AP U.S. History Notes

Focus on the West

Migration Westward

Prior to the Civil War, most English settlers and their descendents chose to live along the Atlantic Coast. However, the Pacific Coast was also being settled, which would lead to the development of the Great Plains as the two coasts spread toward the middle of America.

Atlantic settlers referred to the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast as the “Great West.” A less-optimistic name for this region was the “Great American Desert,” so-named because of a lack of available water sources and soil that did not respond to Atlantic farming methods.

Those who traversed the Great Plains found large settlements of Indians, along with scatterings of Mexicans, Asians, and Anglo-Americans, many of whom were Mormons who had settled in the Utah region. White pioneers who had moved westward were often trappers or miners who were seeking new and fertile sources of their commodities.

Mexican settlers were populous particularly in the southwest. Indians, pushed west by white settlements along the Atlantic coast, were scattered across the Great West. Sioux and Comanche Indians were populous throughout the Great Plains, while Apache and Navajo migrated to the southwest. The Nez Perce and Shoshone Indians settled across the northwest.

An act passed by Congress in the midst of the Civil War, the Homestead Act of 1862, further shaped the western landscape during the nineteenth century. Under this act, farmers could claim as much as 160 acres in the Great Plains by staking a claim to a parcel of land and living on the property for five years. After those five years the settler would be awarded the free and clear title to his claim. The settler would also have the opportunity to purchase the land outright after six months for $1.25 per acre.

The Homestead Act drew many west who wanted to escape the carnage of the Civil War. More Indians were pushed out of their land by this act as farmers sought the promise of land ownership and profitability. However, these farmers did not take into account that much of the land in the Great Plains was suited only to cattle ranching, rather than crop farming, at least using the farming methods that these east coast farmers were familiar with. Many of those seeking fortune under the Homestead Act were largely disappointed.

The Great Plains saw another influx of new residents following the Civil War, as southern blacks sought new opportunities as freedmen. At the urging of former slave Benjamin “Pap” Singleton, a self-proclaimed rescuer of blacks from the hardships of sharecropping and tenant farming, many former slaves boarded boats to cross the Mississippi River for a final destination of Kansas. Singleton distributed literature touting Kansas, a free state since its inception, as salvation for freedmen trying to eke out a living in the South.

However, blacks who reached Kansas faced a different set of hardships. The unyielding soil and lack of resources led many blacks to hire themselves out to other farmers in order to make a living. Thus, their quality of life was no better than it had been in the south as slaves or sharecroppers. In addition, the exodus of blacks to the Plains was hampered by southern leaders who resented the loss of black labor resources. Mississippians blocked access to the river and the boats that would transport blacks to the Great Plains in 1879. Still, Singleton and his allies spurred the migration of over a half-million blacks west of the Mississippi River by 1890.


Westward expansion was fueled by the prospect of fortune. Mining was a new frontier that everyone was interested in. Freedmen, ranchers, and farmers toiled alongside prospectors and commercial miners in search of a mother lode that would make them instantaneously rich.

The mining boom got underway with the 1848 discovery of gold in California, which sparked the 1849 California gold rush. The resulting population boom led to California statehood through the Compromise of 1850. This surge west at the hint of gold or other precious metals would repeat itself time and again over the next several decades. In 1858, gold was discovered near Pike’s Peak in Colorado territory, along the South Platte River. The excitement spread and would-be miners came from near and far over the next year with hopes of becoming wealthy. Of course, very few of the approximately 100,000 emigrants were successful at mining, but many of these “Fifty-niners” settled in the area as farmers and ranchers.

Some of those who were successful in Colorado were the prospectors at Central City in 1859 and at Leadville in the 1870s. As in California, this influx of residents and a healthy mining industry led to Colorado’s statehood in 1876, making it the “Centennial State.” The final major strike of gold and silver in Colorado happened in the early 1890s at Cripple Creek.

Colorado was not the only territory that built its statehood on the mining industry. Prospectors targeted the mountains of Nevada as another potential site for precious metals. H.T.P. Comstock, a fur-trader turned gold prospector, had drifted south from Canada in 1856. Eventually landing in Gold Hill, Nevada, Comstock aligned himself with two prospectors who had made an amazing discovery of gold and “blue earth,” which would later be determined to contain silver. Comstock named the discovered site after himself, and the Comstock Lode would come to be known as one of the most famous strikes in history.

Around the same time, a prospector named James Finney discovered a vein of his own. Finney’s nickname, “Old Virginia,” became the namesake of Virginia City, Nevada. Both Finney and Comstock had the opportunity to develop their discoveries into great personal wealth, but both sold their rights to mining companies shortly after their discoveries, missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in gold and silver. However, their legacies live on in the state that their finds helped develop, as Nevada (“The Silver State”) was awarded statehood in 1864.

Although gold and silver brought high prices, it would be lead, tin, quartz, zinc, and especially copper that brought more consistent prices and would be more profitable in the long run. Advancing technology required copper for telegraph, telephone, and electrical wires. Montana and Arizona would prove to be fertile lands for the highly demanded copper, even though these regions were not otherwise sought-after as settlements.

