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America's History in the Making

Taming the American West

Unit Overview

A Visit from the Old Mistress. 1876. dup of 2131

When Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner wrote the novel The Gilded Age, they intended it as a satire on the high society and corruption in Washington during Reconstruction. These themes were present in the era, but the Gilded Age was more complicated in that it was also an “era of incorporation” with mass social movements, tremendous economic change, and national consolidation. Between the 1880s and 1890s, the United States witnessed the rise of multinational corporations, the geographic incorporation of the former Confederacy and the West, and the integration of immigrants from all over the world.

The events of the Civil War were still fresh in the minds of Americans. People lived in the shadow of Southern secession and were conscious that the Union might fragment. As late as the election of 1896, there were real fears of secession when Western and Southern politicians disagreed with the Northeast on policy.

The American West was a place where the untamed wilderness could be mapped, given order, and then made useful, but settlers were unprepared to deal with the landscape and hardships that followed. Land was a precious commodity to be owned, harvested, sold, and developed, but farms on the arid parts of the Great Plains were not as productive as those in the East and South. To encourage westward development, the Republicans implemented policies to subsidize businesses that would indirectly help farmers, laborers, miners, and ranchers in claiming the arid West.

The settlers who moved West entered territory with a complex system of land ownership. Because they had already occupied the land for centuries, Native Americans and Mexicans each had their own ideas of land ownership and often came into conflict with Western settlers. Native Americans viewed the land as sacred, while European Americans proclaimed that the land was theirs for the taking. Based on the ideas of Manifest Destiny, European Americans continued to perpetuate the development of federal policy designed to take away Native American land.

During the late nineteenth century, many peoples encountered one another in the Southwest. Mexicans had moved into the West through a system of land grants—first through Spanish colonization and later with independent Mexico. The value of Mexican lands increased with greater railroad commerce throughout the region. At this point, Mexicans came into direct conflict with European American settlers from the East.

Displaced native inhabitants, struggling new settlers, and a clamoring for more direct government assistance were all unintended consequences of the Republican Party’s efforts to integrate and incorporate the nation after Reconstruction. After years of hardship and economic depression in the 1870s and 1890s, citizens grew dissatisfied with the Republican leadership, which resulted in a period of tight party competition that lasted until the mid- 890s. This led to an opening for alternative parties. The Populist Party became one of the most successful third parties in American history, and its ideas laid the foundation for twentieth-century politics.

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