American West

The Old West, also called the Wild West or American West, region, which is mostly west of the Great Plains, is linked in popular imagination with the last frontier of American settlement.

A century-long blood feud between two Cherokee chiefs shaped the history of the Cherokee tribe far more than anyone, even the reviled President Andrew Jackson. They were John Ross and the Ridge. Today I’m talking with John Sedgwick about the fall of the Cherokee Nation due to the clash of these two figures.

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The Old West

(See Main Article: The Old West: Manifest Destiny, Oregon Trail, Native Americans, Gold Rush)

Cherokee Nation”

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The Ridge (1771–1839)—or He Who Walks on Mountains—was a Cherokee chief and warrior who spoke no English but whose exploits on the battlefield were legendary. John Ross (1790–1866) was the Cherokees’ primary chief for nearly forty years yet spoke not a word of Cherokee and proudly displayed the Scottish side of his mixed-blood heritage. To protect their sacred landholdings from American encroachment, these two men negotiated with almost every American president from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln. At first friends and allies, they worked together to establish the modern Cherokee Nation in 1827. However, the two founders eventually broke on the subject of removal; the Ridge believed resisting President Jackson and his army would be hopeless, while Ross wanted to stay and fight for the lands the Cherokee had occupied since long before the white settlers’ arrival in the Old West.

The failure of these two respected leaders to compromise bred a hatred that led to a bloody civil war within the Cherokee Nation, the tragedy of the Trail of Tears, and finally, the two factions battling each other on opposite sides of the Civil War. Sedgwick writes, “It is the work of politics to resolve such conflicts peacefully, but Cherokee politics were not up to the job. For a society that had always operated by consensus, there was little tradition of compromise.” Although the Cherokee were one of the most culturally and socially advanced Native American tribes in history, with their own government, language, newspapers, and religion, Sedgwick notes, “The warrior culture offered few gradations between war and peace, all or nothing.”

What Is Manifest Destiny?

Manifest Destiny refers to the attitude in America during the 1800’s when pioneers settled the country and believed that the U.S. was destined to stretch across the whole continent, from the one coast to the other. The phrase was used by politicians at the time and first published in an 1845 article about the annexation of Texas in the U.S. Magazine and Democratic Review. The manifest destiny belief is said to have helped to fuel the war with Mexico and the removal of Native Americans in the Old West.

Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

An Attitude of Nationalism and Superiority

At the time, Americans had just won Independence through the Revolution, which made them very nationalistic.  For many pioneers, it had become a mission to populate America and they moved west in droves to settle there.

Many settlers were very religious and believed that God has blessed the growth of America. Native Americans were seen as heathens and American missionaries saw it as their mission to bring Christianity to them. Other Americans saw the Native Americans as inferior, causing many racial clashes.

Native American Tribes and Nations: A History

(See Main Article: Native American Tribes and Nations: A History)

There were many different Native American tribes and those with similar characteristics formed a main tribe or nation. Each had its own language, religion and customs.

For the most part the Native American tribes lived peaceably believing that nature was sacred and was to be shared. However, the coming of the Europeans and the removal of their land led to conflict both between the different Native American tribes and between the Indians and whites.

By the end of the nineteenth century the Native American tribes had lost their fight to preserve their traditional way of life and those that had survived the conflicts were confined to reservations. This was the way of life for Native American tribes.

“The Pilgrims and Native Americans Were Both On the Verge of Death Upon Meeting. Here’s How They Saved Each Others’ Lives.”

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American West Timeline

(See Main Article: American West Timeline)




