CHAPTER 21: CORRUPTION AND EXPANSION (1868-1877)
SECTION 1: THE CITY BOSSES
Historians often refer to the administration of President James Monroe (1817-1825)
as the “Era of Good Feelings” because it was a time of political unity and tranquility.
They sometimes damn the 1860s and 1870s as the “Era of Good Stealings” because the
government during those years was dominated by rapacious men who fleeced the
American taxpayers on a gargantuan scale. Corruption, bribery, and blackmail were
rampant at all levels of government, but the masters of the game were the big city bosses,
and the master of masters was William Tweed, boss of New York City and king of the
Tweed Ring that flourished there in the 1860s.
The boss ran the city with an iron fist, but he often did not hold any elected office.
Tweed never served as mayor of New York and only briefly, in the early days of his
career, served as a city councilman. Behind the scenes the boss commanded an army of
followers devoted to one goal: winning elections. Ward captains were his chief
lieutenants, but a boss’s organization often reached down to a representative in virtually
every saloon in the city.
No ward captain kept his job—and the loot that came with it—unless he delivered
the votes on election day. No tactic was too sleazy. Massive distribution of bribes to
voters was routine. In the election of 1868, the Tweed Ring amassed a war chest of
$327,000 (at least $6 million in 2008 dollars) to buy votes.
The boss’s men registered their supporters to vote at multiple polling sites. One man
in 1868 claimed he had cast a ballot at least 28 times on election day. Maybe more than
28—he was too drunk to remember exactly. Corrupt judges illegally granted
naturalization certificates to 41,000 immigrants so they could vote for the boss’s party. If
all these tactics failed to amass enough votes, the boss’s soldiers simply trashed ballots or
discovered enough “overlooked” ballots to deliver a victory.
With his men grasping all the important offices of the city’s government, the boss
could turn to the delightful business of securing millions of dollars for the personal
fortunes of himself and his followers.
Loyal soldiers were rewarded with nice jobs that required no work; they did not
even need to come to the office and sit behind a desk for eight hours. Taxpayers paid
immense sums to these phantom workers. One study estimated that during Tweed’s reign
33% of New York City jobs were no-show positions. Every man who enjoyed one of
those cushy jobs paid a bribe—often monthly—to Boss Tweed or his associates to secure
Blackmail and extortion poured thousands of dollars into the Tweed Ring’s coffers.
Owners of illegal business paid protection money to ensure that the police ignored them.
Legitimate small businesses were visited by the boss’s goons and ordered to contribute
monthly to the party or face fines, citations, and even arrest warrants for bogus violations
of city ordinances.
Larger businesses were expected to use the boss’s printing company—at exorbitant
prices—to protect themselves from harassment. When the boss’s daughter was married in
1871, his “friends” showered the bride with $700,000 ($13 million) in bridal gifts.
These streams of revenue were puny compared to the torrent of dollars that poured
in from city contracts. The firms that sold textbooks to the city schools coughed up large
bribes to get that contract and then charged the city inflated prices. The book company
reaped big profits; Tweed and his boys collected a huge bribe; and the taxpayers got
stuck with the bill.
One city project became famous for yielding a geyser of cash for the boss and his
men. A new courthouse, originally budgeted to cost $250,000, had a final price tag of
$13million after the Tweed Ring enticed every contractor to pay enormous bribes and
then submit ridiculously high bills that were immediately paid by the city government.
The champion chiseler of the courthouse project was Andrew Garvey, a longtime crony
of Boss Tweed, who received $531,000 for plastering the walls of the building.
(Remember: the original budget for the entire building was $250,000.) During the heyday
of Boss Tweed, the Ring collected 65% of every contract as their bribe.
To ensure that inquisitive journalists did not interfere with his empire, Boss Tweed
devoted a little of his revenue to bribing the city’s newspapers. The city government
bought lavish ads and cheerfully paid exorbitant rates to conceal the bribe as a legitimate
payment. Then his men allocated a few government printing contracts to the newspapers.
One newspaper earned $207,000 for a job worth $10,000.
Like some of the mafia chieftains in the twentieth century, Boss Tweed gave sizable
donations to charities. He encouraged the city government to allocate more money for
orphanages and homeless shelter. Families facing a dire lack of food or fuel in the winter
could get help from the ward captains (and were expected to show their thanks on
In the last few decades, a few historians have tried to defend the big city bosses as
friends of the poor who established the first primitive welfare system in American cities.
But the help the bosses provided to poor families were mere scraps compared to the
damage the bosses inflicted on those same poor families.
The poor paid inflated rents because their landlords paid high city taxes and
extortion payments to the bosses. They paid inflated prices for food because the grocers
endured the same expenses. They were often the prey of criminals the police could not
touch because of the boss’s protection. The daily pain they endured that was caused by
the boss’s nest of thieves far outweighed the few benefits he provided.
SECTION 2: CORRUPTION IN STATE AND FEDERAL GOVERNMENT
The thieving tactics used by the bosses also infected the state governments.
Businessmen routinely paid bribes to state legislatures for a guarantee that the legislature
would accept an inflated contract that would yield huge profits for the businessmen.
When young Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany to serve his first term in the
New York state legislature, he discovered an audacious blackmail scheme used by
unscrupulous members of the state house. They would submit a bill aimed at a particular
business or industry, a bill so loaded with new restrictions, fees, regulations, penalties,
and prohibitions that it would cripple the businesses and destroy their profits. Then the
bill would mysteriously disappear a few weeks later—after the affected businesses had
paid hefty bribes.
The administration of President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877) has earned from
historians the prize for the most corrupt in American history. Grant himself, a failure in
every job he ever had—except as commander of armies during the War Between the
States—wallowed in the luxurious gifts he accepted after the war while still a general in
the army. Never very interested in politics or government, he accepted the presidency as
another gift for winning the war. While president he worked a mere five hours per day
and enjoyed lavish meals with 25 different dishes and several wines.
Although he never personally profited from the thievery that infested his
administration, he installed 40 relatives in lucrative government jobs. His secretary of
war, William Belknap, resigned when he was caught taking bribes. Belknap’s wife,
relishing an extravagant and luxurious lifestyle, took bribes to award contracts for
furnishing supplies to Indian tribes. A company prosecuted for defrauding the
government of import taxes funneled $30,000 into the Attorney-General’s pockets. He
dropped the charges.
The most notorious of the Grant administration scandals was the Whiskey Ring, a
conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government of excise tax payments from whiskey
distillers. Revenue agents charged with collecting the tax billed distillers for less whisky
than they actually produced as long as the distillers slipped them plenty of cash. One
agent created a system to collect bribes and blackmailed those distillers who refused to
join the fraud into participating in the scheme. In St. Louis the government lost $4
million in whisky taxes in only two years.
To entice Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock, into helping in the scheme,
the ring leaders provided him with $1000, a collection of diamonds, and the free services
of a prostitute. Grant intervened to enable Babcock to escape punishment for his crimes
by swearing that he believed completely in the integrity of his secretary. Some historians
believe that Grant deliberately perjured himself to rescue his friend.
Many congressmen got extra income through perks of the job that were legal and
widely accepted then but quite illegal today. Lobbyists provided them with lavish
dinners. Today many congressmen spend thousands of dollars every month to travel with
their staff to their home district; in the nineteenth century, they paid not a penny for travel
expenses. Railroads gave free passes to every congressman.
Every person who filled a job in the federal government, from the secretary of state
to the postmaster in Mud Trickle, Mississippi, was appointed by another federal official,
who had the absolute right to choose whomever he wished—regardless of that person’s
qualifications, abilities, or competence. Every person who worked hard in a campaign or
donated substantial money to the candidate expected a job as a reward.
John Wanamaker, the famous businessman who raised millions for Benjamin
Harrison, was awarded the office of Postmaster General. Thousands of loyal party
workers demanded clerkships. Harrison complained that he was forced to spend at least
four hours every day for 18 months handling those demands. Other presidents grumbled
that even their wives were harassed by office seekers. And every one of those clerks
kicked back 10% of their salary each month to fill the party’s war chest for the next
election—a requirement that was quite legal then.
