Modern history

Conclusion: The Ambiguous Legacy of the Frontier

The legacy of the pioneering generation of Americans has proven mixed. Men and women pioneers left their old lives behind and boldly pushed into uncharted territory to reinvent themselves. They encountered numerous obstacles posed by difficult terrain, forbidding climate, and unfamiliar inhabitants of the land they sought to harness. They built their homes, tilled the soil to raise crops, and mined the earth to remove the metals it contained. They developed cities that would one day rival those back east: San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Denver. These pioneers served as the advance guard of America’s expanding national and international commercial markets. As producers of staple crops and livestock and consumers of manufactured goods, they contributed to the expansion of America’s factories, railroads, and telegraph communication system. The nation would memorialize their spirit as a model of individualism and self-reliance.

In fact, settlement of the West required more than individual initiative and selfdetermination. Without the direct involvement of the federal government, settlers would not have received free or inexpensive homesteads and military protection to clear native inhabitants out of their way. Without territorial governors and judges appointed by Washington to preside over new settlements, there would have been even less law, order, and justice than appeared in the rough-and-tumble environment that attracted outlaws, con artists, and speculators. Railroads, mining, and cattle ventures all relied heavily on foreign investors. Moreover, all the individualism and self-reliance that pioneers brought would not have saved them from the harsh conditions and disasters they faced without banding together as a community and pitching in to create institutions that helped them collectively. Despite their desire to achieve success, various pioneers—farmers, prospectors, cowboys—mostly found it difficult to make it on their own and began working for larger farming, mining, and ranching enterprises, with many of them becoming wageworkers. And for an experience that has been portrayed as a predominantly male phenomenon, settlement of the West depended largely on women.

Pioneers did not fully understand the land and people they encountered. More from ignorance than design, settlers engaged in agricultural, mining, and ranching practices that depleted fragile grasses, eroded hillsides, and polluted rivers and streams with runoff wastes. The settlement of the West nearly wiped out the bison and left Native Americans psychologically demoralized, culturally endangered, and economically impoverished. Some Indians willingly adopted white ways, but most of them fiercely resisted acculturation. Other nonwhite minorities in the West, such as Mexicans and Chinese, experienced less extreme treatment, but they suffered nonetheless.

Panoramic landscape paintings often depicted glorious scenes of the Wild West, but the truth was more nuanced. Annie Oakley pleased audiences with daring exploits that glorified a West she had not experienced. Geronimo surrendered and spent the rest of his life exiled from his native lands. He, too, tried to follow the path of Oakley, but his public appearances could not hide the devastation that he and other Native Americans had experienced. The western frontier represented both opportunity and loss.

Chapter Review


Identify and explain the significance of each term below.

Great Plains (p. 376)

transcontinental railroad (p. 378)

Treaty of Fort Laramie (p. 382)

Battle of the Little Big Horn (p. 383)

buffalo soldiers (p. 383)

Dawes Act (p. 385)

Ghost Dance (p. 386)

Comstock Lode (p. 387)

Long Drive (p. 389)

Homestead Act (p. 391)

Mormons (p. 395)

Californios (p. 396)

Chinese Exclusion Act (p. 397)


Answer the focus questions from each section of the chapter.

1. What role did the federal government play in opening the West to settlement and economic exploitation?

2. Explain the determination of Americans to settle in land west of the Mississippi River despite the challenges the region presented.

3. How and why did federal indian policy change during the nineteenth century?

4. Describe some of the ways that indian peoples responded to federal policies. Which response do you think offered their greatest chance for survival?

5. How and why did the nature of mining in the West change during the second half of the nineteenth century?

6. How did miners and residents of mining towns reshape the frontier landscape?

7. How did market forces contribute to the boom and bust of the cattle ranching industry?

8. How did women homesteaders on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century respond to frontier challenges?

9. What migrant groups were attracted to the far West? What drew them there?

10. Explain the rising hostility to the Chinese and other minority groups in the late-nineteenth-century far West.



• Gold discovered in California


• First Treaty of Fort Laramie


• Homestead Act passed


• Sand Creek massacre


• Lakota Sioux lead Indian resistance

Late 1860s

• Large-scale cattle drives begin


• Second Treaty of Fort Laramie


• Transcontinental railroad completed


• Gold discovered in Black Hills of North Dakota


• Battle of the Little Big Horn


• Desert Land Act


• John Wesley Powell questions suitability of Great Plains for small-scale farming

• Timber and Stone Act


• Helen Hunt Jackson publishes Century of Dishonor


• Edmunds Act passed

• Chinese Exclusion Act passed


• Annie Oakley joins William Cody's Wild West show


• Cattle industry collapses


• Geronimo captured


• Dawes Act passed

• Kansas women win right to vote and run for office in municipal elections


• Mexican American White Caps attack Anglo property


• Massacre at Wounded Knee


• Western Federation of Miners formed

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