Great West and the Agricultural Revolution


Great West and the Agricultural Revolution is chapter 26 of the APUSH curriculum. This outline provides notes, additional facts, and links to entries to provide students with a deeper understanding of concepts and topics related to the agricultural revolution that helped transform the West during the Gilded Age.

Gilded Age, Manifest Destiny, Chapter 26 APUSH

The Silenced War Whoop by Charles Schreyvogel, 1908. Image Source: American Museum of Western Art.

The Transformation of the American West During the Gilded Age

In the aftermath of the Civil War, America was still expanding westward, but settlements were limited and extended north through central Texas to the Canadian border. West of that, there were few white settlers. The Great West covered approximately 1,000 miles on each side, forming a rough square, and featured diverse terrain. It was inhabited by Native American Indians and wildlife such as buffaloes and wild horses. By 1890, the entire region had been organized into states and four territories: Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and “Indian Territory.”

1. The Clash of Cultures on the Plains

As white settlers moved into the Great Plains, Indians faced conflicts among themselves, diseases, and struggled to hunt dwindling bison herds. On the Great Plains, the Indians became skilled riders, hunters, and fighters. The federal government tried to develop treaties with tribes, but often misunderstood Indian culture, leading to conflicts. From the 1860s to the 1890s, many Indians were forced into smaller reservations, like in the Dakota Territory. As farming advanced westward, the cattle industry and agriculture were transformed into big business. Over time, small farmers tried to build a political coalition but ultimately lacked the necessary cohesion. A complex economy evolved during the Gilded Age that led to violent workers’ strikes and a nationwide debate over monetary policy. The monetary debate was settled at the dawn of the 20th Century with the Gold Standard Act of 1900.

American West, 10 Sioux Men, 1891, Photo
This 1891 photograph by John C.H. Grabill shows 10 Sioux men who met with General Nelson A. Miles during the Plains Indian Wars. Starting at the top right, the names of these men are: 1 Standing Bull, 2 Bear Who Looks Back Running, 3 Has the Big White Horse. 4 White Tail, 5 Liver Bear, 6 Little Thunder, 7 Bull Dog, 8 High Hawk, 9 Lame, 10 Eagle Pipe. The photo was taken near Deadwood, South Dakota. Image Source: Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

1.1 — Plains Indians and Westward Expansion

  • In 1860, Native Americans numbered around 360,000, primarily residing across the vast grasslands of the trans-Missouri West.
  • Unfortunately, the advancing white pioneers posed a significant threat to the Indians, leading to an inevitable clash between their established lifeways and the encroaching industrializing civilization.

1.2 — Violence Among the Plains Tribes

  • The arid West had a history of migration, conflict, and cultural change even before the arrival of white settlers.
  • Examples include the Comanches displacing the Apaches, the Cheyenne abandoning their villages due to harassment, and the Sioux moving onto the plains, preying on other tribes.
  • Some tribes, like the Cheyenne and Sioux, transformed from settled villagers into nomadic traders and buffalo hunters upon acquiring horses.

1.3 — Tension on the Great Plains

  • The arrival of white soldiers and settlers on the plains before the Civil War accelerated a destructive cycle, exacerbating conflicts among the Indian tribes.
  • White intruders unintentionally introduced diseases like cholera, typhoid, and smallpox, causing devastating consequences among the native populations.
  • White settlers also contributed to the decline of the buffalo population by hunting and grazing livestock on the prairie grasslands.
  • As buffalo herds dwindled, warfare intensified among the plains tribes, leading to fierce competition for scarce hunting grounds.

1.4 — Treaties with the Plains Tribes

  • In an attempt to pacify the Plains Indians, the federal government signed treaties with tribal representatives at Fort Laramie in 1851 and Fort Atkinson in 1853.
  • These treaties marked the early stages of the reservation system in the West, outlining territorial boundaries for each tribe and aiming to segregate Indians into northern and southern “colonies” to accommodate white settlement corridors.

AHC Notes

The meeting that led to the Treaty of Fort Laramie was organized by Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, a veteran fur trader, Mountain Man, and Frontiersman. Fitzpatrick was an advocate for the tribes and intended to maintain peace and treat them fairly. Following the meetings, Fitzpatrick and a group of chieftains traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with President Millard Fillmore.

Among the tribal representatives for the Cheyenne was Chief Black Kettle, a well-known “Peace Chief” who was an advocate of negotiating with the U.S. Government.

The Treaty of Fort Laramie attempted to set territorial boundaries for each tribe to maintain peace between them. However, some tribes continued to fight with each other.

Fort Laramie, Interior, Painting, Miller
This painting by Alfred J. Miller depicts the interior of Fort Laramie. Image Source: Walters Art Museum.

1.5 — Misunderstandings Due to Cultural Differences

  • However, the white treaty makers misunderstood the native governance and social structures. The concepts of “tribes” and “chiefs” were often products of the white imagination.
  • Native Americans, often living in scattered bands, typically recognized no authority beyond their immediate family or village elder.
  • The nomadic culture of Plains Indians did not align with the idea of living within defined territories.

1.6 — Emergence of Reservations

  • In the 1860s, the federal government intensified this policy further, forcibly relocating Indians into even smaller areas, primarily the “Great Sioux reservation” in Dakota Territory and Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).
  • Southern Plains tribes were among those compelled to move into Indian Territory as part of this policy.
  • The Indians agreed to surrender their ancestral lands only when they received assurances from Washington that they would be allowed to live undisturbed and provided with essential supplies such as food and clothing.

1.7 — Corruption of Government Officials

  • Unfortunately, many federal Indian agents were corrupt and betrayed the trust of the Native Americans. They supplied subpar items like moth-eaten blankets and spoiled beef to the vulnerable Indians.
  • Some dishonest officials managed to accumulate significant personal wealth, with one of them amassing an estimated “savings” of $50,000 after four years on a $1,500 annual salary.

1.8 — The Plains Indians Were a Formidable Opponent

  • In the decade following the Civil War, intense conflicts between Indians and the U.S. Army occurred in various parts of the West.
  • The U.S. Army faced formidable adversaries in the Plains Indians due to their exceptional horsemanship skills, which granted them remarkable mobility.

1.9 — The Buffalo Soldiers

  • Interestingly, a significant portion (one-fifth) of the U.S. Army personnel stationed on the frontier were African-American soldiers, commonly referred to as “Buffalo Soldiers” by the Indians. 
  • This nickname supposedly stemmed from the resemblance of their hair to the fur coat of bison.
Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, Fort Keough Montana
Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, at Fort Keough Montana. Image Source: Library of Congress.

AHC Notes

The name is believed to have been given to them by the Cheyenne. Although they did not refer to themselves as Buffalo Soldiers, the 10th Cavalry Regiment incorporated the image of a buffalo in their crest.

The Buffalo Soldiers played a significant role in the growth and development of the American West and participated in the Red River War (1874), the Great Sioux War (1876), the Nez Percé War (1877), the Bannock War (1878) and the White Mountain Campaign (1881). They also participated in the Pancho Villa Expedition (1917).

2. Receding Native Population

The agricultural revolution and westward expansion affected the relationship between the United States and Native American tribes. Violent engagements like the Sand Creek Massacre, Fetterman Fight, and Battle of Little Bighorn, contributed to the subjugation and forced reservation life for Plains Indians. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills triggered further conflict, culminating in Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. Efforts to force the Nez Percé and Apache onto reservations resulted in significant Native American losses and hardships. The decline of the Plains Indians was accelerated by the construction of railroads, diseases, alcohol abuse, and the decimation of the buffalo, drastically altering their way of life and leading to marginalization under harsh government oversight.

2.1 — The Sand Creek Massacre

  • The Indian wars in the West were often brutal confrontations, marked by aggression from white settlers who sometimes shot peaceful Indians on sight to prevent any potential trouble.
  • A chilling example of this brutality occurred at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864, when Colonel John M. Chivington and his militia attacked a camp and killed around 400 people, including women, children, and warriors who believed they had been granted immunity. The massacre involved horrific acts of violence and mutilation.

AHC Notes

Chivington was a Methodist minister, and was called the “Fighting Parson.” Some of his men, notably Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, refused to participate in the attack. Following the incident, Chivington was heavily criticized for his actions.

Among the people in the camp were Chief Black Kettle and his band of Cheyanne. Black Kettle survived, as did his wife, who was wounded.

The Sand Creek Massacre is covered in more detail in our entry on Chief Black Kettle.

Sand Creek Massacre, 1864, Illustration, Howling Wolf
This illustration depicts the Sand Creek Massacre. It was drawn by Howling Wolf, a Southern Cheyenne who was an eyewitness and fought against the Colorado Cavalry. Image Source: Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College.

2.2 — The Fetterman Fight

  • Such cruelty triggered a cycle of violence. In 1866, a Sioux war party ambushed Captain William J. Fetterman’s group of eighty-one soldiers and civilians in Wyoming, leaving no survivors and grotesquely mutilating the corpses.
  • The Fetterman massacre further intensified the ferocious warfare in the region.
  • The Fetterman massacre had significant consequences, leading to one of the few Indian triumphs in the plains wars.

2.3 — 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie

  • In 1868, another Treaty of Fort Laramie was signed, and the government abandoned the Bozeman Trail, guaranteeing the sprawling “Great Sioux reservation” to the Sioux tribes.

2.4 — Black Hills Gold

  • However, in 1874, a new conflict with the Plains Indians erupted when Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota, part of the Sioux reservation, and claimed to have discovered gold.
  • This discovery attracted hordes of gold-seekers into Sioux lands, leading to the Sioux taking up arms, inspired by influential figures like Sitting Bull.

