Once a region traversed by nomadic settlers (perhaps 30,000 years ago), the US West was one of the last areas on earth exposed to European colonization. Its complex history of peoples in flux led to a frontier spirit that survives in both myth and reality. Those who live “out West,” as the phrase goes in the US, pride themselves on their hardiness and adventurous spirit—and the region’s colorful past explains why.
- The Early Migrations
- Indian Nations
- European Inroads
- Louisiana Purchase
- Pioneer Movement
- The Mormons
- Gold and Silver Rushes
- Linking East and West
- The Cattle Industry
- The Indian Wars
- Acquisition of Alaska and Hawaii
- The Preservation Movement
- The West Grows Up
- Time Line
The Early Migrations
Archaeological sites throughout the Americas yield many clues about the origins of Native Americans, but controversy persists over when or by what route they arrived in the New World. Most scientists believe that the majority of ancestral Native Americans walked from northeastern Asia across the Bering land bridge during the Pleistocene Epoch. They would have moved south via an ice-free corridor that opened through Canada during a warming period. An intriguing newer theory postulates that some may have arrived from Siberia in skin boats—some settling in Alaska, most coasting around the maritime glaciers and quickly moving south to settle the more promising temperate coastal spots, then heading inland over succeeding generations.
The first Paleo-Indians apparently arrived 30,000 years ago, finding a land rich in mammoths, camels, large bison, mastodons, prehistoric horses and other big game. Whether the Paleo-Indians died out or were absorbed into later populations is unknown, but judging from the scant remains they left, they were anthropologically distinct from contemporary Native Americans. The oldest complete human corpse discovered in North America, the Spirit Cave mummy from central Nevada, was radiocarbon-dated to about 9,400 years ago and apparently has no direct descendants. The skeleton of 9,300-year-old Kennewick Man, found in a burial site near the Columbia River in Washington, indicates racial links nearer to southern Asian or Polynesian people than to modern Native Americans. Traces of Paleo-Indian flint projectile points have been found at Folsom and Clovis, New Mexico, and elsewhere.
The ancestors of most modern Native Americans began arriving about 15,000 years ago. Descended from northeastern Asian peoples, they also hunted big game, although larger mammals began to disappear as the climate warmed about 10,000 years ago. Succeeding generations of these hunters and gatherers fanned out across the Americas, adapting to specific territorial homelands.
A third migration about 9,500 years ago brought the Athabascan ancestors of the Navajo, Apache and peoples of the Alaskan and Canadian interior. Ancestors of the Inuit and Aleut people arrived in a fourth migration from Siberia about 4,500 years ago, occupying the frigid Arctic and stormy Aleutian Islands.
Hawaiians trace their ancestry to two distinct waves of Polynesian settlers who sailed northward in double-hulled canoes. The first wave arrived between AD 400 and 750, probably from the Marquesas Islands. The second migration, likely from Tahiti, arrived around 1100. These newcomers vanquished the earlier inhabitants and developed a society in which chiefs and hereditary priests held social ascendancy over large classes of farmers and fishermen.
When Europeans arrived at the end of the 15C, scores of nations occupied America’s West. Some were migratory hunters and gatherers; others lived in fixed villages. Erroneously assuming they had landed in the East Indies, the first Europeans called Native inhabitants “Indians.” Though scholars may refer to Native Americans or Amerindians, the most common term used today, even among tribal leaders, is “American Indian.”
Of the 54 million people that anthropologists estimate were living in the Americas at the time of Columbus’ “discovery” in 1492, about 4 million dwelled north of Mexico. At least 300 distinct languages were spoken. West of the Mississippi River, anthropologists count 56 language families, although six predominated. Uto-Aztecan prevailed from central Mexico into Texas; it was spoken by the Comanche, Shoshone, Paiute, and the Pueblo cultures of New Mexico. Siouan was the dominant language of the Great Plains and Missouri River Valley. Algonquian was spoken by the Blackfoot, Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples who had migrated to the northern plains from northeastern woodlands. Salish was dominant in the Northwest coastal region. Athabascan was spoken in western (but not coastal) Canada and central Alaska, and by Navajo and Apache in the Southwest. Eskimo-Aleut was the tongue of the Inuit and Aleut people of Alaska. In California alone, there was a veritable Babel of 120 dialects (of seven separate language families).
Numerous migrations predated European contact in the late 17C. Eastern woodland farmers, including the Mandan, Omaha, Osage, Pawnee and Wichita, headed to the western prairies between 100 BC and AD 900. Later European settlement along the eastern seaboard spurred the Lakota and other nations to the Great Plains. Many tribes, like the Mandan, remained in permanent farming villages after their migration, while others abandoned villages once Spanish horses were introduced in the 17C, choosing a nomadic lifestyle following bison herds. Horses also brought greater leisure and a cultural renaissance to the Lakota, Crow, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Comanche, Blackfoot, Arapaho and other tribes, all of whom developed elaborate religious rites and highly codified warrior rituals.
Mexican farming culture, based on corn, gourds, chiles, beans and squash spread by 300 BC into southern Arizona, where the Hohokam irrigated corn. Farming influenced the peoples of the southern Rockies and Colorado Plateau to settle in villages. The Puebloans in particular built cliff dwellings and sophisticated towns that maintained elaborate trade links as far distant as the Aztec cities. The Puebloan cities were abandoned by AD 1200, perhaps because of drought; they transformed into the modern Hopi and Pueblo cultures. Their lands were occupied by ancestors of the Navajo and Apache in the 14C.
The population of California on the eve of the Spanish conquests is estimated to have been over 300,000. With fish and shellfish, game, roots, seeds and acorns readily available, there was never a need for farming, except among Yuman-speaking desert tribes of the lower Colorado River. Coastal tribes, including Ohlone, Chumash, Yurok and Pomo, traded with inland tribes such as Miwok, Maidu and Yokut on the west side of the Sierra Nevada, who in turn traded eastward with Shoshonean tribes of the Great Basin.
