Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Brief History of the American West

I've just finished watching the PBS documentary series The West, which gives a fascinating history of the American West.  I feel like a lot of people's ideas of the history of the west is shaped more by movies than reality.  So, in an attempt to educate myself and share what I learn, here's my brief history of the American West...

Part 1: The People (the beginning to 1806)

For thousands of years, the American west was populated by Native American tribes, with thousands of languages, cultures, and religions.  Beginning in the 1500s, Spain began expeditions of conquest into the west.  One of the first Spaniards to explore the west was a man named Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who came not as a conqueror, but as a shipwrecked sailor.  He ended up living among various tribes in the Southwest, and he was appalled by later attempts at conquest.


Alvar Nunez Cabeza deVaca
The next wave of Spanish exploration and conquest turned out to be a really bad deal for the Native Americans.  In the mid-1500s, the conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado began an expedition through the American Southwest.  Unlike Cabeza de Vaca, Coronado wiped out lots of tribes, like the Zuni, in his failed search for gold

Not surpirsingly, the native Americans whom Coronado sought to convert or kill did not take kindly to this intrusion.  There was a member of the Pueblo tribe named Po-pay, who led a successful rebellion against the Spanish, forcing them to return to Mexico.  They would be back, though.  

One of the good things that Spain brought to the New World was horses.  Horses transformed life for many tribes like the Cheyenne and the Lakota, enabling them to travel greater distances more efficiently.  The rise of horse culture gave rise to the famous Dog Soldiers, who were Cheyenne warriors.

One of the bad things that Spain brought to the New world was disease, many of which the Native Americans had no immunity to, like smallpox, cholera, and diphtheria.  European diseases wiped out thousands of Native Americans.

In the 1700s, Spain returned to the Southwest on a mission of conquest and Christianity.  Father Junipero Serra was one of the first "pioneers" to California, and he is the guy who established many of the Californai missions, which were a way to control the thousands of Native inhabitants through forced labor and conversion to Christianity.  Father Serra is often portrayed as a gentle old friar, but the missions were, in retrospect, a pretty bad deal for the Native Americans.

In 1781, some Mexican settlers founded the city of Los Angeles.

In the early 1800s, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson sent two explorers named Lewis and Clark on a mission he called the Corps of Discovery.  They were looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean, which would be good for trade.  They made it to the Pacific with a lot of help from their Native American interpreter Sacagawea.


Lewis and Clark with Sacagawea, Clark's slave York, and two other men.

Part 2: Empire Upon the Rails (1806-1848)

As the United States grew in power and people, some politicians got it into their heads that it was their God-given right to own all of the land, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  By the middle of the 1800s, through purchase and conquest, they would get their desire.

Some of the first white pioneers into the western frontier were so-called "Mountain Men" who sought to make their fortune trapping beavers.  Beaver hats were very popular among the wealthy people of New England, so there was quite a demand.  One such beaver trapper was Joe Meek, who eventually would become a politician in Oregon.  


Joe Meek
Other early settlers were missionaries like Marcus and Narcisa Whitman, who sought to convert the Indians to Christianity.  Eventually the Whitmans would turn their backs on the Cayuse tribe by helping American settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail to take their land.  The Whitmans were ultimately murdered by the Cayuse.  A band of US militia then hunted down and murdered the Cayuse, who were already on the decline from diseases brought by US settlers, like measles.

As the US expanded westward, they created Indian territory or "reservations" for the Indians to move to.  One of the saddest displacements of a tribe was the displacement of the Cherokees out of Georgia.  This sad exodus became known as the "Trail of Tears."  

Another group of pioneers who settled in the west were the Mormons, who were originally from New York.  The Mormons, led by their charismatic leader Joseph Smith, were often persecuted for their strange beliefs and practices.  Joseph Smith was murdered for heresy.  After the death of Smith, another Mormon leader named Brigham Young sought to lead his people to a new land where they could practice their religion freely.  He ultimately settled around the Great Salt Lake in Utah, which is where many Mormons still live today.

