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Lecture: The West to 1900


Emmeline Wells and sister wives
Suffragist and journalist Emmeline Wells (front and center)
and five of her sister wives.

© Utah State Historical Society


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Decline of the Indians

"Dream Catcher"

Distinctions Among Indian Nations

One of the most important things to understand about American Indians, or any people for that matter, is the geography in which they lived. To a great extent, the climate, topography, vegetation, water supply and other geographic factors determine the lifestyle of people in an area. Historians call this pattern geographic determinism.

The Cherokee were one of what colonial Americans called the "Five Civilized Tribes", which included the Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Choctaw. They lived in the "old South" region, with rolling hills, ample rainfall, and excellent soil. Perfect conditions for agriculture tend to determine an agricultural lifestyle, thus the Five Civilized Tribes had always been farmers. This was one reason, in addition to their religious conversion and republican government, that they were given the name.

During the 1820s, President Jackson had moved these tribes westward to the Oklahoma region with the promise of good farmland. Naturally the geography of Oklahoma was not the same as back home; it's dry and the soil is poor. Even those who survived this "Trail of Tears" had trouble surviving.

But the Indians of the Great Plains, who were the main concern after the Civil War, were nomadic. These "nations" (referred to as such because the government had official treaties with them) were not settled into agricultural communities, and they had relatively little contact with United States citizens prior to the Gold Rush of the 1850s. Since their way of life was based on loosely defined territory, dependence on bison (the book says buffalo, but buffalo live in Europe and Asia), and freedom of movement, the American government had much more trouble controlling them.

The End of the Treaty System

"Government Official at Treaty Negotiations"

The most basic legal change that enabled this control was the eradication of the treaty system. Since the government had treaties with the Indians, this signalled belief that the Indian tribes were nations, entitled to diplomacy and treaties which had to be approved by the Senate. In other words, treaties with Indian nations were the same as with European or Latin American nations. Both parties had to negotiate, agree, and sign. When things changed (the tribe's leadership was transferred, the U.S. cavalry attacked the Indians, Indians attacked settlers), the treaties had to change.

In 1866, a treaty was created allowing the Cherokee commercial rights involving tobacco. The Cherokee, being farmers from the Old South, had specialized in tobacco production and had transferred this knowledge to new conditions in Oklahoma. The new treaty allowed the Cherokee to make any product and sell it in the U.S. without paying a tax. Tobacco dealers in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas complained that their tobacco sales were being undercut by the treaty, and they complained to Congress. Congress annulled the tax exemption for the Cherokee, and arrested Indians who didn't pay the tax.

The Cherokee Tobacco Case came to the Supreme Court, which ruled that a treaty with Indians is not the same as a treaty with foreigners, and that a Congressional act was legitimately superior to a treaty. Congress then declared that there would be no more treaties, that Indians were subject to the U.S. laws made in Congress.

This was revolutionary. Having to negotiate treaties meant that tribes had sovereignty, the right to rule their own nations and make their own laws. With this one case, they were no longer "Indian Nations", and there was no more need for the U.S. government to even behave as if they were independent. Naturally, by this time (1870), the U.S. military was already enforcing their superiority, but this made it all legal.

Document: The Dawes General Allotment (Severalty) Act (1887)

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Humanitarianism and Integration

"Photo of Spotted Tale Sioux"

Not everyone approved of the Indian Wars and the takeover of Indian lands. Some called this the "Force Policy", which was advocated by the War Department. Others favored a "Peace Policy", particularly after the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864. In 1865 a commission led by Senator Doolittle of Wisconsin went out west to observe the Indians, and in 1867 they published a report.

The Doolittle Commission Report made three conclusions:

Interesting, eh? The report lay the groundwork for policy. A Peace Commission was formed to negotiate treaties for peace (we're still three years before the Tobacco Case decision), and offer assistance to the Indians to help learn agriculture, mining and ranching. Religious personnel were preferred as agents, since the government wanted to avoid overzealous or military presence. Mostly Quakers signed up, and headed out west as an example of a humanitarian solution: integrate the previously nomadic Indians into American life by teaching them survival skills.

Unfortunately, although technology could overcome the fact that most of the land was not suitable for agriculture, it was harder to overcome Indian spiritual beliefs. For example:

You ask me to plow the ground!
Shall I take a knife and tear my mother's bosom?
Then when I die she will not take me to her bosom to rest.
You ask me to dig for stone!
Shall I dig under her skin for her bones?
Then when I die I can not enter her body to be born again.
You ask me to cut grass and make hay and sell it, and be rich like white men!
But how dare I cut off my mother's hair?
It is a bad law, and my people can not obey it.
I want my people to stay with me here. All the dead men will come to life again.
Their spirits will come to their bodies again.
We must wait here in the homes of our fathers and be ready to meet them in the bosom of our mother.

This is from the Doctrine of Smohalla, a native preacher of the Columbia River nation. Many nomadic tribes had similar beliefs.

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Government Indian Schools

"Indian Government School Children"

The government Indian schools were created to assist in integrating Indian children into American life. Some families sent their children to the schools, but recent evidence indicates that government agents sometimes forcibly took children away from their tribes. There is an interesting parallel to Australian colonization, where whites took aboriginal children for work and Christianization.

The children found life in government schools difficult. The story of Zitkala-Sä (Red Bird) should serve as an example.

