New west reader essays on an ever-evolving frontier


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But such a herculean task was not easy, and national legislators threw enormous subsidies at railroad companies, a part of the Republican Party platform since Between and alone, railroad companies received more than ,, acres of public land, an area larger than the state of Texas.

Investors reaped enormous profits. If railroads attracted unparalleled subsidies and investments, they also created enormous labor demands. By , approximately four hundred thousand men—or nearly 2. Much of the work was dangerous and low-paying, and companies relied heavily on immigrant labor to build tracks.

Companies employed Irish workers in the early nineteenth century and Chinese workers in the late nineteenth century. By , over two hundred thousand Chinese migrants lived in the United States.


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Once the rails were laid, companies still needed a large workforce to keep the trains running. Much railroad work was dangerous, but perhaps the most hazardous work was done by brakemen. Speed was necessary, and any slip could be fatal. Brakemen were also responsible for coupling the cars, attaching them together with a large pin. It was easy to lose a hand or finger and even a slight mistake could cause cars to collide.

The railroads boomed. In , there were 9, miles of railroads in the United States.

In there were ,, including several transcontinental lines. Of all the Midwestern and western cities that blossomed from the bridging of western resources and eastern capital in the late nineteenth century, Chicago was the most spectacular. It grew from two hundred inhabitants in to over a million by By it and the region from which it drew were completely transformed. Chicago became the most important western hub and served as the gateway between the farm and ranch country of the Great Plains and eastern markets.

Railroads brought cattle from Texas to Chicago for slaughter, where they were then processed into packaged meats and shipped by refrigerated rail to New York City and other eastern cities. Such hubs became the central nodes in a rapid-transit economy that increasingly spread across the entire continent linking goods and people together in a new national network.

This national network created the fabled cattle drives of the s and s. The first cattle drives across the central Plains began soon after the Civil War. Railroads created the market for ranching, and for the few years after the war that railroads connected eastern markets with important market hubs such as Chicago, but had yet to reach Texas ranchlands, ranchers began driving cattle north, out of the Lone Star state, to major railroad terminuses in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.

Ranchers used well-worn trails, such as the Chisholm Trail, for drives, but conflicts arose with Native Americans in the Indian Territory and farmers in Kansas who disliked the intrusion of large and environmentally destructive herds onto their own hunting, ranching, and farming lands. This photochrom print a new technology in the late nineteenth century that colorized images from a black-and-white negative depicts a cattle round up in Cimarron, a crossroads of the late-nineteenth-century cattle drives.

Detroit Photographic Co. Cattle drives were difficult tasks for the crews of men who managed the herds. Historians estimate the number of men who worked as cowboys in the late-nineteenth century to be between twelve thousand and forty thousand. Much about the American cowboys evolved from Mexican vaqueros : cowboys adopted Mexican practices, gear, and terms such as rodeo , bronco , and lasso. While most cattle drivers were men, there are at least sixteen verifiable accounts of women participating in the drives.

Some, like Molly Dyer Goodnight, accompanied their husbands. Others, like Lizzie Johnson Williams, helped drive their own herds. Williams made at least three known trips with her herds up the Chisholm Trail. Many cowboys hoped one day to become ranch owners themselves, but employment was insecure and wages were low.

Fragments of the Afghan Frontier

And it was tough work. On a cattle drive, cowboys worked long hours and faced extremes of heat and cold and intense blowing dust. They subsisted on limited diets with irregular supplies.

Cowboys like the one pictured here worked the drives that supplied Chicago and other mid-western cities with the necessary cattle to supply and help grow the meat-packing industry. Their work was obsolete by the turn of the century, yet their image lived on through vaudeville shows and films that romanticized life in the West. John C.