The tribes of the Northwest coast, from northern California to Alaska—including Chinook, Tillamook, Skokomish and Tlingit—were likewise rich in resources, particularly fish and shellfish. They built sturdy homes, canoes and furniture of cedar, hemlock, spruce, bone and other resources, and cultivated highly refined notions of regarding material goods and social status. Acquisition of material wealth—especially its redistribution at a ceremony known as the potlatch—was a prime determinant of social status.
The inland tribes in the Columbia Basin, especially the Nez Percé, Cayuse and Flathead, migrated from the Pacific coast. They depended upon salmon runs for a major part of their diet, supplementing fish with game and plants, including the nutritious camas bulb. The arrival of the horse to this region in the 18C increased the tribes’ mobility and trading contacts.
Despite the ubiquity of the American Indian tribes, new diseases brought by European contact swept the Americas and thinned Native populations as much as 90 percent. This was perhaps the most lethal pandemic ever visited upon human beings.
The conquest of the Aztec empire in 1521 by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) enormously enriched the Spanish treasury and plunged the Spanish government into colonization of their vast new territories in the New World. Spanish exploration of North America followed rumors of gold carried back to Mexico in 1536 by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c.1490-1557), A succession of explorers penetrated the unknown land seeking treasures in the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola—most prominently the expeditions of Hernando de Soto (1496-1542), who entered Oklahoma from the east in 1541, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510-54). Coronado marched north from Mexico in 1540, wreaking mayhem among the Pueblos, pushing as far north as the Grand Canyon and possibly as far east as Kansas, but failing to find another Aztec or Inca empire.
Spain allowed its colonization of New Mexico and California to languish until Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-96) landed on California’s north coast and claimed it for England in 1579. That sparked a northward expansion of Spanish frontiers. Throughout the 17C, expansion of Spanish settlements—and with them, the forced conversion of Indians to Catholicism—progressed with checkered success throughout the Rio Grande Valley. The colonies survived despite periodic setbacks including the devastating Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when Indians drove the Spanish from New Mexico for more than a decade. Spanish policy thereafter was reformed to permit native religious practices to continue, and the culture of New Mexico developed into a blend of Spanish and Pueblo, with its capital at Santa Fe.
The French, meanwhile, were scouring the USA West for a different treasure: fur pelts.The French seized the key to the Great Plains in the 17C by building trading posts along the Mississippi River at St. Louis and other strategic points. They called the region Louisiana after King Louis XIV. By 1682, when René-Robert Cavalier de la Salle (1643-87) navigated the river to its mouth and claimed the Mississippi and its tributaries for France, the vast territory stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Separating Florida from Mexico, it prompted a Spanish frenzy to colonize Texas.
Over the next half century, French traders explored every western tributary to the Rockies, even mounting an expedition to Santa Fe in 1739. The French did not pursue a vigorous colonization of Louisiana, however, so the tribes of the Great Plains remained unaffected by their paper affiliation with the French empire. Territorial settlements developed a Creole character born of French, African slave and Native American populations. Greater numbers of American adventurers arrived after 1763, when the Treaty of Paris—ending the French and Indian War—extended the borders of British colonies from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. Neglected for more than a century, Spain’s claims to Alta (Upper) California were revived by fears of foreign incursions. Under Aleksei Chirikov (1703-48) and Dane Vitus Bering (1681-1741), Russians began probing Alaskan waters in 1728, sparking an influx of fur hunters and fortified colonies along that coast. English ships also investigated the Pacific: James Cook (1728-79) claimed British Columbia for England in 1768. Cook subsequently visited the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii in 1778, and George Vancouver (1757-98) mapped the Canadian coast in 1792-94.
Goaded into action, a Spanish expedition organized by Padre Junípero Serra (1713-84) and Gaspar de Portolá (c.1723-86) pushed, by land and sea, to San Diego harbor, where Serra dedicated the first of California’s 21 missions on July 16, 1769. Over the next decade, a string of missions, pueblos and presidios was erected along a coastal strip that stretched from San Diego to San Francisco Bay, with a provincial capital at Monterey.
The westward expansion of the US in the late 17C and 18C—both as a collection of British colonies and as an independent republic after 1776—inexorably progressed despite warfare with Native Americans and complex political and military maneuvering among European powers in North America. The rallying cry that justified and even glorified this expansion was “Manifest Destiny,” the idea that the US was ordained by divine right to push its borders to the Pacific. European conflict enabled the single greatest stroke in this expansion when a shortage of funds convinced Napoléon to sell Louisiana to the US for about $15 million in 1803 to support his war against Great Britain.
Pressed as much by personal curiosity as national interest, President Thomas Jefferson selected his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809), to head an exploratory expedition, and Lewis invited his boyhood friend, career soldier William Clark (1770-1838), as co-leader. Instructed to promote trade with the Indians, observe flora and fauna, map major rivers and their sources, and make records of soils, minerals and climate, the Corps of Discovery set course up the Missouri River on May 14, 1804, with a party of seasoned frontiersmen.
Wintering at a Mandan village in what is now North Dakota, they enlisted a French Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, as an interpreter for their journey. Charbonneau’s Shoshone wife, Sacagawea (c.1786-1812), unexpectedly proved a far greater asset. The presence of a native woman signaled to western tribes that this was not a war party. Sacagawea was instrumental in obtaining horses when the expedition dramatically encountered a Shoshone tribe, led by her own brother, near the Continental Divide. After a strenuous descent from the Rockies, Lewis and Clark arrived at the Pacific Ocean on November 7, 1805. They wintered at the mouth of the Columbia River and returned to St. Louis in September 1806, having lost only one man to appendicitis.