2.5 — A Decisive Victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn

  • To suppress the Indians and compel them to return to the reservation, Colonel Custer’s Seventh Cavalry, which included a significant number of immigrants, embarked on a mission.
  • They engaged a formidable force of approximately 2,500 well-armed warriors camped along the Little Bighorn River in present-day Montana.
  • Unfortunately for Custer and his 264 officers and men, they were annihilated in 1876 when two supporting columns failed to assist.
  • Subsequently, the U.S. Army relentlessly pursued the Indians responsible for Custer’s humiliation through a series of battles across the northern plains.
Battle of Little Bighorn, Indian Assault, Russell
This illustration by Charles Marion Russell depicts Indian forces attacking Custer and his men at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Image Source: Library of Congress.

2.6 — Nez Perce War

  • In 1877, U.S. authorities attempted to force a band of Nez Percé Indians in northeastern Oregon onto a reservation.
  • Chief Joseph, the leader of this group of approximately seven hundred Indians, eventually surrendered after a grueling three-month, seventeen-hundred-mile journey across the Continental Divide, aiming for Canada.
  • Joseph had hoped to meet with Sitting Bull, who had sought refuge north of the border following the Battle of Little Bighorn.
  • However, the Nez Percé, betrayed into thinking they would be returned to their ancestral lands in Idaho, were instead sent to a reservation in Kansas, where 40% of them died from disease.
  • Eventually, the survivors were permitted to return to Idaho.

2.7 — Geronimo and the Apache

  • The Apache tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, known for their fierceness, proved to be the most challenging to subdue.
  • Geronimo, their leader, harbored a deep-seated hatred for the white settlers and federal troops.
  • Pursued into Mexico by federal troops, they were tracked using the heliograph, a communication device that the Apaches regarded as impressive “big medicine.”
  • After the exile of Apache women to Florida, scattered remnants of the warriors were eventually persuaded to surrender, and they later became successful farmers in Oklahoma.

2.8 — The Federal Government’s Conquest of the Great Plains

  • The unrelenting military and punitive approach of the white settlers and the U.S. government finally broke the spirit of the Native Americans.
  • The defeated Native Americans were ultimately confined to reservations, ostensibly to preserve their cultural autonomy but, in reality, to lead a grim existence under government supervision.
  • White authorities had discovered that it was more cost-effective to provide food to the Indians than to continue fighting them.
  • Nonetheless, for many decades, Native Americans were marginalized and neglected, often left to face hardship and neglect.

2.9 — The Decline of the Plains Indians

  • Several factors contributed to the “taming” of the Indians. The construction of the railroad played a pivotal role, as it facilitated the rapid influx of troops, farmers, cattlemen, sheepherders, and settlers into the West.
  • The Native Americans were also ravaged by diseases introduced by white settlers, to which they had little immunity. 
  • Alcohol abuse, introduced by the white population, further weakened their communities.
  • Above all, the near-extinction of the buffalo significantly impacted the Plains Indians’ nomadic way of life, further contributing to their decline.

3. Bellowing Herds of Bison

The agricultural revolution contributed to the decrease of buffalo on the Great Plains. The region once teemed with vast herds of buffalo, essential to Native American livelihoods for food, fuel, and materials. The presence of buffalo herds even stopped trains for hours at a time. However, the arrival of white settlers led to the mass slaughter of buffalo for hides and entertainment. By 1885, their numbers plummeted dangerously, illustrating the greed and wastefulness of westward expansion.

American West, Hunting Buffalo, Miller, Painting
This painting by Alfred Jacob Miller depicts Plains Indians hunting buffalo. Image Source: The Walters Art Museum.

3.1 — Herds of Buffalo on the Great Plains

  • When white Americans first arrived in the West, tens of millions of buffalo roamed the prairies, often described by early Spaniards as “hunchback cows.”
  • These robust, lumbering creatures were of paramount importance to Native Americans, serving as a vital resource for their way of life.
  • Buffalo flesh provided sustenance, their dried dung served as fuel (commonly known as “buffalo chips”), and their hides were used for clothing, lariats, and harnesses.

3.2 — Buffalo Slowed the Progress of the Railroads

  • By the end of the Civil War, around 15 million buffalo still grazed on the western plains.
  • The presence of these massive herds was so significant that a Kansas Pacific locomotive had to wait for eight hours for a buffalo herd to pass.
  • Much of the food for the laborers working on the railroad construction came from buffalo steaks.
  • William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, known for his sharpshooting skills, famously killed over 4,000 buffalo in just eighteen months while working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.

3.3 — Reduction of the Buffalo on the Great Plains

  • However, with the expansion of the railroad, the widespread slaughter of buffalo began in earnest.
  • The buffalo were hunted for their hides, select cuts like tongues, or purely for amusement.
  • “Sportsmen” on moving trains would lean out of the windows and indiscriminately shoot buffalo for the thrill of killing or excitement.
  • This reckless hunting led to a sharp decline in buffalo numbers, leaving fewer than a thousand alive by 1885 and pushing these once-abundant creatures perilously close to extinction.
  • The story of the buffalo’s demise serves as a stark illustration of the greed and waste that accompanied the westward conquest of the continent.
Colonel William Cody, Buffalo Bill, Photograph, Stacy
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Image Source: Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

4. The End of the Trail

In the 1880s, Helen Hunt Jackson’s work shed light on the unjust treatment of Native Americans by the US government, fostering public sympathy. Debates ensued between humanitarians advocating kindness and hard-liners supporting coercion. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 aimed at assimilating Indians, but it resulted in land loss and cultural disruption. Indian boarding schools, symbolized by the motto, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” forced Indian children to assimilate.

4.1 — Publicizing the Government’s Treatment of the Indians

  • By the 1880s, the national conscience in the United States began to grapple with concerns about the treatment of Native Americans.
  • Helen Hunt Jackson, a Massachusetts writer primarily known for children’s literature, published “A Century of Dishonor” in 1881, which exposed the government’s ruthless and deceitful dealings with the Indians. 
  • Her novel “Ramona” (1884), centered around the injustices faced by California Indians, became a bestseller, further generating sympathy for Native Americans.

4.2 — The Debate Over Indian Policy

  • Debates regarding Indian policy during this period fluctuated between two contrasting approaches. Humanitarians advocated for kindness and persuasion to encourage Indians to embrace the “white man’s road.” Conversely, hard-liners supported the existing policy of forced containment and harsh punishment.
  • Neither side exhibited significant respect for Native American culture. Christian reformers, often involved in running educational facilities on reservations, sometimes withheld food as a means to coerce Indians into abandoning their tribal religion and assimilating into white society.

4.3 — The Ghost Dance and the Battle of Wounded Knee

  • In 1884, these reformers and military officials successfully lobbied the federal government to outlaw the sacred Sun Dance.
  •  Later, when the “Ghost Dance” cult emerged among the Dakota Sioux, the army forcefully suppressed it in 1890 during the infamous Battle of Wounded Knee. 
  • This resulted in the deaths of an estimated two hundred Indian men, women, and children, as well as twenty-nine soldiers.
Ghost Dance, 1891, Sioux, Plains Indians, Illustration
The Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America by Amedee Forestier, 1891. Image Source: Wikimedia.

4.4 — Dawes Severalty Act

  • The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 emerged as a controversial offspring of the Indian policy reform movement.
  • Reflecting the forced-civilization ideology of the reformers, this act dissolved many tribal entities, eliminated tribal land ownership, and allocated 160 acres to individual Indian family heads.
  • The Indians were promised full ownership of their lands, along with citizenship, if they demonstrated good behavior as “white settlers.” The probationary period was later extended, but all Indians were eventually granted full citizenship in 1924.

4.5 — Indian Boarding Schools

  • Land on reservations not allocated to Indians under the Dawes Act was to be sold to railroads and white settlers. The proceeds were intended to fund the federal government’s efforts to educate and “civilize” the native peoples.
  • In 1879, the government had already financed the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where Native American children were separated from their tribes, taught English, and exposed to white values and customs. The school’s motto, “Kill the Indian and save the man,” reflected its mission.
  • During the 1890s, the government expanded its network of Indian boarding schools and dispatched “field matrons” to reservations to teach Native American women sewing skills and advocate for virtues like chastity and hygiene.

4.6 — Effects of the Dawes Act and the Indian New Deal

  • The Dawes Act directly targeted the organization of tribes, seeking to transform Indians into self-reliant individuals. This legislation disregarded the essential role of tribally held land in traditional Indian culture, effectively stripping them of their land.
  • By 1900, Indians had lost 50% of the 156 million acres they had owned just two decades earlier.
  • The Dawes Act’s forced assimilation doctrine remained the cornerstone of the government’s official Indian policy for nearly half a century until the Indian Reorganization Act (the “Indian New Deal”) of 1934 partially reversed the individualistic approach and attempted to restore the tribal basis of Indian life.

4.7 — Native American Indian Population

  • Despite the shortcomings of these federal policies, the Indian population began to slowly increase. By 1887, the total number had dwindled to approximately 243,000 due to factors like conflict, disease, and warfare.
  • However, the 2000 census counted more than 1.5 million Native Americans, both in urban and rural areas, reflecting a significant population recovery.

5. Mining: From Dishpan to Ore Breaker

The Pike’s Peak Gold Rush of 1858 carried a new wave of gold seekers to Colorado, as did the discovery of the Comstock Lode in Nevada in 1859. The Boomtowns that sprang up across the West were characterized by saloons, brothels, and violence. As surface gold diminished, corporations took over mining operations, transforming miners into laborers. Women found opportunities in the frontier, contributing to the region’s unique history. The mining industry played a vital role in financing the Civil War and shaping American politics, leaving behind a rich legacy in folklore and literature.

