Recall the major questions associated with Reconstruction in the South:
Similar questions apply to the ways in which the West was affected by the Civil War and Reconstruction:
During the Civil War, Republicans in Congress enacted a series of measures to implement their free labor vision and end the debate over slavery in the West. Shortly after Union armies finished waging total war on the Confederacy, they turned west to subjugate the Indian tribes.
Both of these trends have contributed to a new understanding of Reconstruction, one that involves the unification of East and West, in addition to re-unification of North and South. This interpretation is referred to as Greater Reconstruction by Elliott West and other historians.
Although the debate over slavery in the western territories (such as Kansas) was widespread in the eastern United States by the mid-19th century, most easterners knew little about the land and people of the West. Most thought that the West, especially the Great Plains, was a vast, empty land. This was an exaggerated and inaccurate notion.
At the time of the Civil War, as many as 250,000 Indians, representing a number of tribes, lived on the Great Plains. Most of these tribes were nomadic, with cultures based on horses and bison hunting. For a time, this approach was remarkably successful. Several Plains tribes were at the height of their power during the mid-19th century.
Over a period of years, tribes including the Comanche and the Lakota reshaped their culture and identity around horses and bison hunting. Bison flesh served as food. Bison hides provided clothing. Bison horns and bones provided tools.
Near-total reliance on the bison, combined with the volatile environment of the Great Plains, led to important challenges for the Plains Indians. The tribes moved constantly, not only in search of bison, but also to locate grass for their horses, and water and wood for themselves. When bison were hard to find and the meat supply ran low, prairie turnips and a variety of other plants and berries supplemented Plains Indians’ diets.
The Indians' mobility and subsistence practices were remarkable examples of adaptation. However, a number of American observers envisioned different uses for the West: ones that centered upon economic development and homesteads occupied by sedentary, free laborers.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, the majority of southern politicians — most of whom were Democrats who wanted to open the West to slavery — left Congress to serve the Confederacy. Their departure gave northern Republicans a majority in Congress, and the opportunity to implement their vision for the West while the Civil War raged in the South.
Three laws had profound consequences for the integration of the West into the U.S. The first was the Homestead Act (1862).
The Act entitled any head of household, or individual over the age of twenty-one — including unmarried women — to receive a parcel of 160 acres for a nominal filing fee. In exchange, all that recipients were required to do was to “improve the land” within five years of taking possession. The standards for improvement were minimal: Owners could clear a few acres, build small houses or barns, or maintain livestock.
Republican leaders in Congress and advocates of western expansion on behalf of free labor recognized that prospective homesteaders and new western states would require educational institutions. Therefore, Justin Smith Morrill, a Republican Senator from Vermont, helped to pass the second important law, the Morrill Act (also known as the Land Grant College Act), in 1862.
The Morrill Act provided for the creation of agricultural colleges (also known as “agricultural and mechanical schools”), funded through federal grants, to educate children from farming families in the latest agricultural techniques. Each state in the Union was granted thirty thousand acres of federal land to use for these institutions.
Still, western homesteads and agricultural education would be useless unless there was a way for settlers to travel westward, and for farmers to ship their goods to market. To address these transportation needs, the Republican Congress enacted a series of measures known collectively as the Pacific Railway Acts between 1862 and 1864.
The Pacific Railway Acts commissioned the Union Pacific Railroad to build new track west from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific Railroad built track eastward from Sacramento, California. To subsidize construction, the federal government issued bonds, and made generous land grants (on which to build) to both companies. The nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed when the companies connected their tracks at Promontory Point, Utah, in the spring of 1869.
All three measures aimed to use western lands for settlement and economic development along lines that conformed to the northern vision of “free soil, free men, free labor.” They provided free land and encouraged the construction of schools and railroads to facilitate economic development and westward migration. Combined with the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, these measures ended the hope of southern slaveholders that slavery would be expanded in the West.
While Republicans began to implement their vision for the West, Native Americans continued to live there. Western tribes were unwilling to relinquish their claim to the West without a fight.
Beginning in the Civil War and lasting until the late 19th century, tensions between American settlers, the U.S. government and military, and native peoples escalated into a series of conflicts known collectively as the Indian Wars.
One of the more vicious episodes of the Indian Wars occurred during the Civil War in Colorado, where the Arapahoe and Cheyenne fought American settlers who encroached on their lands. In response, the settlers sent militias to round up Native Americans, including those who had cooperated with them, and with the U.S. Army.
