Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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“What is the true significance of the word ‘white’?” So inquired Pablo de la Guerra in 1849. De la Guerra was then serving as a delegate to the convention charged with writing a constitution for a new state of California. His query was prompted by a proposal to limit the right to vote in the new state to “every white male citizen of the United States, and every white male citizen of Mexico, who shall have elected to become a citizen of the United States.” The specific inclusion of Mexican citizens was in keeping with a guarantee in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which had promised this right to those Mexicans whose place of residence had been transferred to the United States. Although the articles in the treaty and the proposed state constitution supposedly covered “Californios” like de la Guerra, the reference to color vexed him, veering as it did from Mexican precedent. “Many citizens of California,” de la Guerra explained to his fellow delegates, “have received from nature a very dark skin; nevertheless, there are among them men who have heretofore been allowed to vote, and not only that, but to fill the highest political offices.” How “unjust” it would be “to deprive them of the privilege of citizens because nature has not made them White.” Of course, acknowledged de la Guerra, “if, by the word, ‘white,’ it was intended to exclude the African race, then it was correct and satisfactory.”

In the second half of the nineteenth century, de la Guerra’s question echoed eastward from California. The shifting definitions of who was white and what that meant affected not only the privileges of citizenship but also where individuals lived and worked, what they were paid, with whom they associated, and even whether they could be in the region, now remapped as the western half of the United States, at all. The reconstruction of this West as American entailed the remaking of race relations, the establishment of the supremacy of the federal government, and the consolidation of an industrial capitalist order. With so much in flux and so much at stake, the whitening of the West incited intense debate, fierce resistance, and bloody combat.

The end of Indian independence

No group felt the forces of reconstruction and the power of the federal government more tellingly and terrifyingly than Indians. To make the West and its resources safe for white American settlers and for capitalist enterprise required that Indians, both those long resident in the region and those more recently removed to it, be dispossessed of most of their lands and then concentrated on reservations. From the Plains to the Pacific, armies of the United States battled Indians into submission, and federal agents took responsibility for restructuring native life. In government offices and among western settlers, the harshest foes of Indians called for and sometimes carried out California-style exterminations against native peoples. At the same time, self-proclaimed “Friends of the Indian” promised to save Indians from extinction by preparing them for a subordinated place in the newest West.

Although the reconstruction of western Indian life began before the Civil War, its full geographic impact was not felt until the latter half of the 1860s and 1870s. Along the Pacific slope, the arrival of American families in Oregon and gold-seekers in California resulted in the near destruction of numerous local Indian groups during the 1840s and even more during the 1850s. To the east, the pressure on Indian lives and lands was not yet so intense. So long as overland trail-goers were merely crossing the Plains, the Rockies, the Great Basin, and the Cascades or Sierras on their way to Oregon and California, incidents in which travelers and Indians attacked one another remained relatively rare. To be sure, the Oregon and California bound regularly denigrated Indians as savages and frequently accused them of theft. Indians, in turn, resented travelers who crossed their lands and consumed its resources without asking or paying for those privileges. Still, an uneasy peace generally prevailed. During the 1840s and 1850s, when hundreds of thousands of travelers made their way along overland trails, only a few hundred emigrants and a like number of Indians died in violent confrontations. But in the 1860s and 1870s, when Americans started to settle instead of pass through these lands and made clear their intention to monopolize its resources for themselves, wars ensued.

Compared with the Civil War, the casualties from the “Indian Wars” do not look very impressive. Between 1860 and 1890, the United States Army mustered about twenty-five thousand troops to fight Indians in twelve major campaigns. In approximately one thousand recorded engagements, the army reported a little under one thousand men killed. Estimates put Indian deaths at around three times that number. True, these figures leave out the tallies from operations waged by state militias and “irregular” units. As in Gold Rush California, these forces were often responsible for the most infamous massacres, like Sand Creek in Colorado, where no discriminations were made between “hostile” and “friendly” Indians or between men and women and children. Yet even with all the confrontations compiled, the carnage paled next to a major battle between Union and Confederacy. A single bloody hour at Gettysburg or Shiloh surpassed the casualties from decades of Indian Wars.

