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America's History in the Making

Taming the American West

Theme 1

The decades after Reconstruction brought bitter conflicts over land, resources, and labor—some of the most dramatic of which happened in the West.

On the Western frontier, a renewed race to claim land and resources led to battles among homesteaders, cattlemen, railroad owners, mine owners, and employees. At the same time, peoples native to the West—Native Americans and Mexican Americans— struggled to resist newcomers’ encroachment on their traditional lands.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, railroad companies sought rights-of-way through tribal lands to increase profits by transporting settlers, miners, and hunters to the West. As farmers settled the frontier, conflicts arose between the newcomers and Native Americans who had lived on these lands for centuries.

Legal conflicts erupted over who rightfully owned the land. In Mexican law, families passed land from one family member to another for hundreds of years. Communities, rather than individuals, held most of the common lands, and each member of the community could use it for grazing cattle or sheep and gathering firewood. In the United States, people bought land and acquired a written deed declaring ownership of the private property. When disputes arose between Mexicans and European Americans over who owned the land, the courts placed the lands on the open market if no individual property owner came forward with proof of ownership.

In the late 1880s, desperate Mexican American tenant farmers turned to violence to dispossess European Americans from their lands. Las Gorras Blancas (meaning "the white caps") was an infamous but secretive brotherhood that openly objected to the changes in land ownership. They rode through the ranches of European Americans and elite Mexicans in white-hooded outfits, intimidated local farmers, burned barns, ripped open barbed wire fences, and freed the cattle in reaction to the seizure of their lands.

Primary Sources