Exam preparation materials

Chapter 16: The Closing of the Frontier, 1876–1900



Gold discovered at Pikes Peak


Homestead Act passed  • Morrill Land-Grant Act passed


Nevada becomes a state


Transcontinental railroad completed


Yellowstone National Park established


Battle of Little Big Horn takes place


Dawes Act passed


Battle at Wounded Knee takes place  • U.S. census declares the frontier settled



Comstock Lode

Dawes Act

Helen Hunt Jackson

Frederick Jackson Turner

Battle of Wounded Knee

Crazy Horse



Bozeman Trail, South Dakota

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

Ghost Dance Movement

“safety valve”

Chief Joseph

Custer’s Last Stand

Great American Desert

Sitting Bull

“In the United States a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; … he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere.”

—From Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, 1835


Between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the 20th century, Americans accelerated the move to areas west of the Mississippi River. In the above quote, Tocqueville identifies a pervasive characteristic among many Americans of this period—a desire to pick up and move. The move to the West had a profound impact on America, especially on the Native American peoples who lived there.


Americans had settled just west of the Mississippi River and along the Pacific coast before the Civil War. After the war, they began populating the areas in between. Most were drawn by economic opportunity—the chance to strike it rich in mining, to begin again in agriculture, and to be their own boss. Some left farms east of the Mississippi when soil became depleted, while others escaped economic hardships in urban areas. Many African Americans left harsh conditions in the South. The movement was facilitated by the presence of precious metals, by government policies, and by the expansion of railroad lines.

Homestead Act of 1862

The Homestead Act of 1862 was designed to encourage settlement in the West by offering 160 acres of land at no cost to homesteaders who paid a $10 filing fee and agreed to live on the land for five years. Much of the land ended up in the hands of speculators, who then sold it at a profit. Nonetheless, approximately 600,000 families attained land through the Homestead Act.

Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862

The Morrill Land-Grant Act and similar acts transferred more than 140 million acres of federal land to the states. The states could set up land-grant agricultural colleges or sell the land. This act also tended to transfer land to speculators, who profited from this government program.


After Reconstruction, some African Americans sought to escape violence and exploitation in the South by moving to the West. About 50,000 “Exodusters”—so-called after the Biblical story of Exodus—made it to Kansas and beyond. Unfortunately, many of the economic and social patterns of the old South, including an active Ku Klux Klan, re-emerged in Kansas.

The Development of Railroads and the Destruction of the Buffalo

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 greatly facilitated Western settlement. The development of the railroads also played a major role in the destruction of the buffalo; while some were killed for food, many were shot for sport from train windows. Later, a market developed for buffalo leather. By 1886, few buffalo were left. The death of the buffalo had a detrimental effect on the Native American groups who depended on them.


Three principal economic activities—mining, cattle ranching, and farming—drew people to, and eventually transformed, the West.

The Mining Frontier

The promise of quick wealth from gold and silver mining brought large numbers of migrants to the West. The first mining discovery was that of gold in California in 1848, followed by gold and silver strikes in present-day Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Arizona, and South Dakota. The two most well-known strikes were in 1859 at Pikes Peak in present-day Colorado and the Comstock Lode in present-day Nevada. A pattern common to most precious metal strikes developed in the West. Tens of thousands of prospectors would flock to a strike, creating a boomtown. Some would strike it rich; most would not. After individuals extracted easily obtainable ore, large mining concerns took over the more intense underground work. Many of the would-be prospectors wound up as wage employees of these companies, as mining became big business.

The effects of the mining frontier were significant. While some mining centers quickly became ghost towns, others—such as San Francisco, Sacramento, and Denver—prospered as commercial centers. Many of these towns attracted immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The migrations following strikes led to the rapid incorporation of some western states into the Union (such as Nevada in 1864). The increase in the supply of precious metals led to a political crisis over the value of currency in the 1890s.

The Cattle Frontier

Cattle ranching became widespread in the West after the great buffalo herds were decimated. This, combined with a growing market for beef in the East, the development of railway lines, and vast open grasslands, created ideal conditions for cattle ranching in the West. Cowboys would ride horses and let large herds of cattle graze on the open prairie. Borrowing techniques from Mexican vaqueros, these cowboys would then lead the herds to towns such as Dodge City in present-day Kansas or Cheyenne in present-day Wyoming so that the cattle could be shipped by rail to Chicago to be slaughtered. The era of the cowboy lasted only about 20 years, from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s. Most cowboys were white, although about 25 percent were African American and about 12 percent were Mexican. The era of the cowboy ended for a number of reasons. Droughts (in 1883 and 1886) and a severe blizzard (in 1887) took their toll, but the invention of barbed wire proved most destructive. Developed in the 1870s by Joseph Glidden, barbed wire allowed ranchers and farmers to fence in their land, thus reducing the wide-open expanses that the long cattle drives depended on.

