That was the Wild West part 5

Go West!

(Published in GralsWelt 31/2004)

A joke was circulating in America in the 19th century: When a real Westerner stands at the gates of heaven, his first question to St. Peter is: "Where does it go west?"

In the west, many sought the promised land. Wealth and happiness were promised to everyone, if only they were ready to face the adventure of opening up the West. And the conquest of the West was progressing faster and faster - and increasingly uncontrolled. Just two decades after the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark (please refer part 4 of this series) primitive steamers drove on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. (See also in “Short, concise, curious” on page 214 “A detour to success”).

The governments in the east, far from a constantly shifting border, lost the overview and let traders, farmers, fur hunters, prospectors, adventurers and financial sharks do what they wanted. After all, America was a “free country” and the West - initially almost without state administration - a little freer. “Go west - off to the west” was the motto! But what was free American land for the “free Americans” was also the home of the Indians.

At the beginning of the 19th century the political map of North America looked different: California, Arizona and New Mexico were Spanish. And the Spaniards, eager not to let Americans into the country, cut the US off from the Pacific. It was only when Mexico became independent in 1822 - first as an empire, later as a republic - that a trade that was interesting for Spain and America came about: William Becknell (1790-1832) opened the "Santa Fe Trail" in 1822, a trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe in New Mexico.

Around 1833 reports from the "paradisiacal Oregon" brought movement into the development of the "Wild West". Soon droves of emigrants were moving three and a half thousand kilometers west on the Oregon Trail. At first it was five to six thousand, at the height of the travel wave fifty to sixty thousand people set out every year.

In 1846 the United States finally conquered New Mexico, and in 1848 they were able to buy California from the Mexicans. Thomas Jeffersons The dream had come true: The third President of the USA and author of the Declaration of Independence had wanted an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific - now, only 22 years after his death, the time had come!

California gold rush

A year later (1849) gold was found in California. This marked the beginning of the first big “gold rush”. Thousands and thousands now streamed over the so-called "California Trail" to the gold fields. But with the "great luck" in mind, countless people died on these grueling journeys that lasted several months. (Read about this in “In short, briefly, curiously” on page 85 “The man whose wealth made poor”).

The "prairie schooner" or Castanoga became the symbol of the conquest of the far west. But only if the columns of covered wagons are run by experienced "mountainmen" (cf. Part 4 of this series), there were no unbearable losses to complain about.

For example, every seventeenth person was killed on the Oregon Trail, especially children and women. Cholera was the number one cause of death. Then all other illnesses followed, and in third place accidents with firearms; because most of the migrants to the west were farmers and workers, mostly from hunger regions in Europe, who had barely held a weapon in their hand before.

Indian raids, on the other hand, were comparatively rare, because no tribe - as in the Wild West films - attacked a large motorcade with hundreds of armed men. At most, Indians stole some cattle at night or attacked individual travelers who were left behind; but the majority of the tractors did not see any Indians.

Nevertheless, the six-month journey (from April to October) through the vastness of the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains and finally the coastal mountains (Cascade Range or Sierra Nevada) was a grueling adventure. The way was long and time was pressing; because who left too early could not find enough food for the draft animals because too little grass had grown. If you started too late, you could get stuck in the snow in the mountains. Crossing rivers and passes with carts was not infrequently life-threatening and often could only be mastered in cooperation with several teams. The weather was also good for surprises, with some blizzards making the trip difficult.

The trail partially dug its tracks so deep in sand and rock that you can still see them on some stretches today. Car tracks ran through the prairie hundreds of meters wide; next to it lay animal carcasses, feces, and graves, and the resting places on the rivers were sewers. After several days of traveling, abandoned goods, some of which were valuable, marked the way, for example pianos that had to be thrown from overloaded wagons.

These west migrations were of the utmost importance to the development of America. It was a matter of daring to do something radically new without knowing your goal beforehand. Language, religion, nationality played no part in this crusade of "American proficiency" that was to form "free people" who cut themselves off from Europe. The women, without whose help the conquest of the West would have failed, had to be recognized as equal. Wyoming was the first state in the world to introduce women's suffrage.

And the Indian's land?

Indians tolerated those passing through, just as they had previously accepted the establishment of trading posts, mostly called forts. These were now important bases for the migrants from the west. But as the trails became more and more frequented and the covered wagon people shot more and more game, the Indians got nervous and demanded tolls. The "free Americans" moving on "free American land" reacted indignantly and asked for help from the army. The first conflict of this kind occurred in 1829 on the Santa Fe Trail; from then on the enmity with the southern plains Indians dated, and military escorts had to protect the trade trains.

The settlement of Oregon and Washington - both states joined the Union in 1846 - and the purchase of California became the overland route from east to west (by ship on the Missouri and then over the Great Plains, the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada or the Cascades) increasingly important. The sea route around Cape Horn took three to four months, with more than a quarter of the ships lost.

The army secured the land routes through forts, and in a Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 the Indian tribes accepted that they would only move in a certain area - that was the beginning of the reservation policy. The term of this contract was concluded for 50 years. But the US government soon shortened it to 10 years - without informing the Indians.

Indian rights became less and less respected. Settlements sprang up without asking the Indians. Misunderstandings led to shootings or even massacres, and the blame was always placed on the Indians who "stood in the way" of the country's development: "During the gold rush in California and Nevada, the prospectors exterminated the small tribes living there from 1850 - as" hunting fun "- so thoroughly that ten years later there were almost no Indians there." (4, p. 72).

The Sioux uprising in Minnesota

A violent revolt that killed nearly 800 whites occurred in Minnesota in 1862. This Sautee Sioux survey was triggered by a corrupt Indian agent (5, p. 62) who withheld food deliveries that had been promised by contract:
“One type of caterpillar - the owl butterfly - had destroyed the entire corn harvest. Only the timely delivery of the contractually agreed annual groceries could have saved the sautees from starvation. The agent's warehouses were filled to the roof with groceries. But he refused to hand them over until the government received the appropriate amount of money. But the Washington tax officials, who struggled to raise the immense cost of the war, withheld the money. " (4, p. 113 f.).

The German farmer Heinrich Berthold wrote from Neu Ulm to his brother in New York:
“You must starve to death. They are hardworking, godly, pious and honest Indians, helpful and happynt. But their situation is terrible. We help where we can, but the caterpillars have haunted our fields too. The unscrupulous Indian traders who cheat them every step of the way say they owe a great deal of money to them. I don't know for what ... The Indians fear that the traders have made a deal with the warehouse officials, that the officials will give the traders a large part of the Sioux money as debt repayment, of which they will then put a good portion in their own pockets. " (3, p. 157 f.).

as Little Crow, the chief of the Sioux, implored the Indian agents to finally open the warehouses, otherwise his people would starve to death, he received the answer: "If they are hungry, let them eat grass!" (3, p. 158).

The word spread at lightning speed, and the Sioux struck out. Then the army stepped in and smothered the uprising in blood.

(1) Davis, William C .. "The Wild West", Karl Müller, Erlangen; 1994.
(2) Gardner, Mark L. "Santa Fe Trail," Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson; 1993.
(3) Stammel, HJ: "Indianer", Bertelmann, Gütersloh; 1977.
(4) Stammel, HJ: “As long as grass grows and water flows”, DVA, Stuttgart, 1976.
(5) Utley, Robert M .: "Indian, Soldier and Settler," Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, St. Louis, 1979.