The Closing of the Frontier

The Mining Frontier

The Ranching Frontier

The Farming Frontier

In 1890 the Bureau of the Census announced that the frontier was closed, that is, there was no longer any discernible demarcation between frontier and settlement.

Up to and including 1880 the country had a frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly be said to be a frontier line. In the discussion of its extent, its westward movement etc., it can not, therefore, any longer have a place in the census reports.

Westward expansion was now complete. Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled. Realization that the Golden West was no longer open had a considerable psychological effect on native Americans and immigrants alike. In 1893 historian Frederick Jackson Turner, then a professor at Wisconsin and subsequently at Harvard, wrote his brief but seminal article, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," which was published by the American Historical Association in 1894. He argued that the development of the New World had run a very different course from that of the Old because of "The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward. " The frontier acted as a safety valve for the East and helped to make American society more fluid than European. Outposts stimulated the spirit of individualism and inventiveness, putting a special premium on democracy and versatility. American society, moreover, owed to the frontier its special characteristics of earthiness and practicality.

The final settlement of the West was one of the most dramatic stories of the Gilded Age. According to the map little changed. The continental boundaries of the United States were almost the same in 1901 as they had been in 1865. Yet in 1865 there were very few settlements between the Mississippi Valley in the Midwest and California and Oregon on the Pacific-apart from a few pioneers around Santa Fe in New Mexico and the Mormons in Utah. The great prairies between Kansas and Nebraska in the East and the Rocky Mountains in the West had previously been considered unsuitable for settlement. They were sometimes called the Great American Desert on account of their inhospitable terrain and climate. These central plains had the most extreme temperature range in the United States from Bismarck, North Dakota, where the mean temperature fell to minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, to Phoenix, Arizona, where the temperature was 117 degrees in summer.

Nevertheless, this last frontier of nineteenth-century America was invaded by three successive waves of pioneers-miners, ranchers, and farmers. In three decades they settled more land in America than their eastern predecessors had done in 250 years. Between 1607 and 1870 409 million acres of land had been settled and 189 million acres were cultivated, but between 1870 and 1900, 430 million acres were settled and 225 million acres were cultivated. The foundation of this final settlement was new technology, which Improved communications and the laying of transcontinental railroads

The settlers were both native Americans from the states of the Mississippi Valley and the Old Northwest and immigrants from Europe. Native Americans moved West because they felt that the pressure of increasing population in the East was narrowing their opportunities. The immigrants, as we have seen, were attracted by advertising campaigns run by states and steamship companies. They were dispersed throughout the West by railroads and labor bureaus. Indeed, it was the revolutions in transportation and communication of railroad and telegraph that made possible the superhuman endeavor of taming a wilderness.

It was not agriculture but mining that first provided the incentive for settling the mountains and desert and ranching that led to the opening of the Great Plains. In 1859 gold was discovered in Pike's Peak, Colorado, and silver in Nevada. The gold rush of 1859 soon died away, for the precious lodes in Colorado were particularly heavy and required special, expensive machinery for the extraction of ore. However, silver was a different proposition, and the rush to exploit the Comstock Lode reached its climax in the Big Bonanza of 1873. Between 1859 and 1880, $292 million of silver bullion was mined. Silver and copper were also discovered in Montana at Butte in 1875 and 1876. The mines of Colorado yielded gold and silver at Silverton (1873), Leadville (1873), Ouray (1875), and Cripple Creek (1878). Idaho yielded gold in the Caribou Mountains in 1870; gold at Bonanza in 1875; and silver, lead, and zinc at Couer d'Alene from 1882. Nevada yielded gold, copper, and lead in Eureka from 1872. In Arizona mines were opened at Prescott (1862), Lordsburg (1870), Globe (1873), and Tombstone (1879) for the extraction of gold, silver, and copper. Most dramatic of all, prospectors discovered gold in the Black Hills of (South) Dakota in 1874. In 1876 the Homestake mine was opened. It became the largest gold mine in the Western Hemisphere.