None of which diminishes the damages done to Indians or the desperation that drove them to battle an enemy who possessed great advantages in manpower and weaponry. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, Indians still won battles. Best remembered is the triumph of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe fighters at the Little Big Horn in June 1876. But winning wars, in which numbers and technologies were so asymmetrical, was impossible, especially once the United States launched devastating assaults against Plains Indians’ villages and food supplies. Slaughtering bison by the millions, Americans reduced them to near extinction and reduced Indians who depended on them to near starvation. The Comanches, long the most powerful nation on the southern Plains, surrendered by the mid-1870s. On the northern Plains, the victory at the Little Big Horn over Custer’s Seventh Cavalry turned quickly into the last stand for the Sioux and their allies. Overall, the Indian population decreased from 350,000 in 1860 to 250,000 in 1890. Those who survived had little choice but to surrender their once vast holdings and the freedom these afforded for the confinement and impoverishment of life on reservations.

While most white Americans, particularly in the West, celebrated the vanquishing of native peoples, an influential minority lamented the losses and sought to prevent Indians from vanishing entirely. For some, the desire to avert complete destruction translated into efforts to preserve a record of “traditional” Indian life by painting and photographing it or by collecting artifacts and stories. Others envisioned a more thorough reformation as the Indians’ only hope for salvation (in this world and the next). Following long-standing missionary practice, these reformers believed that Christianization and education were the keys to Indian survival. The Indian, explained the superintendent of one reservation, needed to be imbued with the “white man’s ambition,” to share “the objects and aims of a white man.” Ideally, these lessons in whiteness would occur at boarding schools, where Indian children would be separated from the outmoded teachings of their parents. “If every Indian child could be in a [boarding] school for five years,” contended one advocate, “savagery would cease and the governmental support of Indians would be a thing of the past.”


4. A photograph of a Blackfoot man on horseback, taken by Edward Curtis in the 1920s. During his career Curtis photographed thousands of Indians, almost always garbing them in what he considered their traditional clothing. Like many artists and anthropologists of the era, Curtis presumed to capture native people and their ways before these inevitably vanished.

The desire to save Indians and to save on federal expenditures provided a dual rationale for breaking up reservation lands and allocating parcels to individual Indians. This was not a new idea; the Indians’ would-be saviors had from the beginnings of the American republic insisted that only through the destruction of tribal communalism could the Indian be reconstructed as a private property–owning individualist fit for incorporation into American society. In the 1880s, with Indian landholdings fast decreasing and conditions on reservations perceived as rapidly deteriorating, the calls by “Friends of the Indian” for detribalization took on greater urgency. The Friends attained this goal with the passage of the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887. Named for its author, Senator Henry Dawes of Massachusetts, chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the law redistributed reservation lands into individual parcels. Like the Homestead Act of 1862, the Dawes Act entitled the heads of Indian households to 160 acres. “At last,” proclaimed Dawes, “there has been found a way to solve a problem which hitherto has been found to be insoluble” that “will wipe out the disgrace of our past treatment, and lift [the Indian] up into citizenship and manhood.”

Few Indians shared Dawes’s enthusiasm. Facing a bleak present and a dark future, many sought relief in alcohol. Others found hope in the visionary dreams of Wovoka, a Paiute who preached that if Indians lived harmoniously, shunned white ways (especially alcohol), and performed the cleansing Ghost Dance, the buffalo would return and Indians, including the dead, would be reborn to live in eternal happiness. Like Popé’s vision of three centuries before and like those of numerous other Indian prophets in the intervening years, Wovoka’s dream rekindled the hopes of desperate people. As word spread, increasing numbers joined in the ritual Ghost Dance, believing it would restore the good life that American colonialism had extinguished. Among the hopefuls was Sitting Bull, a revered Sioux chief, who was himself famous for his visions and his leadership in the victory at the Little Big Horn. Yet in December 1890, Sitting Bull died at the hands of Indian police at the Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota. A few days later, the Seventh Cavalry opened fire on Indians at Wounded Knee Creek on the Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation (also in South Dakota). Sometimes characterized as the “last battle of the Indian Wars,” the massacre at Wounded Knee killed 146 Indians, including 44 women and 18 children. With them went their dream of an old world restored.