5.1 — Pike’s Peak Gold Rush

  • The conquest of Native American lands and the advent of the railroad significantly benefited the mining frontier. California continued to yield profitable gold deposits, attracting gold miners seeking “pay dirt.”
  • In 1858, a momentous discovery in Colorado ignited a rush of eager “fifty-niners” or “Pike’s Peakers” who ventured westward to mine the Rockies. However, the number of miners exceeded the abundance of minerals, and many returned with their wagons inscribed with the phrase “Pike’s Peak or Bust,” only to add “Busted, by Gosh” upon their weary return.
  • Nevertheless, numerous fortune seekers remained in the region, some extracting silver deposits and others reaping non-metallic wealth in the form of grain.

5.2 — Comstock Lode

  • In 1859, a wave of “Fifty-Niners” descended upon Nevada after the remarkable discovery of the Comstock Lode. The “Kings of the Comstock” mined an astonishing amount of gold and silver, valued at over $340 million, from 1860 to 1890.
  • To secure three electoral votes for President Lincoln, the thinly populated state of Nevada, often called the “Child of the Comstock Lode,” was hurriedly admitted to the Union in 1864.

5.3 — Boomtowns on the Frontier

  • Smaller “lucky strikes” enticed gold and silver seekers into Montana, Idaho, and various other western states.
  • Boomtowns, commonly referred to as “Helldorados,” sprang up seemingly overnight in the desert. Saloons were a frequent sight, with miners consuming adulterated liquor known as “rotgut” while being accompanied by accommodating women.
  • To maintain a semblance of order, these towns often relied on lynch law and vigilante justice, reminiscent of early California.
  • As the mining opportunities dwindled, gold-seekers would depart, leaving behind picturesque “ghost towns” like Virginia City, Nevada, set against the desert landscape. These towns began with a boom but ultimately faded into obscurity.
Deadwood, South Dakota, Boomtown, American West, Photograph
Deadwood, South Dakota was a boomtown. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

5.4 — Rise of the Mining Industry

  • After the easily accessible surface gold was exhausted, mining operations turned to the crushing of gold-bearing quartz, a costly process that usually required the financial backing of corporations pooling the wealth of stockholders.
  • This shift marked the advent of the age of big business in the mining industry, with dusty miners equipped with dishpans being replaced by impersonal corporations employing expensive machinery and trained engineers.
  • The once-independent gold-washers were transformed into ordinary day laborers.
  • Despite the changes in the mining industry, it played a crucial role in the westward expansion of the United States, attracting both population and wealth while showcasing the marvels of the Wild West.
  • Women, too, found opportunities in the mining frontier, running boardinghouses or working as prostitutes. They achieved a certain level of equality on the rugged frontier, leading to women gaining the right to vote in Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896) well before their counterparts in the East.

5.5 — Gold and Silver

  • The accumulation of precious metals from mining contributed to financing the Civil War, aiding in the construction of railroads, and exacerbating the already intense conflict between white settlers and Native Americans.
  • The influx of silver and gold enabled the U.S. Treasury to resume specie payments in 1879 and injected the silver issue into American politics.
  • “Silver Senators” representing the sparsely populated “acreage states” in the West used their disproportionate influence to champion the interests of silver miners.
  • Furthermore, the mining frontier became a rich source of American folklore and literature, vividly portrayed in the writings of authors like Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

6. Beef Bonanzas and the Long Drive

After the Civil War, Texas became home to millions of long-horned cattle. The emergence of railroads allowed the meatpacking industry to flourish. Ranchers adapted their practices, focusing on large-scale business. Cowboy culture peaked during this era, with cowhands becoming significant figures in American folklore.

6.1 — Cattle in Texas

  • After the conclusion of the Civil War, the grassy plains of Texas hosted a population of several million hardy, long-horned cattle.
  • These lean creatures, characterized by their imposing horn spreads that sometimes reached eight feet, were primarily slaughtered for their hides, as there was no economically viable method for transporting their meat to market.

6.2 — Emergence of the Meatpacking Industry

  • The challenge of marketing cattle was effectively resolved when the transcontinental railroads extended their tracks into the Western territories.
  • With the advent of railroads, cattle could now be transported intact to stockyards, and the highly industrialized meatpacking industry emerged as a significant pillar of the economy.
  • Pioneering meatpacking magnates such as the Swifts and Armours played a key role in this industry’s growth.
  • Leveraging the extensive stockyards in cities like Kansas City and Chicago, meatpackers were able to ship their fresh products to the East Coast using newly developed refrigerator cars.

6.3 — Cattle Drives

  • One of the remarkable contributors to the burgeoning slaughterhouses was the “Long Drive.” 
  • Texas cowboys, who came from diverse racial backgrounds including black, white, and Mexican, undertook cattle drives involving herds ranging from one thousand to ten thousand head.
  • These drives involved slowly guiding the bellowing cattle across unfenced and sparsely populated plains until they reached a railroad terminal. Along the way, the cattle grazed on the freely available government grass.
  • Popular destinations for these cattle drives included remote “cow towns” like Dodge City, often referred to as “the Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier,” as well as Abilene (Kansas), Ogallala (Nebraska), and Cheyenne (Wyoming).
  • The profitability of the Long Drive depended on the availability of lush grass and was favored by fortunate cattle ranchers who managed to avoid challenges like encounters with Native Americans, cattle stampedes, cattle fever, and other hazards.
  • Over the period from 1866 to 1888, more than 4 million steers were driven northward from Texas, making the steer the dominant figure in a Cattle Kingdom that was luxuriously carpeted with grass.

6.4 — Wild Bill Hickock

  • At Abilene, law and order were maintained by the legendary Marshal James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok, a renowned gunman who was said to have only used lethal force in self-defense or while on duty. 
  • Tragically, he met his end in 1876 when he was shot in the back while playing poker.
James Hickock, Wild Bill, 1873, Photograph
James “Wild Bill” Hickock, circa 1873. Image Source:

6.5 — The Decline of Cattle Drives

  • The advent of the railroad both facilitated and eventually dismantled the Long Drive, primarily due to the trains running in both directions.
  • The same railroad tracks that transported cattle from the open range to consumers also brought homesteaders and sheepherders.
  • These newcomers, often amid confrontations and gunfire, erected numerous barbed-wire fences that proved impossible for cowboys to dismantle.
  • Additionally, the harsh winter of 1886–1887, featuring blizzards with temperatures as low as 68 degrees below zero, left thousands of cattle bewildered, starving, and freezing.
  • Over-expansion and overgrazing further contributed to the decline of the cowboy era, as cowboys gradually gave way to farmers.

6.6 — Transformation of the Cattle Industry

  • To survive, cattle ranchers had to transform cattle-raising into a large-scale business and avoid the risks of overproduction.
  • Ranchers adopted practices such as fencing their ranches, stockpiling winter feed, importing high-quality breeding bulls, and focusing on producing fewer but more robust cattle.
  • Organization in the cattle industry also played a crucial role. The Wyoming Stock-Growers’ Association, particularly in the 1880s, held significant influence over the state and its legislature.

6.7 — The High Point of Cowboy Culture and the Old West

  • This period marked the peak of cowboy culture. The equipment of cowhands, including “shooting irons” (guns), ten-gallon hats, chaps, and spurs, served practical rather than ornamental purposes.
  • Cowboys, genuine gun-toting cowpunchers, who worked in rugged environments where toughness was essential, rightfully took pride in their resilience.
  • These bowlegged cowboys, with their distinctive attire and cattle-soothing songs, became enduring figures in American folklore.
  • Among their ranks, there were approximately five thousand black cowboys, who particularly relished the newfound freedom offered by the open range.
  • The miners and cattlemen contributed to the romanticized image of the American West, but it was the hardworking sodbuster who played a crucial role in concluding the frontier’s history.

7. The Farmers’ Frontier

The Homestead Act of 1862 ushered in a new era for Western farmers. Though it encouraged westward migration and family farms, it often proved inadequate for settlers in arid regions. Fraudulent practices marred its implementation, with corporations and individuals exploiting loopholes. Railroads played a crucial role in marketing crops, and the myth of the Great American Desert was dispelled as settlers adapted to the prairies through techniques like dry farming. Technology helped transform agriculture on the Great Plains, including the introduction of barbed wire and irrigation.

7.1 — The Homestead Act of 1862

  • A new era dawned for Western farmers with the enactment of the Homestead Act in 1862.
  • This groundbreaking legislation permitted a settler to claim up to 160 acres of land (equivalent to a quarter-section) by residing on it for five years, enhancing it, and paying a nominal fee of approximately $30.
  • The Homestead Act represented a significant departure from previous land policies, which had primarily involved the sale of public land for revenue.
  • Under the new law, land was to be freely distributed, encouraging rapid settlement of unoccupied territories and promoting the family farm as the “backbone of democracy.”
  • This law proved to be a lifeline for numerous farmers who lacked the means to purchase extensive land holdings.

AHC Notes

The Homestead Act of 1862 was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, during the second year of the Civil War.

7.2 — The Homestead Act Encouraged Westward Migration

  • In the four decades following its passage, approximately half a million families seized the opportunity offered by the Homestead Act to establish new homes across the expansive, open landscapes.
  • However, five times as many families obtained their land through purchases from railroads, land companies, or states.

