From Panic to Empire (1869-1908). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

From Panic to Empire (1869-1908). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In This Chapter

Western agriculture and the day of the cowboy.

The triumph of capitalism and the rise of philanthropy.

Technological revolution.

 The phrase Wild West has become so worn with use that it’s hard to say the second word without adding the first to it. The spirit that marked the West pervaded national life during the years following the Civil War. If the West had its cowboys and its outlaws, so did the world of big business and power politics in such cities as New York and Washington. Fortunes were made and lost, it seemed, overnight. A wealth of new inventions suddenly materialized, accelerating American life to a pace many found increasingly frenzied. And if tycoons and inventors were pulling the strings, working men and women were often the ones being jerked around.

Empire of Cows. It the West equaled space, the equation came out differently for different people. To the homesteader, space meant a place to live. To the cattleman, space meant grass and water to fuel the beef herds that made his fortune.

Before the Mexican War, even Texas ranches were relatively modest in size, but the war brought a tremendous demand for beef to feed the U.S. Army. After the cattle industry geared up for this need, it never pulled back. Texans started to drive cattle beyond the confines of the ranch, pushing herds northward to fatten on the grass of public lands before being shipped east. This period was the start of the range cattle industry, which the Civil War threatened to bring to an untimely end. Union blockades kept Texans from shipping their beeves to market, and the cattle were left to run wild on the Texas plains, the ranchers and ranch hands having gone off to fight the war. When the sons of Texas returned after Appomattox, the only visible assets left to many of them were some five million free-ranging animals. Ex-Confederate soldier boys now set up as cowboys, rounding up and branding as many cattle as they could, then “trailing” the herds to grazing lands, marketplaces, and railheads.

American Cowboy. The range cattle industry didn’t just make beef; it also created the single most beloved, celebrated, talked about, and sung about worker in American history. If generations of little boys and girls across the Atlantic grow up on tales of knights in shining armor, American children have long been raised on tales, songs, and images of the noble riders of the range. Cowboys embody a very powerful—very American—myth of freedom and self-sufficiency. But from the cold, hard perspective of economic reality, cowboys were the poorest of the poor. Dirty, dangerous, lonely, and poorly paid, cowboy was a job for desperate men: down-and-out ex-Confederates who had lost all they owned; liberated black slaves who, suddenly masterless, found themselves at loose ends; Indians, struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder; and Mexicans, sharing that bottom rung.

On the ranch, the cowboy’s principal job was to ride over an assigned stretch of range and tend the cattle, doing whatever needed to be done. The most demanding labor was the trail drive, in which cowboys moved a herd of cattle—perhaps as small as 500 head or as large as 15,000—to northern ranges for maturing or to market at railhead cattle towns like Abilene, Ellsworth, and Dodge City, Kansas; Pueblo and Denver, Colorado; and Cheyenne, Wyoming. Distances were often in excess of 1,000 miles over four principal cattle trails. Hazards of the trails were almost as numerous as the herds themselves: storms, floods, drought, stampede, rustlers, hostile Indians. Pay was about $100 for three or four months’ work.

Law and Disorder. It was not unusual for a cowboy to blow his whole $100 stake during a few nights in the cattle town that lay at the end of the trail. The towns served as points of transfer from the trail to the rails. Here beef brokers shook hands on deals, and the cattle were loaded into rail cars bound for the cities of the East. For the cowboy, a stay in town meant a bath, a shave, a woman (300 prostitutes plied their trade in the small town of Wichita), and plenty to drink (in many towns, saloons outnumbered other buildings two to one). Such towns were also home to professional gamblers who were ready, willing, and able to part a cowboy from his cash. Like the mining camps of California in the the cattle towns of the latter part of the century were rowdy, violent places. Gunfights became commonplace—though, alas, neither so frequent nor so violent as they are on the streets of many American cities today.

Jesse, Billy, and the Rest. Arising from the welter of casually violent men in the West were more than a handful of determined and deliberate criminals. A few have entered into American legend. Jesse James was born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 5, 1847, and, with his older brother Frank (born 1.843), was caught up in the brutality of the Civil War in Missouri. The brothers joined the fierce Confederate guerrilla band of William Quantrill and his lieutenant, “Bloody Bill” Anderson. In the guise of carrying out military operations, these guerrillas were no better than vicious gangsters, and their units became the schools of a generation of accomplished criminals. Cole Younger and Arch Clement, who would become principal members of the James Gang after the war, were also Quantrill-Anderson alumni.

