spacer



spacer
 

, . " "
USHISTORY.RU



Current R., Williams T. H., Freidel F., Brinkley A. American History: a survey. 7th edition; New York, 1987.


 

PART FIVE. Progress and Its Discontents, 1877-1920

America's industrial revolution had begun well before the Civil War, and by the end of Reconstruction it was already far advanced. But it was in the last thirty years of the nineteenth century that the revolution came of age. During these decades, the United States transformed itself from a predominantly rural, agrarian society into a highly industrialized, urbanized one. It moved from a position of relative unimportance in world affairs to that of a major international power. It changed from a fragmented, largely provincial society into an increasingly centralized and consolidated one. It became a modern nation.

It became, too, a nation with a sharply divided view of itself and its future. On the one hand, most Americans took pride in their country's remarkable economic growth, in its great technological advances, in its enhanced world power. They had good reason to do so. The United States by 1900 was the leading industrial nation on earth, and the potential of its economy seemed virtually unlimited. Its natural resources were plentiful. Its labor supply was large and growing. Its technological and administrative capacities were becoming more and more sophisticated. The nation was, its people sensed, on the eve of an era of unbounded prosperity.

But the last years of the nineteenth century also gave Americans reason for alarm. For along with the undoubted benefits of economic growth had come great costs: crowded cities, concentrations of power, disparities of wealth, political corruption, and general instability. Nor had economic growth done very much to solve some of the nation's oldest problems. Large segments of the populationblacks, Indians, many members of the industrial work force, major immigrant groups, most womenwere finding themselves excluded from the fruits of industrial progress just as they had often found themselves excluded from the mainstream of national life in the past. Entire regions of the countrythe South and much of the West, both of which remained primarily agriculturalsimilarly did not much share in the nation's prosperity and at times seethed with discontent. These and other problems combined in the 1890s to produce a series of wrenching social and economic crises.

In the course of that turbulent decade, the nation experienced upheavals in one area of society after another. Industrial workers rose up in several notable, and occasionally violent, protests to challenge the labor system that they believed oppressed them. Farmers in the West and the South, both white and black, organized a great political movementknown as populismin opposition to financial and social institutions that they considered exploitive and dangerous. And Americans of all regions and all classes suffered from the effects of a great economic depression, the worst in the nation's history to that point, which called into question many of the optimistic assumptions that had fueled the industrial growth of the previous two decades.

The crises of the 1890s seemed to confirm what many Americans had been saying for years: that industrialization had brought not only progress but chaos and injustice; that the nation must reshape itself to deal with the problems its new economy had created. Out of this perceived need for reform emerged a wide-ranging effort to produce new institutions and procedures that might bring order and justice to American societyan effort that won for the first years of the twentieth century the label the "progressive era."

Progressivism was perhaps most clearly visible in the dramatic political battles of the period, which produced far-reaching changes in the nature of government at every level and elevated the federal government to a position of new importance. But the reform impulse touched far more than politics. It reached out into virtually every area and every segment of society: business, the professions, the arts, education, racial minorities, women, and others. By the time the nation entered World War I, the effects of progressivism had become so pervasive, many of its impulses so absorbed into the fabric of national life, that it was no longer a movement so much as a description of the social outlook of vast numbers of Americans. And while the war took its toll on some strands of progressive thought, it helped others to survive and grow stronger. In the years following the fighting, the United States would embark on a series of new experiments in reform that would rest in large part on the progressive legacy.

Chapter 16. The New South and the Last West

Much of the United States in the years following Reconstruction was preoccupied with the expansion and development of an already advanced urban-industrial society. In two regions of America, however, the experience was quite different. In the South, the first region of the country to have been settled by Europeans, and in the West, the last such region, the late nineteenth century was a time of new beginnings. It also became a period of decline relative to the rest of the nationa decline that would ultimately produce in both regions major social and political upheavals.

The South, recovering from a disastrous war and confronting once again the reality of an economy far less developed than that of the North, faced several choices in the years after Reconstruction. It could attempt to transform itself into a modern, industrial region able to compete effectively with its former enemy. Or it could attempt to rebuild its agrarian economy and restore some semblance of the comfortable stability that many white Southerners had so valued in their civilization before the Civil War. In fact, the South attempted to do both. Substantial groups of white Southerners set out to promote the modern economic development of their region, to imitate Northern ways, even occasionally to elevate the status of blacksto build what they liked to call a New South. Their efforts were not without result. But despite substantial progress in certain areas, the South remained at the end of the century what it had long been: an impoverished, primarily agricultural region, far behind the North in the development of commerce and industry. The failure was a result in part of economic obstacles over which the region had little control; but it was a result, too, of the determination of the vast majority of white Southerners to protect the supremacy of their racea determination that often came to overshadow all efforts at reform. For the new Westthe areas beyond the Mississippi River, most of which had remained unsettled or sparsely settled by white Americans in the years before the Civil Warthe late nineteenth century was a time of dramatic growth and development. White settlers (and some blacks) now poured into the regiona region larger than all the previously settled area of America combined. And they established there a new civilization of farms, ranches, mining operations, and more. It was a civilization that had much in common with the older regions of the United States, but one that took on a distinctive character of its own. The conquest of the West was in part the story of a courageous struggle against imposing natural obstacles. It was also the story of a brutal assault against the Indian tribes of the region, who were once again disrupted and ultimately displaced by the onward march of white society.

The South in Transition

The Compromise of 1877the agreement between Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans that helped settle the disputed election of 1876was supposed to be the first step toward developing a stable, permanent Republican party in the South. In that respect, at least, it failed. In the years following the

end of Reconstruction, white Southerners began to establish the Democratic party as the only viable political organization for the region's whites. And they created a social system that, for all its differences from the system of the antebellum period, concentrated most political and economic power in the hands of a powerful white aristocracy. Slowly but systematically, the white leadership excluded black Southerners from any meaningful access to power or influence in the region. The New South was indeed new in some respects; but in others, it was distinctly familiar.

The "Redeemers"

By the end of 1877after the last withdrawal of federal troopsevery Southern state government had been "redeemed." That is, political power had been restored to white Democrats. Many Southerners rejoiced at the restoration of what they liked to call "home rule." In fact, political power in the region was soon more restricted than at any time since the Civil War. Once again, the South fell under the control of a powerful, conservative oligarchy, whose members were known variously as the "Redeemers" or the "Bourbons."

This post-Reconstruction ruling class was in some areas of the South much the same as the ruling class of the antebellum period. In Alabama, for example, the old planter elitedespite challenges from new merchant and industrial forcesretained much of its former power and continued largely to dominate the state for decades. In other areas, however, the Redeemers constituted a genuinely new class. Merchants, industrialists, railroad developers, financierssome of them former planters, some of them Northern immigrants who had become absorbed into the region's life, some of them ambitious, upwardly mobile white Southerners from the region's lower social tierscombined a commitment to "home rule" and social conservatism with a commitment to economic development.

Whatever their differences, the various Bourbon governments of the New South behaved in many respects quite similarly. Although one of the most heated conservative criticisms of the Reconstruction governments had been that they had fostered widespread corruption, the Redeemer regimes were, if anything, even more awash in graft, fraud, and waste. (In this, they were little different from governments in every region of the country.) Virtually all the new Democratic regimes, moreover, adopted policies of lowered taxation, reduced spending, and drastically diminished state services. The carpetbag governments of Reconstruction, they complained, had saddled the South with huge debts. (In fact, some of the debt predated the Civil War.) It was the duty of the new leaders, therefore, to put the region back on a sound financial footing. Many of the most valuable accomplishments of Reconstruction were now dismantled. In one state after another, for example, state support for public school systems was reduced or eliminated. "Schools are not a necessity," commented a governor of Virginia.

The rule of the Bourbon oligarchies was not unchallenged. By the late 1870s, powerful dissenting groups were protesting the cuts in services. Even more, they were denouncing the commitment of their present governments to paying off the prewar and Reconstruction debts in full, at the original (usually high) rates of interest. In Virginia, for example, a vigorous "Readjuster" movement emerged, demanding that the state revise its debt payment procedures so as to make more money available for state services. In 1879, the Readjusters won control of the legislature; and in the next few years they captured the governorship and a U. S. Senate seat. In other states, similar protests emerged. There were demands for greenbacks and for other economic reforms, as well as for debt readjustments. (A few such independent movements included significant numbers of blacks in their ranks, but all consisted primarily of lower-income whites.) For a moment, at least, it seemed as though Southern politics was to become genuinely competitive. But the dissident uprising proved only temporary. By the mid-1880s, conservative Southernerslargely by exploiting racial prejudicehad effectively destroyed the Readjusters and other such movements. It would be several years before a new challenge to the power of the Bourbons would arise.

