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Range Wars, Gold, and Ameican Indians

During the Civil War the North's economy boomed, continuing the industrial advances of the 1840s. Following the war there was development of the railroads, with the federal government supplying half or more of the capital for construction and giving railway companies grants of land. Soon the railroad companies would be advertising, trying to attract settlers.

Growth of the railroads made commercial farming more feasible and profitable. A railroad provided a long-distance outlet for wheat, cattle and hogs. But from the beginning the appearance of rails was a threat to many Indians, especially the plains Indians. The railroads brought intrusion.

Intrusion came also with the rush for gold. In California, Native Americans are said to have numbered around 100,000 in 1850 when the California gold rush was underway. A decade later their population was counted as 35,000, the decline not attributal to emigration. It is perhaps relavent to note that also in 1860 there was an attack by vigilantes against a small community of Indians near Eureka California that killed around eighty, many of them women and children.

And, In 1860 in the territory of Nevada, whites clashed with Paiute Indians. In the southwest in the 1860s there were clashes with Apaches, the Navaho, the Cherokee, and in Idaho with the Shoshone.

It was in 1865 that the Winnebago Indians were removed from Iowa, Minnesota and from Dakota territory (today South Dakota) and put on a reservation in Nebraska — a move that killed around 700 of them.

In 1869, in Utah a rail line from Omaha Nebraska met a rail line from Sacramento California completing the transcontinental railway. And between 1869 and 1876, two hundred battles were fought between the US army and Indians – the Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Arapaho and the Sioux. (Indians had acquired rifles and ammunition, and some were excellent marksmen.)

In 1871 rail lines extended to Dodge City. Longhorn cattle were driven from Texas through Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to rail heads at Abilene and Dodge City, in Kansas. The drives moved from ten to twenty miles per day. Indians in Oklahoma were content that the paleface cowboys were merely passing through, and some of the Indians were receiving a small fee from grazing licenses issued to the cattlemen.

After delivering the cattle, the cowboys would celebrate, spending their meager wages and then begin the long and slow ride back home. (From all of their riding, some became bow-legged – a common condition not depicted in Hollywood's Westerns.) From Kansaas, buyers shipped the cattle eastward, to be slaughtered in Chicago or Kansas City, Missouri, then to be shipped in refrigerated rail cars to eastern cities.

In 1873 – the year that cable cars were introduced in San Francisco – whites were killing buffalo at an estimated rate of three million per year. Congress passed a law protecting the herds from extermination, but President Grant vetoed it, believing that a lack of buffalo would encourage Indians to become peaceful farmers.

In 1874, barbed wire was invented, and it was to be strung by farmers and ranchers to keep herds off their land. The free range of the prairie was becoming private pasture. Cowboys were becoming settled ranchers. Fence-cutting wars had begun between cattlemen and sheepmen, between ranchers and cattle thieves, between Indians and cowboys, with farmers against them all. Cowboys were beginning to feel fenced in.

In 1875, prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota, an area that the US government had promised the Sioux would be theirs forever. For a while the US Army made an effort to hold back the gold seekers, but it didn't last. The Sioux and neighboring Cheyenne defied the US and gathered under the Sioux chieftain, Sitting Bull, to fight for their land. They fought the US Army, and in June, 1876, 2,500 Sioux and Cheyenne warriors annihilated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and 210 or so of his Seventh Cavalry at the Little Big Horn River. The nation was outraged and demanded retribution. The US redrew the boundaries of the Indian reservations and opened the Black Hills to white settlement.

In 1877, the Crow and Blackfoot were ejected from their reservations. In Colorado, holdings of the Ute were confiscated and opened to settlement. Gold was discovered on the Salmon River in Idaho, and whites began invading territory there that US government had promised the Nez Perce Indians would be theirs forever. War erupted between the US and the Nez Perce, who were defeated on 5 October 1877 and sent to a miserable existence on a reservation in Oklahoma.

In the 1880s the American frontier was vanishing, with people moving into Montana, the Dakotas and with people crossing the plains no longer afraid of Indians. Within reach of most farmers was a small town connected to a railroad, where the farmer could haul his crop for shipment and make purchases at a general store and get his hair cut at a barber shop. The town might have two or three Protestant churches, and also a hotel, and if the temperance movement had not reached the town the hotel might have a bar. And if the town was of fair size and with families of German immigrants there might be an amateur string orchestra or brass band.

In 1886 near the border of Arizona and New Mexico the Apache chieftain Geronimo surrendered, ending years of his involvement in intermittent warfare and resistance to being herded onto a reservation.

In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes, Act. Reservations were to be divided into tracts of land, 160 acres per family. Indians were made citizens, with the right to sell their land. Many of these Indians did not see themselves as farmers and would sell.

In 1889, an Indian named Wovok had a vision of a coming messiah that spread among the plains Indians. They believed that the messiah would be accompanied by the death of all whites and the resurrection of Indians. A "ghost dance" was part of Wovoka's movement. Whites on the plains became alarmed. Fear that the aged leader of the Sioux would lead a rebellion resulted in an incident in which Sitting Bull was shot and killed. Two weeks later at Wounded Knee (an unincorporated area on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota) out of control U.S. soldiers slaughtered men, women and children.

Territories, meanwhile were becoming states. In 1876, Colorado had acquired statehood. In 1889, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Washington became states. In 1890 Idaho became the 43rd state.

Wyoming had allowed women to vote beginning in 1869, and the Territory of Utah had allowed women to vote beginning in 1870. In 1890 there were threats not to give Wyoming statehood as long as it allowed women to vote, but this was overcome, Wyoming becoming the 44th state that year. In 1893, Colorado extended suffrage to women, and in 1896 so too did Idaho – decades ahead of much of the rest of the nation. And, in 1896, Utah became the 45th state. The continental US emerged from the nineteenth century with 45 states plus the territories of Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico.


Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.