The Plains Indians: their beliefs and way of life
- Plains Indians believed in one Great Spirit that ruled over everything. All living things had their own spirits and had to be treated with respect because all life was holy.
- Land could not be bought and sold because no one owned it and some land was sacred. Through medicine, men and visions, Indians could contacct the spirit world and learn to work with it, making its power their own.
- Horses meant that the Indians could move onto the Plains instead of living on the fringes of them. They could move camp quickly, following and hunting the buffalo. Horses meant that Plains Indians could wage war efficiently and with speed.
- Buffalo were essential to the Plains Indians and meant they could live on the Great Plains. They used every part of the ones they killed to support their lifestyle. (Tongue for hair brushes, bones for decorations, liver for food.)
- Tipis showed how well Indians adapted to living on the Plains: they used the materials available, housed extended families, were warm in winter and cool in summer. They could be taken down quickly - as the Indians needed to be able to folow the great buffalo herds - and could be easily transported by horses.
- The links between bands and tribes meant that tribes supported each other on the Great Plains, sometimes fighting against each other. In warfare, counting coup was more important than killing; this and scalping gave status to warriors.
Migrants and settlers in the West
- The trappers and mountain men began the process of opening up the west. They were the first white men to see the fertile lands that lay beyong the Rockies and Sierra Nevada, and news of their discoveries gradually spread across America. When the market for furs in the East and in Europe collapsed, they became guides to the wagon trains travelling west.
- The banking collapse in the East and subsequent farming crisis in the Midwest led to many contemplating a move to the Far West. The first wagon train to cross the Great Plains arrived in Oregon in 1843 and in California the following year. Soon tried-and-trusted wagon trails were established, but expeditions could still go disastrously wrong as the experience of the Donner party shows.
- The discovery of gold in California led to the gold rush of 1848, involving not only Americans but also people from around the world. Subsequent discoveries in 1858-59 in the Rockies and beyond led to a west-to-east migration of miners. The growth and development of mining towns created problems of law and order and in particular the use of vigilante groups. Nevertheless, the discovery of gold led to the economic development of the West and the pre-eminence of California as a finance centre.
- The Mormons were forced, because of persecution, to establish themselves on the land around the Great Salt Lake that no other group of migrants wanted. The genius of Brigham Young created a prosperous city from a barren land. From 1847 onwards, Mormons flocked to the area and worked hard, making it prosperous. Clashes with the US government ended when the Mormons agreed to accept a non-Mormon governor of their territory - Utah, which finally became a state in 1980 when the Mormons agreed to abandon polygamy.
Jim Bridger: an important mountain man
In 1822, Jim Bridger joined General William Ashley's Upper Missouri Expedition and explored the Yellowstone region. This gave him a taste for exploring and for the roaming life of a mountain man. In 1824, on a beaver-hunting expedition, he became the first white man to see the Great Salt Lake. Six years later, with several other mountain men, he bought the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and when the fur trade collapsed in the early 1840's he moved on to build a trading post, Fort Bridger, to provide supplies for migrants to the Oregon Trail.
Bridger led hundreds of wagon trains safely through the Rockies. In 1850, looking for a better way through, he discovered a pass that was later named after him and which shortened the Oregon Trail by 61 miles. Years later, the Bridger Pass was the chosen route for the Union Pacific Railroad and Interstate 80. In 1864, he created the Bridger Trail, which was an alternative route from Wyoming to the gold fields of Montana that avoided the dangerous Bozeman Trail. He worked as a guide and army scout during the first Powder River Expedition against the Sioux and Cheyenne who were blocking the Bozeman Trail (Red Cloud's War) and was discharged from the army in 1865. Blind, and suffering from arthritis and rheumatism, he died on his farm near Kansas City, Missouri in 1881.
Joseph Smith and the first Mormons
Joseph Smith, the son of a poor farmer from Vermont, claimed that in 1823 he dug up some golden plates from a mountainside in Palmyra, New York State. He said he had been guided to the plates by an angel, Moroni, who helped him translate the mysterious writing on them. It said that whoever found the plates would restore the church of Jesus Christ in America and build up God's kingdom on earth ready for Christ's second coming. Joseph Smith was that man.
Joseph Smith started with only five followers, who were called Mormons after Mormon, Moroni's father, but by 1830 his charismatic public speaking resulted in several hundred people joining his Church of Latter Day Saints. They became very unpopular in New York State. Preachers denounced them as blasphemous, and newspapers accused Joseph Smith of being a fraudster; mobs attacked his house and Mormons were shot at in the street. After prating for guidance, Joseph Smith took his followers to the village of Kirtland, Ohio. But, the Mormons were not able to stay in Ohio, nor were they able to stay in Missouri or Illinois due to persecution by non-Mormons.
Brigham Young: trail organiser
Brigham Young's first jobs as leader were to organise the move of 1,500 men, women and children into dangerous, unknown territory and to help them survive a journey they had not expected to have to make and for which they were poorly prepared.
They were travelling 2,250km to the Great Salt Lake and land that no one else wanted. Brigham Young:
- Divided the Mormons into manageable groups, each with a leader
- Insisted on strict discipline, giving everyone a specific role to play
- Taught them how to form their wagons into a circle at night for safety
- Insisted on regular resting places.
Reaching the top of the pass that led down to the Great Salt Lake in July 1847, the group had to decide whether to press on to the fertile lands of Oregon and California, or descend to the infertile, empty salt flats that surrounded the Great Salt Lake. Brigham Young supposed to had said, 'It is enough. This is the right place.'
The main party, fleeing from Illinois, arrived at the Great Salt Lake in August 1847. But as the months and years passed, Mormons arrived almost continuously as wagon train after wagon train got through to the valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Farming on the Plains
- The concept of 'manifest destiny' was one that envisaged the whole of America being populated by white Americans. The American people came to believe that this was the right and natural thing to do. Indeed, it was their manifest destiny to do so. The government encouraged this, as it wanted to keep all the land it held between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and one way of doing this was to fill it with white Americans who were loyal to the US government.
- The US government helped people settle on the Great Plains by passing the Homesteader Act in 1862, which enabled a homesteader to claim 160 acres if the homesteader promised to plant half of it with trees.
- Homesteaders settled on the Great Plains, building sod houses from the materials they found there. The work done by homesteader women in keeping their families fit and well was essential if farming there was to be successful.
- The early homesteaders faced enormous problems in farming the Plains involving the lack of water, the extremes of climate, the search for appropriate crops and the need for new techniques. These had largely been solved by 1895.