Sea to Shining Sea (1862-1878). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Sea to Shining Sea (1862-1878). 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

The homesteaders and sodbusters.

Expansion of overland mail and freight operations.

The transcontinental railroad.

 Armies, money, and the will to continue the fight won the Civil War and restored the Union. There was something else as well. Call it the “American Dream.”

To some modern ears, perhaps this phrase rings hollow. But in the mid-19th century, the American Dream had a foundation as solid as it was vast. Even amid the bitter carnage of a war that tore them apart, Americans looked west. There, it seemed, was refuge from the war. There was a place for new beginnings. There was the future. And what is the future, if it is not a dream?

Homesteaders. At least as early as the 1830s, various groups clamored for free distribution of the vast public lands of the West. In 1848, the Free-Soil party was organized to oppose the extension of slavery into the territories newly acquired as a result of the Mexican War. The party failed to carry a single state in the presidential election that year, but it did give a unified voice. The party’s idea of regulating federal distribution of public lands was one means of stopping the spread of slavery into the territories.

When the Republican Party was founded in 1854, most of the “Free-Soilers” abandoned their dead-end party and joined the new one, which adopted distribution of federal lands as a plank of its 1860 platform. This issue fanned the flames of Southern secession; the slave states were always opposed to any policy that would bring more free states into the Union. But when the Civil War broke out, Southern opposition became a moot point.

On May 20, 1862, President Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, which granted 160 acres of public land in the West as a homestead to “any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of 21. years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such.”

This was no free gift. Although the homesteader had only to pay a modest filing fee, he did have to live on the land for five years and make certain improvements-the most important of which was the construction of a dwelling. After these conditions were satisfied, the homesteader received clear title to the land. Alternatively, a homesteader could “preempt” the land after only six months’ residence by purchasing it at the rate of $1.25 per acre. If the settler could scrape together $50—a very substantial sum in the 1860s and beyond the means of many homesteaders—he could augment his original grant with an additional 40 acres, up to a maximum of 160.

The Homestead Act was a bold experiment in public policy and was shaped by years of hard experience with the distribution of unsettled land. Traditionally, such territories had drawn unscrupulous speculators, who figured out ways to come into control of vast acreages and make quick fortunes. The new law sought to avoid such abuses and aspired to a high degree of democracy. For the most part, it succeeded, although there were plenty of sharpers eager to burrow through legal loopholes. The greatest culprits in fraud were big railroads and big mining companies seeking large tracts of land at the public expense.

Despite the abuses, the Homestead Act opened the West to hundreds of thousands. The new settlers were different from the first waves of westerners. The solitary trapper and mountain man, the bachelor soldier, the grizzled prospector now made way for the farmer and the family, and with the family came stable, permanent communities.

The Sod Frontier. Timber was a scarce commodity on the treeless plains, but sod was abundant. The very soil that posed such a formidable obstacle to farming-at least until the manufacture of John Deere’s “Grand Detour Plow”—was a durable, dense, and (quite literally) dirt-cheap building material.

The work of the sod frontier was back breaking. Even with the Deere plow, “busting” the sod into viable crop rows was no easy task. For the many homesteaders who had the misfortune to stake claims at a distance from creeks and streams, there was the added burden of digging a well. Few sodbusters could afford to hire, a drilling rig, so this work, like most of the work on the prairie farm, had to be done by hand. With nothing more than pick and spade, homesteaders dug to depths up to 300 feet, where they were exposed to the dangers of cave-in as well as asphyxiation from subterranean gases such as methane and carbon monoxide. Not only that, but breaking your back and risking your life did not guarantee you’d find water. If, by the time you hit bedrock or shale, you came up dry, you had to start digging somewhere else.

Water in a well goes nowhere unless you take it there. As the prairie earth yielded an abundance of natural building material, so the winds that fiercely scoured the prairie afforded a natural source of energy. In 1854, a Connecticut tool-shop tinkerer named David Halladay invented a windmill with a vane that allowed it to pivot into the wind; moreover, the centrifugal force of the turning blades adjusted the pitch of the mill blades so that the gusty, often violent winds would not tear them apart. A crankshaft transformed the rotary motion of the mill into the up-and-down action needed to operate a pump. Using wind power, hundreds of gallons of water could be moved each day to irrigate crops and quench the thirst of livestock.

