How the West Was Won


European settlers have been expanding westward since their arrival. For the United States, westward expansion was a national project as articulated in Manifest Destiny, the idea that the country would not be complete until it stretched from coast to coast. Through various purchases and annexations including the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, and the Gadsden purchase, the United States had continued to expand ever westward until it took its present day shape. The United States added on new states until the present 48 state contiguous map was finalized in 1912 with the addition of Arizona.

It is important to remember that North America was not an empty place with no one living there. Native tribes have been living on this continent for thousands years before Europeans ever arrived. The tribes had wars, politics, alliances and their own languages, mythologies. In South and Central America, fabulous civilizations flourished before the Spanish arrive din the 14th century. Although the horse had died out in North America, for reasons that we still don’t quite understand why, when the Spanish reintroduced the horse to the Americas, it revolution travel and allowed the plains tribes to thrive in new ways. In his titular book, “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” by Jared Diamond (a book I hate but that’s another story) he explains that while native tribes lived better lives than the European aristocracy their technological gap left them vulnerable to European explorers. We know the rest of this story but we’ll circle back to that.

We’re going to talk about how the west “won” and the how and why of westward expansion and its legacy today. So join me on the wagon train, we’re heading to Oregon, there will not be dysentary (I promise) and its wagons ho! We’re heading west!

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Myths about the old west

First, let’s talk about some myths about the old west. Hollywood spent most of the 1940s and 50s building up the myth of the old west. It created the idea of the lone and independent cowboy, the emigrant in their Conestoga wagon, and the drama of a shoot out at high noon.

The Old West was a bit more messy than Hollywood would have you believe. John Wayne made his career on westerns and popular TV shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke set ranchers, farmers, and others as the heroes of every story even though the West was far more diverse and more complicated than any media would have you believe.


Much of the myths are true: people did take the Oregon trail for new homesteads out west, but the true horrors of the journey were not often talked about as much. Disease was common and most families would lose someone on the journey. Unmarked graves dotted the landscape around the trail. Some people would get lost, never to be seen again, still others would die in winter or suffer the fate of the Donner party.

Before the railroad, stage coaches were a good way to get around but they were cramped beyond belief with 6-8 passengers inside and possibly 1-2 sitting on the roof, plus a driver, and someone riding shotgun to protect the coach. It was rough and dirty traveling over little more than dirt trails. Mark Twain, upon taking stage coaches throughout the West declared that it was worst way to travel known to man. Hardly, the romantic journeys depicted in film. If you want the real experience, go watch the 1933 film, "Stagecoach." It features the first on screen appearance of John Wayne.

No one has really talked about how rough and wild old towns in the West were. Open consumption of liquor was common, prostitution was de rigeur, and because of the limited bathing facilities, the smells would have been horrific. Forget about paved roads, most well-used town roads were mud from the constant pounding of horses hooves and wagons and let’s not forget about the thousands of pounds of manure produced by those horses. Board walks above the dirt was a lifesaver.

Life in the old west was hard. Some people, disturbed by the lack of trees in the midwest, would go crazy. This was brilliantly illustrated in The Homesman with Hillary Swank (a remake of the original with John Wayne). The lack of trees, water, and civilization would send women running into the grasslands never to be seen again. Speaking of grass, we can’t forget about grass fires, dust storms, crop failure from drought, and the resulting famine that those things would bring.

Then there was how Hollywood rehabbed the history of the Indian Wars of the 1870s when intrepid American calvary would regularly attack raid, and eventually imprison native tribes on reservations. One of the biggest myths about the Old West is how westward expansion hurt the people that were incidentally, already living in the West. So let’s talk about that from the first, because they were long here before the first European foot ever set its toes westward.

Native Americans and Westward Expansion

For native tribes, westward expansion was horrific and traumatic. This trauma began from the earliest days of European colonization of what is now North America. From the Spanish in South America to the French and British in North America, mass slaughter was common either directly or by disease. As the young nation of the United States began to expand West in the early 19th century, tribes were moved out wholesale.