7.3 — Negative Effects of the Homestead Act

  • The Homestead Act, though beneficial to many, often proved to be a bitter disappointment.
  • The standard allotment of 160 acres, suitable in the well-watered Mississippi basin, frequently proved inadequate in the arid Great Plains.
  • A significant proportion of homesteaders, perhaps as many as two out of three, were ultimately compelled to abandon their one-sided struggle against drought.
  • It was humorously remarked that Uncle Sam had wagered 160 acres against ten dollars that settlers could not endure living on their homesteads for a full five years.

7.4 — Land Fraud

  • The Homestead Act and similar laws inadvertently gave rise to rampant fraud.
  • It is estimated that fraudulent land-grabbing promoters seized control of roughly ten times more of the public domain than genuine farmers.
  • Unscrupulous corporations employed various tactics, including using “dummy” homesteaders, often their own employees or individuals bribed with cash or minor incentives, to acquire valuable properties rich in timber, minerals, or oil.
  • Some settlers falsely claimed to have “improved” their land by erecting dwellings, which, in reality, were miniature structures measuring just twelve by fourteen inches.

7.5 — Railroads Aid Westward Expansion

  • The expansion of the agricultural West was significantly facilitated by the railways, particularly in terms of marketing crops profitably.
  • Certain railroad companies enticed both American citizens and European immigrants to purchase the inexpensive lands previously granted by the government.
  • For example, the Northern Pacific Railroad at one point deployed nearly a thousand paid agents across Europe, distributing enticing pamphlets in multiple languages.

7.6 — Disproving the Myth of the Great American Desert

  • The myth of the Great American Desert was dispelled, expanding access to the agricultural West.
  • The vast prairies were largely devoid of trees, and the resilient sod had been compacted by the hooves of countless buffalo.
  • Early explorers and trappers had incorrectly assumed that the soil was barren due to its arid nature and lack of towering forests.
  • However, when the hardy prairie sod was broken by robust iron plows pulled by teams of oxen, such as the renowned “plow that broke the plains,” the soil revealed its remarkable fertility.
  • “Sodbusters,” as these settlers were known, flocked to the prairies.
  • Lacking trees for construction and fuel, they fashioned homes from the very sod they excavated from the earth and used corncobs for heating.

AHC Notes

The phrase “Great American Desert” as a name for the Great Plains was coined by Stephen H. Long, a soldier, explorer, and surveyor who is most well known for leading five expeditions into the Louisiana Purchase Territory.

7.7 — Difficulty Growing Crops

  • In the 1870s, settlers were enticed by higher wheat prices caused by crop failures occurring elsewhere in the world.
  • These settlers ventured even farther west, onto the less fertile, marginal lands situated beyond the 100th meridian.
  • The 100th meridian, an imaginary line running north to south from the Dakotas to west Texas, marked the division between two distinct climatic regions: a well-watered area to the east and a semi-arid region to the west.

7.8 — John Wesley Powell, Drought, and Population Decline

  • John Wesley Powell, a geologist renowned for his exploration of the Grand Canyon and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, cautioned in 1874 that agriculture beyond the 100th meridian was unfeasible without extensive irrigation.
  • Despite Powell’s warnings, farmers disregarded his advice and plowed the arid lands of western Kansas, eastern Colorado, and Montana.
  • These farmers faced financial ruin as a severe six-year drought during the 1880s exacerbated the already parched conditions in the region.
  • Western Kansas experienced a significant population decline, losing half of its residents between 1888 and 1892.
  • One despairing homesteader famously declared, “There is no God west of Salina.”

7.9 — Dry Farming Emerges

  • Following the devastating drought, a new agricultural technique known as “dry farming” gained prominence on the plains.
  • “Dry farming” involved frequent shallow cultivation and was ostensibly adapted to the arid western environment.
  • Over time, however, this method led to the creation of finely pulverized surface soil, which would later contribute to the infamous “Dust Bowl” phenomenon that emerged several decades later.

7.10 — Drought-Resistant Grains and Barbed Wire

  • Certain adaptations to the challenging Western environment proved successful. Resilient wheat strains, imported from Russia, proved cold and drought-resistant, flourishing into expansive golden fields.
  • Wise farmers switched from cultivating corn to drought-resistant grains like sorghum.
  • The invention of barbed wire by Joseph F. Glidden in 1874 provided a solution to the problem of constructing fences on treeless prairies.

7.11 — Irrigation Projects

  • Over time, federally funded irrigation projects, conducted on an immense scale that even exceeded John Wesley Powell’s visions, transformed the Great American Desert into a flourishing landscape.
  • These projects involved the construction of massive dams, which harnessed the power of rivers like the Missouri and Columbia.
  • The once wild Colorado River, known for carving deep canyons, was controlled to the extent that its mouth at the Gulf of California ran dry.
  • In total, over 45 million acres of land were irrigated across seventeen western states.
  • The impact of hydraulic engineers in shaping the modern West surpassed that of trappers, miners, cavalrymen, and cowboys combined. Engineers were known to boast about their ability to “push rivers around.”

8. The Far West Comes of Age

During the late 19th century, the nation expanded westward, adding new states. Colorado, born from the Pike’s Peak gold rush, joined in 1876. In 1889-1890, six new states, including North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming, were admitted. Utah became a state in 1896 and Oklahoma followed in 1907.

8.1 — The Union Expands Westward

  • The period from the 1870s to the 1890s witnessed a remarkable surge in population across the Great West.
  • Numerous new western states proudly joined the Union during this time, each contributing to the nation’s growth.
  • Colorado, stemming from the Pike’s Peak gold rush, was admitted as “the Centennial State” in 1876.
  • In 1889-1890, a Republican-controlled Congress, seeking additional Republican electoral and congressional votes, admitted six new states in a single move: North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming.
  • The Mormon Church formally prohibited polygamy in 1890, but Utah was not granted statehood until 1896.
  • Only Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona remained as contiguous mainland territories awaiting statehood.

AHC Notes

Before the railroads, Americans moved west along a series of “Overland Trails,” including:

8.2 — Oklahoma

  • In a final burst of activity, the federal government opened up vast expanses of fertile plains that had previously been inhabited by Native Americans in the Oklahoma Territory, often referred to as “the Beautiful Land.”
  • Initially, numerous impatient and well-armed “sooners” had entered Oklahoma Territory illegally. They were repeatedly expelled by federal troops, sometimes resorting to shooting the intruders’ horses.
  • On April 22, 1889, the legal opening of Oklahoma was meticulously planned, with approximately 50,000 “boomers” eagerly waiting at the boundary line.
  • At noon, a bugle call signaled the start, and a multitude of “eighty-niners” rushed in, riding lathered horses or careening in vehicles.
  • Overnight, what had been a desolate spot on the prairie transformed into the bustling tent city of Guthrie, inhabited by more than 10,000 people.
  • By the end of the year, Oklahoma’s population had surged to 60,000, leading Congress to establish it as a territory, and in 1907, it achieved statehood, becoming known as the “Sooner State.”

9. The Fading Frontier

The year 1890 marked a significant milestone in American history with the superintendent of the census declaring the closure of the frontier. Efforts to preserve the disappearing natural beauty of the region led to the establishment of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia. The frontier had provided a safety valve for many seeking a fresh start, and its closure brought new challenges. Urbanization and westward migration transformed cities like Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco into urban hubs.

Head of Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park, Moran
This 1876 illustration by Thomas Moran depicts the Head of Yellowstone River in Yellowstone National Park. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

9.1 — The Closing of the Frontier

  • The year 1890 marked a pivotal moment in American history, as it was the year when the superintendent of the census made an important announcement.
  • For the first time in the nation’s history, there was no longer a discernible frontier line in the United States.
  • All the previously unsettled areas had been fragmented by isolated pockets of settlement.
  • This “closing” of the frontier inspired one of the most influential essays in American history, written by Frederick Jackson Turner, titled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” published in 1893.

9.2 — National Parks

  • As the 19th century drew to a close, Americans who had been accustomed to the idea of endless free land were increasingly disturbed to discover that this land was disappearing or already gone.
  • In 1827, the secretary of war had predicted that it would take five hundred years to fill the West.
  • However, as the nation came to terms with the finite nature of its land resources, efforts were made to preserve the disappearing frontier.
  • The government began setting aside land for the establishment of national parks, starting with Yellowstone in 1872, followed by Yosemite and Sequoia in 1890.

9.3 — The Frontier and the American Spirit

  • The frontier represented more than just a physical location; it also embodied a particular state of mind and symbolized opportunities for many.
  • Its disappearance marked the end of a romantic era in the nation’s internal development and gave rise to new economic and psychological challenges.
  • Americans have a reputation for being highly mobile, with a long history of not staying in one place for extended periods.
  • Unlike European peasants, American farmers have often been mobile, and the land they worked on was frequently sold for profit as settlements expanded.

9.4 — Opportunity Provided by the Frontier

  • For many, the frontier provided a “safety valve” and the opportunity to start over, if necessary.
  • The theory posits that during times of economic hardship, unemployed individuals in urban areas would move west, become farmers, and achieve prosperity.
  • In reality, relatively few urban residents, especially those in densely populated eastern cities, relocated to the frontier during periods of economic depression.
  • Many lacked the necessary farming skills, and only a few could afford the expenses associated with relocating west, purchasing livestock, and acquiring expensive machinery.

9.5 — Affects of the Frontier on Urban Life

  • The safety-valve theory, while not entirely without merit, has some validity.
  • Free land in the West attracted immigrant farmers who might otherwise have stayed in crowded eastern cities, potentially exacerbating job market issues and slum overcrowding.
  • The possibility of westward migration may have also encouraged urban employers to maintain higher wage rates to dissuade workers from leaving.