Why was government so infested with thievery during these decades? The erosion of
the Jeffersonian ideal of limited government unleashed the government to grow fat
enough to attract the scavengers. As long as government was small and cheap, it did not
handle enough money to be a tempting target. As it exploded in size and wealth during
and after the War Between the States, the vultures swooped in.
No event does more to enlarge government than a war. Spending explodes, and
every penny can be justified as a crucial contribution to saving the nation. In a war like
the War Between the States, enshrined as a holy crusade in the minds of many
Americans, a man who tries to question and curb unnecessary spending or control waste
and corruption will often be branded an unpatriotic complainer who quibbles while men
die. That attitude often lingers long after the war is over.
Perhaps even more important was the erosion of ethics and morality during the war
and reconstruction. Lincoln bluntly proclaimed that he was willing to ignore the
Constitution to win the war. Sherman and other Union generals threw away the ethical
rules that had long governed war among civilized men to win the war. Congress routinely
ignored the law and the Constitution during Reconstruction.
Why should the men in state and local government resist ignoring the laws to make
themselves rich? General Ben Butler made a fortune sanctioning trade with the enemy
while he was a commander in Virginia and North Carolina. After the war, he returned to
Congress and earned a reputation as one of the more corrupt men in that body filled with
SECTION 3: POLITICAL PARTIES AND POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS
Mired in a system of government often dominated by thieves and rascals, how did
the American people react? You might expect that they enthusiastically embraced reform
movements to flush out the corruption or disgustedly ignored politics altogether.
Actually, they chose neither of those attitudes.
Average Americans loved political campaigns. During the last three decades of the
nineteenth century, they participated eagerly in the election circus and flocked to the
polls. In the 1876 election an astonishing 70% of eligible voters cast ballots. Never before
or since would a greater percentage of the American population join in campaigns or go
to the polls on election day. Every newspaper was adamantly Republican or Democrat.
This high level of participation was not fueled by a feeling that the political parties
were discussing important issues, offering radically different visions of the duties of
government, or grappling with imminent crises. A political campaign was for the average
American a wonderfully entertaining spectacle, a circus, a spectator sport, a party. Often
campaign rallies were literally parties—bands playing at a lavish barbecue filled with
food, beer, and whisky, freely available to everyone who gathered to hear a speech
extolling the virtues of the candidate.
Both Republicans and Democrats emphasized spectacle and hoopla rather than
serious discussion of the issues facing the nation. Massive torchlight parades were a
favorite event. Some of the campaign antics that occurred during those years strike us
today as reminiscent of a middle school election for student body president. In the
presidential campaign of 1888, supporters of Benjamin Harrison rolled a huge paper-
mache ball from town to town while shouting that they were rolling up votes for Ben.
Democrats and Republicans shied away from confronting the issues and relied
instead on hoopla in part because support for each party was roughly equal. Most
Americans were intensely loyal to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Year after
year they automatically voted for every candidate of their party. And the secret ballot was
unknown. At the polling place, a voter walked over to a table marked Democrat or
Republican and picked up his ballot as scores of people watched him.
Every four years, as the presidential election loomed, each party was virtually
guaranteed a majority of the vote in certain states—approximately 15 for each party.
Razor thin margins decided the presidential elections from 1868 to 1896. Rutherford
Hayes (1876) and Benjamin Harrison (1888) lost the popular vote and eked out a narrow
victory in the Electoral College. James Garfield (1880) won the popular vote by 7,368
Each party feared that taking a firm stand on either side of any controversial issues
would alienate at least a few voters and dilute their support enough to throw the victory to
the other party. With support so evenly split, small incidents often decided elections. A
short remark by an unknown Protestant minister at an insignificant Republican Party
function probably tilted the 1884 presidential election to the Democrat, Grover
Despite their efforts to avoid sharp stands on the issues, the two parties did endorse
different views of the basic duties of government and did disagree on a few issues that
were controversial. But the most basic division of party loyalty was geographical. The
North was the stronghold of the Republicans; the South was the bastion of the
Until the twentieth century, the Republicans refought the War Between the States in
every presidential election. They demanded lavish pensions for Union army vets and
damned everyone who opposed the pension program as a traitor. Again and again in
campaign rallies they “waved the bloody shirt,” pummeling the people with their version
of the war—the sainted Lincoln had defeated the evil Southern rebels and saved
civilization—and reminding them that the Democrats today were the party of the
Southerners, the fiends who had butchered the brave men of the Union army who had
The Democrats did have one source of strength in the North: the big cities,
especially the immigrant populations there. Often presidential elections hinged on
whether the Democratic support in the cities could swing the electoral votes of a few of
the Northern states into the Democratic win column.
Most businessmen cheered for the Republicans because they were the party of big
government. Starting with the huge transcontinental railroad project, the Republicans
were always ready to call for lavish public projects funded by taxpayer dollars—even
programs like the transcontinental railroad that gave money directly to private businesses.
But the greatest subsidy bestowed on business by the Republicans was the
immensely high tariff—nearly 50% on many items—which shut out overseas competition
for American businesses and therefore enabled them to charge the consumers higher
prices and reap higher profits. It was holy writ for most Republicans that the high tariff
was the sacred shield of American economic prosperity. Another Republican policy that
soothed most businessmen was the party‟s support for a tight money policy—strict
control of the money supply to prevent inflation.
The Republicans‟ affinity for big government extended to a willingness to impose
new regulations on the behavior of the average American. Those who wanted to
regenerate America by banning the sale of alcohol, shutting down gambling, or
drastically reducing immigration usually took their fervor to the Republican Party.
Those Americans who still felt queasy about big government—who feared that it
would squander the people‟s money, enrich the already wealthy, and destroy freedom in
the name of stamping out sin—usually joined the Democratic Party. Democrats accused
the Republicans of using too much taxpayer money on projects designed to help big
business or subsidize industries.
Most Democrats favored at least some reduction of the tariff. They pointed out that
high tariffs raised the price of virtually everything the people bought, including the daily
necessities in the budgets of the poorest Americans. A perfect example of the
fundamental flaw of big government, the tariff enriched wealthy industrialists while
hammering the poor.
Another pernicious facet of the tariff that was often a subject of Democratic
campaign speeches was the huge surplus it created in the federal budget. At this time
there was no income tax, but the government hardly needed one. Revenue from the tariff
and excise taxes on whisky and tobacco raised $100 million more every year than the
federal government needed to pay its expenses. Since the Republicans adamantly refused
to lower the tariff, they felt compelled to spend the surplus money and often wasted
millions on pork barrel projects. Democrats demanded that Congress should cut the tariff
to reduce prices and help all Americans stretch their dollars instead of using the money
from the tariff to help cronies in their districts.
Democrats inclined toward a laissez faire view of government; in general, a
government should maximize freedom and refrain from interfering in the lives of the
people. As Jefferson said in a memorable phrase, if your action does not break my leg or
pick my pocket, the government should allow it and disregard any mob that demands my
punishment because they believe my behavior is disgraceful.
Democrats usually opposed the regulation of private behavior—drinking, gambling,
or opening your business on Sunday—as well as the regulation of business and industry.
Broad support for the Democrats in the immigrant-jammed big cities flowed from their
staunch opposition to the restriction of immigration to the United States.
Many Democrats criticized the Republicans‟ fondness for a tight money policy as
just another government benefit for businessmen. More growth in the money supply, they
asserted, would benefit the average American, especially the huge slice of the population
plowing their fields and selling their crops.
SECTION 4: SINGLE-ISSUE ORGANIZATIONS
Many loyal Democrats and Republicans did not endorse all the party tenets
described in the preceding paragraphs. Some Southern businessmen who reaped high
profits from the protective tariff still voted for Democrats because they hated the anti-
South bigotry that infested the Republican Party. Some poor workers in the North who
detested wealthy businessmen and wanted the government to control and regulate the
U.S. economy voted for Democrats because the Republicans were branded as the party of
For the party organizations only one goal was sacred—winning elections—and any
position on any issue could be ditched or fudged to pile up votes. A Democrat running in
a district filled with steel factories would often assure the voters that Democrats only
opposed unnecessary tariffs and supported necessary tariffs—like a tariff on imported
Realizing that the political parties subordinated every issue to the goal of winning
elections, Americans who believed passionately in a cause threw their zeal into reform
organizations or third parties. A farmers‟ organization, the Grange, fought for
government regulation of businesses, and it successfully pressured state legislatures into
curbing the freedom of business owners before either party faced the issue.
