the west
map west

America in 1860. In 1860 the settled eastern portion of the United States reached to the region that bordered on the Mississippi River along with Texas. On the far side of the continent lay the states of California and Oregon. The vast area in between included the Great Plains, the Southwestern desert and the Rocky Mountains, soon to become the last frontier of America. Native American tribes populated the region, including the Sioux, Blackfoot, Pawnee, Apache, Navajo, Nez Perce, Cheyenne and many others. Unlike the rich, lush farmland in the eastern part of the United States, the Great Plains stretched for mile upon mile with barely a tree in sight and low annual rainfall that often left the land dry and parched. In the Rockies deposits of silver, copper, gold, lead and other minerals were waiting to be exploited. By the end of the Civil War the state of Kansas poked into the West and Nevada had been admitted in 1864, but the rest of the territory was but sparsely settled. That would soon change.

Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”: In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner gave an address to the World Congress of Historians in Chicago with the title, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In that important address he put forth what has become known as the “frontier thesis.” His essential idea was that through repeated exposure to the frontier experiences, dating from the time of the arrival of the first English settlers, Americans have been exposed to conditions which encouraged the development and growth of democratic ideas. This contact with what were often primitive conditions also generated certain kinds of traits in Americans—a willingness to take risks, energy, a practical rather than theoretical turn of mind, and a sense of self-reliance and rugged individualism. Having survived these frontier experiences, Americans also developed a high degree of self-confidence and a powerful belief in their own destiny as a people and a nation.

Although critics have dissected Turner’s ideas, which he elaborated in later writings, they may easily be connected with other ideas about the nature of American society. They share much in common with works such as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and with emerging 19th century philosophies such as “manifest destiny.” By itself the frontier thesis cannot explain “Americanism” in any definitive way; taken together with other historical theories, however, it does make some sense. The vast extent of territory between the Atlantic and Pacific, the natural resources, the constant fighting with Indians and the isolation from most international struggles until the beginning of the 20th century all contributed to what can be defined as the American character. Like most generalizations, though, such terms must be used with caution.

In any case, when the Civil War had ended, Americans did go west in great numbers. They went in search of gold and silver or other mineral riches, of land, space and opportunity. While some travelers came from families who had been here for generations, others were immigrants who passed quickly through teeming eastern cities and found themselves in the Rocky Mountains or the Great Plains, often gathering within close-knit ethnic communities of Germans, Swedes or Poles.

oregon trailThat view of the West has a certain vitality and charm—brave pioneers facing the elements with only what they could carry in a covered wagon; but it also has an ugly side: gross and careless exploitation of resources, or the driving of Indians who had lived in western areas for centuries onto reservations often hundreds of miles from their native soil. That rugged American individualism, which so many have admired, has also led from time to time to less-than-admirable behaviors: a certain degree of lawlessness, a don’t-give-a-damn self-centeredness and a healthy contempt for even legitimate authority.

For good or ill, the pioneers came, they saw and they conquered. They plowed and farmed and built and mined and hunted. They brought millions of acres of what was once thought to be desert land into cultivation. They hammered down thousands of miles of railroad track and discovered passes through the formidable mountain ranges. They constructed villages, towns and cities in areas that had been virtually uninhabited as far back as one could trace. Those settlements provided what some have called a kind of safety valve for the often squalid conditions in the eastern factories and cities. America, it has been said, had only one revolution (unless one counts the Civil War) because a necessary ingredient of revolution is discontent, and Americans who were discontented could always go somewhere else—in most cases without even thinking about leaving their country.

All of those factors outlined above were a powerful force in the late 19th century. Yet they combined with another, perhaps even more powerful force, the second industrial revolution. The two phenomena—the frontier and the boom in industry—complemented and fed off one another. Industry helped build the railroads, tamed the Great Plains for farmers and ranchers and provided the tools they needed to survive in great numbers. The west provided space and resources—space for those who became weary of the drudgery of the factory and resources in the form of raw materials industrial production. Together these elements transformed the country from a rich, vibrant, but in many ways naïve and innocent country into the most powerful industrial force on the planet. The United States has more or less continuously maintained that position into the 21st century.

