Violence In The Old West Essay Definition

"Wild West" redirects here. For other uses, see Wild West (disambiguation).

For cultural influences and their development, see Western (genre).

The American frontier comprises the geography, history, folklore, and cultural expression of life in the forward wave of American expansion that began with English colonial settlements in the early 17th century and ended with the admission of the last mainland territories as states in 1912. "Frontier" refers to a contrasting region at the edge of a European-American line of settlement. American historians cover multiple frontiers but the folklore is focused primarily on the conquest and settlement of Indian lands, west of the Mississippi River, in what is now the Midwest, Texas, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, and the West Coast.

This era of massive migration and settlement was particularly encouraged by the Colonial and early United States government following the Louisiana Purchase, and coined the term and political philosophy known as "Manifest Destiny".

Enormous popular attention in the 19th and early 20th century media focused on the Western United States in the second half of the 19th century, a period sometimes called the Old West, or the Wild West, the theme of which typically exaggerated the romance, anarchy, and chaotic violence of the period for greater dramatic effect. This eventually inspired the Western genre of film, which spilled over into comic books, and children's toys, games and costumes.

As defined by Hine and Faragher, "frontier history tells the story of the creation and defense of communities, the use of the land, the development of markets, and the formation of states." They explain, "It is a tale of conquest, but also one of survival, persistence, and the merging of peoples and cultures that gave birth and continuing life to America."[1] Through treaties with foreign nations and native tribes; political compromise; military conquest; establishment of law and order; the building of farms, ranches, and towns; the marking of trails and digging of mines; and the pulling in of great migrations of foreigners, the United States expanded from coast to coast, fulfilling the dreams of Manifest Destiny. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner in his "Frontier Thesis" (1893) theorized that the frontier was a process that transformed Europeans into a new people, the Americans, whose values focused on equality, democracy, and optimism, as well as individualism, self-reliance, and even violence. Thus, Turner's Frontier Thesis proclaimed the westward frontier to be the defining process of American history.

As the American frontier passed into history, the myths of the West in fiction and film took firm hold in the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike. In David Murdoch's view, America is exceptional in choosing its iconic self-image: "No other nation has taken a time and place from its past and produced a construct of the imagination equal to America's creation of the West."[2]

Terms "West" and "Frontier"[edit]

The frontier line was the outer line of European-American settlement. It moved steadily westward from the 1630s to the 1880s (with occasional movements north into Maine and Vermont, south into Florida, and east from California into Nevada). Turner favored the Census Bureau definition of the "frontier line" as a settlement density of two people per square mile.[3] The "West" was the recently settled area near that boundary.[4] Thus, parts of the Midwest and American South, though no longer considered "western", have a frontier heritage along with the modern western states.[5][6] In the 21st century, however, the term "American West" is most often used for the area west of the Mississippi River.

Colonial frontier[edit]

Main article: Thirteen Colonies

In the colonial era, before 1776, the west was of high priority for settlers and politicians. The American frontier began when Jamestown, Virginia was settled by the English in 1607. In the earliest days of European settlement of the Atlantic coast, down to about 1680, the frontier was essentially any part of the interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the Atlantic coast.[7] English, French, Spanish and Dutch patterns of expansion and settlement were quite different. Only a few thousand French migrated to Canada; these habitants settled in villages along the St. Lawrence River, building communities that remained stable for long stretches; they did not simply jump west the way the British did. Although French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes and mid-west region they seldom settled down. French settlement was limited to a few very small villages such as Kaskaskia, Illinois[8] as well as a larger settlement around New Orleans. Likewise, the Dutch set up fur trading posts in the Hudson River valley, followed by large grants of land to rich landowning patroons who brought in tenant farmers who created compact, permanent villages. They created a dense rural settlement in upstate New York, but they did not push westward.[9]

Areas in the north that were in the frontier stage by 1700 generally had poor transportation facilities, so the opportunity for commercial agriculture was low. These areas remained primarily in subsistence agriculture, and as a result by the 1760s these societies were highly egalitarian, as explained by historian Jackson Turner Main:

The typical frontier society therefore was one in which class distinctions were minimized. The wealthy speculator, if one was involved, usually remained at home, so that ordinarily no one of wealth was a resident. The class of landless poor was small. The great majority were landowners, most of whom were also poor because they were starting with little property and had not yet cleared much land nor had they acquired the farm tools and animals which would one day make them prosperous. Few artisans settled on the frontier except for those who practiced a trade to supplement their primary occupation of farming. There might be a storekeeper, a minister, and perhaps a doctor; and there were a number of landless laborers. All the rest were farmers.[10]

In the South, frontier areas that lacked transportation, such as the Appalachian Mountain region, remained based on subsistence farming and resembled the egalitarianism of their northern counterparts, although they had a larger upper-class of slaveowners. North Carolina was representative. However frontier areas of 1700 that had good river connections were increasingly transformed into plantation agriculture. Rich men came in, bought up the good land, and worked it with slaves. The area was no longer "frontier". It had a stratified society comprising a powerful upper-class white landowning gentry, a small middle-class, a fairly large group of landless or tenant white farmers, and a growing slave population at the bottom of the social pyramid. Unlike the North, where small towns and even cities were common, the South was overwhelmingly rural.[11]

