History World International 2004
Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
In July 1845, amidst all the agitation over getting Texas into the Union, editor John L. O'Sullivan of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review wrote an editorial in which he denounced other nations who had "the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the Continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions." This was probably the first use of the phrase "manifest destiny," but the idea implied in the term was current long before 1845.
One of the grievances that led to the American Revolution was the attempt by Britain, as stated in the "Proclamation of 1763," to prevent colonists from settling beyond the Appalachians. As soon as the Revolution had been won, the new government of the United States under the Articles of Confederation started making plans for the addition of new states. The demand for a well-defined policy over the western territories led to the passing of the Northwest Ordinance of July 13, 1787, which organized the northern portion of the Ohio Valley as dependent territories and made provision for the formation of new states.
This ordinance, along with preceding statutes that had been passed in 1784 and 1785, initiated a policy of land acquisition and organization that the United States followed until it reached the Pacific Coast. It was a policy that would breed virtually countless frontiers until 35 more states were added to the Union. In the mid-20th century, two more states--Hawaii and Alaska--were added.
Jefferson buys Louisiana. The first official exploration of the Far West began in 1803. In that year President Thomas Jefferson ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the source of the Missouri River. Before their expedition began, word came that the United States had bought the enormous western territory called Louisiana from France.
In 1804 and 1805 Lewis and Clark led their party up to the source of the Missouri. They crossed the Rockies--the western boundary of the Louisiana territory--and went down the Columbia River to the Pacific coast.
In the winter of 1805 Zebulon Pike was sent up the Mississippi from St. Louis to find the river's source. He did not discover the real source. It is in a district of lakes and swamps that was then under thick ice and snow. He did, however, bring back much information about the country above the mouth of the St. Peter's, or Minnesota, River.
In the summer of 1806 Pike was sent out again, this time to find the sources of the Red River and the Arkansas River. Again he found neither, but he saw the great peak which has come to be known as Pikes Peak. He also visited the place where the Rio Grande rises in southern Colorado. Here he was arrested by Spanish soldiers for trespassing on Spanish territory. Nothing west of the Rio Grande could upon any claim be treated as a part of Louisiana. Pike was escorted--half prisoner, half guest--through New Mexico, the northern provinces of Mexico, and Texas. In 1807 he was returned unharmed to the American army post at Natchitoches. He published a book a little later that aroused the ambition of traders on the Missouri border to visit Santa Fe and capture the markets of the Spanish settlers.
Limits of the desert. The general area of the Far West was now known, but there was no rush of settlers to occupy it. Louisiana became a state in 1812, and Missouri did so in 1821. Three more states along the Mississippi--Arkansas (1836), Iowa (1846), and Minnesota (1858)--were admitted in time. West of Missouri there was no serious move for a new state until after 1850.
Meanwhile the United States accepted the verdict of the early explorers and of Stephen H. Long, who crossed the Great Plains in 1819 and 1820. Their opinion was that farmers could not make settlements in the country west of the states along the Mississippi. There were few trees to use in building homes. Rainfall was too scanty to grow crops. In some places the land was rocky and mountainous. Elsewhere there were bare rock and sand, bunch grass, and sagebrush. Schoolbooks called it the Great American Desert. It teemed with wild game. Buffalo herds grazed their way up the Plains each spring and down again each autumn. There were other animals whose numbers amazed those who visited the region. Indians followed the roving herds with fleet ponies descended from the animals the Spanish explorers had turned loose or had lost. The farming frontier developed east of the Mississippi and in the new states west of it. The Far West remained for several decades a land of Indians and wild game.
Missionaries and traders. Long before Americans explored the Far West the country had been known to the French and Spanish. Missionary explorers and soldiers had visited it many times. Traders had come, tempted by the profits of the fur trade. From New Orleans they had worked their way up the river to St. Louis. From St. Louis they reached out toward the Rocky Mountains. They had come too from Quebec and Montreal and from the shores of Hudson Bay. They persuaded the Indians to bring in furs and sent out trappers to collect them. Their runners scoured the Plains and searched the mountains for good trapping sites. They knew many details of the land long before surveyors arrived to map it.
When the Far West became part of the United States, the government wanted to protect the fur trade for American citizens. It tried to drive out foreign trappers, particularly those of the Hudson's Bay Company. John Jacob Astor, a New York merchant, took the lead in organizing American fur companies. Stockaded posts were built for agency houses, where trade with the Indians was carried on.