Document: Zitkala-Sä: School Days of an Indian Girl (1900)

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Transcontinental Railroad

The transcontinental railroad, which connected the east and west coasts of this country, is a key symbol of the United States and the west at the end of the nineteenth century. "Steam Locomotive"

Early railroads in the U.S. had not been designed with a national network in mind. At first, railroad lines of varying guages (widths) had been used to carry raw materials from the mines (coal, silver, gold, etc.) to processing plants. Then these lines were extended to distribution and market centers. One of the great achievements of the Robber Barons, whom I'll discuss next week, was in tying together these lines by starving out or buying out unproductive links in an attempt to make money off of a national network.

Two railroad companies created the transcontinental railroad. The Union Pacific built from the east, the Central Pacific from the west. The Union Pacific used many Irish workers and the Central Pacific many Chinese workers, leading some to comment that the eastern link was built on whiskey while the western one was built on tea.

The lines originally passed each other in the middle, because both sides were getting paid by the mile. When they were ordered to meet, which they did at Promontory Point (they named it) in Utah in 1869, there was a huge ceremony. Leland Stanford, the Governor of California (yes, Stanford University) was to drive in the last spike, and the telegraphers were to hook up the wires to signal the hammer tone. The Governor missed. But the telegraphers had already sent the signal, and America celebrated. Click on the version at the right to view the film clip from Ken Burns' The West: The Grandest Enterprise Under God (1996).

The symbolism of the transcontinental railroad was recognized immediately as the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny. Romantic notions of a nation "from sea to shining sea" had been in the American imagination for some time. Commercial interests had wanted the connection from the eastern markets to the port at San Francisco and the gold fields in northern California. The army had wanted easy transport for Indian control. With the completion of the railroad, national transport of goods (and eventually passengers), national markets, and the decline of Indian independence was assured.

Life on the Plains"Bison Hunt"

Native Life

When talking about the Plains Tribes, most historians refer to the buffalo (really bison) as a food source, but they were much more. Hides were used for tenting and fabric, fur was spun and used for cloth and blankets, bones were used for tools. The bison's dung (like the camel's in other parts of the world) does not impart impurities when burned, and thus could be used for cooking. The location of the bison herds at any particular time determined the behavior of the tribe. The hunt itself was a test of manhood and a synonym for survival. The bison were worshipped for their connection to the individual Indian tribes and to the earth itself.

Cowboys and cowgirls Cattle trail map showing all trails up fro Texas leading northward to Cheyenne, Abilene and other towns on the railroad line

The real cowboys and cowgirls were cattle drivers who ran cattle from Texas north to the railhead along the trails. Their lifestyle has since been romanticized. Cowfolk were white, black, Chinese and Indian. Some were female. Their work was hard and dirty, and when they arrived in places like Abilene, Kansas, they drank and played hard.

Bill Haywood: Miners and Cowboys (1887)

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What ended the cowboy lifestyle was farming. According to Alistair Cooke's book America, cowboys had no hand in "domesticating the wilderness". Pioneer settling families made the west part of America. As they did so, they claimed and fenced off their homesteads, building sod houses on the plains and farming the tough prairie sod with the new steel plow marketed by John Deere.

Historians talk about the "range wars", disputes between farmers and cowboys (and farmers and sheep herders) over control of the land. Cowboys and sheepherders resented the fencing off of the range, while farmers ran for their shotguns as cattle and sheep tromped through and grazed on their crops.

To prevent cattle from being driven across their land, where there were no trees to build fences, the settlers used a new invention: barbed wire. Barbed wire made it possible to protect ones farm. As more and more farms were created, and "wild" cattle became fewer in Texas, the cowboy was forced to become a rancher.

There are some terms from the cattle drives and cattle empire that have come into use in our language. Joseph McCoy was a cattle baron. The fact that he was able to deliver what he promised is what led to the phrase "the real McCoy".

And sometimes names get changed. Jesse Chisholm blazing his trail for cattle from Texas to the railheads in the north. This trail was called the Chisholm Trail, but many sources abbreviate it to "Chism Trail". This map, however, does it right.

A humorous view of the range wat was taken by the 1943 musical "Oklahoma", as heard in this song "The Farmer and the Cowman". (Lyrics)

Women's Suffrage and the Mormons

Women were not allowed to vote in national elections until 1919. But women had the vote in several states before they had it nationally, including Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870) and Idaho (1896).

Utah provides a particularly interesting case, because women got the vote so they could support polygamy. Polygamy (one man married to several women) was practiced among the Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Mormons, having been founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s, had moved from New York to Utah in an effort to escape persecution in the 1840s. There they made barren land fruitful, even surviving a horrible drought in the 1850s and battles with the U.S. government.

Their practice of polygamy had come under attack for many years. Some people are surprised to learn that many women supported polygamy. In a polygamous system, the community of females is large and interconnected. Child-raising and domestic issues are often dealt with in common, providing women with time and independence to pursue their own interests. The defense of polygamy was best presented by Emmeline Wells in 1883. See the film clip from The West: The Grandest Enterprise Under God (1996), about her efforts to both get the vote for women and preserve plural marriage.

Under legal pressure from the U.S. government, including the Supreme Court case Reynolds v United States (which held that religious duty could not justify a criminal act), the church officially ended the practice in 1890.

Emmeline Wells: On Polygamy (1880s)
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