From British peasants to American farmers[edit]

The seaboard colonial settlements gave priority to land ownership for individual farmers, and as the population grew they pushed westward for fresh farm land.[12] Unlike Britain, where a small number of landlords owned most of the good land, ownership in America was cheap, easy and widespread. Land ownership brought a degree of independence as well as a vote for local and provincial offices. The typical New England settlements were quite compact and small—under a square mile. Conflict with the Native Americans arose out of political issues, namely who would rule.[13] Early frontier areas east of the Appalachian Mountains included the Connecticut River valley,[14] and northern New England (which was a move to the north, not the west).[15]

Wars with French and with Natives[edit]

Most of the frontiers experienced Native wars,[16] The "French and Indian Wars" were imperial wars between Britain and France, with the French making up for their small colonial population base by enlisting Indian war parties as allies. The series of large wars spilling over from European wars ended in a complete victory for the British in the worldwide Seven Years' War. In the peace treaty of 1763, France lost practically everything, as the lands west of the Mississippi river, in addition to Florida and New Orleans, went to Spain. Otherwise lands east of the Mississippi River and what is now Canada went to Britain.

Steady migration to frontier lands[edit]

Regardless of wars Americans were moving across the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania, what is now West Virginia, and areas of the Ohio Country, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the southern settlements via the Cumberland Gap, their most famous leader was Daniel Boone,[17] but to the north, closer to dense colonial populations and Europe immigrants, a certain Virginia gentleman, George Washington promoted settlements in West Virginia and Southwestern Pennsylvania to lands he had acquired title to both as a surveyor and as someone who'd distinguished himself as an officer in Virginia's colonial militia. West of the mountains, settlements were curtailed abruptly by a decree by the British crown in 1763, which also deconflicted many of the conflicting claims made by various colonies. The Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768) was an attempt by colonials to re-open in part, trans-Appalachian settlements from the Eastern Seaboard cities.[18]

New Nation[edit]

The first major movement west of the Appalachian mountains originated in Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina as soon as the Revolutionary War ended in 1781. Pioneers housed themselves in a rough lean-to or at most a one-room log cabin. The main food supply at first came from hunting deer, turkeys, and other abundant game.

Clad in typical frontier garb, leather breeches, moccasins, fur cap, and hunting shirt, and girded by a belt from which hung a hunting knife and a shot pouch – all homemade – the pioneer presented a unique appearance. In a short time he opened in the woods a patch, or clearing, on which he grew corn, wheat, flax, tobacco and other products, even fruit.[19]

In a few years the pioneer added hogs, sheep and cattle, and perhaps acquired a horse. Homespun clothing replaced the animal skins. The more restless pioneers grew dissatisfied with over civilized life, and uprooted themselves again to move 50 or hundred miles (80 or 160 km) further west.

Land policy[edit]

The land policy of the new nation was conservative, paying special attention to the needs of the settled East.[20] The goals sought by both parties in the 1790–1820 era were to grow the economy; avoid draining away the skilled workers needed in the East; distribute the land wisely; sell it at prices that were reasonable to settlers yet high enough to pay off the national debt; clear legal titles; and create a diversified Western economy that would be closely interconnected with the settled areas with minimal risk of a breakaway movement. By the 1830s, however, the West was filling up with squatters who had no legal deed, although they may have paid money to previous settlers. The Jacksonian Democrats favored the squatters by promising rapid access to cheap land. By contrast, Henry Clay was alarmed at the "lawless rabble" heading West who were undermining the utopian concept of a law-abiding, stable middle-class republican community. Rich southerners, meanwhile, looked for opportunities to buy high-quality land to set up slave plantations. The Free Soil movement of the 1840s called for low-cost land for free white farmers, a position enacted into law by the new Republican Party in 1862, offering free 160 acre (65 ha) homesteads to all adults, male and female, black and white, native-born or immigrant.[21]

Main article: Louisiana Purchase

After winning the Revolutionary War (1783), American settlers in large numbers poured into the west. In 1788, American pioneers to the Northwest Territory established Marietta, Ohio as the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory.[22]

In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed a trail for the Transylvania Company from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky. It was later lengthened to reach the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and it could only be traversed on foot or horseback, but it was the best route for thousands of settlers moving into Kentucky.[23] In some areas they had to face Indian attacks. In 1784 alone, Indians killed over 100 travelers on the Wilderness Road. No Indians lived permanently in Kentucky[24] but they sent raiding parties to stop the newcomers. One of those intercepted was Abraham Lincoln's grandfather, who was scalped in 1784 near Louisville.[25]

Acquisition of Indian lands[edit]

The War of 1812 marked the final confrontation between major Indian forces trying to stop the advance, with British aid. The British war goal included the creation of an independent Indian state (under British auspices) in the Midwest. American frontier militiamen under General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks and opened the Southwest, while militia under Governor William Henry Harrison defeated the Indian-British alliance at the Battle of the Thames in Canada in 1813. The death in battle of the Indian leader Tecumseh dissolved the coalition of hostile Indian tribes.[26] Meanwhile, General Andrew Jackson ended the Indian military threat in the Southeast at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 in Alabama. In general the frontiersmen battled the Indians with little help from the U.S. Army or the federal government.[27]