The extraordinary success of Lewis and Clark overshadowed other government-funded forays into the West. After leading an expedition to the upper Mississippi in 1805-06, Zebulon Pike (1779-1813) investigated the Colorado Front Range headwaters of the Arkansas and Red Rivers; another party, led by Major Stephen H. Long (1784-1864), ascended the Platte River and looped back through the high plains; Long branded the region “the Great American Desert.”
Others headed west without government support, seeking adventure and profit from the burgeoning fur trade. These “mountain men” sought buffalo robes, bear and deer hides, the pelts of otter and fox, and especially beaver furs, which earned high prices in Chinese and European markets. Among them was John Colter (c.1774-1813), who left the eastbound Lewis and Clark party and became the first person to describe the Yellowstone country. Jedediah Smith (1799-1831) was a Bible-toting teetotaler who blazed trails across the Great Basin to California and north to the Columbia River. Others included Kit Carson (1809-68), Jim Bridger (1804-81), Jim Beckwourth (c.1800-66) and Joe Walker (1798-1876). Living in extreme isolation and independence, these men became thoroughly acquainted with the West, blazing the first transcontinental trails or bringing long-established Indian trails to the attention of travelers. After Mexico overthrew Spanish rule in 1821, Santa Fe began welcoming American traders. William Becknell (c.1790-1865) became the first American to push wagons through the plains to the New Mexico outpost, opening the Santa Fe Trail and earning large profits by exchanging hardware and dry goods for livestock.
The fur trade heated up on the Pacific slope, too, after New Englander Robert Gray (1755-1806) made a fortune on a round-the-world voyage, gathering pelts along the Northwest coast in 1789 and selling them in China for vast profits. The name of his ship, Columbia, was bestowed upon the Northwest’s great river. As New England merchants pushed deeply into the China trade, clipper ships called at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco Bay, resupplying and trading for tallow and cowhides. California’s enviable climate and excellent harbors became common knowledge along the Eastern seaboard after Richard Henry Dana published his best-seller, Two Years Before the Mast (1840).
Yankees also reaped great profits in the Pacific from hunting whales, the primary source of lamp oil in the mid-19C. A particularly rich hunting ground was the Hawaiian Islands. Soon after Captain Cook had introduced the remote archipelago (dubbed the “Sandwich Isles”) to the world, King Kamehameha I (c.1758-1819) unified the islands in 1795. Whaling rapidly became the economic mainstay, increasing the kingdom’s reliance on foreign advisers while enabling hundreds of sturdy Hawaiian sailors to ship out. The whalers’ most insidious contributions to local culture were smallpox, syphilis and other epidemics that ravaged the indigenous population, hewing their numbers from 300,000 at the time of Cook’s visit to 54,000 a century later.
The Indian Removal Act of 1830 saw the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole nations uprooted from their homelands in the South and forced to march to the Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. Ironically known as the Five Civilized Tribes for their adoption of American clothing and agricultural methods, the populations were decimated by the internment and grueling march, since referred to by the Cherokee tribe as the “Trail of Tears.” Moved by a delegation of Flathead Indians that arrived in St. Louis in 1831 seeking information on Christianity, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries set out for the isolated Oregon Country. A mission near modern Walla Walla, Washington, was built by Marcus Whitman (1804-47); in 1836, his wife, Narcissa Whitman, and her companion, Eliza Spaulding, became the first American women to cross the continent.
The three Western destinations that most appealed to early pioneers were each claimed by a foreign nation. The promised land in the 1830s was Texas, then governed by Mexico. In the 1840s, new streams of pioneers set out for the Oregon Country, jointly (though sparsely) occupied by Britain and the US. Other pioneers set their sights on California, a neglected Mexican outpost.
Anglo-American traders and squatters had been unwelcome residents of Texas since the late 18C. Most Americans flooding into Texas had no intention whatsoever of respecting Mexican law or culture. Anglo Texans proved so assertive of their independence that political tensions had degenerated to skirmishes, and Mexico resolved to put down the rebellion. In 1836, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876) took 4,000 troops to San Antonio and slaughtered a party of insurrectionists at a former mission, the Alamo. Santa Anna then marched east to San Jacinto, near modern Houston, to dispatch another small Texas army, this one led by Sam Houston (1793-1863). Rallying under the battle cry “Remember the Alamo!” the Texans captured Santa Anna, defeating his troops and winning their independence. The new Republic of Texas elected Sam Houston as its president. Beset by debt, Indian hostilities and conflict with a Mexico unwilling to recognize its independence, Texas was steered by Houston toward statehood in 1845.
Oregon proved a less contentious acquisition. With its salubrious climate and soil, the Oregon Country’s graces were well advertised in the East. Convoys of Conestoga wagons began journeying west from Independence, Missouri, in 1842, guided by scouts familiar with a route soon known as the Oregon Trail. Stretching some 2,000mi, the Oregon Trail followed the Platte River across Nebraska; surmounted the Continental Divide at broad South Pass, between Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger; then crossed the Snake River Plain and Blue Mountains to Whitman’s Walla Walla mission. A final stretch down the Columbia River brought tired travelers to the lush Willamette River Valley. In 1843, the Oregon Country petitioned Congress for protection from British claims and marauding Indians. In 1846, the US and Britain compromised on the 49th parallel as their boundary. The slaughter of Whitman and his fellow missionaries by Indians in 1847 provoked another demand for federal protection, and in 1848 the Oregon Territory was formally established.
Some parties of transcontinental migrants left the Oregon Trail for California. The Mexican residents of California, known as Californios, were a self-sufficient lot; they received scant attention from Mexico’s government, which was content to let the landholders rule themselves. A growing population of Yankees and other foreigners were living in Monterey and other settlements, having jumped ship, adopted the Catholic religion and become naturalized Mexican citizens. Many became prominent in Californio society.
