Modern history

Frontier Encounters



As an adult, Phoebe Ann Moses embodied the excitement and adventure of the mythical American West. Her childhood, however, was one of poverty and hardship. Born in 1860, Phoebe Ann grew up east of the Mississippi, seventy miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. One of seven surviving children, she was sent to an orphanage at the age of nine, after her father died and her mother could not care for all her children. After working for a farm family, she ran away at the age of twelve and found a new home with a recently remarried widow. Over the next four years, Phoebe Ann learned to ride and hunt and became an expert shot with a rifle. At fifteen, she entered a shooting contest and defeated a professional marksman, Frank Butler. The competition sparked a romance, and the two married in 1876. Phoebe Ann changed her professional name to "Annie Oakley," and she and Butler went on tour throughout the Midwest in an act that featured precision shooting.

In 1884 Oakley and Butler met William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody in New Orleans. Cody had been a buffalo hunter on the Great Plains and an army scout during the Indian wars of the 1870s. In 1883, as the western frontier began to recede and the U.S. government relocated Native Americans who lived there, Cody attempted to recapture and reinvent the frontier experience by staging "Wild West" shows. A year later, he hired Oakley, with Butler serving as her manager. For the next fifteen years, the diminutive Oakley was the star of the show. Wearing a fringed skirt, an embroidered blouse, and a broad felt hat emblazoned with a star, she stood atop her horse and shot the lights out of a revolving wheel of lit candles and took dead aim at other targets tossed in the air. Oakley toured Europe and fascinated heads of state and audiences alike with her version of "western authenticity." Fans at home and overseas displayed great nostalgia for a fast-diminishing era. When the census of 1890 reported that no open land was left to settle and thus no western frontier was left to conquer, Oakley's popularity soared. She continued performing in Wild West shows until her death in 1926.

While Annie Oakley portrayed the Wild West, Geronimo had lived it. Born to a Chiricahua Apache family in what was then northern Mexico (present-day Arizona and New Mexico), Geronimo led Apaches in a constant struggle against Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Driven to the hills of Arizona and New Mexico by Spanish conquistadors centuries before Geronimo was born, Apaches raided settlements to support themselves. In 1851 a band of Mexicans raided an Apache camp, murdering Geronimo's mother, wife, and three children. After fighting Mexicans, Geronimo clashed with U.S. troops and evaded capture until 1877, when an Indian agent arrested him in New Mexico. Sent to a reservation, Geronimo escaped and for eight years engaged in daring raids against his foes. In 1886 two Chiricahua scouts recruited by General Nelson Miles led the military to Geronimo. Against an army of five thousand soldiers, the Apache warrior, with a band of eighteen fighters and some women and children, finally surrendered and was eventually relocated by the U.S. government to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

The once-elusive warrior decided to take advantage of his legendary reputation. With Buffalo Bill cashing in on America's fascination with the mythic West and "savage" Indians, Geronimo, like Annie Oakley, exploited this appeal. He sold photos of himself and pieces of his clothing; he appeared at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, selling bows and arrows and autographs; and in 1905 he rode in President Theodore Roosevelt's inaugural parade as an example of a "tamed" Indian. Although he converted to Christianity, Geronimo, ever the rebel, was later expelled from his church for gambling. Crass commercialism and religious conversion aside, Geronimo never gave up the idea of returning to his birthplace. As long as the U.S. government prohibited him from going back to his ancestral lands in the Southwest, he considered himself a "prisoner of war." And so he remained until his death in 1909.

AS PROFOUNDLY DIFFERENT as Annie Oakley's and Geronimo's individual histories were, they both contributed to the creation of a shared story, the myth of the American West. The West has great fascination in American culture. Stories about the frontier have romanticized both cowboys and Indians. These stories have also glorified individualism, self-help, and American ingenuity and minimized cooperation, organization, and the role of foreign influence in developing the West. As the American histories of Annie Oakley and Geronimo make clear, reality presents a more complicated picture of a diverse region initially inhabited by native peoples who were pushed aside by the arrival of white settlers and immigrants. In the areas known as the Great Plains and the far West, women took on new roles, and new cities emerged to accommodate the influx of miners, ranchers, and farmers.

Opening the West

The lands west of the Mississippi were not hospitable to farmers and other adventurers lured by the appeal of cheap land and a fresh start. These pioneers faced many challenges with rugged determination; however, they could not have settled the West on their own. Federal policy and foreign investment played a large role in encouraging and financing the development of the West. Railroads were essential in transforming the region (Map 15.1).

The Great Plains

In the mid-nineteenth century, the western frontier lay in the Great Plains. This region spreads through present-day North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. Lying on both sides of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains plateau was a semiarid territory with an average yearly rainfall of twenty inches, enough to sustain short grasslands but not many trees. Bison, pronghorn antelope, jack rabbits, and prairie dogs roamed over great distances to nourish themselves on the sparse vegetation that grew in this delicate ecosystem. Grasshoppers and locusts periodically swarmed into the area. Indian hunters in the very dry central and southern plains—Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Kiowa— opened up these lands to human habitation and survived by hunting and cultivating the grasslands.