The Grange was founded in 1867 as a social club for farmers. Monthly Grange
meetings broke up the monotonous and lonely grind of farm labor and provided a forum
for food, gossip, and fellowship with friends, as well as educational talks on improving
the profitability of their farms. Harvest Day (Thanksgiving) and Spring Fling were annual
Grange celebrations loaded with good food, singing, dancing, and games and prizes for
The Grange soon moved beyond organizing social and educational meetings. By the
1870s Midwestern agriculture had evolved beyond primitive 100-acres-and-a-mule
farms. Profitable farms required reapers, specialized plows, wagons, and other
equipment—tools that often cost hundreds of dollars each.
The Grange organized buying co-ops for farmers to buy equipment at a discount.
Ten farmers, for example, set up a co-op and appointed one of them to negotiate with
reaper factories, offering a factory a bulk order of ten reapers if it would give the farmers
a reduced price. The companies seized the opportunity to sell ten reapers with minimal
fuss and paperwork and often gave the farmers deep discounts. Farmers bought reapers
that retailed for $275 for only $175 by using co-ops.
Inevitably, farmers discontented with the state of farming in America griped to the
other men and women they met at Grange meetings. The Grange morphed into a political
organization to carry those gripes to the government and demand action to improve the
life of the farmers. By 1874 the Grange boasted a membership of 1.5 million farmers and
By the mid-1870s, Grangers in the Midwestern states were using block voting:
promising that every Granger would vote for a particular candidate if he supported
Grange-approved reforms. They aimed to use the men they elected to force state
legislatures to set a legal maximum price for railroad rates and fees charged by grain
elevator operators to store the farmers‟ crops. Farmers thought the prices were too high,
so the government should force businessmen to reduce them—or go to jail. (In an
obvious act of hypocrisy, farmers soon demanded various government actions to increase
the price of their crops.)
Several Midwestern states bowed to the farmers‟ protests and established maximum
rates for railroads and elevator operators. An Illinois law regulating elevator operators
was challenged and ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The businessmen of course argued that the government had no right to eliminate
their freedom to run their business as they wished and charge whatever price they chose
to set. If government had the right to order price reductions just because farmers believed
prices were too high, legislators could order farmers to lower their prices because factory
workers believed food prices were too high.
The Supreme Court‟s decision in Munn v. Illinois was a chilling milestone. The
Court calmly announced that governments had the right to regulate any business that
“affects the community at large.” Of course every single business that sells anything
“affects the community at large,” so the Court announced an unlimited right for
government to regulate any business at any time. At one stroke, the freedom of the
American businessman evaporated.
The Grange‟s career as a feared lobbying organization soon faded. After 1880
membership declined, partly because of internal quarrels about political goals, partly
because an ambitious Grange project—farmer-owned businesses—failed and lost
thousands of dollars. The Grange lapsed back into a social and educational organization
SECTION 5: FUNDING THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD
One of the most famous political scandals in the 1860s concerned a construction
company with an odd name: the Credit Mobilier. Actually, the Credit Mobilier was
organized to service only one construction project: building the transcontinental railroad.
That railroad was the largest project the U.S. government had ever tackled, and since it
was built in the 1860s (1864-1869), it was a corrupt boondoggle.
As soon as California entered the United States in 1850, Westerners bombarded the
federal government with demands for a railroad—built with the taxpayers‟ money—to
link California and the East coast. Always smitten by expensive government projects, the
Republicans eagerly embraced the railroad. Abraham Lincoln, who had built his personal
fortune through expensive legal services for Illinois railroads, championed the project,
and a pledge by the Republicans to build the railroad was a prominent campaign promise
in the 1860 election.
In 1862 Congress passed a bill that would funnel massive government funds into the
coffers of the two private companies set up to build the railroad. The Central Pacific
would start from California and move eastward; the Union Pacific would start in
Nebraska and move westward. For every mile of track they completed, each company
would receive thousands of dollars in loans from the federal government as well as huge
tracts of free land that they could sell to provide more funds for further construction.
By 1864 the Central Pacific had completed 20 miles of track and exhausted every
penny in their company accounts. The Union Pacific had wasted every dollar the
company possessed in a lavish groundbreaking ceremony and had not completed even a
single mile of track.
But they knew how to rescue their companies. The executives of the two companies
hired experienced Washington lobbyists, scraped up a war chest of bribe money, and
descended on the halls of Congress. After showering congressmen with bribes of
$250,000 of free stocks and bonds and large donations to their reelection funds, they
managed to entice Congress to pass a revised transcontinental railroad construction bill in
The bill gave the companies 20 square miles of free land for every mile of track they
completed. A mile of track also earned them $16,000-$48,000 in loans (more for track in
mountainous terrain, less for flat land). Congress dispensed some of the loan money
immediately to hasten the restart of construction. In a bizarre subterfuge to help the
Central Pacific, Lincoln lied about the California terrain, asserting in an official
document that the Sierra Nevada mountain range began 24 miles east of its actual starting
point—thus giving the Central Pacific $48,000 per mile for easy construction across flat
Before construction resumed on the Union Pacific, a group of investors created the
Credit Mobilier. Their plan resembled the contract racket that Boss Tweed used so
successfully. The Credit Mobilier submitted an extremely high bid to construct the Union
Pacific, and the Union Pacific executives accepted it. The Credit Mobilier then hired
firms to do the actual construction at normal prices, instantly earning an immense profit,
which the company returned to Credit Mobilier investors as huge yearly dividends—
100% in 1868.
Prominent among the secret Credit Mobilier investors were the executives of the
Union Pacific! The Union Pacific executives therefore did not need to care about
constructing a railroad that would ever earn a dollar in profit. If the railroad fell apart the
day after it was completed, they had already made a fortune.
The executives of the Central Pacific started up a similar racket to line their pockets,
giving their corporation an equally mysterious name, the Construction and Finance
Company. When the Credit Mobilier scam was exposed in 1872, inquiring journalists
discovered that the Credit Mobilier executives had ensured congressional support by
“selling” thousands of shares of the company‟s stock to congressmen, who provided no
money down and paid for the stock after they had received huge dividends.
SECTION 6: BUILDING THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD
The men who actually built the transcontinental railroad faced formidable obstacles.
The Union Pacific forged ahead through a wilderness uninhabited by white settlers.
Everything the workers needed, from beans to brothels, had to be transported with the
crews as the track inched forward. Large herds of cattle (to provide beef) ambled
alongside the train cars that provided sleeping and eating areas for the workers.
When the crews entered Indian lands, they listened for the signal to throw down
their sledgehammers and shovels and pick up their guns to repel an attack by angry
warriors determined to throw the trespassers off their land. Eventually the federal
government sent 5,000 soldiers to protect the workers and speed up construction.
It was a hard life that attracted tough men. Hard-drinking, hard fighting Irishmen,
whose fathers had built America‟s first great construction project, the Erie Canal, formed
the bulk of the workers. Veterans of the war, farmers disgusted with plowing in the hot
sun all day, and other rough and tough men worked alongside the Irish.
Indian attacks never bothered the Central Pacific workers; their bosses bribed the
local tribes to accept the iron horse. The chief obstacles that bedeviled the Central Pacific
were horrible terrain (the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada) and a chronic shortage of
workers. Men hired to labor on the railroad would stay a few days, then contract gold
fever and desert to seek their fortunes in the gold fields.
As they desperately searched for dependable workers, one of the Central Pacific
executives, Charlie Crocker, suggested that they hire the thousands of Chinese
immigrants who had been arriving in California since the opening days of the gold rush.
Most of the Central Pacific chiefs scoffed at the suggestion. The Chinese were scrawny
little guys. They could hardly handle the backbreaking labor of heavy construction work.