Reconstructing races and rights

Struggles over the place of Indians were entwined with broader debates about race, rights, and the relationship between individuals, states, and the federal government that convulsed the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century. In the case of Indians, their champions, while envisioning a path to citizenship, assumed that they would remain on the lower rungs of American society for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, boarding schools emphasized vocational training that would prepare Indian girls for domestic service and boys for menial labor. In many respects, the prospects for Indians in the American West paralleled the projects designed for uplifting emancipated African Americans in the postbellum American South. But sorting economic opportunities and setting racial orderings proved far simpler in the South than the West. In the former, race was largely a matter of black and white. With the advent of Jim Crow laws and the implementation of “one drop of blood” rules (which designated individuals with any African ancestry as black), stark demarcations came to rule most aspects of southern life. By contrast, the demography of the West defied easy bifurcations. As Pablo de la Guerra’s query highlighted, the diverse origins of the West’s population and the mixings among them produced a variety of complexions that complicated determination of who was white, who was not, and how to order such a motley assortment of peoples.

The presence of so many shades of skin among the population of the West owed to migrations and minglings both old and new. Long before any map showed the region as a “West” or as “American,” relations between Spanish and French men and Indian women had made mestizos and métis more and more common. Add to that the long history of intercourse in Mexico with men and women of African descent, and it becomes clear how more than “nature” had made de la Guerra’s fellow Californios so various in their complexions. American mountain men joined in the tradition of mixing. Many of the children of mountain men and Indian women moved back and forth between the cultures of their parents, taking advantage of the possibilities for brokering exchanges that came from having a place in two worlds. Although subsequent generations of American emigrants disdained such unions, the flow of people into the West, coming as it did from all directions in the second half of the nineteenth century, furthered the diversification of the population and compounded the challenge of racial ordering.

One way to simplify the complexities of a multiracial region was to lump those seen as not white or just deemed nonwhite together. This was the tactic taken by Hugh Murray, chief justice of the California Supreme Court, who ruled in the 1854 case People v. Hall that Chinese immigrants could not testify against white Americans. He based that decision on an 1850 provision that prohibited blacks and Indians from giving evidence against whites. Murray reasoned that “Indian” referred to anyone of the “Mongoloid” race and “black” to anyone who was not white. The ruling freed a white man who had been found guilty of murdering a Chinese man, since that conviction rested on now inadmissible testimony by a Chinese witness.

Linked to Native Americans by Murray’s logic, the Chinese suffered discriminations and assaults second only to Indians. These began during the 1850s, when thousands of men from southern China fled the extreme poverty and political turmoil of their homeland to make the eastward journey to California, a supposed promised land that they referred to as “Gum Shan” (Gold Mountain). But once they reached the actual mountains and foothills of the Sierras, the Chinese encountered hostility and violence that chased them from the diggings or left them to work only the most marginal claims. During the 1860s, many Chinese gained employment on crews building the first railroad line across the West. Typically given the lowest pay and assigned the most dangerous tasks, Chinese laborers also endured considerable harassment. Anti-Chinese sentiment and action intensified during the 1870s and 1880s. Mobs attacked Chinese (most lethally in Los Angeles in 1871 and Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885) and drove them from towns across the West.

In California, where the Chinese population was most heavily concentrated, the rhetorical assaults against the Chinese grew more heated, particularly after the completion of the railroad line and the onset of a national economic downturn spread hardship and unemployment. Foreign in dress, language, and religion, the Chinese then became the most convenient scapegoat. Demagogues denounced them for their heathenism and servility, insisting that competition from slave-like “coolies” undercut the wages of free men. While demands for outright removal failed, the agitation that started in California and extended across the West galvanized sufficient support nationally to bring about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law forbade Chinese laborers from entering the United States; it did not diminish the attacks, both verbal and physical, against the Chinese.

