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How the Federal Government Helped Develop the Trans-Mississippi West

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Prompt: Although the development of the Trans-Mississippi West is popularly associated with hardy individualism, it was in fact largely dependent on the federal government. Assess the validity of this statement with specific reference to western economic activities in the 19th century.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the idea of the far west captivated many. The chance to begin life anew attracted thousands of individuals and families alike to move out west and escape their current life, which was usually full of poverty and for some, full of discrimination. As the west expanded and grew into an important part of the United States, westerners found it somewhat difficult to survive with important resources going scarce. Although the development of the Trans-Mississippi west is mainly associated with hardy individualism, the west’s development as a whole was largely the result of the aid of the federal government by constructing railroads, promoting and protecting the land, and removing the Indian tribes.

Railroads were an integral part of the west; without them the West would not be successful. The distance of the west from the rest of the country was large and the only way to reach the west was through a long, tiresome journey by wagon. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 paved the way for the expansion of the railroads. The Act gave companies land to build railroads. The faster the company built the railroad, the faster they could get more land, which they usually sold for profit later on. The construction of the railroad benefitted many who were not living in the west, namely Chinese immigrants. With thousands of workers, railroad companies had to ensure their safety to prevent being sued and frowned upon by the public. To prevent that, railroad companies provided many necessities for their workers like shelter, food, and medical care. This resulted in a ripple effect which spiked other industries and made the economy rise.

The expansion of the railroads not only encouraged Americans to make the journey to the west, but also connected many of the industries in the west to consumers in the east. The farming and ranching frontiers were heavily dependent upon the railroads. Overproduction of goods by farmers led to economic distress. They could not control the market so they sometimes found themselves dealing with a lot of supply when there was little demand in their region. When the railroads came along, a door opened for the farmers; they could free themselves of their vast amounts of produce by selling it to the east. Although the railroad benefitted the farmers greatly, the railroad also took a hand in its downfall. The railroads charged farmers higher freight rates, which took a lot of profit out of the farmers’ pockets. The ranching frontier was equally as dependent upon the railroads as the farming frontier.

Ranchers roamed the countryside with their cattle in hopes that their cattle would graze quickly and enable the ranchers to sell the cattle to consumers in the region and in the east. Traveling long distances made the cattle meat chewy and unappetizing for many in the east. This led to a decrease in cattle sales for the ranchers, which ultimately led to a decrease in their income. The railroad benefitted the ranchers’ situation by allowing the cattle to travel only a short distance, and then board a train, which would carry them all the way to the east. This kept the meat soft and made the animal appetizing again for people in the east. Railroads basically made the farming and ranching frontiers possible.

The government was very successful in promoting and protecting the land too. When many people had the idea of moving out west, the government had to create some sort of system that would distribute land and prevent disputes over that land. The government enacted the Homestead Act of 1862. The Act allowed any adult over the age of 21 (except former Confederates) to claim 160 acres and own the land after living on and cultivating it for 5 years. The government also passed the Timber and Stone Act, which gave “land unfit for farming” away to loggers and miners for logging and mining. Now that thousands of people had claimed their 160 acres, the government had to sustain the land’s fertility so it would remain cultivatable for years to come.

It would also reduce any chances of the settlers moving again and coming in conflict with the Natives. The government encouraged the development of the area by constantly aiding the frontiers with the Timber Culture Act and the Newland Reclamation Acts. The Timber Culture Act was produced to help the farmers successfully grow crops on their land for long periods of time by keeping the soil fertile and preventing erosion. The Timber Culture Act gave away free land to people who would plant forty acres of trees on it. They believed planting more trees would increase humidity and increase rainfall, which was beneficial for farmers. The Newland Reclamation Act of 1902 funded irrigation projects for the dry land of the west. Congress passed many laws to protect the west from harm.

Everything was going very well for the settlers in the west, except for disputes and battles with the native Indian tribes. The tribes had signed many treaties with the Americans regarding their land and their safety; however, the treaties were loosely followed and ignored for the most part. In 1868, the Lakota were having conflicts with the US Army. The Lakota were angry that the army kept coming into their territory. This led to Red Cloud’s War. Congress passed the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Lakota and other tribes to resolve the issue. The treaty was to bring peace between the whites and the natives by the natives agreeing to settle in the Black Hills reservation in the Dakota Territory. The government passed the treaty to allow the mining frontier to flourish where the Lakota originally were. By displacing the Lakota, their former land could be used for mining. In the beginning of railroad construction, the Natives happily signed treaties with the companies but soon realized the treaties weren’t working out as they had hoped.

As the American settlers pushed the tribes farther and farther west, the Indians decided to fight back. The Indians realized they could not overcome the White man alone; they had to band together and fight as one. A new ritual was brought to life that promised a rebirth of Native American tradition and the downfall of the White man. This was known as the Ghost Dance and was feared by many whites who lived near the Dakota Sioux tribe. In 1890, the US Army was called to stop the Sioux from performing the ritual but instead of peaceful negotiations, a battle ensued. This battle was a massacre of 200 Sioux and was known as the Battle of Wounded Knee. Geronimo and the Apache Wars were also very influential in the opinions of the Americans on Native Americans as a whole. Americans regarded the natives as uncivilized savages, unfit for any type of civilization. This opinion drove the Americans to battle with the Indians relentlessly. It also gave birth to the sport of Indian Hunting.

In 1877, drunk Indians from the Nez Percé tribe murdered four whites while being forced to a reservation. The leader of the tribe, Chief Joseph, fled with his people while being pursued by the US Army. The tribe attempted to cross the Canadian border, hoping to find help, yet they received none. Chief Joseph was caught near the border and he was forced to surrender. Joseph told Miles Nelson (the colonel of the US regiment) that he would surrender if the tribe could go back to their reservation without harm. Nelson agreed yet the government did not honor his promise. The tribe was shipped from one place to another. To prevent more battles like this and any more bloodshed, Congress enacted the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. The Act called for the gradual elimination of tribal land ownership and allotment of land tracts to individual owners. The Indian owners could gain full ownership of the land in 25 years, presumably to prevent them from selling the land immediately and try to live the American way; non-nomadic.

The Dawes Act promoted the idea of assimilation and displayed the efforts of the country to persuade the tribes to abandon their traditions and join society as a civilized American. The Act broke the tribes apart and destroyed the tribal hierarchy by leaving the chief with no power. The main reason why the government passed the Dawes Act was to open the Indian land up for resettlement. With the government bearing no restrictions on the land, the government was able to distribute the Indian land in hopes that the Indians would sell their land to individuals from the east. Those individuals could then use the land for mining, ranching, or farming. The government not only prevented conflicts when removing the Natives, but also supported the western frontiers at the same time.

By analyzing how the government constructed railroads, promoted and protected the land, and removed the Indian tribes, one can conclude that the west was largely dependent upon the federal government even though the west is popularly associated with hardy individualism. The west created its own frontiers but the federal government nurtured the industries until they were stable and were able to support themselves. With stable frontiers, the country could rise in economic power and become very powerful. The west’s development as a whole was definitely the result of the aid of the federal government by constructing railroads, promoting and protecting the land, and removing the Indian tribes.

Bibliography: American History: A Survey by Alan Brinkley 10th Edition

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