But Crocker retorted: “They built the Great Wall of China, didn‟t they?”
The Central Pacific hired a few Chinese workers. Then a few more. Then the
company tried to hire nothing but Chinese. Those scrawny little men astonished every
construction boss. They worked tirelessly, never shirked when the boss was not looking
at them, learned any skill quickly and efficiently, seldom complained, and never showed
up for work drunk.
Because they washed their bodies and their clothes frequently and drank boiled tea
instead of the local water, they seldom lost work days because of sickness. When Irish
workers were incapacitated by dysentery (caused by bad water) or other illnesses (caused
by lack of sanitation) the Chinese gave a full day‟s toil.
The Central Pacific prized their Asian workers so much that the company
accommodated their dietary whims. The Chinese refused to eat the beef, beans, bread,
and coffee that the Central Pacific provided free to the white workers. So the Central
Pacific bought Chinese food—seaweed, bamboo shoots, rice, etc.—from Chinese
importers in San Francisco and hired Chinese cooks to prepare it. (The company did
charge the Chinese workers a monthly fee for their exotic provisions.) The construction
bosses even ignored the opium smoking that the Chinese workers indulged in to relax
during their day off on Sunday.
And the Chinese were brave men. The monumental obstacle to the completion of the
Central Pacific was the sheer rock walls of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. To demolish
enough of the cliffs and force open a path for the railroad tracks, Chinese workers
grabbed ropes and lowered a fellow worker in a large woven basket down to the cliff
Using a sledgehammer and a hand drill, he carved out a hole and inserted black
powder. The he lit the fuse and screamed to his buddies to haul him up out of the danger
zone. Sometimes they hauled too slowly, or the fuse burned too quickly, and the Central
Pacific chalked up another casualty in the drive to complete the transcontinental railroad.
At one point in the construction, the Central Pacific was using 500 barrels of
gunpowder per day and yet advancing only eight inches per day through the rock. Then a
Central Pacific engineer read about a recent European invention, a newfangled explosive
called nitroglycerin. Much more powerful than black powder, nitro was also extremely
volatile and dangerous to the user. But the Central Pacific latched on to it as a magic key
to speed up the immense amount of blasting required to get the railroad through the
SECTION 7: COMPLETING THE TRANSCONTINENTAL RAILROAD
Pomp, fanfare, and ceremony pervaded the scene at Promontory Point, Utah on May
8, 1869 when a golden spike—the last spike that completed the transcontinental
railroad—was driven into the crosstie. The great project was finished! Then, during the
next few years, the nation assessed the damage.
The U.S. government‟s agreement with the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific,
combined with the chicanery of their two pet construction companies, guaranteed that the
railroad would be hastily built, shoddy, and ultimately unprofitable. Since the Central
Pacific and the Union Pacific received showers of government cash as soon as they
completed a mile of track, the agreement created an incentive to build track as quickly as
possible—and no incentive to build it well or even to build it efficiently. One disgusted
engineer quit the Union Pacific after he was ordered to build snakelike loops in the track
to maximize the mileage and qualify for more government money.
Crews were ordered to lay track on frozen ground although everyone knew that
when the ground thawed in the spring they would be forced to rebuild every foot of the
track. Laying track through the mostly treeless plains of the Midwest, the Union Pacific
needed to import hardwood for solid, firm, and long lasting crossties—the foundation of
a good railroad track.
Too expensive! Instead, they used soft cottonwood for 80% of the crossties, fully
aware that within just a few years, the cottonwood would deteriorate and the company
would require the cash to rip up and replace 100,000 crossties. The Union Pacific also
purchased cheap iron rails and scrimped on bridge building, using wood instead of
masonry. Inferior quality rails on bad crossties running over rickety bridges—truly a
railroad the U.S. taxpayers could be proud of.
Huge bills for extensive repairs were just a small part of the enormous expenses that
faced the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific after 1869. To keep trains running
reliably over hundreds of miles of track required thousands of employees, massive
purchases of fuel, and extensive daily maintenance. Every railroad confronted that big
bill every month. But these railroads also faced the gigantic loans received from the U.S.
treasury that demanded payment every month.
To cope with those bills, the companies had only limited revenues. The U.S.
government had persuaded them to build a railroad through the middle of nowhere.
Where would they find customers? And one of their big customers, the U.S. government,
had demanded, as part of the construction deal, a promise from the railroads to haul U.S.
mail and U.S. soldiers at rock-bottom rates.
High expenses and low revenues equal disaster for any business. The Union Pacific
consistently failed to repay the government loans and finally declared bankruptcy in
1893. The Central Pacific managed to survive, mostly because its executives bribed the
California legislature to endow the company with a monopoly. The Central Pacific could
charge high rates to every customer because no other company was legally allowed to
build a railroad in California.
But every U.S. history textbook staunchly defends the wisdom of the federal
government‟s transcontinental railroad program. John Garraty‟s well-known textbook
asserts that “unless the government had been willing to build the transcontinental lines
itself, some system of subsidy was inevitable.” No government help, no transcontinental
Not true. James J. Hill built a transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, without a
penny of government help. Hill‟s railroad was a model of careful, solid engineering and
high quality components. Because he was spending his own cash, Hill scrutinized every
He started his great project in 1879 and reached the Pacific Ocean in 1893. That
slow and careful process was a key to his success. He constructed a section of track, then
stopped and encouraged settlers—future customers—by offering $10 fares to get the
settlers to their land. He gave away breeding cattle and a special variety of wheat to help
the settlers create successful farms that would ship lots of crops in the cars of the Great
Northern Railroad. When the flow of profits reached a nice level, Hill began to build the
track westward again.
But could America have waited until 1893? Would the delay have stunted the
nation‟s economic growth? Hill‟s railroad was the fifth transcontinental railroad in the
United States (All the others had received government aid.) Surely Hill—or another
astute entrepreneur— would have built his railroad more quickly if he had been building
in a world with no subsidized competition.
The federal government subsidized the building of the transcontinental railroad in
1862 because the public wanted a railroad, and everyone recognized that private
businesses would not build it. Businessmen knew such a railroad would not be profitable.
If private businesses refuse to tackle a project because it is not profitable, a government
invites disaster if it tries to build it anyway. As Cornelius Vanderbilt, the famous
billionaire businessman and owner of railroads, said, “Building a railroad from nowhere
to nowhere at public expense is not a legitimate enterprise.”
SECTION 8: SETTLING THE GREAT PLAINS
The completion of the transcontinental railroad triggered a tsunami of restless
Americans sweeping westward to fill up the vast area of the United States between
Missouri and the West coast states. They first poured into Western Kansas and Nebraska
and then marched relentlessly westward.
No longer did settlers need to endure a long, dangerous trip by wagon train. And
there was now free land available. The Homestead Act of 1862 (another Republican
campaign promise) granted any settler the property title to 160 acres of land after he had
lived there for five years.
Millions of acres of land granted to the railroads were also available for purchase at
cheap prices sweetened by long term loans at low interest rates. Railroad companies
covered America and Europe with newspaper ads, posters, and pamphlets hyping the
fertile land and the benign climate of the Great Plains. One ad proclaimed that the climate
was so healthy that a few months there cured all known diseases.
Low land prices and attractive loans were not the only enticements the railroads
offered to prospective buyers. Free train tickets to their property and free shipment of
their household goods often persuaded reluctant buyers, and for Europeans the railroads
provided discount tickets to America. Many railroads hired greeters to welcome
European buyers when they stepped off the ship at Eastern ports.
The same motives that had driven Americans to surge westward since Jamestown
propelled those men and women who looked forward to a new life on the Great Plains.
Americans dreamed of a new farm whose fertile soil would yield abundant crops without
an endless grind of hard labor. Europeans dreamed of a new life far from obnoxious
governments in a land of equality and opportunity where every man could own a farm
and be his own boss.
Overpopulation in the Mississippi Valley region incited many American to leave
their old homes and head west. Irish railroad workers saved their wages, bought land, and
took up farming. Ex-slaves fled the South. Immigrants from Canada, Germany, and
Scandinavia flocked to the cheap land in the Great Plains. So many Germans settled in
one section of Western Kansas that the Indians there spoke German as their second
language. A wave of 105,000 Scandinavians settled in the Great Plains in 1882.