The Farming Frontier

Homesteaders faced difficult conditions on the Great Plains, including extreme temperatures, isolation, lack of water, fluctuating prices for grain, and infestation of pests such as grasshoppers. Farmers had to bust the sod—hard, compacted soil—before they could farm. New techniques, such as deep plowing, and new implements, such as steam-powered threshers, helped make farming on the Great Plains a success. By the early 20th century, the Great Plains had become the breadbasket of the United States, but in the process, farming, like mining, had become big business. Over two-thirds of the homesteaders’ farms failed.


The Great Plains had been labeled the “Great American Desert” in 1820, but it was home to numerous and diverse Native American nations. As the frontier was gradually taken over by white settlers, Native Americans lost both their land and their means of livelihood. This period saw organized resistance on the part of Native Americans, armed clashes, and a series of U.S. government policies designed to settle this issue.

Native American Nations

Several Native American nations lived on the Great Plains and in the desert regions of present-day Arizona and New Mexico. The Plains people included the Comanche, Sioux, Pawnee, Blackfoot, and Crow nations. Most were nomadic people who depended on horses, brought to the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s, for hunting and fighting. The desert nations of the Southwest included the nomadic Navaho and Apache nations and the settled Hopi and Zuni peoples.

Reservation Policy

In 1834, the U.S. government designated the entire Great Plains as one enormous reservation, or land set aside for Native Americans. But as more settlers moved westward, the federal government, beginning with negotiations at Fort Laramie and Fort Atkinson in 1851, adopted a policy of assigning different Native American nations specific areas with definite boundaries. This policy proved difficult to enforce, as most Plains nations were nomadic and followed migrating buffalo. In addition, many Native American nations never signed treaties, and many of the Native American “chiefs” who did sign did not represent their nations. So as Native Americans continued hunting on traditional lands, clashes occurred with miners and settlers.

Warfare on the Great Plains

A series of clashes between Native Americans and U.S. troops had tragic results for the former. One by one, Native American nations succumbed to the superior firepower of the U.S. government.

•  The Sand Creek Massacre (1864): The Colorado militia, led by Colonel John M. Chivington, massacred over 400 men, women, and children of the Cheyenne nation at the village of Sand Creek in present-day Colorado.

•  Defeat of the Sioux (1865–1890): Conflicts first occurred between whites and members of the Sioux nation after the U.S. government built the Bozeman Trail (in present-day Wyoming) through prized Sioux hunting grounds. After over a year of fighting, the Great Sioux War ended in a stalemate. The Treaty of 1868 closed the Bozeman Trail and stipulated that the Sioux live on a reservation along the Missouri River in present-day South Dakota. But the clashes did not end. Gold was discovered on Sioux land, and prospectors clamored for land. After having visions of victory, Sioux chief Sitting Bull and troops led by Crazy Horse defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, killing him and all of his men at Little Bighorn (in present-day Montana) in 1876. Later that year, U.S. forces, exacting revenge for “Custer’s Last Stand, succeeded in defeating the Sioux. A few remaining Sioux, inspired by Sitting Bull and the Ghost Dance religious movement, resisted being driven from their ancestral lands, but the movement was put down with the killing of 200 Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890.

•  The Nez Percé: There were peaceful relations between the whites and the Nez Percé (of present-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) until gold was discovered on Nez Percé land in 1860. Faced with forcible removal, Chief Joseph and the Nez Percé prepared to leave peacefully for the reservation. U.S. troops were misinformed about Joseph’s intentions, however, and attacked the Native Americans. Pursued by the U.S. army, the Nez Percé retreated more than 1,000 miles and were finally defeated just short of the Canadian border in 1877.

The Politics of Reform

Some whites were troubled by the U.S. government’s violations of treaties and its policy of forcing Native Americans onto reservations. Helen Hunt Jackson’s exposé, A Century of Dishonor, drew people’s attention to the plight of Native Americans. Many reform-minded Americans thought the solution to Native Americans’s problems was assimilation—adopting the cultural practices of whites and converting to Christianity. This impulse led to the Dawes Act of 1887, which was designed to break up tribal units, giving individual families a small plot of land and making them U.S. citizens after 25 years of adopting “the habits of civilized life.” The policy proved to be a failure and was abandoned in the 1930s.

The Closing of the Frontier?