To end the War of 1812 American diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, signed in 1815, with Britain. They rejected the British plan to set up an Indian state in U.S. territory south of the Great Lakes. They explained the American policy toward acquisition of Indian lands:

The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably, and with their free consent, are fully determined, in that manner, progressively, and in proportion as their growing population may require, to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries. In thus providing for the support of millions of civilized beings, they will not violate any dictate of justice or of humanity; for they will not only give to the few thousand savages scattered over that territory an ample equivalent for any right they may surrender, but will always leave them the possession of lands more than they can cultivate, and more than adequate to their subsistence, comfort, and enjoyment, by cultivation. If this be a spirit of aggrandizement, the undersigned are prepared to admit, in that sense, its existence; but they must deny that it affords the slightest proof of an intention not to respect the boundaries between them and European nations, or of a desire to encroach upon the territories of Great Britain. [...] They will not suppose that that Government will avow, as the basis of their policy towards the United States a system of arresting their natural growth within their own territories, for the sake of preserving a perpetual desert for savages.[28]

New territories and states[edit]

As settlers poured in, the frontier districts first became territories, with an elected legislature and a governor appointed by the president. Then when population reached 100,000 the territory applied for statehood.[29] Frontiersmen typically dropped the legalistic formalities and restrictive franchise favored by eastern upper classes, and adopting more democracy and more egalitarianism.[30]

In 1800 the western frontier had reached the Mississippi River. St. Louis, Missouri was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel westward, and a principal trading center for Mississippi River traffic and inland commerce but remained under Spanish control until 1803.

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803[edit]

Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a man of the frontier and was keenly interested in expanding and exploring the West.[31] Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the nation at the cost of $15 million, or about $0.04 per acre ($245 million in 2017 dollars, less than 42 cents per acre).[32]Federalists opposed the expansion, but Jeffersonians hailed the opportunity to create millions of new farms to expand the domain of land-owning yeomen; the ownership would strengthen the ideal republican society, based on agriculture (not commerce), governed lightly, and promoting self-reliance and virtue, as well as form the political base for Jeffersonian Democracy.[33]

The $15 million paid France for its sovereignty over the territory in terms of international law. Because of inflation, that $15 million is equivalent to about $294 million in 2012 dollars. Between 1803 and the 1870s, the federal government purchased the actual land from the Indian tribes then in possession of it. 20th century accountants and courts have calculated the value of the payments made to the Indians, which included future payments of cash, food, horses, cattle, supplies, buildings, schooling, and medical care. In cash terms, the total paid to the tribes in the area of the Louisiana Purchase amounted to about $2.6 billion in current dollars, or $8.5 billion in 2012 dollars (nearly $9 billion in 2016 dollars). Additional sums were paid to the Indians living east of the Mississippi for their lands, as well as payments to Indians living in parts of the west outside the Louisiana Purchase.[34]

Even before the purchase Jefferson was planning expeditions to explore and map the lands. He charged Lewis and Clark to "explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce".[35] Jefferson also instructed the expedition to study the region's native tribes (including their morals, language, and culture), weather, soil, rivers, commercial trading, animal and plant life.[36]

Entrepreneurs, most notably John Jacob Astor quickly seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor's "Fort Astoria" (later Fort George), at the mouth of the Columbia River, became the first permanent white settlement in that area, although it was not profitable for Astor. He set up the American Fur Company in an attempt to break the hold that the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly had over the region. By 1820, Astor had taken over independent traders to create a profitable monopoly; he left the business as a multi-millionaire in 1834.[37]

The fur trade[edit]

Main article: Fur trade in North America

Further information: Fur trade in Montana

As the frontier moved westward, trappers and hunters moved ahead of settlers, searching out new supplies of beaver and other skins for shipment to Europe. The hunters were the first Europeans in much of the Old West and they formed the first working relationships with the Native Americans in the West.[38][39] They added extensive knowledge of the Northwest terrain, including the important South Pass through the central Rocky Mountains. Discovered about 1812, it later became a major route for settlers to Oregon and Washington. By 1820, however, a new "brigade-rendezvous" system sent company men in "brigades" cross-country on long expeditions, bypassing many tribes. It also encouraged "free trappers" to explore new regions on their own. At the end of the gathering season, the trappers would "rendezvous" and turn in their goods for pay at river ports along the Green River, the Upper Missouri, and the Upper Mississippi. St. Louis was the largest of the rendezvous towns. By 1830, however, fashions changed and beaver hats were replaced by silk hats, ending the demand for expensive American furs. Thus ended the era of the mountain men, trappers and scouts such as Jedediah Smith, Hugh Glass, Davy Crockett, Jack Omohundro and others. The trade in beaver fur virtually ceased by 1845.[40]

The federal government and the West[edit]