The sodbusters turned stubborn soil and fierce winds into assets. They also found strength in another, less tangible, but no less harsh, reality of prairie life. Limitless spaces and driving winds were a trial for the spirit. The emotional demands of the wide-open spaces served to reinforce the solidarity of the family as a bulwark against loneliness, despair, and danger. Beyond the family, these uncompromising conditions helped bond neighbor with distant neighbor, gradually forging communities where there had been none before. Neighbors were a new phenomenon in the West; for the trapper, the prospector, and the soldier had no need for community.

Ruts and Rails. Transportation and westward movement have always been a chicken-and-egg proposition in this country. Farmers and others clamored for better and cheaper transportation, while freight carriers did what they could to promote a level of settlement that would make service to the outlying regions profitable. The earliest western transportation was riverborne, with shallow-draft flatboats abounding on the Missouri and its tributaries. Then, spurred by the discovery of gold in California, stagecoach and freight entrepreneurs took the plunge, investing in. coaches, livestock, and road improvements.

By the 1850s, Adams Express Company and Wells, Fargo & Company were engaged in cutthroat competition for California freighting. The success of California overland operations prompted others to establish routes elsewhere in the West, often with government subsidy in the form of postal contracts. By 1854, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell merged with their principal competitor, Alexander Majors, to create a freighting empire that endured until the Civil War.

Russell and Waddell were financial men, and Majors was the practical manager. Majors, more than any other single individual, developed western freighting to a peak of efficiency. His company’s wagons were designed and built to his exacting specifications, using carefully seasoned wood to make wagon boxes that flared outward to prevent as much as 5,000 pounds of cargo from shifting. The wagons resembled ships, their forward ends curved like prows, their aft ends squared off to facilitate loading and unloading. Majors had a genius for organizing men and material. He divided his forces into outflts of 26 wagons under the absolute command of a wagon master and an assistant. Each wagon was pulled by a team of 12 oxen driven by a bullwhacker at an average rate of 15 miles a day. Each outfit also included a herder, who drove 40 to 50 oxen for use as replacements, and a night herder, who tended the animals at night. Each day’s routine was strictly regulated, including an absolute requirement to “observe the Sabbath.”

The other giants of freighting in the West included George Chorpenning, John Butterfield, John M. Hockaday, and Ben Holladay (who was so successful that he was dubbed the “Napoleon of the Plains”). Yet, if the opportunity for profit was great, the overhead—in livestock, personnel, and maintenance of routes—was staggering. Moreover, stage and freight lines were preyed upon by robbers (popularly called road agents), including the likes of Henry Plummer, Black Bart, the James Gang, and many others who entered into western legend and lore. Sooner or later, most overland entrepreneurs went belly up. Those who survived were either wiped out by the advancing railroads or learned to coordinate their service with the new rail lines, serving the widely dispersed stations as relatively short feeder routes.

Iron Road. After the success of the Erie Canal, completed in 1825 and linking New York City with the Great Lakes, other eastern seaport cities rushed to build systems of canals. Baltimore was an exception and chose to invest not in a canal, but in a brand new technology: the railroad. Begun in 1828, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad reached the Ohio River, principal artery to the West, by 1852. At about this time, railroads were also being built in the Midwest. The Chicago and Rock Island (The Rock Island Line) became the first rail route to the Mississippi River in 1854. By 1856, the route bridged the river and penetrated the fertile farmlands of Iowa. Other midwestern roads followed.

Practically from the start of all this rail activity, in 1832, a Dr. Hartwell Carver published articles in the New York Courier & Enquirer proposing a transcontinental railroad to be built on eight million acres of government land from Lake Michigan to Oregon (then the only coastal territory to which the United States had any claim). Carver’s scheme came to nothing, and 10 years later, Asa Whitney, a New Yorker engaged in the China trade, proposed to Congress that the United States sell him nearly 80 million acres, from Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, at 16 cents per acre. Whitney planned to sell parcels of the land to settlers and farmers, using the proceeds to push a railroad farther and farther West in pay-as-you-go fashion.