By 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau declared that the frontier had been settled. While this was perhaps overstating the case (homesteading continued into the 20th century, and even today, vast areas of the West not suited to agriculture are still unsettled), the notion troubled some Americans, including the historian Frederick Jackson Turner. The “Turner thesis” held that the existence of an unsettled frontier had profoundly and positively shaped the character of Americans. It encouraged Americans to be innovative and individualistic and allowed for a high degree of social mobility. The frontier contributed to social peace in the East by providing a “safety valve” for a disgruntled urbanites. Many aspects of the Turner thesis have since been refuted. For instance, in the late 1800s, it was more common for people to move from rural areas to industrial cities. The fear of a closed frontier also led to popular pressure for preserving wild areas in the West, which resulted in the organization of some of the early national parks (Yellowstone in 1872 andYosemite in 1890).


The settlement of the West has assumed mythic proportions in American culture. But while the myth of the lone prospector or homesteader starting anew has some truth, these individuals quickly gave way to big business, as mechanization and modernization required funding beyond the reach of most individuals. The impact of the settlement of the West on Native Americans was very real. A way of life was virtually destroyed.


•  Barbed wire: An invention of the 1870s, barbed wire enabled farmers to enclose land and prevent the long cattle drives that cowboys conducted.

•  Cowboys: Cattle handlers who drove large herds across the southern Great Plains and whose era lasted from 1870 to the late 1880s

•  Homesteaders: Settlers who were granted plots in the West, usually of 160 acres, under the Homestead Act of 1862

•  Transcontinental railway: The railroad route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that was completed in 1869


1.   Which of the following was NOT a major reason for the movement of large numbers of people from the east of the Mississippi River to the west of it during the second half of the 19th century?

(A)    People were interested in the free land provided by the Homestead Act.

(B)    The completion of the first transcontinental railroad made doing business out west economically feasible.

(C)    People were trying to escape the air and water pollution common in the cities of the East.

(D)    Soil was becoming depleted in the East.

(E)    Strikes of gold and silver lured prospectors out west.

2.   The Dawes Act

(A)    forced Native Americans to be removed from their traditional homelands.

(B)    allowed Native Americans to practice their traditional ways within the confines of their reservations.

(C)    encouraged Native Americans to own individual plots of land, which they and their families would cultivate.

(D)    allowed Native Americans to establish gambling casinos on their land.

(E)    outlawed the ceremonial Ghost Dance.

3.   The purpose of the Homestead Act was to

(A)    attract people to settle in the West.

(B)    promote the development of railroad building in the West.

(C)    raise revenue for the federal government.

(D)    preserve open lands in the West for future generations to enjoy.

(E)    transfer large tracts of land to giant agricultural concerns.

4.   “Exodusters” were

(A)    Mormons who made the journey from the East to Utah.

(B)    ministers who were part of the Second Great Awakening.

(C)    Native Americans who were forced off their land by the Indian Removal Act.

(D)    African Americans who fled the South in the post–Civil War period.

(E)    farmers who fled the “Dust Bowl” during the 1920s and 1930s.


1.    C

Though cities were becoming crowded during the last decades of the 19th century, and some people noted the declining air quality of industrial cities, air and water pollution were not major reasons for people to move out west. The other answer choices all accurately describe motivations that people had for leaving the older communities in the East and venturing west.

2.    C

The Dawes Act should be associated with the idea of assimilating Native Americans into mainstream white American culture. Choice (A) would be the answer to a question about the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Choice (B) would answer a question about the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. State and federal courts (including the Supreme Court) ruled in the 1980s that Native Americans could operate casinos on the basis of self-determination and sovereignty. The Ghost Dance, which inspired resistance to federal incursions, was outlawed in the 1880s but not by the Dawes Act.

3.    A

The government hoped to attract people to the West by offering them free land if they made a commitment to stay there for five years. The government did promote railroad development in the West by granting land to the railroad companies, but not through the Homestead Act. The land was given away; it did not directly raise money for federal government. The act encouraged settlement, not preservation, of lands in the West. The government did later move to preserve some Western lands through the creation of national parks. Choice (E) sounds plausible, because much of the homesteaded land did eventually end up in the hands of large farming concerns, but this was not the purpose of the act.

4.    D

The term “Exodusters” is derived from the biblical story of Exodus, in which the Hebrews escaped unbearable conditions in Egypt and eventually made it to the Promised Land. Conditions in the post-Reconstruction South rapidly declined for African Americans politically, economically, and socially. Mormons made the initial journey to Utah in the 1840s, but they were not referred to as “Exodusters.” The Second Great Awakening preachers did travel from town to town to spread the “good word,” but they did not evoke the idea of an exodus to a promised land. The term “Trail of Tears” is associated with the removal of Native Americans as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. And the migration of poor farmers (many of them “Okies” from Oklahoma) to California during the Depression is not usually associated with the Biblical story of Exodus.

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