As to miners' methods, prospectors used placer mining, collecting pans (or cradles) of sand and gravel from the bed of streams and shaking (or rocking) them in running water. The heavier gold nuggets and dust sank to the bottom of the pan while the lighter sand was washed away. Lode mining was more complex and involved the use of stamp mills to pulverize veins of quartz containing gold. Gold was extracted after mercury had been poured into the pulverized material and formed an amalgam with it. Lode mining on federal lands necessitated the use of heavy machinery and more permanent occupation than placer mining. Accordingly, in the Mineral Land Act of 1866 (amended 1870 and 1872), Congress granted miners property rights for $5 an acre along lodes no more than 1500 feet by 6oo feet. It also allowed miners to claim a patent for placer mining of deep gravel deposits, old river beds that had dried out and risen, at $2.50 an acre for no more than 40 acres and no less than 10.

Since the prospectors were usually migrants from the Pacific Coast, the mining frontier moved from west to east. This transient society was almost exclusively made up of men working in remote areas without their families. They wanted to make a lucky strike and then enjoy their new wealth back home. The usual local community was a rowdy camp that sometimes became a ghost town, deserted after a local mine had proved barren. Fortunes were made and lost by individuals who struck lucky and squandered their money. Sandy Bowers was one who discovered silver and used the earnings of his mine to build a splendid house costing $407,000 and to take his wife on a tour of the world. On their return to Nevada they threw open their home and entertained parasites in a most lavish way. When their mine petered out, they had nothing to fall back on. Sandy returned to prospecting, and his wife took in washing to sustain them.

Mark Twain, who spent a couple of years in Virginia City, provided the most memorable account of the silver boom in Roughing It (1872). The rude manners of the frontier are illustrated in an anecdote about Jim Baker, a western scout. He was not used to city spittoons and simply spat out his tobacco on the carpet of a hotel lobby in Denver. Each time the porter moved the cuspidor closer to his range, he spat in a different direction. Finally the porter placed the spittoon right under his nose. Jim looked up and said, "You know, if you keep movin' that thing around I'm li'ble to spit in it."

At the end of the Civil War the ranching frontier was based in Texas. Its climactic conditions were ideal for raising cattle and its land policy suited the owners. Texas had never ceded its public domain to the federal government and now it allowed ranchers to acquire land for grazing at 50 cents an acre. This generous policy encouraged mammoth ranches such as the XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle which contained over 3 million acres. The staple breed of cattle was the Texas longhorn which was so numerous and extensive as to threaten crops growing in Arkansas and Missouri as it roamed or was being driven north to market. In 1867 Joseph McCoy devised a route whereby cattle would be driven north from southern Texas to Abilene, Kansas, along Chisholm's trail to the west of any settlement. The journey was known as the long drive. From Abilene the Kansas and Pacific Railroad transported cattle to the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Between 1866 and 1885 a total of 5.71 million cattle went north by this route.

In 1868 Philip D. Armour established a meatpacking business in Chicago, and he was followed by Gustavus Swift and Nelson Morris. Meatpacking made use of the assembly-line process long before it was adopted in industry. Each worker had a particular task on the line. In the Armour plants each part of the animal was processed. Besides meat the hogs and cattle provided glue, sausage casings, fertilizer, and pepsin. Armour once claimed, "I like to turn bristle, blood, bones and the insides and outsides of pigs and bullocks into revenue."

After the Civil War it seemed that ranching was one route to fortune. Calves bought for $5 or $10 each in Texas and raised on the northern plains could fetch above $25 when they were sold. The grass they ate cost nothing, and the expense of the drive was estimated at less than a cent per head per mile. But the long drive was not really cost-effective. Many cattle lost weight or died. Natives obstructed drives and sometimes charged levies for passage through the Indian Territory. Ranchers discovered that the more northern plains were rich in grass and that their cattle could, after all, withstand the hazards of the winter there. Thus, by the early 1870s, the open range had replaced the long drive in Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming. By the end of the decade it had spread to Montana and Dakota. This, too, was a passing phase in livestock farming. Herds multiplied quickly and ranges became overcrowded. The winters of 1885 and 1886 were especially severe. In January 1887 the West from the Dakotas to Texas experienced its worst blizzard to date with a temperature of minus 68 degrees. Ranchers could not round up their cattle, and thousands died.

