America's Frontier West

"American history has been in large degree the history of colonization
 of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous
 recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain
 American development."



   I. American West = adventure, individualism, opportunity
       A. Description of the American "frontier"
            1. Juncture of organized land & unsettled territory
            2. Line running generally north-and-south
            3. Constantly, gradually sliding westward
            4. Dissolved in circa 1890
       B. Myth-understandings about the "Wild West"
            1. Artists such as Catlin, Remington, Russell, others
            2. Legends themselves (inc. Hollywood & literature)
                  • murder of "Wild Bill" Hickok / Deadwood '76
                  • gunfight at the O.K. Corral / Tombstone '81
            3. Deadwood, Dodge City, Tombstone < 10 deaths/yr
            4. Reality = overcoming conditions to survive
       C. Foundation reasons for heading westward
            1. Land settlement
            2. Expanding railroads
            3. Cattle industry
            4. Discovery of gold
 II. Settlement and statehoods
       A. Homestead Act (1862) = 160 acres for 5-yr stay
            1. Many Americans too poor to move West
            2. Did not interest most industrial workers
            3. Climate & soil ill-suited to small-scale farming
            4. Widely abused by speculators & companies
                  • hired fraudulent "settlers"
                  • built houses on wheels
                  • houses measured "12 × 12"
       B. Other measures promoting westward movement
            1. Timber Culture Act / 1873 (plant seedling trees)
            2. Desert Land Act / 1877 (irrigation of arid land)
            3. Timber & Stone Act / 1878 ("unfit" forest land)
       C. Statehoods circa the Civil War
            1. Just prior: Minnesota, Oregon, & Kansas
            2. During: West Virginia & Nevada
            3. Immediately after: Nebraska in 1867
       D. Colorado in 1876 ("Centennial State")
            1. Discovery of gold in Pikes Peak region
            2. Application as "Jefferson Territory" rejected
       E. Six NW-quad states in two-year period
            1. Daks, Mont, Wash ("omnibus states") in 1889
                  • division of Dakota Terr. debated
                  • Pres. Harrison's secret action
            2. Idaho & Wyoming in 1890
                  • gold discovered in Idaho during early 1860s
                  • Wyoming granted suffrage to women in 1869
       F. Utah final statehood prior to turn of century
            1. Originally applied as huge "Deseret"
            2. Unusually long territorial status (45+ yrs)
       G. Remaining five statehoods
            1. Okla (opened noon on April 22, 1889) in 1907
            2. Ariz & N Mex complete continental U.S. in 1912
            3. Alaska & Hawaii (new global frontier) in 1959
III. Great cattle drives
       A. Big profit (ranchers) & great danger (cowboys)
       B. Longhorn = ornery crossbreed of Sp. & Br. cattle
       C. North twice yearly from near San Antonio, Texas
            1. Along several major trails
                  • Sedalia aka Baxter Springs oldest (1866)
                  • Eastern aka Shawnee branched from Sedalia
                  • Chisholm most heavily traveled
                  • Western & Goodnight-Loving aka Pecos
            2. To various cattle towns (mostly Kansas)
            3. Then east on railways to slaughterhouses
       D. 8-18 cowboys; 2500 head; 15-20 mi daily; 3-4 mos
       E. Rapid decline in late 1880s
            1. Searing 1886 summer between two bitter winters
            2. Collapse of beef prices due to overproduction
            3. Best land overgrazed & lost to homesteaders
IV. Transcontinental railroad
       A. Subsidized by Pacific Railway Act of 1862
            1. 200-ft wide domain linking Omaha & Sacramento
            2. Rec'd 5 alt. sections (mi²) each side per 1 rail mi
            3. 174 million acres (= Ohio, Penn, New York + NE states)
       B. Ave. daily progress was 4-7 mi but often miniscule
            1. Union Pac west (Irish immigrants) = 1,000 mi
            2. Central Pac east (Chinese laborers) = 700 mi
       C. Joined at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869
            1. Leland Stanford (w/ help) drove golden spike
            2. Thomas Hill's famous painting
            3. Luxurious ride & panoramic view (7+ days / $100)
       D. By 1900, 4 gov't aided & 1 privately funded
       E. Standard time zones = Dowd 1883; Congress 1918
 V. Plains Indian Wars
       A. Indians of the Great Plains
            1. Sioux → Minnesota & Dakotas
            2. Cheyenne → Colorado & Wyoming
            3. Comanche → Oklahoma & northern Texas
            4. Arapaho, Crow, Kiowa, others
       B. Common elements among Plains tribes
            1. Horse provided mobility (hunting, warfare, travel)
            2. Buffalo supplied all life's necessities (+ extras)
            3. Excellent cavalrymen & guerrilla fighters
                  • geographical melding of horse (Sp.) & rifle (Fr.)
                  • Sioux & Apache offered esp. fierce opposition
                  • tribes' unwillingness to unite hurt overall effort
       C. Government policy
            1. Precedent est'd by British (Proclamation of 1763)
            2. Trend cont'd by U.S. (Indian Removal Act of 1830)
            3. "Concentration" policy
                  • Thom. Fitzpatrick / Horse Creek council (1851)
                  • 10,000 Indians representing all Plains tribes
                  • tribal boundaries = "divide-and-conquer" tactic
            3. "Small reservation" policy
                  • Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty (1867) = Okla
                  • Fort Laramie Treaty (1868) = western So Dak
       D. Notable military engagements
            1. Sioux uprising aka Little Crow's War (Minn '62)
            2. Chivington Massacre at Sand Creek (Colo '64)
            3. Fetterman Massacre on Bozeman Trail (Wyo '66)
                  • + Wagon Box Fight, more = Red Cloud's War
                  • only campaign defeat of U.S. Army by Indians
            4. Battle of the Little Bighorn (Mont '76)
                  • aka Custer's "Last Stand"
                  • Plains tribes' pinnacle warfare moment vs. U.S.
                  • meant beginning of the end for wetsern Indians
            5. Capture of Chief Joseph's Nez Perces (Idaho '77)
            6. Surrender of Apaches under Geronimo (Ariz '86)
            7. Wounded Knee Massacre (S Dak '90)
                  • Ghost Dance: peaceful Paiute / militant Sioux
                  • preceded by accidental killing of Sitting Bull
                  • random gunfire erupted volatile situation
                  • casualties: Sioux = 250; 7th Cavalry = 35
       E. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Century of Dishonor (1881)
       F. Dawes Severalty Act (1887)
            1. More policy than regulation
                  • tribal lands split into individual farming plots
                  • land sale barred for 25 years
                  • funds provided for education, more
                  • U.S. citizenship offered as incentive
            2. Unsuccessful attempt to transform culture
                  • no desire among Indians to farm
                  • much of the land unsuitable for farming
                  • concept of land ownership incomprehensible
            3. Reversed by Wheeler-Howard Act (1934)
VI. Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis"
       A. American character = product of frontier experience
       B. Both positives & negatives (e.g. individualism)
       C. Continental frontier ceased to exist in circa 1890
       D. Thereafter America's frontier need satisfied abroad




