Study Guide

The West People

  • William Bright

    William Bright (1826–1912) was a Wyoming territorial legislator and the person most responsible for securing women the right to vote in Wyoming. 

    Although born in Virginia, Bright served in the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he took a federal job in Salt Lake City before moving to Wyoming in search of gold. In South Pass, he invested in several claims and opened a saloon. In 1869, he was elected to the first territorial legislature as a Democrat.

    During the first session of the territorial legislature, Bright introduced a measure extending the vote to women. His motivations were complex. He was no doubt influenced by his wife Julia, an ardent believer in women's suffrage, but part of his rationale for granting women the vote was his opposition to the 15th Amendment; if African Americans were allowed to vote––men he believed to be morally and intellectually inferior––then women should be allowed to vote as well. In addition, Bright was politically ambitious and seemed to see political benefits in adopting this issue.

    Bright left Wyoming along with most South Pass residents when gold returns declined in the early 1870s. He lived for about a decade in Denver, Colorado before moving to Washington, D.C. where he died.

  • Denis Kearney

    Denis Kearney (1847–1907) was the leader of California's Workingmen's Party. Born in Ireland, he went to sea at age 11 as a cabin boy and rose to the rank of first mate by the time he first visited San Francisco in 1868. He settled in San Francisco in 1870 and opened a drayage business. 

    Interested in philosophy and politics, Kearney emerged as a powerful speaker and organizer among San Francisco's working classes at "sand lot" meetings held on the empty lots near city hall in the 1870s.

    In 1877, Kearney played a leading role in the formation of the Workingmen's Party. Fueled by class and race antagonism, Kearney and the party attacked the economic and political power of industrial elites like the Big Four as well as the Chinese immigrants that competed with native workers for jobs. The Workingmen's Party built a following throughout the state in 1878, elected a third of the delegates to the state's constitutional convention, and managed to place diluted versions of their proposals in the new constitution. The party also elected several legislators and senators to the state government in 1879. But within two years, the party had all but disappeared from California politics.

    Kearney attempted to rebuild the working class coalition as a member of the Greenback Party, but improved economic conditions diminished the appeal of political activism. Kearney retreated to public life and rebuilt his hauling business.

  • Henry Miller

    Henry Miller (1827–1916) was a California cattle baron and a litigant in Lux v. Haggin, a seminal State Supreme Court case establishing California water law. Born Heinrich Alfred Kreiser in Germany, he immigrated to America in 1844 and worked as a butcher before sailing for California in 1949. He adopted the name "Henry Miller" after purchasing a "non-transferable" ticket for San Francisco from a young shoe-salesman of that name.

    In San Francisco, Miller built a thriving meat business. In 1858, he merged with his chief competitor, Charles Lux, an immigrant from Alsace. Together they accumulated more than 1.4 million acres throughout California, Oregon, and Nevada.

    In 1879, Miller and Lux sued James Ben Ali Haggin for violating their riparian rights to the water flowing from the Kern River through their lands in the Buena Vista Slough. Haggin, a land speculator and farmer with more than 100,000 acres of land upstream of the Miller-Lux holdings, argued that rights of appropriation allowed him to siphon off a major portion of the Kern's volume for irrigation. 

    A lower court held in Haggin's favor, but upon appeal to the California State Supreme Court, Miller and Lux prevailed. The ruling established the "California Doctrine," stating that while riparian water rights inhere in the land, farmers and factory owners could claim rights of appropriation if their use served a beneficial purpose and if their use pre-dated the use of riparian claimants downstream.

  • John Muir

    John Muir (1838–1914) was a naturalist and conservationist, and the founding president of the Sierra Club. 

    Born in Scotland, he immigrated to America in 1849. Raised in rural Wisconsin, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at age 22. He left after three years, traveled extensively, and worked as a machinist and inventor. In 1867, an accident in a carriage factory left him blinded for over a month. Upon recovering his sight, he vowed to devote his life to the exploration and study of nature.

    Muir traveled extensively, but California's Sierra Nevada mountains received his most ardent attention. He published his first articles on the mountain range—"Studies of the Sierras"—in 1874. These literary efforts were part of a broader goal of winning federal protection for tracts of wilderness. His work contributed to the expansion of Yosemite National Park and the creation of Sequoia and Mount Rainier National Parks. 

    His final years were dominated by an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the damming of the Hetch Hechy Valley in Yosemite and a successful effort to win congressional approval for the creation of the National Park Service.

  • Carl Schurz

    Carl Schurz (1829–1906) was the Secretary of the Interior from 1877 to 1881. Born in Germany, Schurz was among the revolutionaries forced to emigrate in 1848. After living briefly in Paris and London, he immigrated to the United States in 1852, eventually settling in Wisconsin. 

    There, he became active in the Republican Party and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor and governor of Wisconsin before being named ambassador to Spain in 1861. He resigned this post in 1862 to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was elected to the Senate as a Republican in 1868, and sat until 1875.

    Appointed Secretary of the Interior by President Rutherford B. Hayes, Schurz introduced significant reforms in the department and its bureaus, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Schurz centralized control of the bureau and instituted new accounting and oversight protocols to reduce corruption. His required that certain positions be filled by civil service examination; eventually, almost all rank-and-file positions within the bureau were taken out of the hands of politicians and distributed through civil service exams.