Among the foreign residents was John Augustus Sutter (1803-80), a Swiss adventurer with vast land grants along the American River in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter entertained many travelers and immigrants at his walled fort, including US Army surveyor John C. Frémont (1813-90) after his exhausting 1844 winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada. Frémont’s published report of his California journey became the standard guidebook for westbound travelers.
After Texas gained statehood, the resulting war with Mexico eventually brought the US the land that is today Arizona and New Mexico. A contemporaneous insurgent movement in California had declared the area an independent republic, but the rebels welcomed US help in the form of a military expedition led by General Stephen Kearny (1794-1848). By the end of hostilities in 1848, Texas was safely in US hands, along with the entire West all the way to Los Angeles, then a sleepy trading village, and San Diego.
Even before it was relinquished by Mexico, the Great Basin already had been proclaimed the State of Deseret by a sect of pioneers who called themselves Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 in New York by Joseph Smith (1805-44). His zealous missionary work reaped new members, but he antagonized many others with his determined espousal of Old Testament views on polygamy and by his adherence to the unorthodox Book of Mormon; attributed to divine revelation, it propounded that Jesus had taught in North America after his biblical resurrection. When the sect moved West to facilitate its missionary work, the Mormons were violently driven from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, where Smith was murdered by an armed mob. Brigham Young (1801-77) assumed the role of prophet and leader.
Young led his people to the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Young directed the construction of Salt Lake City; he returned East to bring more Mormon immigrants, encouraged others from Europe, and exhorted all to bring the tools, seeds and zeal they would need to establish a self-sufficient nation in a hard land. Thousands made the trek across the Plains and Rockies in ensuing decades, swelling the closely knit population and making the desert bloom with irrigation water from the Wasatch Mountains.
The Utah Territory was established in 1850, but friction soon developed over questions of loyalty. The institution of polygamy, and rumors of Mormon-inspired Indian uprisings, raised alarm in the East. Convinced of impending rebellion, the US government in 1857 ordered 2,500 troops to march to Utah to install a new governor to replace Young. Young portrayed the invasion as a tool of Mormon persecution. He declared martial law, mobilized a militia, recalled distant Mormon outposts, burned down Fort Bridger in Wyoming, fortified the western boundary of the Utah Territory, and even ordered Mormons to be ready to torch their own settlements. Tensions peaked when zealots slaughtered a party of non-Mormon pioneers at the Mountain Meadow Massacre in southern Utah. But with both sides perched on the brink of disaster, common sense prevailed, and diplomats negotiated a peaceful resolution.
Gold and Silver Rushes
A few weeks before the formal peace with Mexico in 1848, flecks of gold were discovered in the sand at John Sutter’s lumber mill on California’s American River. The news spread like wildfire. The next year, Forty-Niners began pouring by land and sea into California from the eastern US, Europe, Australia, Asia, Mexico and South America. In just weeks, the port city of San Franciscogrew from a sleepy village of 800 to a cosmopolitan hive of 90,000. In January 1849 alone, 61 vessels arrived at San Francisco Bay from the Eastern seaboard after sailing around stormy Cape Horn. As passengers and crews set off for the gold mines, abandoned ships rotted or were dragged ashore to serve as hotels, warehouses and offices. Meanwhile, thousands of prospectors—as well as tradesmen, money lenders, innkeepers, teamsters, preachers, gamblers, gunslingers and prostitutes—set out overland along the Oregon, California and Santa Fe Trails.
Mining camps with names like Rough and Ready, Hangtown, Poker Flat and Murderers Bar sprang up in the canyons and foothills, and California’s Caucasian population mushroomed from 15,000 in 1848 to almost 100,000 in 1850, when California joined the Union as the 31st state. The frenetic activity died down toward the end of the 1850s with the decline of surface gold; individual gold miners gave way to mining corporations, companies with stockholders and the capital to build and operate hard-rock, dredging and hydraulic mining operations. Thousands of fortune hunters returned home or settled into new opportunities in California, where ranching, farming, construction, and other jobs became increasingly available.
The California gold rush was the archetype of a series of mining rushes that marked the West for the next 60 years, instantly peopling remote corners with makeshift towns. Strikes in Colorado and Nevada started new stampedes just as the California rush was settling down. The Pikes Peak gold rush hit pay dirt in 1858; the nearby city of Denver was platted by speculators that winter, and by spring 1859 a real rush was on. New lodes were discovered higher in the Rockies; Denver’s first newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, began publication in April, and a US mint opened the following year. Hostile confrontations with Indians increased; reservations were established deeper into the plains, and Indians were rounded up in campaigns that degenerated into the full-blown Indian Wars. Numerous smaller strikes flared up throughout the West, from Arizona to Montana and South Dakota.
The 1859 discovery of Nevada’s vast Comstock Lode of silver and gold produced a very different kind of mining rush. The difficulties of mining ore required capital investment and sophisticated engineering. Speculators from California bought up stock in the richest mines, while San Francisco merchants, farmers and transport companies earned good profits shipping supplies, food and people to the town that grew atop the mines, Virginia City. As newly minted millionaires built elegant mansions atop Nob Hill in San Francisco, Virginia City emerged as the first truly industrialized city west of the Mississippi.
Linking East and West
The first overland transcontinental mail and passenger-coach service was contracted in 1857 to John Butterfield, William G. Fargo & Associates, who avoided the snows of the Rockies using a route from St. Louis and Memphis to El Paso, Tucson and Los Angeles. Faster service came with the Pony Express, which transported express mail by relays from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, and by ship to San Francisco. Riding in 75mi increments, day and night, changing ponies at stations spaced every 10-15mi, a team of riders could transport the mail pouch in 10 days. The route grew shorter as telegraph lines edged across America; they joined in 1861.