There was wide agreement on the need to settle the new territories quickly, but the debate polarized over the price the government should charge. The conservatives and Whigs, typified by president John Quincy Adams, wanted a moderated pace that charged the newcomers enough to pay the costs of the federal government. The Democrats, however, tolerated a wild scramble for land at very low prices. The final resolution came in the Homestead Law of 1862, with a moderated pace that gave settlers 160 acres free after they worked on it for five years.[41]

The private profit motive dominated the movement westward,[42] but the Federal Government played a supporting role in securing land through treaties and setting up territorial governments, with governors appointed by the President. The federal government first acquired western territory through treaties with other nations or native tribes. Then it sent surveyors to map and document the land.[43] By the 20th century Washington bureaucracies managed the federal lands such as the General Land Office in the Interior department,[44] and after 1891 the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture.[45] After 1900 dam building and flood control became major concerns.[46]

Transportation was a key issue and the Army (especially the Army Corps of Engineers) was given full responsibility for facilitating navigation on the rivers. The steamboat, first used on the Ohio River in 1811, made possible inexpensive travel using the river systems, especially the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries.[47] Army expeditions up the Missouri River in 1818–25 allowed engineers to improve the technology. For example, the Army's steamboat "Western Engineer" of 1819 combined a very shallow draft with one of the earliest stern wheels. In 1819–25, Colonel Henry Atkinson developed keelboats with hand-powered paddle wheels.[48]

The federal postal system played a crucial role in national expansion. It facilitated expansion into the West by creating an inexpensive, fast, convenient communication system. Letters from early settlers provided information and boosterism to encourage increased migration to the West, helped scattered families stay in touch and provide neutral help, assisted entrepreneurs to find business opportunities, and made possible regular commercial relationships between merchants and the West and wholesalers and factories back east. The postal service likewise assisted the Army in expanding control over the vast western territories. The widespread circulation of important newspapers by mail, such as the New York Weekly Tribune, facilitated coordination among politicians in different states. The postal service helped integrated established areas with the frontier, creating a spirit of nationalism and providing a necessary infrastructure.[49]

Scientists, artists and explorers[edit]

Government and private enterprise sent many explorers to the West. In 1805–6, Army lieutenant Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) led a party of 20 soldiers to find the head waters of the Mississippi. He later explored the Red and Arkansas Rivers in Spanish territory, eventually reaching the Rio Grande. On his return, Pike sighted the peak in Colorado named after him.[50] Major Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864)[51] led the Yellowstone and Missouri expeditions of 1819–1820, but his categorizing in 1823 of the Great Plains as arid and useless led to the region getting a bad reputation as the "Great American Desert", which discouraged settlement in that area for several decades.[52]

In 1811, naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Bradbury (1768–1823) traveled up the Missouri River with the Astoria expedition, documenting and drawing plant and animal life. Later, Nuthall explored the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Oregon Trail, and even Hawaii. His book A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory was an important account of frontier life. Although Nuthall was the most traveled Western naturalist before 1840, unfortunately most of his documentation and specimens were lost.[53] Artist George Catlin (1796–1872) traveled up the Missouri as far as North Dakota, producing accurate paintings of Native American culture.[54] A Swiss visitor Karl Bodmer (1809–93), was in the U.S. in 1832–34 with the Prince Maximilian expedition; he made compelling landscapes and portraits.[55] In 1803, John James Audubon (1785–1851) immigrated from Haiti and established a reputation as a leading explorer, woodsman, painter, and naturalist. His greatest achievement involved classifying and painting in minute details 500 species of birds, published in Birds of America.[56]

The most famous of the explorers was John Charles Frémont (1813–1890), a commissioned Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. He displayed a talent for exploration and a genius at self-promotion that gave him the sobriquet of "Pathmarker of the West" and led him to the presidential nomination of the new Republican Party in 1856.[57] He led a series of expeditions in the 1840s which answered many of the outstanding geographic questions about the little-known region. He crossed through the Rocky Mountains by five different routes, and mapped parts of Oregon and California. In 1846–7, he played a role in conquering California. In 1848–49, Frémont was assigned to locate a central route through the mountains for the proposed transcontinental railroad, but his expedition ended in near-disaster when it became lost and was trapped by heavy snow.[58] His reports mixed narrative of exciting adventure with scientific data, and detailed practical information for travelers. It caught the public imagination and inspired many to head west. Goetzman says it was "monumental in its breadth—a classic of exploring literature".[59]

While colleges were springing up across the Northeast, there was little competition on the western frontier for Transylvania University, founded in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1780. It boasted of a law school in addition to its undergraduate and a medical programs. Transylvania attracted politically ambitious young men from across the Southwest, including 50 who became United States senators, 101 congressmen, 36 governors and 34 ambassadors, as well as Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.[60]

The Antebellum West[edit]

Religion[edit]

The established Eastern churches were slow to meet the needs of the frontier. The Presbyterians and Congregationalists, since they depended on well-educated ministers, were shorthanded in evangelizing the frontier. They set up a Plan of Union of 1801 to combine resources on the frontier.[61][62] Most frontiersmen showed little commitment to religion until traveling evangelists began to appear and to produce "revivals". The local pioneers responded enthusiastically to these events and, in effect, evolved their own populist religions, especially during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840), which featured outdoor camp meetings lasting a week or more and which introduced many people to organized religion for the first time. One of the largest and most famous camp meetings took place at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801.[63]