Cowboys and Farmers: Farming on the frontier was challenging to men and women accustomed to rich land, plentiful rainfall and close-knit communities such as existed in the Ohio, Hudson, Susquehanna, Tennessee, Cumberland and other eastern river valleys. The Plains by contrast were flat, dry, treeless and immense. The wind that blew across the prairies was often seen and felt as a ghostlike thing, a spirit that sometimes drove people mad. Water was as valuable for some as gold, and frequently fought over.

WesternersThe fact of life about farming and ranching in the West was that while land was plentiful, water was scarce, and the competition for resources often degenerated into violence. The value of cattle depended upon the ability of the rancher to get his herd to market, which often meant driving them hundreds of miles over open plains to get to the nearest railhead. Abilene, Kansas, became one of the first towns developed as a center for the shipment of cattle. Its developer, Jesse Chisholm, introduced the enterprise to Abilene and sent scouts out to attract ranchers, thus giving rise to the famous Chisholm Trail.

Farmers seeking to protect their crops against large herds of cattle soon discovered the new invention of barbed wire, which they began stringing across the plains to protect their crops and their water. Cattlemen often found themselves in conflict with farmers as their movements over range lands became more restricted. In addition, cattleman themselves began wiring off their ranges, and the competition for space led to wire cutting, rustling and other practices that often degenerated into violence. The resulting “barbed wire wars” sometimes had to be broken up by United States cavalry.

All the same, the cowboy was an institution in Western life. Thousands of them, many of Mexican or African-American descent, raised herds of cattle on the plains. Instead of being a romantic saga as often depicted in books and films, the life of a cattleman, as well as that of a farmer, was often dull and tedious. Driving a large herd to a railhead in Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas, meant spending days in the saddle. They rode along behind herds of animals that raised dust and had to be constantly controlled, sleeping under the stars and riding through rain and storms. It is little wonder that when the cowboys arrived at their destination and received their payoff they were ready for some excitement in the dance halls and saloons.

Frontier towns like Tombstone or Virginia City were not as wild and wooly nor as romantic as they are often portrayed by Hollywood. Nonetheless, events such as the famous “gunfight at OK Corral” really did happen. In the absence of reliable law enforcement agencies, frontier settlers owned and carried guns, to be sure, and women as well as men knew how to use them. But Saturday nights on the frontier were as likely to be dominated by church socials, dances, or meetings at which political issues were discussed (along with the prospects for rain) as by drunken cowboys rampaging in the streets shooting everything in sight. As soon as they were ready, these western settlements applied for territorial status and then statehood, and by 1912 the “lower 48” were all in the Union. (Hawaii and Alaska became states in 1959.)

Admission of Western States

North Dakota
South Dakota
Montana Washington
New Mexico

October 31, 1864
March 1, 1867
August 1, 1876
November 2, 1889
November 2, 1889
November 8, 1889
November 11, 1889
July 3, 1890
July 10, 1890
January 4, 1896
November 16, 1907
January 6, 1912
February 14, 1912

Admission Politics. When important decisions regarding the state of the country are made, politics always play a part. As with most such issues, the big question regarding admission of new states was the impact new additions would have on the major national parties. Among the issues were the political makeup of territorial populations, their voting tendencies and governments; the impact of silver mining in the mountain states, which would in turn affect national currency issues; the impact of new state electoral votes at a time when the two parties were essentially stalemated; competition for railroad routes; and such additional issues as the fact that western territories had taken the lead in allowing women to vote (Wyoming was the first, in 1869.) The bottom line was that the admission of any new state would likely upset the political balance of power. Looking at the chart, one can readily see that the election of Republican President Benjamin Harrison in 1888 led to the admission of four new (Republican) states in 1889. It is worth noting that although Harrison defeated incumbent President Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College, he lost the popular vote by a narrow margin. Another example shows that in 1912 Republicans attempted to block the admission of Arizona because the territorial legislature was controlled by Democrats.