Each year goods for the Indians were sent to the posts. There were blankets, guns, powder, tools, needles, beads, and other things the Indian lacked and wanted. After the winter hunt the Western tribes journeyed to the posts to trade their furs. Out of the posts white traders and half-breeds, who were the children of white male traders and Indian women, traveled to the fur country with pack trains of trading goods. Around many of the posts, the cabins of these trappers and their families were the beginnings of white occupation.
From 1812 to 1846 the fur trade was the chief resource of the Far West. The great region seemed destined to continue a wild land of Indians and traders. Congress decided to use the land as the basis of a permanent Indian policy.
The Indians. Since the beginning of white settlement in America, the Indians had given way before the advancing cabins of the pioneer farmers. The states wanted the Indians removed from their borders. White farmers and land speculators demanded their land. White communities feared having Indian tribes as neighbors.
Under the Removal Act of 1830, Congress offered to buy the lands of tribes living in the settled states east of the Mississippi and to give them new land in the West. The Indians of the Plains were persuaded to admit the tribes moved from the East. An Indian Bureau was established to look after their needs. Troops were sent to guard the frontier.
The government made treaties with the tribes as sovereign nations. It granted them land forever--"as long as the grass shall grow and the waters run." These promises were not kept. Once the notion of the American Desert was found to be largely a myth, white travelers, traders, and settlers began following the overland trails into the West. The government did not keep them out of the lands given to its Indian wards. Friction and warfare between the two peoples followed
Oregon country claims. To the northwest lay the Oregon country, valued for its furs and as a way station for ships in the China trade. To the southwest was Spanish California. It was dotted with Spanish missions. Around them grew little colonies of Indians, retired soldiers, and traders.
Oregon was subject to the claims of both Great Britain and the United States. It was held in joint occupation until the owners could agree how to divide it. The United States became interested in the early 1830s, when trappers began to send parties up the Missouri and the Platte rivers and into the valleys of the Columbia. Missionary societies began sending missions to the Indians. The famous Marcus Whitman took his bride to the mission farm at Waiilatpu (see Whitman, Marcus). He then carried glowing reports back East. An Indian agent went out from Washington, D.C., in 1842.
Trails west. In the spring of 1843 there gathered near the bend of the Missouri River, on the eastern edge of the Indian country, more than a thousand homeseekers. They were determined to risk the long and dangerous overland trip for the sake of farms in Oregon. In 1846 Britain and the United States divided the Oregon country along the line of 49o north latitude. The overland trails now took on new importance. To the Indians the trails were a calamity. They carried thousands of whites into the Indian country. To the farmers of the Middle West, they were the channel to the greatest long-distance migration in American history.
The Oregon Trail was the chief and most famous of the routes. Francis Parkman, the great historian, visited it while it was new. He described it in a book that is still popular, 'The Oregon Trail'. The Trail began at that stretch of the Missouri River where the stream turns sharply eastward at the mouth of the Kansas River.
Each year, in May, when prairie grass was soft and prairie roads were dry enough to carry loads, the overland emigrants gathered along the Missouri above the bend. They completed their outfits at the stores near Independence, Mo.
The Oregon Trail. The main highway, well trodden by 1846, began in Missouri at Independence and Westport Landing (now Kansas City). It ran across country to Fort Kearney, on the Platte River. The fort was built to protect the travelers and to outfit them. The main Oregon Trail followed the south bank of the Platte to the junction of the North and South forks. It then followed the south bank of the North Platte through Mitchell Pass to Fort Laramie, at the mouth of the Laramie River. A band of religious emigrants, the Mormons, ascended the Platte in 1847. They followed the north bank, thereafter known as the Mormon Trail.
Both trails merged as one along the Sweetwater branch of the North Platte. Beyond the head of the Sweetwater the wagons crossed the Continental Divide through South Pass, which had been first visited by fur traders in 1824. West of South Pass the Oregon Trail followed the Snake River, passing Fort Hall and Fort Boise in what is now Idaho. From Fort Walla Walla the Trail followed the south bank of the Columbia to an area near Fort Vancouver. Most of the travelers left the Trail there and settled in the Willamette Valley. Some, however, followed the Columbia on to the Pacific coast.
The Trail was bordered with the graves of those who died on the way and with discarded goods as the animals became too worn out to draw heavy loads. Also along the trail were abandoned broken wagons and skeletons of horses and oxen, picked clean by coyotes. These animals howled out of campfire range at night and scavenged the campgrounds after the travelers left. Thousands of people followed the Oregon Trail into Oregon. In 1848 Congress created the Oregon Territory, parts of which eventually became the states of Oregon and Washington.