The West escaped the ravages of the Civil War, save for a few small skirmishes. The US government, eager to ensure a steady flow of California gold and Comstock silver during the war, pushed for a transcontinental railroad that would link California and Nevada with the East Coast. As incentive, Congress offered land grants and subsidies to rail companies for every mile of track laid. Two companies formed to build lines from opposite ends: the Central Pacific eastward from California and the Union Pacific westward from Missouri.
Financiers Collis P. Huntington (1821-1900), Mark Hopkins (1814-78), Charles Crocker (1822-88) and Leland Stanford (1824-93)—who became known as “The Big Four”—established the Central Pacific in 1861. Construction over the most difficult sections of the Sierra’s Donner Pass depended heavily upon 15,000 laborers from China, who laid the track. The Union Pacific, employing large numbers of Irish, set out across the Great Plains under chief engineer Grenville Dodge (1831-1916). Despite Indian resistance, the rolling terrain permitted faster progress than in the Far West. The project was known as “Hell on Wheels,” both for its rambunctious crews and for the army of rascally camp followers, saloons, gambling dens and brothels that flourished in their wake. The two crews joined east and west with the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
The railroads prospered, and their boards and presidents acquired great political and economic clout. By deftly wielding their vast real-estate grants, these corporations could determine where cities and towns would be built, and which communities could prosper. The Northern Pacific opened the Dakota Territory and Montana to easier settlement by linking Minnesota with Portland, Oregon, in 1883, and with Seattle in 1887. The Southern Pacific extended a line from New Orleans to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Cattle Industry
The Great Plains obviously were ideal for livestock. Herds of bison numbered perhaps 50 million prior to the arrival of Europeans. However, the buffalo were nearly wiped out in an orgy of slaughter that climaxed in the 1870s, when animals were wantonly killed from passing trains or massacred en masse for their hides. Their extermination crushed the independence of the Indians, but it also opened the ranges for cattle. Ironically, three decades later US buffalo were saved from extinction partly through the efforts of former hunters such as Buffalo Bill and Theodore Roosevelt.
The longhorn range cattle of the Texas plains were descended from breeds brought north from Mexico in the late 17C. Most of the techniques of livestock husbandry used in 19C Texas likewise were developed from methods used in Spanish New Mexico: Cattle were grazed on open ranges, gathered by roping from horseback in annual roundups, branded and driven to market in herds. Even the clothing, saddle and lingo of the Anglo cattle industry were largely adapted from the vaqueros.
After the Civil War, with beef in Northern markets earning 10 times as much as on the Southern plains, enterprising Texans contrived a scheme to round up wild cattle. They were driven to railheads and shipped to stockyards and meat-packing plants in Chicago, Omaha and Kansas City, thence to the Northeast. Crews of cowboys branded and drove the cattle along what soon became well-established routes, including the Chisholm, Goodnight-Loving, Sedalia and Western trails. The drives were fraught with danger and discomfort. Rivers had to be forded; bandits, hostile Indians, wildfires, disease and extreme weather conditions took their toll.
After weeks in the saddle, cowboys were ecstatic to return to some semblance of civilization. The arrival of a cattle drive in a terminal town—among them Fort Worth, Texas; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Wichita, Abilene and Dodge City, Kansas—was marked by days and nights of frantic celebration and wild roughhousing by the pleasure-starved wranglers. The excitement and ready money in cow towns attracted saloon keepers, prostitutes, gamblers and various riffraff to service or fleece the cowboys. Gunplay was common, giving rise to a tough breed of lawmen who sometimes were hard to distinguish from hired gunslingers. Some names have become part of Western legend: Wyatt Earp (1848-1929), William Barclay “Bat” Masterson (1853-1921), James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-76).
Many early Texas cattlemen—including Jesse Chisholm (1805-68), John Chisum (1824-84) and Charles Goodnight (1836-1929)—grew wealthy from the cattle drives and staked out huge ranches on the plains. Soon the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s offered a practical method of fencing large, treeless areas. Consolidation of the cattle industry on large ranches encouraged the formation of cooperative organizations to fight rustlers, look after business interests and make rules governing roundups, quarantines, branding and mavericks (unbranded stray cattle). As the industry became more regulated, it attracted well-moneyed Eastern and European investors. Powerful organizations and cattlemen sometimes tried vigilantism to hinder “nesters” (homesteaders) and small ranchers from gaining footholds. Dangerous and widespread range wars, such as New Mexico’s 1878 Lincoln County War, brought notoriety to gunmen like William “Billy the Kid” Bonney (c.1859-81).
The Indian Wars
As ever-growing numbers of miners, cattlemen, railroad builders, soldiers and pioneers pushed across the Great Plains and Rockies, overrunning what had been designated “Indian land,” the federal government sought to redraw the boundaries of native homelands. Reservations for the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Blackfoot, Sioux, Crow and other tribes were reduced in size and placed as far as possible from railways and settlements. The Army set about enforcing the tribes’ removal to the reservations. As buffalo herds dwindled, and with federal troops fighting the Civil War in the East, some tribes stepped up depredations against settlements in the high plains.
When one renegade band of Cheyenne sued for peace in 1864, a Colorado militia force led by Methodist minister John Chivington ambushed their camp, killing more than 300 men, women and children in what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre. Already angered by the decimation of bison herds, by countless trespasses on their hunting grounds and by broken treaties, the massacre further convinced Native Americans from Texas to Montana that they must fight to survive. The 1870s saw repeated insurrections. Among the bloodiest were the 1874-75 Red River War, staged by Comanche and Kiowa led by Quanah Parker (c.1845-1911); and the four-month, 1,200mi odyssey of the Nez Percé under Chief Joseph (c.1840-1904), who was determined not to be confined to a reservation.
