Friday, June 16, 2017

The Old West

The period from 1865 to 1900 represented the Postbellum period of the frontier West. This was the time where most movies shown in America about the West describe. It was a period of massive change, of wars, of murder, of migrations, and of many societal changes. The Civil War was over and slavery is abolished forever in America. The federal government wanted to govern the territories. They used policies to prepare Western territories for statehood. This was done before by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (the federal government acquired, prepared, and distributed public land to private ownership from the Ordinance system). The federal bureaucracy grew. Territorial governments grew beyond local powers. The federal government had an immense involvement in territories. They used direct subsidies to maintain military posts, provided safety from Native American attacks, bankrolled treaty obligations, built roads, etc. They also created surveys, staffed land offices, made labor improvements, and subsidized overland mail delivery. Many territorial citizens came to both oppose federal power and local corruption. Also, they paradoxically lament that more federal dollars were not sent their way. Territorial governors were political appointees. They were beholden to Washington. They allowed the legislatures to deal with local issues. A territorial governor acted as a militia commander and a local superintendent of Native American affairs. They were the state liaison with federal agencies. Yet, the legislatures spoke for the local citizens. They were also having great leeway by the federal government to establish local law. These improvements to governance still left plenty of room for profiteering. As Mark Twain wrote while working for his brother, the secretary of Nevada, "The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two." "Territorial rings", corrupt associations of local politicians and business owners buttressed with federal patronage, embezzled from Native American tribes and local citizens, especially in the Dakota and New Mexico territories.

The federal government had a land system in the frontier West too. The government utilized exploration and scientific teams to take reconnaissance of the land. They wanted to find out about Native American habitation too. Via treaty, land title would be ceded by the resident tribes. The surveyors created detailed maps. They marked the land into squares of six miles on each side. It would be subdivided first into one square mile blocks, then into 160 acre lots. Townships would be formed from the lots and sold at public auction. Unsold land could be purchased from the land office at a minimum price of $1.25 per acre. The government, via public policy, would award public land to certain groups like veterans via the use of “land script.” The script traded in a financial market, often at below the $1.25 per acre minimum price set by law, which gave speculators, investors, and developers another way to acquire large tracts of land cheaply. Land policy became politicized by competing factions and interests, and the question of slavery on new lands was contentious. As a counter to land speculators, farmers formed "claims clubs" to enable them to buy larger tracts than the 160-acre (0.65 km2) allotments by trading among themselves at controlled prices. In 1862, Congress passed three historically significant bills that transformed the land system of the West. One was the Homestead Act. This law granted 160 acres free of land to each settler who improved the land for 5 years. It was given to citizens and non-citizens including squatters and women. They were all eligible. The only cost was a modest filing fee. The law was especially important in the settling of the Plains states. Many took free homesteads and others purchased their land from railroads at low rates. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 provided for the land needed to build the transcontinental railroad. The land was given to the railroads alternated with the government owned tracts saved for free distribution to homesteaders. The federal government reduced each tract to 80 acres because of its perceived higher value given its proximity to the rail line. The deal is that railroads had up to five years to sell to mortgage their land. The tracks had to be laid. Unsold land could be purchased by anyone. Some railroads sold some of their government acquired land to homesteaders immediately to encourage settlement and the growth of markets that the railroads would then be able to serve. Nebraska railroads in the 1870’s were strong boosters of lands along their routes. The railroad companies sent agents to Germany and Scandinavia with package deals. These deals included cheap transportation for the family like furniture and farm tools. They offered long term credit at law rates. Boosterism succeeded in attracting adventurous American and European families to Nebraska, helping them purchase land grant parcels on good terms. The selling price depended on such factors like soil quality, water, and instance from the railroad. The Morrill Act of 1862 gave land grants to states to start colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts (or engineering). Black colleges became eligible for these land grants in 1890. The Act succeeded in its goals to open new universities and make farming more scientific and profitable.

The transcontinental railroad has a long history. By the 1850’s, the government had surveys to explore many regions of the West. They wanted to possibly build a transcontinental railroad in various routes. This work was heavily executed by the Corps of Engineers, Corps of Topographical Engineers, and Bureau of Explorations and Surveys. This has been known as “The Great Reconnaissance.” There have been regional debates in Congress on whether the route would exist in the North, the central, or the southern part of America. Engineering requirements for the rail route were an adequate supply of water and wood and as nearly-level route as possible, given the weak locomotives of the era. Proposals for a transcontinental railroad system failed during the 1850’s, because of Congressional disputes over slavery. Confederate states started to secede in 1861. The modernizers in the Republican Party therefore took over Congress and wanted a line to link to California. Private companies were to build and operate the line. Construction was done by many workers who lived in temporary camps along the way. Immigrants from China and Ireland did most of the construction work. That is why in high school, we all heard of stories of Chinese people (who suffered racism and discrimination) contributing a great deal in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. Theodore Judah was the chief engineer of the Central Pacific. He surveyed the route from San Francisco east. Judah used lobbying efforts in Washington were largely responsible for the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act. This law authorized construction of both the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific (which built west from Omaha). In 1862, four rich San Francisco merchants (whose names are Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) took charge, with Crocker in charge of construction. The line was completed in May 1869. Coast-to-coast passenger travel in 8 days now replaced wagon trains or sea voyages that took 6 to 10 months and cost much more. The road was built from mortgages from New York City, Boston, and London. It was backed by land grants. There were no federal cash subsidies for the project. There was a loan to the Central Pacific that was eventually repaid at six percent interest. The federal government offered land grants in a checkerboard pattern. The railroad sold every other square with the government opening its half to homesteaders. The government also loaned money later repaid at $16,000 per mile on level stretches (and $32,000 to $48,000 in mountainous terrain. Local and state governments also aided the financing).