Whitney butted up against Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who wanted a transcontinental railroad with an eastern terminus at St. Louis rather than Chicago, as Whitney proposed. Benton got Whitney’s plan permanently tabled and, in 1848, persuaded Congress to fund a railroad survey led by his son-in-law, John C. Fremont. The recklessly conducted survey resulted in the deaths of ten of Fremont’s party, frozen or starved in a Rocky Mountain blizzard, and ultimately proved inconclusive.

While arguments over routes raged, the means of financing a transcontinental railroad were being hammered out. Railroad lobbyists proposed a system of government land grants alternating checkerboard fashion north and south of the proposed right-of-way. The railroads would sell their land to finance construction, and the presence of the railroad would greatly increase the value not only of the purchasers’ land, but of the alternate sections retained by the government. A series of such grants was immediately apportioned to a number of western rail lines.

In 1853, Congress authorized Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to conduct detailed surveys of potential transcontinental rail routes. The result of the hasty surveys was, again, inconclusive (though they added significantly to general knowledge of the West). It soon became apparent that Davis—the Mississippian who would become president of the Confederacy with the outbreak of civil war—stacked the deck in favor of a southerly route.

The wrangling might have gone on forever had it not been for one remarkable man. Theodore Dehone Judah (1826-63), son of an Episcopal clergyman in Bridgeport, Connecticut, was a civil engineer with a genius for building railroads. In 1854, Colonel Charles Wilson, president of California’s Sacramento Valley Railroad, commissioned Judah to survey a right-of-way from Sacramento to the gold-mining town of Folsom. Judah reported to Wilson that this stretch of track could serve as something far more significant than a link to Folsom. The track was ideally suited to be the Pacific end of a transcontinental railroad. Wilson and other backers were excited, but then the gold petered out at Folsom, and the rail line went no farther.

Judah did not stop. He lobbied Washington, even as he continued searching for a viable pass across the Sierra Mountains. A frontier pharmacist, Daniel “Doc” Strong, pointed out a likely route, and right then and there, he and Judah quickly concluded an agreement to incorporate a Pacific railroad association. All that was lacking now was money. Lots of money. Judah (lid not stop. He found seven backers, including four whose fortunes were destined to be made by the railroad: Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins, partners in a hardware store; Leland Stanford, wholesale grocer; and Charles Crocker, dry goods merchant. Returning to Washington, D.C., Judah successfully lobbied for passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, authorizing the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads to begin construction of a transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific would build from the West Coast eastward, and the Union Pacific would build westward from Omaha, Nebraska.

With the North and South torn apart by war, President Lincoln and Congress were anxious to bind the nation together East and West. The Railway Act granted huge tracts of land to the railroad, along with massive construction loans, and, at the behest of Abraham Lincoln, multimillionaire congressman Oakes Ames and his brother Oliver created a corporation to build the railroad and another corporation to finance construction. The latter was named Credit Mobilier, after the company that had successfully financed the French railway system 10 years earlier. The Ames brothers made investors an offer they couldn’t refuse: Credit Mobilier, run by the directors (principal investors) of the Union Pacific, was paid by the Union Pacific to build the Union Pacific. The directors made a profit on the railroad as well as on the cost of building it. The scheme was an open door to fraud, and construction bills were routinely padded.

In the end, scandal and greed could take nothing away from the heroism and wonder of what it meant actually to build a transcontinental railroad—especially in an age when earth was moved and iron rails laid not by machines, but by human muscle.

Under the leadership of Grenville Mellon Dodge and another ex-army general, John Stephen Casement, the Union Pacific began laying prodigious lengths of track—266 miles in 1866 alone. The tracks were set into place mostly by unskilled Irish immigrants, who received, in addition to their pay, room and board. On the Central Pacific, the bulk of the work force was Chinese, who were paid about the same rate but had to furnish their own tent accommodations and their own food.