The Sioux offered the most dogged resistance on the Great Plains. After the Bozeman Trail to Montana mines was cut through Sioux hunting grounds east of the Big Horn Mountains, Red Cloud (1822-1909) led the tribe in an 1866 campaign that forced the US Army to surrender and abandon Fort Phil Kearny. Red Cloud also secured guarantees for South Dakota’s sacred Black Hills in exchange for his promise to never again go to war against the US. But when prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills in 1874 and a full-blown gold rush ensued, the Sioux returned to war under Crazy Horse (c.1842-77) and Sitting Bull (1831-90).
Peace negotiations failed dismally. As the Sioux and their Cheyenne allies rode west toward the Big Horns, pursued by the Army, they established camp on the Little Bighorn River of Montana. When Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (1839-76) and his 7th Cavalry attacked without ascertaining the Indians’ full force, he and all 225 of his troops, plus another 47 under command of other officers, were killed. A single horse survived what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.” The nation was shocked. The Indians could not exploit their resounding victory, however. With winter they were forced to return to the reservation.
Another resilient people were the Apaches, who for centuries raided their Indian neighbors and played havoc with Spanish and Mexican settlers. Attacks continued against Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, growing more severe during the Civil War. Aided by familiar terrain and harsh climate, the Apaches—under such leaders as Cochise (c.1812-1874) and Geronimo (c.1829-1909)—for decades were able to evade Army campaigns by retreating into mountain strongholds.
In the 1880s, the messianic Ghost Dance religious movement swept from California to the Dakotas. Originating among the Paiutes, the cult exhorted followers to dance trance-like in a circle to commune with dead ancestors. The cult promised the resurrection of ancestors and old ways, a resurgence of the buffalo and the disappearance of the whites. In 1890, when they became alarmed by dances on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, soldiers tried to disarm the Sioux, who fled into the nearby Badlands. In an ensuing melée, soldiers opened fire and killed about 250 men, women and children. The Wounded Knee Massacre was the last major conflict of the Indian Wars.
White settlers also pressured the government to open for settlement some former reservation lands of Oklahoma, seized from the Indians as Civil War reparation for their support of the Confederacy. In several government-organized land runs, the first in 1889, contenders for homesteads were assembled on the edge of each new tract and released en masse at an appointed hour. Numbering as many as 100,000 when the 6-million-acre Cherokee Outlet was opened in 1893, emigrants fanned out at full speed in wagons and buggies. They overran each new territory within hours, seizing farmsteads and city lots in Oklahoma City, Norman, Guthrie and other settlements that vaulted to life overnight.
The unsettled West provided ample space for criminals and unsociable elements to hide from the law. Known for robbing coaches, trains and banks, Jesse James (1847-82), the four Dalton Brothers (b.1861-71) and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang of Robert “Butch Cassidy” Parker (1866-1909?) and Harry “Sundance Kid” Longabaugh (1870-1909?) were among the nefarious felons. As settlements grew, however, so did demand for law and order. The frontier sheriff or marshal enforced laws against carrying firearms in towns, an unglamorous and sometimes-risky task that contributed enormously to social order.
Acquisition of Alaska and Hawaii
Russia sold its vast North American territories to the US government for $7.2 million in 1867. Secretary of State William Seward (1801-72) negotiated the purchase, for which he was ridiculed by a handful of politicians and newspapermen. Few settlers ventured to Alaska until 1897-98, after gold was discovered on a tributary of the Klondike River in Canada’s neighboring Yukon Territory, setting off the last of the West’s gold rushes. Some 100,000 stampeding prospectors poured off steamships from Seattle and San Francisco, setting off on the Chilkoot Trail. Many were unprepared for the exertion, isolation or severe climate; fewer than half arrived at the gold fields. Hardy survivors—known thereafter as Sourdoughs for the starter they used to leaven camp bread—went on to strike gold in the Yukon and Tanana River Valleys, and in far-western Alaska at Nome.
Half an ocean away, Hawaii by the mid-19C boasted one of the world’s highest English literacy rates, the fruit of New England missionaries. Enormous blocks of land were bought up by Americans and other foreigners and consolidated into sugar plantations. Thousands of contract laborers from China, and later from Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Portugal, met labor demands. When Hawaiian sugar was granted duty-free access to the US market in 1874, American business interests in Honolulu began to clamor for more power in the government.
In 1887, businessmen induced King David Kalakaua (1836-91) to adopt a constitution that reduced him to a figurehead. An attempted palace coup to replace the weakened king with his sister, Liliuokalani (1838-1917), was suppressed by US Marines. When Liliuokalani became queen by succession in 1891, her efforts to regain true power prompted a prominent newspaperman, Lorin Thurston, to lead the bloodless “Revolution” of 1893, establishing the Republic of Hawaii. Calls for US annexation were answered in 1898, and Hawaii achieved territorial status in 1900.
The Preservation Movement
The closing of the frontier brought some hard recognition that the resources of the West, once seemingly boundless, were not inexhaustible. Water produced the longest and most intractable dispute; indeed, battles still rage today. The Mormons had shown that irrigation could accommodate a deficiency in rainfall and make the desert bloom. What’s known as “appropriation doctrine” was created to govern water. Whoever first captured water and put it to use had the right to it, no matter where it originated; the individual (or organization) owns the right to the water, not the water itself. This system is often explained with the now-axiomatic phrases “Use it or lose it” and “First in time, first in right.” As a result, vast networks of reservoirs and canals now distribute immense amounts of water hundreds of miles from its natural paths.
The dangers of unmanaged resource exploitation were pointed out early by John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). A naturalist who had lost his arm as an artillery battery commander in the Civil War, Powell achieved near-legendary status by twice leading wooden-boat expeditions through the rugged drainage of the Colorado River, including the Grand Canyon, the last major unexplored region of the continental US. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, Powell’s first expedition descended the Green and Colorado Rivers on dories in 1869. Powell was instrumental in creating the US Geological Survey, an agency he later headed. His respect for the miracles wrought by irrigation was tempered by warnings that the public lands of the West be rationally managed to conserve water and other resources.
