That was the Wild West Part 6

(Published in GralsWelt 32/2004)

The great departure

Daring, ingenious technical achievements, but at the same time unrestrained greed and inhuman brutality - these were the signs that the colonization of the Great Plains took place in the “Wild West” of North America. A departure of unimaginable proportions, a time that is glorified in countless films and books - the great age of railway construction, the "Homestead" pioneers, but also the last days of the plains Indians.

The American Civil War gave them a short respite - but now the whites set about destroying the livelihoods of the previously free and independent Reds. Land grabbing and brutal battles forced the Indians to surrender. From then on they had to eke out their existence in reservations, they were starving - and not a few fell into a religious madness.

"Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm."
Popular song from around 1860.

"Uncle Sam bets 160 acres for $ 26 that you will have starved to death on your land within five years."
Heimstätter joke.

Land was cheap in the US. From 1841 onwards, every citizen could purchase 160 acres [1] at a fixed price of 1.25 $ per acre. It is difficult to imagine how such prospects for cheap land in Europe would work. In the emigration countries, colorful posters appeared that exuberantly praised the American West. Mass immigration from Europe began, and more and more settlers were pushing west.
To cope with population pressure, a Homestead Act was passed in 1862. Now every American could get 160 acres for almost nothing; he only had to register for a fee of 26 $. If he cultivated the land for five years, it became his property.

An American legend
"Old Pinck, Stubborn 'McNail, who staked 160 acres of prairie in Nebraska with a wife and four children in 1864, dug out a hole in the ground, hung a buffalo skin on the" door "and began plowing his land, lived for 30 years with his family in this earth hut. His wife Mary collected dried buffalo dung for the hearth fire and, when there were no buffalos left, grass. She gave birth to 14 children and over time buried 8 of them. There were winters when the freezing north wind blew Old Pinck's home in the ground. Old Pinck fought wolves and Indians. His corn harvest was destroyed ten times by hailstorms, fire, frost, downpours and cyclones. Then, when everything seemed to be over, the locusts came and darkened the sun. Nebraska became almost deserted overnight. People who were broken in body and soul left their country with almost no possessions, for which they had bled and sweated for years. But Old Pinck "stubborn" stayed. He finally bedded his wife, worn out early, in the earth, which was so cruel. Finally, 20 years (!) After he started, he was able to sell his first harvest and use 400 $ to clothe his children. He sent all six of them to school and universities. And while they became respected people, Old Pinck was still plowing his land, and after every hour he sat on the plow to rub his sore feet. His “exploits” left something of lasting value: fertile land and healthy sons and daughters who are proud of their parents.   
(4, p. 365).

The cheap areas suitable for agriculture according to the European model were soon taken, and new settlers also tried to colonize the Great Plains. Where there was a lack of wood, they built their huts out of turf. Often they desperately fought against heat, drought, dust storms and grasshoppers until they realized that with 160 acres on the plains one could not exist and gave up. Today there are almost only large farms in the Midwest.
The mentality of the Heimstätter, who wrested their existence from the unfriendly environment, helped each other, built houses and founded churches, can be felt in the American West to this day.
There was no room for nomadic Indians in the regions claimed by Heimstättern: game was shot or driven away, the fields were fenced in with barbed wire (if only because of the ranchers' herds of cattle), and the land was “cultivated” as far as possible.

Rails from east to west

In 1835, when the first German railway between Nuremberg and Fürth was opened, there were already 200 railway lines in the USA, and the speed record set in 1832 was 128 km / h. When California joined the Union (1848) it was clear that a rail link to the Pacific was necessary. The task was daunting, and those in the West considered a train across the Rocky Mountains impossible. But in the land of “unlimited possibilities”, obstacles are a challenge.