6th April
Mormons founded Joseph Smith founded the Mormon religion. Smith claimed that, after seeing a vision of an angel called Moroni, he discovered some hidden gold plates bearing inscriptions. The translation of the inscriptions was published in 1830 in the ‘Book of Mormon’. The official name of the religion is The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints but they are more commonly known as Mormons.
26th May 1830 Indian Removal Act The US Government decreed that the Indian tribes could freely inhabit the Great Plains. A Permanent Indian Frontier was established on the eastern edge of the Great Plains.
Spring 1837 Economic Depression An economic depression caused the collapse of many banks in the East. People lost their savings, wages fell and unemployment rose.
1839 Nauvoo founded The Mormons built their ‘holy city’ in Illinois. They called their city Nauvoo
Spring 1843 Fort Bridger established Jim Bridger, a former mountain man, built Fort Bridger on the Oregon Trail. Fort Bridger contained a store where travellers could purchase supplies as well as a workshop and forge where wagons could be repaired.
1843 Great Migration About a thousand people made the journey West to Oregon. This was the highest number of migrants to make the journey west in one year so far and became known as the Great Migration.
27th June 1844 Joseph Smith Killed Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion, and his brother Hyrum were shot and killed while imprisoned for destroying a printing press.
July 1845 Manifest Destiny John O’Sullivan, editor of the New York newspaper ‘The Morning Post’, first used this phrase to express the long held belief that white Americans had a God-given right to occupy the entire North American continent.
1846 – 1847 Mormons move to Salt Lake Following the death of the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, Brigham Young decided to take the Mormons away from the persecution they faced in the East and to build a new life for them at the Great Salt Lake.
24th January 1848 Gold discovered in California James Marshall, a carpenter employed by John Sutter to build a mill at Sutter’s Fort, discovered gold. Initially news of the discovery was kept secret but once it became known people from the East flocked to California hoping to find gold and make their fortune. Those who arrived in 1849 became known as the ‘Forty-niners’.
1850 Stagecoach Wells Fargo established the stagecoach which allowed travellers to pay to be transported by stagecoach.
17th September 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty This treaty between the US Government and the Indian tribes redefined the Indian homelands. The treaty stated that these lands would belong to the Indians and that they would not be entered by white settlers. The Indians were to be given provisions for a period of ten years as compensation for the loss of land.
1854 Homesteaders The first homesteaders began to move onto the Great Plains.
3rd April 1860 Pony Express founded The Waddell and Russell freight company established the Pony Express. Relay stations were set up across north America and riders carried mail from one station to the next.
1861 Fort Wise Treaty This treaty established the Sand Creek Reservation for the Cheyenne tribe.
22nd October 1861 Telegraph The first telegraph message was sent across America
1862 Pacific Railways Act This Act established two companies whose purpose was to construct a railway across America. The Union Pacific Railway was established in the East to build the railway to Missouri and then continue west. The Central Pacific Railway would build the railway from Sacramento and then continue east.
20th May 1862 The Homestead Act This Act offered anyone prepared to settle in the West 160 acres of land for free provided they built a home and farmed the land for five years.
August 1862 Little Crow’s War This was a revolt by the Santee Sioux led by chief Little Crow in protest against the reservations.The Santee Sioux had moved onto a reservation that had poor land and their crops failed. Compensation payments that had been promised by the government had not been delivered and the tribe faced starvation.

In August 1862 the Santee Sioux warriors attacked the government Agency. They continued to attack white settlers and the army for three months before being defeated by the army.

1863 Cheyenne Uprising The Cheyenne had agreed by the terms of the Fort Wise Treaty 1861 to move onto the Sand Creek Reservation. However, the land was very poor and survival for the Indians was virtually impossible. In 1863 faced with starvation, they began to attack wagon trains and steal food.
29th November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre An armed force, led by Colonel Chivington, attacked Black Kettle’s Cheyenne camp at Sand Creek. The motive for the attack was punishment for the raids on wagon trains. 163 Indians, including women and children, were killed and mutilated.
1866 The Long Drive Texas cattlemen used cowboys to drive cattle to the northern states.
Summer 1867 Red Cloud’s War The Sioux chief, Red Cloud, was furious when white settlers began using the Bozeman Trail which passed through the Sioux hunting grounds and began attacking travellers. Red Cloud was further angered when a line of forts was constructed to protect the travellers and increased the attacks. By spring of 1868 the government were forced to withdraw the army and abandon the forts.
Autumn 1867 Abilene founded Joseph McCoy, a Chicago cattle dealer, founded the ‘cow town’ of Abilene.
1868 The Winter Campaign Realising that the Indians never fought during the Winter months, the army decided to mount a Winter Campaign to try to catch them by surprise and force them into submission.
17th March 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty This treaty defined the territory of the Sioux Indians. It gave them the Black Hills of Dakota and the Bighorn mountains.
10th May 1869 Completion of the Railway  The transcontinental railway was completed. A ceremony, known as the ‘golden spike ceremony’ because a golden spike was used to join the East and West railways, was held at Promontory Point in Utah.
April 1871 Wild Bill Hickok Wild Bill Hickok (Buffalo Bill) was employed as Marshall of Abilene.
March 1873 Timber Culture Act This Act was an extension to the Homestead Act offering 160 acres of land for free provided that at least 40 acres was planted with trees.
June 1874 Gold in the Black Hills Gold was discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota.
1874 Barbed wire invented F Glidden invented barbed wire. This invention meant that large areas of land could be fenced relatively cheaply.
25th June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn The army decided to attack the Indians camped in the valley of the Little Bighorn. The attack was to be made from three sides. General George Armstrong Custer who led one of the attacking forces decided to attack without waiting for the other two forces to arrive. Custer split his force into three and advanced on the Indians. At some point Custer’s group were attacked. Custer and all his men were killed.
3rd March 1877 Desert Land Act This Act allowed farmers to buy 640 acres of land at a cheap price in areas where there was little rainfall and irrigation schemes were needed to farm the land
1881 Billy the Kid Shot Notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid, was shot by lawman Pat Garratt
February 1887 General Allotments Act (Dawes Act) This Act split up most of the remaining Indian land into 160 acre plots. Some of the plots were given to Indians but much of the land was allocated to white settlers.
29th December 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre A group of soldiers opened fire on a group of Sioux at the Pine Ridge reservation in Wounded Knee Creek killing 153 Indian men, women and children.
1892 Johnson County War The Johnson County war was a range war fought by rival ranchers over cattle and land.Cattle ranching had been firmly established in Johnson County since the 1870s and many ranch owners had become wealthy and influential. During the 1880s they wanted more land and tried to buy-out small time ranchers and farmers. Those small-time ranchers and farmers who resisted were accused of cattle-rustling and some were hanged.