  • Homestead Act
  • exodusters
  • Henry Comstock
  • Custer Expedition of 1874
  • Chisholm Trail
  • longhorn
  • cowtown
  • Joseph Glidden
  • "concentration" policy
  • "reservation" period
  • Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty
  • Fort Laramie Treaty
  • Little Crow's War
  • Chivington Massacre
  • Bozeman Trail
  • Red Cloud
  • Fetterman Massacre
  • Battle of the Little Bighorn
  • George Armstrong Custer
  • Crazy Horse & Sitting Bull
  • Last Fight
  • George Crook & Nelson Miles
  • Dawes Severalty Act
  • assimilation
  • Helen Hunt Jackson
  • Carl Schurz
  • Chief Joseph
  • Geronimo
  • Ghost Dance
  • Wovoka
  • Wounded Knee Massacre
  • Indian Reorganization Act
  • Morrill Act
  • Pacific Railway Act
  • Promontory Point
  • Leland Stanford
  • Oakes Ames
  • Adam, Hoss, & Little Joe
  • James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok
  • O.K. Corral
  • boomers & sooners
  • Frederick Jackson Turner

The Heart of Everything There Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin
Nothing Like It In the World: The Transcontinental Railroad by Stephen Ambrose
Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell


  • Fort Laramie Treaty (1868)
  • Two Moons: Description of Custer's "Last Stand" at the Little Bighorn (event 1876; written 1898)
  • Cassilly Adams & Otto Becker et al.: Series of "Last Stand" paintings (event 1876; paintings 1895-1976)
  • Chief Joseph: "I Will Fight No More" Surrender Speech (1877) & Plea for Justice (1879)
  • Caroline Reimers: Homesteading in South Dakota (event 1880s; written 1930)
  • Frederick Jackson Turner: Excerpt from his "Frontier Thesis" (1893)


1.  "Although the economic development of the trans-Mississippi West is popularly
     associated with hardy individualism, it was in fact largely dependent on the federal
     government." Assess the validity of this statement.

2.  Briefly trace the conception and construction of transcontinental railroads. Why were
     no such railways built prior to the Civil War? Why did construction proceed so rapidly
     from that time on?

3.  Give a brief account of the government's policies and resulting actions relative to the
     western Indians during the post-Civil War period. How could the overall Indian policy
     have been modified to achieve better results?

4.  Discuss the emergence and decline of the range cattle industry, accounting for each

5.  Account for the late settlement of the Great Plains region, and the rapidity of
     settlement once the process began. Was the system of land settlement employed
     there satisfactory?

6.  Select any two of the following states or groups of states and trace their evolution
     from settlement to statehood, citing reasons for each occurrence—Colorado; the
     Dakotas; Montana and Washington; Idaho and Wyoming; Utah; Oklahoma; Arizona
     and New Mexico.


  1. All of the following are true of the American frontier except that it
    1. separated the country's organized territory from its unsettled lands.
    2. moved steadily westward during the nineteenth century.
    3. formed a rough line generally running north and south.
    4. ceased to exist within a decade after the Civil War.

  2. The creation of time zones within the United States is associated with
    1. the railroads.
    2. various traveling variety shows such as Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West."
    3. the great cattle drives.
    4. the addition of statehoods to the country.

  3. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 was primarily concerned with
    1. separating and regulating western Indians according to tribes.
    2. preserving as much of the Indians' culture as possible.
    3. making each Indian family a landholding unit.
    4. protecting the rights of the Indians over lands they currently held.

  4. All of the following statehoods occurred in either 1889 or 1890 except
    1. Montana and Washington.
    2. Colorado and Utah.
    3. the Dakotas.
    4. Idaho and Wyoming.

  5. For most westerners, life was
    1. centered around the mining industry.
    2. focused on adapting and surviving.
    3. extremely violent due to saloon brawls, cattle stampedes, and Indian raids.
    4. considerably easier than in the industrial Northeast or the rural South.

The construction of another giant stone memorial is presently underway in the Black Hills—that of Sioux warrior Crazy Horse, depicted bare to the waist, arm defiantly outstretched, mounted on a fast-charging horse. Ironically, it is located near the small community of Custer, named after the infamous Seventh Cavalry commander whose forces were annihilated by an Indian confederation of Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in southeastern Montana during June of 1876. Click on the carving to access LECTURE GUIDE for this unit.


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