The federal government vastly expanded water redistribution in the 20C by sponsoring massive “reclamation” projects, constructing dams, reservoirs, canals and irrigation systems that turned California’s Central Valley into the richest agricultural region in the world. Large dams built on the Columbia, Snake, Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas and other Western rivers supply electricity and channel water for public consumption, agriculture and recreation. On the Great Plains, aquifers were tapped for irrigation; coupled with the development of dry-farming techniques in the late 19C, the plains states became major producers of wheat and other grains.
Reclamation projects, however, also enabled the sprawl of vast urban tracts on arid lands. The explosive growth of Los Angeles after the capture of Owens River water in the early 20C was later followed by the runaway expansions of Las Vegas and Phoenix, beginning in the 1970s.
Beginning in the late 19C, meanwhile, large natural areas came under the protective umbrella of the US government. The paintings and photographs of Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson, which accompanied the first detailed descriptions of the wondrous Yellowstone Country, provoked public interest and spurred Congress to create the world’s first national park in 1872. Protection for California’s giant sequoias and peerless Yosemite Valley followed in 1890, inspired by the writings of John Muir (1838-1914). The conservation movement found a friend in President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), whose own experiences on a North Dakota ranch had brought him joy and robust health. Though a Division of Forestry had been established in the 1870s, Roosevelt quadrupled the amount of national forest land, gave a boost to the creation of national parks and monuments in the early 20C, and created the vast federal system of wildlife refuges.
The National Park Service today manages 85 million acres (133,000sq mi) of parklands, while another 100 million acres (156,000sq mi) are protected by the US Fish and Wildlife Service as wildlife refuges. Managed for commerce, recreation and environmental purposes are 193 million acres (301,000sq mi) of national forest and 258 million acres (403,000sq mi) of public domain under the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These lands lie, overwhelmingly, in western states.
The West Grows Up
As the percentage of women in the Western population increased, so did family life and the stability it represented. Drinking and gambling had been conspicuous features of the overwhelmingly male societies of mining settlements, lumber camps and cow towns. A scarcity of females has been cited as one reason the women’s suffrage movement achieved its earliest successes in the Rocky Mountains, where male voters conceivably hoped enfranchisement might attract more women settlers. Wyoming Territory was the first US entity to grant women the vote, in 1869; it was followed by Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1896.
Government regulation and intervention transformed the West in the 20c. The Great Depression of 1929 and the 1930s coincided with one of the historically worst droughts on the Great Plains. As crops failed, winds blew away the parched topsoil and the region became known as the Dust Bowl. Thousands of farmers and ranchers faced bankruptcy. Foreclosures sent up to 400,000 migrant farmers, many from Oklahoma, in search of work to California (where they were labeled Okies). President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) took revolutionary action with his New Deal, introducing bold programs to control erosion, regulate farm production to raise agricultural prices, provide drought relief, and fund huge reclamation and irrigation projects. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed thousands in public construction projects. Federal and state governments spent millions building upgrading roads and bridges, a program that facilitated the growth of tourism throughout the West.
World War II heralded unprecedented growth and change. Burgeoning shipyards and war industries brought thousands of workers to Pacific Coast cities from other parts of the US. The Army and Navy established huge training bases and missile-testing ranges in the wide-open desert and plateau lands, while Alaska and Hawaii boomed with an influx of military personnel. The aerospace industry took root in southern California, Seattle and later Houston, bringing lucrative defense contracts, demands for labor, government jobs and subsidies for universities.
The booming post-war economy brought huge growth, especially in California, which overtook New York as the most populous state in the 1960s. Fueled by Asian and Latin American immigration, the demographic makeup of Western cities changed dramatically; Los Angeles and San Francisco became the most ethnically diverse regions of the US. Growth also brought many problems long associated with Eastern cities—scarce housing, urban blight, crime, poverty, traffic jams and pollution. Politically, the Pacific coastal areas became among the most liberal in the nation, while the Western hinterland has remained more politically conservative.
The high-technology revolution brought great wealth to California, major Northwest cities (at one time Seattle had 10,000 residents with at least $1 million of Microsoft stock) and other areas. It also created a trend that worries preservation-minded inland Westerners: Telecommuters now may live wherever they wish, instead of being concentrated where jobs dictate. Many scenic areas, especially near public recreation lands, have become highly desirable real estate: in 2007, the median asking price for a single-family residence in Jackson Hole, Wyoming was $2.5 million; and the Bend, OR, area grew an astounding 65 percent from 1996-2006. Ranchers find that subdividing their lands can be more profitable than agriculture. As new housing developments encroach upon diminishing wildlife habitats, they also crowd the sensibility of wide-open spaces that has always set the West apart from the Eastern US.
The new millennium has brought ever more intense battles over resource preservation, spurred by early 21C federal government proposals to expand logging and oil and gas exploration in undeveloped areas such as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Activists are starting to urge that dams be removed on Pacific Northwest rivers to help restore the region’s rapidly disappearing salmon runs. Nonetheless, there are still many places where it’s customary to raise a hand in greeting when vehicles pass on country roads--a custom adapted from similar traditions on horseback a century ago. Drivers can still be forced to wait along a Western road while a cattle drive goes by. Cougars and bears have become frequent visitors to Western suburbs, and the bald eagle, America’s symbol, was removed from the endangered-species list in 2007. More than a dozen Indian tribes have begun restoring buffalo herds to their ancestral grounds. And the quintessential song of the West, the yipping cries of coyote packs, rings from foothills, rangelands and ridgetops throughout the region, an open range melody that has painted the evening air for thousands of years.
c.30,000 BC Paleo-Indians begin arriving in North America, probably across the Bering Land Bridge.
c.300 BC Irrigated farming enters Arizona from Mexico.
c.AD 1200 Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings abandoned.
