History of the Old West
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Colonial Frontier

In the colonial era, before 1776, the west was of high priority for settlers and politicians. The American frontier began when Jamestown Virginia was settled by the English in 1607. In the earliest days of European settlement of the Atlantic coast, down to about 1680, the frontier was essentially any part of the interior of the continent beyond the fringe of existing settlements along the Atlantic coast. English, French, Spanish and Dutch patterns of expansion and settlement were quite different. Colonial Frontier

Only a few thousand French migrated to Canada; these habitants settled in villages along the St. Lawrence river, building communities that remained stable for long stretches; they did not simply jump west the way the British did.  Although French fur traders ranged widely through the Great Lakes and mid-west region they seldom settled down. French settlement was limited to a few very small villages such as Kaskaskia as well as a larger settlement around New Orleans. Likewise, the Dutch set up fur trading posts in the Hudson River valley, followed by large grants of land to rich landowning patrons who brought in tenant farmers who created compact, permanent villages. They created a dense rural settlement in upstate New York, but they did not push westward.

In contrast, the seaboard British settlements gave priority to land ownership for individual farmers, and as the population grew they pushed westward for fresh farm land. Unlike Britain, where a small number of landlords owned most of the good land, ownership in America was cheap, easy and widespread. Land ownership brought a degree of independence as well as a vote for local and provincial offices. The typical New England settlements were quite compact and small—under a square mile. Conflict with the Native Americans arose out of political issues, viz. who would rule. Early frontier areas east of the Appalachian Mountains included the Connecticut River valley, and northern New England (which was a move to the north, not the west).

Most of the colonies had Indian wars. What are called the "French and Indian Wars" were imperial wars between Britain and France, with the French making up for their small colonial population base by using Indians as allies. were fought off and on between 1689 and 1763. They ended in a complete victory for the British, who took from France Canada and its western lands to the Mississippi River; the lands west of the river, including New Orleans, went to Spain.

By the early 1770s Americans were moving across the Appalachians into western Pennsylvania, and areas of Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee. Their most famous leader was Daniel Boone.

Advancing Frontier and the Louisiana Purchase

After winning the Revolutionary War (1783), American settlers in large numbers poured into the west. In 1788, American pioneers to the Northwest Territory established Marietta, Ohio as the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory.

In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed a trail for the Transylvania Company from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky. It was later lengthened to reach the Falls of the Ohio at Louisville. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and it could only be traversed on foot or horseback, but it was the best route for thousands of settlers moving into Kentucky. In some areas they had to face Indian attacks. In 1784 alone, Indians killed over 100 travelers on the Wilderness Road. No Indians lived permanently in Kentucky but they sent raiding parties to stop the newcomers, like Abraham Lincoln's grandfather (who was scalped in 1784 near Louisville.)

Acquisition of Indian lands

The War of 1812 marked the final confrontation between major Indian forces trying to stop the advance, with British aid. The British war goal included the creation of an independent Indian state (under British auspices) in the Midwest. American frontier militiamen under General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks and opened the Southwest, while militia under Governor William Henry Harrison defeated the Indian-British alliance at the Battle of the Thames in Canada in 1813. The death in battle of the Indian leader Tecumseh dissolved the coalition of hostile Indian tribes. Meanwhile General Andrew Jackson ended the Indian military threat in the Southeast at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 in Alabama. In general the frontiersmen battled the Indians with little help from the U.S. Army or the federal government.

To end the War of 1812 John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay and Albert Gallatin (a leading anthropologist) and the other American diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 with Britain. They rejected the British plan to set up an Indian state in U.S. territory south of the Great Lakes. They explained the American policy toward acquisition of Indian lands:

The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably, and with their free consent, are fully determined, in that manner, progressively, and in proportion as their growing population may require, to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries. In thus providing for the support of millions of civilized beings, they will not violate any dictate of justice or of humanity; for they will not only give to the few thousand savages scattered over that territory an ample equivalent for any right they may surrender, but will always leave them the possession of lands more than they can cultivate, and more than adequate to their subsistence, comfort, and enjoyment, by cultivation. If this be a spirit of aggrandizement, the undersigned are prepared to admit, in that sense, its existence; but they must deny that it affords the slightest proof of an intention not to respect the boundaries between them and European nations, or of a desire to encroach upon the territories of Great Britain. . . . They will not suppose that that Government will avow, as the basis of their policy towards the United States a system of arresting their natural growth within their own territories, for the sake of preserving a perpetual desert for savages.

New Territories and States

As settlers poured in, the frontier districts first became territories, with an elected legislature and a governor appointed by the president. Then when population reached 100,000 the territory applied for statehood. Frontiersmen typically dropped the legalistic formalities and restrictive franchise favored by eastern upper classes, and adopting more democracy and more egalitarianism.

In 1800 the western frontier had reached the Mississippi River. St. Louis, Missouri was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel westward, and a principal trading center for Mississippi River traffic and inland commerce.

Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a man of the frontier and was keenly interested in expanding and exploring the West. Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the nation at the cost of $15 million (about $0.04 per acre). Federalists opposed the expansion, but Jeffersonians hailed the opportunity to create millions of new farms to expand the domain of land-owning yeomen; the ownership would strengthen the ideal republican society, based on agriculture (not commerce), governed lightly, and promoting self-reliance and virtue, as well as form the political base for Jeffersonian Democracy.

Even before the purchase Jefferson was planning expeditions to explore and map the lands. He charged Lewis and Clark to "explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce". Jefferson also instructed the expedition to study the region's native tribes (including their morals, language, and culture), weather, soil, rivers, commercial trading, animal and plant life.