Before and after the Civil War, the specter of slavery haunted the West. Labor union leaders raised alarms about workingmen being reduced to “wage slavery.” In the 1850s, opponents of Mormon control, first of Deseret and then of what was reconstituted as the Utah Territory, used the fear of white female slavery to assail the Latter-day Saints’ practice of polygamy. In the rhetoric of the day, Mormon polygamy and African American slavery constituted the “twin relics of barbarism.” During the late 1850s, the effort to assert federal supremacy led President James Buchanan to send troops toward Utah and brought the United States Army to the brink of battle against Mormon citizens. After the Civil War, with one of the twin relics vanquished, condemnations of the Mormons’ peculiar institution of plural marriage took on even greater fervor. In the same year as the Chinese Exclusion Law, the Edmunds Act established fines and terms of imprisonment for men convicted of polygamy. Additional measures imprisoned some men, forced others to deny their plural marriages, sent hundreds of families into hiding, placed church assets in receivership, and put elections in Utah under the oversight of a federal commission. Finally, in 1890, the president of the Church bowed to national authority and directed Mormons to abandon polygamy.

Once their church leaders buckled, Mormons regained their political rights, and Utah soon advanced to statehood. In other cases, however, critiques of slavery were joined with denunciations of people who were clearly seen as not white. Such condemnations were evident in the anti-Chinese rhetoric of the 1870s and 1880s, as they had been in the efforts in the 1850s and 1860s to prevent the “African race” from establishing a foothold in the American West. Then lawmakers had enacted bans on slavery, while also prohibiting the entrance of free blacks into various territories and states. The exclusion of free blacks ran afoul of the federal constitution, but state legislators and local councils could and did curb the voting rights of African Americans, preclude their testimony in court against whites, and relegate them to segregated schools.

Yet the West remained a land of relative opportunity for African Americans, certainly compared to the South. Kansas held a particular allure for African-American migrants seeking new homes and farms outside the South, for that was where blood had been shed for the antislavery cause in the 1850s. And the Plains beckoned to African-American cowboys. Like Chinese immigrants constructing railroads, African Americans herding cattle generally earned the lowest pay among their fellow cowboys. Nonetheless, they enjoyed a degree of freedom on the open range that eluded blacks who stayed put in the South. The army offered African-American men another road to relative opportunity. Here, too, enlistees found themselves segregated into all-black units, save for the officers, who were white. But their valor in fighting Indians won them a modicum of respect from their commanders.

Largely unnoticed then was the irony of recently emancipated African Americans battling to end the freedom of Native Americans. Sadly, this was just one among many examples of destructive combat between nonwhite groups. Although sometimes lumped together by whites, nonwhites were often pitted against one another. The Irish, whose skin was fair but who were not generally regarded as wholly white, emerged as the most vocal and occasionally the most violent opponents of the Chinese. They were not alone, however. In the Los Angeles Riot of 1871, dozens of Mexicans participated in assaults against the Chinese. African Americans also joined in attacks, at least verbally, against Chinese “heathens.” But mutual anti-Chinese sentiments, as well as shared darker complexions and mixed ancestries, built little solidarity among Mexicans and African Americans—as de la Guerra’s endorsement of the exclusion of the “African race” from the privileges of citizenship attested.

The privileges to which de la Guerra maintained he and fellow Mexican Americans were entitled eroded considerably during the second half of the nineteenth century. As de la Guerra knew, article 8 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had guaranteed that “property of every kind now belonging to Mexicans” in territories transferred to the United States “shall be inviolably respected.” But the treaty did not protect those properties or its owners from unjust taxation, uncertain titles, and exorbitant legal costs, which combined over ensuing decades to pressure many Mexicans to surrender their lands or sell them at discounted prices. Likewise, article 9 of the treaty pledged that former “citizens of the Mexican Republic” would enjoy “all the rights of citizens of the United States.” But this provision, which appeared to deem Mexicans the equal of white Americans, did not account for the latter’s biases against darker-skinned “foreigners.” At the time of the Mexican-American War, proponents of manifest destiny had contended that the promiscuous mixing of European, African, and Indian blood had made Mexicans a “mongrel” race. By this logic, taking over Mexican land rescued it from an indolent people and put it in the hands of a pure and enterprising one. The censuring of mixed-race individuals became more pronounced after the war, which made it acceptable to use legal and extralegal means to dispossess Mexicans and deprive them of their guaranteed equality with white Americans. It also marginalized men and women, like the children of mountain men and Indian women, who had once straddled cultures and brokered exchanges.