In 1892 the cattle barons had hired a vigilante group to get rid of the ‘rustlers’. The small time ranchers and farmers formed their own army to counter the vigilante group. The army of small time ranchers and farmers managed to force the vigilante group back to their base and hold them under siege. The situation had to be resolved by the intervention of the US cavalry to free the vigilantes.



Native Americans – Origins

(See Main Section: Native Americans – Origins)

It is believed that the first people to inhabit North America were Asian in origin. It is believed that they made the journey from Asia to Alaska by crossing the Bering Strait during the Ice Age (at least 10,000 years ago)The picture (above) shows the location of the Bering Strait and an artist’s impression of travelers crossing during the Ice Age. Over a period of time, these people migrated further and further south. They adapted themselves to their environment – those living in the cold north became skilled hunters and fishermen, those living in the wooded areas built wooden houses and canoes while those in the hotter south grew corn and made houses from sun-dried bricks. There were hundreds of different tribal groups each adapting their lifestyle to the geographical and climatical region they inhabited. Those natives who were to become known as the Plains Indians initially inhabited the eastern river valley areas.

The Arrival of Europeans

When the first Europeans arrived in North America they believed they were in India and named the natives Indians, the name was to stick for nearly 500 years. The arrival of Europeans posed problems for the native Americans. Some groups chose to co-exist with the Europeans and adapted themselves to a more European style of living. Others, however, wanted to preserve their traditional way of life and moved to areas unwanted by the Europeans.

The arrival of Europeans also initiated the decline of the Native Indians. Entire villages were wiped out by diseases such as measles, smallpox, cholera, and pneumonia to which the Indians had no inbuilt immunity. Others, forced to leave their traditional hunting and farming lands found it difficult to re-establish themselves elsewhere and suffered malnutrition and death.

Reasons for Westward Expansion

(See Main Article: Reasons for Westward Expansion)

“The Pilgrims and Native Americans Were Both On the Verge of Death Upon Meeting. Here’s How They Saved Each Others’ Lives.”

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What were the reasons for Westward expansion? Ever since the first pioneers settled in the United States at the East, the country has been expanding westward. When President Thomas Jefferson bought the Louisiana territory from the French government in 1803, it doubled the size of the existing United States. Jefferson believed that, for the republic to survive, westward expansion was necessary to create independent, virtuous citizens as owners of small farms. He wrote that those who “labor the earth” are God’s chosen people and greatly encouraged westward expansion. The pioneers who flocked to the West, all had their own set of reasons for taking on the long, treacherous journey to settle there.

Reasons for Moving West

  • There was a vast amount of land that could be obtained cheaply
  • Great reports were continually sent back East about how fruitful and wonderful the West is, sparking a lot of interest.
  • The constraints of European civilization had a lot of people stuck in factory and other low-paid jobs. For the working class, it was almost impossible to work themselves up in life, something that was very doable in the New World.
  • Mining opportunities, silver, and the gold rush was a big draw for many
  • The expanding railroad provided easier access to supplies, making life in the West easier.
  • Certain wheat strains were discovered and were capable of adapting to the climate of the plains
  • Being a “cowboy” and working on farms with cattle was romanticized
  • The lure of adventure


The Cattle Industry In The American West

(See Main Article: The Cattle Industry In The American West)

Beginnings of the Cattle Industry

cattle industry

The Europeans who first settled in America at the end of the 15th century had brought longhorn cattle with them. By the early 19th century cattle ranches were common in Mexico. At that time Mexico included what was to become Texas. The longhorn cattle were kept on an open range, looked after by cowboys called vaqueros.