They all soon discovered that they had not migrated to the earthly paradise described
in the hyperbolic advertisements of the railroad companies. Necessary and essential
resources like wood and water, as common as air in the Eastern United States, were
scarce on the Great Plains. Land was free, but importing wood for a fence on the treeless
prairies cost $1000, and fences were essential to keep livestock in and dangerous critters
Nor could they cut down trees and build a house. They coped with the housing
problem by building sod houses—homes built from chunks of sod stacked up like bricks
and secured with wooden rods driven through the sod “bricks.” Sod houses leaked in
stormy weather and rained dust on everything during dry weather. Sometimes a snake,
regarding the sod roof as just another earthen obstacle, would burrow through the roof
and land in a plate of beans during supper. But in a treeless environment, a sod house was
often the only available shelter during the initial years on the new farm.
A clever inventor solved the fencing problem. In 1874 Joseph Glidden patented
barbed wire, and mass production soon provided cheap fences for the prairie settlers. A
few wooden fence posts and a roll of barbed wire provided a quick alternative to the
traditional wooden or stone fences used by Eastern farmers.
Lack of wood also bedeviled the family cook. What could she use for fuel in her
stove? Buffalo chips or cow chips—died animal dung. In their diaries frontier women
sometimes admitted that after months of cooking with cow chips, they picked up the
chips and shoved them in the fire, kneaded the bread, shoved in more cow chips, then put
the bread in the stove—without ever washing their hands.
An even more vexing problem was the lack of water. The Great Plains region
averaged only 20 inches of rain in a year, and constant winds caused rapid evaporation of
that rain. Rivers and streams were rare, and even when nearby were seldom more than
shallow, muddy creeks. A bizarre scientific theory claimed that “rain followed the plow”;
when humans populated the prairie, rainfall would increase. Railroads spread the good
news to lure settlers, but of course the theory was nonsense.
Wells could furnish water for men, crops, and livestock, but finding underground
water in the Great Plains called for arduous labor. Armed only with picks and shovels,
farmers often dug down below 200 feet before they hit water. Many sweated through
countless hours of digging and never found water. They could only shrug, curse, and start
again on another site. Professional well-drillers, using steam-driven machines, could do
the job quickly, but their services were far too expensive for the average farmer until the
After enduring the brutal hard work necessary to overcome all these obstacles, a
successful farm and a good life still eluded many settlers on the Great Plains. Reaping a
bountiful harvest there required mastering new techniques: using a specialized plow to
cut into the tight soil and tough matted grasses of the prairie, planting a hardy strain of
wheat that could withstand dry conditions, and plowing carefully to conserve the meager
rainfall. Despite careful and painstaking work by the farm family, nature could strike out
and suddenly destroy the crops: torrid heat, frigid cold, hailstorms, prairie fires, and the
vast swarms of locusts that reoccurred regularly throughout the 1870s and destroyed
entire fields of crops in minutes.
Many families failed and headed back east. A farm of 160 acres was adequate for a
family in the wet climate of the Eastern United States, but in the Great Plains it was too
small to support them. During the previous centuries of American agriculture, a farmer
needed an ax, a plow, and a mule, and then he was equipped to make his little farm a
success. On the Great Plains, he needed cash for a special plow, a reaper, lumber for a
house, barbed wire, and a deep well with a windmill to pump water to irrigate his fields.
He could try to live without all that equipment, but his chances for success without it
were slim. Many did not have the cash, and many failed. Others borrowed, bought the
equipment, and could not earn enough money on a 160 acre farm to pay back the loan
and support a family. They too failed.
SECTION 9: THE ORIGINS OF THE PLAINS INDIANS
Scattered through the Great Plains today are thousands of forgotten graves from the
1870s, the last resting place of settlers killed by blizzards, diseases, and other lethal acts
of God. But acts of man killed them too, and above all they feared the bloody death that
came with Indian attacks.
Although the threat of that kind of death filled hearts with terror, Indian attacks were
actually uncommon. Many of the Indians had been cleared out by the U.S. army before
the wave of settlers engulfed the prairies. But lethal raids did occur occasionally,
especially in the 1860s. In 1869 Cheyenne Indians on a rampage in Kansas killed several
families and strangled a baby they had captured and carried away because it screamed too
Say the word “Indian” to a group of average Americans, and they will envision a
mounted hunter galloping across the plains chasing a buffalo—a young warrior from one
of the Plains Indian tribes. Even their enemies in the U.S. army admired them as the best
horsemen and the best mounted soldiers the sun ever shined on.
Yet the ancestors of these people were sedentary farmers tilling the soil on the
fringes of the Great Plains. In a scant 30 years, these tribes threw away their traditional
culture and society and transformed themselves into nomadic buffalo hunters who
disdained to plant crops or build houses. Their metamorphosis was proof of the incredible
capacity of the human species to adapt, change, and learn.
The innovation that ignited that metamorphosis was the horse. For hundreds of
years, tribes like the Sioux and the Cheyenne, later renowned as plains warriors, lived on
the Eastern fringes of the Great Plains. Occasionally they caught a buffalo, feasted on the
meat, and used the hide for clothing. But even clever and determined hunters could
seldom capture a fleet buffalo while chasing it on foot. By bartering, stealing, and
grabbing strays, the Indians acquired horses from the Europeans. As mounted hunters
they could harvest plenty of buffalos.
Why slave away planting, plowing, weeding, and harvesting when those hairy beasts
provided lots of food? The Sioux and the Cheyenne left their farms and villages in the
early 1800s and headed west, transforming themselves into nomadic hunters who thrived
on the immense herds of the Great Plains. Armed with horses and, increasingly, with
guns, they destroyed the Indians who already sparsely inhabited the plains or drove them
westward toward the mountains.
Their new life brought new wealth (whites paid top dollar for buffalo hides) and
more leisure time for fun stuff like raids on neighboring tribes. Scores of Hollywood
movies depict a wise old Plains Indian chief in the 1870s lecturing the whites that “our
people have lived in this land since the Great Spirit created the earth.” Complete
nonsense. Seventy years earlier the Sioux had lived in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the
Cheyenne in the Great Lakes region.
In addition to their basic nomadic way of life, the Plains Indians shared many social
and cultural customs. A sense of racial superiority was a common trait. Each tribe was
convinced that they were superior humans, and all other tribes (and the whites) were
inferior. The Comanches of the Southern plains were notorious for their haughty disdain
for other peoples. A love of combat and a conviction that war was the only proper task
for a man was gospel in all the tribes.
A central part of their religion was the quest for dreams and visions—the great path
to gain wisdom and spiritual power from the Creator. The search for visions was at the
heart of one of their most important religious ceremonies, the sun dance.
It was not really a dance. The vision seekers gathered in a large teepee. For four
days and four nights, without food, water, or rest, they shuffled their feet as they stared at
an object (usually a buffalo skull) at the top of a pole in the center of the teepee.
Exhaustion, dehydration, and starvation usually spawned visions.
A few very brave (or masochistic) young men endured the ultimate vision quest.
Ropes were tied to sharpened wooden rods, and the rods were punched through the chest
muscles of the vision seeker. Then he was hoisted up to the top of the pole, to hang there
in excruciating pain as long as he could endure the agony. He might die, or he might be
rewarded with astounding visions.
SECTION 10: THE SETTLERS AND THE PLAINS INDIANS
Before the 1870s, the 250,000 Indians who lived on the Great Plains seldom clashed
with whites. A few skirmishes occurred when wagon trains entered Indian lands while
heading west to California and Oregon in the 1840s and 1850s, but the U.S. government
assured the Indians that the wagons were just passing through and paid the tribes to
ignore them. Until the waves of settlers surged into the Great Plains on the
transcontinental railroad, Indian tribes had plenty of room in which to roam while they
followed the buffalo herds.
Wars did erupt in the sparse areas where whites had settled down in Indian lands.
The most notorious killing was the 1864 Sand Creek massacre in Colorado. After fighting
broke out between whites and Cheyenne, Colorado militia commanded by Col.