1492 Christopher Columbus lands in the Western Hemisphere.
1521 Hernán Cortés defeats the Aztecs and claims Mexico for Spain.
1540-42 Francisco de Coronado marches through the Southwest in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola.
1542 Juan Cabrillo explores the California coast.
1579 Sir Francis Drake lands in California, claiming it for England.
1609 Santa Fe is founded.
1680 Spanish colonists flee northern New Mexico after more than 400 are slaughtered in Pueblo Revolt; they return in 1692.
1682 René-Robert de la Salle sails down the Mississippi, claiming the river and its western drainage for France.
1728 Vitus Bering explores the coast of Alaska for Russia.
1762 France cedes Louisiana Territory to Spain to avoid losing it to England.
1763 Treaty of Paris extends British (American colonial) frontier west to the Mississippi River.
1768 Captain James Cook claims coastal Canada for Great Britain.
1769 Junípero Serra establishes first of 21 California coastal missions.
1776 The future San Francisco is founded at Mission Dolores.
1778 Captain Cook makes first landing in Hawaii.
1781 Los Angeles is founded.
1784 Russia establishes settlements at Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska.
1792-94 George Vancouver charts Pacific coast from San Diego to Alaska, leading to competing British and US claims to Oregon Country.
1800 Napoleonic France regains Louisiana Territory from Spain.
1803 US buys Louisiana Territory from France for $15 million.
1804-06 Lewis and Clark journey up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.
1811 Fur traders found Fort Astoria at mouth of Columbia River.
1812 Russians establish Fort Ross on northern California coast.
1818 Treaty with Great Britain establishes northern US territorial border.
1821 Mexico declares independence from Spain. Santa Fe Trail opens.
1824 US War Department creates Bureau of Indian Affairs.
1830 Indian Removal Act mandates relocation of Five Civilized Tribes from southeastern US to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).
1834 Mexico secularizes California missions.
1836 Texas wins independence from Mexico six weeks after slaughter at The Alamo. Whitmans establish Walla Walla mission.
1842 First settlers leave Missouri on Oregon Trail.
1845 Republic of Texas becomes US state.
1846 US acquires Oregon Territory south of 49th parallel in negotiations with Great Britain.
1847 Brigham Young leads Mormons into Great Salt Lake Valley. Whitman missionaries slain by Cayuse Indians.
1848 US wins New Mexico and California in treaty ending Mexican War. Gold discovered in California, igniting gold rush of 1849.
1850 California enters Union.
1858-59 Gold discovered in Colorado; Comstock Lode (silver) revealed in Nevada.
1858-61 Butterfield stagecoaches run from St. Louis to Los Angeles.
1860-61 Pony Express.
1861-65 Civil War.
1861 First transcontinental telegraph line completed.
1866 Led by Red Cloud, Sioux eject Army from Wyoming’s Fort Phil Kearny. First cattle drive on Goodnight-Loving Trail.
1867 US buys Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million.
1869 Transcontinental railroad joined in Utah. Wyoming gives women suffrage. John Wesley Powell charts Grand Canyon by boat.
1872 Yellowstone is established as first national park.
1876 Lt. Col. George Custer and his troops annihilated by Sioux and Cheyenne at Battle of the Little Bighorn.
1877 Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Percé are captured after a 1,200mi flight.
1878 “Billy the Kid” begins a short but notorious outlaw career by killing a sheriff during the Lincoln County War.
1883 “Buffalo Bill” Cody launches his renowned Wild West Show.
1887 Dawes Act redistributes reservation land to individual Indians.
1889-93 Land rushes bring 150,000 homesteaders to Oklahoma.
1890 Wounded Knee Massacre.
1892 Sierra Club founded with John Muir as president.
1893 US planters depose Hawaii’s Queen Liliuokalani, establishing republic accepted in 1898 as US territory.
1896 Utah becomes state after Mormons de-sanction polygamy.
1897 Klondike gold rush begins, drawing prospectors to Alaska; oil gusher at Bartlesville, Oklahoma, signals start of industry.
1900 More than 6,000 people die in Galveston hurricane.
1902 Reclamation Act diverts funds from sale of public lands to construct dams and other irrigation projects in West.
1906 Great earthquake and fire devastate San Francisco.
1913 Los Angeles Aqueduct brings water from Owens Valley to L.A. Hollywood’s first feature film, The Squaw Man, is released.
1916 William Boeing founds aircraft company in Seattle. National Park Service established in Washington DC.
1919 Grand Canyon National Park created.
1927-41 Mount Rushmore chiseled by sculptor Gutzon Borglum.
1936 Hoover Dam completed. Sun Valley resort opens.
1937 Golden Gate Bridge spans entrance to San Francisco Bay.
1941 Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; US enters World War II.
1953 War hero Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, a Texas-born Kansan, succeeds Harry S Truman as US president.
1959 Alaska and Hawaii become 49th and 50th states.
1962 Cesar Chavez organizes United Farm Workers in California.
1963 President John Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas and succeeded by Lyndon Johnson, a native Texan.
1971 Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act distributes $1 billion and 44 million acres of land to indigenous tribes.
1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen establish Microsoft in Albuquerque, New Mexico; four years later, they move it to a Seattle suburb.
1980 Washington’s Mount St. Helens erupts, killing 57. California governor Ronald Reagan, a former actor, is elected US president.
1989 Tanker Exxon Valdez spills 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
1995 Terrorist bombing of Oklahoma City federal building kills 168.
2000 Former Texas governor George W. Bush becomes US president, winning second term in 2004.
2007 California’s population passes 37 million: one in every eight Americans now lives in the Golden State. Devastating brush fires destroy homes in Malibu, California, before spreading south to San Diego, and even into Mexico.