The localistic Baptists set up small independent churches—Baptists abjured centralized authority; each local church was founded on the principle of independence of the local congregation. On the other hand, bishops of the well-organized, centralized Methodists assigned circuit riders to specific areas for several years at a time, then moved them to fresh territory. Several new denominations were formed, of which the largest was the Disciples of Christ.[64][65][66]

Democracy in the Midwest[edit]

Historian Mark Wyman calls Wisconsin a "palimpsest" of layer upon layer of peoples and forces, each imprinting permanent influences. He identified these layers as multiple "frontiers" over three centuries: Native American frontier, French frontier, English frontier, fur-trade frontier, mining frontier, and the logging frontier. Finally the coming of the railroad brought the end of the frontier.[67]

Frederick Jackson Turner grew up in Wisconsin during its last frontier stage, and in his travels around the state he could see the layers of social and political development. One of Turner's last students, Merle Curti used in-depth analysis of local Wisconsin history to test Turner's thesis about democracy. Turner's view was that American democracy, "involved widespread participation in the making of decisions affecting the common life, the development of initiative and self-reliance, and equality of economic and cultural opportunity. It thus also involved Americanization of immigrant."[68] Curti found that from 1840 to 1860 in Wisconsin the poorest groups gained rapidly in land ownership, and often rose to political leadership at the local level. He found that even landless young farmworkers were soon able to obtain their own farms. Free land on the frontier therefore created opportunity and democracy, for both European immigrants as well as old stock Yankees.[69]

Southwest[edit]

See also: Old Southwest

From the 1770s to the 1830s, pioneers moved into the new lands that stretched from Kentucky to Alabama to Texas. Most were farmers who moved in family groups.[70]

Historian Louis Hacker shows how wasteful the first generation of pioneers was; they were too ignorant to cultivate the land properly and when the natural fertility of virgin land was used up, they sold out and moved west to try again. Hacker describes that in Kentucky about 1812:

Farms were for sale with from ten to fifty acres cleared, possessing log houses, peach and sometimes apple orchards, inclosed in fences, and having plenty of standing timber for fuel. The land was sown in wheat and corn, which were the staples, while hemp [for making rope] was being cultivated in increasing quantities in the fertile river bottoms....

Yet, on the whole, it was an agricultural society without skill or resources. It committed all those sins which characterize a wasteful and ignorant husbandry. Grass seed was not sown for hay and as a result the farm animals had to forage for themselves in the forests; the fields were not permitted to lie in pasturage; a single crop was planted in the soil until the land was exhausted; the manure was not returned to the fields; only a small part of the farm was brought under cultivation, the rest being permitted to stand in timber. Instruments of cultivation were rude and clumsy and only too few, many of them being made on the farm. It is plain why the American frontier settler was on the move continually. It was, not his fear of a too close contact with the comforts and restraints of a civilized society that stirred him into a ceaseless activity, nor merely the chance of selling out at a profit to the coming wave of settlers; it was his wasting land that drove him on. Hunger was the goad. The pioneer farmer's ignorance, his inadequate facilities for cultivation, his limited means, of transport necessitated his frequent changes of scene. He could succeed only with virgin soil.[71]

Hacker adds that the second wave of settlers reclaimed the land, repaired the damage, and practiced a more sustainable agriculture. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner explored the individualistic world view and values of the first generation:

What they objected to was arbitrary obstacles, artificial limitations upon the freedom of each member of this frontier folk to work out his own career without fear or favor. What they instinctively opposed was the crystallization of differences, the monopolization of opportunity and the fixing of that monopoly by government or by social customs. The road must be open. The game must be played according to the rules. There must be no artificial stifling of equality of opportunity, no closed doors to the able, no stopping the free game before it was played to the end. More than that, there was an unformulated, perhaps, but very real feeling, that mere success in the game, by which the abler men were able to achieve preëminence gave to the successful ones no right to look down upon their neighbors, no vested title to assert superiority as a matter of pride and to the diminution of the equal right and dignity of the less successful.[72]

Manifest Destiny[edit]

Main article: Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was pre-ordained to expand from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast. The concept was expressed during Colonial times, but the term was coined in the 1840s by a popular magazine which editorialized, "the fulfillment of our manifest destiny...to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." As the nation grew, "Manifest destiny" became a rallying cry for expansionists in the Democratic Party. In the 1840s the Tyler and Polk administrations (1841–49) successfully promoted this nationalistic doctrine. However the Whig Party, which represented business and financial interests, stood opposed to Manifest Destiny. Whig leaders such as Henry Clay and Abraham Lincoln called for deepening the society through modernization and urbanization instead of simple horizontal expansion.[73] Starting with the annexation of Texas, the expansionists got the upper hand. John Quincy Adams, an anti-slavery Whig, felt the Texas annexation in 1845 to be "the heaviest calamity that ever befell myself and my country".[74]