Whites and the New South

The fondest dream of some Southern leaders in the post-Reconstruction era was to see their region become the home of a vigorous industrial economy. The South had lost the war, many now argued, because its economy had been unable to compete with the modernized manufacturing capacity of the North. The region's task, therefore, must now be to "out-Yankee the Yankees." Influential spokesmenmost prominent among them Henry Grady, editor of the Atlanta Constitutionespoused a new Southern "creed," one that preached the virtues of thrift, industry, and progress: the same qualities that prewar Southerners had so often denounced in Northern society. "We have sown towns and cities in the place of theories," Grady boasted to a New England audience in the 1880s, "and put business above politics. . . . We have fallen in love with work."

Such boasts were not without merit. Southern industry expanded dramatically in the years after Reconstruction and became a more important part of the region's economy than ever before. Most visible was the growth in textile manufacturing. In the past, Southern cotton had usually been shipped out of the region to manufacturers in the North or in Europe, Now, textile factories appeared in the South itself. The number of spindles in the region increased 900 percent in the last twenty years of the century. The tobacco processing industry, similarly, established an important foothold in the regionlargely through the work of James B. Duke of North Carolina, whose American Tobacco Company became for a time a virtual monopoly in the processing of raw tobacco into marketable smoking materials. In the lower Southand particularly in Alabamathe iron (and, later, steel) industry expanded rapidly. The city of Birmingham grew within a decade from modest beginnings to become a major center of pig iron processing. By 1890, the Southern iron and steel industry represented nearly a fifth of the nation's total capacity.

And the South made important progress as well toward remedying one of its greatest economic problems: its obsolete transportation system. Railroad development increased substantially in the post-Reconstruction yearsat a rate far greater than that of the nation at large. Between 1880 and 1890, the total miles of track in the region more than doubled. And the South took a giant step toward integrating its transportation system with that of the rest of the country when, in 1886, it changed the gauge (width) of its trackage to correspond with the stan dards of the North. No longer would it be necessary for cargoes heading into the South to be transferred from one train to another at the borders of the region.

Yet Southern industry developed within strict limits, and its effects on the region were never even remotely comparable to the effects of industrialization on the North. The Southern share of national manufacturing doubled in the last twenty years of the centuryto 10 percent of the total. But that percentage was the same the South had claimed in 1860; the region had, in other words, done no more than regain what it had lost during the war and its aftermath. The region's per capita income increased 21 percent in the same period. But at the end of the century, average income in the South was only 40 percent of that in the North; in 1860 it had been more than 60 percent. And even in those areas where development had been most rapidtextiles, iron, railroadsmuch, if not most, of the capital had come from the North. Once again, the South was developing a colonial economy.

The benefits of Southern industry, moreover, were not widely shared. Southern wages remained far below the Northern equivalent; indeed, one of the greatest attractions of the South to industrialists was that employers were able to pay workers there as little as half of what Northern workers received. Some industriestextiles, for exampleoffered no opportunities at all to black workers. Otherstobacco, iron, and lumber, among othersdid provide some employment for blacks but usually only the least desirable and lowest-paid positions. At times, industrialization proceeded on the basis of no wage-paying employment at all. Through the notorious "convict-lease" system, Southern states leased gangs of convicted criminals to private interests as a cheap labor supply. The system not only exposed the convicts to brutal and often fatal mistreatment without pay (the leasing fees went to the states, not the workers); it also denied employment in railroad construction and other projects to the free labor force.

The most important economic reality in the post-Reconstruction South was the impoverished state of agriculture, which continued to dominate the region. The 1870s and 1880s saw an acceleration of the process that had begun in the immediate postwar years: the imposition of systems of tenancy and debt peonage on much of the region; the reliance on a few cash crops, rather than on a diversified agricultural system; and an increasing absentee ownership of valuable farmlands (many of them purchased by merchants and industrialists, who paid little attention to whether the land was being properly used). During Reconstruction, perhaps a third or more of the farmers in the South were tenants; by 1900, the figure had increased to 70 percent. It was remarkable, perhaps, that despite all this, more than 121,000 blacks owned their own land in 1890. But that figure still represented a tiny percentage of the black population as a whole.

That the white South was not yet entirely willing to break with its past was evident, too, in the popular literature of the region. At the same time that Southern writers were extolling the virtues of industrialization in newspaper editorials and speeches, they were painting nostalgic portraits of the Old South in their literature. Few Southerners advocated a literal return to the old ways; but most whites eagerly embraced romantic talk of the "lost cause." And they responded warmly to the local-color fiction of such writers as Joel Chandler Harris, whose folk tales the most famous being Uncle Remus (1880)presented the slave society of the antebellum years as a harmonious world, marked by engaging dialect and close emotional bonds between the races. Thomas Nelson Page similarly extolled the old Virginia aristocracy. The whites of the New South, in short, faced their future with one foot still in the past.

Blacks and the New South

The spirit of the New South was not the property of whites alone. Many blacks became enchanted by the vision of progress and self-improvement as well. Some blacks succeeded in elevating themselves into a distinct middle classone economically far inferior to the white middle class but nevertheless significant. These were former slaves (and, as the decades passed, their offspring) who managed to acquire property, establish small businesses, enter professions. A few blacks accumulated substantial fortunes by establishing banks and insurance companies for their race; most middle-class blacks, however, experienced more modest gains by becoming doctors, lawyers, or teachers serving members of their own race.

A cardinal tenet of this rising group of blacks was that education was vital to the future of their race. With the support of Northern missionary societies and, to a far lesser extent, a few Southern state governments, they expanded the network of black colleges and institutes that had taken root during Reconstruction into an important educational system. The chief spokesman for this commitment to education, and ultimately the major spokesman for his race as a whole, was Booker T. Washington, founder and president of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Born into slavery, Washington had worked his own way out of poverty by virtue of having acquired an education (at Virginia's famous Hampton Institute). Once established, he urged other blacks to follow the same road to self-improvement.

Washington's message was both cautious and hopeful. The "great leap from slavery to freedom," he warned, should not permit blacks to forget how to work with their hands. They should attend school, learn skills, and establish a solid footing in agriculture and the trades. Industrial, not classical, education should be their goal. Blacks should, moreover, refine their speech, improve their dress, and adopt habits of thrift and personal cleanliness; they should, in short, adopt the standards of the white middle class. Only thus, he claimed, could they win the respect of the white population, the prerequisite for any larger social gains. In a famous speech in Georgia in 1895, Washington outlined a philosophy of race relations that became widely known as the Atlanta Compromise. "The wisest among my race understand/' he said, "that the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremest folly." Blacks should, rather, engage in "severe and constant struggle" for economic gains; for, as he explained, "no race that has anything to contribute to the markets of the world is long in any degree ostracized." If blacks were ever to win the rights and privileges of citizenship, they must first show that they were "prepared for the exercise of these privileges."

In the context of his time, Washington's message was not as timid and conservative as it would later sound. As the first black leader to acquire a wide audience among members of his race, he offered a powerful challenge to those whites who strove to discourage blacks from acquiring an education or winning any economic gains. He helped to awaken the interest of a new generation to the possibilities for self-advancement.

But Washington's message was comforting to Southern whites as well. For in it was an implicit promise that blacks would not challenge the system of segregation that they were then in the process of erecting.

The Birth of Jim Crow

Most white Southerners had never accepted the idea of blacks as equal citizens of their region. That the former slaves acquired any legal and political rights at all after emancipation was in large part the result of federal support. That support all but vanished after 1877. Federal troops were no longer available to police the polls and prevent whites from excluding black voters. Congress was no longer taking an interest in the condition of the former slaves. And the courts were signaling a retreat as well. In a series of decisions in the 1880s and 1890s, the Supreme Court effectively stripped the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments of much of their significance. In deciding the so-called civil-rights cases of 1883, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited state governments from discriminating against people because of race but did not restrict private organizations or individuals from doing so. Thus railroads, hotels, theaters, and the like could legally practice segregation. Eventually, the Court also validated state legislation that discriminated against blacks. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), a case involving a law that required separate seating arrangements for the races on railroads, the Court held that separate accommodations did not deprive blacks of equal rights if the accommodations were equal, a decision that survived for years as part of the legal basis of segregated schools. In Gumming v. County Board of Education (1899), the Court went even further: Laws establishing separate schools for whites, the justices ruled, were valid even if they provided no comparable schools for blacks.