During the height of the mining boom, towns sprang up near veins of ore. Miners needed homes, food, and mining supplies, and smart businessmen stepped forth to supply those needs. Storefronts went up and settlers moved in. However, when the vein was exhausted, the boom towns became ghost towns as the miners moved on to the next prospect.

In traditional business fashion, the individual miners who were successful were usually bought out by commercial miners. These conglomerates increased their wealth by buying miners’ rights to veins and harvesting the ore themselves. The commercialization of the mining industry also contributed to the ghost town effect, since there was no profit in leaving their laborers in tapped-out areas.

The surge of the mining industry in the western frontier affected the entire nation. The encroachment on Indian lands intensified the conflict between whites and Indians and would eventually lead to bloody battles. Financially, the mining industry helped fund the Civil War. The mining industry led to great American folklore, as writers such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain glorified the gold rush. And perhaps most importantly, the mining industry strengthened the case for a transcontinental railroad.

Building and Influence of the Railroads

The mining industry facilitated expansion of the railroad industry by creating a need for quick and easy transport between mining and production sites. Entrepreneurs responded with the first transcontinental railroad.

Prior to the Civil War, railroads had been in use east of the Missouri River. The country’s leaders hoped to span the void of the Great American Desert with a railway that would connect the populous areas and truly unite the states.

The challenge of a transcontinental railroad was too overwhelming for any one company to undertake without government support. The western portion of the railroad would need to cross mountainous terrain and span hundreds of miles of prairie with no nearby water source. In addition, the workers who would create this line would need to do so under the constant threat of Indian warfare.

Since the risk was too great for any one company to assume, the federal government stepped in and awarded charters to two railway companies in 1862 to complete connecting sections of the track. The Union Pacific was awarded the charter for the section of track from the Missouri River, across the Great Plains, and through the Rocky Mountains. The Central Pacific’s charter directed them to begin working in Sacramento, California, and work eastward through the Sierra Nevada mountains.

A federal assistance package, signed by President Lincoln, awarded generous loans and land grants to the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. When the project started, the companies were each awarded $16,000 for each mile of level track laid, $32,000 for each mile of track through the plateaus, and $48,000 for each mile through the mountains. Those figures doubled at the encouragement of lobbyists within a year of the project’s start. In addition, each company was awarded 6,400 acres of federal land for each mile of track laid.

Both companies raced to complete the most miles of track to receive the most money and land. These incentives often led to shoddy work that would need to be repaired or replaced soon after the railway was put in use, but company officials pushed their employees toward quick completion rather than quality work. These questionable business practices earned them the nickname “robber barons.”

Both Union Pacific and Central Pacific had a very diverse labor supply. Union Pacific laborers were primarily ex-soldiers and Irish immigrants. Central Pacific’s workforce consisted mainly of Chinese men who had followed the dream of wealth to the United States. Many of these men arrived without their families, intending to stay only long enough to amass their fortunes and then return to their homeland. However, building railroads was grueling work, made even more challenging by the bigotry of their white bosses, as well as constant threat by Indians, and many Chinese died on the job.

Still, the companies pushed forward, each hoping to build more track—and reap more profit—than the other. The two lines finally met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869. The Union Pacific had built 1,086 miles of track, far more than Central Pacific’s 689 miles. The meeting was a ceremony, one which is often called the “wedding of the rails.” California governor Leland Stanford was on hand for the ceremony, and he drove a final golden spike into the railway to signify the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The vision of Stephen Douglas as stated in his Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had finally been realized.

Soon, there were several lines of transcontinental railroad crossing the nation. Track ran through nearly every state and territory west of the Mississippi, with lines going north as well as south. As farms, ranches, and towns cropped up along the railway lines, the rail companies continued to profit as they sold the land that had been granted to them by the government.

The transcontinental railroads benefited the mining industry by carrying people westward and carrying ore to production sites. However, the railroads also revolutionized other industries, particularly agriculture. Prior to the transcontinental railroad, cattle going to slaughter had to be herded from the range to the market by cowboys on horseback. By the time the cattle reached their destination, they were thin and in poor condition, making them less valuable. The use of railroad transportation for cattle to market allowed for quicker, less stressful trips and higher market prices.

In addition, as progress was being made on the railroads, an important improvement to the trains themselves was being invented. The refrigerator car was developed to transport dressed meat from the slaughterhouse to markets across the country. Although it took some time for consumers to accept dressed meat over fresh meat at their local markets, its availability and cheaper prices eventually made it the standard.

In all, the transcontinental railroad benefited Americans in many ways. In addition to the transport of cattle and meat, it allowed speedier mail delivery, eventually replacing the Pony Express. It also allowed for easier transport of military aid to areas of conflict, which was a constant concern as American settlers encroached upon land possessed by Indians.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Focus on the West" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/focus-on-the-west/>.