5) The Plains Indians

The Transcontinental Railroad (1869)

The Transcontinental railroad was a continuous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869 that connected the existing eastern US rail network with the Pacific Coast. It was built by 3 private companies over public lands provided by extensive US land grants. The construction was financed by the state, US government subsidy bonds, and by company-issued mortgage bonds.

The railroad revolutionised the settlement and economy of the American West where the Native American population were living. It aligned the western states and territories with the northern Union states and made transporting goods and people coast-to-coast considerably quicker and cheaper. Many started travelling over the 'Overland Trail'.

After gold was discovered in California in about 1848, more people started moving around the west and up to San Francisco which developed into a great 19th century boom town on the back of the great California gold-rush.

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Immigrant Labour

But, the railroad was largely built by immigrant labour. The Union Pacific mainly recruited their labour from Ireland, but they did still recruit from other European immigration groupes in the East. But, Leland Stanford's idea in the Central Pacific region led to the recruitment of 10,000 Chinese labourers. They were commonly referred to as 'Celestials'. The construction work involved an immense amount of manual labour. American-Chinese received the same wages as an unskilled white American, but those actually from China received less. But, the Chinese workers were earning a 'fortune' compared to what they would have earned in China.

Usually the workers lived in camps near to the worksite and they moved to keep up with the railhead.

The railroad opened for through traffic on the 10th May 1869 when the CPRR president, Stanford, ceremonially drove the gold 'last spike' (later known as the 'Golden Spike') with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit, Utah.

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The Cattle Boom (1866-1885)

The Cattle Boom only lasted for around 20 years and it began largely because the railroad made raising cattle profitable. Ranchers drove cattle northward along the railroad and there was a lot of grassland nearby allowing the cattle to be fed for free. They met up with the railroad where they were shipped to the Eastern markets. Between 1880 and 1885, ranchers could expect profits of between 25-40% which also brought millions of dollars in investment in the western cattle industry. The cattle roamed freely along the way allowing for free-range cattle.

Much of what was used in this business was taken from the Mexicans, like cattle brands and certain breeds of cows and horses that were particularly tough and could survive life on the open range. For example, the Texas Longhorn became one of the most popular breeds. The wage labourers who worked with the cattle also adopted Mexican outfits including spurs to keep the horse going and wide-rimmed hats that kept the sun off. Interestingly, about one-third of these so-called 'cowboys' were actually recently freed African-Americans with Mexicans also making up a large number.

The cattle boom died in 1885 largely because of a very harsh winter that left nothing for the cattle to eat. Things like over-supplying and the drop in the markets also led to the end though. Tallow became highly prized rather than the leaner meat produced by the Texas Longhorns, and soon they started dying in huge numbers. In 1927, the breed was saved from sure extinction by enthusiasts.

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The Land Rush (1889)

On the 22nd April 1889, on a signal from the US cavalry, 'Boomers' raced along the line drawn by the government to claim 2 million acres of what had been Indian territory. The government opened the land for settlement. The 'Sooners' jumped the gun and were accused of cheating. It was the last large-section of land not yet open for habitation by Anglo-Americans. Although, it wasn't free. For every acre of land the government bought, the farmers bought 6. In half a day, Oklahoma and Guthrie had established cities of around 10,000 people.

The settlers made it into a city. But, a big problem was trying to stop cattle from trampling the crops. So, one of the key inventions during this period was barbed wire. It was key to the American invasion of the west.

There was also very little rain so farmers needed windmills and pumping equipment to access underground wells. This made the average cost of a farm expensive and a small fortune for the poor. Bigger corporations invested between 10 and 20 times more into the farms on things like steam tractors, creating 'Bonanza farms'. Inventions like these drove small-scale farmers out of business as tractors did about 20 times what a single person could. They became tenants or workers on others' farms where they got a room and board and as little as 50 cents a day.

But, this movement into central US brought a great deal of contact with those already living there, the Plains Indians.

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Contact and Conflict on the Plains

At this point, there had been nearly 400 years of exchange and conflict with the Native Americans whose lives had been transformed due to European and European-American trade goods. 2 of the most significant were guns and horses.

Looking at the Sioux, they moved from their traditional homes in the 1700s towards Minnesota to hunt beaver. They could trade beaver pelts with the whites who turned them into manufactured goods, like the popular beaver hats. The pelts were very valuable. In return, they received guns. They used their newly gained strategic power to dominate the fur trade and draw other Indians out of their territory. But, by the 1770s, they had lost their advantage as the other tribes got their hands on guns. It meant they could move no further up the Minnesota River as the other tribes blocked them. These tribes were also agricultural and so also had horses at this point.

But, in 1779, smallpox arrived with the Europeans that changed the balance of power back to the Sioux as the agricultural tribes lived in villages meaning they were particularly hard-hit. The Sioux developed a different culture following this, becoming nomadic, centred on the buffalo hunt. This began a second wave of westward expansion. In 1804, they controlled much of the northern climate.

Smallpox struck again in 1837 and cut the Native American population by as much as 50%. The Sioux's nomadic life again helped them to escape this becoming the largest tribe on their Plains. Their birth rate approached that of the whites with the population doubling every 20 years, which required further expansion. By the 1840s, they were by far the biggest and most powerful tribe and so it was inevitable they would come into contact/conflict with the other expanding tribe, the whites.