Most of the manual laborers on the Central Pacific were new arrivals from China. Kraus showed information how these men lived and worked (plus how they managed their money). He mentioned that the Chinese people were very reliable. The Central Pacific employed over 12,000 Chinese workers. 90% of them did its manual work force. It is a fact that many Chinese railroad workers were discriminated against. The railroad set different wage rates for white people and Chinese people. Chinese people were placed in more menial and dangerous jobs like handling and pouring nitroglycerin.  The railroad had camps and food for the Chinese. Many railroads protected Chinese workers from threats from many white people. Many actions were done to build the railroads. These activities included surveying the route, blasting a right of way, building tunnels, and bridges, etc. They also had to clear and lay the roadbed, lay the ties and rails, and maintaining plus supplying the crews with food and tools. Very physical defines the work. People used horse drawn plows and scrapers. There were manuals picks, axes, sledgehammers, and handcarts that people used. Steam driven machines like shovels were used. The rails were iron (steel came a few years later) and weighed 700 lb. (320 kg). and required five men to lift. For blasting, they used black powder. The Union Pacific construction crews, mostly Irish Americans, averaged about two miles (3 km) of new track per day. All of these actions happened during the Gilded Age. Railroads were in Canada too. These railroads caused more farmers to open markets in the West including to ranchers. From the north to south, there were the Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, and Great Northern. They were along the Canada-U.S. border. The Union Pacific/Central Pacific was in the middle. In the south were the Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific. All but the Great Northern of James J. Hill relied on land grants. The financial stories were often complex. For example, the Northern Pacific received its major land grant in 1864. Financier Jay Cooke (1821–1905) was in charge until 1873, when he went bankrupt. Federal courts, however, kept bankrupt railroads in operation. In 1881, Henry Villard (1835–1900) took over and finally completed the line to Seattle. But the line went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893 and Hill took it over. He then merged several lines with financing from J.P. Morgan, but President Theodore Roosevelt broke them up in 1904. From its first year of operation (1869-1870), 150,000 passengers made the long trip. Settlers were encouraged to travel via promotions to come West. There were free scouting trips to buy railroad land on easy terms spread over many years. The railroads had “Immigration Bureaus.” They advertised package low cost deals like passage and land on easy terms for farmers in Germany and Scandinavia. The prairies, they were promised, did not mean backbreaking toil because "settling on the prairie which is ready for the plow is different from plunging into a region covered with timber.” The settlers were customers of the railroads, shipping their crops and cattle out, and bringing in manufactured products. All manufacturers benefited from the lower costs of transportation and the much larger radius of business. The Transcontinental railroad has a mixed legacy. It opened the West to settlement. It brought thousands of high tech, high paid workers and managers. It created thousands of towns and cities. It made the nation to focus more on an east-west axis. It was valuable for many in the nation. Yet, many were built ahead of actual demand. There was a bubble that caused many losses to investors. Poor management practices transpired. The lines in the Midwest and the East did support a very large population base, which fostered farming, industry, and mining. This reality caused steady profits and received few government benefits.

After the Civil War, migrations continued. Many came from the East Coast and Europe to travel in the West. Many reports from relatives inspired people to travel into territories too. Many people wanted discounts, new farmland, etc. Some wanted a better life. The new railroads caused many to travel. The plains were different from back east. They had to deal with water management and more farming. Rainfall was less predictable. Farms grew. Many laborers wanted higher paying work and better conditions. Challenges existed for new settlers in the West. There was a lack of wood for housing, blizzards, droughts, etc. Tornadoes existed. Range disputes happened. Homesteaders have to build their homes with sod, which were called as Sod Houses. One of the greatest plagues that hit the homesteaders was the 1874 Locust Plague which devastated the Great Plains. These challenges hardened these settlers in taming the frontier. There was the Land Rush of 1880. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison authorized the opening of 2,000,000 acres (8,100 km2) of unoccupied lands in the Oklahoma territory acquired from the native tribes. On April 22, over 100,000 settlers and cattlemen (known as "boomers") lined up at the border, and with the army's guns and bugles giving the signal, began a mad dash into the newly opened land to stake their claims (Land Run of 1889). A witness wrote, "The horsemen had the best of it from the start. It was a fine race for a few minutes, but soon the riders began to spread out like a fan, and by the time they reached the horizon they were scattered about as far as the eye could see.” In one day, the towns of Oklahoma City, Norman, and Guthrie came into existence. In the same manner, millions of acres of additional land was opened up and settled in the following four years. This land rush in Oklahoma was caused by the theft of the lands of Native Americans. During this time, Native Americans fought for their freedom in many battles.

By Timothy

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