During the heyday of the long drive and open range cowboys were kings of the road. They were itinerant workers whose striking clothes were really a protective uniform for their work. The wide-brimmed hat shielded head and eyes from the glare and heat of the sun and served as a bucket at waterholes. The bandanna around his lower face masked the cowboy's mouth and nose from the dust raised by cattle on the move. Chaps (chaparajos) or leather leggings around his denim trousers guarded him from the stings and thorns of brush and cactus, and high-heeled boots gave him a firm grip in stirrup and on sand. His most precious possession was not a gun but a saddle. It was often said that a cowboy rode a "forty-dollar saddle on a ten-dollar horse."

Because there were no boundaries and cattle wandered freely, the open range led to various problems of ownership that were resolved by branding cattle. Herds were rounded up in the spring and fall and divided among their owners. The calves, which followed their mothers, were then branded in special pens. Roundups were the most celebrated and arduous of the cowboys' duties, with work lasting twelve or fifteen hours a day in grueling heat. The great freeze of 1887 ended the open range. Ranchers returned to more traditional methods of raising livestock, restricting their herds and fencing them in.

The third wave of pioneers, the farmers, survived numerous catastrophes and were, as a group, perhaps the most permanent settlers. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed prospective farmers, on payment of a small registration fee, to settle on a plot of 160 acres (a quarter of a section). They were granted full title to the land after five years of continuous farming. However, whereas a farm of 160 acres in the Ohio Valley would be large enough to sustain a family, it would be insufficient for ranching or farming in the trans-Mississippi West. Nevertheless, at the end of the Civil War pioneers began moving from Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri along rivers and streams with rich soil and timber and, after 1870, ever westward across the plains on land opened up by railroad routes and by the rout of the Native Americans.

New inventions and new processes made it possible to farm where no crop had ever been raised before. Although the soft winter wheat farmed in the East died on the Great Plains, scientists discovered that two varieties of hard wheat could be grown there: spring wheat from northern Europe was sown in Dakota and Minnesota; Turkey Red wheat from the Crimea was grown in Kansas and Nebraska. However, the traditional American method of milling soft wheat would not do for hard wheat. In 1870 E. W. Croix, a Frenchman, invented a machine to recover the rich glutinous part of the wheat kernel, or middlings. This "gradual reduction" process was perfected by Washburn Mills of Minneapolis in 1871. It improved the quality of flour and made it possible to use spring wheat more widely than before. As a result, wheat production in areas where the crop could be killed by harsh weather, such as Montana and (North) Dakota, expanded greatly and led to a bonanza of farm settlement along the Red River Valley. Between 1880 and 1887 wheat production in the Dakotas increased from 3 million to 62 million bushels.

A new method called dry farming made use of water below the soil in arid territory. By plowing a deep furrow that loosened the upper soil, the farmer brought water to the surface by capillary attraction. After it had rained he harrowed the field to create a mulch that slowed down the process of evaporation. In 1878 John F. Appleby invented the "twine binder. " Historian T. N. Carver explains, "It was the twine binder more than any other machine or implement that enabled the country to increase its production of grain, especially wheat."

The results of the new expanded agriculture were truly phenomenal. American production of wheat increased from 211 Million bushels in 1867 to 599 million bushels in 1900. The Department of Labor calculated that whereas it took 35 hours of labor in 1840 to produce 15 bushels of wheat, it took only 15 hours in 1900. American wheat exports rose from 6 million bushels in 1867 to 102 million bushels in 1900.