The most famous of these forced migrations was the Trail of Tears where the Cherokee, which had been living in what is now North Georgia were wholesale removed from their land, despite their best efforts to compete with the U.S. They quantified their language in an alphabet, started a newspaper and even formed a parliament. However, this did not stop the young nation from removing them. This would occur throughout the land known as the Louisiana purchase.

Tribes of people had their entire civilizations uprooted and were forced ever farther west. This would happen multiple times as white settlers sought ever more land. Often tribes were only given the most unusable land now which to live. These reservations were supposed to keep native tribes out of the ways of settlers but it rarely worked out that way. There was no respect for the native tribes, their traditions, sacred places, or way of life.

You have to love AI. Can you see anything wrong with this six-legged horse?

There are also remnants of previous pre-Columbian civilizations around the West. When I was a kid we visited Mesa Verde which is a large Anasazi village in Southern Colorado. No one knows what happened to the Anasazi, but many suspect that their corn agriculture was destroyed due to drought and they had to leave their adobe buildings, built so carefully into the canyons of southern Colorado for points elsewhere with water. The harsh climate kept many tribes on the move but those who secured consistent water, would stay in place.

Plains tribes like the Ute and Shoshone, which had very little agricultural tradition were told to farm basically useless land. The reservation system was created through a series of treaties with various tribes. The U.S. famously did respect those documents because, let’s face it, native tribes weren’t seen as human and not worthy of respect. This was especially apparently in the residential schools where native children would be sent to be crushed of their entire culture and language and made to be civilized. The legacy of that in Canada is just now being reckoned with and countries like Australia are also having to reckon with their treatment of native populations. Back here in the US, much of that history and the trauma of that remains untold and unreconciled.

The legacy of that terrible system exists to this day. There are still reservations in this country for Native tribes. Crime is high, both within the reservation and due to non-native people coming onto to tribal land to commit crimes. Sometimes on social media you’ll see people mention the epidemic if native women going missing randomly from reservations and no effort is ever made to try to find them. It is the biggest scandal that never gets the press it deserves. This is also the story of the West.

Before we talk about the rest of how the west was won we need to take a moment to acknowledge the civilizations that were crushed, the people wantonly killed, and the cultures and languages that were lost due to this type of colonization. This vast continent boasted wonderful civilizations that were simply wiped out for the sake of colonization. The entire West lives in the shadow of this great tragedy and loss and as we continue on, let’s bear that in mind.


Farms, Ranches, and Water

In the pre-industrial, agrarian US, land was an important resource as growing crops was how most people fed themselves and put cash in their pocket. Most people sold very little of what they grew, they used it for their own family, although, as production increased and mechanization came in, this would change. The midwest tended to be good farm land and many a fortune was made on that largesse, however, farther out where the climate was drier, cattle ranching was a better means of generating profit. By the mid-19th century, the national taste for beef had grown considerably. Ranchers out west built legendary empires of beef production. In the 1850s, the Chicago meat packing district was the busiest in the country and one of the busiest in the world. One of the biggest myths about the west has to do with cowboys and cattle drives.

The cowboy is a potent symbol of individualism in the American mythos. However, most people don’t know that cowboys were mostly black and hispanic, not white, and the practices that are practiced at rodeos around the West actually originate with the Vaqueros in Mexico that pre-dated American expansion westward. They were trained in the finest Spanish equestrian traditions and had a culture all their own. The American cowboy is sort of an anglicized copy of that tradition that began with Spanish arrival in the New World.

The cattle drive, was the process of collecting all the cattle from the vast pastures and driving them to the rail head to be taken back East for slaughter. You can see remnants of this today by visiting the Fort Worth stock yards, the Oklahoma City stockyards or the National Western Stock Show in Denver. Growing up we always talked about perfect stock show weather in January which is cloudy and slightly cold but dry.

If farming or cattle ranching wasn't your style, not to worry, if you had a pick axe and a pan, another kind of fortune could be made: gold.

Gold! And other mining

In 1849, gold was discovered in California and millions of men rushed westward to take advantage. Called 49ers, these men read stories of plentiful gold ripe for the picking. Bear in mind that gold was so common that you could pick it up off the ground in some cases. Panning for gold in streams and rivers were making men rich overnight. Boom towns sprung up and soon California was becoming incredibly wealthy.