At the same time, many homeseekers were moving toward California. These settlers followed the Oregon Trail as far as Soda Springs (in what is now Idaho). There they turned southwestward to the Humboldt River, the Carson Sink, and the Sierra Nevada entry into California. American occupation of the Pacific Slope had begun.
The Great Santa Fe Trail. Southwest from the bend of the Missouri, the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Great Plains to New Mexico. Here Pike had seen a market in 1807. Regular use of the Trail had begun after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821. Wagons began to cross the Kansas plains to the great bend of the Arkansas River. The main route ascended the river to the mouth of the Purgatoire, near La Junta in Colorado. It then continued up the Purgatoire, across Raton Pass, and down the slopes to the town of Santa Fe.
There was a shortcut, dry and dangerous. It crossed the Arkansas near the Mexican boundary at 100o west longitude and ran through the country of the Cimarron River, entering Santa Fe from the east. The Santa Fe Trail--and its extension to California, the Spanish Trail--was not an emigrant road. It was used chiefly by traders. Their prairie schooners full of goods raced across the Plains and followed the market down the Rio Grande. Sometimes they crossed the Chihuahua Desert below El Paso and penetrated as far south as Mexico City.
War with Mexico. It is probable that the American migrations to California would, within a few years, have led to an Americanization of the region even had there not been a war with Mexico. As it turned out, however, war hastened the process. When, in 1846, preparations were made to invade Mexico, an army was assembled on the border. It mobilized at Fort Leavenworth (which had been built in 1827 to protect the Santa Fe trade) and marched into New Mexico. The invading army was under the command of General Stephen Watts Kearny.
From New Mexico Kearny, guided by Christopher (Kit) Carson, proceeded to Upper California, as California north of San Diego was called. When Kearny arrived at Los Angeles, he found that California already had been largely conquered by the Navy and resident United States citizens. At the head of the latter group was the picturesque explorer John Charles Fremont.
"The Pathmarker." Fremont was a young engineer attached to the Army. He was already known as "the pathmarker" and "the pathfinder" before the Mexican War. In 1842 he had been sent to survey the route to South Pass. In 1843 and 1844 he had been ordered again to the Far West, this time to the Columbia country from which he returned by way of California and a southern trail. In the West again in 1845, Fremont was on the margin of the Spanish settlements when the Bear Flag Revolt broke out in 1846. He placed himself at the head of the American settlers who cooperated with the Army and the Navy in the conquest of California.
With the trails in operation, the Indian country was doomed. In 1849 the gold rush to California broke all records for migration. New mining camps began calling for government and protection. In the Compromise of 1850 California became a state. Utah and New Mexico were organized as territories. Four years later, with the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas and Nebraska territories were cut out of the Indian country. The latter was reduced to the size of the state of Oklahoma.
Travel and mail. In 1858 the famous overland mail service from Missouri to California was started. Travelers in Concord coaches spent more than three weeks in cramped quarters with little sleep. Poor food was provided at the stations where the horses were changed. In 1860 the best-known of the Pony Express services started to run between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif. Riders on fleet ponies carried letters in special saddlebags.
In 1869 transportation between East and West was improved when the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Utah. The importance of the wagon trails soon began to diminish. Twenty years later irrigation ditches were making the dry lands bloom. More railroads were crossing the once desolate desert. The Indians were becoming almost a forgotten people. The high plains had entered upon their last phase as "cow country."
Cowboys and cattle trails. Vast herds of cattle were bred in Texas and driven northward into the Great Plains. The most famous cattle trails were Goodnight-Loving, Western, Chisholm, and Shawnee. The Shawnee Trail divided into West and East branches near the junction of the Canadian and Arkansas rivers. Abilene was a chief outlet for Texas longhorns consigned to Kansas City and Chicago packing plants.
After the Civil War the cowboys were the last picturesque figures of the American frontier. From their dwindling ranks Buffalo Bill recruited a group to form his world-famous Wild West Show. The cowboys left a musical legacy to the nation. The ballads they sang around campfires have become a part of America's folklore.