Up until 1848, most of the Southwest belonged to Mexico, and thus American settlers in the Southwest had to get permission from Mexico.  At first, Mexico encouraged Americans to settle.  One early American settler was Stephen F. Austin, who brought many families and their slaves to settle in the Mexican state of Texas.  Another one was named Sam Houston.  As more Americans settled in Texas, they started to feel that the land belonged to them, sort of like squatters.  There were eventually military conflicts between the Americans in Texas and the Mexicans who owned the land.  Sam Houston and his men fought against the Mexicans under general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.


General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna
The Alamo was the site of an early battle that the Americans lost against Mexico.  Juan Sequin was a Mexican-American man who helped the Americans in their struggle for control of Texas.  The conflict in Texas over land would ultimately spark the Mexican American War, which the United States would win.  The result of this was was that Mexico lost almost half of their territory to the US, which included the present day states of Texas, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arizona.

At the end of the Mexican American War, when the US had succeeded in its "Manifest Destiny," president James K. Polk erected the Washington Monument.


Part 3: Speck of the Future (1848-1856)

One year after Mexico lost California to the United States in the Mexican American War, gold was discovered there, and settlers started pouring in, hoping to strike it rich.  The first gold was discovered by John Sutter at the now famous "Sutter's Mill."

The Transcontinental Railroad had not yet been built, so the journey out west was a slow one.  Some came by boat, around the tip of South America.  Most came by wagon train, like the famous 49ers.  In the span of a year, over 30,000 people emigrated west.


John Sutter
With all these new settlers pouring through their lands, the Gold Rush proved disastrous for the Great Plains Indians.  Settlers began hunting buffalo, and competing with the Indians for resources.  Also, cholera, brought by the settlers, decimated the Native American population.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 was one of many treaties the U.S. government made (and broke) with the Indians, to try to get them to get out of the way of settlement and westward expansion.  In exchange for money, the Indians were to stay inside specific areas, and to conform to lines on a map.

But in 1854, peace came apart, as it would many times thereafter, with a clash between U.S. soldiers and Lakota warriors.  It was around this time, as the west was being peopled, that stories of legendary Indian fighters and frontiersmen like Kit Carson were popular in magazines and dime novels.  Usually, these stores glorified the white pioneers, and vilified the Native Americans.  It was a weird, inverted version of reality.  A more accurate reflection of history was the Lakota historian Long Dog's Winter Count, which was a visual representation of his people's struggles.

One infamous group of pioneers who were headed for California was The Donner Party, who lost their way and resorted to cannibalism to survive.


Too many miners flocked west.  Most didn't make their fortune.  The people who made their fortune were often not the miners, but the shrewd businessmen who sold implements to miners, like Levi Strauss, who sold pants to them.  Luzena Stanley Wilson ran a successful lodge for miners to sleep and eat.  John Sutter didn't make his fortune from gold, but from selling wheat to miners.  Miners included freed slaves, Indians, Chinese, Californios.  In these years, and the years to come, California had more immigrants than any other state.

California during the Gold Rush was often seen as a sinful place.  The numerous mining camps were dens of gambling, drinking, and prostitution.  The prostitutes' lives were especially miserable.  Women who were not prostitutes were very rare.  

With mining claims diminishing, frustrated white miners looked for an excuse, a scapegoat for their failure to make money.  They sought, through legal means and vigilante means, to exclude Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, and basically anyone why wasn't white from the bounty of California's supposed riches.  Discriminatory taxes, based on race, were levied.  Chinese were denied citizenship. 
Emperor Norton I

California became a state of the Union in 1850.  This would prove disastrous for Mexican landowners like Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of the oldest landowners in California, who lost most of his vast estate because U.S. courts did not consider Spanish or Mexican land grants valid, even though the Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo stated otherwise.