In contrast with the various efforts to restrict the rights of those whose ethnicity, ancestry, or skin color rendered them insufficiently or uncertainly white, western territories and states took the lead in extending the franchise to women. Wyoming acted first in 1869, with proponents hoping that the right to vote would lure white women to a territory whose population tilted heavily toward males. A year later, the Utah Territory granted women the vote. Supporters of suffrage outside Utah expected that women would use their votes to overturn the practice of plural marriages. When the opposite proved to be the case, the U.S. Congress rescinded the right of Utah women to vote in 1887. But the West remained ahead of the rest of the nation in granting the franchise to women, though in a signal that white female suffragists shared the racism of white men, Susan B. Anthony questioned the wisdom of enfranchising Mexican-American women in Colorado. Still, Colorado granted women the vote in 1893, and Idaho followed in 1896. As in Wyoming, advocates claimed the ballot would attract white women to these states. And, more important, their votes would blunt the impact of the votes of African-American and immigrant men.

The Wild West

Scholars and the public alike have long been consumed by counting the bodies and accounting for the violence that beset the West in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the years after the Civil War, the West gained renown for being “wild,” a reputation first established by dime novels and then spread by the purveyors of Wild West shows and later by the producers of filmed and televised Westerns. For generations, popular entertainment made it easy to explain violence by neatly distinguishing between good guys and bad and by seeing the “Wild West” as a clash between civilization and savagery, between law and disorder. Recent scholarship has accented broader social, economic, and political causes. The recognition of these forces diminishes the uplifting features once attached to western violence and ties it more accurately to the struggles over the primacy of the nation-state, the supremacy of the white race, and the ascendancy of industrial capitalism, struggles that embroiled the West and the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Consider vigilante movements, of which more than two hundred arose in the trans-Mississippi West between the onset of the Gold Rush and the beginning of the twentieth century. Participants claimed that vigilantism was an effort by concerned (and armed) citizens to bring order to lawless places. Since vigilantes, by their testimony, acted on behalf of their communities, they did not have to wait for a judge or jury to enforce justice: the hanged got what they deserved. This justification usually sufficed at the time and has continued to stand up in the court of popular history, where the swiftness of “frontier justice” has retained its appeal in many circles. But under scholarly scrutiny, the defense offered by vigilantes has unraveled. Studies of vigilante groups and their victims have revealed splits along ethnoracial, religious, class, and political lines. Indeed, by uncovering the white supremacist features of many movements, historians have revealed that western vigilantes were close cousins to the era’s southern lynch mobs.

Or consider the most famous of western shootouts: “the gunfight at the OK Corral” in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 25, 1881. In an exchange of bullets that lasted only a few seconds (near but not actually at the OK Corral), the brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with John “Doc” Holliday, gunned down Billy Clanton and the brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. Billy’s brother Ike survived but suffered another defeat when a judicial inquest exonerated the Earps and Holliday. Under the legal doctrine that increasingly prevailed in the American West, the Earps and Holliday had “no duty to retreat” in the face of threats posed to them by armed foes.

