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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Admission of New States · CHAPTER XVIII·»

The Influence of the Far West on National Life

The Last of the Frontier.—When Horace Greeley made his trip west in 1859 he thus recorded the progress of civilization in his journal:

Copyright by Panama-California Exposition
The Canadian Building at the Panama-California International Exposition, San Diego, 1915

Within thirty years travelers were riding across that country in Pullman cars and enjoying at the hotels all the comforts of a standardized civilization. The “wild west” was gone, and with it that frontier of pioneers and settlers who had long given such a bent and tone to American life and had “poured in upon the floor of Congress” such a long line of “backwoods politicians,” as they were scornfully styled.

Free Land and Eastern Labor.—It was not only the picturesque features of the frontier that were gone. Of far more consequence was the disappearance of free lands with all that meant for American labor. For more than a hundred years, any man of even moderate means had been able to secure a homestead of his own and an independent livelihood. For a hundred years America had been able to supply farms to as many immigrants as cared to till the soil. Every new pair of strong arms meant more farms and more wealth. Workmen in Eastern factories, mines, or mills who did not like their hours, wages, or conditions of labor, could readily find an outlet to the land. Now all that was over. By about 1890 most of the desirable land available under the Homestead act had disappeared. American industrial workers confronted a new situation.

Grain Supplants King Cotton.—In the meantime a revolution was taking place in agriculture. Until 1860 the chief staples sold by America were cotton and tobacco. With the advance of the frontier, corn and wheat supplanted them both in agrarian economy. The West became the granary of the East and of Western Europe. The scoop shovel once used to handle grain was superseded by the towering elevator, loading and unloading thousands of bushels every hour. The refrigerator car and ship made the packing industry as stable as the production of cotton or corn, and gave an immense impetus to cattle raising and sheep farming. So the meat of the West took its place on the English dinner table by the side of bread baked from Dakotan wheat.

Aid in American Economic Independence.—The effects of this economic movement were manifold and striking. Billions of dollars’ worth of American grain, dairy produce, and meat were poured into European markets where they paid off debts due money lenders and acquired capital to develop American resources. Thus they accelerated the progress of American financiers toward national independence. The country, which had timidly turned to the Old World for capital in Hamilton’s day and had borrowed at high rates of interest in London in Lincoln’s day, moved swiftly toward the time when it would be among the world’s first bankers and money lenders itself. Every grain of wheat and corn pulled the balance down on the American side of the scale.

Eastern Agriculture Affected.—In the East as well as abroad the opening of the western granary produced momentous results. The agricultural economy of that part of the country was changed in many respects. Whole sections of the poorest land went almost out of cultivation, the abandoned farms of the New England hills bearing solemn witness to the competing power of western wheat fields. Sheep and cattle raising, as well as wheat and corn production, suffered at least a relative decline. Thousands of farmers cultivating land of the lower grade were forced to go West or were driven to the margin of subsistence. Even the herds that supplied Eastern cities with milk were fed upon grain brought halfway across the continent.

The Expansion of the American Market.—Upon industry as well as agriculture, the opening of vast food-producing regions told in a thousand ways. The demand for farm machinery, clothing, boots, shoes, and other manufactures gave to American industries such a market as even Hamilton had never foreseen. Moreover it helped to expand far into the Mississippi Valley the industrial area once confined to the Northern seaboard states and to transform the region of the Great Lakes into an industrial empire. Herein lies the explanation of the growth of mid-western cities after 1865. Chicago, with its thirty-five railways, tapped every locality of the West and South. To the railways were added the water routes of the Lakes, thus creating a strategic center for industries. Long foresight carried the McCormick reaper works to Chicago before 1860. From Troy, New York, went a large stove plant. That was followed by a shoe factory from Massachusetts. The packing industry rose as a matter of course at a point so advantageous for cattle raisers and shippers and so well connected with Eastern markets.

To the opening of the Far West also the Lake region was indebted for a large part of that water-borne traffic which made it “the Mediterranean basin of North America.” The produce of the West and the manufactures of the East poured through it in an endless stream. The swift growth of shipbuilding on the Great Lakes helped to compensate for the decline of the American marine on the high seas. In response to this stimulus Detroit could boast that her shipwrights were able to turn out a ten thousand ton Leviathan for ore or grain about “as quickly as carpenters could put up an eight-room house.” Thus in relation to the Far West the old Northwest territory—the wilderness of Jefferson’s time—had taken the position formerly occupied by New England alone. It was supplying capital and manufactures for a vast agricultural empire West and South.