Another consequence of the Gold Rush was the rapid development of San Francisco.  Because of its proximity to mining operations, the population of San Francisco exploded from 2,000 to 35,000 in  just one year.  By the 1850s,  it became one of the great metropolises of the world, mostly due to gold.  Most of the gold then flowed to the businessmen who took the miners money.

One failed San Francisco businessman was Joshua Norton, who lost his mind and declared himself Emperor of the United States.  Though he had no real power, he became very popular in San Francisco as a kind of novelty.

During the Gold Rush, Indians of California were enslaved, killed, and driven from their land.  Laws favored whites and often sanctioned the killing of Indians.  Bounties were sometimes payed for Indian scalps and heads.   In the mid-1800s, the Indian population of California declined from 150,000 to 30,000.  The worst slaughter of Indians in US history occurred in California during the Gold Rush.

Part 4: Death Runs Riot (1856-1868)

As the U.S. expanded west and more states were admitted to the Union, the question arose every time whether the new state would be a "free" or a "slave" state.  This conflict became very intense in Kansas.  In the years leading up to the Civil War, there were armed militia conflicts in Kansas over the issue of slavery.  This was known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Further west, in Utah, Mormon leader Brigham Young had 27 wives.  Most Americans were appalled at the idea of Mormon polygamy.  In an attempt to divert attention away from the divisive issue of slavery, president James Buchanan sent 2,500 troops to Utah to reassert federal control over a perceived common enemy--those polygamous Mormons.  

This so-called "Mormon War" was overshadowed, however, by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which Mormon militia, under the command of John D. Lee, slaughtered men, women, and children on a wagon train headed west, and then blamed the massacre on the Paiute Indians.  Attention, however would soon be diverted away from the Mormons, and on a more immediate and widespread issue--slavery and the Civil War, which began in 1861.


John Chivington
When most people think of the Civil War, they think of battles on the East Coast, and in the South, but the war extended into the western states as well.  A large company of Confederate Texans marched through the Southwest.  They were stopped by the army of John M. Chinvington, a Methodist preacher turned Union soldier from Colorado, who beat back the confederate army at The Battle of Glorieta Pass, sometimes called the Gettysburg of the West.

Because there was less federal government presence in the West, guerrilla warfare was more common, in which not just soldiers, but civilians were killed.  In Missouri, whole towns were sacked and burned by the confederate William Quantrill, and "Bloody Bill" Anderson. The massacre and looting of Lawrence, Kansas was especially devastating.  Many civilians were killed, including women and children, and 185 homes were burned.

To escape the war, a young man named Sam Clemens went West to become a silver miner in Nevada, then a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise.  He began writing as a humorist and changed his name to Mark Twain.

In California, New Mexico and Colorado, relatively new U.S. territories, Mexicans were denied the right to vote, and their property was often taken from them in court, because U.S. land agents didn't recognize Mexican and Spanish land grants.

Into this injustice arose a man named Juan Cortina, who became a kind of champion of the people, specifically people who'd lost their land to U.S. land agents, like displaced ranchers.  Cortina and his men took back the lower Rio Grande.  Americans viewed him as an enemy, and sent Texas Rangers, backed by federal troops, against him.  Cortina was known as The Robin Hood of the Rio Grande.


Juan Cortina
Meanwhile, on the great plains, as more settlers moved west, the Indians continued to proved to be a "roadblock" to progress.  Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle was once again forced to move his people, this time to the Sand Creek Reservation.  It was here, at Sand Creek, that one of the worst Indian massacres in U.S. history took place.

John Chivington, who commanded Third Colorado Volunteers, sought to rid Colorado of Indians.  It was Chivington who orchestrated what became known as the Sand Creek Massacre, in which U.S. soldiers brutally attacked Black Kettle's Cheyenne village.  Men, women, and children sere slaughtered.  Although Black Kettle raised a large American flag, a gesture of peace, troops opened fire anyway, bodies were mutilated, and by the end of the day, nearly 200 Cheyenne lay dead, most of them women and children.  No one was punished for this crime, not even Chivington.