Even before these decisions, white Southerners were at work ensuring their supremacy and, gradually, their separation from contact with the black race to the extent possible. This movement from subordination to segregation was clearly illustrated in the case of black voting rights. In some statesparticularly those such as South Carolina and the Deep South cotton states, where blacks constituted close to a majority of the population disfranchisement began almost as soon as Reconstruction ended. South Carolina, for example, effectively reduced the black vote beginning early in the 1880s by introducing a complicated system of ballot boxes that illiterate voters could not decipher. Georgia required payment of a poll tax, which blacks generally could not afford. In some areas, however, black voting continued for some time after Reconstructionlargely because conservative whites believed they could use the black electorate to maintain their own power. Bourbon leaders often paid or intimidated blacks to vote for their candidates; thus they managed to beat down the attempts of poor white farmers to take control of the Democratic party.

The relative laxness of these franchise restrictions enabled blacks to continue through the 1880s and much of the 1890s to exercise some political influencefar less than that to which their numbers entitled them but more than they would later have. Until the end of the century, Republican candidates in some Southern states continued to receive as much as 40 percent of the votemost of it from black voters. At least one Southern black served in every session of Congress until 1901. By the late 1890s, however, franchise restrictions were becoming much more rigid. During those years, some small white farmers began to demand complete black disfranchisementboth because of racial animosity and because they objected to the black vote being used against them by the Bourbons. Many members of the conservative elite, at the same time, began to fear that poor whites might unite politically with poor blacks to challenge their hegemony. They too began to support further franchise restrictions. The prospect of whites competing for the black voteof blacks conceivably becoming the balance of power in the regionfrightened whites at all economic levels. The time had come, they believed, to close ranks if white supremacy was to be maintained.

In devising laws to disfranchise blacks, the Southern states had to find ways to evade the intent of the Fifteenth Amendment. That measure had not guaranteed suffrage to blacks; it had simply prohibited states from denying anyone the right to vote because of color. The Southern problem, then, was to exclude blacks from the franchise without seeming to base the exclusion on race. Two devices emerged before 1900 to accomplish this goal. One was the poll tax or some form of property qualification; few blacks were prosperous enough to meet such requirements. Another was the "literacy" or "understanding" test, which required voters to demonstrate the ability to read and to interpret the Constitution. The laws permitted local registrars to administer impossibly difficult reading tests to would-be voters or to rule that their interpretation of the Constitution was inadequate.

Such restrictions affected poor white voters as well as blacks. By the late 1890s, the black vote had decreased by 62 percent, the white vote by 26 percent. One result was that some states passed so-called grandfather laws, which permitted men who could not meet the literacy and property qualifications to be enfranchised if their ancestors had voted before Reconstruction began, thus barring the descendants of slaves from the polls while allowing poor whites access to them. In other states, however, the ruling elites were quite content to see poor whites, a potenial source of opposition to their power, barred from noting.

The Supreme Court proved as compliant in ruing on the disfranchising laws as it was in dealing with the civil-rights cases. The Court eventually voided the grandfather laws, but it validated the literacy tests (in the 1898 case of Williams v. Mississippi) and displayed a general willingness to let the Southern states define their own suffrage standards as long as evasions of the Fifteenth Amendment were not too glaring.

Laws restricting the franchise and segregating schools were only part of a network of state statutesknown as the Jim Crow lawsthat had by the first years of the twentieth century established an elaborate system of segregation reaching into almost every area of Southern life. Blacks and whites could not ride together in the same railroad cars, sit in the same waiting rooms, use the same washrooms, eat in the same restaurants, or sit in the same theaters. Blacks were denied access to parks, beaches, and picnic areas; they were barred from many hospitals. Much of the new legal structure did no more than confirm what had already been widespread social practice in the South since well before the end of Reconstruction. But the Jim Crow laws also served to strip many blacks of the social, economic, and political gains they had made in the more fluid atmosphere of the late nineteenth century. Segregation was now rigid and unyielding; and it was to survive without serious challenge for decades.

More than legal efforts were involved in this process. The 1890s witnessed a dramatic increase in a phenomenon that had been a part of Southern life for many years: white violence against blacks, which (along with the Jim Crow laws) served to inhibit black agitation for equal rights. The worst such violencelynching of blacks by white mobs, either because the victims were accused of crimes or because they had seemed somehow to violate their proper stationsreached appalling levels. In the nation as a whole in the 1890s, there was an average of 187 lynchings each year, more than 80 percent of them in the South and the vast majority of those inflicted on blacks.

Just as in the antebellum period, the shared commitment to white supremacy helped to dilute the class animosities between poorer whites and the Bourbon oligarchies that might otherwise have emerged. Economic issues tended to take a subordinate role to race in Southern politics, distracting the gaze of the region from the glaring social inequalities that afflicted blacks and whites alike. Even when such issues did ariseas they did in the 1890sthe racial question ultimately proved an effective vehicle for dampening their impact. The commitment to racial supremacy, in short, was a burden for poor whites as well as for blacks.

The Origins of Black Protest

Black Americans faced enormous obstacleslegal, economic, social, and politicalin challenging their oppressed status. Thus it was not surprising, perhaps, that so many embraced the message of Booker T. Washington in the late nineteenth century: a message that urged them to "put down your bucket where you are," to work for immediate self-improvement rather than long-range social change. Not all blacks, however, were content with this approach. And by the turn of the century a powerful challenge was emergingto the philosophy of Washington and, more important, to the entire structure of race relations. The chief spokesman for this new approach was W. E. B. Du Bois.

Du Bois, unlike Washington, had never known slavery. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, he grew to maturity with a far more expansive view than Washington of the goals of his race and the responsibilities of white society to eliminate prejudice and injustice. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he launched an open attack on the philosophy of the Atlanta Compromise, accusing Washington of encouraging white efforts to impose segregation and of unnecessarily limiting the aspirations of his race. "Is it possible and probable," he asked, that nine millions of men can make effective progress in economic lines if they are deprived of political rights, made a servile caste, and allowed only the most meagre

chance for developing their exceptional men? If history and reason give any distinct answer to these questions, it is an emphatic No.

Rather than content themselves with education at the trade and agricultural schools, Du Bois advocated, talented blacks should accept nothing less than a full university education. They should aspire to the professions. They should, above all, fight for the immediate restoration of their civil rights, not simply wait for them to be granted as a reward for patient striving.

In 1905, Du Bois and a group of his supporters met at Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side of the border; no hotel on the American side of the Falls would have them), and launched what became known as the Niagara Movement. Four years later, after a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, they joined with white progressives sympathetic to their cause to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Whites held most of the offices; but Du Bois, its director of publicity and research, was the guiding spirit. In the ensuing years, the new organization led the drive for equal rights, using as its principal weapon lawsuits in the federal courts.

Within less than a decade, the NAACP had begun to win some important victories. In Guinn v. United States (1915), the Supreme Court supported their position that the grandfather clause in an Oklahoma law was unconstitutional. (The statute denied the vote to any citizen whose ancestors had not been enfranchised in 1860.) In Buchanan v. Worley (1917), the Court struck down a Louisville, Kentucky, law requiring residential segregation. Disfranchisement and segregation would survive through other methods for many decades to come, but the NAACP had established a pattern of black resistance that would ultimately bear important fruits. It had also established itself, particularly after Booker T. Washington's death in 1915, as one of the nation's leading black organizations, a position it would maintain for many years. The NAACP was not a radical, or even an egalitarian, organization. It relied, rather, on the efforts of the most intelligent and educated members of the black race, the "talented tenth" as Du Bois called them. And it stressed not so much the elevation of all blacks from poverty and oppression as the opportunity for exceptional blacks to gain positions of full equality. Ultimately, its members believed, such efforts would redound to the benefit of all blacks. By creating a trained elite, blacks would, in effect, be creating a leadership group capable of fighting for the rights of the race as a whole. In the meantime, however, the NAACP remained largely a force of and for the middle class.

The Conquest of the Far West

By the time of the Civil War, the western rim of English-speaking settlement had already moved far beyond what it had been even twenty years before. American civilization had crossed the Mississippi and established a permanent foothold in the next tier of statesMinnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas as well as in the eastern parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas. But vast regions remained largely empty of white settlement. Much of the West was the province of nomadic Indian tribes, of wild animals, and of a few scattered immigrants from the East (most of them white, but somein regions as scattered as Montana, Kansas, and Nebraskablack).

Even in 1860, however, there were clear signs that the United States would not much longer be content to leave these vast Western territories to the Indians. For one thing, important white settlements had already been established on the Pacific coast, in California and Oregon. For another, ambitious men and women continued to press for access to new lands in the West; as one region began to fill up with settlers, such people demanded the right to move on to the next. And so, in the decades following the Civil War, Americans continued their great migration into the interior of their country until the line of European settlement stretched unbroken to the Pacific.