Outlaws and lawmen. If the frontier offered opportunity to the pioneer, it offered it also to the lawless--criminals who wanted to escape the confines of civilization to live as they pleased. It is this aspect of the frontier that has been more celebrated than any other in books and films. And it is this aspect, too, that earned the American frontier the name Wild West. The names of many criminals have become legendary: Joaquin Murieta, Sam Bass, Belle Starr, Billy the Kid, the James brothers, the Younger brothers, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The kinds of crimes committed included most of those common to settled communities and many unique to the West. There were horse thieves, cattle rustlers, and train and stage robbers. Of these, frontier people regarded the horse thieves with the greatest contempt; and they were the most severely punished. The horse was the primary means of transportation and essential for cattle raising.
As long as there was an open range in the West, cattle rustling flourished. The rustlers were hard to catch because, in the early years at least, cattle were not always branded by their owners. When branding became common, rustlers found ways to alter the brands. Because this crime was so little punished by law enforcement, the cattle ranchers usually had to take the law into their own hands.
Most of the cattle grazing was done on open ranges that were federal property. When sheep ranchers began moving in, competing for water and grassland, range wars of great ferocity developed between the cattle and sheep ranchers. Another conflict over grazing lands emerged in Texas when barbed wire was introduced and the open range began to be closed off. The transition was marred by the Fence Cutters' War of 1883 and other lesser outbreaks for about a decade, until the open range was virtually gone.
Cattle ranchers also had their own wars. The most publicized was the Johnson County War in Wyoming in the years 1892 and 1893. Here the conflict was between the owners of large herds who wanted all the open range they could get and the smaller owners who had staked claims under the homestead acts to small sections of free land. In the end, it was the pioneer homesteaders who won; and the day of the great cattle barons was nearly over.
Lawmen, too, have come in for their share of fame: men such as Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, N.M., who captured Billy the Kid; Wild Bill Hickok of Abilene, Kan.; Bat Masterson of Dodge City, Kan.; and Wyatt Earp. Earp started his law enforcement career in Wichita, then moved to Dodge City as deputy marshal. But it was as deputy sheriff in Tombstone, Ariz., that he made his name a legend. With his fellow deputies Morgan Earp and John H. "Doc" Holliday, he faced a gang of outlaws in a shootout at the OK Corral that was to become the most celebrated of all the gunfights in the West.
Frontier justice was normally swift and summary. And many frontier judges were only too willing to dispense the harshest punishments. Hanging judges they were called, and the most notable was a federal judge at Fort Smith, Ark., Isaac C. Parker. Appointed to the bench in 1875, he spent 21 years trying thousands of criminals. By 1896, when he died, the frontier was history.
Meaning of the frontier. On July 12, 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, one of the most eminent of American historians, read a paper entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" to a meeting of the American Historical Association at the World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. His interpretations, usually called the "Turner thesis," have provided historians ever since with a wealth of material by which to determine what the frontier experience had done to shape the United States.
In his introduction, Turner noted that the superintendent of the census had stated in 1890: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line." This quiet statement was in fact an epoch-making announcement. For the first time in American history, there was no frontier. Something that had been from the beginning an essential feature of the nation's life was finished. (To be sure, there was Alaska, but that territory in its remoteness was not drawing great numbers of settlers.)
It was time to assess what the frontier had done for the nation. For one thing, as Turner pointed out, "the frontier promoted the formation of a composite nationality for the American people. . . . In the crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized, liberated, and fused into a mixed race."
Second, the frontier promoted the interdependence of the sections of the United States. It created a diversified agriculture and made demands on the older communities for manufactured goods. The opening of the West also prompted the federal government to begin a large program of internal improvements, the building of roads, canals, and railroads that tied the sections together. This created a mutual interdependency of sections and of town and rural areas. Most of these internal improvements, however, took place in the North rather than in the South.
Third, the frontier promoted nationalism in another way. People in the territories did not regard themselves as citizens of a state, but as citizens of the United States. Turner stated: "As frontier states accrued to the Union, the national power grew. . . . The economic and social characteristics of the frontier worked against the sectionalism of the coast."
Last, "the most important effect of the frontier has been the promotion of democracy here and in Europe. . . . The frontier individualism has from the beginning promoted democracy. . . . The rise of democracy as an effective force in the nation came in with Western preponderance under [Andrew] Jackson and William Henry Harrison, and it meant the triumph of the frontier--with all of its good and with all of its evil elements."
If the frontier had done so much to formulate American nationalism, it had also had a singular impact on the American character. Turner noted this at the close of his address: "That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends, that restless nervous energy, that dominant individualism working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom--these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the frontier."