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The UNITED STATES, 1865-1900 (1 of 3)

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Reconstruction and Western Expansion

The Economy in the 1860s | the South to 1877 | American Indians and Western Expansion, 1850-81

The Economy to 1871

During the Civil War the economy in the North boomed – a continuation of the industrial advances from the 1840s. And following the war the Union economy continued to boom, while the economy of the former Confederate states other than Texas remained in decline. Despite the Civil War in the first half of the 1860s, the United States grew in population: from 31 million in 1860 to 38 million in 1870. This increase of 7 million included 2.3 million immigrants, 90 percent of them from Europe. An overwhelming percentage of them settled other than in the South.

By 1870 between 14 and 15 percent of the US population were foreign born, and immigrants comprised 20 percent of the labor force. And between 1870 and 1880 the population of the United States rose to 50 million, the number of immigrants in this decade totaling 2.75 million, 83 percent of them from Europe. The percentage of those people in the United States called Negroes remained around 11% of the population – down from the year 1800, when 16.4% of the population had been slaves or freed slaves. note54

Two years after the Civil War ended, Alaska was purchased from Russia, and called a lump of ice by those opposed to the transaction. Midway Island in the Pacific was annexed. Nebraska became the 37th state in 1867, and whites were moving into the territory just west of Nebraska – Wyoming. That year the Union Pacific Railroad arrived in Wyoming at what was being laid out as the town of Cheyenne.

The economic expansion that followed the Civil War has been described as a railroad boom, much as the boom of the 1990s was a computer boom. It was a boom paid for in large part by the federal government, which supplied half or more of the capital for construction and gave railway companies grants of land.

Railways were tying together the West and the East. After six years of work, in 1869 a rail line from Sacramento, California, met a rail line from Omaha, Nebraska, at Promontory Point, Utah. This was the great transcontinental railway. Much of the work on the line from California, across the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains had been done by Chinese migrants, who appeared more willing to tolerate the harsh conditions than whites. Explosives had been used and the death rate among the workers had been high, but the death rate had declined after the company building the line, the Central Pacific, had begun using less volatile explosives.

The railway boom benefited the steel industry in western Pennsylvania. Demand for armaments during the Civil War had made Pittsburgh a major industrial center. High tariffs created by Congress protected the steel industry in the 1870s, helping the industry to grow.

"Railroads," as historian H W Brands points out, "were the first industry to evolve a cadre of professional managers – men who specialized in railroad administration, develped standards for measuring performance, shared and debated new ideas, and published journals." note55

Railroads and Cattle

Rail lines were extended westward to Dodge City, Kansas in 1871. Longhorn cattle were being driven from Texas through Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to rail heads at Abilene Kansas and Dodge City – drives of from 1,200 to 1,500 miles, moving from ten to twenty miles per day. The peak year of the cattle drives was 1871 when some 600,000 were herded north. Indians in Oklahoma were not objecting, content at least that the paleface cowboys were merely passing through rather than settling down, and some Indians were receiving a small fee from grazing licenses issued to the cattlemen.

After delivering the cattle, the cowboys would celebrate, spending their meager wages and then begin the long and slow ride back home. From all of their riding, some became bow-legged – a condition not to be depicted in Hollywood's Westerns.

From Abilene and Dodge City, buyers from Chicago and Kansas City shipped the cattle eastward, to be slaughtered in Chicago or Kansas City, then to be shipped in refrigerated rail cars to eastern cities. With the invention of artificial ice, and with canning, food that would otherwise have perished was being shipped by rail from California to the east coast and to European markets.

Meanwhile, the railroad companies had been advertising, trying to attract settlers to lands that had been granted them in the West.


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