Delayed Settlement

When the westward-pushing pioneers entered the Great Plains, they saw an environment utterly different from the fertile prairies behind them. They saw a land distinguished by its level surface, its lack of timber, and its deficiency in rainfall. Early explorers had dubbed this region "the Great American Desert," and in the 1840s settlers had hastened through it on their way to California and Oregon. Its forbidding reputation was largely responsible for the fact that the edge of white settlement, after crossing the Mississippi, had jumped 1,500 miles to the Pacific coast. By the 1860s, however, whites had begun to move into the unsettled parts of the West. They were attracted by gold and silver deposits, by the short-grass pasture for cattle and sheep, and finally by the plains' sod and the mountain meadowland that seemed suitable for farming or ranching.

The completion of the great transcontinental railroad lines helped encourage settlement. These roads and their feeders moved settlers and supplies into the vast interior spaces and furnished access to outside markets. The railroad companies themselves had an incentive, of course, to promote migration into the West; settlement of the region would provide markets for the lines they were building. So the companies actively solicited settlers by a number of devices, including selling their lands to migrants at low prices. The land policy of the federal government also worked to encourage settlement. The Homestead Act of 1862 permitted settlers to buy a plot of 160 acres for a small fee if they occupied and improved it for five years. The Homestead Act had been intended as a democratic measure. It would bestow a free farm on any American who needed one; it would serve as a form of government relief to raise the living standards of the masses. But in practice the act proved a disappointment. Some 400,000 homesteaders became landowners, but a much larger number ultimately abandoned their lands in the face of the bleak life on the windswept plains.

The Homestead Act had rested on a number of false premises. The framers of the act assumed that mere possession of land was enough to sustain farm life; they ignored the increasing mechanization of agriculture and the rising costs of operation. They had made their calculations, moreover, on the basis of Eastern agricultural experiences that were inapplicable to the region west of the Mississippi. A unit of 160 acres was too small for the grazing and grain farming of the Great Plains.

Responding to Western pressures, Congress acted to increase allotments. The Timber Culture Act (1873) permitted homesteaders to receive grants of 160 additional acres if they planted on them 40 acres of trees. The Desert Land Act (1877) provided that claimants could buy 640 acres at $1.25 an acre provided they irrigated part of their holdings within three years. The Timber and Stone Act (1878), presumably applying to nonarable land, authorized sales of quarter sections at $2.50 an acre. These laws ultimately made it possible for individuals to acquire as much as 1,280 acres of land at little cost. And some enterprising settlers got much more. Fraud ran rampant in the administration of the acts. Lumber, mining, and cattle companies, by employing "dummy" registrants and using other illegal devices, seized millions of acres of the public domain.

Political organization followed on the heels of settlement. After the admission of Kansas as a state in 1861, the remaining territories of Washington, New Mexico, Utah, and Nebraska were divided into smaller and more convenient units. By the close of the 1860s, territorial governments were in operation in the new provinces of Nevada, Colorado, Dakota, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Statehood rapidly followed. Nevada became a state in 1864, Nebraska in 1867, and Colorado in 1876. In 1889,

North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington won admission; Wyoming and Idaho entered the next year. Utah was denied statehood until its Mormon leaders convinced the government in 1896 that polygamy (the practice of men taking several wives) had been abandoned. At the turn of the century, only three territories remained outside the fold: Arizona and New Mexico, excluded because of their scanty population, their politics (they were predominantly Democratic), and their refusal to accept admission as a single state; and Oklahoma (formerly Indian Territory), which was opened to white settlement and granted territorial status in 1889-1890.

The Arrival of the Miners

The first economic boom in the Far West came in mining, and the first part of the area to be settled was the mineral-rich region of mountains and plateaus. The life span of the mining frontier was brief. It burst into being around 1860, flourished until the 1890s, and then abruptly declined.

News of a gold or silver strike would start a stampede reminiscent of the California gold rush of 1849. Settlement usually followed a pattern of successive stages. Individual prospectors would exploit the first ores largely by hand, with pan and placer mining. After the shallower deposits had been depleted by these methods, corporations would move in to engage in lode or quartz mining. Then, as those deposits dwindled, commercial mining would either disappear or continue on a restricted basis, and ranchers and farmers would appear on the scene to establish a more permanent economy.

The first great mineral strikes occurred just before the Civil War. In 1858, gold was discovered in the Pike's Peak district of what would soon be the territory of Colorado; and the following year, a mob of 50,000 prospectors stormed in from California and the Mississippi Valley and the East. Denver and other mining camps blossomed into "cities" overnight. Almost as rapidly as it had developed, the boom ended. Eventually, corporations, notably the Guggenheim interests, revived some of the glories and profits of the gold boom, and the discovery of silver near Leadville supplied a new source of mineral wealth.

While the Colorado rush of 1859 was in progress, news of another strike drew miners to Nevada. Gold had been found in the Washoe district, but the most valuable ore in the great Comstock Lode and other veins was silver. The first prospectors to reach the Washoe fields came from California; and from the beginning, Californians dominated the settlement and development of Nevada. In a remote desert without railroad transportation, the territory produced no supplies of its own, and everythingfrom food and machinery to whiskey and prostituteshad to be shipped in from California to Virginia City, Carson City, and other roaring camp towns. When the placer deposits ran out, California capital bought the claims of the pioneer prospectors and installed quartz mining. For a brief span, the outside owners reaped tremendous profits; from 1860 to 1880 the Nevada lodes yielded bullion worth $306 million.

There were no more important mineral discoveries until 1874, when gold was found in the Black Hills of southwestern Dakota Territory. Prospectors swarmed into the area, then (and for years to come) accessible only by stagecoach. For a short time the boom flared, and then came the inevitable fading of resources. Corporations took over from the miners, and one gigantic company, the Homestake, came to dominate the fields. The population declined, and the Dakotas, like other boom areas of the mineral empire, waited for the approach of agricultural settlement.

Life in the camp towns of the mineral empire had a hectic tempo and a gaudy flavor not to be found in any other part of the Far West. A speculative spirit, a mood of heady optimism, gripped everyone and dominated every phase of community activity. The conditions of mine lifethe presence of precious minerals, the vagueness of claim boundaries, the cargoes of gold being shipped outattracted outlaws and "bad men," operating as individuals or gangs, to ply their trade. When the situation became intolerable in a community, those members interested in order set up their own law and enforced it through a vigilance committee, an agency used earlier in California. Sometimes criminals themselves secured control of the committee, and sometimes the vigilantes continued to operate as private "law" enforcers after the creation of regular governments.

The Cattle Kingdom

A second important element of the boom economy in the Far West was cattle ranching. The open range the unclaimed grasslands of the public domainprovided a huge area on the Great Plains where cattlemen could graze their herds free of charge and unrestricted by the boundaries of private farms. The railroads gave birth to the range-cattle industry by giving it access to markets. Then the same railroads destroyed it by bringing farmers to the plains.

The Western cattle industry was Mexican and Texan by ancestry. Long before citizens of the United States invaded the Southwest, Mexican ranchers had developed the techniques that the cattlemen and cowboys of the Great Plains later employed: branding (a device known in all frontier areas where stock was common), roundups, roping, and the equipment of the herderhis lariat, saddle, leather chaps, and spurs. Americans in Texas adopted these methods and carried them to the northernmost ranges of the cattle kingdom. Texas also had the largest herds of cattle in the country; the animals were descended from imported Spanish stockthe famous wiry, hardy long-hornsand allowed to run wild or semiwild. From Texas, too, came the horses that enabled the caretakers of the herds (the cowboys) to control them small, muscular broncos or mustangs ideally adapted to the requirements of the cow country.

At the end of the Civil War, an estimated 5 million cattle roamed the Texas ranges, and Northern markets were offering fat prices for steers in any condition. Early in 1866, some Texas cattlemen began driving their combined herds, some 260,000 head, north to Sedalia, Missouri, on the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Traveling over rough country and beset by outlaws, Indians, and property-conscious farmers, the caravan suffered heavy losses, and only a fraction of the animals arrived in Sedalia. But the drive was an important experiment. It proved that cattle could be driven to distant markets and pastured along the trail, and that they would even gain weight during the journey. This first of the "long drives" prepared the way for the cattle kingdom.

With the precedent of the long drive established, the next step was to find an easier route through more accessible country. Special market facilities grew up at Abilene, Kansas, on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, and for years this town reigned as the railhead of the cattle kingdom. Between 1867 and 1871, cattlemen drove 1,460,000 head up the Chisholm Trail to Abilenea town that, when filled with rampaging cowboys at the end of a drive, rivaled the mining towns in rowdiness. But by the mid-1870s, agricultural development in western Kansas was eating away at the open range land. At the same time, the supply of animals was increasing. Cattlemen therefore had to develop other trails and other market outlets. Dodge City and Wichita in Kansas, Ogallala and Sidney in Nebraska, Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming, and Miles City and Glendive in Montana all began to rival Abilene as major centers of stockherding.

