Faith And Courage Opened The West
Americans have always envisioned a West. When they won independence from England in 1783, the West lay just beyond the Appalachian Mountains, a West celebrated in the adventures of Daniel Boone. Then people began to thread through the Cumberland Gap to make new homes there. Boone felt crowded, so in 1799 he moved across the Mississippi River to take up residence in Missouri.
Only four years later President Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon, and the West suddenly leaped the Missouri River and left Boone behind. There began a brave and sometimes tragic saga of the pioneers whose faith and courage opened the West. Gradually this West yielded its contours to Lewis and Clark, explorers, mountain men, and covered-wagon emigrants. Its boundaries expanded as the war with Mexico and diplomacy with England transformed the United States into a continental nation. By mid-century, popularized by the California gold rush, a geographical West had fixed itself in the American mind: the plains, mountains, deserts, and plateaus that separated the Missouri River from the Pacific shore.
Geographically the West endured unchanged in American perceptions. The people who gave life to this vast and varied expanse of geography were real, and historians argue endlessly over exactly who they were, what they did, and why. These people take on fantastic qualities, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, George Armstrong Custer, Crazy Horse, and others have ascended to immortal legendry. Perhaps no other geographic region merges the real and the mythic in such vivid combination. Both fact and fantasy make up the history of the American West.
These people, whatever their mythic content, won the West. But the other half of the story is of the people who lost the West. From Atlantic to Pacific, every West was already inhabited when the first invaders arrived. Indian tribes (sometimes fashionably labeled Native Americans) confronted the newcomers in peace and war, in friendship and hostility, in coexistence, in commerce, in diplomacy, and in a host of other relationships. Unlike the intruders, they recognized no geographical West, only the ever-shifting edges of their tribal domain. For the non-Indian public, however, they are vital players in the history of the West. And in the popular mind they too are both real and mythic and varying combinations of the two.
The history of the West is not alone human. It also embraces what humans did to the West. All, whether resident or invader, historic or prehistoric, imposed constant change on the land and its water, its flora and its fauna. The hugely varied ways of life of humans, from hunters of mastodons to miners, loggers, farmers, dam builders, and others of more recent times, transformed the Real West and even the Mythic West.
It took Americans a century and a half to expand as far west as the Appalachian Mountains, a few hundred miles from the Atlantic coast. It took another 50 years to push the frontier to the Mississippi River. By l830 fewer than 100,000 pioneers had crossed the Mississippi.
Before the 19th century, mystery shrouded the Far West. Mapmakers knew very little about the shape, size, or topography of the land west of the Mississippi River. French, British, and Spanish trappers, traders, and missionaries had traveled the Upper and Lower Missouri River and the British and Spanish had explored the Pacific coast, but most of western North America was an unknown.
Folks talk about the "opening of the west". Instantly, the rugged cowboy on horseback or the wild-eyed outlaw or the unwavering lawman come to mind. But there was a spell, nearly 40 years earlier than the cowboy era, when rugged individuals combed the west. These were the "mountain men".
After the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, white men headed into the vast unknown territory west of the Mississippi. With pack horses or canoes filled with trade goods from suppliers in St. Louis, They followed the rivers west. Once they made contact with the Indians, they spent months trading their goods for furs, primarily beaver for the insatiable hat industry. With luck, the traders would come out ahead and with their fur packs intact. They would then make the arduous journey back east to sell their furs, pay off debts, re-supply, and hopefully make a little money. All the while, they were exploring, mapping rivers, trails, mountains and prairies.
No one knows exactly when the white man started trapping beaver on their own, and thus ending the fur "trade". However, accounts confirm William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry leading a group of men in 1822 up the Missouri Rivedr, down the Yellowstone and into the mouth of the Powder River (Montana). There they would trap till the freeze came and then they would hold up for the winter, trap again in the spring and then head back to St. Louis for re-supplying.
With Stories of unending beaver, the feaver took hold and many adventurers headed west. Not only did they bring back furs, they brought back stories of encounters with grizzly, vast buffalo herds, beautiful landscapes, friendly and not so friendly natives. To the entrepreneurs who hired many of these men, there was a problem with the system. The problem was "down time".