9.6 — Urbanization Moves West

  • However, by the late 19th century, the true safety valve was found in western cities like Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco, where individuals who failed as farmers, miners, or in eastern cities sought their fortunes.
  • After 1880, the region from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast became the most urbanized area in America, based on the percentage of people living in cities.

9.7 — Westward Expansion is a Key to Understanding American History

  • Understanding U.S. history requires acknowledging the significance of westward expansion.
  • As Frederick Jackson Turner noted, American history has been heavily influenced by the colonization of the Great West.
  • Settling and taming the trans-Mississippi West in the late 19th century was the concluding chapter in a long history of colonizing various American “wests” since Columbus’s time, ranging from the West Indies to different regions of the continent.

9.8 — The Collision Between Europeans and Native American Peoples

  • However, the trans-Mississippi West represented a distinct chapter in this colonization saga and retains its uniqueness.
  • It was where Native American peoples made their last and most determined stand against colonization, and where many Native Americans still reside today.
  • The region saw a direct collision between “Anglo” culture and Hispanic culture, with the Southwest remaining highly Hispanicized.
  • This region also served as the gateway to Asia across the Pacific, and many Asian Americans still live there.
  • The harsh environment, marked by aridity and vast open spaces, presented unique challenges and continues to shape social, political, and imaginative aspects of life in the West.
  • The federal government played a prominent role in economic and social development here, with vast landholdings, subsidies to railroads, and significant irrigation projects.

9.9 — Mythology of the American West

  • The westward-moving pioneers and the landscapes they encountered hold a mythic place in the American collective consciousness.
  • Writers like Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Francis Parkman, as well as artists like George Catlin, Frederic Remington, and Albert Bierstadt, have immortalized them.
  • These pioneers planted the seeds of civilization in the vast western wilderness, and the lives they dreamed of have become our reality, while the lives they lived remain the stuff of dreams.
Mark Twain, 1905, Portrait, LOC
Mark Twain. Image Source: Library of Congress.

10. The Farm Becomes a Factory

The evolution of American farming saw a transition from self-sufficiency to specialization in cash crops like wheat and corn. Large-scale farmers in grain-producing regions became specialists and businesspeople, investing in expensive machinery like steam engines and twine binders for wheat harvesting. Technological advances mechanized agriculture post-war, displacing marginal farmers but boosting production, making the US a global leader in food production. Bonanza farms in the Midwest foreshadowed future agribusinesses, while California’s agriculture, characterized by large-scale plantations and estates, thrived with the introduction of railroad refrigerator cars, supplying urban markets with fruit and vegetables cultivated by low-paid laborers.

10.1 — Farming Transitions to Cash Crops

  • The role and circumstances of American farmers were rapidly evolving.
  • In the past, farmers were often self-sufficient, producing their own food, clothing, and engaging in local barter.
  • However, high prices encouraged farmers to shift their focus towards cultivating single “cash” crops like wheat or corn.
  • The profits from these cash crops were then used to purchase food and manufactured goods from general stores or through mail-order catalogs.
  • Aaron Montgomery Ward’s Chicago firm issued its first catalog, initially a single sheet, in 1872.

10.2 — Emergence of Large Scale Farming

  • Large-scale farmers, particularly those in the vast grain-producing regions of the Mississippi Valley, took on dual roles as specialists and businesspeople.
  • They became integral components of the broader industrial machine, with deep connections to banking, railroads, and manufacturing.
  • To plant and harvest their crops, they had to invest in expensive machinery, such as powerful steam engines capable of simultaneously plowing, seeding, and harrowing.
  • The 1870s saw an increase in wheat harvesting speed due to the invention of the twine binder, and the 1880s introduced the “combine,” a combined reaper-thresher, drawn by a team of twenty to forty horses, capable of both reaping and bagging the grain.
  • The adoption of such costly equipment necessitated effective management, yet some farmers, often lacking business skills, tended to attribute their losses to external factors like banks, railroads, or global market fluctuations rather than their own capabilities.

10.3 — Technological Advances in Agriculture

  • The postwar years witnessed a remarkable mechanization of agriculture, comparable in significance to the industrial mechanization.
  • This modernization of agriculture led to the displacement of many marginal farmers from the land, contributing to the growth of the emerging industrial workforce.
  • The rural population gradually declined, but the remaining farmers achieved remarkable levels of production, positioning the United States as a global leader in food production, serving as the world’s primary source of grains and meats.

10.4 — Bonanza Farms

  • Farms were transforming into outdoor factories, particularly in regions like the Minnesota-North Dakota area, where bonanza wheat farms exceeded fifteen thousand acres in size and featured advanced communication systems such as telephones.
  • These bonanza farms were precursors to the massive agribusinesses that would dominate the agricultural landscape in the following century.

10.5 — Agriculture in California

  • California’s agriculture had a unique trajectory from its early days, especially in the highly productive and irrigated Central Valley.
  • Farms in California, often established on extensive Spanish-Mexican land grants and large railroad-owned properties, were more than three times larger than the national average from the outset.
  • In 1871, reformer Henry George described California as a place characterized not by farms but by plantations and estates.
  • The introduction of the railroad refrigerator car in the 1880s revolutionized the transportation of California’s fruit and vegetable crops.
  • These crops, cultivated on expansive plots by low-paid migrant Mexican and Chinese laborers, were sold at significant profits in the prosperous urban markets of the Eastern United States.

11. Deflation Dooms the Debtor

The shift towards single-crop farming left farmers vulnerable to market fluctuations. While high prices initially promised prosperity, sharp declines in the 1880s led to financial ruin. Fluctuating currency compounded the problem, with devalued currency and low prices burdening farmers. Despite their labor, farmers struggled year after year, operating at a loss and relying on reserves. Mortgages and high interest rates made matters worse. Tenant farming rose, and by 1880, a quarter of American farms were operated by tenants.

11.1 — Dangers of Single-Crop Farming

  • Once farmers became reliant on a single-crop economy, specializing in either wheat or corn, they found themselves in a precarious situation similar to that of southern cotton growers.
  • When crop prices remained high, everything was prosperous, but a sharp decline in the 1880s brought financial ruin to the farming regions.
  • Grain farmers lost control over their destinies, as they were engaged in one of the most fiercely competitive industries where the price of their product was determined in a global market influenced by the world’s overall production.
  • If foreign wheat-producing countries like Argentina and Russia experienced bountiful harvests, the price of American grain plummeted, causing immense hardship for American farmers, as witnessed in the 1880s and 1890s.

11.2 — The Effects of Fluctuating Currency on Farmers

  • Low prices and a devalued currency were the primary concerns of disheartened farmers from all regions of the United States.
  • For example, if a family had borrowed $1,000 in 1855 when wheat was valued at approximately one dollar per bushel, they expected to repay the loan equivalent to one thousand bushels, along with interest, when the mortgage came due.
  • However, if they allowed their debt to persist until 1890 when wheat had fallen to around fifty cents per bushel, they would have to repay the amount of two thousand bushels for the initial $1,000 borrowed, plus interest.
  • This unexpected financial burden was perceived as unjust by the farmers, even though their uncompromising creditors often labeled them as untrustworthy and dishonest individuals.

11.3 — The Financial Pressure Caused by Deflation

  • The financial pressure caused by deflation partly stemmed from the stagnant money supply, resulting in an insufficient number of dollars in circulation.
  • In 1870, there were only $19.42 in currency in circulation for each person, and by 1890, this figure had increased only marginally to $22.67.
  • During these two decades, business and industrial activity had grown significantly, leading to a heightened competition for the limited available currency.

11.4 — An Endless Cycle of Hardship for Farmers

  • The forgotten farmers found themselves trapped in an endless cycle of hardship.
  • Despite their ceaseless labor, they operated year after year at a loss and relied on their reserves to make ends meet.
  • Their farm machinery, while increasing their grain production, simultaneously drove down prices, exacerbating their debt woes.

11.5 — Farmers and Mortgages

  • Mortgages were rapidly engulfing farms, with Nebraska alone reporting over 100,000 mortgaged farms by 1890.
  • The frequent auctions held by sheriffs signaled the unfortunate reality that many American farmers were losing their land, despite living in a nation with abundant land resources.
  • Farmers faced exorbitant interest rates on mortgages, ranging from 8 to 40%, primarily imposed by agents of eastern loan companies.
  • The hardworking sons and daughters of the soil, who believed they deserved recognition for developing the country, expressed their despair and frustration towards the predatory practices of loan sharks and the influential Wall Street establishment.

11.6 — Rise of Tenant Farming in the West

  • Farm tenancy, rather than farm ownership, was becoming increasingly prevalent, resembling the rapid spread of stinkweed.
  • This trend was particularly evident in the sharecropping South, where cotton prices had also experienced a disheartening decline.
  • By 1880, one-fourth of all American farms were operated by tenants, signifying a transformation toward a new industrial feudalism, where farmers were on the verge of descending into a status reminiscent of Old World serfdom.

12. Unhappy Farmers

Insects, drought, and the weather affected farmers, driving many from their homes, and leaving deserted towns in their wake. Taxation further burdened farmers, with overvalued land assessments and high local taxes, while protective tariffs favored manufacturers at the expense of farmers. Farmers struggled to organize politically, and were often caught in between the interests of large organizations and businesses.

12.1 — Plagues of Insects

  • Mother Nature herself turned against agriculture as her powerful forces conspired to create challenges for farmers.
  • Massive swarms of grasshoppers, each as wide as a mile, periodically devastated prairie farms, leaving behind a bleak landscape devoid of crops and resources.
  • The destructive cotton-boll weevil was causing widespread damage in the South by the early 1890s.

