When was the Old West not Old Anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that the positive effects of the Gilded Age were felt the most in the East and in the West. Back east it was obvious that times were changing and the world was growing. New technology meant the growth of factories and cities, skyscrapers began to define the horizon of big cities, and amazing new goods and inventions were available to more and more people. It was an exciting time to be alive.

Gardiner, Montana, 1887 - Not much to look at, eh? courtesy of Wikicommons

Gardiner, Montana, 1887 – Not much to look at, eh?
courtesy of Wikicommons

So what if you lived out west? The west was the great frontier, wasn’t it? The wild, wild west? It was the land of cowboys and gold rushes, of open range and burgeoning opportunity, right?

Well, yes and no. Sure, as the Oregon and other trails opened up the vast frontier of the west beginning in the 1840s, more and more people packed up and moved out to start over. After the Civil War the exodus increased. The transcontinental railroad was completed, the American government bilked the native peoples of the west out of their lands, and immigrants came from all over the world to settle on the land.

The thing is, by the 1890s, the era in which my Montana Romance series takes place, the frontier was officially gone. There were no longer massive stretches of unincorporated land. Of the former frontier, Kansas became a state in 1861, Nevada in 1864, Nebraska in 1867, Colorado in 1876, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington and my Montana all in 1889, and Idaho and Wyoming in 1890. With statehood came political and social organization and a shift in focus from homestead farms to the growth of cities and industries.

What I’ve been subtly trying to portray in the background of my Montana Romance novels is the shift in energy from the wide-open, wandering life of cowboys and the claim-staking, enterprising efforts of miners and farmers to the concentration of city-dwellers. Eric Quinlan’s major problems in Fool for Love come from his attempts to survive as a ranch-owner in the new climate of enclosed ranches as opposed to the open range and cattle drives of his youth. I took his backstory straight out of the struggles and changes that thousands of men like him were undergoing as their way of life vanished.

A ranch in Montana in 1872.  Already the Open Range was disappearing. courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikicommons

A ranch in Montana in 1872. Already the Open Range was disappearing.
courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, via Wikicommons

The disappearance of the open range and the shift in the cattle industry out west was a direct result of the changes and advancements of the Gilded Age. The increasing number of railroads and improvements in locomotion technology meant that more people could be moved into the land to settle it at a much faster rate. Farmers and entrepreneurs were actually buying the land and claiming their rights to it, demanding that the cowboys and their herds keep off the grass. The invention of something as simple as barbed wire made it cheap and easy to enclose vast stretches of this newly owned, incorporated property.

The other massive shift that started back east and had a ripple-effect in the west was the migration of people from rural life to city life. In 1860, only one in five Americans were living in a city. By 1915, half of all Americans were city-dwellers. America’s rural population may have doubled, by the urban population grew by 700 percent.*

Again, I’ve consciously tried to portray this change in my Montana Romance series. Michael West and Phineas Bell are the two richest citizens in my fictitious town of Cold Springs, Montana. Phineas owns the town’s only bank and Michael owns and operates the general store. (But stay tuned, because they both have competition that’s about to move into town!) Banking and shop-keeping are not exactly the professions you expect some of the most influential people in an old west town to have. Sheriff or cowboy, maybe. The point is that by the mid to late 1890s, when these novels are set, saving and investing money was more important than striking it rich panning for gold, and shopping for essentials and ordering goods from catalogs, like those offered by Montgomery Ward or Sears and Roebuck, were a more reliable way to find the necessities of life than homesteading or farming.

Glendive, Montana in 1913.  Compare this to the photo from 1887.  That's the difference between today and 1987.  That's hardly any time at all, and look at the difference! courtesy of Wikicommons

Glendive, Montana in 1913. Compare this to the photo from 1887. That’s the difference between today and 1987. That’s hardly any time at all, and look at the difference!
courtesy of Wikicommons

Life was changing, and all of these changes were made possible by the technology and industry of the Gilded Age. In a way, the west reaped the benefits of the second industrial revolution even more than its contemporaries back east. So many aspects of the Gilded Age made life possible on the scale that existed at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries: railroads, new construction methods, improved models of organization and efficiency, the rise of the city. Life in the Gilded Age was what you made of it, and nowhere was that more evident than in the west.

*Thank you to my high school history textbook, A History of the United States of America, by Boorstin and Kelley, which I still have 20+ years later, for the statistics.

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