When Europeans first arrived in North America they settled on the eastern coast. But soon people wanted to search out new land in the vast interior of the continent. It led pioneers west: to cross rushing rivers, climb towering mountains and travel across windswept plains. This area was called the frontier.
Life on the frontier was very difficult. It meant living far from neighbours. It meant giving up markets, shops, schools, churches and even the protection of the law. For this reason, the frontier was sometimes known as the Wild West.
EUROPEANS TRAVEL TO NORTH AMERICA
European colonists risked great danger to settle in North America. Some came to improve their economic situation. In North America, they found unlimited land, thick forests for timber, and many kinds of animals for food, furs, and skins. Some journeyed in search of gold and silver. Other settlers wanted the freedom to practise their religion as they wanted.
Europeans first arrived on American shores in the 16th century. Spanish colonists settled in Florida in 1565 at St Augustine. English colonists landed in America in 1607 and founded Jamestown, Virginia. French colonists founded Quebec in Canada in 1608.
BRITAIN GAINS CONTROL
Britain became the dominant power in the areas that became the United States and Canada. In 1763, Britain defeated France and Spain in the French and Indian War (part of a wider conflict called the Seven Years’ War). With this victory, Britain won eastern Canada, Florida and all the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.
However, the British government banned colonists from moving west of the Appalachian Mountains. Britain hoped to prevent costly frontier wars between settlers and Native Americans. Some Americans ignored the ban. Frontiersman Daniel Boone led North Carolina families into Kentucky. Other settlers moved into western Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
In 1783 the United States won independence from Britain and opened up the territories west of the Appalachians. The trickle of settlers moving west turned into a flood.
REACHING THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER
The Ohio River was the main route to this area west of the Appalachians, called the Northwest Territory. Thousands of flat-bottomed boats carried families there. Most settlers wanted the fertile land for farming. Settlers also poured west on to lands in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. Most of these settlers worked small farms. But some were wealthy planters who owned lots of land. They used African Americans to work the land as slaves, growing crops such as tobacco and cotton.
BEYOND THE MISSISSIPPI
In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase added land west of the Mississippi River to the United States. President Thomas Jefferson bought this territory from France. Jefferson then sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark through the territory to map the new land. The Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805.
In the 1840s, Americans headed west to farmlands in the Oregon Territory and California. Most travelled by covered wagons along routes such as the Oregon Trail and the California Trail. Their wagon trains rolled over the Great Plains, but the plains seemed too empty and dry for farming.
Many Americans believed it was the destiny of the United States to control all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But Texas, California, and parts of the Southwest belonged to Mexico. Britain and the United States both claimed the Oregon Territory, which included the future states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
In 1845 the US government took over Texas. Britain handed over the Oregon Territory in a treaty in 1846. That year the United States went to war with Mexico. In 1848, Mexico surrendered the lands that included California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sent many people west. The gold hunters sought quick and easy fortunes. Gold rushes and silver strikes also brought fortune-seekers into Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and other parts of the West. A huge Western mining business began in the mid-19th century.
SETTLING THE GREAT PLAINS
In 1862 the US government encouraged settlement on the Great Plains with the Homestead Act. The government offered 66 hectares of nearly free land to any one who would work the land. Life was not easy on the Great Plains. But many settlers stuck it out through drought, blizzards and grasshopper invasions. They built earth houses on the treeless plains and used barbed wire for fencing. They grew wheat, corn, and other grains.
Cattle ranching became another thriving business on the plains. Prairie grasses were good for fattening cattle. Cowboys, who herded cattle over vast distances, won fame for their endurance and independent way of life. (You can read more about Cowboys below.)
Ranchers and farmers needed a cheap way to send grain and cattle back east. In 1862 Congress lent companies money for building a railway across the West. Soon, railways were carrying goods and people eastwards and westwards.
LIFE ON THE FRONTIER
To survive on the frontier, a pioneer family first had to clear a patch of land for planting crops. They swung sharp axes to cut down trees and clear brush. Heavy wooden ploughs broke the ground. Farmers scattered seeds by hand. They used hand-held sickles to cut ripe grain.
Pioneers had to produce enough food to survive through the winter. Families preserved meat and fish with salt and smoke. They dried fruit, beans, and peas. They ground corn into flour for cakes and bread. They made cheese from milk and brewed cider from apples. With no markets to fetch new supplies, pioneers without enough food faced starvation.
As more people moved to the frontier, towns slowly grew. A few times a year, Pioneers piled into their farm wagons and made the long trip into town. There they purchased supplies such as sugar and salt.