The gang robbed its first bank in February 1866 and continued to prey upon banks, stagecoaches, and trains until 1876. At that time, determined citizens ambushed and decimated the gang during a robbery attempt in Northfield, Minnesota. The James brothers escaped and formed a new gang, which included one Robert Ford. On April 3, 1882, eager to claim a bundle of reward money, Ford shot and killed Jesse, who was living in St. Joseph, Missouri, under the alias of Thomas Howard. Ford’s deed was greeted as anything but a public service. Although they were clearly cold-blooded armed robbers, the “James boys” had acquired a popular reputation as latter-day Robin Hoods. People now sang of the “dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard and laid poor Jesse in his grave.” Frank James later surrendered, was twice tried and twice acquitted by friendly juries; he died of natural causes in 1915.

Contemporary legend, dime novels, and later, movies and television transformed another outlaw into a latter-day Robin Hood. Billy the Kid was born Henry McCarty in 1859 (either in Marion County, Indiana, or possibly New York City). Raised in Kansas, the Kid was orphaned early and embarked on a life of petty crime that escalated to murder when, aged 17, he killed a man in a saloon brawl. A year later, in 1878, the Kid became embroiled in the so-called Lincoln County War, a New Mexico range war between one set of cattlemen and another. During the conflict, on April 1, 1878, he ambushed and murdered the Lincoln County sheriff and his deputy. As a fugitive, Billy the Kid supported himself with robbery, all the while pursued by the new sheriff, Pat Garrett, to whom he finally surrendered in December 1880. Four months later, the Kid escaped the noose by killing his two jailors and taking flight. When the Kid stopped at Fort Sumner, New Mexico (some say it was to see his sweetheart), Garrett again caught up with him and, this time, gunned him down.

Cornering the Market. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, and a host of lesser figures were unquestionably criminals. But who were their victims? As many Americans saw it at the time, Jesse, Billy, and the rest did not: victimize innocent citizens but attacked big banks, big railroads, big money—the very forces that were daily robbing the “common man.” If you wanted to talk about victims, well, the real victims were those who weren’t lucky enough to have been born a Gould or a Rockefeller. In the popular logic of the day, capitalists such as these were the robber barons, whereas the western outlaws were the Robin Hoods.

And what about government? In the popular view, lawmakers and police were counted on to go with the money, making and enforcing laws to serve the Goulds, the Rockefellers, and their kind. People who lived during the years following the Civil War took to calling their era the Gilded Age—glittering with showy wealth but corrupt to the core. The railroads boomed, transporting the raw ores of the West to the industrial machines of the East. With hundreds of thousands of discharged veterans flooding the job market, labor was dirt cheap, and the government was—well—pliant. Andrew Johnson, having narrowly escaped removal from office, was succeeded in the White House by Ulysses Simpson Grant in 1869. Grant had proven to be one of the nation’s greatest generals, but in two terms as president, he presided over the most thoroughly corrupt administration in American history. He was personally above reproach, but, naively, he surrounded himself with scoundrels who administrated, legislated, and operated hand in hand with the interests of big business—and (in the infamous phrase of railroad magnate William H. Vanderbilt) “The public be damned!”

Gould and Gold. Jay Gould was born in Roxbury, New York, on May 27, 1836, the son of a poor farmer. By 21, Gould had saved up $5,000, which he invested in the leather business and railroad stocks. Within a decade, Gould was a director of the Erie Railroad and, by means of illegal stock and bribery, clawed his way to a controlling interest in a number of railroads. With fellow tycoon James Fisk (1834-72), Gould hatched a scheme to corner the U.S. gold market. He persuaded President Grant to suspend government gold sales, thereby driving up the price of gold—which Gould and Fisk held in great quantity. Rousing momentarily from naive stupor, Grant realized what was going on and ordered the Treasury to release $4 million of its own gold to checkmate Gould. The result was Black Friday, September 24, 1869, which precipitated a major financial panic followed by severe economic depression as the inflated price of gold tumbled.

Many of the nation’s railroads, already reeling from cutthroat competition, now tottered on the verge of bankruptcy. John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), who had multiplied his family’s already mighty fortune by loaning money to France during the Franco-Prussian War of 1.871, now rushed in to pick up the pieces. By 1900, Morgan had acquired half the rail trackage in the nation. Most of the rest of the railroads were owned by Morgan’s friends, and together, they fixed freight prices at exorbitant levels. There was little shippers could do but pay.