12.2 — The Need for Fertilizer

  • The fertility of the once-rich soil was declining, aggravated by the destructive effects of floods and erosion, which had already stripped away the topsoil from numerous formerly fertile southern acres.
  • The farmers faced an urgent need for expensive fertilizers to restore the soil’s productivity.

12.3 — Drought in 1887

  • A series of prolonged droughts scorched the trans-Mississippi West, commencing in the summer of 1887.
  • Entire towns were deserted as impoverished farmers sought refuge from their weather-beaten homes and sun-baked sod houses.
  • Popular laments of the time included phrases like “Going home to the wife’s folks” and “In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted.”

12.4 — Taxes and Tariffs Hurt Farmers

  • Adding to their hardships, farmers were subjected to excessive taxation at the hands of various levels of government—local, state, and national.
  • Their land was often overvalued for tax assessment purposes, and they were burdened with high local taxes, while wealthy individuals in the East could conceal their assets, such as stocks and bonds, in secure safe-deposit boxes.
  • The protective tariffs implemented during these years benefited manufacturers by pouring profits into their pockets.
  • In contrast, farmers had no choice but to sell their products at low prices in a fiercely competitive global market while purchasing expensive manufactured goods in a protected domestic market.

12.5 — The Influence of the Agriculture Industry on Farmers

  • Farmers were further exploited by corporations and processors.
  • They found themselves at the mercy of trusts like the harvester trust, the barbed-wire trust, and the fertilizer trust, which could manipulate output and raise prices to exorbitant levels.
  • Middlemen took a substantial percentage from the selling prices of agricultural goods purchased by farmers.
  • Operators inflated storage rates at grain warehouses and elevators, squeezing even more from the already beleaguered farming community.

12.6 — The Influence of Railroads on Farmers

  • The powerful influence of the railroad industry also extended its tentacles to grip the grain growers tightly.
  • Freight rates imposed by the railroads could be so exorbitant that farmers sometimes found it more economically viable to use their corn as fuel rather than ship it.
  • When farmers dared to voice their grievances, the unyielding railroad operators might allow their grain to spoil in damp conditions or refuse to provide them with the necessary transportation when required.

12.7 — Farmers Struggle to Organize Politically

  • In 1890, farmers still constituted nearly half of the total population, but they were tragically disorganized.
  • Manufacturers and railroad magnates were adept at forming alliances to advance their interests, and industrial workers were increasingly uniting for collective action.
  • However, farmers possessed a deep-seated independence and individualism, staunchly resisting the idea of consolidation or regimentation.
  • They lacked a charismatic figure like Carnegie or Gompers who could advocate for economic integration and concentration effectively.
  • It wasn’t until nearly half a century later, during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal era, that they were compelled to organize successfully to limit production.
  • Nevertheless, they did succeed in orchestrating a monumental political uprising, despite their difficulties in organizing on economic fronts.

13. The Farmers Take Their Stand

The Greenback Movement contributed to the establishment of the Grange and the Greenback Labor Party but failed to make a significant impact on national politics.

13.1 — The Greenback Movement

  • The discontent among agrarians had erupted earlier, specifically in the Greenback movement, shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War.
  • In 1868, as prices slumped, a multitude of farmers embarked on a quest for relief from the twin burdens of low prices and heavy indebtedness.
  • Their remedy of choice was to advocate for the inflation of the currency through the introduction of paper money.

13.2 — Establishment of the Grange

  • The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry, commonly known as the Grange, was founded in 1867, and its driving force was Oliver H. Kelley, an astute and energetic farmer from Minnesota.
  • Initially, Kelley’s primary objective was to improve the quality of life for isolated farmers through social, educational, and fraternal activities.
  • Farmers, who often suffered from loneliness due to the vast distances between their farmhouses, found solace in the Grange’s events such as picnics, concerts, and lectures.
  • Interestingly, Kelley introduced secret rituals and a hierarchical structure, complete with passwords, which appealed to farmers, including a range from Laborer to Husbandman for men and Maid to Matron for women.
  • The Grange rapidly gained popularity, boasting 800,000 members by 1875, with the majority situated in the Midwest and South.
  • These rural communities frequently gathered in red schoolhouses, engaging in spirited conversations around potbellied stoves.

13.3 — Objectives of the Grange

  • Over time, the Grangers expanded their objectives beyond individual self-improvement to addressing the collective challenges faced by farmers.
  • In a concerted effort to break free from the grasp of monopolistic trusts, they established consumer-owned stores and producer-owned grain elevators and warehouses.
  • Their most ambitious venture involved attempting to manufacture harvesting machinery, but due to mismanagement and other factors, this endeavor ended in financial ruin.

13.4 — The Grange and Politics

  • The Grangers, facing numerous challenges, also ventured into the realm of politics, achieving their most significant successes in the grain-growing regions of the upper Mississippi Valley, particularly in states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.
  • In these states, they pursued the regulation of railway rates and the fees imposed by railroads, as well as operators of warehouses and grain elevators, through state legislation.
  • Some state courts, most notably in Illinois, were inclined to uphold the concept of public control over private businesses for the broader benefit of society.
  • However, several of the so-called Granger Laws were poorly drafted, and they encountered fierce opposition in high courts, primarily from well-paid lawyers representing the business interests.
  • Following judicial setbacks, including a significant blow from the Supreme Court in the renowned Wabash decision of 1886 (see page 536), the influence of the Grangers gradually waned.
  • Nevertheless, their organization persisted as a vocal advocate for the interests of farmers, simultaneously enhancing rural life through social activities.

13.5 — Greenback Labor Party

  • The grievances of farmers also found expression in the Greenback Labor Party, which combined the earlier Greenbackers’ call for inflation with a broader agenda aimed at improving labor conditions.
  • In 1878, which marked the zenith of the movement, the Greenback Laborites garnered more than one million votes and secured the election of fourteen members to Congress.
  • In the 1880 presidential election, the Greenbackers nominated General James B. Weaver, a former Granger who enjoyed popularity among Civil War veterans and possessed a remarkable presence and oratory skills.
  • General Weaver addressed approximately half a million citizens in around a hundred speeches during his campaign, but he only managed to capture 3% of the total popular vote.

14. Prelude to Populism

The Farmers’ Alliance emerged in Texas in the late 1870s. However, it neglected landless tenant farmers and excluded Black farmers, leading to the formation of the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance. From these groups, the Populist Party emerged. The Populists supported progressive measures, including nationalization of railways, a graduated income tax, Bimetallism, and “free silver.” In the election of 1892, the Populists made significant gains, winning congressional seats and garnering over a million votes for their presidential candidate, James B. Weaver. While racial divisions hindered their progress in the South, their numbers swelled in the West.

Free Silver Movement, Definition, Facts, APUSH, Political Cartoon
This illustration depicts the leaders of the Free Silver Movement moving downhill toward disaster. Image Source: Library of Congress.

14.1 — The Farmers’ Alliance

  • A prominent expression of rural discontent took the form of the Farmers’ Alliance, established in Texas in the late 1870s, with its primary objectives being to foster social connections among farmers and, more crucially, to break the stranglehold exerted by railroads and manufacturers through cooperative purchasing and selling.
  • Local chapters of the Alliance proliferated across the South and the Great Plains throughout the 1880s, culminating in a membership exceeding one million by 1890.
  • Regrettably, the Alliance weakened itself by neglecting the predicament of landless tenant farmers, sharecroppers, and agricultural laborers.
  • Even more detrimental was the exclusion of Black farmers, who constituted nearly half of the South’s agricultural population.

14.2 — Colored Farmers’ National Alliance

  • Consequently, a separate organization called the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance emerged in the 1880s to attract Black farmers, amassing more than 250,000 members by 1890.
  • The entrenched history of racial division in the South created challenges in uniting white and Black farmers within the same organization.

14.3 — Establishment of the People’s Party

  • Emerging from the Farmers’ Alliances was a new political party during the early 1890s—the People’s Party, better known as the Populists.
  • These disillusioned farmers directed their ire toward Wall Street and the “money trust” and advocated for various progressive measures.
  • Their demands included the nationalization of railways, telephones, and telegraphs; the implementation of a graduated income tax; the creation of a new federal “subtreasury” scheme to provide farmers with loans for crops stored in government-owned warehouses, where they could be held until market prices improved.

14.4 — Free Silver

  • The Populists also championed the free and unlimited coinage of silver, aligning with the debtors’ persistent call for inflation during the Gilded Age.
  • A number of charismatic figures emerged to promote the Populist cause, including the author William Hope Harvey, Ignatius Donnelly of Minnesota, and Mary Elizabeth Lease, known as the “Kansas Pythoness.”
  • Mary Lease famously declared that Kansans should raise “less corn and more hell,” reflecting the fervor of the Populist movement.

AHC Notes

See Free Silver and the Free Silver Movement for more details.

14.5 — Coin’s Financial School

  • The issue of free silver held significant appeal for many Populists, bolstered by the widespread circulation of the popular pamphlet “Coin’s Financial School” in 1894.
  • Authored by William Hope Harvey and featuring clever woodcut illustrations, the pamphlet depicted the gold ogre beheading a beautiful silver maiden, using fiction to support the case for free silver.
  • Other influential Populist figures included Ignatius Donnelly, who was elected to Congress three times, and Mary Elizabeth Lease, known for her fiery speeches.
  • The movement garnered both support and criticism, with some Easterners perceiving complaints as rural America’s primary product.