Land grab for the railroad
"In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Transcontinental Railroad Treaty, which was based on a simple and ingenious patent recipe: The US government gave the railroad a 20-mile strip of land on both sides of the embankment for every mile of rail, i.e. 40 square miles per mile of railway line (102, 4 square kilometers). In addition, it subsidized the construction with shares valued at $ 32,000 per mile in the hill country and $ 48,000 per mile in the mountains. The calculated construction costs amounted to 20,000 dollars per mile, so that the companies were able to post a profit from the subsidy alone and, in addition, the enormous profits from the sale and lease of the land donation and from concessions for hotels, amusement arcades, dance halls, saloons, shops and factories in the cities that were built on the edge of the rail track, were able to paint.
The land that the government gave away was Indian land, which had been promised to the Indians in countless treaties 'for eternity, as long as grass grows and water flows'. But the lawyers interpreted all of these contracts from the outset as 'non-binding rights of use promises with informal termination at any time as soon as the government wants to use it itself'. With the stroke of a pen, contractual assurances made to the Indians were void. In addition, it was also decided that the Indians who 'do not live in reservations' are to be regarded by the USA as 'wards' in the sense of legislation and jurisdiction ...
Thus the legal and legal requirements for what the Indians simply called land grabbing were completely fulfilled, and no Indian in the western territories has ever understood what was happening here on the many 'talking papers'. "
HJ Stammel "The Wild West in Pictures", Prisma, Gütersloh 1978, p. 156 f.

The construction of the railway line, which was to connect the two coasts, began in 1863, but was interrupted by the civil war. After the war they went ahead with full force.
From the east the "Union Pacific Railroad " under the toughest conditions their rail track over the Great Plains.

The "Central Pacific Railroad" came towards her on a much more difficult route from California through the Sierra Nevada. Here, Chinese coolies performed admirably under inhumane conditions.

When, after a bitter race between the two rivals, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks met in the Utah desert on May 10, 1869, the work of the century was complete, and further railway lines to the west soon followed.

The history of the American railways is rich in great daring and ingenious technical achievements, but also in unrestrained greed, vehement striving for progress and inhuman brutality. Nobody registered the overexploitation of nature: cutting down forests, capturing mustangs en masse, slaughtering bison and other wild animals, etc.

The Battle of Little Bighorn

Almost everyone has heard of the "Indian Battle on the Little Bighorn River", filmed more than forty times; for this skirmish (irrelevant to American history) is far better known than the great battles of the American Civil War, one of which resulted in hundreds of casualties.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was preceded by a peace treaty in 1868 that promised the Sioux (Dakota) acceptable reservations, including the Black Hills. The American army withdrew from these areas, even evacuating three forts, which were then burned down by the Sioux so that the plains Indians could feel like the victors of the war.

But, as always, these contracts were quickly overtaken by the facts. the Northern Pacific Railway built a railway line through Indian land approved in the peace treaty that soon brought adventurers and settlers to the Midwest.
Then gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and of all things the one made legendary by his defeat at Little Bighorn General Custer was able to confirm the gold discoveries in the course of a military exploration in 1874.
Now there was no stopping: Thousands of prospectors poured into the Indian reservations, felled trees, decimated the game and shot every Indian who stood in their way. The government wanted to buy the Black Hills, the sacred mountains of the Sioux. When these refused, war was inevitable.

Many Sioux and Cheyenne had left the reservations to the west, toward the Bighorn Mountains, and were to be driven back by the army in 1876. During such campaigns, tipis and their supplies were regularly burned down, and not only warriors, but also women and children were killed.

After a few skirmishes, the army was divided to face the Indians, who had gone into hiding in the vast expanses of the prairie. Lieutenant Colonel led a group of about 600 men George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876). On June 25, 1876, he encountered the largest gathering of Great Plains Indians that any white man had ever seen. Custer's greatest concern was that the enemy might escape. He had left behind his three "Gatling" rapid fire guns (forerunners of the machine gun), which could have decided the confrontation in his favor, because they hindered the rapid advancement of his troops. So he attacked, allegedly without knowing the strength and exact whereabouts of the enemy.

The Indians, too, were apparently taken by surprise by the advancing troops and had to hurry to defend their wives and children.
While the train lagged behind as too slow, stormed Custers Cavalrymen in two groups.
A battalion of about 140 men under Major Reno suffered heavy losses and had to back down.
Custer himself and his people (210 in total) were surrounded and fought down. None survived.
Reno received reinforcements from the train and was able to hold out two difficult days until the arrival of the main army.

News of the defeat hit American cities on July 5th, while the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776 were still in progress. An outcry went through the country calling for the end of the free Indians.