indian story

Cowboys and Indians. Of all the tragedies that have befallen America, from slavery to debacles in foreign policy, none is perhaps as relentlessly sad as the plight of the Indians. In 1860 the territory west of the Mississippi contained 60% of America’s land but only 4% of the population. Some 250,000 Indians roamed the Great Plains or lived in settled communities in that area. Before the Civil War they were able to stave off some of the advance of the white man, or at least to keep certain areas to themselves; but once the Civil War ended, the great land rush began to overwhelm them.

indian villageThe history of the interaction between Indians and whites began with Columbus. The story is a long, tragic tale of duplicity, greed, relentless shoving, land grabs, insensitivity, xenophobia and ultimately genocide. The Indians were not without their admirers and defenders, but even “humanitarian” plans to assist Indians often backfired by giving them what they did not want or need. The Indians could have defended themselves, and often tried to do so. Yet they were unable to unify because of their cultural diversity, and thus were divided and conquered. Europeans and Americans made many mistakes in dealing with Indians. They never fully understood the Indians, and many whites still don’t to this day.

First, whites never understood the complexity and diversity of Indian life and culture. There were hundreds of tribes in North America. They differed more from each other in many cases than did the various ethnic groups that came to America from Europe. Second, whites never fully understood the Indians’ relationship to the land. For many Indians the concept of land “ownership” was foreign or even profane. Indians felt land was there for use, not abuse (although some tribes practiced “slash and burn” agriculture.) They might fight over the use of a piece of land, but not over permanent ownership. Unlimited right of occupancy is not the same thing as sovereignty, a concept alien to Indian thinking.

The building of the transcontinental railroads and their branches was the beginning of the end for the Indians’ way of life. By 1900 they had been reduced to often pitiful relics of a once free and proud people. What happened was not unavoidable, but there was a certain inevitability about the tragedy stemming from cultural insensitivity. Misunderstanding and error existed on both sides, and although the moral claim against the white settlers and the government is strong and irrefutable, the Indians managed at times to make things worse for themselves. That is not to say in any way that the Indians were responsible for what happened—they were victims by any definition—but if they had been more clever, or perceptive, or if they had put aside inter-tribal animosities and organized themselves, they might have been able to reduce the damage. The Indians have told their own story—sadly and eloquently—but perhaps the best thing that can be said about the history of the American Indian is that it is not yet over. (See Indian Stories, Appendix.)

Indian warfare operated under different rules from those of Europe, and that created further misunderstanding and hatred. Indians were hard fighters who felt that a brave enemy was a worthy opponent, and that those who could withstand pain were the bravest of all. That aspect in Indian fighting often struck the Europeans as torture. Captured enemy warriors were “allowed” to die in painful ways in order to demonstrate their courage. Further, the wearing of enemy clothing was for Indians a sign of respect, but it was seen by American soldiers as a sign of contempt or mockery when Indians donned the uniforms of captured or slain U.S. Army troops or officers.

Capturing enemy women and children was a method Indians sometimes used to increase their own tribes, a practice they felt necessary as a result of losses from warfare or disease. Paradoxically, Indians loved children, but often kidnapped them. Captured women, including whites, were often welcomed into the tribe as brothers or sisters and were generally treated kindly.

Trying to convert Indians to agriculture was often a failure. Many Indian males considered farming women’s work, and refused to do it. (That fact also made Indians in colonial times quite useless as slaves; they were quick to escape and difficult to recover.) Those who tried farming, for example, were scorned and even attacked by others. In one case when government agents tried to teach a tribe how to plow up the ground in order to plant crops, the Indians rejected the advice. The tribe worshiped the earth, and their leaders responded, “Would I stick a knife in my mother’s breast?” The agent tried another tack by suggesting burning off the surface grass before planting. To that suggestion the Indians responded, “Would we set fire to our mother’s hair?”