In 1865, the Civil War ended.  Many war veterans, from north and south, sought a new life in the West.  Others, like General Philiip Sheridan and General William Tecumseh Sherman, continued to do to the Indians what they'd done to the South--crush them.  George Armstrong Custer made a name for himself in the so-called Indian Wars, killing and forcing more and more tribes onto reservations, 

Chief Black Kettle was killed in another massacre committed by U.S. troops, the Wachita River slaughter, in which General George Armstrong Custer and his soldiers charged through Black Kettle's camp, killing men, women, and children, including Black Kettle and his wife.


The Sand Creek Massacre


Part 5: The Grandest Enterprise Under God (1868-1874)

After the Civil War, America sought to re-unite itself with the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Congress gave charters and subsidized loans to two railroad companies--the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, in a race to build a railroad that would unite the east and west coasts of America.  Huge sums were paid to these companies, along with thousands of acres of land grants, so eager was the government to build this railroad. 

Leland Stanford, who was governor of California, was also president of the Central Pacific Railroad, which was building eastward.  He made lots of money from the railroads.   

Tens of thousands of rail workers flocked to build the railroad: Irish immigrants, former slaves, Mexicans, Chinese.  The work crews averaged 2-3 miles of track a day, every day, for six days a week.  The camp which followed the rail workers was known as Hell on Wheels.  It was a camp of prostitutes, pimps, gamblers, and businessmen who sought to take the rail workers' money.


Native Americans like the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota didn't like the intrusion of the railroad into their lands, so they derailed trains and sometimes ransacked freight cars.  5,000 federal troops were sent west to "protect" the rail workers.  Whether through peace or violence, the railroad had to be built.  It was "Manifest Destiny."

Leland Stanford's Central Pacific Railroad got stuck in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and they had-difficulty keeping workers for the hard and dangerous work of blasting through the mountains.  Stanford found a solution by recruiting Chinese workers.  11,000 Chinese workers blasted their way through the mountains, building 15 tunnels through solid rock, sometimes advancing only 8 inches a day.   It was very dangerous work involving dynamite.  This was a time before worker protection laws.  More than 1,200 Chinese died building the railroad.

At Promontory Point, on May 10, 1869 the two rail lines (The Central Pacific and The Union Pacific) were joined with a golden spike.  Leland Stanford drove in the final spike.  Not accustomed to hard work, Stanford missed the spike at first, then drove it in.  There were celebrations all across the country.  A journey that had once taken months, could now be completed in a matter of days, with the transcontinental railroad.

Meanwhile, on the great plains, in the path of the railroad, the Kiowas and their main food source, the buffalo, were rapidly declining because of westward American expansion.  The Kiowa's life was based on buffalo--for food, clothing, shelter, even religion.  At one time, as many of 30 million buffalo roamed the west.  

The main reason for the decline and near extinction of the vast buffalo herds was the greed of Americans.  American buffalo hunters like Frank Mayer saw a quick and easy way to fortune, and wiped out buffalo for hides and bones, horns and hooves.  Over 3 million buffalo were killed in just two years.  In 1874, with the buffalo driven to the brink of extinction, congress passed a law to protect buffalo, but President Ulysses S. Grant vetoed it.


Pile of buffalo skulls

The railroad passed through Utah, bringing nonbeliever settlers into Brigham Young's previously isolated Mormon kingdom.  This created conflict.  Americans did not like the Mormons, mainly because of polygamy.  However, the Mormons were a complex people.  One of the first advocates of giving women the right to vote was Emmeline Wells, a Mormon "plural wife."  The Utah legislature gave women right to vote in 1870, well before anywhere else in the country.