Helping settlers move westward were the emigrant "guide books" of the 1840s featuring route information supplied by the fur traders and the Frémont expeditions, and promising fertile farm land beyond the Rockies.[75]

Mexico and Texas[edit]

Main articles: History of Mexico and Texas Revolution

Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, and took over Spain's northern possessions stretching from Texas to California. Caravans began delivering goods to Mexico's Santa Fe along the Santa Fe Trail, over the 870-mile (1,400 km) journey which took 48 days from Kansas City, Missouri (then known as Westport). Santa Fe was also the trailhead for the "El Camino Real" (the King's Highway), a trade route which carried American manufactured goods southward deep into Mexico and returned silver, furs, and mules northward (not to be confused with another "Camino Real" which connected the missions in California). A branch also ran eastward near the Gulf (also called the Old San Antonio Road). Santa Fe connected to California via the Old Spanish Trail.[76][77]

The Spanish and Mexican governments attracted American settlers to Texas with generous terms. Stephen F. Austin became an "empresario", receiving contracts from the Mexican officials to bring in immigrants. In doing so, he also became the de facto political and military commander of the area. Tensions rose, however, after an abortive attempt to establish the independent nation of Fredonia in 1826. William Travis, leading the "war party", advocated for independence from Mexico, while the "peace party" led by Austin attempted to get more autonomy within the current relationship. When Mexican president Santa Anna shifted alliances and joined the conservative Centralist party, he declared himself dictator and ordered soldiers into Texas to curtail new immigration and unrest. However, immigration continued and 30,000 Anglos with 3,000 slaves were settled in Texas by 1835.[78] In 1836, the Texas Revolution erupted. Following losses at the Alamo and Goliad, the Texians won the decisive Battle of San Jacinto to secure independence. At San Jacinto, Sam Houston, commander-in-chief of the Texian Army and future President of the Republic of Texas famously shouted "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad". The U.S. Congress declined to annex Texas, stalemated by contentious arguments over slavery and regional power. Thus, the Republic of Texas remained an independent power for nearly a decade before it was annexed as the 28th state in 1845. The government of Mexico, however, viewed Texas as a runaway province and asserted its ownership.[79]

The Mexican–American War[edit]

Main article: Mexican–American War

Mexico refused to recognize the independence of Texas in 1836, but the U.S. and European powers did so. Mexico threatened war if Texas joined the U.S., which it did in 1845. American negotiators were turned away by a Mexican government in turmoil. When the Mexican army killed 16 American soldiers in disputed territory war was at hand. Whigs, such as Congressman Abraham Lincoln denounced the war, but it was quite popular outside New England.[80]

The Mexican strategy was defensive; the American strategy was a three pronged offensive, using large numbers of volunteer soldiers.[81] Overland forces seized New Mexico with little resistance and headed to California, which quickly fell to the American land and naval forces. From the main American base at New Orleans, General Zachary Taylor led forces into northern Mexico, winning a series of battles that ensued. The U.S. Navy transported General Winfield Scott to Veracruz. He then marched his 12,000 man force west to Mexico City, winning the final battle at Chapultepec. Talk of acquiring all of Mexico fell away when the army discovered the Mexican political and cultural values were so alien to America's. As the Cincinnati Herald asked, what would the U.S. do with eight million Mexicans "with their idol worship, heathen superstition, and degraded mongrel races?"[82]

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 ceded the territories of California and New Mexico to the United States for $18.5 million (which included the assumption of claims against Mexico by settlers). The Gadsden Purchase in 1853 added southern Arizona, which was needed for a railroad route to California. In all Mexico ceded half a million square miles (1.3 million km2) and included the states-to-be of California, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming, in addition to Texas. Managing the new territories and dealing with the slavery issue caused intense controversy, particularly over the Wilmot Proviso, which would have outlawed slavery in the new territories. Congress never passed it, but rather temporarily resolved the issue of slavery in the West with the Compromise of 1850. California entered the Union in 1850 as a free state; the other areas remained territories for many years.[83][84]

Growth of Texas[edit]

The new state grew rapidly as migrants poured into the fertile cotton lands of east Texas.[85] German immigrants started to arrive in the early 1840s because of negative economic, social and political pressures in Germany.[86] With their investments in cotton lands and slaves, planters established cotton plantations in the eastern districts. The central area of the state was developed more by subsistence farmers who seldom owned slaves.[87]

Texas in its Wild West days attracted men who could shoot straight and possessed the zest for adventure, "for masculine renown, patriotic service, martial glory and meaningful deaths".[88]

The California Gold Rush[edit]

Main article: California Gold Rush

In 1846 about 10,000 Californios (Hispanics) lived in California, primarily on cattle ranches in what is now the Los Angeles area. A few hundred foreigners were scattered in the northern districts, including some Americans. With the outbreak of war with Mexico in 1846 the U.S. sent in Frémont and a U.S. Army unit, as well as naval forces, and quickly took control.[89] As the war was ending, gold was discovered in the north, and the word soon spread worldwide.