More gold rushes would follow in the years following the 49ers. Gold rushes in Colorado, Montana, and Nevada would follow between 1850 and 1860. In my town in Colorado, Henry Ralston found gold in Ralston creek and the little town of Arvada, which is now a major suburb of Denver, was formed in 1854.

Gold mining was responsible for much of the settlement in the west. The West coast was a different story, with more water, agriculture was more practical in Oregon, Washington, and California. However, in Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico, it was known, at the time (and for good reason) as the Great American desert. Ranching and mining required much less water and were more profitable than attempting to farm. However, farming did take place in many areas when it was practical to create irrigation system. More on that in a minute. Let’s stay on gold for now.


The Alaskan gold rush wouldn’t start in 1891 and would continue well into the early 20th century until WWI demanded that men either go to war or do other mining for the war effort. Gold miners with a mind for Alaska gold mining would outfit themselves here in Seattle in Pioneer Square. You can still see some of the historic signs announced an outfitters shop. Ships from the Port of Seattle would leave through the Puget Sound, up the straights of Juan de Fuca and across the Gulf of Alaska to Juneau and elsewhere to disembark men looking to make their fortunes in the great, cold north.

Even after the war, gold mining in Alaska would pick up again and continue well into the 1940s until the beginning of World War II. Gold mining in Alaska continues to this day superseded only by oil.

The surface gold quickly was collected by the first miners and then mining operations were soon set up. The miners who didn’t strike it rich on their claims would soon sell off their land and then go to work for various mining companies that were set up across the West. Gold, Silver, and other metals needed to power the new industrial mills back east would pop up. Copper, molybdenum, Iron, coal, and other resources would all be extracted to build the new nation.

New millionaires were created out of these metals. In Denver, people like John Tabor and the famous Molly Brown made their fortunes in silver. Molly Brown was a waitress in a mountain mining town and became one of the wealthiest women in Denver and gained every more notoriety for surviving the Titanic disaster generating a play and a movie called the Unsinkable Molly Brown.

You can still see the history of mining in the west. Where I get up in Denver, if you drive out highway 93, you can see old, wooden mining operations still standing alongside the road. If you drive up into the mountains, you can see old mine shafts and other workings from I-70 or old route 6 or even US 40 as it snakes its way west.

First came the stage coach and then the iron horse

Someone asked me once why on earth we ever built a transcontinental railroad. Why did we need to get from the East to the West coast via rail? The answer is like everything else in this country, simple and complicated at the same time.

The first two ways to get west were Wagons or hand carts and ships. San Francisco was the home port of call for the ships that would sail from New york, around the southern tip of South America and then north again to California, usually San Francisco. The trip was long, dusty, if you went by land, and dangerous if you went by sea. This meant that anything traveling from east to west took extra time over the various trails that snaked across the West. Emigrants traveling west faced dangers of their own.


Railroads and the civil war

The West played a part in the civil war too, Colorado was the site of most western battle of the civil war and sold gold and material to both sides. Remember also that the expansion of slavery to the west lead to the compromise of 1850 and laid the groundwork for the civil war a decade before the first shot was fired in South Carolina. Kansas was the site of early violence due to the Free Soil movement that advocated for the idea that anyone on the land in Kansas territory should be free and not bound to anyone, free to work the land and make their fortune. While the West was not the primary battle field of the Civil War, it still played a part in the national consciousness. After the Civil War, many disaffected southerners would move west to start their lives over again.

We weren’t joined back together north to south in 1868 but instead we were joined from east to west by 1869.The construction of the Transcontinental was the biggest national project to that time. This enabled people to go from East to West by rail instead of my ship or by stage coach and wagon. This enabled goods like cattle and mining products to travel easily from their sources in the West to the meat packing plants and industrial plants in Chicago and farther east.

