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Chapter 16 – “The American West” Essay

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Chapter 16 – “The American West”

            In Chapter 16, “The American West,” Henretta describes the growth of United States across the Great Plains and the western frontiers. Through the description of the changing landscape of this region, he illustrates the reliance of this expansion on the dual force of individual dreams and commercial and cultural exploitation.

            Prior to the 1860s and the development of the railroad system across the plains, as a means to link the Oregon territory to the East, the Great Plains was viewed as uninhabitable and unprofitable to the general American public. However, with the construction of the railway systems by Union Pacific and Central Pacific railway companies the potential for the area began to grow in the eyes of business magnates in the East. Almost more importantly, in the population boom that occurred afterward, the area grew in the imaginations of individual Americans. Figures such as William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and stories of his escapades as an Army scout and buffalo hunter became part of the myth of the Wild West. Such dramatization of the Wild West lifestyle increased desire but did little to foster a true understanding of the incompatibility of the physical and cultural geography of the land.

Despite the sometimes misleading propaganda sold to potential settlers, the potential for agricultural profit and the independent spirit of this new frontier drew homesteaders of many nationalities and races. Blacks and whites came in droves to farm the land and carve out a piece of prosperity for themselves and their families. The Homestead Act of 1862 enabled these individuals to obtain land across the plains, driving the issue of the Native American tribes across this area to its eventual resolution. The policy of moving the tribes such as the Lakota Sioux to designated areas, cordoned and controlled by the federal government was helped along by the influx of homesteaders.

Much as the Chinese and Hispanics became marginalized farther West in California based on racism, the policy toward Native American tribes seems to have been drawn less from fact than cultural ignorance. In fact, the homesteaders and Native American tribes were similar in one crucial but largely ignored way – the necessity of being able to subsist and survive the unpredictable and sometimes harsh conditions of the plains. A major example of this can be seen in the traditional gender beliefs of the Sioux and the changed gender roles of homesteaders. As Henretta notes, while the Sioux practiced a kind of division of labor along gender lines, there was the equality in their belief in each individual contributing to the success of the tribe. In the same way, female and male homesteaders were forced, in their fight for survival, to create new gender rules. While women still kept the home, the dependency of their family on their work was more noticeable.

            Despite the similarities in their need for survival, the differences between Native Americans and the homesteaders were much more prevalent. These differences prompted even the most well-meaning of whites to advocate for assimilation of the tribes into larger American society through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. It sought to mandate the cultural norms of the Native American society, from their children’s cultural and formal education to the introduction of land ownership. However, even in the face of such a blatant desire to eliminate their tribal heritage, including the Wounded Knee Massacre that left over a hundred men, women, and children dead, the tribes were able to retain their individuality.

            It is almost impossible to cover the many different issues which helped to shaped and define the American West. However, the growth of the railroad and the homesteader population, teamed with the deterioration of the native tribes illustrates a broader picture of an idealism that was many times falsely based and a greed which presupposed logic in the agricultural, cattle, and mining industries. Despite this, the end result is the same, with these many factors having converged to bring the West and East coasts together into a nation that by the 20th century was ideologically, if not culturally or racially, united and defined.

Significant Events, People, and/or Issues:

1)      Gold rush starting in 1848

2)      Development of the railroad in the 1860s by the federal government using Union Pacific and Central Pacific. Also, later the increased interest of railroad magnates in the possibility for new commercial profit.

3)      Homestead Act 1862

4)      Cattle boom of the 1880s, resulting in and helping to speed the near-extinction of the buffalo herds.

5)      William F. Cody “Buffalo Bill”

6)      Change in normal gender roles – including both homesteaders and Native American tribes due to the need for everyone to contribute to survival.

7)      Droughts of the mid to late 1880s

8)      Establishment and enforcement of reservation policies against the plains tribes

9)      Dawes Severalty Act 1887

10)  Relationship between whites and non-whites, including Native Americans, Hispanics and Chinese in both the Great Plains and the Far West