Now that the west was truly "opened" by the railroad, the country needed settlers to populate its vast spaces.  The Homestead Act was one way to do it.  It promised free land, hope for poor immigrants to get a slice of the American pie.  Many of the early settlers under the Homestead Act lived on isolated farms.  Millions of acres of land were plowed under for crops.  New towns began to form in the west.

In Texas, the cattle industry was booming, giving rise to a mythical western hero, the cowboy.  Cowboys were, as the name suggests, workers who drove cattle herds from one place to another.  They were usually poorly paid.  Cowtowns emerged in the west, giving meaning to the term "wild west."  The cowboys were generally a wild, unruly bunch.  Gun control ordinances were common in western towns, because cowboys had a tendency to get drunk and start shooting people.

Part 6: Fight No More Forever (1874-1877)

In 1868, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and white settlers started pouring in, in violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which said Black Hills would belong to the Lakota "forever."  The miners pouring into the Black Hills in violation to this treaty called their trail the "Freedom Trail."  The Lakota called it the "Thieves Road."

In response to this situation, the U.S. government offered to purchase the Black Hills from the Lakota for 6 million dollars.  Chief Sitting Bull refused the offer.  The conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota over the Black Hills led to the famous/infamous Battle of Little Big Horn, in which General George Armstrong Custer and his men were defeated by Sitting Bull and his men.  It was a great victory for the Lakota, and a crushing defeat for the United States.

Sitting Bull
The U.S. sent more troops into the Black Hills, and Sitting Bull and his people took refuge (in Canada.

Meanwhile, the U.S. cavalry was driving another tribe out of their land in Oregon--the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph.  The cavalry pursued the Nez Perce throughout the northwest, and finally the Nez Perce surrendered, on the condition that they would be allowed to return to their homes.  General William Tecumseh Sherman, however, overrode this promise, and the Nez Perce were never allowed to return to their beloved Wallowa Valley.  Chief Joseph would die in exile.  He said, "Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Part 7: The Geography of Hope (1877-1887)

Between 1877-1887, 4.5 million people migrated west.  

African Americans who still faced discrimination in the South, like Jim Crow laws, saw hope for a new life in the west.  Pap Singleton was an African American man who led thousands of recently-freed slaves west to Kansas, to a new life of opportunity.  They called themselves the Exodusters.  By 1880, more than 15,000 African Americans had moved from southern states to Kansas.

There were huge advertising campaigns to lure settlers west, and the population in the west exploded.  Homesteaders, under the various Homestead Acts, settled in places like Nebraska, and tried their hand at farming.  It was a hard life.

By 1881, most Native Americans had lost their freedom, and been forced onto reservations.  It was a devastating blow to tribes like the Lakota, a people who were used to roaming the great plains and living off buffalo.  Now they were confined and couldn't leave their reservation without a pass.  With the buffalo basically exterminated, the Lakota had to live off governemnt rations, which often didn't arrive.  Hunger and disease became common aspects of reservation life.   The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs also ordered Indians like the Lakota to abandon their language and religion.

Native children were often sent to Indian Training and Industrial Schools, where all their native possessions  were burned.  Boys were given English names like Ulysses S. Grant.  One politician stated, "Education should seek the disintegration of the tribes."  In these Indian Boarding Schools, children were forbidden from speaking their native tongue.  If caught speaking their native tongue, their mouths were sometimes washed with lye soap.  The skills Native American youths learned in the boarding schools were often not useful in their communities, when they returned.  The Indian Boarding schools, some of which still exist today, have been a pretty bad deal for Native Americans.  

By 1880, there were over 300,000 Chinese people living in the west.  When an economic depression hit, Chinese people were blamed for economic hardships.  Anti-chinese violence broke out.  Chinese people were murdered, forced to leave towns, and not hired for jobs.  California passed a law which made hiring a Chinese worker illegal.  In 1882, following public anti-Chinese outcry, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese people from entering the US.  It was the first time a group of immigrants had been excluded on the basis of race.  