Prospects for sedentary farmers in this dry region did not appear promising. In 1878 geologist John Wesley Powell issued a report that questioned whether the land beyond the easternmost portion of the Great Plains could support small farming. Lack of rainfall, he argued, would make it difficult or even impossible for homesteaders to support themselves on family farms of 160 acres. Instead, he recommended that for the plains to prove economically sustainable, settlers would have to work much larger stretches of land, around 2,560 acres (4 square miles). This would provide ample room to raise livestock under dry conditions.

Lone Wolf and his wife Etla, Kiowa Indians, c. 1860. Library of Congress

MAP 15.1

The American West, 1860-1900 Railroads played a key role in the expansion and settlement of the American West. The network of railroads running throughout the West opened the way for extensive migration from the East and for the development of a national market. None of this would have been possible without the land grants provided to the railroads by the U.S. government.

Powell’s words of caution did little to diminish Americans’ conviction, dating back to Thomas Jefferson, that small farmers would populate the territories brought under U.S. jurisdiction and renew democratic values as they ventured forth. Charles Dana Wilber, a booster of settlement in Nebraska, summed up the view of those who saw no barriers to the expansion of small farmers in the plains. Rejecting the idea that either a Divine Creator or nature had determined that these lands should remain a “perpetual desert,” Wilber asserted that “in reality there is no desert anywhere except by man’s permission or neglect.” Along with millions of others, he had great faith in Americans’ ability to turn the Great Plains into a place where Jefferson’s republican vision could take root and prosper.

Federal Policy and Foreign investment

Despite the popular association of the West with individual initiative and self-sufficiency, the federal government played a huge role in facilitating the settlement of the West. National lawmakers enacted legislation offering free or cheap land to settlers and to mining, lumber, and railroad companies. The U.S. government also provided subsidies for transporting mail and military supplies, recruited soldiers to subdue the Indians who stood in the way of expansion, and appointed officials to govern the territories.

Along with federal policy, foreign investment helped fuel development of the West. Lacking sufficient funds of its own, the United States turned to Europe to finance the sale of public bonds and private securities. European financial houses held a majority ownership in the United States Mortgage Company and the Equitable Trust Company of New York, both of which bought and sold mortgages. European firms also invested in American mines, with the British leading the way. In 1872 an Englishman wrote that mines in Nevada were “more British than American.” The development of the western cattle range—the symbol of the American frontier and the heroic cowboy—was also funded by overseas financiers. At the height of the cattle boom in the 1880s, British firms supplied some $45 million to underwrite ranch operations.

The largest share of money that flowed from Europe to the United States came with the expansion of the railroads, the most important ingredient in opening the West (Figure 15.1). The economist Joseph Schumpeter concluded that it was “primarily English (and other European) capital which took the responsibility for a great part of the $2 billion which are said to have been expended on American railroads from 1867 to 1873.”

The transcontinental railroad became the gateway to the West. In 1862 the Republican-led Congress appropriated vast areas of land that railroad companies could use to lay their tracks or sell to raise funds for construction. The Central Pacific Company built from west to east, starting in Sacramento, California. The construction project attracted thousands of Chinese railroad workers, boosting the sparse population of the western territory. From the opposite direction, the Union Pacific Company began laying track in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and hired primarily Irish workers. In May 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews met at Promontory Point, Utah, amid great celebration. Workmen from the two companies drove a golden spike to complete the connection. For many Americans recovering from four years of brutal civil war and still embroiled in southern reconstruction (see chapter 14), the completion of the transcontinental railroad renewed their faith in the nation’s ingenuity and destiny. A wagon train had once taken six to eight weeks to travel across the West. That trip could now be completed by rail in seven days. The railroad allowed both people and goods to move faster and in greater numbers than before. The West was now open not just to rugged pioneers but to anyone who could afford a railroad ticket.


British Foreign Investment in the United States, 1876

British investment was an important source of funding for westward expansion following the Civil War. Nearly half of all British loans went toward financing railroad construction, which required large capital expenditures. The British also invested heavily in government bonds and to a lesser extent in cattle ranching and mining enterprises.

Source: Data from Mina Wilkins, The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 164.

The building of the railroads fostered corruption. Union Pacific promoters created a fake construction company called the Crédit Mobilier, which they used to funnel government bond and contract money into their own pockets. They also bribed congressmen to avoid investigation into their sordid dealings. Despite these efforts, in 1872 Congress exposed these wrongdoings.


• What role did the federal government play in opening the West to settlement and economic exploitation?

• Explain the determination of Americans to settle in land west of the Mississippi River despite the challenges the region presented.



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