Entrepreneurs, most notably John Jacob Astor quickly seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor's "Fort Astoria" (later Fort George), at the mouth of the Columbia River, became the first permanent white settlement in that area, although it was not profitable for Astor. He set up the American Fur Company in an attempt to break the hold that the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly had over the region. Astor by 1820, took over independent traders to create a profitable monopoly; he left the business as a multi-millionaire in 1834.

The Fur Trade

As the frontier moved westward, trappers and hunters moved ahead of settlers, searching out new supplies of beaver and other skins for shipment to Europe. The hunters were the first Europeans in much of the Old West and they formed the first working relationships with the Native Americans in the West. They added extensive knowledge of the Northwest terrain, including the important South Pass through the central Rocky Mountains. Discovered about 1812, it later became a major route for settlers to Oregon and Washington. By 1820 a new "brigade-rendezvous" system, however, sent company men in "brigades" cross-country on long expeditions, bypassing many tribes. It also encouraged "free trappers" to explore new regions on their own. At the end of the gathering season, the trappers would "rendezvous" and turn in their goods for pay at river ports along the Green River, the Upper Missouri, and the Upper Mississippi. St. Louis was the largest of the rendezvous towns. By 1830, however, fashions changed and beaver hats were replaced by silk hats, ending the demand for expensive American furs. Thus ended the era of the mountain men, trappers and scouts such as Jedediah Smith (who had traveled through more unexplored western land than any non-Indian and was the first American to reach California overland). The trade in beaver fur virtually ceased by 1845.

The Federal Government and the West

The private profit motive dominated the movement westward, but the Federal Government played a supporting role in securing land through treaties and setting up territorial governments, with governors appointed by the President. The federal government first acquired western territory from other nations or native tribes by treaty, then it sent surveyors to map and document the land. By the 20th century Washington bureaucracies managed the federal lands such as the General Land Office in the Interior department, and after 1891 the Forest Service in the Department of Agriculture. After 1900 dam building and flood control became major concerns.

Transportation was a key issue and the Army (especially the Army Corps of Engineers) was given full responsibility for facilitating navigation on the rivers. The steamboat, first used on the Ohio River in 1811, made possible inexpensive travel using the river systems, especially the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and their tributaries. Army expeditions up the Missouri River in 1818-25 allowed engineers to improve the technology. For example, the Army's steamboat "Western Engineer" of 1819 combined a very shallow draft with one of the earliest stern wheels. In 1819-25 Colonel Henry Atkinson developed keelboats with hand-powered paddle wheels.

The federal postal system played a crucial role in national expansion. It facilitated expansion into the West by creating an inexpensive, fast, convenient communication system. Letters from early settlers provided information and boosterism to encourage increased migration to the West, helped scattered families stay in touch and provide neutral help, assisted entrepreneurs to find business opportunities, and made possible regular commercial relationships between merchants and the West and wholesalers and factories back east. The postal service likewise assisted the Army in expanding control over the vast western territories. The widespread circulation of important newspapers by mail, such as the New York Weekly Tribune, facilitated coordination among politicians in different states. The postal service helped integrated established areas with the frontier, creating a spirit of nationalism and providing a necessary infrastructure.

Scientists, Artists and Explorers

Government and private enterprise sent many explorers to the West. In 1805-6, Army lieutenant Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) led a party of 20 soldiers to find the head waters of the Mississippi. He later explored the Red and Arkansas Rivers in Spanish territory, eventually reaching the Rio Grande. On his return, Pike sighted the peak in Colorado named after him, was captured by the Spanish and released after a long overland journey. Unfortunately, his documents were confiscated to protect territorial secrets and his later recollections were rambling and not of high quality. Major Stephen Harriman Long (1784–1864) led the Yellowstone and Missouri expeditions of 1819-1820, but his categorizing in 1823 of the Great Plains as arid and useless led to the region getting a bad reputation as the "Great American Desert", which discouraged settlement in that area for several decades.

In 1811, naturalists Thomas Nuttall (1786–1859) and John Bradbury (1768–1823) traveled up the Missouri River with the Astoria expedition, documenting and drawing plant and animal life. Later, Nuthall explored the Indian Territory (Oklahoma), the Oregon Trail, and even Hawaii. His book A Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory was an important account of frontier life. Although Nuthall was the most traveled Western naturalist before 1840, unfortunately most of his documentation and specimens were lost. Artist George Catlin (1796–1872) traveled up the Missouri as far as North Dakota, producing accurate paintings of Native American culture. A Swiss visitor Karl Bodmer (1809–93), was in the U.S. in 1832-34 with the Prince Maximilian expedition; he made compelling landscapes and portraits. In 1803 John James Audubon (1785–1851) immigrated from Haiti and established a reputation as a leading explorer, woodsman, painter, and naturalist. His greatest achievement involved classifying and painting in minute details 500 species of birds, called Birds of America.

The most famous of the explorers was John Charles Frémont (1813–1890), a commissioned officer in the Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers. He displayed a talent for exploration and a genius at self-promotion that gave him the sobriquet of "Pathmarker of the West" and led him to the presidential nomination of the new Republican Party in 1856. He led a series of expeditions in the 1840s which answered many of the outstanding geographic questions about the little-known region. He crossed through the Rocky Mountains by five different routes, and mapped parts of Oregon and California. In 1846-7 he played a role in conquering California. In 1848-49, Frémont was assigned to locate a central route through the mountains for the proposed transcontinental railroad, but his expedition ended in near-disaster when it became lost and was trapped by heavy snow. His reports mixed narrative of exciting adventure with scientific data, and detailed practical information for travelers. It caught the public imagination and inspired many to head west. Goetzman says it was "monumental in its breadth--a classic of exploring literature."

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