Early pioneers lived surrounded by trees. Many built their homes with logs. Most homes were small, with only one or two rooms. Sometimes, they added an overhead loft reached by a ladder. Many cabins had dirt floors. Packed mud filled the gaps between logs.
On the treeless plains, pioneers cut bricks of grass and soil from the ground. They stacked the bricks into a house. In the dry Southwest, pioneers copied the Native American homes, called pueblos. The pioneers built homes out of adobe, a sun-dried clay.
Pioneers supplied their homes with handmade goods. Men built simple furniture. Boys whittled spoons from wood and carved bowls and platters. Women stuffed mattresses with feathers or corn husks. Women also made items such as soap for bathing and candles for light.
Frontier families relied on guns for hunting and protection. Often alone, families needed to protect themselves from danger from wild animals or Native American attack. Until the mid-19th century, most pioneers owned long rifles that fired once, then needed reloading. In 1831, Samuel Colt invented a revolver that shot several bullets before you had to reload. These guns became popular on the frontier.
Frontier clothes took a lot of time to make. They had to last a long time, too. A woman sewed her family’s clothes. Sometimes she even made the cloth herself. During the winter months, she spun sheep wool into thread, wove it into the fabric on a loom and dipped it in a dye. Then she sewed clothes and knitted socks and caps. Pioneers adopted Native American clothing, too. They wore deerskin trousers, jackets and shoes called moccasins.
Isolated pioneer families relied on themselves for medical care. Women made medicines from herbs, roots, alcohol and animal grease. Broken bones were set with stick splints and bandages. Deep wounds were stitched with sewing needles and thread. People drank whiskey to ease the pain. Many pioneers died of sickness or infected wounds.
Pioneers enjoyed gathering with their neighbours. They exchanged news, advice, and gossip. Sometimes they would hold a dance outdoors. A few fiddles, clapping and songs like “Skip to My Lou” provided entertainment.
Neighbours also gathered to help one another with big jobs, like building a barn. Women baked pies and cooked for days in preparation. Then everyone had a big feast. Afterwards, they told stories or danced and sang.
Children played with pets, listened to stories and made their own toys. They played games such as hide-and-seek and blind-man’s-buff.
In American mythology, the Wild West was an unconquered wilderness. However, the land that the pioneers thought of as empty was already occupied by tribes of Native Americans. The Native Americans fought to save their lands. American soldiers defeated some tribes in battle. Other tribes signed away much of their land in treaties. After losing their lands, Native Americans were forced to move further west, away from white settlers.
Yet as the pioneers moved further west so they again encroached on Native American lands. The tribes of the Great Plains, Southwest and Northwest also faced war and loss of their homelands. White people hunted and killed many of the buffalo that plains tribes depended on for food. Government officials broke treaties with Native Americans, and soldiers forced native peoples on to land called reservations. The Native American tribes continued to resist but were eventually defeated.
AGE OF THE COWBOY
The first cowboys worked on Spanish ranches in California in the 17th century but the best-known cowboy period began after the American Civil War ended in 1865. It lasted until the 1890s. A cowboy’s main job was to herd cattle to the range to graze. Cowboys also had to protect their herds from outlaws, called rustlers, who wanted to steal cattle. For this reason, many cowboys carried pistols. Twice a year, in the spring and autumn, the roundup took place. During a round-up, all the cattle were brought together so newborn calves could be identified. Another event in the life of a cowboy was the trail drive. During a drive, cowboys herded the cows to towns that had railway stations, and the cows were shipped to meat-packing plants in big cities.
Cowboys wore clothes that fit their job. Their famous “ten-gallon” hats had big brims to give them shade. They kept kerchiefs around their necks to shield their mouths from dust. Cowboys wore tough cotton jeans, made from denim. Over their trousers, they wore leather flaps, or leggings, called chaps. Cowboys carried a rope called a lariat, or lasso. A cowboy could put a loop in his lariat, whirl it over his head and catch a cow that had strayed.
THE LEGEND OF THE WILD WEST
For Americans, the Wild West represented freedom, hope, and a fresh start. Westward movement across the North American continent helped turn the United States into a large and wealthy nation. But this expansion came at the expense of Native Americans who called the West their home.
The Wild West became part of American folklore. Films, television shows, books, and art have celebrated the American West. The Cowboys’ independent, hardworking life made them seem like heroes to many in the United States. Today, throughout the world, cowboys are seen as a symbol of America. The log cabins of the pioneers are regarded as a symbol of the simple beginnings of the United States and the self-reliance of the frontier families is believed to be a typical American characteristic.