More than any other single factor, railroads transformed the industrial cities of the West during the late 1800s. Railroads made travel easier, cheaper, and safer. The long transcontinental lines moved people, grain, cattle, ore, and equipment back and forth across the vast expanses of the Midwest, over the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and to the fertile valleys of California and Oregon.
Railroads also transformed the western landscape. For millennia, millions of bison had roamed the Great Plains of the Midwest, providing food and clothing for Native American tribes. Even by the end of the Civil War, there were still as many as 20 million bison west of the Mississippi. The railroads, however, destroyed the bison’s natural environment, and worse, transported sport hunters to the region. Americans slaughtered so many bison in their trek westward that by 1885, only about 1,000 remained.
Americans continued to move westward even during the turmoil of the Civil War. After the war ended, several million Americans immigrated to the regions beyond eastern Kansas and Nebraska, enticed by cheap federal land that Congress offered in the Homestead Act of 1862. Under the act, any individual settler paying a small filing fee could stake a claim to 160 acres of free land in the West, as long as his family “improved” the land by farming it and living on it.
As white settlers pushed farther westward and repeatedly drove Native Americans from their lands, clashes between tribes and settlers became inevitable. In 1864, Union troops killed several hundred Indian women and children at the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. The U.S. Army also fought the Sioux Wars in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory during the 1860s and 1870s. In 1876, General George Armstrong Custer made his infamous last stand during the Battle of Little Bighorn, when all 264 of his troops fell at the hands of Chief Sitting Bull and his warriors. The Sioux’s victory was short-lived, however, as the tribe was defeated a year later.
In addition, the U.S. Army fought the Nez Percé tribe in the Pacific Northwest when the tribe’s leader, Chief Joseph, refused to relinquish the Nez Percé’s lands to white settlers. They were eventually defeated and resettled in Kansas. In the New Mexico Territory, the Apache tribe, led by Geronimo, fought bravely to protect their homelands but were eventually defeated and relocated to Oklahoma and rural areas of the South. Hundreds of Native Americans also died at the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890, during the army’s attempt to end the Ghost Dance Movement—a Native American movement that called for a return to traditional ways of life and challenged white dominance in society.
After defeating these Native American forces, the U.S. government tried to herd native populations onto reservations on the poorest land in the Dakotas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma to make room for the increasing number of white settlers. Pressured by reformers who wanted to “acclimatize” Native Americans to white culture, Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act in 1887. The Dawes Act outlawed tribal ownership of land and forced 160-acre homesteads into the hands of individual Indians and their families with the promise of future citizenship. The goal was to assimilate Native Americans into white culture as quickly as possible. As it turned out, the Dawes Act succeeded only in stripping tribes of their land and failed to incorporate Native Americans into U.S. society.
High protective tariffs and the Depression of 1893 had disastrous effects on poor subsistence farmers in the Midwest and South. Many of these cash crop farmers, often deeply in debt, were unable to afford the unregulated railroad fares to send their products to the cities. As a result, over a million impoverished farmers organized the National Grange to fight for their livelihood. The Grange managed to win some key victories in several midwestern legislatures, supporting the Greenback Party in the 1870s and then the Populist Party in the 1890s.