Los Angeles, a city founded by Mexican settlers in 1781, was beginning to change by the 1880s.  Political power was passing from Spanish-speaking "Californio" families to Anglo-Americans.  A fare war between railroad companies allowed massive immigration to Southern California.  120,000 people, mostly Anglos,  moved west in 1887 alone.  By 1890, the Anglo population of Los Angeles had exploded, and Mexican- Americans found themselves a minority in a city founded by their ancestors.  They began to experience discrimination that would continue for decades.

Meanwhile, on the east coast, a man named William Cody began calling himself "Buffalo Bill" and orchestrated a wildly popular Wild West Show, which ran for over 30 years.  It was a gawdy, rowdy entertainment show with cowboys and Indians.  It helped create the "myth" of the west that many western films would continue.  In this mythic version of the west, whites were the victims of the Indians.  It was a weird, inverted version of the truth.  It was a story of inverted conquest, in which the conquerors were presented as the victims.  What this did for Americans was give them a guilt-free story of how the west was "won."  It wasn't true, but it was wildly popular.  

Part 8: One Sky Above Us (1887-1914)

In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed, which sought to divide up tribal lands into individual properties.  This proved disastrous.  It broke up communities, devastated the Indians, and led to the loss of millions of acres of tribal land.  In fact, the Dawes Act took away about 2/3 of Indian lands.  Ironically, the people who conceived of and carried out the Dawes Act called themselves "Friends of the Indian."  People like Alice Fletcher came to "save" tribes like the Nez Perce.  The Nez Perce called Fletcher "The Measuring Woman."

By the 1880s,  mining had become industrialized in the west.  A good example of this would be the city of Butte, Montana, where copper was discovered (which was useful for the new electric age).  The copper miners of Butte had the most dangerous job in America.  Eventually, due to industrialized mining, Butte became a desolate landscape devoid of green, thick with heavy air pollution.  Some days, it was dark by noon.  The General Mining Act of 1872 allows for total exploitation of mineral resources without restoration or concern for ecological impact.

By 1890, with increasing devastation of Indian tribes, there emerged a new religious movement among some tribes, led by a man named Wovoka called the Ghost Dance.  The new message combined Christian and Indian elements and promised a day when there would be no white men. It was a desperate prayer that would not come true.

On December 29th, 1890, perhaps the worst Indian massacre in U.S. history occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, near a creek called Wounded Knee.  The infamous 7th cavalry, commanded by U.S. General James W. Forsyth surrounded a camp of several hundred Lakota.  The soldiers opened fire with rifles and cannons, and killed 250 men, women, children.  Their frozen bodies were dumped in a pit.  This became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.


Indian Bodies Being Cast in a Ditch at Wounded Knee

In 1893, the United States celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's "discovery" of America with the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  It was a giant, self-congratulatory celebration of American conquest.  24 million people attended.  In a speech, Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed.

Between 1890 and 1904, the population of Los Angeles quadrupled.  The city of Los Angeles has no business being a giant metropolis with millions of people.  The ecology of the landscape cannot support this kind of settlement.  Over the course of a few decades, LA had depleted its groundwater.  Rather than scale back consumption and growth, city leaders simply looked for more water elsewhere.  William Mulholland, who was head of the LA water department, in conjunction with business leaders and politicians, essentially stole water from the Owens Valley by building a giant aqueduct that cost 23 million dollars.  43 men died in the six years it took to build the aqueduct.  The Owens Valley dried up, killing the livelihood of the small farmers who lived there, and allowing LA to have water, and keep growing artificially.

In his later years, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce traveled many times to Washington DC to plead with various U.S. presidents for the return of his tribal land in the Wallowa Valley, but the land was not returned.  It was now "owned" by white settlers.  Chief Joseph died in exile from what the attending physician called "a broken heart."




1 comment:

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