Study Guide

The West

The West Introduction

Pretty much since the day we stepped foot on North American soil and Pocahontas sang "Colors of the Wind," white settlers had been itching to push farther and farther west. 

Why?

  • Many folks did it to try to their luck at mining gold in California
  • Some moved west to escape religious persecution.
  • Some just wanted the opportunity to have their own piece of land to live, work, and die on. 

But you couldn't just just hop on I-80 and drive from Cleveland to Sacramento in a couple of days. Try weeks or months in a covered wagon or pushing a handcart. Often these expeditions ended in death, and in the most extreme case, cannibalism. 

As the country continued to push west through the second half of the 19th century, America began to grow into its new role as a continental empire. And we needed to start acting like it. Because between 1850 and 1912, 17 new western states had joined the Union and hundreds of thousands of settlers had flocked to these new regions. 

Isolated as it was for a while, the West still faced the same issues as the North and the South, in terms of getting established and all that. What was the stance on slavery going to be as we expanded farther and farther west? Just like in the other parts of the country, it would turn out that this decision had the biggest impact on America's immediate future.

Issues aside, though, the federal government improved in leaps and bounds to facilitate this western movement in several ways.

In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, the Pacific Railways Act, and the Morrill Education Act. All three used public lands to achieve national goals: western migration, the construction of a transcontinental railroad, and the development of state colleges. 

Efforts to preserve the West's natural conditions increased, too. The Sierra Club was formed in 1892 to protect America's wilderness areas and the National Park Service was created in 1916 to manage the nation's parks and ensure that they be left "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

In the end, we still hold on to our western mythology and culture, but these developments changed the face of the West by making it more accessible to the rest of the country.

In 1890, an American census report declared the West "closed." The West was won, folks.

What is The West About and Why Should I Care?

In the 1980 film Urban Cowboy, wannabe cowgirl Debra Winger exults as she leaves the bar with John Travolta, "I got me a real cowboy."

Americans have been obsessed with "real cowboys" for more than a century. Some credit Owen Wister's 1992 classic The Virginian with launching this national fascination with the West and with "Westerns." 

But in truth, Americans have celebrated the breadth of their frontier, the beauties of nature, and the virtues acquired there for much longer. During the 1840s, transcendentalists held that truth and knowledge were best discovered in nature. Henry David Thoreau preached that an individual's most authentic self could be realized only through a close relationship with the natural world.

The aura cast around the ruggedly independent cowboy and the self-driven pioneer reveals that our fascination with the frontier has not diminished. If anything, we've constructed an even more elaborate mythology about the West—about the hearty individualists who conquered it, the titanic battles fought against the forces of nature, and between the various groups that laid claim to this vast space. 

Most consistently, we've celebrated the self-sufficiency and heroism supposedly bred in the West. The West is consistently portrayed as a land where "men are truly men," where authority is resented, and even assistance is usually declined.

But did you know that during the 19th century, the federal government played a more active role in subsidizing the West than in any other region of the country? 

And yet, despite all the government assistance, two-thirds of all homesteaders failed within the first five years. Massive corporations and conglomerates dominated many western territories and states, even in their infancy. And within the political insurrections of the West, small farmers and common laborers pleaded for more government support. 

Between the mythology and reality of America's western past, there are considerable gaps. But if you'd be so kind as to mozy on down this here Shmoop trail, you might figure out where these gaps lie.

The West Resources

Books

David Igler, Industrial Cowboys: Miller & Lux and the Transformation of the Far West, 1850–1920 (2001)
Igler uses the rags-to-riches rise of two immigrant butchers to explore a series of issues including California's water and land politics and the impact of population and economic growth on the state's environment.

Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (1893)
Historians have challenged much of what Turner advanced in 1890. His "composite nationality" ignores important and persisting sources of division in American society; the democracy he saw advancing across the West ignores the very undemocratic power asserted by railroads, speculators, and banks. But more than a hundred years later, Turner's thesis is still debated.

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (1967)
Nash traces American beliefs about nature and wilderness from their European and Biblically-based beginnings through the mid-20th century. The book is strongest in tracing the role of romanticism and transcendentalism in pushing American attitudes toward the conservationism of the 20th century.

Charles Postel, The Populist Vision (2007)
This award-winning book offers a fresh take on the farmers' movement of the late-19th century. Differing from other studies that have tended to treat Populists as either unrealistically utopian or hopelessly nostalgic, Postel's book suggests that the Populists offered a realistic and modern approach to politics and government.

Richard White, "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West (1991)
White travels from the European explorers of the 16th century to the last decades of the 20th in this sweeping exploration of the West. In analyzing the 19th-century American West, White argues that "the federal government shaped the West" and the West itself served as the kindergarten of the American state."

Images

The President and the Preservationist
Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite National Park, 1903.

Hetch Hetchy (Before)
The Hetch Hetchy Valley before the Tuolumne River was damned and the valley was turned into a reservoir for San Francisco.

Hetch Hetchy (After)
The Hetch Hetchy Valley after the Tuolumne River was damned and the valley was turned into a reservoir for San Francisco.

Cattle King
Cattle baron Henry Miller.

Prairie Grass Roots Politics
Farmers gather for a Populist Party Convention in Nebraska, 1890.

"The Chinese Must Go!"
Workingmen's Party Ticket, 1878.

Denis Kearney
Leader of San Francisco's Workingmen's Party.

Movies & TV

The American Experience
Several episodes of this PBS series deal with the West. "Battle for the Wilderness" explores the Hetch Hetchy controversy. "The Way West" offers a six-hour look at expansion from the gold rush to Wounded Knee. In "The White Man's Image," explore the educational missions aimed at "civilizing" Native Americans in the last decades of the 19th century.

The West (1996)
This eight-part PBS series breaks from the linear narrative of continental conquest by telling the story of the West as a series of biographies. Another Ken Burns project, the series combines images, source readings, and historian interviews. Plus, there's a useful companion site.

Far and Away (1992)
This tale of an immigrant's experience in late-19th-century America climaxes in the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1983. The real story of western migration is far more complex than this romantic narrative suggests, but it probably worked out this way for somebody.

Shane (1953)
This 1953 classic offers a Frederick Jackson Turner-like account of the evolution of the West, from Native Americans to frontiersmen to ranchers to farmers. Filled with archetypal imagery, the film can be read as a simple story of historical progress. But the film also raises a more complex set of questions about the role, or romantically imagined role, of "the gun" in winning the West.

Websites

Everything Muir
The Sierra Club maintains a "John Muir Exhibit" containing a short biography, a lengthy list of books and articles by and about Muir, links to relevant photography collections, and lesson plans for teachers.

The West and the Environment
The National Humanities Center has constructed a site entitled "Nature Transformed: The Environment in American History." Short essays address a number of topics including "The Roots of Preservation: Emerson, Thoreau, and the Hudson River School," and "The Challenge of the Arid West."

"Photographs of the American West"
The National Archives has posted a rich collection of images at this site.

Historical Documents

Homestead Act Documents
Several documents relating to the Homestead Act have been collected and posted by the Library of Congress.

Homestead Act
Plus, we've got entire learning guide devoted to the Homestead Act itself.

Muir's Works
Many of John Muir's writings are made available electronically at this site.

Letters and Images of Prairie Life
The Library of Congress has posted the letters and photographs of a Nebraska family.