A long drive was a spectacular experience. It began with the spring, or calf, roundup. The cattlemen of a district met with their cowboys at a specified place to round up the stock of the owners from the open range. As the cattle were driven in, the calves were branded with the marks of their mothers. Stray calves with no identifying symbols, "mavericks," were divided on a pro-rata basis. Then the cows and calves were turned loose to pasture, while the yearling steers (year-old males) were readied for the drive to the north. The combined herds, usually numbering from 2,000 to 5,000 head, moved out. Cowboys representing each of the major ranchers accompanied them.

Among the cowboys, the majority (in the early years) were veterans of the Confederate army. The next largest group consisted of blacks, who were more numerous than white Northerners or Mexicans and other foreigners. They were usually assigned such jobs as wrangler (herdsman) or cook. (In other contexts, black men played a role in the West not only as cowboys but also as explorers, trappers, miners, outlaws, and cavalrymen.)

Every cattleman had to have a permanent base from which to operate, and so the ranch emerged. A ranch consisted of the employer's dwelling, quarters for employees, and a tract of grazing land. In the early years of the cattle kingdom, most ranches were relatively small, since so much of the grazing occurred in the vast, open areas that cattlemen shared. But as farmers and sheepmen encroached on the open plains, ranches became larger and more clearly defined; cattlemen gradually had to learn to raise their stock on their own land.

There had always been an element of risk and speculation in the open-range cattle business. At any time, "Texas fever"a disease transmitted to cattle by parasite-carrying ticksmight decimate a herd. Rustlers and Indians frequently seized large numbers of animals. But as settlement of the plains increased, these traditional risks combined with new forms of competition. Sheepmen from California and Oregon brought their flocks onto the range to compete for grass. Farmers ("nesters") from the East threw fences around their claims, blocking trails and breaking up the open range. A series of "range wars"between sheepmen and cattlemen, between ranchers and farmerserupted out of the tensions between these competing groups. Some of the wars resulted in significant loss of life and extensive property damage.

Accounts of the lofty profits to be made in the cattle businessit was said that an investment of $5,000 would return $45,000 in four yearstempted Eastern, English, and Scottish capital to the plains. Increasingly, the structure of the cattle economy became corporate in form; in one year, twenty corporations with a combined capital of $12 million were chartered in Wyoming. The inevitable result of this frenzied extension was that the ranges, already severed and shrunk by the railroads and the farmers, were becoming overstocked. There was not enough grass to support the competing herds or sustain the long drives. Finally, nature intervened with a destructive finishing blow. Two severe winters, in 1885-1886 and 1886-1887, with a searing summer between them, stung and scorched the plains. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died, streams and grass dried up, princely ranches and costly investments disappeared in a season.

The open-range industry never recovered; the long drive disappeared for good. But the established cattle rancheswith fenced-in grazing land and stocks of hay for winter feedsurvived, grew, and prospered, eventually producing more beef than ever.

The Romance of the West

The unsettled West had always occupied a special place in the American imagination. But the vast regions of this "last frontier" had a particularly strong romantic appeal. Some of the reasons were obvious. The Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the basin and plateau region beyond the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada-Cascade ranges beyond thatall constituted a landscape of such brilliant diversity, such spectacular grandeur, so different from anything white Americans had encountered before, it was little wonder that newcomers looked on it with reverence and wonder. Painters of the new "Rocky Mountain School"of whom the best known was Albert Bierstadtcelebrated the new West in grandiose canvases. They emphasized the ruggedness and dramatic variety of the region, exhibiting the same awe toward the land that earlier regional painters had displayed toward the Hudson River Valley and other areas.

Even more appealing than the landscape, perhaps, was the rugged, free-spirited life style that many Americans associated with the frontiera life style that stood in sharp contrast to the increasingly stable and ordered world of the East. Particular public interest attached to the figure of the cowboy, who was transformed remarkably quickly into a powerful and enduring figure of myth. Admiring Americans seldom thought about the drearier aspects of the cowboy's life: the tedium, the loneliness, the physical discomforts, the relatively few opportunities for advancement. Instead, in Western novels such as Owen Wister's The Virginian (1902), they romanticized his freedom from traditional social constraints, his affinity with nature, even his supposed propensity for violence. The cowboy became the last and most powerful symbol of what had long been an important ideal in the American mindthe ideal of the natural man. That symbol survived for more than a centuryin popular literature, in song, and later in film and on television.

Yet it was not simply the particular qualities of the new West that made it so important to the nation's imagination. It was also the fact that Americans considered it the last frontier. Since the earliest moments of European settlement in America, the image of uncharted territory to the west had always been a comforting and inspiring one. Now, with the last of that unsettled land being slowly absorbed into the nation's civilization, that image exercised a stronger pull than ever. Mark Twain, one of the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century, gave voice to this romantic vision of the frontier in a series of brilliant novels and memoirs. In some of his writingnotably Roughing It (1872)he wrote of the Far West itself, and of his own experience as a newspaper reporter in Nevada during the mining boom. His greatest works, however, dealt with life on an earlier frontier: the Mississippi Valley of his boyhood. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), he produced characters who repudiated the constraints of organized society and attempted to escape from it into a more natural world. For Huck Finn, the vehicle of escape might be a small raft on the Mississippi; but the yearning for freedom reflected the larger vision of the West as the last refuge from civilization.

One of the clearest and most influential statements of this romantic vision of the frontier came not from an artist but from the famous historian Frederick Jackson Turner, of the University of Wisconsin (and later Harvard). In 1893, Turner delivered a memorable paper to a meeting of the American Historical Association entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." In it, he took note of the findings of the 1890 census that the unsettled area of the West had been "so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement" that a continuous frontier line could no longer be drawn. And he argued that the passing of that line ended an era in the nation's history. For, as Turner explained it, "the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of settlement westward, explain American development." This experience of expansion into the frontier, by stimulating individualism, nationalism, and democracy, had made Americans the distinctive people that they were. "Now," Turner concluded ominously, "four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone and with its going has closed the first period of American history."

In fact, Turner's forebodings were premature. A vast public domain still existed in the 1890s, and during the forty years thereafter the government was to give away many more acres than it had given as homesteads in the past. But Turner did express a growing and generally accurate sense that much of the best farming and grazing land was now taken, that in the future it would be far more difficult for individuals to acquire land for little or nothing.

In the "passing of the frontier," perhaps the greatest loss to the American people was a psychological one. As long as the country had remained open at one end, there had seemed to be constantly revitalizing opportunities in American life. Now there was a vague and ominous sense of being hemmed in. The psychological loss was all the greater because of what historian Henry Nash Smith, in Virgin Land (1950), called the "myth of the garden": the once widely held belief that the West was a kind of potential Garden of Eden where life could be begun anew and the ideals of democracy realized. The setting for Utopia, once the New World as a whole, had shrunk to the West of the United States. And now even that West was vanishing as a pristine, unconquered land.

The Dispersal of the Tribes

White Americans liked to think of the Far West as a vast unpeopled land awaiting settlement. In fact, the West already had a large populationof Indians. Some were members of Eastern tribesCherokees, Creeks, Winnebagos, and otherswho had been forcibly resettled west of the Mississippi before the Civil War. Others were members of tribes indigenous to the West.

The Western tribes had developed a number of patterns of civilization. The Pueblo of the Southwest lived largely as farmers and established permanent settlements. They grew corn; they built adobe houses; they practiced forms of irrigation. Other tribes in that regionthe Navajos and Apaches of western Texas and eastern New Mexicolived more nomadically and combined hunting with farming and sheep herding, moving their settlements from place to place. The most numerous Indian groups in the West, however, consisted of the plains Indiansthe Sioux, Blackfoots, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Apaches, Comanches, Crows, and otherswho occupied large parts of what became Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Idaho, and Montana.

Unlike many of the Eastern tribesthe woods Indians whom white Americans had dispersed in earlier yearsthe plains Indians were powerful warriors, strong and militant. They fought a prolonged and often successful battle against the encroachments of white settlement, a battle in which, according to some estimates, the Indians inflicted the greater casualties on their enemy. In the end, however, the tribes could not effectively resist the superior numbers and technology of the white invaders. Defeated and broken, they were finally forced to accept what meager lands the whites were willing to give them and to adapt themselves to an approximation of the sedentary, agrarian culture of their conquerors.

The Plains Indians

On the rolling, semiarid, treeless plains, the plains Indians lived a largely nomadic life. Riding their small but powerful horses, which were descendants of Spanish stock, the tribes roamed the spacious expanses of the grasslands. Permanent settlements were rare; when a band halted, it quickly constructed tepees as temporary dwellings.

