The American West was marked by heavy struggle, cultural conflict, physical drama, exploration, and lots economic of stimulation. Over time tales of the frontier have captivated and mystified citizens, and even today the Old American West is thought of as a lawless space outside of the reaches of society where people had to become sinister to survive. Not very long ago, a photograph of Billy the Kid (who was a famous frontier gunman) sold for $2.3 million at an auction, proving a continued interest the Old West. The intense fascination with the American West has thoroughly confused and winnowed aspects of fiction and fact, resulting in a unique product that relies equally on both.
The American West began just about west of the Mississippi River. Primarily, the historical time period encapsulating the American West ranges from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1920. The Louisiana Purchase, conducted by Thomas Jefferson and negotiated by Robert R. Livingston, more than doubled the land area of the United States. Bought from France for $15 million, the purchase significantly altered the course of American history.
The push westward was realized through political compromise, military conquest, and expanding populations that settled in the new territory. Holisitically, the United States benefited greatly from securing the West. By obtaining more land, additional resources were procured which contributed to the industrialization of the country. The great fur trade further influenced westward expansion. The Pacific Northwest was very valuable for acquiring furs and trading with Asian markets as well as Native American populations. Recognizing the value of such opportunities, settlers continued towards the western coast.
Economic interest continued to increase along with the discovery of gold. The California Gold Rush of the mid-nineteenth century prompted thousands of people to travel across the United States in hopes of fulfilling the American Dream. John Sutter owned the land on which the first gold in California was discovered, and after this find large-scale prospecting interests skyrocketed. Reports from public servicemen greatly informed attitudes towards the prevalence of gold, which may have otherwise been more skeptical. In addition to gaining the interest of those in the eastern states, the Gold Rush attracted experienced miners from South America and Europe.
The Gold Rush significantly changed the Californian economy and boosted its population substantially. In 1850 women made up less than 10% of the population, which was believed to be over 100,000. It is reported that in total over 200,000 people came to California because of the Gold Rush. This increased population also led to the mass development of agriculture, which would go on to contribute greatly to the region’s sustainability. In some cases, this rush for economic development led to increasingly poor relations between settlers and Native populations.
Officially, the United States government was interested in attaining federal sovereignty over the West. Part of this effort entailed placing free-roaming Native Americans onto reservations. Removal of tribes from the southeastern United States resulted in forced marches and relocation, as seen during the Trail of Tears. During this forced relocation, thousands of Muscogee, Seminole, Choctaw, and 17,000 Cherokee marched across 1200 miles of land in the harsh winter months. Expansion greatly altered the lives of Native Americans, who would have their land stolen and who would suffer massive casualties.
Interactions with Native Americans ranged from being friendly, ambivalent, or violent. Such interactions varied greatly due to geographic location, tribal culture, and regional settler behavior. As pressure from the United States government increased, Native attitudes towards settlers largely worsened. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, a number of what are referred to as Indian Wars took place. Throughout the frontier, Natives fought with the United States military and settlers. Often these wars were attempts to regain access to land that Native tribes had once lived on. In other cases, higher numbers of settlers mining for gold resulted in increased tension. In addition to open warfare, tribes suffered from diseases to which they had no natural immunity.
Large Names in the Old West
Limited amounts of law enforcement in conjunction with unclear or sparse legal control resulted in widespread vigilantism in the Old West. Notorious gunslingers and outlaws like Doc Holliday, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Erp establish the Old West as a place of gunman and marauders on an individual level. Lawmen are often depicted as being morally ambiguous, forced to make difficult decisions with no clear answer. Many attempted to take the law into their own hands, or impose the law as they saw fit.
- General George Custer was an Army officer who fought in the American Civil War as well as the Indian Wars. He is most well-known for his involvement in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where he was killed in combat.
- John Jacob Astor became a multimillionaire through his work in the fur trading industry. He established the American Fur Company, which benefitted greatly from the West.
- Crazy Horse was the leader of the Oglala Lakota who lived between 1840 and 1877. He resisted federal encroachment and worked to protect the way of life of the Lakota people.
- Wild Bill Hickok - Made a legend by his gunfighting skills and reputation as a “man-killer,” Wild Bill is remembered as the premier gunfighter of the Old West. A veteran of the Civil War who worked as a scout and detective, his desperado image is believed to be quite different from his real personality.
- Calamity Jane –Having lived much of her life on the trail, Jane quickly became known as a skilled marksman and strong rider. After joining the army under General George Custer, Jane became a scout. A few years later she met Wild Bill Hickok, who she reportedly got along with quite well.
- Wyatt Earp was a gambler and law enforcement officer who served in several Western frontier towns. Moving from boomtown to boomtown, Earp made a number of investments in mining interests and saloons. Although his brother Virgil had greater experience in law enforcement, Wyatt’s fame is partially thanks to a largely fictionalized biography. Along with Doc Holliday, the Earp family took part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Other Places To Go For Information
Many factors influenced the westward expansion and the development of the Western United States. Some of these factors are addressed are discussed in the following resources:
- Pony Express – National trails of the Pony Express are provided on this map which covers the United States including Alaska and Hawaii. National parks, wildlife refuges and recreational areas are indicated alongside historic routes.
- George Custer: An American Embarrassment – A highly controversial figure, Custer has become both an icon in “winning the West” as well as a villain. Though he is often seen as a martyr, the history surrounding Custer and his involvement in combating Native Americans is debated.
Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and is part of the Grant-Kohrs Ranch Historic Collection, bought by the National Park Service in 1972 (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cowboy_20060805173639.jpg)