Thousands of "Forty-Niners" reached California, by sailing around South America (or taking a short-cut through disease-ridden Panama), or walked the California trail. The population soared to over 200,000 in 1852, mostly in the gold districts that stretched into the mountains east of San Francisco.

Housing in San Francisco was at a premium, and abandoned ships whose crews had headed for the mines were often converted to temporary lodging. In the gold fields themselves living conditions were primitive, though the mild climate proved attractive. Supplies were expensive and food poor, typical diets consisting mostly of pork, beans, and whiskey. These highly male, transient communities with no established institutions were prone to high levels of violence, drunkenness, profanity, and greed-driven behavior. Without courts or law officers in the mining communities to enforce claims and justice, miners developed their own ad hoc legal system, based on the "mining codes" used in other mining communities abroad. Each camp had its own rules and often handed out justice by popular vote, sometimes acting fairly and at times exercising vigilantism—with Indians, Mexicans, and Chinese generally receiving the harshest sentences.[90]

The gold rush radically changed the California economy and brought in an array of professionals, including precious metal specialists, merchants, doctors, and attorneys, who added to the population of miners, saloon keepers, gamblers, and prostitutes. A San Francisco newspaper stated, "The whole country... resounds to the sordid cry of gold! Gold! Gold! while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pick axes."[91] Over 250,000 miners found a total of more than $200 million in gold in the five years of the California Gold Rush.[92][93] As thousands arrived, however, fewer and fewer miners struck their fortune, and most ended exhausted and broke.

Violent bandits often preyed upon the miners, such as the case of Jonathan R. Davis' killing of eleven bandits single-handedly.[94] Camps spread out north and south of the American River

United States territories in 1789
United States territories in 1845–46
United States territories in 1884–89
United States territories in 1912
Territories of the United States by 1789.
Jefferson saw himself as a man of the frontier and a scientist; he was keenly interested in expanding and exploring the West
Illustration from The Circuit Rider: A Tale of the Heroic Age by Edward Eggleston; The well organized Methodists sent the circuit rider to create and serve a series of churches in a geographical area.
Clipper ships took 5 months to sail the 17,000 miles (27,000 km) from New York to San Francisco
San Francisco harbor c. 1850. Between 1847 and 1870, the population of San Francisco exploded from 500 to 150,000.

Not too long ago, historians of the American West joined their artistic brethren in celebrating what we now think of as the “Old West.” For historians and artists, the “winning of the West” was a glorious achievement that heralded the triumph of “civilization” over “savagery.” Indeed, by the conventional scholarly wisdom and orthodox artistic vision, the vanquishing of Indians and the march of manifest destiny made America great and made Americans special.

In recent decades, however, most historians—and many Americans—have rejected this perspective. Dismantling cherished fables about the Old West and stripping the romance from the history of “Westward Ho,” newer studies have exhumed the human casualties and environmental costs of American expansion. Offering little glory, these interpretations of how the West was lost have accented the savagery of American civilization.

The de Young Museum’s exhibition, “Ed Ruscha and the Great American West,” and its companion, “Wild West: Plains to the Pacific” at the Legion of Honor—both in San Francisco—invite us to scrutinize both the celebration and its demise. In many ways, this revisioning of western American art parallels alterations in the content and meaning of western American history. In both art and history, longstanding and powerful myths have fallen as subjects have broadened and contemporary viewpoints have shifted. 

The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

Authoritative, lucid, and ranging widely over issues of environment, people, and identity, this is the American West stripped of its myths. The complex convergence of peoples, polities, and cultures that has decisively shaped the history of the American West serves as the key interpretive thread through this Very Short Introduction.

Back in the 19th century, celebrations of territorial expansion were commonplace among American historians. In his multi-volume account of The Winning of the West and other historical writings, Theodore Roosevelt admitted that the shedding of blood was not always “agreeable,” but deemed it the “healthy sign of the virile strength” of the American people. As president of the American Historical Association and as president of the United States, Roosevelt exulted in “our manifest destiny to swallow up the land of all adjoining nations who were too weak to withstand us.” He judged it “desirable for the good of humanity at large that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans from their sparsely populated Northern provinces” and wrest the rest of the West from Indians.

Popular as Roosevelt’s histories were in his time, it was his contemporary, Frederick Jackson Turner, who put forward the interpretation that gained enduring scholarly traction. Most prominently in his 1893 essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” Turner assigned westward expansion the central role in the history of the United States. He contended that it had not only enlarged the nation’s territory, but had also accounted for the individualistic and democratic character of its people and its institutions. In Turner’s view, the process of moving west separated Americans from their European roots (and in Turner’s imagination, the designation “American” referred exclusively to people of European ancestry). From what Turner and his contemporaries referred to as the “Great American West” then sprang the sources of American exceptionalism and American greatness.

Subsequent generations of historians of the American West took their cues from Turner’s “frontier thesis.” Some echoed it. Some extended it. Some amended it. Through the first half of the 20th century, however, few sought to challenge Turner’s belief in the fundamental importance of the frontier to American development or to question the exaltation of westward expansion.

