Remember that scene near the beginning of Dances with Wolves when John Dunbar shows up in the frontier office to accept his new posting? You know, where the commanding officer asks him why on earth he would want to be stationed so far out west? And Dunbar says he asked to go there because he wanted to see the frontier while it was still there to see (and because the war back East disillusioned him)? Well, it turns out that Dunbar’s attitude was actually very common and true to life for many men after the Civil War was over.
You can’t go through the American educational system without spending at least an entire semester studying the Civil War. And usually those history classes jump right into Westward Expansion as soon as you learn about Appomattox Courthouse. The thing that we don’t generally hear a lot of, though, is the social and political history that connects those two dots. Yes, a lot of people headed west because it was the land of opportunity, but the whole reason so many people were seeking opportunity—the reason they left everything for an unknown, potentially hostile land—was because it was better than what they had back home.
But first, it should be noted that in a way, the Civil War started in the West before war was declared after Ft. Sumter, and fighting ended in the West after the war was declared over. I think I mentioned in my first Frontier Politics blog post about the skirmishes that broke out between nominally pro-Union and Pro-Confederacy gangs in Kansas. “Bleeding Kansas” came about as a result of what amounted to thug armies shedding blood over the issue of whether Kansas would be admitted as a free or a slave state. It’s interesting to note that I’ve used these violent, trouble-making gangs in my next book (coming out a week from today!). The Briscoe Boys, who have vowed to kill the heroine, Lynne, are modeled on these outlaw gangs who brought the Civil War to the West long before it was officially a war. And the last battle of the Civil War was fought at Brownsville, Texas after peace had been declared. Ironically, it was a Confederate victory.
So the war ended, the Union was restored, Reconstruction began in the South, and we all lived happily ever after, right? Ha! The wounds of the Civil War still ran deep, even after the fighting had stopped. Lives and families had been destroyed as a result of the men who were killed and the land that was destroyed. And for what? To preserve a union that would support that kind of war in the first place? Yep, if we think we’re bitter about politics today, just imagine how people were feeling after a conflict of brother versus brother that changed everyone’s lives forever.
Like John Dunbar, a lot of people just wanted to get away. In the same way that the United States experienced a boom after WWII because no battles were fought on our soil and therefore our infrastructure was still in place to resupply Europe, so the West was a more or less untouched land of fertility that could be drawn on to create a new life for the country as a whole. The push west was limited by the means of transportation at first. My Hot on the Trail series is actually about the very end of the Oregon Trail era in the mid-1860s. The trail continued to be used, but it was supplemented by stagecoach and ocean travel. The Panama Canal wouldn’t be built until the 1880s, but there was an overland railway that routinely took settlers across. But as soon as the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the floodgates opened.
The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt
Okay, what does this have to do with politics, you ask? It’s not like the country had to worry about whether the new territories and states would be slave or free states in the post-Civil War world.
Ah, but the thing is, the land wasn’t actually as open and unoccupied as disillusioned, opportunity-seeking pioneers wanted it to be. Even before the Civil War ended, the politics of the West were all about what to do with the Native Americans.
And thus begins one of the most controversial and bitter chapters of our history. Treaties were made and broken, made and broken. Native people were persecuted by some military officers (Colonel Chivington, who famously said “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice” is one big, fat example). Other officers did their best to find compromises and solutions. But bit by bit, tribe by tribe, the native population of this country was cut down, resettled, and reprogrammed. It kind of horrible when you think about it, but at the same time, the West was able to develop into the economic and social powerhouse that it is and was because a new culture swept in. It’s one of those horrible, bittersweet paradoxes of history.
I should also make one other mention of what could be a startling reality of the post-Civil War West. There were actually a fair number of African Americans who went west, both in the military and as pioneers. Their story isn’t often told either, but in a sparsely-populated land where every pair of hands was welcome, African Americans who could afford the journey found themselves in a much better position than their counterparts back East. At first. I really need to stress that at first bit, because by the end of the 19th century, after an economic depression and the institution of Jim Crow laws in the South, their situation worsened. In the military, the Buffalo Soldiers became the first peacetime African American regiment in the US. Unfortunately, they were part of the persecution of the Native Americans.
I’ll talk more about how the West was shaped in the years after the railroad was completed next time. In the meantime, here’s a shameless plug for Trail of Kisses, the first book in my Hot on the Trail series, which makes mention of those nasty gangs of Civil War-ish thugs that brought the conflict to the frontier. You can pre-order Trail of Kisses now for just 99 cents, but as of next week, it’ll be at the regular price of $3.99!
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