That verdict hardly closed the matter, leaving plenty of room for novelists, playwrights, filmmakers, and reenactors to dramatize the events in Tombstone and for historians to contextualize them. In its numerous fictionalized restagings (especially for the screen), the shootout has gotten extensively lengthened, and Wyatt Earp (who ended his career in Hollywood) and his team have usually been venerated as honorable lawmen (though in more revisionist treatments acknowledged as bartenders and brothel-keepers). The many films about the OK Corral, as well as hundreds of other Westerns that feature comparable duels, have made gunfights seem an everyday occurrence in the Wild West. Not so, according to historical research. Towns like Tombstone, where the discovery of precious metals precipitated a rush of men, witnessed lots of brawling, which often turned lethal, thanks to ready access to firearms. But the extraordinarily high homicide rates in boomtowns like Tombstone were not matched in the other setting most favored by Westerns—“cowtowns” such as Dodge City, Kansas. There the meeting of cattle trails and rail lines brought a seasonal influx of cowboys. As in mining towns, the presence of so many single men and the abundance of alcohol triggered ample fighting. Yet the carnage was far more contained because local constabularies generally disarmed cowboys before allowing them into the town’s saloons.

While sudden quarrels born of spirits-fueled disagreements incited some of the violence in the West’s wildest places, deeper and more enduring rifts were also at work. At the OK Corral, the Earps were not so much the agents of law as they were the representatives of a particular order, a cabal made up of the town’s merchants and mining magnates. Their foes were cowboys, whose agrarian ways this new order threatened. By the disorder they created, the Clantons and the McLaurys resisted—until the Earps’ guns made Tombstone safe for an industrial capitalist regime.

The gunfight at the OK Corral was one of hundreds of bloody episodes that involved struggles over the incorporation of the West into the American nation and over the command of the region’s resources. Best remembered are the range wars, because these, too, have been the subject of hundreds of Western films. They pitted homesteading, fence-building farmers against open range livestock herders, or large ranchers against small ones, or cattlemen against sheep raisers.

Often the economic dimensions of the competition for foraging lands overlapped with ethnic and religious divisions. Thus, in parts of the Great Basin, Basque sheepherders contended with white American cattlemen. On the New Mexico range, the attempts by white American cattle raisers to take exclusive control put them in conflict with Mexican-American livestock raisers and farmers, whose claims, often based on communal traditions, typically predated the Mexican-American War. To defend their rights, bands of Mexican Americans dressed in white capes and masks cut the barbed-wire fences that white American ranchers and railroad companies erected to mark off their lands. Between 1888 and 1892, the activities of the Gorras Blancas (White Caps) made them outlaws, at least in the eyes of American authorities, but not in the eyes of their fellow Nuevomexicanos, who cheered their banditry and sheltered them from arrest.

In these and numerous other cases involving conflicts over western resources, the claims of white Americans rested on problematic legal grounds. Mexican Americans pointed to the precedence of their usage and to the promises of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, while Basques asserted their equal rights to lands that were in the public domain. But white American cattlemen had advantages their rivals could not match. They had the money to hire gunmen to enforce their claims, and they had the American nation-state as their ally.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, western laborers of all complexions and creeds learned a similarly hard lesson about the weapons of the wealthy (including courts and contracts) and the allegiances of the nation-state. Over this period, large corporations assumed an ever larger role in the economic development of the West, especially in the extraction, processing, and transportation of the region’s natural resources. These corporations’ expansion ran against a long history of suspicion of corporations and posed a challenge to the American dream of achieving independence. In politics and protests, labor leaders invoked those American traditions and railed against wage slavery. At the same time, corporate leaders drew on another American tradition by employing workers of different ethnicities and playing them off against one another. Ethnic tensions undercut the solidarity among industrial workers and hampered the growth of labor unions.

Faced with wage cuts and lethal working conditions (industrial accidents claimed a much higher body count than the gunfights so celebrated in western lore), workers did come together to stage a number of strikes, the largest of which targeted mining and railroad corporations. To protect their property and combat unions, employers hired private armed forces. When these alone could not do the job, corporate magnates called for reinforcements, and state militias and federal troops entered the fray. In the era’s bloody battles between capital and labor, the latter almost always suffered greater casualties, while the former benefited from the power and privileges that Pablo de la Guerra had recognized to be the “true significance” of being white in the American West.

Previous: Chapter 4: Taking the farther West
Next: Chapter 6: The watering of the West