The magnet that drew the wanderers and guided their routes was the buffalo, or bison. This huge grazing animal provided the economic basis for the plains Indians' way of life. Its flesh was their principal source of food, and the skin supplied materials for clothing, shoes, tepees, blankets, robes, and utensils. "Buffalo chips" (dried manure) served as a fuel source; buffalo bones became knives; buffalo tendons formed the strings of bows. To the Indians, the buffalo was, as someone has said, "a galloping department store." They trailed the herdsestimated to number at least 15 million head in 1865all over the plains.

The culture of the plains Indians reflected their nomadic life style and their close relationship with nature. Tribes (which sometimes numbered several thousand) were generally subdivided into "bands" of up to 500 men and women, each with its own governing council (which complicated the problems of the United States government in dealing with the tribes). Within each band, tasks were generally divided by sex. Women performed largely domestic and artistic roles. They raised children, cooked, gathered roots and berries, prepared hides, and created many of the impressive artworks of tribal culture. Men worked largely as hunters and traders; and they supervised the religious and military life of the band. The plains Indians were martial, proud, and aggressive. They learned the arts of warfare in their frequent (and usually brief) skirmishes with rival tribes. Each tribe sustained a distinct warrior class, whose members competed with one another in developing a reputation for fierceness and bravery. These warriors proved to be the most formidable foes white settlers had yet encountered.

White Policies Toward the Tribes

It was the traditional policy of the federal government to regard the tribes simultaneously as independent nations and as wards of the president in Washington, and to negotiate agreements with them in the form of treaties that were solemnly ratified by the Senate (and then ignored or repudiated when their provisions became inconvenient). This concept of Indian sovereignty had been responsible for the attempt of the government before 1860 to erect a permanent frontier between whites and Indians, to reserve the region west of the bend of the Missouri as permanent Indian country.

By the early 1850s, however, the idea of establishing one great territory in which all the tribes could live gave wayin the face of white demands for access to lands on the "One Big Reservation"to a new policy, known as "concentration." In 1851, each tribe was assigned its own, defined territory, confirmed by a separate treaty. This arrangement had many benefits for whites and few for the Indians. It divided the tribes from one another and made them easier to defeat. It allowed the government to force tribes into scattered locations and to take over the most desirable lands for white settlement. But it did not survive as the basis of Indian policy for long.

In 1867, in the aftermath of a series of bloody conflicts, Congress established an Indian Peace Commission, composed of soldiers and civilians, to recommend a new and presumably permanent Indian policy. The commission decided that the earlier "concentration" policy should be replaced by a new one. All the plains tribes would be relocated in two large reservationsone in "Indian Territory" (Oklahoma), the other in the Dakotas. At a series of meetings with the tribes, government agents cajoled, bribed, and tricked the Arapahos, Cheyennes, Sioux, and others into agreeing to treaties establishing the new reservations.

But this "solution" proved no more satisfactory than the previous ones. Part of the problem was the way in which the government administered the reservations it had established. White management of Indian matters was entrusted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, located in the Department of the Interior. The bureau was responsible for distributing land, making payments, and supervising the shipment of supplies. Its record was not a distinguished one. The bureau's agents in the Westproducts of political patronagewere men of varying competence and honesty. But even the most honest and diligent agents were generally ill prepared for the job, had no understanding of tribal ways, and had little chance of success. The poor administration of the reservations was one reason for the constant conflicts between the tribes and the whites who were surrounding them.

But the problem was also a result of what was, in effect, economic warfare by whites: the relentless slaughtering of the buffalo herds that supported the tribes' way of life. After the Civil War, the white demand for buffalo hides became a national phenomenonpartly for economic reasons and partly as a fad. (Everyone east of the Missouri seemed to require a buffalo robe from the romantic West.) Gangs of professional hunters swarmed over the plains to shoot the huge animals. Some hunters killed merely for the sport of the chase, although the lumbering victims did not present much of a challenge. Railroad companies hired riflemen (such as Buffalo Bill Cody) and arranged large shooting expeditions to kill vast numbers of buffalo, hoping to thin the herds, which were an obstruction to railroad traffic. The southern herd was virtually exterminated by 1875, and within a few years the smaller northern herd had met the same fate. Fewer than a thousand of the magnificent beasts survived. The army and the agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs condoned and even encouraged the killing. By destroying the buffalo herds, whites were destroying the Indians' source of food and supplies and their ability to resist the white advance. They were also, however, contributing to a climate in which Indian warriors felt the need to fight to preserve their way of life.

The Warriors' Last Stand

There was almost incessant Indian fighting on the frontier from the 1860s to the 1880s, as Indians struggled against the growing threats to their civilizations.

During the Civil War, the eastern Sioux in Minnesota, cramped on an inadequate reservation and exploited by corrupt white agents, suddenly rebelled against the restrictions imposed on them by the government's policies. Led by Little Crow, they killed more than 700 whites before being subdued by a force of regulars and militiamen. Thirty-eight of the Indians were hanged, and the tribe was exiled to the Da-kotas.

At the same time, trouble flared in Colorado, where the Arapahos and Cheyennes had been restricted to the Sand Creek reservation. Bands of Indians attacked stagecoach lines and settlements in an effort to regain territory they believed was theirs. In response to these incidents, whites called up a large territorial militia; the army issued dire threats. The governor urged all friendly Indians to congregate at army posts before retribution fell on the hostiles. One Arapaho and Cheyenne band under Black Kettle came into Fort Lyon on Sand Creek and encamped nearby. Although some members of the party were undoubtedly warriors, Black Kettle understood he was under official protection. Nevertheless, Colonel J. M. Chivington, apparently encouraged by the army commander of the district, led a militia force to the unsuspecting camp and massacred a large number of men, women, and children (the precise figure, a subject of dispute). Some of the Arapahos and Cheyennes had another tragic experience before being finally settled on their reserve. Black Kettle, who had escaped the Chivington massacre, and his Cheyenne braves, some of whom had taken the warpath, were caught on the Washita River, near the Texas border, by Colonel George A. Custer; the chief was killed and his people were slaughtered.

At the end of the Civil War, wars against the Western Indians flared up on several fronts. The most serious and sustained conflict was in Montana, where the army attempted to build a road, the Bozeman Trail, from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to the mining centers. The Sioux resented this intrusion into the heart of their buffalo range, and led by one of their great chiefs, Red Cloud, they so harried the soldiers and the construction party that the road was never completed.

The treaties of 1867 brought a temporary lull in the conflicts. But new forces soon shattered the peace again. In the early 1870s, more waves of white settlersmostly minersbegan to penetrate some of the lands in the Dakotas, territory supposedly guaranteed to the tribes in 1867. At the same time, the federal government, responding to the recommendations of a commission, decided that it would no longer recognize the tribes as independent entities or negotiate with tribal chiefs. It was a step intended to undermine the collective nature of Indian life and to force them to assimilate into white culture.

Indian resistance flared anew, this time with even greater strength. The Sioux in the northern plains rose up in 1875, in response to the entrance of miners into the Black Hills and in anger at the corrupt behavior of white agents. They suddenly left the reservation; and when commanded by white officials to return, they gathered in Montana under Crazy Horse, probably the greatest leader of the plains Indians, and Sitting Bull.

Three army columns were sent to round them up. With the expedition, as colonel of the famous Seventh Cavalry, was the colorful and controversial George A. Custer, golden-haired romantic and glory seeker. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, the Indians surprised Custer with part of his regiment and killed every man. Custer has been accused of rashness, but he seems to have ridden into something that no white man would have believed possible at that time. On this occasion, the chiefs had concentrated at least 2,500, but perhaps 4,000, warriors, the largest Indian army ever assembled at one time in the United States.

The Indians did not have the political organization or the supplies to keep their troops united, however. Soon the warriors drifted off in bands to elude pursuit or search for food, and the army ran them down singly and returned them to Dakota. The power of the Sioux was now broken. The proud leaders, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, accepted defeat and the monotony of life on reservations. Both were later killed by reservation police after being tricked or taunted into a last pathetic show of resistance.

In 1877, one of the most dramatic episodes in Indian history occurred in Idaho. Here the Nez Perce, a small and relatively peaceful and civilized tribe, refused to accept white demands that they move to a smaller reservation. When troops converged on them, their able leader, Chief Joseph, attempted to conduct the band to Canada. A remarkable chase ensued. Joseph moved with 200 men and 350 women, children, and old people. Pursued by four columns, he covered 1,321 miles in seventy-five days, repelling or evading the army time and again. But he was caught just short of the Canadian border. Like so many other crushed tribes, the Nez Perce were shipped to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma, where most of them soon died of disease and malnutrition.