Memorialized in the brilliant TV show, Hell on Wheels, a term coined by a journalist about the moving camp that build the railroad from the east. The workers were an amalgam of freed slaves and poor whites. From the western side the railroad was dominated by immigrant Chinese workers who died by the dozens to plough rails through two mountain rangers. The railroad featured the first uses of dynamite in the mountains. The tracks and bridges were built mostly of wood and had to be replaced in the years following. The land speculation around the railroad made some wealthy and broke others entirely. The project was also the largest land grant for rail in US History.

Great cattle drives would gather cows from grazing land and drive them to the rail head where they would be loaded onto rail cars and sent to Chicago to be turned into steak for the ever-growing appetites for meat back East.


Rail remains a big mover of freight across the country to this day but the rail roads really opened the west in big ways for people as well. Towns along the railroad grew exponentially. Cheyenne, Laramie, Ogden, all grew up around the rail head and the commerce that came with it. When the railroad bypassed Denver for the flatter route in Wyoming, many people thought that Denver would dry up. However, a branch line was quickly built to Cheyenne and Denver continued to grow.

Rail would remain the primary way of getting around in the West, once you stepped off the train it was back to horse or wagon to the farthest reaches of the remote mountains, valleys and plains of the West. however, the advent of the automobile would change all of that again after World War II.

The Interstate

If you want to hear the whole story of the Interstate system, there is a dedicated article about the Interstate System with a companion podcast. The Interstate system was as important to the west as the railroads. It allowed people to drive their cars across the great expanses of the West. Although the Interstate are certainly easier to drive on US Highway route 66 became famous thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s crime sprees in the 1930s. I-90, 80, 70, and 40 joined us by car from East to West. You can drive continuously from points along the East coast all the way to California, Oregon and Washington State. Although I should note that the end of I-90 is not that impressive, you go through a tunnel that announces you’re arriving in Seattle and it ends right at the football stadium where the Seahawks play.

The development of roads a particularly interstates made getting out West far more achievable. It was the biggest thing to hit the West since the railroad. Union Station in Denver proudly announces this edict, "Travel by Train." As the train to Glacier National park once announced, "See America First." The roads enabled anyone to take a drive. Chevy once said in its famous jingle, "The Rockies Way Out West are calling you!" and "Fields of golden wheat pass by in revue." The Interstate really allowed America to move through the vastness of its Western interior in a way that far more difficult on the national highway system. The Interstate system features some genuinely beautiful views. Nothing is like traveling through I-70 in the canyon where the road deck hangs out over the creek flowing below. It's like driving on air. The flat plains of I-80 in Wyoming seem to stretch on to eternity and back again. I-90 winds through the mountains of Montana in contrast to the sweeping curves of I-40 through the southwest. The land is vast and transportation has made it possible to navigate. Remember, even natives couldn't hardly cross it until the reintroduction of the horse by the Spanish.

Land, farming, resources, and the law

Mining wasn’t just the only industry thriving in the West. Farming was a major industry and continues to this day. For areas of the west where water was available, the land was rich and ready to farm. For other areas, water was a scarce resource. I went to college in Greeley, Colorado. The land was so arid that they immediately began to seek out ways to irrigate their crops. They built canal #3 from the nearby hills to bring water to pleasant valley.


Farming in Eastern Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska was difficult without steady rain, the native grasses and prairie that had been first observed by Lewis and Clark in the early part of the 19th century were well suited to the dry climate. Wheat, corn and other crops that required a great deal of water to grow were not well suited and many farms simply failed. By the 1930s, this would result in one of the largest natural disasters in the West: the dust bowl. I don’t want to go into the dust bowl but I highly recommend the Ken Burns documentary on it.

Farming is still a big industry in the West. Thanks to pivot irrigation, farming is possible. there are still ditches and ditch companies that supply water to farmers and towns throughout the West. For the bulk of American history, the West was the intersection of cattle ranching, land, and water. Until the arrival of oil and technology, those industries defined the US west of the Mississippi. The only thing people fight over more in the West than water, is land.


There is an old saying, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. Fights over Water in the West go on to this day, with growing cities in Phoenix, Denver, and Southern California demanding ever more water from a finite resource that doesn’t always flow.