A simple invention, barbed wire, patented by Joseph F. Glidden of Illinois in 1874, in the absence of timber to make fences, made it possible to define ownership of land in the West. In 1876, in it cooperation with an eastern wire manufacturing firm, he produced and sold 3 million pounds of barbed wire. In 1880 he sold 80 million pounds. The invention made the development of the ranching and farming frontiers somewhat smoother than it might otherwise have been because it greatly reduced disputes over territory.

The expansion of agriculture was recognized by Congress as being as important a development as the Industrial Revolution. All kinds of legislation were passed to assist western settlement. The Timber Culture Act of 1873 granted 160 acres to any settler who undertook to plant a quarter of his land with trees within ten years. The Desert Land Act of 1877 awarded 640 acres of land at 25 cents an acre to any settler who attempted to irrigate some of it within three years. Once the land was irrigated, the settler could gain full ownership on payment of $1 an acre. The Timber and Stone Act of 1878 allowed a settler to buy 160 acres at $2.50 an acre for the sake of its timber and stone provided the land contained no valuable minerals.

The federal government also promoted agricultural research. By the two Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890, Congress granted land to the states for the establishment of agricultural and mechanical colleges and then began to provide them with regular financial assistance. In the Hatch Act of 1887 it provided federal funds for a national system of agricultural research stations. In 1889 the Department of Agriculture was established and given cabinet status.

No matter how great was the assistance pioneers received from government and industry, their lot was arduous in the extreme. Their homes were primitive. Settlers first made a dugout by excavating a hole in the side of a hill and building an outer wall with blocks of turf and sod. Later they would erect a sod house from strips of thick turf around a wooden frame. These crude homes were warm in winter, cool in summer, and safe from fire. But they were open to flood and damp from floor and roof. For fuel settlers used wood and hay and buffalo dung. Their water came from local streams, handmade wells, and rainwater stored in barrels. It was often the toughness and resourcefulness of their womenfolk that saw the settlers through. It was the wife who had to provide everything the family needed in the primitive home, preserving enough fresh meat in summer to last all winter and boiling down fat to make soap.

Pioneer farmers started under difficult circumstances, and adverse weather often turned their only security into a liability. Editor William Allen White writes of climactic conditions in Kansas in the 1880s:

The pioneers had seen it stop raining for months at a time. They had heard the fury of the winter blast as it came whining across the short burned grass and cut the flesh from their children huddling in the corner. These movers have strained their eyes, watching through the long summer days for the rain that never came... They have tossed through hot nights, wild with worry, and have arisen only to find their worst nightmares grazing in reality on the brown stubble in front of their sunwarped doors.

Plagues of grasshoppers sometimes came in clouds, obscuring the sun and devouring the vegetation until there was nothing left of the farm but the mortgage. In 1874 the worst invasion ever devastated the plains from Dakota to Texas. Prairie fires in summer and fall also devastated farms and property. Autumn storms swept across the prairies, their raging winds whipping everything outdoors. Winter blizzards penetrated houses, leaving furniture and food covered by icicles and snow. The heads of cattle grew so great with ice they had to be lowered to the ground. To protect their precious livestock pioneers opened their family homes to horses and calves, poultry and pigs, for weeks on end.

The 1880s were years of dramatic westward expansion supported by eastern investors who reckoned farms in the Golden West were the safest form of investment. The panic of 1873 and the subsequent depression had discredited banks and industry. Nevertheless, an expanding population needed to be fed. Between 1875 and 1877 investors launched scores of mortgage companies to capitalize on the rising price of farmland. Farmers and prospective farmers responded with alacrity to the temptations of mortgages at 6 or 8 percent interest. The historian of westward expansion, Ray Allen Billington, explains, "Few farmers could resist the pressure. Newcomers to the West mortgaged their homesteads to buy farm machinery, mortgaged the farm machinery to provide money until the first crop was harvested, mortgaged the first crop to carry the family through the winter." In Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Dakota there was at least one mortgage for every family. In Kansas alone mortgage debts tripled between 1880 and 1887. The price of land did rise just as investors had predicted. In Kansas land that cost $15 an acre in the early 1880s was sold for $270 an acre at the end of the decade. In one year alone town lots in Omaha, Wichita, and elsewhere rose from $200 to $2,000. In 1887 forty-two sections of prairie outside Wichita were sold for a total of $35 million.