New West Reader Essays On An Ever Evolving Frontier

But if workers of cattle earned low wages, owners and investors could receive riches. Although profits slowly leveled off, large profits could still be made. And yet, by the s, the great cattle drives were largely done. The railroads had created them, and the railroads ended them: railroad lines pushed into Texas and made the great drives obsolete. But ranching still brought profits and the Plains were better suited for grazing than for agriculture, and western ranchers continued supplying beef for national markets. Ranching was just one of many western industries that depended on the railroads.

By linking the Plains with national markets and rapidly moving people and goods, the railroads made the modern American West. As the rails moved into the West, and more and more Americans followed, the situation for Native groups deteriorated even further.

Treaties negotiated between the United States and Native groups had typically promised that if tribes agreed to move to specific reservation lands, they would hold those lands collectively. Each head of a Native family was to be allotted acres, the typical size of a claim that any settler could establish on federal lands under the provisions of the Homestead Act.

Single individuals over age eighteen would receive an eighty-acre allotment, and orphaned children received forty acres. A four-year timeline was established for Indian peoples to make their allotment selections. If at the end of that time no selection had been made, the act authorized the secretary of the interior to appoint an agent to make selections for the remaining tribal members. To protect Indians from being swindled by unscrupulous land speculators, all allotments were to be held in trust—they could not be sold by allottees—for twenty-five years.

Lands that remained unclaimed by tribal members after allotment would revert to federal control and be sold to American settlers. Both men served as delegates to Washington, D. Americans touted the Dawes Act as an uplifting humanitarian reform, but it upended Indian lifestyles and left Indian groups without sovereignty over their lands.

Under the terms of the Dawes Act, Native groups struggled to hold on to some measure of tribal sovereignty. The stresses of conquest unsettled generations of Native Americans. Many took comfort from the words of prophets and holy men. He had traveled, he said, from his earthly home in western Nevada to heaven and returned during a solar eclipse to prophesy to his people.

You must not fight. And they must, he said, participate in a religious ceremony that came to be known as the Ghost Dance. If the people lived justly and danced the Ghost Dance, Wovoka said, their ancestors would rise from the dead, droughts would dissipate, the whites in the West would vanish, and the buffalo would once again roam the Plains. Native American prophets had often confronted American imperial power. Some prophets, including Wovoka, incorporated Christian elements like heaven and a Messiah figure into indigenous spiritual traditions.

Perhaps the most avid Ghost Dancers—and certainly the most famous—were the Lakota Sioux.

Comps Notes: Frederick Jackson Turner’s “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”

The Lakota Sioux were in dire straits. South Dakota, formed out of land that had once belonged by treaty to the Lakotas, became a state in White homesteaders had poured in, reservations were carved up and diminished, starvation set in, corrupt federal agents cut food rations, and drought hit the Plains. Many Lakotas feared a future as the landless subjects of a growing American empire when a delegation of eleven men, led by Kicking Bear, joined Ghost Dance pilgrims on the rails westward to Nevada and returned to spread the revival in the Dakotas.

The energy and message of the revivals frightened Indian agents, who began arresting Indian leaders. Then Chief Sitting Bull and with several other whites and Indians, were killed in December during a botched arrest, convincing many bands to flee the reservations to join the fugitive bands farther west, where Lakota adherents of the Ghost Dance were preaching that the Ghost Dancers would be immune to bullets. Two weeks later, an American cavalry unit intercepted a band of Lakotas, including over women and children, under Chief Spotted Elk later known as Bigfoot.

They were escorted to Wounded Knee Creek, where they camped for the night. Tensions flared, a shot was fired, and a skirmish became a massacre.

Frederick Jackson Turner, “Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893)

The Americans fired their heavy weaponry indiscriminately into the camp. Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee. Soldiers putting Indians in common grave; some corpses are frozen in different positions. South Dakota.

New West Reader Essays On An Ever Evolving Frontier

Wounded Knee marked the end of sustained, armed Native American resistance in the West. Everything in American history up to the s somehow relates the western frontier, including slavery. In spite of this, Turner laments, the frontier has received little serious study from historians and economists.

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