Many attempts were made to convert Indians to Christianity, sometimes with apparent success. But in the end, as one historian of Indian culture has said, it is very difficult to convert Indians into anything other than Indians!

Just as Indians have been called “Americanizers” of the European settlers, so were the Indians profoundly changed by their contact with whites. The four factors introduced by whites that most influenced the Indians were:

  • Disease: The arrival of the Europeans meant the arrival of diseases to which the Indians had not developed immunity. The results were devastating.
  • Horses: The Spaniards introduced the horse to the Indians, and one historian has called it “a marriage made in heaven.” The horse transformed the life of the Plains Indians in much the same way that the automobile changed modern people’s lives.
  • Guns: The bow and arrow in the hands of an Indian brave was a powerful weapon—an Indian hunter could drive an arrow through the thick body of a buffalo while riding rapidly across the prairie. But rifles could shoot farther and do more damage, and Indians got them whenever and wherever they could.
  • Whiskey: Indians did not know how to handle whiskey, and the spread of alcoholism among Indian males is a problem that has persisted into modern times.

None of those were necessarily deliberately introduced to hurt or help Indians, except for alcohol. American “diplomacy,” however, was deliberate. It failed by treating Indian tribes as if they were sovereign, European-style nations. Chiefs were not “political” leaders in the sense that presidents and kings are political leaders. True, they often followed quasi-democratic processes in electing chiefs or sachems, but the chiefs did not have the power (nor the right, perhaps) to sign treaties that bound all the members of their tribes. Even if they wanted to, Indian chiefs who signed treaties could not enforce them, nor could they control all their members, any more than the U.S. government could keep miners and settlers off the reservations. Because they were an additional obstacle to further white migration, the Native Americans lost their lands despite their attempts to defend it, and their cultures were radically changed by the end of the 19th century. By 1867 many of the nearly a quarter of a million Indians in the western half of the U.S. were originally from the East, displaced by relentless waves of settlers. Others were native to the region, with cultures suited to their environments. By the 1880s, confrontations with still more white settlers had driven the Indians onto increasingly smaller reservations, and diseases introduced by whites had decimated the California Indians and others. By the 1890s the Indian cultures had crumbled.

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce (Indian name Nimi'ipuu) were a peaceful tribe. Although they considered themselves warriors, they did not practice scalping. They lived in northern Idaho and sometimes functioned as intermediaries between western coastal tribes and prairie Indians. They had very strong feelings of attachment to their land, which included the belief that cultivating the earth was wrong. When pressured to move, they refused to give up their territory in Idaho. An old Nez Perce chief named Joseph had a son named Chief Thunder Rolling in the Mountain. who became Young Chief Joseph. One of the most dignified Americans ever, he was a wise and gentle man. When one of his braves was murdered, Joseph pronounced a “life” sentence on the murderer; that is, he pardoned the enemy brave, who would otherwise have been killed.

An early treaty had awarded the Wallowa Valley to the government, but Young Joseph did not want to leave. He had thousands of horses, which equated to wealth, and there was no room for them on the reservation. Joseph agreed to leave the reservation, but hundreds of his horses were stolen, and in retaliation, 18 whites were killed. Joseph turned out to be a prodigious fighter who was pursued by General O. O. Howard. Joseph finally decided to lead his band to Canada, and fought his way over 1000 “mountain miles.” Joseph’s chiefs included Looking Glass, White Bird and Ta Hool Hool Shute. Although the Nez Perce fought with great skill, they were finally obliged to surrender about 30 miles from the Canadian border. Finally willing to stop fighting, Joseph made a speech that was recorded by an Army officer in General Howard’s command.