The Battle of Little Bighorn was one of the few victories that Indians achieved under their own steam over an American army. But this last great victory did not help them, it only accelerated the end of their independence.

The discussions about Custer continue to this day. There are hundreds of books that partly glorify him and partly accuse him of serious errors. One follows Stammer (3) then became Custer initially sent and then - perhaps even deliberately - abandoned. For a century the heroic song of staunch defense was sung; There were no white survivors, and reports from the Indians were of no interest. They knew of a shameful defeat for the whites (5, p. 31 and 2, p. 100 f.); Most of the desperate soldiers are said to have shot themselves so as not to fall alive into the hands of the Indians (3, p. 277).

Not alone Custer, other officers were wild daredevils in Indian battles. After the civil war, the army had far too many officers. Those who wanted to stay with the army had to accept drastic downgrades; for example from major to sergeant, from lieutenant to common soldier. Custer, war hero and youngest general of the civil war, also joined the peace army as a lieutenant colonel as a brigadier general of the war. Only those who distinguished themselves in the West, the only theater of war, could hope for promotion, that is, slaughter as many Indians as possible. Humanity and understanding for the Reds was not required, and one can assume that the Indians were also deliberately provoked. (1, p. 242).

The Little Bighorn battlefield is now a "National Monument" in Montana (on I-90 between Billings and Sheridan). Grave monuments are dedicated to the fallen cavalrymen. In the future, a memorial is to be built here for the Indians who fell in defense of their country, their wives and children.

The last rearing

With the construction of the railways and the settlement of all areas usable for agriculture, the Indians lost the freedom for their independent life. In addition, there was the shooting of bison, their most important resource, which was seen as the best means of forcing the plains Indians into reservations.
Some tribes resisted, knowing that in the end everything would be in vain.

Many heroic songs were and are sung:
From the unnecessary struggle of the Nez Perce, their peace-loving ones Chief Joseph (1840-1904) fooled the army with his tactical skills several times so that his military maneuvers were taught at West Point, the American military academy.
From the desperate struggle of the Apaches in New Mexico, who were hunted by more than 5,000 soldiers for years, until you Chief Geronimo (1829-1909) capitulated with 36 Apaches.
The list can go on and on, but the end was always the same: the tribes were smashed, forced into reservations, their culture destroyed ...

The ghost dance

At the very end, when all was lost, many Indians turned their hopes on a miracle. Around 1888 the Pajute Wovoka (Uowoka) called himself the Messiah of the Indians and preached:
“The day is near when there will be no more misery or disease. The dead will return from the spirit world and all Indians will be united in a happiness that no longer knows death. The earth will be renewed, all whites will be gone, bison and mustangs, antelopes and beavers will return and earthquakes will herald the day of renewal ... " (5, p. 224 f.).

The starving Indians, who idly loitered on reservations and relied on the mercy of the US government, were seized by a religious madness. Many threw away all metal objects, danced until they fell into a trance and believed they were in touch with their dead.

The Indian agency panicked. She had ghost dancers disarmed, fearing a 25,000 Sioux uprising, taking place in December 1890 Sitting Bull, the famous medicine man, was shot.
A group of ghost dancers fled with their chief Big Foot in the Bad Lands. They were caught up and were supposed to surrender their weapons. Due to a misunderstanding, there was a shooting, which killed 150 Indians and their chief and 25 soldiers.
That was the "Battle of Wounded Knee Creek [2], which is considered the last major battle between white and red. 

Continued "That was the wild west" part 7.

[1] 160 acres = ¼ square mile = 0.65 square kilometers = 65 hectares = 650,000 square meters.
[2] In northeast Pineridge, South Dakota.

(1) Cooke, Alistair: “History of America,” Pawlak, Herrsching, 1975.
(2) Davis, William C .: "The Wild West", Karl Müller, Erlangen, 1994.
(3) Schwarzer Hirsch: “I call my people”, Lamuv, Bornheim, 1982.
(4) Stammel, HJ: “The Wild West in Pictures”, Prisma, Gütersloh, 1978.
(5) Stammel, HJ: "Indianer", Bertelsmann, Gütersloh, 1977.
(6) Stammel, HJ: "Westwärts", Hestia, Bayreuth, 1987.