14.6 — Populists and the Election of 1892

  • The Populists, despite their eccentricities, were not to be dismissed lightly. They conducted a fervent and serious campaign aimed at alleviating the numerous hardships faced by farmers.
  • The smiles on the faces of both Republicans and Democrats began to fade as countless thousands of Populists started singing “Good-bye, My Party, Good-bye.”
  • In the 1892 election, the Populists caused a stir by winning several congressional seats and garnering over 1 million votes for their presidential candidate, James B. Weaver.
  • While racial divisions continued to impede the Populists in the South, their numbers were swelling in the West.
  • The question remained whether the People’s Party could expand beyond its regional strongholds in rural America, forge alliances with urban workers, and mount a successful challenge to the established centers of power in the Northeast.

15. Coxey’s Army and the Pullman Strike

The Panic of 1893 plunged the United States into a severe economic depression. Displaced industrial workers, grappling with unemployment and hardship, started organizing and protesting, offering the Populists a potential source of political support. The march of Coxey’s Army to Washington and the Pullman strike were two major events that took place, forcing government officials to take action. The heavy-handed reaction of the Federal Government fueled discontent among farmers, laborers, and Populists toward the President and Congress.

15.1 — Panic of 1893

  • The Panic of 1893 and the subsequent severe economic depression provided the Populists with more evidence to support their claim that both farmers and laborers were suffering under an oppressive economic and political system.
  • Displaced industrial workers, facing unemployment and hardship, began to organize and protest their situation, presenting the Populists with a potential source of political support.

15.2 — Jacob S. Coxey

  • One prominent marcher was “General” Jacob S. Coxey, a wealthy quarry owner from Ohio, who embarked on a journey to Washington in 1894 with a small group of supporters and a horde of reporters. Coxey advocated for a government-led public works program to alleviate unemployment, funded by issuing $500 million in legal tender notes from the Treasury.
  • Coxey himself traveled in a carriage with his wife and young son, aptly named Legal Tender Coxey, while his “army” followed behind, singing.
  • The arrival of the “Commonweal Army” of Coxeyites in the nation’s capital took on a somewhat comical tone when “General” Coxey and his “lieutenants” were arrested for walking on the grass.

15.3 — The Pullman Strike of 1894

  • Labor protests in various parts of the country often turned violent, with Chicago being a notable hotspot.
  • The Pullman strike of 1894 was a significant and dramatic event. Eugene V. Debs, a charismatic labor leader, had helped organize the American Railway Union, which boasted around 150,000 members.
  • The Pullman Palace Car Company, located near Chicago, was hit hard by the economic depression and responded by cutting workers’ wages by about one-third while maintaining rent levels for company-owned houses.
  • In response to these actions, workers went on strike, and in some areas, they even overturned Pullman cars, severely disrupting railway traffic from Chicago to the Pacific coast.
  • The American Federation of Labor (AF of L) chose not to support the Pullman strikers, which both enhanced its reputation for “respectability” and fractured the labor movement.

15.4 — Politicians Respond to the Pullman Strike

  • The turmoil in Chicago was significant, although it had not yet escalated completely out of control. Governor John Peter Altgeld of Illinois, known for his sympathy toward the disadvantaged, believed the situation could be managed.
  • In contrast, U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, an archconservative and former railroad attorney, advocated sending federal troops to quell the strike. His legal argument was that the strikers were obstructing the transit of U.S. mail.
  • President Grover Cleveland supported Olney’s position, declaring that even if it required the entire army and navy to deliver a postal card in Chicago, it would be done.
  • Federal troops, armed with fixed bayonets, were dispatched to crush the Pullman strike, a development welcomed by conservatives.
Grover Cleveland, Portrait
President Grover Cleveland. Image Source: Wikipedia.

15.5 — Eugene V. Debs

  • Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for contempt of court after defying a federal court injunction to end the strike. 
  • Ironically, his time in prison exposed him to radical literature, ultimately leading to his later leadership in the American socialist movement.

15.6 — Government by Injunction

  • The use of “government by injunction” in the Pullman strike elicited bitter protests from organized labor. 
  • It marked the first prominent instance of Washington using such a legal tool to break a strike, with the added controversy that defiant workers held in contempt could be imprisoned without a jury trial.
  • There were increasing signs that employers were employing court actions to dismantle labor unions. 
  • This trend deeply concerned non-labor segments of the population, including the Populists and other debtors, who saw it as evidence of an unholy alliance between business interests and the judiciary.

16. Golden McKinley and Silver Bryan

A pivotal issue during the 1896 Presidential Election was monetary policy, particularly the debate between maintaining the gold standard and adopting silver monetization to boost the economy. William McKinley emerged as the leading contender for the Republican nomination, and the party endorsed the gold standard and protective tariffs. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party faced internal divisions and waning popularity under President Grover Cleveland. William Jennings Bryan emerged and delivered a passionate speech in support of Free Silver. The Populist Party also supported Bryan.

16.1 — The Debate Over Monetary Policy

  • The simmering discontent of farmers enduring prolonged hardships and laborers suffering through the depression added significant weight to the 1896 election.
  • Conservatives of various backgrounds were deeply concerned about an impending upheaval in the political landscape.
  • Farmers facing economic challenges and workers dissatisfied with their circumstances were desperately searching for a political solution.
  • Monetary policy, particularly the choice between maintaining the gold standard and adopting silver monetization to inflate the currency, emerged as a pivotal issue that would shape the outcome of the election.
  • The debate over gold and silver is sometimes referred to as the “Battle of the Standards.”

16.2 — William McKinley

  • The leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1896 was William McKinley, a former congressman from Ohio.
  • McKinley had a commendable Civil War record, achieving the rank of major. He hailed from the crucial state of Ohio and had a long and honorable congressional career where he had garnered many friends due to his kind and conciliatory demeanor.
William McKinley, 1897, Portrait, Benziger
William McKinley. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

16.3 — Marcus Alonzo Hanna

  • McKinley’s candidacy was heavily influenced by fellow Ohioan Marcus Alonzo Hanna, a wealthy individual with interests in the iron industry who aspired to be a kingmaker in the world of politics.
  • Hanna expressed great affection for McKinley and subscribed to the Hamiltonian ideology, which emphasized government support for business interests.
  • He firmly believed that government assistance to business would lead to prosperity that would eventually benefit the laborer, an idea that was criticized by opponents who likened it to feeding horses to feed sparrows.

16.4 — The Republican Platform of 1896

  • Despite his relative inexperience in politics, Marcus Alonzo Hanna exhibited remarkable skill in organizing a pre-convention campaign for McKinley.
  • Hanna generously funded this campaign from his own resources, ensuring its effectiveness.
  • At the Republican convention in St. Louis in June 1896, Hanna’s financial support and strategic maneuvering played a crucial role in securing McKinley’s nomination on the first ballot.
  • The Republican platform adopted a shrewd approach to the monetary issue, leaning toward hard-money policies and endorsing the gold standard, even though McKinley’s past voting record had been favorable to silver.
  • The platform also criticized the economic hardships of the time, portrayed the Democrats as incapable, and praised protective tariffs.

16.5 — Unpopularity of President Grover Cleveland

  • The Democratic Party was marked by internal divisions and lacked a clear leader as Cleveland’s popularity waned.
  • The economic depression had significantly eroded Cleveland’s political influence, earning him the unflattering nickname “the Stuffed Prophet.”
  • Labor and debtor groups held Cleveland responsible for his intervention in the Pullman strike, the backroom bond deal with Morgan, and his unwavering support for hard-money policies.
  • Cleveland’s stance on monetary matters, which aligned more closely with Republicans, further distanced him from the Democratic Party.

16.6 — Democratic Convention of 1896

  • The Democratic convention convened in Chicago in July 1896, marked by internal strife and a strong pro-silver faction eager for victory.
  • The delegates, with a majority favoring silver, openly criticized Cleveland, and in a surprising move, they rejected their own administration’s endorsement by a vote of 564 to 357.
  • Despite their numerical strength and enthusiasm, the Democrats faced a leadership vacuum at the convention.

16.7 — William Jennings Bryan

  • A transformative figure emerged at the Democratic convention in the form of William Jennings Bryan from Nebraska.
  • Bryan, at just thirty-six years old and often referred to as “the Boy Orator of the Platte,” captured the attention of the delegates and the public.
  • He possessed a commanding presence, characterized by a prominent jaw and dark hair, and exuded qualities of honesty, sincerity, and vitality.

16.8 — Bryan Delivers His “Cross of Gold Speech”

  • The stage was set for Bryan’s remarkable oratorical performance at the convention, held in a venue perfectly suited for such an effort.
  • As Bryan addressed an audience of fifteen thousand people, a hushed anticipation fell over the delegates.
  • Bryan’s powerful voice resonated throughout the vast hall as he passionately advocated for the silver cause.
  • He reached the pinnacle of eloquence, declaring, “We will answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them: ‘You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.'”
  • Bryan’s speech, known as the “Cross of Gold” speech, created a sensation at the Democratic convention.

16.9 — Bryan Nominated for President by the Democrats

  • The delegates were swept up in a tumultuous scene, and the following day, on the fifth ballot, they nominated Bryan as the Democratic presidential candidate.
  • The Democratic platform boldly called for inflation through the unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 ounces of silver to 1 of gold, even though the market ratio stood at about 32 to 1, effectively halving the value of silver in a dollar.

16.9 — Gold Bug Democrats Oppose Bryan

  • Democratic “Gold Bugs” found themselves unable to accept Bryan’s silver stance, leading them to defect from the Democratic Party.
  • A conservative New York senator, when asked if he still considered himself a Democrat, humorously replied, “Yes, I am a Democrat still — very still.”
  • The Democratic minority, which included former President Cleveland, accused the Populist-silverites of hijacking the Democratic Party’s name and platform.
  • In response, they put forward their own ticket, and many among them, including Cleveland, secretly hoped for a victory for the Republican candidate McKinley.

