The Development of the Western Frontier between 1866 and 1890

Category: Cowboy, Developments
Last Updated: 27 Jul 2020
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The Trans-Mississipi west comprises the region that ps from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains (Client file, n. pag. ). It is estimated to be 1,000 miles long from east to west and is about 1,500 miles from north to south (Client file, n. pag. ). The Trans-Mississippi west (also known as the Great Plains, the Western Frontier or the prairie) was inhabited by more than 300,000 Native Americans, collectively referred to as the Plains Indians (Client file, n. pag. ).

Prior to the Civil War, the Western Frontier was largely unpopulated by pioneers (although it was under the control of the United States government through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803) (Client file, n. pag. ). Some wagon trains did pass through the area en route to Oregon or California, but these were able to do so unmolested (in sharp contrast to Hollywood films) (Client file, n. pag. ). In return, the payment of tributes in the form of clothing, jewelry, metal utensils or other items desired by the tribes was required (Client file, n. ag. ). However, the Homestead Act of 1862 (passed during the Civil War) encouraged emigration to the Western Frontier (Client file, n. pag. ). Under the act, settlers can avail of a 160-acre parcel of land for a small filing fee worth $10 (Client file, n. pag. ). In addition, they can obtain the full title to the land within five years if they were able to make significant improvements on it (planting crops, building houses, raising livestock, etc. ) (Client file, n. pag. ).

As a result, homesteaders, miners and ranchers trespassed on Indian lands and threatened the Plains Indians' hunting and way of life (Client file, n. pag. ). This left the Plains Indians with no other choice but to use armed resistance (Client file, n. pag. ). The hostilities between the Plains Indians and the US Cavalry (called on by the settlers to crush Indian opposition and to confine tribes in government-controlled reservations) that ensued were eventually called the Western Indian Wars (1866-1890) (Client file, n. ag. ). Despite the attractive terms of the Homestead Act of 1862, around 60% of emigrants gave up on their homesteads before the end of the five-year period (Client file, n. pag. ). Reasons for doing so included lack of water supply, Indian attacks, harsh winters, soil that was unfit for planting and sometimes-deadly conflicts with ranchers, who saw homesteads as a hindrance to cattle grazing (Client file, n. pag. ). On the other hand, those who remained endured extreme hardships just to survive.

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They worked very hard under sub-zero winters and summers that often reached more than a hundred degrees Fahrenheit (Client file, n. pag. ). Unable to afford houses made of wood, they lived in houses built of sod and dirt (Client file, n. pag. ). They also experienced infestations of locusts, which would eat their crops, as well as the drapes of their houses and their clothing (Client file, n. pag. ). Adding to their list of burdends were natural disasters such as storms and tornadoes (Client file, n. pag. ).

The homesteaders' privations were so great that History professor Frederick Jackson Turner hypothesized in his thesis in 1890 that “much of America's free and democratic spirit was forged by the existence of an open frontier to the west” (Client file, n. pag. ). Another important advancement in the Western Frontier was the Transcontinental Railroad. The absence of a railway system in the region isolated Oregon and California (already states) from the rest of the US – they stood alone at the edge of the country and were accessible only by wagon train, ship or boat (Client file, n. ag. ). President Abraham Lincoln and the US Congress backed a railroad act which authorized the presence of a railroad across the continent, but it was not implemented until the end of the Civil War (Client file, n. pag. ).

The construction of the railroad started in 1864 – the Union Pacific was built westward from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific was erected eastward from Sacramento, California (Client file, n. pag. ). Even if only 40 miles of track were laid by 1865, the pace of the assembly increased at the end of war (Client file, n. ag. ). Majority of the workers that were recruited for the building of the railroad were from minority groups such as blacks, Mexicans, Asians and Irish (Client file, n. pag. ). Despite delays in construction (storms, harsh winters, occasional Indian attacks, migration of large buffalo herds, etc. ), the Transcontinental Railroad was finally completed at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 (Client file, n. pag. ). The Transcontinental Railroad boosted commerce in the Western Frontier, particularly the cattle industry (Client file, n. pag. ).

Even though the cattle industry was already a major part of the western economy, the lack of transportation hindered its expansion into the eastern part of the US (Client file, n. pag. ). Hence, the development of railroads in the Western Frontier (along with entrepreneurs such as Joseph McCoy, who promoted beef as tasty and healthy) increased the demand for beef in the east (Client file, n. pag. ). Cowboys would drive large herds of cows from Texas and New Mexico to “railheads” – towns on or near the rail line, such as Dodge City, Abilene, Wichita and Colorado Springs (Client file, n. ag. ). Once in the “railheads,” the cattle would be kept in large pens or yards, where they would be fattened for market in the east (Client file, n. pag. ). During this time, a cowboy was paid usually around $25-$30 per month (Client file, n. pag. ). “Railheads” (also known as “railhead towns” or “cow towns”) became prosperous not only because of the cattle industry, but also because of saloons or “dance halls,” where cowboys spent their money on liqour, gambling and women (Client file, n. pag. ).

It is likewise the saloon that gave “railheads” their reputation for lawlessness (Client file, n. pag. ). But it must be noted that this image was largely seen only in Hollywood films (Client file, n. pag. ). For one, most “railheads” were strict when it comes to gun control (Client file, n. pag. ). Gun control laws in “railheads” were enforced by tough sheriffs or marshalls with shotgun-toting deputies – one gun control law that they strictly implemented was that cowboys should surrender their guns to them while they were in town (Client file, n. pag. ).

In addition, the saloon area in a “railhead” was usually located in the opposite direction of the “respectable” side of the town to minimize the possibility of untoward incidents (Client file, n. pag. ). Lastly, contrary to Hollywood films, cowboys were not hardened criminals but “just regular and adventurous young men letting off steam after several months of hard work” (Client file, n. pag. ). Most gunfights “were spontaenous events in a saloon or in the street between angry or drunken men who had not been relieved of their guns” (Client file, n. pag. ).

They usually fought over “poker-related disputes, a woman, a perceived insult or some ongoing enmity between long-time adversaries” (Client file, n. pag. ). In most “railheads,” the murder rate was “acutally lower than the murder rate of many large American cities in the latter half of the twentieth century” (Client file, n. pag. ). Furthermore, extensive research has proven that in the period between 1870-1900, only five gun duels occurred in the entire Western Frontier (Client file, n. pag. ). It is true that emigration led to the development of the Trans-Mississipi west.

However, it must be kept in mind that this progress did not come without a price – the Western Indian Wars killed around 1,000 US Cavalry soldiers and led to the death and enslavement of millions of Plains Indians (McConnell, n. pag. ). It would be fair to say that the circumstances surrounding the expansion of the Trans-Mississipi west became one of the precursors for future instances of US political, economic and military aggression abroad. The strategy remains the same – plunder the country (or in this case, region) as much as you can, fill the people's minds with deceiving propaganda and chop off a few thousand heads when necessary.

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The Development of the Western Frontier between 1866 and 1890. (2017, Apr 16). Retrieved from

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