Chivington attacked a Cheyenne village and killed every person there, even babies.
Chivington personally ordered the massacre of the 300 Indians: “Kill and scalp them all;
nits make lice.”
After the battle, the proud soldiers exhibited scalps and severed arms and legs in a
Denver theater. The Cheyenne of course retaliated and killed 117 whites in the ensuing
months. Four years later, a government commission investigated the massacre,
denounced the soldiers‟ bloodthirsty barbarity, and recommended reparation payments to
surviving relatives of the victims.
Wyoming was the site of another famous battle. Soldiers protected the Bozeman
Trail, the road that provided the outlet for gold mines in Southern Montana. The Sioux
fought to close down the trail and chase the miners off their land. One of the soldiers
stationed there was the boastful William J. Fetterman, who bragged: “Give me 80
soldiers, and I‟ll ride through the whole Sioux nation.”
On December 21, 1866, Fetterman and 80 soldiers set out to rescue a party of wood
cutters from marauding Indians. A few Indians, led by a young war chief named Crazy
Horse, decoyed Fetterman and his men into a trap, and 2000 Sioux warriors annihilated
them. The Bozeman Trail closed down.
Doom came to the Plains Indians‟ culture when the railroad brought hordes of white
settlers. Those settlers did not understand why poor Americans should remain landless
while a handful of primitive nomads claimed millions of acres that they occupied only a
few months during a seasonal hunt. The conflict between the two cultures was inevitable.
Their fundamental interests were irreconcilable.
Their basic ethical norms intensified the hatred on both sides. The Plains Indians
were a warrior culture, arrogantly sure that the way of the world was for the strong to
take and the weak to give in. For male Indians, war was the only proper avocation.
Prestige in white culture flowed from wealth, fame, or family; among the Plains Indians,
little mattered except prowess in war. They fought constant wars to seize new hunting
grounds, steal horses, obtain guns, and often simply as an opportunity for achieving fame
and status. A white farmer regarded the theft of his horses as contemptible stealing; for
the Indian, stealing from a person outside his tribe was a glorious deed.
SECTION 11: THE END OF FREEDOM FOR THE PLAINS INDIANS
In the 1870s the U.S. army defeated the Indians in battle and forced them to give up
their nomadic buffalo hunting and live instead on reservations as wards of the federal
government. From proud warriors to a culture on welfare in a few short years.
The Southern Plains Indians were the first to lose their freedom. The proud
Comanche, the lords of the Southern plains, who had tormented the Spanish and Texans
for decades with their lightning raids, had agreed to move to a large reservation in 1868
and renounce their old habits. But they could not bear to give up looting and warfare.
They used the reservations as a sanctuary, accepted the government‟s food as rations for
their warriors, and then they periodically slipped away and attacked both whites and other
Their raids—and similar raids by the Kiowas and Cheyennes— finally ignited a full-
scale war with the U.S. army in 1874. Unrelenting pressure from the army during a hard
winter sapped the Indians‟ strength and forced them to surrender. The Red River War
crammed all the Southern Plains Indians into small reservations and destroyed forever
their lives as nomadic hunters. To ensure that the Indians would remain peaceful, General
Sheridan exiled 74 of their leaders to an old Spanish fortress in Key West.
For the Northern Plains Indians, limited freedom endured a few more years. The
Sioux had the option of living on the government dole on a reservation, living as nomads
and hunting buffalo in a large area called “unceded Indian territory,” or living on the
reservation and occasionally joining the buffalo hunters.
This arrangement terminated in 1874 when a U.S. military expedition found gold in
the Black Hills of the Dakota country, a sacred site for the Sioux. Gold-hungry miners
poured in, and the U.S. government tried to buy the land from the tribe before determined
miners or irate Indians started a war. The Indians refused to sell. To extort a sale, the
government ordered the hunting bands to leave their nomadic life and settle permanently
on a reservation.
They refused. The army sent George Custer, an experienced Indian fighter, to round
them up. Custer‟s career illustrates how a man may be a successful leader and then fail
when forced to function under slightly different conditions. During the War Between the
States, George Custer became the nation‟s youngest general by forging his men into the
best cavalry unit in the army.
But those soldiers were patriotic volunteers dedicated to the cause of saving the
union. After the war, Custer had to lead the soldiers of the peacetime army—mostly
drunken losers just trying to serve out their contracts. He tried to control them with iron
discipline. That tactic failed because Custer punished his men for breaking petty rules and
regulations while he broke the rules himself whenever he wished. His men hated him.
On June 25, 1876, Custer led 210 soldiers toward an Indian camp on the Little Big
Horn River in Montana. Eager for the glory of a great victory, Custer charged in without
reconnoitering the enemy. He blundered into at least 2,000 Sioux, Cheyenne, and
Arapaho warriors. Crazy Horse led them into battle with his famous chant: “Today is a
good day to die.” The Indians destroyed Custer‟s entire force in 30 minutes.
A great victory for the Indians, but also a tragedy for them. News of the battle
reached the East coast on July 5, 1876. As Americans awoke, woozy from copious
drinking to celebrate the nation‟s one hundredth birthday, they saw newspaper headlines
announcing the shocking annihilation of Custer‟s men: a crack U.S. cavalry unit
destroyed, their bodies mutilated by savages!
An incensed American public demanded revenge. Large armies harried the Northern
Plains Indians with relentless pressure throughout the winter. Constantly moving in the
freezing cold to escape the soldiers, unable to take time to hunt to feed their families, the
Indians surrendered and trudged off to small reservations to become dependents of the
The last Indian tribe to enjoy their traditional life outside the reservations was an
escaped band of Apaches led by a chief named Geronimo. These Apaches lived far from
the plains and the buffalos in the desert country of Arizona and New Mexico. They
farmed the land but obtained most of their food from hunting and collecting the fruits of
wild plants like cactus and acorns.
Preyed upon for hundreds of years by Mexicans and Americans who stole their
women and children for the slave markets, they loathed the white race. Their hatred
exploded in the tortures they inflicted on the prisoners they seized when they raided white
settlements. Hanging a captive upside down over a fire while his brains slowly roasted
was a favorite Apache torture.
The U.S. government spent $40 million to defeat the Apaches and force them into
reservations. In 1871 the army admitted the campaign had been a complete failure. The
Apaches were consummate guerrilla warriors, tireless and ghostlike. They could trot 40
miles in a day and live comfortably in the desert on meager rations while whites
collapsed from hunger, thirst, and sunstroke. U.S. soldiers marveled at their ability to
hide in terrain virtually devoid of vegetation and cover.
Eventually General George Crook, an experienced Indian fighter with an iron will,
endless determination, and a reputation among the Indians for honesty and fairness, broke
the Apaches and hustled them off into reservations in 1874. In 1882 an Apache band led
by Geronimo escaped from their reservation and for four years rampaged through the
countryside until Crook finally forced them to surrender in 1886. The government packed
off the Apache leaders, and large part of their warriors, to a prison in Florida. The
official, final end of Indian freedom in the United States.
SECTION 12: THE MINERS IN THE WESTERN STATES
Early skirmishes between Indians and whites—before the mass migration of settlers
in the 1870s—often flared up because miners were digging on Indian land. The first
permanent settlements of whites in the Rocky Mountain states were the abode of
Americans hungry for gold and silver. Beginning with the California gold rush of 1849,
breathless reports of the discovery of rich veins of precious ore in some Western
wilderness regularly filled the U.S. newspapers: silver in Colorado (1858), gold and
silver in Nevada (1859), and gold in South Dakota (1874).
Sober people talked about epidemics of gold fever that produced a mad scramble by
thousands of young men as they rushed to the site of the latest discovery. Overnight,
empty areas populated only by a few Indians filled up with novice miners looking to get
rich. Large towns sprouted where only jackrabbits had roamed. In 1859 the Pike‟s Peak
area of Colorado was deluged by 100,000 miners.
An astonishing variety of men were touched by gold lust. Men with long criminal
records drank their whisky beside college graduates and former store clerks in a recently
erected saloon in a mining town that had not existed a month ago.