Rockefeller and Oil. The years immediately following the Civil War ran on rails and were fueled by gold. People who controlled either or both interests drove the nation, regardless of who was in the White House, the Congress, or the courts.

There was gold, and then there was black gold. In 1859, oil was struck in western Pennsylvania. This event gave a thin-lipped, ascetic-looking young Ohioan an idea. John Davison Rockefeller (1839-1937) decided that oil would become a big business and that his hometown of Cleveland was ideally situated to refine and distribute it to the nation.

Rockefeller built a refinery there in 1862, then put together the Standard Oil Trust, an amalgam of companies by which he came to control all phases of the oil industry, from extraction, through refining, through distribution. Standard Oil was the first of many almighty trusts formed in various industries during the post-Civil War period.

The Gospel of Wealth. The Gilded Age was an epoch of naked greed. Those few capitalists who bothered to defend their motives turned to the science of the day. In 1859, the great British naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82) published On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This book set forth the theory of evolution, arguing that in nature, only the fittest—the strongest, the most cunning, the ablest—creatures ultimately survive to reproduce their kind. Capitalists translated nature into economics, arguing that the state should not interfere in economic life because people at the top of the socioeconomic heap were there because they were the fittest, having survived the battles of the marketplace. This concept was Social Darwinism.

Yet the era was not entirely heedless or heartless. Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) came to the United States with his impoverished family from Scotland in 1848. As a youth, Carnegie worked in a cotton factory, then in a telegraph office, and finally for the Pennsylvania Railroad, rising quickly through the executive ranks until he became head of the western division in 1859. Carnegie resigned from the railroad in 1865 to form the Keystone Bridge Company, the first in a series of iron and steel concerns he owned. He consolidated his holdings in 1899 as the Carnegie Steel Company, then sold it to J.P. Morgan’s United States Steel Company in 1901 for $492 million-roughly the equivalent of five billion of today’s dollars. (And income tax didn’t exist in 1901!)

Carnegie was as ruthless as any of his fellow robber barons, wielding his steel company like a club, knocking out all competition and (for a time) knocking out the American industrial union movement as well. But in 1889, Carnegie delivered a speech titled “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he reeled out the Social Darwinist line that wealth was essential for civilization and that the natural law of competition dictated that only a few would achieve wealth. Yet Carnegie added a unique twist. The rich, he proclaimed, had a responsibility to use their money for the clear benefit of society.

From 1901 until his death, Carnegie dedicated himself to philanthropy, donating more than $350 million to a wide spectrum of causes. He founded more than 2,500 public libraries throughout the United States; he established the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Institution at Washington, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The truly remarkable thing is that many other robber barons took the Gospel of Wealth to heart. Rail magnate Leland Stanford founded and endowed Stanford University. Rockefeller endowed the University of Chicago, created the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research, established the Rockefeller Foundation, and bought vast tracts of land that became national parks. Many other wealthy individuals did similar deeds and continue to do so today.

An Age of Invention. If, blooming among the uncut weeds of wild greed, the Gospel of Wealth seemed miraculous, so did the incredible series of inventions that burst forth during what otherwise might have been a dull, hard Age of the Machine. Americans of the post-Civil War era were extraordinarily industrious and inventive.

“Mr. Watson, Come Here…” Alexander Graham Bell was born in 1847 in Scotland and grew up in England. His grandfather and father earned famed as teachers of the deaf, and Alexander likewise followed this career, continuing in it after the family immigrated to Canada in 1870. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University. His profound interest in the nature of speech and sound was combined with a knack for things mechanical, and he began working on a device to record sound waves graphically in order to show his deaf students what they could not hear. Simultaneously, Bell was also trying to develop what he called the harmonic telegraph, a device capable of transmitting multiple telegraph messages simultaneously over a single line.

About 1874, the two inventions suddenly merged in his mind. Bell wrote in his notebook that if he could “make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in density during the production of sound,” he could “transmit speech telegraphically.”

The insight was staggering: Convert one form of intelligible energy (sound) into another (modulated electric current). With his tireless assistant, Thomas Watson, Bell worked on the device for the next two frustrating years. One day, in 1876, while Watson maintained what he thought would be another fruitless vigil by the receiver unit in the next room, Bell made adjustments to the transmitter. In the process, Bell upset a container of battery acid, which spilled on his lap. Burned by the acid, he inadvertently made the world’s first phone call—a call for help: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.” The telephone caught on quickly, and the Bell Telephone Company, founded by Alexander’s father-in-law, Gardner G. Hubbard, became a utility of vast proportions and incalculable importance.