Chief Joseph’s Speech

“Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. Ta Hool Hool Shute who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have some time to look for my children, and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph
Smithsonian Institution

nez perce flag

Today the population of the Nez Perce tribe is approximately 3,400. The tribal reservation is located in Lapwai, Idaho. You can find information about the Nez Perce on their website (, as you can for hundreds of other Native American tribes as well.

On the Nez Perce tribal reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, the tribe has developed a new breed of horse in recent years, a cross between an appaloosa mare and a rare central Asian breed.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull in 1878

Little Bighorn. In 1876 one of the most famous Indian battles took place along the Little Bighorn River in Montana. Colonel George Armstrong Custer attacked a band of Sioux Indians under Chief Sitting Bull, not realizing that he was badly outnumbered. Custer had divided his command into three groups, and his 210 troops of the 7th Cavalry became isolated. They were overrun by a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. Custer and all of his men were killed in one of the worst defeats in the history of the U.S. Army. For years the Indian side of the battle was not well known, and the historic site was known as the Custer Battlefield. The story was passed down orally among Sioux and Cheyenne tribesman, however, and in 1996 the National Park Service, recognizing the need to honor Native American history, changed the name of the site of the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Today visitors to the site can hear stories told by Native Americans as part of the presentations of the historic event.

Three excellent books on the epic battle:

  • Son of the Morning Star: Custer and The Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell
  • Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen E. Ambrose
  • Sitting Bull: The Life and Times of an American Patriot by Robert M. Utley
Chronological Summary of the Native American Story


Whites outnumber Indians by 20 million (mostly east of the Mississippi) to about 360,000. By now the idea of a well-defined reservation is accepted, but railroads cut into reservation territory. Gold rushes also put whites and Indians into conflict, as do growing numbers of immigrants who cross the Atlantic by steamship.


Great Council at Fort Laramie arranged by Thomas Fitzpatrick (Broken Hand). Attended by 8-12,000 Indians—Shoshone, Sioux, Crow, Arikara, Assiniboins, Arapahoes, etc. Twenty days of meetings. Indians warned not to attack settlers on Oregon Trail, avoid fights with each other. U.S. will maintain forts along the trail and provide $50,000 per year in food, etc. Chiefs accept boundaries and promise to be tolerant of settlers, but then the gold rush gears up.


Ft. Benton Conference. When peace is urged, Chiefs say young braves need to fight to demonstrate heroism. Hunting tribes asked to become farmers—they say it won't work. Blackfoot Treaty is the result.


Civil War. The Five Civilized Tribes join the Confederacy (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole.) The Indians confuse the issues of war somewhat, are apt to change sides, shoot prisoners, etc. They pay a price after the war. During the Civil War Indian policy is run by the military.


The Sand Creek Massacre by Colorado militia led by Colonel John Chivington, a Methodist minister. The Colorado Third Regiment is organized to fight for the Union, but Colorado settlers are being bothered by bands of Cheyenne, Arapahoes and Utes. The Fort Wise Treaty is signed, but the Indians later complain of abuse by settlers—horse stealing, etc. Indians approach army for relief, but get none and go on warpath. Chivington’s expedition is deliberately punitive, one of the ghastliest of the whole period. The Cheyennes under Black Kettle try to negotiate, but Colorado governor declares state of war. Cheyennes told to wait at Sand Creek. Guides tell Chivington to use discretion, but he attacks; Indians show great bravery, but 450 are killed, including women and children, all under a flag of truce. Charles Bent, a Cheyenne, spends the rest of his life hunting down, torturing and killing whites. Chivington later shows off his collection of 1,000 scalps in Denver.


Radicals in Congress try to resolve Indian question fairly. Reformers, many of them former abolitionists, see Indians as "noble savages" and reservations as "prisons" into which civilization cannot penetrate. Others feel Indians can be assimilated like other nationalities. But a majority of Americans feel a reservation policy is the only feasible solution. Regional attitudes toward Indians differ. Westerners just see the savage and are furious at "the foolishly sentimental attitude of eastern reformers." They have seen Indian barbarity first hand—stripping bodies, torture, rape, kidnapping children. Easterners do not blame Indians alone.