Near Sand Creek, Colorado, on November 29, 1864, Colonel John Chivington led a militia raid on a camp in which Black Kettle, a Cheyenne chief, had negotiated a peaceful settlement with a nearby army garrison. The American flag and the white flag of surrender flew above the camp when Chivington’s soldiers murdered nearly 100 people, the majority of them women and children. This incident became known as the Sand Creek Massacre.
To prevent similar atrocities from occurring, the federal government attempted to negotiate treaties with Great Plains tribes that would designate native lands and help the tribes transition from their nomadic way of life to a sedentary one, based on agriculture and individual property ownership. One of these agreements was the Treaty of Fort Laramie.
The treaty granted the Lakota a reservation in Dakota Territory (which included the Black Hills) “for as long as the grass shall grow.” In exchange, the federal government promised to build a number of public buildings on the reservation (including a school), and to provide a doctor, farmer, blacksmith, carpenter, engineer, and teachers — all of whom would help the Lakota transition from their nomadic ways to farming, and maintain peaceful relations with the United States.
The Treaty of Fort Laramie reduced violence on the Plains for a time, but did not eliminate it. Within a year after the signing, American railroad crews encroached on the Sioux reservation. War between the Lakota and the United States escalated during the mid-1870s, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills.
EXAMPLEBy the middle of 1875, thousands of white prospectors had illegally entered the Sioux reservation in search of gold. The Black Hills produced approximately $2 million in gold by 1876.
In response to the gold rush, the federal government offered to lease the Black Hills or to pay six million dollars if the Lakota were willing to sell the land. They refused, and several bands, including one led by Sitting Bull (pictured below), left the reservation and urged nearby tribes to join them in defense of their lands.
On June 25, 1876, Col. George Armstrong Custer and approximately 600 U.S. cavalrymen came upon Sitting Bull’s camp along the Little Bighorn River in eastern Montana. Hoping to catch the camp by surprise, Custer divided his troops and attacked. He did not know that between 1,500 and 2,000 Lakota and Cheyenne warriors awaited him.
The subsequent Battle of the Little Bighorn lasted a less than an hour. Custer and all of the men in his immediate detachment — approximately 250 men — were killed.
The Battle of the Little Bighorn revealed that native groups were capable of inflicting a significant defeat on the U.S. Army. But the aftermath of the battle showed that they were unable to win prolonged conflicts, as U.S. military officers applied many of the tactics associated with total war that had been used during the Civil War.
During their conflicts with the Lakota and other tribes, the U.S. Army invaded native homelands, and pursued warring bands relentlessly.
EXAMPLEDespite his victory at the Little Bighorn, the army chased Sitting Bull and other Lakota bands throughout the winter of 1876-77. By early 1877, many of the bands, starving and sick from the lack of food and shelter, surrendered. Sitting Bull and his surviving supporters fled to Canada.
In this manner, the U.S. military conquered much of the West and opened the region to American settlement, according to the principles of free labor.
Western conquest and settlement, processes that some historians associate with Greater Reconstruction, appeared to be ongoing by 1877, when Reconstruction formally ended in the South. By the late 1870s, thousands of settlers, along with those who were affiliated with railroads, mining, and other industries, migrated to the West, hoping to profit from the region’s resources.
Between 1860 and 1870, Nebraska’s non-Indian population increased from 28,000 to almost 123,000. During the same period, the non-Indian population of Nevada jumped from 6,800 to 42,000.
Lured by free homesteads and the opportunities associated with railroad construction, mining, and other forms of economic development, settlers continued to migrate westward. The populations of western states and territories grew throughout the late 19th century.
In addition to settlement and economic policies associated with free labor, the United States secured the West by means of the armed forces that conquered the Confederacy. Tribes like the Lakota resisted the Army, but the federal government concluded (for a time, at least) that native people were obstacles to western expansion and progress. The question of whether Native Americans would be able to participate in a reconstructed West after the Indian Wars remained unanswered.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: George Catlin, Buffalo Hunt, PD, http://bit.ly/2kHhwaB, Isenberg, A. C. (2000). The destruction of the bison: an environmental history, 1750-1920. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., Richardson, H. C. (2008). West from Appomattox: the reconstruction of America after the Civil War. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press., West, E. (2011). Last indian war: the nez perce story. New York: Oxford University Press., Derived from Openstax tutorial 17.1 http://bit.ly/2ln21cs and 17.4 http://bit.ly/2kDtamU. Some sections edited or removed for brevity.