Let There Be Light. Bell was a teacher of the deaf who taught the world to hear over unlimited distances. Thomas Alva Edison, almost totally deaf because of a childhood accident, helped the world to, see. Born in Milan, Ohio, in 1847, Edison had little education and less money when he started selling candy and newspapers on trains of the Grand Trunk Railroad. What Edison did have was a passion for tinkering and a fascination with an invisible force called electricity. His first commercially successful invention was an electric stock ticker, which delivered stock quotations almost instantaneously and which J.P. Morgan eagerly snatched up. Edison plowed his profits into creating a state-of-the-art laboratory/workshop first in Newark, then in Menlo Park, New Jersey. By the end of his long creative life, Edison had some 3,000 patents to his name, covering more than 1,000 separate inventions.

Edison’s greatest single invention was undoubtedly the incandescent electric lamp, which he publicly demonstrated on December 31, 1879, after many tortured months of trial and error. By 1881, Edison had built the world’s first central generating plant, on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. Within a very short time, electricity became a fixture not only of American life, but of life throughout the world. The incandescent lamp spawned many industries dedicated to producing an array of electrical devices. It is hardly necessary to point out how much our civilization now depends on what Edison began, but it is significant that, after he died on October 18, 1931, plans to dim the lights of the nation for a full minute as a memorial gesture had to be scrapped. Electric lighting was just too important.

Recorded Sound, Recorded Light. Although the incandescent lamp was Edison’s single greatest invention, it was not his favorite. Two years before he demonstrated his lamp, he designed a device intended to raise some quick cash for his still-fledgling laboratory. Edison drew a crude sketch of the device he wanted built and then turned it over to an assistant, John Kruesi, to build. The man dutifully followed his employer’s instructions, without any idea of what the device was supposed to do. A grooved metal cylinder was turned by a hand crank; a sheet of tinfoil was stretched over the cylinder; the point of a stylus rested against the tinfoil, and the other end of the stylus was affixed to a flexible diaphragm. Kruesi presented the finished model to Edison, who took it, turned the crank, and spoke into the diaphragm. The stylus, moving with the vibration of his voice, embossed the tinfoil. Then Edison stopped cranking and speaking, reapplied the stylus to the cylinder, and turned the crank. From the diaphragm, the machine recited “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph.

After recording sound and producing light, the Wizard of Menlo Park (as the press soon dubbed the inventor) recorded light. Edison became interested in motion photography after he attended a lecture by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) on his experiments with recording motion on film using multiple cameras. In 1882, a French scientist, E.J. Marey, invented a means of shooting multiple images with a single camera, and Edison patented his own motion picture camera in 1887. Edison then worked with William Kennedy Laurie Dickson to create a practical means of recording the images, using flexible celluloid film, created by George Eastman (1854-1932). (Eastman’s Kodak box camera would bring photography to the masses in 1888.) By the 1890s, Dickson had shot many 15-second movies using Eastman’s film in Edison’s Kinetograph camera.


Bridge and Skyscraper, Kitty Hawk and Detroit. The end of the Civil War brought many monuments—statues, arches, and tombs—but more significant than these were the monuments to American civilization itself. In 1857, a German immigrant named John Augustus Roebling (1806-69), a master bridge builder who had constructed suspension bridges over the Monongahela River and at Niagara Falls, proposed a spectacular span over the East River to unite Manhattan and Brooklyn. Roebling completed his plans in 1869 but suffered a severe leg injury at the construction site and died of tetanus. His son, Washington Augustus Roebling (1837-1926), took over the epic task—which very nearly killed him as well; he spent too much time in an underwater caisson, supervising construction of the bridge towers. As a result, Roebling developed a permanently crippling, excruciatingly painful case of the bends caused by nitrogen bubbles in the blood. The bridge, finally completed in 1883, was and remains a magnificent combination of timeless architecture and cutting-edge 19th-century technology.

If the Roeblings’ masterpiece brought to its grandest expression the union of 19th-century art and science, the American skyscraper looked forward to the next century. William LeBaron Jenny’s Home Insurance Company Building in Chicago (1883-85) is generally considered the first skyscraper, but it was Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), one of the nation’s greatest architects, who became the most important master of the new building form. With his partner Dankmar Adler, Sullivan based his practice in Chicago, a city he helped to raise, phoenix-like, from the disastrous fire of 1871. Thanks to Sullivan and those who followed him, American cities became vertical, aspiring dramatically heavenward, bristling with the spires of new cathedrals founded not on religious faith, but on the wealth and raw energy of the age.

