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An Outline of American History
The Last Frontier
by U.S. Department of State


In 1865 the frontier line generally followed the western limits of the states bordering the Mississippi River, bulging outward to include the eastern sections of Kansas and Nebraska. Beyond this thin edge of pioneer farms lay the prairie and sagebrush lands that stretched to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Then, for nearly 1,600 kilometers, loomed the huge bulk of mountain ranges, many rich in silver, gold and other metals. On the far side, plains and deserts stretched to the wooded coastal ranges and the Pacific Ocean. Apart from the settled districts in California and scattered outposts, the vast inland region was populated by Native Americans: among them the Great Plains tribes -- Sioux and Blackfoot, Pawnee and Cheyenne -- and the Indian cultures of the Southwest, including Apache, Navajo and Hopi.

A mere quarter-century later, virtually all this country had been carved into states and territories. Miners had ranged over the whole of the mountain country, tunneling into the earth, establishing little communities in Nevada, Montana and Colorado. Cattle ranchers, taking advantage of the enormous grasslands, had laid claim to the huge expanse stretching from Texas to the upper Missouri River. Sheep herders had found their way to the valleys and mountain slopes. Farmers sank their plows into the plains and valleys and closed the gap between the East and West. By 1890 the frontier had disappeared.

Settlement was spurred by the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted free farms of 64 hectares to citizens who would occupy and improve the land. Unfortunately for the would-be farmers, the land itself was suited more for cattle ranching than farming, and by 1880 nearly 22,400,000 hectares of "free" land was in the hands of cattlemen or the railroads.

In 1862 Congress also voted a charter to the Union Pacific Railroad, which pushed westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa, using mostly the labor of ex-soldiers and Irish immigrants. At the same time, the Central Pacific Railroad began to build eastward from Sacramento, California, relying heavily on Chinese immigrant labor. The whole country was stirred as the two lines steadily approached each other, finally meeting on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point in Utah. The months of laborious travel hitherto separating the two oceans was now cut to about six days. The continental rail network grew steadily, and by 1884 four great lines linked the central Mississippi Valley area with the Pacific.

The first great rush of population to the Far West was drawn to the mountainous regions, where gold was found in California in 1848, in Colorado and Nevada 10 years later, in Montana and Wyoming in the 1860s, and in the Black Hills of the Dakota country in the 1870s. Miners opened up the country, established communities, and laid the foundations for more permanent settlements. Yet even while digging in the hills, some settlers perceived the region's farming and stock-raising possibilities. Eventually, though a few communities continued to be devoted almost exclusively to mining, the real wealth of Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and California proved to be in the grass and soil.

Cattle-raising, long an important industry in Texas, flourished after the Civil War, when enterprising men began to drive their Texas longhorn cattle north across the open public land. Feeding as they went, the cattle arrived at railway shipping points in Kansas, larger and fatter than when they started. Soon this "long drive" became a regular event, and, for hundreds of kilometers, trails were dotted with herds of cattle moving northward. Cattle-raising spread into the trans-Missouri region, and immense ranches appeared in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakota territory. Western cities flourished as centers for the slaughter and dressing of meat.

Ranching introduced a colorful mode of existence with the picturesque cowboy as its central figure. Although the reality of cowboy life, with its low pay and grueling work, was far from romantic, its mythological hold on the American imagination has remained strong, from the "dime" novels of the 1870s to the films of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood in the late 20th century.

Altogether, between 1866 and 1888, some six million head of cattle were driven up from Texas to winter on the high plains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. The cattle boom reached its height in 1885, when the range became too heavily pastured to support the long drive, and was beginning to be crisscrossed by railroads. Not far behind the rancher creaked the covered wagons of the farmers bringing their families, their draft horses, cows and pigs. Under the Homestead Act they staked their claims and fenced them with a new invention, barbed wire. Ranchers were ousted from lands they had roamed without legal title. Soon the romantic "Wild West" had ceased to be.

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