The last Indians to maintain organized resistance against the whites were the Apaches, who fought intermittently from the 1860s to the late 1880s. The two ablest chiefs of this fierce tribe were Mangas Colorados and Cochise. Mangas was murdered during the Civil War, and in 1872 Cochise agreed to peace and a reservation for his followers. But one leader, Geronimo, continued to carry on the fight. His capture in 1886 marked the end of formal warfare between Indians and whites.

A final, tragic encounter occurred in 1890the result of a religious revival among the tribes that symbolized, in many ways, the catastrophic effects of the white assaults on Indian civilization. As the Indians saw their culture and their glories fading, and as they suffered near starvation when corrupt government agents reduced their food rations, many turned to an emotional religion that emphasized the coming of a messiah and featured a "ghost dance," which inspired mystical visions. Agents on the Sioux reservation, fearing that the dance might be the preliminary to hostilities, called for troops to stop the ceremonies. Some of the Indians fled to the Dakota Badlands, to join other ghost dancers under the leadership of chief Big Foot. The Seventh Cavalry (which had once been Custer's regiment) pursued them and caught up with them at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota. A brief battle ensued in which about 40 soldiers and more than 200 of the Indians, including women and children, died. What precipitated the conflict is a matter of dispute; it is likely that an Indian fired the first shot. But the fighting soon turned into a one-sided massacre, as the white soldiers aimed their new machine guns at the Indians and mowed them down in the snow.

In 1887, Congress finally moved to destroy forever the tribal structure that was the cornerstone of Indian culture. Although some supporters of the new policy believed they were acting for the good of the Indians, the action was frankly designed to force the Indians to become landowners and farmers, to abandon their collective society and culture, to become, in short, part of white civilization. The Dawes Sever-alty Act (usually known simply as the Dawes Act) provided for the gradual elimination of tribal ownership of land and the allotment of tracts to individual owners: 160 acres to the head of a family, 80 acres to a single adult or orphan, 40 acres to each dependent child. Adult owners were accorded the status of citizenship, but unlike other citizens, they could not gain full title to their property for twenty-five years. The act was hardly a success. The Indians were not prepared for the wrenching change from a collective society to individualism. Congress attempted to speed the transition with the Burke Act of 1906. Under its terms, citizenship was deferred until after the completion of the twenty-five-year period contemplated in the Dawes Act, but Indians who proved their adaptability could secure both citizenship and land ownership in a shorter period.

Neither then nor later, however, did legislation provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of the Indianslargely because there was no entirely happy solution to be had. The interests of the Indians were not compatible with those of the expanding white civilization. The conflict between the two peoples was, therefore, never truly resolved. White society simply prevailed.

The Rise and Decline of the Western Farmer

The arrival of the miners, the empire building of the cattle ranchers, the dispersal of the Indian tribesall served as a prelude to the decisive phase of white settlement of the Far West. Even before the Civil War, farmers had begun moving into the plains region, challenging the dominance of the ranchers and the Indians and occasionally coming into conflict with both. By the 1870s, what had been a trickle had become a deluge. Farmers poured into the plains and beyond, enclosed land that had once been hunting territory for Indians and grazing territory for cattle, and established a new agricultural region.

For a time in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the new Western farmers flourishedenjoying the fruits of an agricultural economic boom comparable in many ways to the booms that Eastern industry periodically enjoyed. Beginning in the mid-1880s, however, the boom turned to bust. American agriculturenot only in the new West but in the older Middle West and the South as wellwas producing more than it ever had. But at the same time, farmers were suffering from declining prices for their goods. Both economically and psychologically, the agricultural economy began a long, steady decline often in absolute terms, almost always in relation to the rest of the nation. Those who tried to improve their lot by moving west found that the frontier no longer provided them with a way out.

Farming on the Plains

Some farmers had drifted into the Great Plains region during its first stages of development, but the great rush of settlement came in the late 1870s. In the course of the next decade, the relentless advance of the farming frontier would gradually convert the plains country to an agricultural economy.

Many factors combined to produce this surge of Western settlement, but the most important was undoubtedly the railroads. Before the Civil War, the Great Plains had been virtually inaccessible to all but the most hardy pioneers, who could reach it only through an arduous journey by wagon. But beginning in the 1860s, a vast new network of railroad lines started to develop that would, by the 1870s, open access to huge new areas of settlement. The first step toward this new access was the construction of the great "transcontinental" lines. An 1862 act of Congress (amended in 1864) chartered two railroad corporations, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. The Union Pacific was to build westward from Omaha, Nebraska, the Central Pacific eastward from Sacramento, California, until they met. To provide the new companies with the necessary financial incentive, Congress made use of a practice that would become of vital importance to the future of the West: the land grant. For each mile of track a company laid, it would receivein addition to the right of way for the track bed itself-twenty square miles of land in alternate sections (laid out in a checkerboard pattern) along the right of way.

The building of the transcontinental line was itself a dramatic and monumental achievement. Thousands of immigrant workersmostly Irish on the eastern route, Chinese on the westernlabored in what were at times unimaginably difficult conditions to penetrate mountain ranges, cross deserts, ward off Indians, andfinallyconnect the two lines at Promontory Point in Utah in the spring of 1869. But while this first transcontinental line captured the greatest share of the public imagination, it was the construction of the great network of subsidiary lines in the years which followed that proved of greatest importance to the West. By the end of the century, five transcontinental lines were in operation; and from them were springing more and more spurs, penetrating much of the Great Plains. State governments, imitating Washington, induced railroad development by offering direct financial aid, favorable loans, and more than 50 million acres of land (on top of the 130 million acres the federal government had already offered). In some cases, government aid actually exceeded the cost of construction. Although operated by private corporations, the railroads were essentially public projects.

The construction of the railroad lines helped spur agricultural settlement in several ways. For one thing, it made access to the Great Plains easierfirst enabling the farmers to reach the new lands, and later enabling them to ship their crops to market and to receive goods and supplies in return. For another, the railroad companies themselves now had great incentive to promote settlementboth to provide themselves with customers for their services and to increase the value of their vast land holdings. Thus the railroads embarked on a great advertising campaign to lure settlers into the new region, distributing posters and brochures throughout the East and Midwest with glowing descriptions of the "great fertility/' "nutritious grasses," and "numerous streams" to be found in the plains. More than that, the companies set rates so low for settlers that almost anyone could afford the trip West. And it sold much of its land at very low prices, usually between $2 and $5 an acre (which, since the railroads had gotten the land for nothing, was still a significant profit). Some railroad companies even provided liberal credit to prospective settlers to encourage them to move West.

Contributing further to the great surge of expansion was a temporary change in the climate. For several years in succession, beginning in the 1870s, rainfall in the plains states was well above average. People now rejected the old idea that the region was the Great American Desert. Some even claimed that cultivation of the plains actually encouraged rainfall. Confident that they faced an era of indefinite prosperity, the new farmers scoffed at those who warned that the climate might change again. They scoffed too at the old cattle ranchers who warned that the light soil of the plains should not be deprived of its protective turf by cultivation.

But even under the most favorable conditions, farming on the plains presented problems not encountered in any previously settled region. First and most critical was the problem of fencing. Farmers had to enclose their land, if for no other reason than to protect it from the herds of the cattlemen. But the traditional wood or stone fences were impossible on the plains; the materials were expensive to import and were, in any case, ineffective as barriers to cattle. In the mid-1870s, however, two Illinois farmers, Joseph H. Glidden and I. L. Ellwood, solved this problem by developing and marketing barbed wire. Produced in large quantities40,000 tons a yearit sold cheaply, became standard equipment on the plains, and revolutionized fencing practices all over the country.

The second problem, a serious one even when rainfall was above average, was water. That problem became particularly acute after 1887, when a series of dry seasons began. Lands that had come to seem fertile and well watered now began to turn back into semidesert. Farmers attempted to devise one technique after another to deal with the problem, but none was fully satisfactory. One solution was the use of deep wells pumped by steel windmills, which ensured a steady water supply for stock. Another was dry farminga system of tillage designed to conserve moisture in the soil by covering it with a dust blanketand the planting of drought-resistant crops. But these techniques were of limited usefulness. In many areas of the plains, commercial agriculture could not continue without large-scale irrigation, which in turn required government assistance. The federal government hoped state governments would take the lead in financing these expensive projects; and in the Carey Act of 1894, it transferred several million acres of public land to various states, on the understanding that the states would reclaim them through irrigation and then sell them. The states, however, made little progress, largely because the problems of reclamation cut across state boundaries. Irrigation, therefore, remained limited through most of the plains; and the majority of farmers had to deal with the water shortage as best they could on their own.