In 1836, Texas became independent, the Mexicans left, leaving their cattle behind. Texan farmers claimed the cattle and set up their own ranches. Beef was not popular so the animals were used for their skins and tallow. In the 1850s, beef began to be more popular and its price rose making some ranchers quite wealthy.

“Sam Colt’s Six-Shooter Launched The American Industrial Revolution and Sped Western Settlement”

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In 1861, Civil War broke out between the Northern and Southern states. Texan ranchers left their farms to fight for the Confederate army. The Confederates lost the war. The defeat destroyed the economy in the South. However, the cattle, left to their own devices, had multiplied. There were approximately 5 million longhorn cattle in Texas in 1865 but there was no market for them in the South. There was, however, a market in the north. If the ranchers could get their cattle to the North they would fetch ten times what they were worth in the South.

Why was Joseph McCoy important for the cattle industry?

cattle industry

Joseph McCoy was a livestock trader in Chicago. He wanted to bring the longhorn cattle from Texas to Chicago and from there distribute them to the East. Making himself a lot of money in the process.

Homesteaders who had established themselves in Kansas objected to the cattle crossing their land because they carried a tick that killed other animals. Cattlemen driving cattle through Kansas met fierce opposition and were reluctant to make the journey.

McCoy knew that the railroad companies were keen to carry more freight. The Kansas/Pacific railway ran past a frontier village. McCoy built a hotel, stockyard, office and bank in the village which became known as Abilene – one of the first cow towns. Cattle were to be driven from Texas to Abilene and were then taken East by train.

Abilene was near the end of a trail that had been established during the Civil War by Jesse Chisholm to take supplies to the Confederate army. The trail lay to the west of the Kansas farms which meant the cattlemen could use it without hostility from the Kansas homesteaders.

In 1867, McCoy spent $5,000 on advertising and riders. He promised a good price for cattle sold in Abilene and was a man of his word. One cattleman bought 600 cows for $5,400 and sold them in Abilene for $16,800. It was the beginning of the ‘beef bonanza’. Between 1867 and 1881 McCoy sent more than 2 million cattle from Abilene to Chicago. His reputation for reliability gave rise to the expression ‘the real McCoy’.

Transcontinental Railroad of 1869

(See Main Article: Transcontinental Railroad of 1869)

The transcontinental railroad in the latter half of the nineteenth century was typically built with substantial infusions of federal, state, and local government aid. This aid took two forms: loans and land grants. The railroads sold the land to settlers for cash. In the process, they also created a market for their services. Those who lived near their railroad now had livelihoods that hinged on the railroad’s success, usually because they needed it to ship their freight.

The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 called for the laying of track by the Union Pacific (UP) and the Central Pacific (CP), the former going west from Omaha and the latter going east from Sacramento. The two roads would eventually link.

The project had more than its share of problems. The government subsidies introduced perverse incentives, all chronicled by Professor Folsom. Since the railroad companies received land and loans in proportion to the amount of track they laid, management had an incentive to lay track rapidly in order to collect as much federal aid as possible. There was much less emphasis on the quality of track laid or on following the shortest possible route than there would have been in the absence of these government handouts. To the contrary, circuitous routes meant more track laid and therefore more federal aid. Moreover, since low-interest loans were granted in higher amounts for more mountainous terrain, the railroad companies had greater incentive to lay track over less suitable land than if they had had to lay track with their own resources.

What was the Oregon Trail?

(See Main Article: What was the Oregon Trail?)

The Oregon Trail (also known as the Oregon-California trial) was a 2,200-mile route stretching from Missouri to Oregon that was traveled by the early Wild West pioneers in the 1800s. The trail was the only way for settlers to reach the West Coast via land and over 500,000 have made the trip with ox and mule wagons before the first transcontinental railroad was completed. Wagons that could travel at a speed of 15 miles a day took between four and six months to complete the trip via the Oregon Trail while taking the sea route took a full year.

Origins of the Trail

Originally, what became the Oregon Trail used to be a series of unconnected Native American trails. The route was then expanded by Fur Traders who used it to transport their pelts to meeting points and trading posts. Missionaries also used the fairly faint trail in the 1830s to establish churches in the Northwest. It was only by the 1840s when the trail however started to be used on a larger scale by the first settlers after Joel Walker made the trip with a family. In 1843, wagon trains of 120 wagons, 800 people and 5,000 cattle used the trail and in 1848 gold diggers also flocked to California via the trail. Towns, trading posts, military posts and smaller roads sprang off the Oregon Trail for the next 30 years.

Success Stories of The Oregon Trail

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With the completion of the Central Pacific and the Portland, Oregon, Union Pacific railroads between 1869 and 1884 the use of the Oregon Trail started to decline rapidly. Traveling by train simply became a shorter, safer and more comfortable option.

The Railroad War”

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