Mining towns were notorious dens filled with wild young men eager to raise hell
and enjoy every sin and vice, undeterred by ministers, wives, schoolteachers, or police—
all of whom were unknown in a mining town. The non-miners who lived there were
businessmen who tried to grab the miners‟ money: saloonkeepers, pimps, prostitutes,
gamblers, and storekeepers.
Desperate for supplies, eager to get to the mines immediately, and sure of imminent
riches, miners paid outrageous prices. Storekeepers asked $5 for a chicken (when $1 was
good day‟s wage), and “innkeepers” charged $1 for a night‟s sleep wrapped in a filthy
blanket (rented for an additional $1 fee) on a dirt floor in a leaky shack.
The discovery of the famous Comstock Lode in Nevada created Virginia City, which
soared to a population of 20,000 and supported five newspapers and a stock exchange. In
four years one mine there yielded $15 million. But only a tiny percentage of the
thousands who came to the silver digs made a profit. By 1890 the remaining ore was too
deep to be profitably mined, and Virginia City deflated into a small, sleepy village of a
Lawlessness pervaded the mining towns. Legally, every man who lived in the area
of a mining boom was a criminal; the land there belonged either to the federal
government or the Indians. Crime was rampant. During the Black Hills gold rush, a local
newspaper mournfully reported: “We have again to repeat that hackneyed phrase, „the
stage was robbed.‟” Because no whites had ever settled in those wilderness areas, the
federal government had never set up any kind of government in those areas. No
government, no police or sheriffs.
The get-rich-tomorrow spirit of the mines attracted men with criminal records who
regarded prospecting as another way to avoid a real job. As gold and silver began to flow
into the miners‟ pockets, more criminals slipped into the mining communities, attracted
by the wealth there to be stolen and the lack of law enforcement to harass them.
But most of the men who moved in were law-abiding miners who came to search for
gold and silver or businessmen who came to sell goods and services to them. Criminals
stole the money they had earned through grinding hard work or forced them to ignore
their work to protect themselves. They all soon demanded an end to the reign of the
Eventually a group of leaders emerged who called a mass meeting of all the
inhabitants to discuss and adopt a basic legal framework. The first item of business was
always the establishment of property law to eliminate incessant fighting over mining
claims. Then they approved a basic criminal code and appointed a group of forceful men
(a vigilance committee) to publicize and enforce it.
Soon the wall of every building displayed a poster with a list of prohibited activities
and a warning to criminals that punishment for violators would be swift and harsh.
Within a few weeks, the vigilance committee hanged some of the most notorious
criminals, and gradually law and order came to the mines. This process of establishing
rough and ready justice without the official and legal sanction of a higher authority soon
became known as vigilante justice.
By 1876 the great age of the independent prospector was fading. Surface deposits
were gone; extracting the gold and silver was a job for big corporations using expensive
machines to crush tons of rock to get ounces of precious metals. The chemist and the
engineer supplanted the lone miner with his mule and pick. Mining operations found that
minerals like copper, lead, and zinc—common but indispensible for modern industry—
were as profitable as gold and silver.
SECTION 13: COWBOYS AND THE GREAT CATTLE DRIVES
As illiterate miners gathered in muddy streets to erect governments, John Stuart
Mill, a famous British philosopher, marveled at the ability of common men In America to
engage in do-it-yourself government rather than waiting for higher authority to rescue
them. That image of the average American as an expert in self-government is still a
potent symbol of America.
But not as potent as the cowboy. In the opening ceremony of virtually every
Olympic Games, American athletes wear cowboy hats as part of their uniform. When
Europeans blasted George Bush‟s foreign policy, they derided it as “cowboy diplomacy.”
Actor and political commentator Ben Stein once wrote a book claiming that any speaker
could instantly connect to any American audience by building his speech around the
symbol of the cowboy. Yet the true cowboy, the fiery individualist who despised long-
term employment, flourished very briefly, for little more than a decade.
During the War Between the States, Union gunboats essentially controlled the
Mississippi River, and the ships of the Union navy sealed off the ports of Texas. While
Confederate armies starved, Texas could not export beef to feed them. By the end of the
war, the cattle herds in Texas had exploded. A man could collect a sizable herd simply by
rounding up strays that no one claimed.
A canny entrepreneur, Joseph McCoy, come up with a scheme to extract big profits
from this bovine population explosion. Chicago had emerged as the cow-slaughtering
center of America. The meat packing industry there had an insatiable demand for cattle;
the swollen herds of Texas could supply them. But no railroad connected Texas and
Chicago. The nearest railroad that could transport cattle to Chicago was in Kansas,
hundreds of miles from Texas ranches. McCoy‟s simple solution: walk the cows to
Thus began the age of the great cattle drives—the incessant march of cattle plodding
from Texas northward to the stockyards of the Kansas railroads, where they were sold
and shipped to Chicago. Generally 1000 cows were grouped in a herd, and 10 men, more
or less, were hired to guide and protect them. Those men were cowboys.
They came from every part of the Texas population—former slaves, whites,
Hispanics, even a few Indians. Most were ex-soldiers reluctant to settle down into the
monotony of farming or a boring job. Working as independent contractors, cowboys
signed up for a drive, and when the journey ended in Kansas, they were paid, and their
For the men who owned the cows, a cattle drive was very profitable. They could buy
a cow for $9 in Texas, spend $4 to get it to Kansas, and sell it there for $28. A nice 100%
profit. The cowboys earned meager wages (usually $100—appoximately equal to the pay
of a factory worker) for two or three months of hard, dirty, dangerous work.
Cattle drives moved through Indian country, but the Indians seldom attacked. They
simply demanded a few cows or some money as a toll for crossing their land. One of the
duties of the trail boss—the man in charge of the drive—was to negotiate with the
Indians to persuade them to accept a minimal toll. Angry Indians who felt cheated
sometimes stampeded the herd and forced the cowboys to work for days to ferret out and
round up runaway cows.
River crossings were a real danger. Cowboys rode among a thousand huge, terrified
animals and goaded them into swimming across the river without losing any cows to
drowning. Every cow lost was lost profit for the owner.
A trail boss earned a good reputation if he regularly drove herds to Kansas and
arrived there with minimal losses. Another trait of a good trail boss was the ability to
adjust the daily pace of the drive. If it was too slow, the cowboys bitched about extra
days of work, and the risk of losing cows increased. If it was too fast, the cows lost too
much weight, and skinny cows fetched a lower price at the Kansas stockyards.
The danger that all cowboys dreaded was a stampede. They tried everything to keep
the cows calm. Some cowboys sang to the cattle; a few played lullabies on musical
instruments to soothe the beasts. Stampedes were notoriously unpredictable. Sometimes
the cows remained calm during a thunderstorm; sometimes a dropped pan clanging on the
ground triggered a stampede.
When a stampede erupted, every cowboy instantly leaped on his horse and risked
his life by riding into the surging mass of horns and hooves. The longer the stampede
lasted, the farther the cows ran from the camp and scattered through the countryside.
After a long stampede, cowboys faced days of exhausting riding as they searched for
escaped cows and then drove them back to the camp. Every cow lost was lost profit for
A stampede usually led to the loss of a few cows; too often it led to the loss of a
cowboy. As he rode among the herd trying to stem the panic and control the cows, huge
crazed animals bumped and sometimes slammed into the cowboy‟s horse. If a cowboy
slipped and fell from his saddle, he was trampled to death. Bone-weary after a long night
spent curbing a stampede, the trail boss counted heads and found that one of his men was
missing. The mangled lump of flesh they found trampled into the ground scarcely
resembled their friend.
The cowboys‟ number one complaint about cattle drives was the constant lack of
sleep. Someone had to watch the cattle every minute, and with only 10 men to fill the
duty roster, few cowboys ever enjoyed an uninterrupted night of sleep. A few cowboys
said they tortured themselves by rubbing tobacco juice into their eyes so that the stinging
pain would keep them awake during yet another night watch.
One trick that trail bosses used to lighten the burden of work was to exploit the
natural herding instinct of the cattle. After a few days on the trail, the boss often spotted a
lead cow, a particular animal the other cows instinctively followed. Moving the herd then
became much easier—just move the lead cow in the right direction.
