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Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History #24

Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History #24



Hi, I’m John Green, this is
Crash Course U.S. History and today we leave behind the world of industry
and corporations to talk about the Wild Wild West. Spoiler Alert: You You have died of dysentery. And in the process, we’re going to explore how all of us, even those of us who are vegan or eat sustainably-produced food benefit from massive agrobusiness that has its roots in the Wild Wild West. The West still looms large in American mythology as the home of cowboys and gunslingers and houses of ill repute and freedom from pesky government interference. But in fact: It was probably not as wild as we’ve been told. Ugh, Mr. Green, why can’t America
live up to its myths just once? Because this is America, Me from the Past,
home to Hollywood and Gatsby and Honey Boo Boo. We are literally in the mythmaking business. [Theme Music] So, before the Hollywood western, the myth of
the Frontier probably found its best expression
in Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 lecture, “the Significance of the Frontier in American
History.” Turner argued that the West was responsible
for key characteristics of American culture: beliefs in individualism, political
democracy, and economic mobility. Like, for 18th and 19th century Americans, the western frontier represented the opportunity to start over, and possibly to strike it rich by dint of
one’s own individual effort, even back when
the West was, like, Ohio. In this mythology, the west was a magnet for restless young men who lit out for the uncorrupted, unoccupied, untamed territories to seek their fortune. But, in reality, most western settlers
went not as individuals but as members of
a family or as part of an immigrant group. And they weren’t filling up unoccupied
space either because most of that territory
was home to American Indians. Also, in addition to Easterners and migrants from
Europe, the West was settled by Chinese people and
by Mexican migrant laborers and former slaves. Plus, there were plenty of Mexicans living
there already who became Americans with
the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. And the whole west as “a place of rugged
individualism and independence” turns out
to be an oversimplification. I mean, the federal government, after all, had to
pass the law that spurred homesteading, then had
to clear out American Indians already living there, and had to sponsor the railroads that allowed
the West to grow in the first place. About as individualistic as the government
buying Walden Pond for Henry David Thoreau. What’s that? It’s a state park now? The
government owns it? Well, there you go. Now, railroads didn’t create the desire to settle
the west but they did make it possible for people who
wanted to live out west to do so, for two reasons. First, without railroads there would be no
way to bring crops or other goods to market. I mean, I guess you could dig a canal
across Kansas, but, if you’ve ever been to
Kansas that is not a tantalizing proposition. Second, railroads made life in the west
profitable and livable because they brought
the goods that people needed, such as tools for planting and sowing,
shoes for wearing, books for putting on
your shelf and pretending to have read. Railroads allowed settlers to stay connected
with the modernity that was becoming the hallmark
of the industrialized world in the 19th century. Now, we saw last week that the Federal government
played a key role in financing the transcontinental
railroad, but state governments got into the act too,
often to their financial detriment. In fact, so many states nearly went bankrupt
financing railroads that most states now have
constitutional requirements that they balance
their budgets. But perhaps the central way that the Federal
government supported the railroads, and western
settlement and investment in general, was by leading military expeditions against
American Indians, rounding them up on ever-smaller
reservations, and destroying their culture. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. There was an economic as well as a racial
imperative to move the Native Americans off
their land: white people wanted it. Initially it was needed to set down railroad
tracks, and then for farming. But eventually it was also exploited for minerals like gold and iron and other stuff that makes industry work. I mean, would you really want a territory called
the Badlands unless it had valuable minerals? Early western settlement, of the Oregon Trail kind,
did not result in huge conflicts with Native Americans, but by the 1850s, a steady stream of settlers
kicked off increasingly bloody conflicts that
lasted pretty much until 1890. Even though the fighting started before the
Civil War, the end of the “war between the states” meant a new, more violent phase in the warring
between American Indians and whites. General Philip H. “Little Phil” Sheridan
set out to destroy the Indians’ way of life, burning villages and killing their horses
and especially the buffalo that was the basis
of the plains tribes’ existence. There were about 30 million buffalo in the
U.S. in 1800; by 1886 the Smithsonian Institute
had difficulty finding 25 “good specimens.” In addition to violent resistance, some Indians
turned to a spiritual movement to try to preserve
their traditional way of life. Around 1890 the Ghost Dance movement
arose in and around South Dakota. Ghost Dancers believed that if they gathered
together to dance and engage in religious rituals, eventually the white man would disappear
and the buffalo would return, and with them
the Indians’ traditional customs. But even though a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors completely destroyed George Custer’s force of 250 cavalrymen at Little Bighorn in 1876, and Geronimo took years to subdue in the Southwest, western Native Americans were all defeated by 1890,
and the majority were moved to reservations. Thanks, Thought Bubble. Boy, this Wild West
episode sure is turning out to be loads of fun! It’s just like the Will Smith movie! All right, Stan, this is about to get even more depressing, so let’s look at, like, some pretty mountains and western landscapes and stuff, while I deliver this next bit. So in 1871 the U.S. government ended the treaty
system that had since the American Revolution treated
Native American land as if they were nations. And then with the Dawes Act of 1887, the
lands set aside for the Indians were allotted
to individual families rather than to tribes. Indians who “adopted the habits of civilized life,” which in this case meant becoming small
scale individualistic Jeffersonian farmers, would be granted citizenship and there were
supposed to be some protections to prevent their
land from falling out of Native American possession. But, these protections were not particularly
protective and much of the Indian land was purchased
either by white settlers or by speculators. After the passage of the Dawes Act
“Indians lost 86 million of the 138 million
acres of land in their possession.” Oh boy, it’s time for the Mystery Document.
The rules here are simple. I guess the author of the Mystery Document.
And then you get to see me get shocked when
I’m wrong. All right. I have seen the Great Father Chief the Next
Great Chief the Commissioner Chief; the Law Chief; and many other law chiefs and they all say
they are my friends, and that I shall have justice, but while all their mouths talk right I do not