That has changed over the last half century. Protests against the Vietnam War and the spread of various civil rights movements had a profound impact on the interpretation of American history in general, and western American history in particular. If American expansion led to Vietnam, a conflict that drew frequent metaphorical comparison to the supposed lawless violence of the “Wild West, then it was not something to be cheered.” At the same time, liberation struggles at home inspired historians to look beyond the white, male protagonists who had previously dominated frontier epics. In step with other American histories, scholars of the American West turned their attentions to the expectations and experiences of the unsung and the undone.

With a wider cast and an anti-imperial angle of vision, interpretations of the western past veered from the triumphant to the tragic. The titles of the two most influential surveys of what came to be called “the new western history” attested to this shift in orientation: The Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick (1987) and It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own by Richard White (1991). Synthesizing scholarship from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, these books asserted that conquest and its legacy brought misfortunes aplenty to the defeated and even to the supposed victors. The more general misfortunes traced to the environmental blowback that followed efforts to turn the land into what it was not, to transform a mostly arid and sparsely populated region into an agricultural “garden” and a home for multiplying millions of residents.

In the revisionist mirror, the Great West didn’t look very great anymore, a gloom and doom view that not all historians, and certainly not all Americans, embraced. Critics claimed the new western history overlooked the achievements and exaggerated the evils of American expansion. The unbalanced exposition, complained the novelist Larry McMurtry, unfairly presented the western past as an unrelenting course in “failure studies.”  

Similar debates erupted among art historians and grabbed much public notice in 1991. That year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum presented “The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the American Frontier, 1820-1920.” In the exhibition, the curators challenged both the realism and the romance of western art. According to the exhibition’s gallery guide, the assembled works, which included masterpieces by the most renowned artists of the American West were “not so much records of activities or places” as they were “a means of persuading people that westward expansion was good for the nation and would benefit all who participated in it.” This proposition put western art and western artists in the service of manifest destiny, an ideology that led painters, sculptors, and photographers to mask “the problems created by westward expansion.”

“The West as America” exhibition was quite controversial. Some visitors limited their vitriol to the comments book in the gallery. Others vented their outrage in op-ed pieces. In response to the uproar, several congressmen demanded that the museum be defunded for allowing this blasphemy to be perpetrated against western art. That campaign failed, but the planned national tour of the exhibition was cancelled.

In terms of public notice, by far the greatest impact of changing views about the history of the American West registered at the movies. The social currents emanating from the 1960s that rewrote western histories and reinterpreted the meaning of still images also dramatically upended the art of motion pictures. For decades, “Westerns” ruled Hollywood. “Epics” and “B-westerns” filled movie theaters from the 1920s to the 1950s—and dominated American television programming in the 1950s. But during the 1960s, traditional, heroic Westerns began losing their popular appeal. Far fewer were produced. Those that were often inverted the genre’s conventions about heroes and villains and the righteousness of violence and manifest destiny. In landmark films such as Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), and Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), the Old West became a stage on which 1960s critiques of American capitalism and imperialism played out. Arguably, though, the reversing of traditional western roles did not reach its apotheosis until 1991 when Dances with Wolves won eight Academy Awards.

Dances with Wolves reigned at the box office and at the Oscars, but over the last quarter century, the best historical scholarship has aimed at more than mere inversion of old myths about the Old West. One important direction has been to compare and connect what happened in the American West with parallel places and processes elsewhere. Departing from Turner’s claim that the frontier set the U.S. apart from its European roots, historians of the American West have instead emphasized the commonalities between American and other “colonialisms.” More specifically, the construct of “settler colonialism” has emerged as a key to situating the American experience in a broader global context. Further depriving the American West of its uniqueness, historians have adopted the lens of “ethnic cleansing,” or worse “genocide,” to understand American expansions and the accompanying displacement and sometimes devastation of indigenous peoples.

The most compelling western histories written in the last quarter century confront the complexities of past and present. This begins with the recognition of how deep that past is, with histories that commence well before the West was American and with excavations that reveal the diversity and dynamism of Native America prior to the arrival of European colonizers. From archaeological and other sources, historians have now recovered rich precolonial worlds and complex societies that continued after Indians encountered people from Europe and Africa, weaving a fascinating new understanding of how natives and newcomers met and mingled.

Rescuing indigenous people from the condescension of New Age romanticism that turns them into ever peaceful, perfect ecologists, newer histories have shown how Indians not only resisted European colonialism, but also in some parts of North America carried out their own expansions. The best of these newer western histories detail as well how prolonged interactions resulted in ethnic crossings as well as ethnic cleansings. Most visibly, this intercourse produced mixed-race offspring, but historians have also tracked a wide range of exchanges that led to a blending of cultures. Such amalgamations have remained a hallmark of western American cultures in the 20th and now the 21st centuries

The history of the American West, like the art of the American West, isn’t what it used to be. No doubt, many lament the changes and pine for the myths that western histories (and western art) once celebrated. But if we are to make sense of the West’s multi-faceted evolutions and figure out how we can live together, and live sustainably, in this region, we don’t need one-dimensional tales. Rather we need histories and art that respect the past, wrestling, as historians and artists must, with the complexities that challenge us still.

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