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America's History in the Making

Taming the American West

In the Video

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Historical Perspectives

Historical Perspectives

Historians have traditionally defined the era after Reconstruction as a "Gilded Age" of politics in American history, but this was a period that witnessed the rise of corporations, the geographic incorporation of the Confederacy and the West, and the integration of immigrants from all parts of the world.

The federal government focused on reviving the economy and unifying the nation into one "United States." The establishment of transcontinental railroad routes and telegraph lines linked all regions of the nation economically and socially, but vast swaths of land in the interior and out West needed settlement and economic development. Republicans responded with policies that promoted development of the interior and westward expansion.

Westward expansion had some successes, but also produced unintended consequences for Republican policies. Many Americans considered the lands in the West a precious commodity and a source of great expectation, but the Great Plains proved to be less fertile than lands in the East. The newcomers required more capital to farm, ranch, and mine the land and sought direct assistance from the federal government.

When the railroad came into regions throughout the United States, it increased the value of the land because farmers and ranchers were able to transport produce and cattle on trains. Settlers moving west encountered Native Americans, and Mexican farmers and ranchers who had lived in the area for centuries.

Conflicts arose over legal ownership of the land. Some Mexicans went through the legal system to retain their lands while others resisted incursion by more violent means.

Faces of America

Faces of America

Luna Kellie, a farmer and Populist; Zitkala-Sa, a Native American activist; and William Henry Jackson, a landscape photographer, represented the emergence of a forward-looking nation.

Like many families who migrated westward, Luna Kellie and her family settled in the Great Plains, a region previously known as the "Great American Desert." The experience of the Kellie family revealed the hardships they endured while farming in Nebraska. As life on the frontier worsened, Kellie actively campaigned for a Populist Party victory in hopes that the ideas of the "People’s Party" would translate into policies that improved the living conditions on the Great Plains.

Gertrude Bonnin, also known as Zitkala-Sa or Red Bird, was a Yankton Sioux who attended White’s Manual Labor Institute, a boarding school designed to assimilate Native American children into white society. The school staff forced Zitkala-Sa to speak only English, wear European American clothes, and give up the spiritual practices of the Sioux. The experience at White’s Manual Labor Institute allowed Zitkala-Sa to bridge two cultures: the Native American and the European American.

In 1871, the United States Geological Survey set out to document the sources of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, and hired William Henry Jackson to photograph Yellowstone’s geologic features and landscapes. Business interests backed the survey, with the purpose of extending the Northern Pacific Railroad to transport produce, natural resources, and tourists.

Hands on History

Hands on History

How does the study of history help inform the restoration of ecosystems?

Sam Fuhlendorf, professor of rangeland ecology at Oklahoma State University, explains how history and biology intersect to show what an ecosystem "should" look like. At the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, Fuhlendorf describes the relationship between bison and fire in maintaining the landscape, and how he has used oral histories and journals to confirm what the prairie looked like before the arrival of European American settlers. Read edited Hands on History interview with Sam Fuhlendorf.

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