16.10 — Populists Support Bryan

  • The Populists found themselves in a challenging situation because the Democrats had adopted their central platform, advocating the “16 to 1” silver ratio.
  • Fearing a potential victory for McKinley, most Populists decided to endorse “fusion” with the Democrats and support Bryan as the presidential candidate, even if it meant sacrificing their party’s distinct identity.
  • They effectively became the “Demo-Pop” party, although a small group of original Populists refused to back Bryan and remained loyal to their own principles.

17. Class Conflict: Plowholders Versus Bondholders

The 1896 Presidential Election saw unprecedented voter turnout, resulting in a decisive victory for William McKinley. Despite Bryan’s strong support in the South and West, he failed to appeal to urban laborers in the East, who feared the potential economic consequences of Bryan’s economic platform. McKinley’s victory signaled a shift in presidential politics towards urban centers and financial conservatism, and marked the beginning of a 16 years of a Republican President in the White House. This era, known as the fourth party system, introduced significant changes in American politics, including declining voter participation and shifting political issues.

17.1 — Bryan’s Campaign for President

  • Mark Hanna initially believed that he could center the campaign on the tariff issue.
  • However, Bryan, an energetic force, shifted the focus to free silver when he embarked on a vigorous campaign advocating for it.
  • Bryan’s campaign was relentless, involving extensive travel and numerous speeches, capturing the imagination of many.
  • Free silver took on a quasi-religious dimension, with fervent supporters viewing Bryan as their messiah leading them out of the debt wilderness.
  • Bryan’s campaign slogans included “We’ll All Have Our Pockets Lined with Silver” and “No Crown of Thorns, No Cross of Gold.”

17.2 — The Republican Campaign Against Bryan

  • Bryan’s threat to convert eastern conservatives’ holdings into fifty-cent dollars caused panic among them.
  • “Gold Bugs” responded with derogatory terms ranging from “fanatic” and “madman” to “traitor” and “murderer.”
  • The Republicans used slogans such as “In God We Trust, with Bryan We Bust” and “McKinley and the Full Dinner Pail” to appeal to voters.
  • “Dollar Mark” Hanna, now the chairman of the Republican National Committee, successfully raised a substantial campaign fund from trusts and wealthy individuals.
  • Republicans amassed a vast campaign chest, amounting to approximately $16 million at various levels, compared to the Democrats’ significantly smaller budget of around $1 million.
  • The Bryan supporters accused Hanna of “buying” the election and claimed that McKinley rode into the White House on a wave of money and mud.

17.3 — McKinley’s Campaign Surged

  • Bryan’s dynamic campaign gradually lost momentum as time passed.
  • Fear played a significant role in aiding Hanna’s cause while hampering Bryan’s campaign.
  • Republican business figures entered contracts with manufacturers contingent on McKinley’s election, essentially tying their economic interests to his victory.
  • Some factory owners, possibly using intimidation tactics, paid their workers and instructed them not to come to work on Wednesday if Bryan were to win.
  • There were reports of employers threatening to pay their workers in fifty-cent pieces instead of dollars if Bryan were victorious.
  • These tactics were part of the “Stop Bryan, Save America” campaign, which employed various strategies to undermine Bryan’s candidacy.

17.4 — McKinley Wins the Election of 1896

  • Hanna’s campaign strategies proved effective, culminating in McKinley’s decisive victory on election day.
  • McKinley secured 271 electoral votes to Bryan’s 176, and he won the popular vote with 7,102,246 votes compared to Bryan’s 6,492,559.
  • The election witnessed an unprecedented voter turnout driven by fear and excitement.
  • McKinley performed strongly in the densely populated East, carrying every county in New England and the upper Mississippi Valley.
  • Bryan’s support was concentrated in the debt-ridden South and the trans-Mississippi West, regions with larger acreage but fewer people.

17.5 — The Effects of the Ecnomony on Workers

  • The election of 1896 was a pivotal political turning point in American history, comparable in significance to Lincoln’s victories in 1860 and 1864.
  • Despite Bryan’s strong support in the South and West, the election results highlighted his inability to appeal to the debt-free farmer and, notably, the urban labor force in the East.
  • Many Eastern wage earners voted to protect their jobs and ensure they had full dinner pails, as they felt threatened by Bryan’s positions on free silver, free trade, and factory conditions.
  • Factory workers, dependent on fixed wages, had no incentive to support inflation, a central component of Bryan’s platform.

17.6 — The Campaigns Failed to Unite the Nation

  • The Bryan-McKinley election marked the beginning of a new era in American politics.
  • Initially, it may have appeared to be a classic battle between the underprivileged masses and the privileged elite, the indebted rural regions against the wealthier coastal areas, and the agrarian class against industrialists.
  • However, despite Bryan’s evangelical appeal to various groups discontented with the existing social order, these factions did not unite sufficiently to form a political majority.

17.7 — Presidential Politics Favor Cities

  • Instead, the election resulted in a clear victory for big business, urban centers, middle-class values, and financial conservatism.
  • Bryan’s defeat signified the end of serious attempts to win the White House primarily through agrarian votes.
  • The future of presidential politics shifted away from the dwindling rural population and toward the growing cities, which were experiencing an influx of newly arriving immigrants.

17.8 — The Fourth Party System

  • The resounding Republican victory in the 1896 election also marked the beginning of a Republican stronghold on the White House, lasting for sixteen consecutive years.
  • This extended period of Republican political dominance introduced a new character to the American political system.
  • It was accompanied by trends such as declining voter participation in elections, the weakening of party organizations, and the shifting focus of political issues.
  • Notably, issues like the money question and civil-service reform began to fade into the background, making way for concerns related to industrial regulation and labor welfare.
  • This era in American politics has been labeled the “fourth party system” by scholars.

17.9 — Party Systems in American Policial History

  • The American political landscape has seen several distinct party systems throughout its history.
  • The First Party System emerged during the 1790s and early 1800s, characterized by debates about the legitimacy of political parties and featuring Federalist-Republican conflicts.
  • The Second Party System took shape after 1828 with the rise of mass-based politics in the Jacksonian era, with Democrats and Whigs as key players.
  • The Third Party System began around 1860, marked by a delicate balance between Republicans and Democrats and consistently high electoral participation rates until McKinley’s election.
  • The Fourth Party System, as described earlier, began with McKinley’s victory and brought about significant changes in American politics.
  • The Fifth Party System emerged during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, initiating a prolonged period of Democratic dominance.
  • Each of these party systems lasted approximately three and a half decades, a cyclic pattern that has intrigued political scientists and historians.
  • Debate continues regarding whether the nation entered a Sixth Party system with Richard Nixon’s election in 1968.

18. Republican Stand-Pattism Enthroned

William McKinley’s Presidency favored high tariffs and saw the return of prosperity to the nation. Rising farm prices and increased industrial activity were key indicators of economic recovery. As prosperity regained momentum, the money issue that had dominated politics since the Civil War gradually lost its prominence. The Gold Standard Act of 1900, passed despite opposition from silver advocates, ensured that paper currency could be freely redeemed in gold.

18.1 — McKinley and Tariffs

  • In 1897, William McKinley assumed the presidency as a cautious and conservative leader.
  • Despite his considerable abilities, he tended to align with majority opinion and avoided radical reform.
  • Under his administration, business interests were given significant freedom, and trusts were allowed to grow without significant constraints.
  • The tariff issue, which had taken a backseat to the silver question in the 1896 election, resurfaced as a pressing concern.
  • The Wilson-Gorman tariff law was not generating sufficient revenue to cover the annual Treasury deficits, prompting the push for a new tariff bill.
  • The Dingley Tariff Bill was quickly passed in the House and later in the Senate, resulting in higher tariff rates, with the average reaching 46.%.

18.2 — The Return of Prosperity

  • Prosperity returned in earnest during the first year of McKinley’s presidency, marking the end of the 1893 depression.
  • Rising farm prices and increased industrial activity were prominent signs of economic recovery.
  • Republican politicians claimed credit for the return of prosperity, even though it was largely attributed to economic factors.

18.3 — The Gold Standard Act of 1900

  • As prosperity regained its footing, the money issue that had dominated politics since the Civil War gradually lost its prominence.
  • The Gold Standard Act of 1900, passed despite strong opposition from silver advocates, ensured that paper currency could be freely redeemed in gold.
  • Nature and scientific advancements led to the discovery of new gold deposits in various regions, increasing the supply of gold in global markets.
  • The development of the cheap cyanide process for extracting gold from low-grade ore further contributed to the gold supply.
  • Moderate inflation addressed the currency needs of the rapidly expanding nation, and the “silver heresy” lost its significance, leaving proponents of the Populist movement in a weakened state.

The Great West and Agricultural Revolution APUSH Resources

This outline is based on the 16th edition of The American Pageant and connects to Unit 5: 1844–1877 and Unit 6: 1865–1898 of the AP US History curriculum. We are working on guides for each of these APUSH Units. When they are completed, the links will be added here.

APUSH Chapter Notes and Outlines

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Great West and the Agricultural Revolution
  • Date 1865–1896
  • Author
  • Keywords Great West, Agricultural Revolution, Plains Indians, Sand Creek Massacre, Fetterman Fight, Nez Perce War, Dawes Severalty Act, Indian Boarding Schools, Pike's Peak Gold Rush, Comstock Lode, Wild Bill Hickock, Homestead Act, National Parks, Bonanza Farms, Tenant Farming, Greenback Movement, Grange, Farmers' Alliance, Panic of 1893, Jacob Coxey, Pullman Strike, Free Silver Movement, Gold Standard
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 15, 2024