The very name skyscraper seemed to proclaim that nothing could contain the spirit of a nation that, like Chicago, had been reborn from the ashes. In 1903, the sons of Milton Wright, bishop of the United Brethren in Christ Church in Dayton, Ohio, transported to a beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, a spindly, gossamer machine that resembled an oversized box kite. While his brother Wilbur (1867-1912) observed, Orville Wright (1871-1948) made history’s first piloted, powered, sustained, and controlled flight in a heavier-than-air craft on December 17. Orville flew a distance of 120 feet over a span of 12 seconds. Within two years, the Wright brothers achieved a flight of 38 minutes over 24 miles and, by 1909, were manufacturing and selling their airplanes.

Of course, in 1909, flight was still out of the reach of most “ordinary” people. But the year before, a farm boy from Dearborn, Michigan, gave the masses wings of a different sort. True, Henry Ford (1863-1947) did not actually lift purchasers of his Model T off the ground, but he did give them unprecedented physical freedom.

Ford did not invent the automobile—a gasoline-fueled automobile first appeared in Germany, and commercial production began in France about 1890—but he did make it practical and affordable. In 1908, he designed the simple, sturdy Model T and began to develop assembly line techniques to build it. The price of the car plummeted, and demand increased; with increased demand, Ford further perfected his assembly line, turning out more and more cars at lower and lower prices.

The Model T, a landmark achievement in mass production, transformed the way Americans lived. The car created a mobile society and it created a skyrocketing demand for mass-produced consumer goods of all kinds. The Model T also changed the American landscape, veining it with a network of roads. Where the nation had been sharply divided into city and farm, suburbs now sprouted. Even more than the transcontinental railroad had done in 1869, the automobile unified the United States, connecting city to city, village to village. Yet, for all this, there was a cost well beyond the $360 price tag of a 1916 Model T. It often seemed as if the automobile was an invader rather than a liberator. Worse, American labor lost a certain degree of humanity, compelled now to take its pace from the relentless rhythms of the assembly line. The gulf between management and labor, always wide, broadened into a bitter chasm, and if the moneyed classes welcomed the technological revolution, they now had reason to fear a political one.

The Least You Need to Know

The kind of raw energy that animated the “Wild West” seemed to drive the rest of the country as well during the latter half of the 19th century.

 After the Civil War, big business grew largely unchecked, even at the expense of the public welfare, creating a roller-coaster boom-and-bust economy.

 Big business generated investment in innovation, and the post-Civil War period was an era of great inventions.

Word for the Day. The cowboy’s ancestors are the vaqueros (from the Spanish vaca, “cow”), originally Indians attached to the old Spanish missions and employed by them to handle their beef herds. The cowboys roped steers with a loop of braided rawhide rope known as la reata–a lariat. They wore chaparreras, leather trousers designed to protect their legs from brush and chaparral; later, American cowboys wore chaps. The word vaquero found its American counterpart in a synonym for cowboy.

Stats. For all their notoriety, neither Jesse James nor Billy the Kid holds any Wild West record for gunfighting. In terms of number of men slain, Billy the Kid comes in at 10th place (4 murders), behind Jim Miller (12), Wes Hardin (11), Bill Longley (11), Harvey Logan (9), Wild Bill Hickok (7), John Selman (6), Dallas Stoudenmire (5), Cullen Baker (5), and King Fisher (5). Jesse James doesn’t even come close to the top 10. In nine gunfights, only one killing is confirmed, though James may have assisted in the slaying of three more.

Main Event. Strangely enough, the usually canny Edison saw little future motion pictures. He even decided against projecting the films for audiences, because he didn’t think there would be much demand. Instead, Edison developed an electrically driven peephole viewing machine-the Kinetoscope—which displayed moving images to one viewer at a time for the price of a nickel. Not until 1903 did the Edison Company began to exploit projected motion pictures. In this year, Edwin S. Porter, an Edison employee, directed “The Great Train Robbery,” generally considered the first movie—the filming of a genuine story, complete with beginning, middle, and end. If the origins of the American film industry can be traced to any single event, it is the creation of “The Great Train Robbery.”


Stats. In 1908, Ford manufactured 10,607 cars retailing for $850 each. In 1916, he turned out 730,041 Model T cars at $360 each.


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