Farming on the plains was always expensive and often risky. The uncertainty of rainfall and the danger of grasshopper plagues and tornadoes made every farm year a speculative experiment. Costs of operation were high, partly because many supplies had to be imported into the region from distant points, but mainly because of the nature of plains farming. In all the farm areas of the country, machines were playing a larger part in the agricultural process, and they were especially vital on the plains, where grain farming was conducted on large land units. Farm machinery made it possible for farmers with limited labor supplies to cultivate expansive landholdings. But machinery required a major capital investment, which not all prospective farmers could easily afford. The necessity of making that investment helped to create one of the central realities of life on Western farms: debt.

The Great Plains were not, as some have claimed, a refuge for the urban poor or a safety valve for proletarian unrest. The people who moved into the region were mostly people who had previously been farmers elsewhere; and they came from agricultural areas in the Middle West, the East, and Europe. In the booming years of the early 1880s, with land values rising, the new farmers had no problem obtaining extensive and easy credit and had every reason to believe they would soon be able to retire their debts. But the arid years of the late 1880syears in which crop prices were falling at the same time as production was becoming more expensivechanged that prospect with grim suddenness. Thousands of farmers found it impossible any longer to keep up payments on their loans and were forced to abandon their farms. What followed was a reversal of the frontier movementsettlers departing the Great Plains in large numbers, sometimes turning once-flourishing communities into desolate ghost towns. Those who remained continued to suffer from falling prices (wheat, which had sold for $1.60 a bushel at the end of the Civil War, dropped to 49 cents in the 1890s) and persistent indebtedness.

Changes in Agriculture

Americans had always liked to romanticize farm life. According to popular myth, the farmer was a sturdy yeomansimple, honest, happy, dwelling close to nature, independent, self-reliant. The myth may once have had some basis in fact, but by the late nineteenth century it no longer reflected the reality of agricultural life. The simple, self-sufficient yeoman of myth had become a commercial farmerattempting to do in the agricultural economy what industrialists were doing in the manufacturing economy.

Commercial farmers were not self-sufficient and made no effort to become so. They specialized in cash crops and sold them in national or world markets. They ceased making their own household supplies and growing their own food and bought them instead at town or village stores. This kind of farming, when it was successful, raised the farmers' living standards. But it also made them dependent on other people and on impersonal factors they could not control: bankers and interest rates, railroads and freight rates, national and European markets, world supply and demand. In short, farmers had become businessmenbut with a difference. Unlike the capitalists of the industrial order, they could not regulate their production or influence the prices of what they sold. The period between 1865 and 1900 witnessed a tremendous expansion of agricultural facilities, not only in the United States but all over the world: in Brazil and Argentina in South America, in Canada, in Australia and New Zealand, and in Russia. World production increased at the same time as modern means of communication and transportationthe telephone, telegraph, cable, steam navigation, railroadswere welding the producing nations into one international market. American commercial farmers, constantly opening new lands, now produced more than the domestic market could absorb and had to depend on the world market to absorb their surplus. Cotton farmers depended on export sales for 70 percent of their annual income, and wheat farmers for 30 to 40 percent; other producers exported smaller proportions of their crops but enough, in most cases, for the exports to make the difference between a year of profit and one of loss.

But world prices were highly unpredictable. Starting in the 1880s, almost every sector of the farm economy began suffering from the effects of worldwide overproduction. And international prices soon declined to a point that made it difficult for even the most efficient farmers to make a profit. Despite the surface similarities between the growth of commercial agriculture and the growth of industry, the results were starkly different. Between 1860 and 1910, the number of farm families rose from 1.5 million to over 6 million. But whereas in 1860 agriculture had represented 50 percent of the total wealth of the country, by the early 1900s it represented only 20 percent. Where farmers had received 30 percent of the national income in 1860, they received only 18 percent by 1910. By the 1890s, 27 percent of the owned farms in the country were mortgaged, and by 1910, 33 percent. In 1880, 25 percent of all farms had been operated by tenants; by 1910, the proportion had grown to 37 percent. Commercial farming did, it is true, make some people fabulously wealthy. But the farm economy as a whole was suffering a significant decline relative to the rest of the nation.

The Farmers' Grievances

Farmers were painfully aware that something was wrong. Neither they nor anyone else yet understood, however, the full implications of national and world overproduction. Instead, they concentrated their attention and anger on more immediate, more comprehensibleand no less realproblems: inequitable freight rates, high interest charges, and an inadequate currency.

The farmers' first and most burning grievance was against the railroads. In all sections of the country, and especially in the states west of the Mississippi, farmers depended on the railroads to carry crops to the markets. In many cases, the roads charged higher rates for farm than for other shipments, and higher rates in the South and West than in the Northeast. Freight rates sometimes consumed so much of the current price that farmers refused to ship their crops and either let them rot or used them as fuel. Railroads also controlled elevator and warehouse facilities in buying centers and charged arbitrary storage rates. In the farmers' list of villains, the sources that controlled creditbanks, loan companies, insurance corporationsranked second only to the railroads. Commercial farming was by its nature expensive, and ambitious producers needed credit to purchase machines or enlarge holdings. Although lenders had been eager to advance loans during the boom period of rising land values, they had insisted on high interest rates. Since sources of credit in the West and South were few, farmers had had to take loans on whatever terms they could get, often at interest rates of from 10 to 25 percent. Farmers who had borrowed in the flush times had to pay their loans back in later years, when prices were dropping and currency was becoming scarce. With good reason, the farmers fought for an increase in the volume of currency.

A third grievance concerned prices: both the prices farmers received for their products and the prices they paid for goods they bought. Farmers disposed of their products in a competitive world market over which they had no control and of which they had no advance knowledge. A farmer could plant a large crop at a moment when prices were high and find that by the time of the harvest the price had declined. There were no storage facilities in which farmers could hold their crops and wait for the price to go back up. They had few options, and their fortunes rose and fell in response to unpredictable forces. Naturally, they attempted to find some explanation for their plight; and they tended increasingly to blame their troubles on particular villains: speculators in distant cities, international bankers, regional and local middlemen. Many farmers became convinced (often with some justice) that such people were combining to fix prices so as to benefit themselves at the expense of the growers.

Many farmers also came to believe (again, not without justice) that manufacturers in the East were conspiring to keep the prices of farm goods low and the prices of industrial goods high. Farmers sold their crops in a competitive world market; but they bought manufactured goods in a domestic market protected by tariffs and dominated by trusts and corporations. According to government reports, more than 100 articles purchased by farmersfarm machinery, tools, sewing machines, blankets, staple foods, clothing, plowshares, and otherswere protected. On these necessary items, the tariff added from 33 to 60 percent to the purchase price.

The Agrarian Malaise

Adding to these economic grievances, and in many ways a direct result of them, was a less tangible but deeply felt resentment. In part, it was an outgrowth of the isolation of farm life in these days before paved roads, automobiles, telephones, and radios. Farm families in some parts of the countryparticularly in the prairie and plains regions, where large farms were scattered over vast areaswere virtually cut off from the outside world and human companionship. During the winter months and spells of bad weather, the loneliness could become nearly unbearable.

In addition to the isolation, there was often a general drabness and dullness to farm existence. Many farmers lacked access to adequate education for their children, to proper medical facilities, to recreational or cultural activities, to virtually anything that might give them a sense of being valued members of a community. Older farmers felt the sting of watching their children leave the farm for the city. They felt the humiliation of being ridiculed as "hayseeds" by the new urban culture that was coming to dominate American life. There was, in short, a general feeling of obsolescence, of being left behind by a society that no longer placed much value on the virtues of rural life.

This emerging agrarian malaise found reflection in the growing discontent of many farmers, a discontent that would help to create a great national political movement in the 1890s. It found reflection, too, in the literature that emerged from rural America. Writers in the late nineteenth century might romanticize the rugged life of the cowboy and the Western miner. For the farmer, however, the image was different. Hamlin Garland, perhaps the most celebrated writer to deal with the nature of agrarian life in this period, reflected the growing disillusionment in a series of novels and short stories. In the past, Garland wrote in the introduction to Jason Edwards (1891), the agrarian frontier had seemed to be "the Golden West, the land of wealth and freedom and happiness. All of the associations called up by the spoken word, the West, were fabulous, mythic, hopeful." Now, however, the bright promise had faded. In this novel and in other works (including his most famous achievement, a collection of stories entitled Main-Traveled Roads, also published in 1891), he showed how the trials of rural life were crushing the human spirit. "So this is the reality of the dream!" a character in Jason Edwards exclaims. "A shanty on a barren plain, hot and lone as a desert. My God!" Once, sturdy yeoman farmers had viewed themselves as the backbone of American life. Now, they were becoming painfully aware that their position was declining in relation to the rising urban-industrial society to the east.

 


 

 



© ..
2003 - 2010