Chapter 2 Western Expansion, the New South, and Industrial America, 1870–1890
The era of Reconstruction was also a time of Western expansion and industrial growth. For some Americans, issues that continued to divide the nation inspired their Western trek. For others, it was the promise of landownership and economic independence that led them to the West. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided free land to help settlers establish farms. However, not everyone who would have liked to take advantage of the Homestead Act had the resources to move their families, build a home, and establish a farm. For these individuals, the growth of industry provided employment and even the potential for modest upward mobility. Migrants from Europe also hoped to establish farms, many seeking what they hoped would be temporary jobs in the great cities of the East before moving on to the Great Plains of the West. For others, it was the Great Lakes and the clusters of ethnic farm communities that inspired their migration. Immigrants also arrived on the West Coast from Asia and established their communities among Anglo and Hispanic settlers. Old prejudices greeted the new Americans on both coasts and throughout the interior. However, the potential of these immigrants as laborers and customers tempered their reception.
Railroads, coal mines, oil refineries, steel mills, and factories recognized that the success of America’s industrial revolution was dependent on population growth. Massive corporations emerged during the 1870s and 1880s, each creating national networks of production and finance that forever changed their respective industries. Politics also followed the trend of nationalization. Local and state government remained the focal point of US politics. However, the growing importance of national corporations and national transportation networks led many to call on the federal government to perform some of the regulatory functions that had previously been reserved to the states. The federal government continued its tradition of minimal involvement in the economy at this time. However, a growing chorus emerged from factories and farms, demanding intervention on behalf of workers and small farmers.
For those who viewed the millions of acres of Western land as a commodity to be exploited, the cattle drives, homesteads, and railroad grants were ways of accelerating commercial development. These individuals celebrated the tenacity of homesteaders and cowboys, as well as the audacious spirit of western railroad barons and town boosters. Together, these diverse elements gave shape to the most dramatic population shift in US history. From the perspective of Native Americans who already lived in the West and viewed land as a collective resource, the actions of these individuals constituted an attack on their way of life. The view that land was intrinsically valuable irrespective of “improvements,” such as homesteads and railroads, carried little influence in the minds of government and business leaders. As had been the case throughout the nation’s past, Native Americans lacked access to the same level of material resources. As a result, they waged a fighting retreat against federal troops and the millions of predominantly Anglo settlers that migrated west. Theirs was a narrative of both victimization and resistance, both a woeful tale and an inspirational story of courage and free agency against overwhelming odds.