be sold. The cattle lost much weight on these cattle drives. Crooked people would feed the cattle salt and then let them drink their fill just before selling them. Since they were sold by weight, this "watering of the stock" could yield extra profit if undetected. Another alternative, however, came to be driving them further to fatten them on the grasslands of Kansas or Nebraska, the Dakotas, or Wyoming.

Since the land was dry with little vegetation, the range land became overcrowded. Cattlemen's associations were formed to deal with the problem but, by the early 1880s, farmers, who fenced land with barbed wire, and vast flocks of sheep limited the open range. When blizzards struck in the winters of 1885-86 and 1886-87, millions of cattle froze or starved. Realizing that the open range system no longer worked, cattlemen turned to systematic fencing which also allowed them to genetically modified cattle with better meat.

Farmers won the battle of the this west. Between 1865 and 1895, more land was settled than in all of US history before that combined. Some farmers, but not that many, received land through the Homestead Act which granted 160 acres to the head of a family if the farm was cultivated for five years. In this west, however, almost no one could survive on 160 acres, which might have been sufficient in the east. So Congress passed additional land laws in an effort to help settlers and special interests. The Timber Culture Act (1873) allowed the farmer to get an additional 160 acres as long as 40 acres were planted with trees. Part of this was because some erroneously believed that planting trees would increase rainfall! The Desert Land Act (1877) sold 649 acres at twenty-five cents an acre with a three-year pay off period to prospective persons who would irrigate land . The Stone and Timber Act sold non-farm land at $2.50 an acre and proved very valuable to speculators and other non-farmers. Few farmers got land directly from one of these acts. They generally got it from intermediaries, particularly railroad companies.

When the farmers moved onto the Great Plains, they, unknowingly, did so during one of its wet cycles, a period of relatively greater rainfall. In 1887, there was the first of a series of dry summers. Many farmers went broke. Some left. Some demanded that the government help them.
The western myth has been that westerners were individualistic, competent, sincere, honest, straight-shooters, and quick to fight, but the reality is different. Westerners always asked for government aid-subsidies, cheap loans, cheap land, army protection, dams and irrigation works eventually, among other things. Crime existed in all sections of the nation and small communities policed each other whether they were in Texas or New York. Churches, schools, law enforcement were created as soon as possible. In general, the western myth was part of the agrarian myth, the belief that virtue only resides on farms or in small towns and villages and that cities are corrupting. Both myths argue that "common sense" is more important than education.

Neither myth is true. Country and Western music dwells on sexual and marital infidelities, double dealing, and drug abuse (alcohol is the most abused drug in the United States) because, as its devotees attest, it deals with life as it is. John Wayne became a political icon but, unlike many Hollywood stars, he avoided serving in World War II. He was very successful in portraying the mythical cowboy.

Why has the Western myth persisted? It has a long history. As this west was developing, people were becoming more literate and wealthier and could use their increased leisure time to read newspapers, magazines, and cheap western novels. These stories were rarely written by people with any direct experience with that west nor would the veracity of the stories ever be questioned, for few went to that part of the country. People wanted to believe that there was once a simpler, more honest time when men fought evil (often portrayed in terms of people like the Apache and the Sioux) and good triumphed over evil. The knight errant became a stock feature of Western fiction. Radio and cinema used stories of the West because they were popular and easy to tell. The good guys wore "white hats." Television adapted many radio programs, like "Gunsmoke," and broadcast them. Movies found Westerns a sure money maker.

The myth endures because people react to the complexities of modern life.


1Frederick Jackson Turner, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" (1893) had a great impact on the thinking of historians. Readers should consult PBS, "The West" by Ken Burns who explains his intent in "Interview With film maker Ken Burns," on HistoryNet. One should not accept Burn's views uncritically. See Stephen Aron, "The West as America: A Review of the Latest Ken Burns Documentary," September, 1996. Links to articles about the West are available at

2. "Old West Gunfights" lists the surprisingly few gunfights.