The Fetterman massacre. Fort Kearney is built on the Bozeman Trail to protect it. Red Cloud attacks wood gathering parties to lure soldiers out of the fort. When 80 soldiers under Captain Fetterman chase the raiding Indians they are surrounded by 2000 Sioux, and all are killed.


Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, Cheyenne accept lands in Oklahoma. Sioux agree to live in Black Hills, which they consider sacred. Congress publishes "Report on the Condition of the Indian Tribes," which leads to creation of the Indian Peace Commission. The Commission undercuts the Army. There is also much debate over whether the Indian Bureau is to be in the Interior Department or the Army.


Nine million buffalo are killed by white hunters for furs, trophies. Carcasses left to rot after valuable parts removed. Piles of buffalo skins hundreds of yards long are stacked next to railroad pickup locations.


Red Cloud and Red Dog make speeches at the Grand Opera House in NYC. Other visits follow—much support gained for reforms in Indian affairs.
Great movement to civilize and Christianize the Indians, but that is not what they want. The meetings are "dramatic, absurd and heartbreaking." The Indians want, for example, the railroad building to be stopped. Stone Calf in Boston said: "Stop at once the progress of the railroads . . . " No chance that will happen.


Modoc Wars in California. The Modocs have been shuttled to many reservations. They rebel and fight out of lava beds. Modoc Chief Kintpuash (Captain Jack) kills many soldiers, including a peace commissioner and General Canby; Kintpuash then wears Canby's uniform. Kintpuash is hanged after artillery drives Indians out of village. Commissioner Meachem, who was left for dead, later speaks in Boston.


Red River War. General Philip Sheridan uses convergence tactics to scatter Southwest Indians; terms reached in 1875.


The Great Sioux War. After forts destroyed, new one to be built in Black Hills by Custer's command. Their discovery of gold triggers a new rush by settlers.


Battle of the Little Big Horn. Custer's 250 against 2500. Indians fail to capitalize on victory, scatter. Sitting Bull escapes to continue the Indian wars. After the Great Sioux War virtually all the Indians are gathered in Indian Territory (Oklahoma.) By 1879 President Hayes announces that the policy is to Americanize all Indians, thus eliminating the need for reservations.


Utes give up land in Western Colorado.


Indians have 155 million acres of land for about 190,000 Indians. By 1900 it is down to 84 million acres.


Supreme Court says Indians are not citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.


Capture of Geronimo, a Chiricahua Apache. He had continued to cause trouble in the Southwest.


The Dawes Severalty Act: Meant to introduce Indians to individual land culture. "Disastrous" results. Communal land stifles self-improvement, it is thought. Indians given 160-acre lots, supposedly protected for 25 years by the government. Fifty years later 2/3 of Dawes land grants owned by whites.


Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Paiute shaman Wovoka practices mysticism, teaches the ghost dance, calls himself the Indian messiah, promises to lead Indians out of bondage and says whites will be destroyed. As movement spreads, white fear grows. Sitting Bull arrested and killed. Soldiers surround Indian camp, shooting breaks out and over 300 Indians are killed, including women and children.


Citizenship extended to the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma: Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole.


Burke Act. Indians can be instant citizens when they “voluntarily take up a residence separate and apart from any tribe of Indians therein and adopt the habits of civilized life.”


Indians lose 86 million acres of land.


Two million Indians exist in the U.S., 7 million Americans claim to have Indian blood.

Today the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs provides various services directly or through contracts, grants, or compacts to 562 Federally recognized Indian tribes who have a population of about 1.9 million American Indian and Alaska Natives. (

Reading about Indians | Native American Web Sites

Gilded Age Home | Updated July 26, 2014