understand why nothing is done for my people. I have heard talk and talk but nothing is done
Words do not pay for my dead people. They do not pay for my country now
overrun by white men. They do not protect my father's grave. Good words will not give my people a home where
they can live in peace and take care of themselves. I am tired of talk that comes to nothing. It makes my heart sick when I remember all
the good words and all the broken promises. I mean that could be almost any American Indian
leader. This is totally unfair, Stan. All I really know about
this is that the Great Father Chief is the President. I mean it could be any of a dozen people. How bout if I say the name in 10 seconds I
don’t get punished? Aaaand start. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Geronimo,
Chief Big Foot, um, Keokuk, Chief Oshkosh, Chief Joseph Ch-OH YES YES! And now let us move from tragedy to tragedy. So if you’re thinking that it couldn’t
get worse for the Native Americans: it did. After killing off the buffalo, taking their
land and forcing Indians onto reservations, the Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted a
policy that amounted to cultural genocide. It set up boarding schools, the most famous of
which was in Carlisle, PA, where Indian children were
forcefully removed from their families to be civilized. This meant teaching them English, taking away their
clothes, their names, and their family connections. The idea put succinctly, was to “kill the
Indian, save the man.” Now, the U.S. wasn’t the only nation busy subjugating its indigenous inhabitants and putting them on reservations in the late 19th century. Like, something similar was happening in South Africa, in Chile, and even to First Peoples in Canada. And you’re usually so good, Canada. Although the slower pace of western settlement meant that there was much less bloodshed, so, another point to Canada. And as bad as the American boarding
school policy was, at least it was short lived compared with Australia’s policy of removing Aboriginal children from families and placing them with white foster families, which lasted until the 1970s. All right, Stan, we need to cheer this episode
up. Let’s talk about cowboys! The Marlboro Man riding the range, herding cows and smoking, solitary in the saddle, alone in his emphysema. Surely that is the actual West, the men and women but mostly men who stood apart from the industrializing country as the last of Jefferson’s rugged individuals. But, no. Once again, we have the railroad
to thank for our image of the cowboy. Like, those massive cattle drives of
millions of cows across open range Texas? Yeah, they ended at towns like Abilene, and Wichita, and Dodge City – because that’s where the railheads were. Without railroads, cowboys would have just
driven their cattle in endless circles. And without industrial meat processing, there
wouldn’t have been a market for all that beef. And it was a lot of beef. You know what I’m
talking about. I’m actually talking about beef. By the mid 1880s the days of open range
ranching were coming to an end, as ranchers began to enclose more and
more land and set up their businesses closer to,
you guessed it, railroad stations. There are also quite a few things about western
farming that just fly in the face of the mythical
Jeffersonian yeoman farmer ideal. Firstly, this type of agricultural
work was a family affair; many women bore huge burdens on
western farms, as can be seen in this excerpt
from a farm woman in Arizona: “Get up, turn out my chickens, draw a pail of water … make a fire, put potatoes to cook, brush
and sweep half inch of dust off floor, feed three litters of chickens, then mix biscuits,
get breakfast, milk, besides work in the house and
this morning had to go half mile after calves.” These family-run farms were increasingly oriented towards production of wheat and corn for national and even international markets rather than trying to eke out subsistence. Farmers in Kansas found themselves competing
with farmers in Australia and Argentina, and this international competition pushed
prices lower and lower. Secondly, the Great Plains, while remarkably
productive agriculturally, wouldn’t be nearly as good for
producing crops without massive irrigation projects. Much of the water needed for plains agriculture
comes a massive underground lake, the Oglala Aquifer. Don’t worry, by the way, the Aquifer is fed by a magic and permanent H20 factory in the core of the earth that you can learn about in Hank’s show, Crash Course Chemis– What’s that? It’s going dry. MY GOD
THIS IS A DEPRESSING EPISODE. Anyway, large-scale irrigation projects
necessitate big capital investments, and therefore large, consolidated agricultural
enterprises that start to look more like agri-business
than family farms. I mean, by 1900, California was home to
giant commercial farms reliant on irrigation
and chemical fertilizers. Some of them were owned, not by families, but by
big corporations like the Southern Pacific Railroad. And they were worked by migrant farm laborers
from China, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico. As Henry George, a critic of late 19th
century corporate capitalism, wrote “California is not a country of farms, but …
of plantations and estates.” When studying American history, it’s really
easy to get caught up in the excitement of
industrial capitalism with its robber barons, and new technologies, and fancy cities
because that world looks very familiar to us,
probably because it’s the one in which we live. After all, if I was running a farm like that Arizona woman I talked about earlier, there’s no way I could be making these videos because I’d be chasing my calves. I don’t even know what a litter of chickens is. Is it 4 chickens? 12? 6? It’s probably 12
because eggs do come in dozens. The massive agricultural surplus
contemporary farms create, and the efficient transportation network that gets
that surplus to me quickly, makes everything else
possible – from YouTube to Chevy Volts. And no matter who you are, you benefit from the products that result from that massive surplus. That’s why we’re watching YouTube right now. So, agriculture and animal husbandry did
change a lot in late 19th century America, as we came to embrace the market driven ethos that we either celebrate or decry these days. And in the end, the Wild West ends up
looking a lot more like industrial capitalism
than like a Larry McMurtry novel. The Wild West, like the rest of the industrialized world, was incentivized to increase productivity and was shaped by an increasingly international economic system. And it’s worth remembering that even
though we think of the Oregon Trail and the
Wild West being part of the same thing. In fact, they were separated by the most important
event in American history: the Civil War. I know that ain’t the mythologizing you’ll
find in Tombstone, but it is true. Thanks for watching.
I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer of the show
is Danica Johnson. The show is written by my high school history teacher Raoul Meyer, Rosianna Halse Rojas, and myself. And our graphics team is Thought Café. Every week, there’s a new caption for the libertage. If you’d like to suggest one you can do so in comments where you can also ask questions about today’s video that will be answered by our team of historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course. If you
enjoy it, make sure you subscribe. And as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome. OH, ahh I didn’t get a good push.