What was the sum total of these three waves of settlement? The mining districts were accepted as territories shortly after the first strikes, but apart from Nevada in 1864 and Colorado in 1876, none was admitted as a state until 1889. In 1880 both Kansas, which had been admitted as a state in 1861, and Nebraska, which had been admitted in 1867, were settled as far west as the 98th meridian. Kansas claimed a population of almost 996,000; Nebraska, more than 452,000.

Owing to unusually clement weather, bumper crops, and railroad penetration by the Illinois Central to Sioux City, Dakota Territory (organized in 1861) enjoyed a boom of settlement from 1868 to 1873. Each additional line to touch the territory-the Chicago and Northwestern at Watertown, the Northern Pacific at Bismarck, and the St. Paul at Wahpeton, attracted and distributed settlers in ever greater numbers. Thus, in 1870 Dakota had a population of about 12,000. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to a gold rush of 10,000 prospectors to Dakota in 1875. But the second boom began in earnest with the success of Oliver Dalrymple, a wheat farmer from Minnesota, hired by the Northern Pacific Railroad to prove that Dakota was fertile. Using new methods Dalrymple cultivated eighteen sections of land in the Red River Valley, harvesting 25 bushels of wheat per acre at a cost of only $9.50 and making a profit of more than 100 percent at market prices. Roused by Dalrymple's successful experiment, eastern investors from 1878 began to put their capital in bonanza farms along the Red River Valley. This led to the second Dakota boom of 1878 to 1885, which was furthered by the advance of two railroads across the territory-the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul, and the Chicago and Northwestern.

In 1879 James J. Hill organized the Great Northern Railroad, which laid track to Devil's Lake in 1883 and from there to Seattle in 1893. Because the Great Northern had no land rant, Hill ran it on a strictly commercial basis, which encouraged genuine settlement rather than land speculation. Homestead grants rose from 213,000 acres in 1877 (before the second boom) to 1.37 million in 1878 arid then successively to a peak of 11.08 million acres in 1884. By 1885 all Dakota east of the Missouri was settled. Between 1880 and 1890 its total population rose four times, to 540,000.

Mountain regions developed more slowly. In 1867 speculators made towns of Cheyenne and Laramie in Wyoming, confident that they would become stations of the projected Union Pacific. In 1868 Wyoming became a territory. However, farmers were deterred from settling there because of its mountainous and arid terrain, arid when it finally became a state in 1890, Wyoming had only a sparse population of 62,255. Farmers settled in Montana to feed and service the prospectors in Butte and other mining towns, and their path of settlement followed the tracks of the Northern Pacific. In 1890 Montana had a population 0f 143,000.

The rapid settlement of Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming prompted these new territories to seek admission to the Union as states. Their demands were resisted by Democrats in Congress because all three were Republican. But the election of 1888 gave the Republicans a slender majority in Congress, which they decided to use to their future electoral advantage by passing all omnibus bill in 1889 that admitted North Dakota and South Dakota as separate states on November 2, Montana on November 8, arid Washington on November 11. Not to be overdone, Idaho arid Wyoming devised constitutions and demanded statehood in 1890, which they were awarded, respectively, on July 3 and July 10. In Utah, which became a territory in 1850, the population was 211,000 in 1890. The Mormons formally abandoned polygamy in 1890 and devised a constitution arid the territory was received into the Union as a state in 1896.

The admission of these new, sparsely populated states affected the composition of the Senate, to which every state-no matter how tiny its area or how small its population, sent two representatives-and, to a lesser extent, the House. Some argued that the Golden West was thus afforded a disproportionate influence in the federal government, which emphasized agrarian interests at the expense of the urban masses.

Source: Sean Cashman, America in the Gilded Age: Third Edition (New York: NYU Press, 1993), 282-93.