Trappers were spending too much valuable time delivering the furs back to St. Louis, restocking supplies and heading back west again. That time could better be used for exploring and trapping more beaver. In September of 1823, Jedediah Smith led Ashley's second group west. They met Henry's men, wintered with them and the Crow Indians in the Wind River Valley in Wyoming. In the spring of 1824 the trappers headed west to the Green River country and into beaver paradise. Completing the spring hunt, two of the trappers took the furs back east while the remainder stayed in the mountains to trap. The reports these trappers brought back with them got Ashley brainstorming once again about the down time problem.
Traders and trappers were more important than government explorers in opening the West to white settlement. The "mountain men" blazed the great westward trails through the Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains and stirred the popular imagination with stories of redwood forests, geysers, and fertile valleys in California, Oregon and other areas west of the Rocky Mountains. These men also undermined the ability of the western Indians to resist white incursions by encouraging intertribal warfare and making Indians dependent on American manufactured goods, killing off the animals that provided a major part of their hunting and gathering economy, distributing alcohol, and spreading disease.
The western fur trade lasted only until 1840. Beaver hats for gentlemen went out of style in favor of silk hats, bringing the romantic era of the mountain man, dressed in a fringed buckskin suit, to an end. Fur bearing animals had been trapped out, and profits from trading fell steeply. Instead of hunting furs, some trappers became scouts for the United States army or pilots for the wagon trains that were beginning to carry pioneers to Oregon and California.
The Santa Fe and Oregon Trails were the two principal routes to the Far West. William Becknell, an American trader, opened the Sante Fe Trail in 1821. Ultimately the trail tied the New Mexican Southwest economically to the rest of the United States and hastened American penetration of the region.
The Santa Fe Trail served primarily commercial functions. Mexican settlers in Santa Fe purchased cloth, hardware, glass, books, and the region's first printing press. On their return east, American traders carried Mexican blankets, beaver pelts, wool, mules, and Mexican silver coins.
In 1811 and 1812, fur trappers marked out the Oregon Trail, the longest and most famous pioneer route in American history. Travel on the Oregon Trail was a tremendous test of human endurance. The journey by wagon train took six months. Settlers encountered prairie fires, sudden blizzards, and impassable mountains. Cholera and other diseases were common, and food, water, and wood were scarce. Only the stalwart dared brave the physical hardship of the westward trek.
Each spring, pioneers gathered at Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, to begin a 2,000 mile journey westward. For many families, the great spur for emigration was economic: the financial depression of the late 1830s, accompanied by floods and epidemics in the Mississippi Valley. Between 1841 and 1867, more than 350,000 trekked along the overland trails.
Fifteen years before the United States was plunged into Civil War, it fought a war against Mexico that added half a million square miles of territory to the United States. Not only was it the first American war fought almost entirely outside the United States, it was also the first American war to be reported, while it happened, by daily newspapers.
It was a controversial war that bitterly divided American public opinion. And it was the war that gave young officers named Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas ("Stonewall") Jackson, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George McClellan their first experience in a major conflict. The underlying cause of the Mexican War was the movement of American pioneers into lands claimed by Mexico.
On January 24, 1848, less than 10 days before the signing of the peace treaty ending the Mexican War, James W. Marshall, a 36-year old carpenter and handyman, noticed several bright bits of yellow mineral near a sawmill that he was building for John A. Sutter, a Swiss-born immigrant who owned one of the great ranches that dotted California's Sacramento Valley. To test if the bits were "fool's gold," which shatters when struck by a hammer, or gold, which is malleable, Marshall "tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape but not broken."
In the span of just five years, the United States had increased in size by a third and acquired an area that now includes the states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. First to carry the American flag into the Far West were a small coterie of government explorers, fur trappers, traders, and missionaries. These were the people who found the fertile valleys and great forests of the West, marked trails, and stirred the imagination of many Midwesterners eager for adventure. Ranchers, farmers, and tradesmen followed, taking the overland trails across treeless plains, dangerous mountains, and arid deserts, into Texas, Oregon, and California. The exploration and settlement of the Far West is one of the great epics of 19th century history.
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