When I call my family in Colorado, I guarantee what the first 10 minutes of conversation is going to be about: water. Has it snowed, has it rained, how’s the weather, how’s the moisture. When I was growing up, Grandma would always ask folks coming from the mountains how Dillon reservoir was. It’s the primary reservoir for Denver and whether it was up or down could tell how much snow the mountains had gotten and if we would have water that year or not.

I can scare friends from back East by talking about the water restrictions we used to go through in the summers when I was in high school because we were in a 20 year cyclical drought. I can also tell stories about the 500 year flood in 2013 when I stood on Speer Boulevard in downtown Denver and Cherry Creek was splashing onto the road from its natural course 30 feed below. Water is a constant hot topic, when you don’t know if you’re going to have enough.


The West saw another boom when oil became a primary resource in the 20th century. Oil derricks shot up all over the west and millionaires were made over night. The Cohen brothers in their brilliant movie there will be blood catalog the rise of the oil barons in the west very well. Most of Colorado was once under water which there was plenty of plant matter to turn into oil and from Texas to the East to California in the West, oil was the second coming of gold and people who owned land that was poor farming, often found out that they were sitting on wealth of a very different variety. Even today, with oil shale fracking, oil is still a big business out west. Large refineries in Wyoming supply gasoline, jet fuel and other products to the entire nation.


Law and Order

The old west is most famous for its law and order or lack thereof. In popular movies, the lone sheriff defending his small, but well meaning and moral town was a trope of western moves. The gunslinger, a criminal, vagrant, a man with no roots in a community was often his villain. Marty Robbins is probably one of best singers of these tales of the Old West and the lawlessness that pervaded the landscape until the early 20th century. Although there is a great deal of mythos around this topic, the West was certainly lawless. Everyone had to be armed in order to fight off those who might molest them. More than one dispute over land, gold, water, or cattle ended in gun violence. In Wyoming, the Johnson County wars were so bloody and fraught that the records of it are still sealed at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

The West is Vast

I was recently traveling from Seattle or Arizona and back again and the entire circuit took 6 days of driving and I was reminded of the vastness of the West. There is empty land, stunning views, and natural life. Much of it has been preserved for the future.

America's National Parks have been called America’s best idea. Teddy Roosevelt and photographer John Muir did not want all of the vastness of the continent brought under productive use. They worked at preserving the stunning beauty and natural features so that it would not all be spoiled and would be conserved for the good of the nation and for the enjoyment of its citizens. This would be a world first.

The West is filled with long distances, areas where there are practically no humans whatsoever. People tend to live in towns and cities because the next nearest person could be miles away. On the Great Plains, the sky can be so clear and so bright that you can see in every direction. On a clear day, in some parts of kansas, you can see 6 states because it is so flat. The sky is open to you. In Montana, its become part of their brand.

Montana is called the big sky state for a reason and it lives up to the hype. The world somehow seems bigger from those stunning peaks and flat valleys. Nearby are the winds of Wyoming, the bad lands of the Dakotas, the craggy mountains of Colorado and the dusty deserts of New Mexico and Arizona. The vastness is punctuated by the high cliffs of the West coast that tower above the crashing waves of the Pacific.

How the West was Won

The West wasn’t won in so much as it was occupied. European colonization changed the West from what the native tribes had been doing for a thousand years. Winning the west is a bit of a misnomer. It had far more to do with occupation than anything else and the entirely of the West sits on land that once belonged to someone else. Fortunately, thanks to modern efforts, some of these cultures have been preserved and we can now enjoy their cultural and artistic achievements. However, we must honor the peoples who occupied this land before everyone else showed up and tried to bring European civilization here.

Having lived in both the east and west, I am always stunned by the beauty of the West, not to say that the East doesn’t have its own beauty but there is nothing like the American West. There just isn’t anything like it. Stunning water falls, jagged peaks, snow capped mountains, and the people. There are friendly people everywhere. I don’t miss the random weather of the higher altitudes and I am spoiled by being able to mostly avoid Snow in Seattle but that is cool too. There’s just nowhere else quite like it and when faced with a choice to stay in the East or come back West… I chose to come West.

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