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Westward expansion: social and cultural development

Westward expansion in the 19th century transformed the U.S., sparking conflicts with Native Americans, altering the environment, and reshaping society. The government encouraged migration, leading to violence against minorities and loss of Native American lands. This period also saw significant cultural shifts and environmental changes.

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Video transcript

- [Instructor] In other videos, we've discussed the causes and effects of westward expansion in the 19th century, focusing on the period that began with the discovery of gold in California in 1849 and ending shortly after the Civil War. But westward expansion was a long process. Eight new states entered the Union between 1876 and 1896. And not until nearly the turn of the 20th century did the superintendent of the US Census declare that the frontier was now closed. US territories stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We've talked a bit about what caused people to move west and what effects the immigration of millions of non-native people west of the Mississippi had on that region and on the United States as a whole before and during the Civil War. In this video, I want to pick up the story after the Civil War and discuss how westward expansion affected the society and culture of the West at the end of the 19th century. Let's quickly review some of the causes of westward expansion that were already established by the end of the Civil War. Starting in the 1840s, Americans and European immigrants began moving west looking for farmland. And the California Gold Rush of 1849 brought people from all over the world into the region to either pan for gold or to make some money off the people who were panning for gold. The construction of the transcontinental railroad also provided many jobs for those who didn't strike it rich. The US government facilitated this westward expansion by granting millions of acres to railroad companies, making it easier to get west and to get goods from the West back East. The government also encouraged settlement through grants of 160 acres of free land to anyone willing to improve it over the course of five years. Lastly, many American migrants were convinced through cultural messaging that American civilization was divinely ordained to occupy North America from Atlantic to Pacific in an ideology known as Manifest Destiny. All of these things continued to motivate westward expansion in the years after the Civil War, but there were a few unique aspects in this era that intensified the changes wrought by westward expansion. First, the US government began to take a new approach towards its interactions with Native Americans. Instead of treating Native American tribes as independent nations, the government began to cast them as wards of the state, relics of an earlier time that had to take up American ways or face extinction. They began to confine Native Americans to reservations and classify any individual or group that refused as hostile. Another related thing that changed was that after the Civil War, the US Army could apply its full might to subduing the West through a series of conflicts with Native Americans called the Indian Wars. One thing I find fascinating about these conflicts was that many of the generals who led campaigns in the Indian Wars were former Union generals who had fought to end slavery in the South during the Civil War, including Oliver O. Howard, the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. What do you think their approach to Native Americans versus African Americans says about how they conceived of American citizenship in this time period? The effects of westward expansion also intensified after the Civil War. As we've already mentioned, one effect of Americans' westward push was violence against Native Americans and other minorities. The US Army forced Native Americans onto reservations or hunted them down when Native Americans attempted to prevent white settlers from encroaching on those reservations, like when gold was discovered on the Sioux reservation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The US Army also prevented Native Americans from engaging in rituals like The Ghost Dance, which they feared would kindle resistance among Native Americans. In 1890, an Army regiment disarmed a Lakota Sioux encampment near Wounded Knee Creek. And while the Lakotas were giving up their weapons, one rifle accidentally discharged. The US Army then massacred somewhere between 200 and 300 men, women, and children. Other minorities in the West were also subject to racial violence including Mexican Americans, who were driven off their lands by force, and Chinese immigrants, who were targeted in race riots throughout California. Minorities also faced the loss of their land and their cultures in the West. The most significant land loss came as a result of the Dawes Act of 1887. The Dawes Act sought to force Native Americans to stop living communally and take up American culture and farming by splitting up reservations and awarding 160 acres of land to each head of household, sort of like the Homestead Act. But unlike the Homestead Act, Native Americans had to improve the land and behave like whites for 25 years to get title and American citizenship, not just five. And due to corruption in administering this policy, Native Americans were placed on the worst land for farming, or their land allotments were given to white settlers instead. All in all, the Dawes Act resulted in the loss of over 80 million acres of Native American land. Similarly, government agents turned a deaf ear towards the claims of Mexican Americans whose land was claimed by white settlers even though Mexican Americans had been US citizens since the end of the Mexican War. The same impulse to force Native Americans to assimilate into American living patterns also drove the creation of Indian boarding schools in this era. Native children were removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. There they would be forced to cut off their long hair, change into American-style clothing, and take up new American-sounding names. These schools lasted until the 1970s. Chinese immigrants, by contrast, were judged incapable of assimilation. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first immigration restriction to prevent all members of an ethnic group from entering the United States. Restrictions on Chinese immigration would not be completely abolished until 1965. There were also some far-reaching environmental transformations resulting from westward expansion. One of these was the near extinction of the American bison, also known as the buffalo. Huge herds of buffalo roamed the American West for all of recorded history in the area. Plains Indians had over-hunted them in the years before large-scale immigration to the West, but the coming of the railroad signed the buffalos' death warrant. There were about 15 million buffalo in the West at the end of the Civil War, but less than 20 years later there were fewer than 1,000 buffalo remaining due to whites hunting them for sport or clearing them from rail lines. This left Plains Indians, who depended on the buffalo for meat and clothing, in a state of near-starvation, making it even more difficult for them to resist being forced onto reservations. Plains Indians were also affected by the development of barbed wire in this era, which white settlers used to fence off what had been communal grazing lands. This was also a hardship for cowboys, who once had driven herds of cattle to railroad depots over long stretches of open range. By the end of the 19th century, there was little to no open range left at all. Lastly, the spread of settlers into the arid western part of the Great Plains led to massive irrigation projects in order to supply lands that weren't really naturally suited to farming with water. This meant damming and diverting rivers and the use of farming techniques that would later contribute to the ravages of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Who has access to water and for what purposes is still a major source of conflict in the American West. So as we look forward into the 20th century from our vantage point here at the edge of the American Frontier, let's take some time to think about what the story of westward expansion tells us about how Americans thought about citizenship and access to resources in this time period. How will those ideas influence the United States once it begins to step on the world stage and look for new frontiers outside of North America?