Laying and spiking 500-pound rail sections was difficult enough, but these men—some 25,000 in all—faced other perils as well. They encountered harsh weather on the prairies and in the mountains, including summer floods, winter blizzards, and the ever-present danger of avalanche; attack from Sioux and Cheyenne, as the rails penetrated Indian hunting grounds in western Nebraska and southeastern Wyoming; and unceasing pressure from bosses, who had little love for Irish immigrants and even less for Chinese “coolies.” Taskmasters drove the laborers relentlessly, heedless of life and limb, for the Central Pacific and Union Pacific, though they would be joined, were actually in fierce competition. The volume of their government land grants were directly proportional to the amount of track laid. In fact, in the absence of an officially predetermined meeting point for the converging tracks, survey parties laid out some 200 miles of overlapping, parallel, entirely redundant right-of-way. After roustabout parties passed each other-blasting away at hard rocks and almost at one another-U.S. Secretary of the Interior Orville H. Browning intervened and named Promontory Summit, 56 miles west of Ogden, Utah, as the meeting point. (Many histories of the West confuse Promontory Summit with nearby Promontory Point.)

Golden Spike at Promontory. The ceremonial union of the two lines at Promontory Summit was set for May 8, 1869. Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific almost failed to arrive because of a train wreck. Thomas C. Durant of the Union Pacific was kidnapped en route by tie cutters his company had not paid for months. Durant telegraphed for money and was released, delaying the ceremony by two days.

On May 10, 1869, workers and executives alike were prepared to savor their finest moment. The event did not go quite as planned. Chinese laborers, acutely aware of how Caucasians felt about them, were lowering the last rail into place when a photographer hollered, “Shoot!” The laborers dropped the quarter-ton rail and ran.

Leland Stanford himself stepped up to join the last eastbound and westbound rails. He poised himself to drive home a commemorative Golden Spike, wired to the telegraph, so that each blow would be transmitted across the nation. Stanford raised the heavy sledge, brought it on down—and clean missed. Laborers assisted him, and the deed was done. From sea to shining sea, the United States was bound by bands of iron.

The Least You Need to Know

The Homestead Act of 1862 filled in the space between the Mississippi and the Pacific and brought to the West an unprecedented degree of family-based, community-based settlement.

     Technology, in the form of the transcontinental railroad, did more than politics to bind East and West into a single nation.

Stats. By the end of the 19th century, some 600,000 farmers had received clear title under the Homestead Act to approximately 80 million acres of formerly public land.

Word for the Day. Plain homesteaders who built sod houses were called sodbusters. The houses themselves were often referred to as soddies.

Stats. In 1855 alone, Russell, Majors & Waddell carried 2.5 million pounds of freight across the plains in 500 wagons organized into 20 separate trains. Seventeen hundred men were employed as wagon masters, drivers, stock tenders, and so on, while 7,500 oxen furnished the pull.

Main Event. In 1857, Russell, Majors & Waddell secured a big government contract to supply the army in what threatened to become a war against rebellious Mormons in Utah. The firm paid top dollar to buy additional wagons and hire additional crews, but the operation became the target of Mormon guerrilla attacks, a devastating winter, and ultimately, federal default on contracts. Facing financial collapse, William H. Russell saw his company’s salvation in making a rapid transition from slow freighting to express mail service.

To make a dramatic demonstration of the speed and efficiency of his company, Russell invented what he called the Pony Express. He promised to deliver mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California—a distance just 44 miles shy of an even 2,000—in 10 days.

The unit would have no passengers and no coaches. Instead, the Express would achieve speed by a relay of ponies and riders stretched across the continent.

Russell had purchased 500 semiwild outlaw horses and had 80 riders continuously en route, 40 westbound, 40 east, who had answered his ads calling for “daring young men, preferably orphans.”

Financially, the Pony Express was a failure, charging a staggering $5 per half ounce (soon lowered to $2) of mail that actually cost the company an even more staggering $16 to deliver. Within 19 months, the Pony Express was out of business, rendered obsolete by the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. But in 650,000 miles of travel, the company lost only one consignment—and managed to capture the nation’s imagination.


Word for the Day. Laborers included roustabouts, who graded roadbed; bridge monkeys, who hastily cobbled together trestles over riders and streams; and gandydancers, who actually laid and spiked the rails.


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