Friday, 9 December 2011

Ten Events That Shaped the West

Here's an article from True West Magazine, published in February 2007. It lists some of the events of the frontier era of American history which the author points to as helping to shape not only the country but also the identity of the American people.  It's disappointing, but not surprising, that the list focusses almost exclusively on events that reinforce the heroic myth of Manifest Destiny and western expansion.  The one exception is The Battle of Little Bighorn - but even here the author manages to give a sympathetic account of Custer's defeat: ‘…the weapons the soldiers were issued were single-shot Springfield trapdoors with copper casings that jammed, while many of the warriors had armed themselves with lever-action Winchesters.’  In effect what he’s saying is that the Indians, by being better armed, weren’t playing fair.  It makes a change, but I’m still not going to shed any tears over the 7th Cavalry, I’m afraid.
Gen. George Armstrong Custer

This article got me to thinking, so I’ve put together my own list of events which, through research for my dissertation, I believe had the greatest impact on the development of the West – for better or worse:
Removal of eastern tribes to lands west of the Mississippi

1. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 which doubled the size of United States lands overnight and gave purpose to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806. 
    2.  The Indian Removal Act of 1830 that set in motion the Trail of Tears, opening land for white farmers and transferring the country's first inhabitants (many of whom were also farmers) into marginal lands in the West.

A Forty-Niner
3.  The arrival of Christian missionaries in the West in the 1830s, seeding conflicts within tribes, and helping to destroy traditional culture.

4.  The California Gold Rush of 1849 which encouraged 300,000 people to head to the west coast to seek their fortunes. In just six years, the population of San Francisco increased from 200 inhabitants to 36,000. The influx of large numbers of immigrants had a devastating impact on the Native population. It is estimated that between 1845 and 1870, as many as 120,000 Indians – or four-fifths of the population – died as a direct result of the gold rush.

5.  The Indian Appropriations Act of 1851 which sought to confine Indians within reservations. 

6.  The near extermination of the buffalo in the 1870s, destroying a vital food source for Indian people throughout the central plains.
Fencing in the frontier

7.  The introduction of barbed wire in the mid-1870s. Barbed wire fencing was first marketed to farmers as an effective method for keeping cattle off of cultivated land. Cattlemen were initially opposed to its use because it stopped livestock from finding better grazing on open lands, but by the 1880s Texas ranchers used barbed wire to protect their land from overgrazing. With the arrival of the railroad, it was no longer necessary to move cattle to markets on long trail drives and by the 1890s, open ranges were a thing of the past.
Early Homesteaders

8.  The Dawes Act of 1887 further damaged traditional Indian life by allotting parcels of land to individual members of the tribe and encouraging private ownership and farming. The remaining ‘unassigned lands’ – often the majority of already reduced reservations – were then opened up to homesteaders.

9.  In 1892, the Johnson County War broke out in Wyoming after years of competition between small ranchers and 
Invaders, held at Fort D.A. Russell, 1892
wealthy cattlemen who grazed their livestock on public lands. After small ranchers were accused of cattle rustling, two dozen gunmen were brought in from Texas to protect the large ranching interests. Dubbed 'the Invaders,' the Texan mercenaries had already lynched a number of small ranchers when they and some of their supporters were trapped at the T.A. Ranch by the county sheriff and a posse of 200 men. During the ensuing stand off, the Wyoming Governor cabled President Harrison on behalf of the mercenaries, requesting he intervene to save them. Forty-five men were eventually rescued by the 6th cavalry and taken to Fort D.A. Russell to await trial. Charges were never filed against the 20 wealthy stockmen who were said to be behind the lynchings, however, and the men arrested at the T.A. Ranch were released on bail before disappearing into the woodwork. Comparisons with contemporary political and economic conflicts are easily made.
Oklahoma Land Rush 1889, by Xiang Zhang

10.  The various land runs in the West brought an influx of white farmers onto the grasslands. Good harvests over several years encouraged even more farmers onto more land, and over the years the use of modern machinery brought still more land into production. Poor farming methods, however, destroyed the soil's natural resilience, and led to severe erosion. When the drought began in 1930, crops failed and, without vegetation to hold it in place, the land was exposed to further erosion by the wind. In parts of Oklahoma, as much as 75% of the topsoil was lost in dust storms between 1930 and 1940.

South Dakota, 1936


Thomas Durwood said...

This is really good!! I have always accepted the Louis L'Amour version of Western history as more or less gospel.

I am teaching a course on Empire and Literature, and this is very useful.

Thanks for posting --

Tom Durwood
Valley Forge, PA

Loree Westron said...

Thanks for your comments, Tom. Glad you've found something useful here! And good luck with your course. It sounds interesting.