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Other Tribes

There were still other tribes on the Plains though. Many of the tribes had abandoned their earlier village-centred lives to the nomadic lives we associate them with. Many Easterners and Europeans saw them as noble savages who lived in harmony with nature. But, the tribes had a different philosophy to nature than the Europeans as they believed humans were just part of a great web and weren't transcendent beings. The Europeans believed nature was something that could be used and developed. The Sioux did things like burning grass though so they could hunt deer more easily, and chasing buffalo off cliffs. So, it seems they weren't in quite a close a harmony with nature than was believed.

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Indian Wars (1862-1890)

The native Americans had become part of a big web of trade with the whites and were very much included in the western American economy. The federal government had long considered the Plains too dry and too difficult to farm and so allowed the Indians to have the land. But, after the gold and silver strikes, they thought differently. In 1851, they introduced a policy of concentration where they tried to get the tribes to limit their hunting grounds. Every time the tribes agreed though, white settlers moved in anyway then demanded that the government protect them from the Indians. By 1862, one Sioux group had seen their land so reduced that they fought back. They attacked several undefended white settlements along the Minnesota frontier.

The Minnesota governor told Washington a war had broke out with the Indians. General John Pope came to St Paul and told of his intention of exterminating the Sioux. He said ‘[The Indians] are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts and by no means as people with whom treaties and compromises can be made’. His campaign started a war that lasted for nearly 30 years.

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Sand Creek Massacre (1864)

As the conflict picked up with the Indians in the west, a group of Colorado volunteers attacked a group of friendly Cheyenne gathered at Sand Creek who were under the protection of the US army. Black Kettle (the chief) raised the American flag in friendship, but Colonel John Chivington didn't believe it and ordered his troops to kill and scalp everyone. The volunteers killed 105 women and children and 28 men, and they decorated their horses with human body parts, wore necklaces of human ears etc.

All the white people on the Plains felt the consequences of Chivington's brutality as all the Plains Indians joined together with the Sioux, putting their differences aside, and drove the white people off the Indian lands. Many white people in the East were horrified at the violence at Sand Creek too.

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Killing the Buffalo

The slaughter of the buffalo was far more damaging to the Plains Indians though than the wars and diseases. The railroads had disrupted the migratory patterns of the buffalo as they wouldn't cross the tracks. They became separated into north and south herds. This broke up the patterns of the hunt for the Indians too. Tourists were also coming on trains to shoot the buffalo. When the hides became popular in the East, commercial companies sent hunters to also join in. They could kill more than 100 bison in an hour. By 1883, the north American bison were nearly extinct.

This disruption of the Native American's means of subsistence disrupted Indian life far more than the fighting and battles. It was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a way of life that was different from the whites.

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The Little Big Horn (1874)

After Sand Creek, a young Sioux called Crazy Horse began leading raiding parties that were so effective the federal negotiators signed a treaty in 1868 promising to abandon the trail to the gold fields that passed through Sioux territory. It also established 2 large Indian reservations, but this part of the treaty wasn't made entirely clear to the Sioux who were harrassed by the US army when they ventured outside of these areas.

In the summer of 1874, General George Armstrong Custer, who had a terrible reputation as a killer to the Indians and as a glory-seeker to his colleagues, violated the treaty by riding into the Dakota Black Hills that were sacred to the Sioux. Custer wanted to encourage the whites to come to the area and the federal government started trying to negotiate with the Sioux to gain the Black Hills. When this failed, President Grant ordered that all hostiles should be rounded up and forced onto reservations. The Cheyenne became closer allies with the Sioux under Crazy Horse and several cavalry troops marched against them. Custer got to the scene before any other cavalry units, and hearing of a nearby native village, he sought glory by swooping in. But, he landed in an encampment of about 2500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. Custer and about 250 of his soldiers were killed.

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The Dawes Act (1887)

Reformers realised that efforts to contain the Indians on reservations wasn't working as, even those who went to the reservations, became dependent on the government and the white settlers persisted on violating reservation boundaries. So, Congress passed the Dawes Act that aimed to bring the once nomadic tribes into white society as small landowners and farmers. Lands held in common would be allotted to individuals. But, the land, often because of irrigation problems, couldn't support an entire family. The Dawes Act ended up being more disruptive of Indian culture because it weakened the communal structure upon which tribal life was based. Indians were often swindled out of their lands, and all reservation lands not taken by the Indians were opened to non-Indian homesteaders.

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The Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee (1890)

This was the last symbolic act against native life and it followed a religious revival by the Indians. Wovoka supposedly received a revelation from the Great Spirit that Indians were to be good to each other and respect each other. He also believed the Great Spirit had sent a dance that, if performed, dead men would come back to life, the white men would leave and the mountains would open up where the buffalo would return. It was called the Ghost Dance.

It became very popular, and soon, special shirts were even made that they believed would protect them from bullets. The rituals became increasingly popular but were beginning to scare the white men who found it very morbid and eerie. The army became afraid of another uprising and decided they would put an end to it. At Wounded Knee, they opened fire using the newly-developed machine guns. They killed many men, women and children who were all left to freeze after being shot.

There were sporadic outbursts of violence after this, but this was the last major one.

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