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In their prime objective, Lewis and Clark failed. Some might argue they did not discover anything that American Indians or British fur traders had not already seen.
When settlers went west in the s, they followed trails established not by Lewis and Clark but by the trappers who came after them.
They set the stage for a century of nation-building. Gold on the American River. Some did strike it lucky, finding glistening nuggets in riverbeds that were easily accessible by mining with pan, pick and shovel.
Tales were spun of grizzled prospectors with golden beards and bathtubs glinting with ore in the ramshackle mining towns that sprang up with enticing names such as Hangtown and Rich Bar.
By , the population of non-native Californians had risen to ,, duly facilitating the granting of statehood. With surface gold largely gone by the early s, mining became a corporate venture dominated by hydraulic technology high-pressure jets that blasted away at hillsides, causing significant environmental damage in the process.
Details of her early life remain sketchy but we know she was orphaned young and drifted between forts and mining camps working as a freighter, dance hall girl, prostitute, cook and laundress.
Indeed, as one commentator noted, the more we learn about Calamity Jane, the less we actually know. Although the needs of frontier subsistence often saw women take on new roles Wyoming was the first territory to grant female suffrage in , Cannary operated far beyond the boundaries of what was deemed normal female behaviour.
That, at least, is the Hollywood version of events. Yet, as Karen Jones explains, the truth of frontier life was very different from the gilded myth — and it rarely had a happy ending.
The West attracted — with its promise of land and mineral wealth — a fair share of drifters. Yet this reputation for violence has been exaggerated.
The Wild West would be a very different place in the public consciousness without John Wayne. The cowboy was, undeniably, one of the distinctive features of westward expansion.
The cattle kingdom channelled the entrepreneurial spirit of the West and its associations with freedom and individualism. But this was not the whole story.
By the s, the invention of barbed wire, a series of harsh winters and environmental degradation due to over-stocking effectively ended the cattle kingdom.
One of the principal lures for settlers heading to the frontier in the 19th century was land. Designed to make a nation of virtuous farmers after the Jeffersonian ideal — which envisaged America as an agrarian republic — the homesteading boom advanced the settlement of the West considerably.
Only 40 per cent of applicants satisfied the terms of the act to successfully claim a land patent, while the poorest did not have the resources to up sticks and move west.
Those who farmed the land suffered the exigencies of market prices, lack of water, inclement weather, wildfires, pests and the drudgery of loneliness.
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on an expedition into the American interior in , little was known of what lies to the west of the Mississippi river.
Having purchased Louisiana Territory from the French in , President Thomas Jefferson was keen to acquire geographical knowledge on the West and to cement US territorial claims.
So he dispatched Lewis his private secretary and Clark who had served with Lewis in the US Army to explore the headwaters of the Missouri river, with the aim of discerning a navigable water route across the continent — in other words, to find the fabled North-West Passage.
Jefferson received skins and samples, maps and notes and even a live prairie dog but no news of a water route to the Pacific.
So why are Lewis and Clark remembered so fondly? They may not have found the North-West Passage, but historical re-enactments and exhibits, not to mention all manner of branded goods — from travel pillows to cookbooks — confirm their canonical position among American explorers.
Within two months, 4, people were prospecting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. This was especially true when homesteaders fenced off their land, limiting access to already scarce sources of water.
The most famous of the conflicts that resulted is the Johnson County War, which ended only after the cavalry was sent in by order of the President.
The large cattle barons also fought among themselves for control of the open range and lucrative government supply contracts. The most infamous of these fights is the Lincoln County War of , in which the outlaw Billy the Kid rose to fame.
Of course, miners, homesteaders, and cattlemen alike also had to worry about the native tribes that they were displacing. These conflicts also led to violence.
In spite of these specific incidents of violence, the lawlessness of the Wild West has been blown out of proportion.
Ironically, the myth of the lawless West began before the period was over. Dime novels written in the East in the latter part of the 19th century exaggerated, or simply made up, stories about the crimes and criminals of the West.
The true story of the Old West is boring by comparison. Because of the need to hunt for food or protect themselves from wild animals, many people did have guns.
However, fans of Hollywood westerns may be surprised to learn that many western towns had strict gun ordinances, making it illegal to carry guns in town.
People entering the town were required to surrender their firearms to the sheriff. In fact, a story that has come to epitomize the violence of the Wild West involved a conflict over such a law.
When Virgil Earp, along with his brothers Morgan and Wyatt and their friend Doc Holliday, confronted five cowboys in the city of Tombstone over carrying firearms in town, violence erupted.
This incident became known as the gunfight at the OK corral. In any modern city today, such a minor incident would probably not even be front page news.
So, was there violence in the mountains, plains, and frontier towns of the old west? Yet, as with any wilderness, a man was just as likely, if not more likely, to die from thirst, starvation, drowning, freezing, snakebite, falling off a mountain, falling off his horse, being attacked by animals, or any one of a hundred other things.
Most of the settlers moving west, whether they were farmers, cowboys, miners, or some other profession, were honest and hardworking.
Just as today, outlaws existed, yet in most places and for most people, violent crime was not the daily norm that popular entertainment would have us believe.
As unromantic as it may be, relatively few people in the Wild West were involved in the gunfights and stagecoach robberies immortalized in the movies.
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