Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
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Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
If I asked a really good student of U.S. History to tell me what issues were most important in the mid- to late-19th century, he or she would probably mention slavery and related issues like the Civil War, Reconstruction and maybe even Manifest Destiny. These issues were so important that they often overshadow other developments in U.S. History in the same time frame. So, let's go back and look at a few of them: the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railroad and the growing women's suffrage movement.
For a whole decade, some legislators had been interested in passing a Homestead Act to encourage settlement in newly acquired Western lands. But Southern lawmakers had generally opposed that, thinking that poor farmers would not support the expansion of slavery into their territory. But then the South seceded, and Southern Congressmen were out of the way.
Beginning on New Year's Day 1863, any American who had never borne arms against the government could apply for a 160-acre homestead west of the Mississippi River. The land was free, but the owner had to build a 12-by-14-foot home and grow crops for five years in order to get the deed to the land. Even farther west, in the lands of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming, the land was grazed communally by ranchers on the 'open range,' without property lines or fences. Cowboys drove mature cattle thousands of miles to the nearest markets. This lifestyle was especially attractive to young, adventurous former slaves who were drawn to the freedom that the open range afforded. There were also many poor white farmers, disillusioned urban dwellers and new immigrants among the settlers.
American folklore paints an image of the mythic West, with wide open spaces, little girls skipping across the big prairie and cowboys playing harmonica around a fire. But this ideal was far from reality. Those who even completed the arduous journey often faced crushing disappointment. Many homesteaders didn't have enough money to buy the equipment and animals necessary to run a farm. Those who had the implements realized quickly that even 160 acres can't feed livestock or sustain crops without irrigation. Yet, sources of water were often snapped up by fraudulent speculators who used it for personal gain. There were blizzards in the winter, tornadoes in the summer and hurricane-force winds in the spring, and drought, grassfires and insects. There was very little wood for building homes or for fuel. What's worse, these farmers were totally isolated with no neighbors or community for support. And though they had few friends, they weren't alone; violent conflict with Native Americans was common in some areas. In the end, about 60% of homesteaders abandoned their lands.
Despite these difficulties, millions of Americans applied for homesteads throughout the life of the bill. As Reconstruction policies failed in the former Confederacy, many African Americans left the South in hopes of finding greater equality in the West. About 40,000 of these so-called 'Exodusters' headed for Kansas where they founded all-black towns, some of which still exist today. When the railroad came through, life on the Great Plains got easier as the population increased, towns emerged, schools opened and services and opportunities generally increased.
The presence of railroads had been transforming Eastern cities since the 1830s. Even though the California Gold Rush increased pressure for tracks to reach the West Coast, the project was stalled by expense, logistics and political wrangling. The 1854 Gadsden Purchase at the southern border of the New Mexico Territory was originally supposed to provide a path to the West Coast, but with the start of the Civil War, a Southern route was clearly not going to work. Then, a California man identified a pass through the Sierra Nevadas and headed to Washington to present an ingenious idea. Since the U.S. was busy fighting a war, all the federal government needed to do was authorize two corporations to get the job done - one in the East and one in the West - and provide free land. The railroad companies would use the land for right of way and then sell the remaining parcels to finance the project.
President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act into law in 1862. The Central Pacific Railroad Company began laying track in Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company started in Omaha, Nebraska. The two companies would race towards each other until they met, completing the first transcontinental railroad.
Both corporations struggled for seven years to complete their tasks. Blasting tunnels through rugged mountain terrain was difficult and dangerous, and the Central Pacific had trouble finding enough willing workers. Eventually, they hired Chinese immigrants to do the work. The Union Pacific had a much easier stretch of land to start with and plenty of Irish immigrants (and later, Civil War veterans) to hire. But they were harassed by Native Americans who resisted the encroachment of the United States into their land.
Still, the work went on. Foremen pushed their crews to cover as much as ten miles in a day; telegraph wires followed them. Rough towns popped up along the tracks filled with young, strong, single men whose behavior generated stereotypes of the 'Wild West.' Finally, on May 10, 1869, the two railroads met at Promontory, Utah. A crowd of people watched as the legendary golden spike was driven, connecting the East and West.
With fast, convenient transportation and easy communication, Western settlement boomed. Farmers and ranchers could easily ship their products to markets in the East. Catalog companies made it convenient to purchase everything a farm or ranch needed, like tools, clothing and barbed wire - even kits to build a house! The original homesteaders who had persevered now found that life got much easier, but the railroad quickly marked an end to the open range.
In some ways, the West was similar to the earliest colonies in America. Due to the hardships of life and the value of any hardworking adult, women (who formed a very small percentage of the West's already sparse population) often had greater opportunities and a higher social status. And while women in the East were split in their support for female suffrage, 13 Western states granted women the right to vote before the 19th Amendment protected the same right nationwide.
The cause of female suffrage first gained momentum in the mid-19th century, when women played active roles in many social causes, especially abolition. But in 1840, six delegates to the General Anti-Slavery Convention in London were excluded from the proceedings because of their gender. The men in charge were afraid that their presence would tie women's suffrage to black rights and thus distract from the convention's general focus. Two of the ladies who were excluded - Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton - became friends and organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to bring attention to women's rights. Though their work was overshadowed by the anti-slavery movement, it came back into the limelight when the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments defined citizenship and enfranchised African American men.
Just a year earlier, in 1869, Wyoming became the first territory to give women the right to vote, quickly followed by Utah. Inspired by Western victories, 44 Massachusetts women voted in 1870, though their ballots were tossed out. Then, in 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. Though it was an uphill battle, the Western trend of women's suffrage slowly spread eastward, as you can see from the map.
Let's review. While the nation raged over slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, three seemingly unrelated events were also weaving their way into American history. The Homestead Act provided 160 acres of free Western land. Millions of Americans applied for homesteads, but fewer than half completed the requirements to get the deed to their land. As Reconstruction policies failed, black immigrants, called Exodusters, caused another surge in western migration.
During the Civil War, an arrangement under the Pacific Railway Act resulted in a public-private partnership in which two corporations would build the first transcontinental railroad on land donated by the federal government. The result was a race from both sides, which met at Promontory, Utah in 1869, causing a surge in westward migration. The states and territories of the West became a laboratory for women's suffrage during Reconstruction. After meeting in the abolition movement, early feminists worked to secure voting rights - first in Wyoming in 1869. Women's suffrage spread throughout the West long before the 19th amendment guaranteed this right, and the trend moved east from there.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 115 lessons | 5 flashcard sets