The most famous lead cow was Old Blue. On one cattle drive, the cowboys
discovered a truly exemplary lead cow. All the other cows followed him without
hesitation, and he was amiable and easy to steer. At the end of the drive, the trail boss and
all the cowboys agreed that if they had that lead cow on every drive, their lives would be
So they took the cow back to Texas and named him Old Blue. Every year Old Blue
led his fellow cows to their doom in Kansas and then returned to Texas. When he became
too old and feeble to plod to Kansas, the ranch owner could not bear to slaughter him.
Old Blue spent the rest of his life placidly munching grass in a field. When he finally died
of old age, the ranch owner mounted his head on the wall of his office—a nice reward for
a loyal employee.
SECTION 14: THE COWBOYS’ LIFE AND THE END OF AN ERA
One benefit that could alleviate the hardships of a cattle drive was good food. The
cook was paid more than any of the cowboys. In addition to preparing food, he doctored
the cowboys‟ injuries and mended their clothes. Beans and bacon were the staple of the
cowboys‟ diet. Without any means to preserve the leftovers, butchering a cow wasted too
Occasionally the trail boss allowed a beef dinner, and the cook could whip up a big
pot of a cowboy favorite, son-of-a-bitch stew. (“Son-of-a-bitch” was so common in the
cowboy‟s speech that observers claimed it appeared in almost every sentence he uttered.)
The recipe: lean beef, heart, testicles, tongue liver, brains, marrow gut (the undigested
contents of the tube connecting the cow‟s stomachs), salt, pepper, and Louisiana hot
The men who gathered around the chuck wagon to enjoy their stew wore hats, but
not what we today call a cowboy hat. Their hats had wide, flat brims (like the hats worn
today by highway patrolmen) to shield their faces from the hot Midwestern sun. Tied
around each cowboy‟s neck was a bandana that served as a sweat rag and a mask to filter
out some of the dust constantly kicked up by 4000 hooves.
The boots a cowboy wore did closely resemble a modern cowboy boot, with a
pointed toe to slip easily into a stirrup and a high heel to keep the foot securely in the
stirrup. The spurs attached to the heel of the boot were the cowboy‟s accelerator pedal,
designed to jolt his horse instantly into a full gallop in an emergency. The pants he wore
were ordinary wool pants. (Levis were still confined to miners.) The cowboy‟s constant
perch in the saddle rendered his pants‟ pockets useless. His vest pockets held his chewing
tobacco and other necessities of his daily life.
A cowboy‟s most important tool was his horse. On a cattle drive, he brought a
saddle but not a horse; the owner of the cattle furnished the horses. On a long drive each
cowboy required several horses.
Cowboys especially prized a good night horse—a surefooted horse that could see
well in the dark and avoid common hazards like gopher holes, which could break a
horse‟s leg and send the rider flying into rocks or cacti. One cowboy swore that his best
night horse, Old Sid, could tell time. At the end of a two hour night watch, Sid
automatically headed back to the campfire without any prompting from his rider.
After three months on the trail, the filthy, weary cowboys reached their destination:
one of the cow towns of Kansas, like the famous Dodge City, where the boss sold the
cattle and gave them their pay.
For prim and proper Easterners, cow towns were citadels of infamy dominated by
sin, crime, and violence. A horde of cowboys, isolated from civilized life for months,
then fueled by the potent whisky of Dodge City saloons, did indulge in hijinks and hell-
raising that often involved fistfights, shooting, and whores. But when he finally received
his pay, the cowboys‟ first requests were simple and quite peaceful: a bath, new clothes, a
During the 1880s the era of the classic cowboy—the era of the cattle drives—slowly
ended. Oversupply drove down the sale price of cattle in Kansas and eroded the profit
margin on a cattle drive. Finally the railroads killed the cattle drives by extending their
lines into Texas. Ranchers could put their cattle into railroad cars at nearby railheads
instead of driving their herds to Kansas. By 1890 cattle ranching, like mining, had
evolved into a business dominated by larger companies.
Ranchers fenced their land and developed new breeds of cattle. The cows in the
herds that walked to Kansas were longhorns. They were tough. Those cows were
physically tough enough to endure the rigors of the journey to Kansas, and they produced
tough meat when slaughtered. The new breeds of cattle were tender. Those cows were too
weak physically to endure a walk of a hundred miles, but they produced more tender
meat when slaughtered.
With the end of the cattle drives and the rise of the new-style ranch, the classic
cowboy, the fiery individualist who worked only when he wished, faded away. Cowboys
became full time employees of a ranch whose prime responsibility for most of the year
was the inspecting and mending of fences.
SECTION 15: THE DRIVE TO EXPAND THE UNITED STATES.
As thousands of Americans prepared to move west and fill up land that the United
States had once acquired from France and Mexico, a lone man in the White House
dreamed of expanding the boundaries of the nation. William Seward, the secretary of
state (1861-1869), had a grandiose vision for his country‟s future. In an 1867 speech, he
boasted that in 40 years America could control the world.
Seward decided that as a first step toward global domination, the United States
needed to obtain more of the Western Hemisphere, especially a few strategic naval bases
as coaling stations in the Caribbean. Seward‟s first target was Samana Bay, a fine harbor
located within the borders of the Dominican Republic. That little nation, mired in
poverty, wracked by frequent bloody revolutions, and usually teetering on the edge of
bankruptcy, was eager to give up the harbor. The Dominican government hinted that if
the rich colossus of the North decided to take over all of the Dominican Republic, the
people there might be happier and more prosperous.
All over Europe during the 1860s, there stirred a new spirit of expansionism that
generated the great surge of imperialism in the 1880s. Seward felt that itch to dominate
other countries, but most Americans in the 1860s remained immune to that disease. In
1869 Congress overwhelmingly dismissed Seward‟s proposal to take over Dominican
territory. Many questioned whether America even needed a Caribbean base, and if the
nation truly did need one, why make a deal to get a ruined country saddled with immense
A deal that Seward made with Denmark got a more respectful hearing in Congress.
The Danish Virgin Islands contained an excellent harbor at St. Thomas, and the Danes
soon accepted Seward‟s offer to buy two of the islands for $7 million. But Congress
finally decided in 1867 that spending tax revenue for a Caribbean sanctuary for the navy
was wasted money, especially since the post-war navy was dwindling and decaying every
So Congress rejected this modest purchase from Denmark—and then endorsed a
payment of $7 million to buy the “Russian icebox,” Alaska! Russia was eager to sell that
vast frozen territory. The czar and his ministers knew that Russia lacked the military
clout to prevent the United States from seizing it. Why not sell it, get some cash, save the
annual millions spent to govern it, and cement friendly relations with America? The
Russians ministers also worried that Great Britain might grab Alaska and establish a base
in the Northern Pacific to challenge Russian influence there.
Seward, always enamored with any plan to expand the borders of the United States,
quickly signed a deal with the Russians. At first Congress hooted with laughter, and the
American people soon chimed in to ridicule “Seward‟s Folly.”
But the secretary of state worked diligently on a wide-ranging publicity campaign to
educate the nation about the benefits of buying the millions of acres of frozen wilderness.
Acquiring rich natural resources, forestalling the hated British, and bolstering friendly
relations with the Russians—he hammered on all those themes. He persuaded Charles
Sumner, one of the kings of the Senate, to make a long and eloquent speech defending the
purchase. Gradually public opinion drifted toward support for the deal.
Still Congress refused to ratify the treaty. So the Russian ambassador visited his
bank and then headed to the offices of influential congressmen, playing Santa Claus and
distributing gifts. After much wrangling, Congress approved the sale, and America
bought Alaska in 1868 for two cents per acre.
William Seward was a harbinger of the future spirit of rampant imperialism. But his
failure to persuade most Americans of the wisdom of expansion—except when prodded
by bribes and a large-scale propaganda campaign—shows that the imperialistic urge to
dominate other lands was not yet strong in the American nation. But the purchase of
Alaska was a milestone in American expansionism. It marked the first time America had
ever acquired territory not contiguous with the land of the United States.