America on the Pacific.—It has been said that the Mediterranean Sea was the center of ancient civilization; that modern civilization has developed on the shores of the Atlantic; and that the future belongs to the Pacific. At any rate, the sweep of the United States to the shores of the Pacific quickly exercised a powerful influence on world affairs and it undoubtedly has a still greater significance for the future.

Very early regular traffic sprang up between the Pacific ports and the Hawaiian Islands, China, and Japan. Two years before the adjustment of the Oregon controversy with England, namely in 1844, the United States had established official and trading relations with China. Ten years later, four years after the admission of California to the union, the barred door of Japan was forced open by Commodore Perry. The commerce which had long before developed between the Pacific ports and Hawaii, China, and Japan now flourished under official care. In 1865 a ship from Honolulu carried sugar, molasses, and fruits from Hawaii to the Oregon port of Astoria. The next year a vessel from Hongkong brought rice, mats, and tea from China. An era of lucrative trade was opened. The annexation of Hawaii in 1898, the addition of the Philippines at the same time, and the participation of American troops in the suppression of the Boxer rebellion in Peking in 1900, were but signs and symbols of American power on the Pacific.

Commodore Perry's Men Making Presents to the Japanese
From an old print
Commodore Perry’s Men Making Presents to the Japanese

Conservation and the Land Problem.—The disappearance of the frontier also brought new and serious problems to the governments of the states and the nation. The people of the whole United States suddenly were forced to realize that there was a limit to the rich, new land to exploit and to the forests and minerals awaiting the ax and the pick. Then arose in America the questions which had long perplexed the countries of the Old World—the scientific use of the soils and conservation of natural resources. Hitherto the government had followed the easy path of giving away arable land and selling forest and mineral lands at low prices. Now it had to face far more difficult and complex problems. It also had to consider questions of land tenure again, especially if the ideal of a nation of home-owning farmers was to be maintained. While there was plenty of land for every man or woman who wanted a home on the soil, it made little difference if single landlords or companies got possession of millions of acres, if a hundred men in one western river valley owned 17,000,000 acres; but when the good land for small homesteads was all gone, then was raised the real issue. At the opening of the twentieth century the nation, which a hundred years before had land and natural resources apparently without limit, was compelled to enact law after law conserving its forests and minerals. Then it was that the great state of California, on the very border of the continent, felt constrained to enact a land settlement measure providing government assistance in an effort to break up large holdings into small lots and to make it easy for actual settlers to acquire small farms. America was passing into a new epoch.


Henry Inman, The Old Santa Fé Trail.

R.I. Dodge, The Plains of the Great West (1877).

C.H. Shinn, The Story of the Mine.

Cy Warman, The Story of the Railroad.

Emerson Hough, The Story of the Cowboy.

H.H. Bancroft is the author of many works on the West but his writings will be found only in the larger libraries.

Joseph Schafer, History of the Pacific Northwest (ed. 1918).

T.H. Hittel, History of California (4 vols.).

W.H. Olin, American Irrigation Farming.

W.E. Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America.

H.A. Millis, The American-Japanese Problem.

E.S. Meany, History of the State of Washington.

H.K. Norton, The Story of California.


1. Name the states west of the Mississippi in 1865.

2. In what manner was the rest of the western region governed?

3. How far had settlement been carried?

4. What were the striking physical features of the West?

5. How was settlement promoted after 1865?

6. Why was admission to the union so eagerly sought?

7. Explain how politics became involved in the creation of new states.

8. Did the West rapidly become like the older sections of the country?

9. What economic peculiarities did it retain or develop?

10. How did the federal government aid in western agriculture?

11. How did the development of the West affect the East? The South?

12. What relation did the opening of the great grain areas of the West bear to the growth of America’s commercial and financial power?

13. State some of the new problems of the West.

14. Discuss the significance of American expansion to the Pacific Ocean.

Research Topics

The Passing of the Wild West.—Haworth, The United States in Our Own Times, pp. 100-124.

The Indian Question.—Sparks, National Development (American Nation Series), pp. 265-281.

The Chinese Question.—Sparks, National Development, pp. 229-250; Rhodes, History of the United States, Vol. VIII, pp. 180-196.

The Railway Age.—Schafer, History of the Pacific Northwest, pp. 230-245; E.V. Smalley, The Northern Pacific Railroad; Paxson, The New Nation (Riverside Series), pp. 20-26, especially the map on p. 23, and pp. 142-148.

Agriculture and Business.—Schafer, Pacific Northwest, pp. 246-289.

Ranching in the Northwest.—Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life, and Autobiography, pp. 103-143.

The Conquest of the Desert.—W.E. Smythe, The Conquest of Arid America.

Studies of Individual Western States.—Consult any good encyclopedia.

«·The Admission of New States · CHAPTER XVIII·»