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America's History in the Making

Taming the American West

Theme 2

Landscapes in the arid West challenged newcomers' assumptions about an endless, bountiful frontier.

Westward expansion created encounters with arid lands and breathtaking landscapes. More and more Americans recognized that their country's natural resources were not infinite, sparking an emerging environmental consciousness. The federal government became directly involved in the preservation of land and protecting the endangered bison. In 1871, Congress established Yellowstone as the world's first national park, to be forever "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."

At the same time, scientists and government officials hoped that "rain will follow the plow" into the arid West; farmers eagerly headed west in hopes of making the desert bloom. But it soon became apparent that traditional agricultural methods could not succeed on arid lands, and tens of thousands of homesteaders suffered drought, low crop prices, hardship, and homelessness. By the 1880s and 1890s, farmers and ranchers drawn west by the Homestead Act and other incentives needed government assistance due to harsher conditions than expected.

Federal officials believed in providing indirect government assistance that created opportunities for success. Instead of subsidizing the railroad companies, farmers and ranchers wanted the government to provide direct assistance in the form of low-interest loans and regulation or take over of railroad and telegraph lines. Without government assistance, corporations took over farming, ranching, and mining because they had the capital needed to manage the new lands and resources.

Primary Sources