With southern states removed from the Union and no longer able to block northern-supported legislation, Congress passes the Homestead Act enabling homesteaders to claim 160 acres of unoccupied public land for a filing fee of $10. A deed of title for the land will be granted if the homesteader resides on and improves the land for five years.
President Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railway Act authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad and providing federal subsidies to help finance the project. Railroad companies are granted 20 square miles of track for every mile of track laid and government loans from $16,000 to $48,000 per mile, depending on the grade of the terrain being crossed.
President Abraham Lincoln signs the Morrill Act, or Land Grant College Act, awarding federal lands to the states to finance the cost of building agricultural and mechanical colleges. The allocation of the public lands is based on population; states receive 30,000 acres for every senator and member of the House of Representatives. States entitled under the Morrill Act formula to more public land than is available within their borders are awarded "scrip" that can be used to purchase public lands in other states and territories.
President Abraham Lincoln signs legislation granting roughly ten square miles to the state of California for a park in the Yosemite Valley for "public use, resort, and recreation." Within fifteen years, private companies will build a hotel, restaurant, and other tourist-accommodating attractions in the park.
Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad and former governor of California, drives a "golden spike" linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the transcontinental railroad.
The Wyoming territorial governor signs legislation granting women twenty-one and older the right to vote in all elections and to hold public office. Wyoming is the first federal territory or state to extend voting rights to women since 1807. (New Jersey allowed women to vote until 1807.)
In an effort to alter the climate and promote migration to dry western territories, Congress passes the Timber Culture Act offering settlers 160 acres of land provided they agree to plant 40 acres of timber. Congressional supporters believe that increased vegetation will increase rainfall in the plains and prairies of the arid west. Poor reception to the act will prompt Congress to lower the timber requirement to ten acres in 1874.
The collapse of Jay Cooke and Company, a Philadelphia investment bank, triggers a nationwide financial panic that leads to a depression, which lasts until 1879.
Congress passes the Desert Lands Act offering migrants 640 acres of arid western land for $1.25 per acre if they agree to bring it under irrigation within three years.
Carl Schurz takes office as the Secretary of the Interior in administration of President Rutherford B. Hayes. During his four-year term, Schurz will reform and professionalize the bureaus, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, within the department.
More than a thousand working-class San Franciscans gather on Nob Hill to protest the economic conditions that they trace to the state's political and economic elite. Denis Kearney, a local small businessman, declares Charles Crocker's "spite fence" a symbol of the Big Four's malignant power, and demands that it be torn down.
Californians convene a constitutional convention to amend the state constitution drafted in 1849. The Workingmen's Party, led by Denis Kearney, wins 51 seats in the convention. Concerned about the working-class political insurrection, the Democrats and Republicans ally and win 78 seats running as "non-partisans."
Californians vote to ratify the new state constitution. It includes several provisions proposed by the Workingmen's Party, including a three-member railroad commission to regulate rates and a ban on Chinese labor in state public works and corporation jobs.
Cyrus McCormick introduces a mechanical harvester and twine binder, one of several new technologies increasing agricultural productivity.
California District Judge Benjamin Brundage rules in Lux v. Haggin that an unqualified defense of riparian rights will "condemn to perpetual barrenness" the majority of California's central valley. Therefore, "appropriation" rights, previously awarded to industry, must be granted to farmers.2
The California State Supreme Court issues a final ruling in Lux v. Haggin, a seven-year battle over water rights in the San Joaquin Valley. The Court overturns a district court ruling establishing unqualified rights of prior appropriation. Instead, the court holds that riparian water rights inhere in the land, but farmers and factory owners can claim rights of appropriation if their use serves a beneficial purpose and if their use pre-dates the use of riparian claimants downstream. Labeled the California Doctrine, eight other western states will adopt this water law.
Congress enacts the Indian General Allotment Act, or Dawes Severalty Act, authorizing the president of the United States to carve existing Indians lands into 160-acre parcels to be distributed to individual Native American heads of households. "Surplus lands" (those remaining after individual allotments have been made) are to be purchased by the federal government and sold to Anglo-American homesteaders. Proceeds from these sales are to underwrite the "education and civilization" of the former Indian owners.
The California state legislature passes the Wright Act authorizing communities to form irrigation districts to manage local water needs. These districts are empowered to impose taxes, sell bonds, acquire land through eminent domain, and develop irrigation projects.
Prompted by the 1890 census, which reports that for the first time "there can hardly be said to be a frontier line," University of Wisconsin historian Frederick Jackson Turner announces America's "colonization of the Great West" has been completed.3 His influential essay, "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," raises questions about America's political and social future without the frontier, which has played such an important role in shaping national identity and cultivating the individualistic values vital to American democracy.
Wyoming is admitted to the Union as the forty-fourth state. Its state constitution extends full voting rights to women, making it the first state to do so.
Prompted by preservationist concerns that overgrazing is damaging the Sierra wilderness, President Benjamin Harrison signs a bill creating a 1500 square mile park surrounding the Yosemite Valley. The valley floor will remain under the control of the state of California until 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt accepts John Muir's recommendation that the federal government assume responsibility for the entire park.
The Sierra Club is founded in San Francisco; John Muir is selected to serve as its first president.
Thirteen hundred delegates gather at Omaha, Nebraska to select a presidential nominee and draft a platform for the recently formed Populist, or People's, Party. James Weaver is selected as the party's presidential candidate; James G. Field is named the party's vice-presidential candidate.
The Democratic Party meets in Chicago and nominates William Jennings Bryan as its presidential candidate. The party's platform calls for the free and unlimited coinage of silver at a ratio of 16 to 1.
The Populist Party, meeting at St. Louis, nominates Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan as its candidate for the presidency, primarily because of his support for the free coinage of silver. "Mid-roaders" oppose the selection of Bryan, arguing that an alliance with the Democrats will compromise the broader objectives of the Populist Party.
Congress passes a Reclamation Act establishing the United States Reclamation Service (later the Bureau of Reclamation) and directing revenues from public land sales toward irrigation projects in the western states.
Secretary of the Interior James R. Garfield approves the city of San Francisco's application to build a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, arguing that "domestic use is the highest use to which water and available storage basins . . . can be put."4
Chicago publisher William Boyce founds the Boy Scouts of America. It is one of many youth programs designed to re-familiarize American boys to nature and to the skills and virtues acquired through outdoor experience.
President Woodrow Wilson signs legislation permitting the city of San Francisco to build a dam at the base of the Hetch Hetchy Valley to collect water from the Tuolumne River for the city's use.
Culminating several years of political lobbying by wilderness preservationists, President Woodrow Wilson signs legislation creating the National Park Service. The Park Service is mandated to manage the nation's parks and ensure that they be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."5