Reader Comments

  1. The combination of capitalism and racism, infused with social Darwinism, is a witches' brew that leads to ethnic cleansing and genocide. The racism allows the identification of the other, the capitalism provides the rationale for dispossessing the other, and the social Darwinism provides the (lack of) moral justification. "You are different, we need your stuff so we can make our goods, you don't matter because we are stronger than you are."

  2. To Mexicans and Native Americans who complain "the US stole our land," I say tough bananas. The land is ours by right of conquest and we're not giving it back. Mexico stole land from the Natives and the Native tribes stole land from each other. If you want the land so much, stop whining and try to take it back.

  3. You have provided me lots of help throughout all your videos. Thank you for being detailed and also understandable!

  4. The information is good, your delivery style is very annoying. It's like your talking to little kids. Just teach with a normal voice and quit trying to be corny.

  5. Imperials called us "infidels" because we weren't Christian. But christians hate Muslims because Muslims call them "infidels"

  6. Fact check: At least America wasn't as bad as Australia taking Aboriginal kids away from their families and putting them with white foster families up until the 70s? Ummmm the US did do that and still does. There are barely any laws mandating Indigenous children stay with Indigenous foster families and even those laws are being challenged.

  7. Canada did have a program of removing aboriginal children from their families and adopting them to white families, not just Australia. It was called the 60's scoop.

  8. I have been watching Crash Course for about 3 years now, and I just realized that this John Green is the same one that wrote Paper Towns, Fault in our Stars, Looking for Alaska etc. I love this man!!!!

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