Southern Pacific Railroad completes New Orleans to California route


Year
1883
Month Day
February 05

The Southern Pacific Railroad completes its transcontinental “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California, consolidating its dominance over rail traffic to the Pacific.

One of the most powerful railroad companies of the 19th century, the “Espee” (as the railroad was often called) originated in an ambitious plan conceived in 1870 by the “Big Four” western railroad barons: Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Mark Hopkins. A year earlier, the Big Four’s western-based Central Pacific had linked up with the eastern-based Union Pacific in Utah, creating the first transcontinental American railway. With that finished, the “Big Four” began to look for ways to increase their control over West Coast shipping, and decided to focus their efforts on extending the California-based Southern Pacific southward.

By 1877, the Southern Pacific controlled 85 percent of California’s railroad mileage. Huntington, who now dominated the company, saw an excellent opportunity to create a transcontinental line through the southern United States. Huntington had to act fast if was to beat the competition. The Texas and Pacific Railroad was already pushing westward toward the Pacific at a fast pace. Marshalling his awesome energy and financial resources, Huntington began driving his Southern Pacific line eastward. He won the race in 1881, when he linked the Southern Pacific to the Santa Fe Railroad at Deming, New Mexico, creating the second American transcontinental railway. Two years later, on February 5, 1883, Huntington gained full control of a number of smaller railroads, creating the Southern Pacific’s “Sunset Route” from New Orleans to California.

With the “Sunset Route,” Huntington confirmed his domination over California rails. He had taken considerable financial risks to build the Southern Pacific system, and he collected very considerable financial rewards. The Southern Pacific had a near monopoly over rail service to California, and Huntington and his associates took advantage of the situation by charging high shipping rates.

Termed “the Octopus” for its tentacled stranglehold on much of the California economy, the Southern Pacific inspired Californians to create some of the first strong public regulations over railroads in American history. But despite the anger and outrage Huntington’s exploitation inspired, few would deny that the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad played an essential role in fostering the growth of a vibrant California economy for decades to come.

READ MORE: 10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

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Secretary Fall resigns in Teapot Dome scandal


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Year
1923
Month Day
January 02

Albert Fall, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, resigns in response to public outrage over the Teapot Dome scandal. Fall’s resignation illuminated a deeply corrupt relationship between western developers and the federal government.

Born in Kentucky in 1861, Albert Fall moved to New Mexico in 1887 because doctors told him the dry desert air would improve his health. Fall thrived in his new home, quickly building up a large ranching operation near Las Cruces and investing in silver mining and other ventures. By the turn of the century, Fall was a well-respected and powerful western businessman, and he used his considerable resources to win a seat in the U.S. Senate when New Mexico became a state in 1912.

In Washington, D.C., Fall quickly discovered the enjoyable prerogatives of power. He made several powerful allies, including President Warren G. Harding, who appointed him secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior in 1921. As secretary of the interior, Fall was responsible for managing the government’s vast western land holdings in the public interest. Unfortunately, Fall’s close ties with western developers tempted him to abuse his position. Ostensibly acting to ensure adequate oil supplies for the navy in the event of war, Fall set aside a large oil deposit in Wyoming known as Teapot Dome. Secretly, he then began to sign leases with big western oilmen allowing them to exploit the supposed reserve.

When news of the secret leases leaked out, Fall claimed he had signed them with the best interests of the public in mind. Subsequent investigations, though, threw Fall’s integrity into question when they disclosed that many of his investments in New Mexico had recently collapsed, and he was on the verge of bankruptcy. Desperate for money, Fall had accepted “loans” of about $400,000 from the same oil men he granted access to Teapot Dome, two of whom were old friends from his New Mexico mining days. Fall insisted that the loans were unrelated to his granting of the Teapot Dome oil leases, but conservationists and government reformers were outraged. Such conflicts of interest were inevitable, they argued, when western developers were given control over federal agencies responsible for managing western natural resources.

Forced to resign his office in shame, Fall spent the rest of his life trying to rebuild his fortune and redeem his tarnished reputation. He died in near poverty in 1944.

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Yellowstone Park established


Year
1872
Month Day
March 01

President Grant signs the bill creating the nation’s first national park at Yellowstone.

Native Americans had lived and hunted in the region that would become Yellowstone for hundreds of years before the first Anglo explorers arrived. Abundant game and mountain streams teaming with fish attracted the Indians to the region, though the awe-inspiring geysers, canyons, and gurgling mud pots also fascinated them.

John Colter, the famous mountain man, was the first Anglo to travel through the area. After journeying with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, Colter joined a party of fur trappers to explore the wilderness. In 1807, he explored part of the Yellowstone plateau and returned with fantastic stories of steaming geysers and bubbling cauldrons. Some doubters accused the mountain man of telling tall tales and jokingly dubbed the area “Colter’s Hell.”

Before the Civil War, only a handful of trappers and hunters ventured into the area, and it remained largely a mystery. In 1869, the Folsom-Cook expedition made the first formal exploration, followed a year later by a much more thorough reconnaissance by the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition. The key to Yellowstone’s future as a national park, though, was the 1871 exploration under the direction of the government geologist Ferdinand Hayden. Hayden brought along William Jackson, a pioneering photographer, and Thomas Moran, a brilliant landscape artist, to make a visual record of the expedition. Their images provided the first visual proof of Yellowstone’s wonders and caught the attention of the U.S. Congress.

Early in 1872, Congress moved to set aside 1,221,773 acres of public land straddling the future states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho as America’s first national park. President Grant signed the bill into law on this day in 1872. The Yellowstone Act of 1872 designated the region as a public “pleasuring-ground,” which would be preserved “from injury or spoilation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”

For a nation bent on settling and exploiting the West, the creation of Yellowstone was surprising. Many congressmen gave it their support simply because they believed the rugged and isolated region was of little economic value. Yet the Yellowstone Act of 1872 set a precedent and popularized the idea of preserving sections of the public domain for use as public parks. Congress went on to designate dozens of other national parks, and the idea spread to other nations around the world.

READ MORE: The National Park Service

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Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles


Year
1929
Month Day
January 13

Nearly 50 years after the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp dies quietly in Los Angeles at the age of 80.

The Earp brothers had long been competing with the Clanton-McClaury ranching families for political and economic control of Tombstone, Arizona, and the surrounding region. On October 26, 1881, the simmering tensions finally boiled over into violence, and Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, and his close friend, Doc Holliday, killed three men from the Clanton and McLaury clans in a 30-second shoot-out on a Tombstone street near the O.K. Corral. A subsequent hearing found that the Earps and Holliday had been acting in their capacity as law officers and deputies, and they were acquitted of any wrongdoing. However, not everyone was satisfied with the verdict, and the Earps found their popularity among the townspeople was on the wane. Worse, far from bringing an end the long-standing feud between the Earps and Clanton-McLaurys, the shoot-out sparked a series of vengeful attacks and counterattacks.

In late December 1881, the Clantons and McLaurys launched their vendetta with a shotgun ambush of Virgil Earp; he survived, but lost the use of his left arm. Three months later, Wyatt and Morgan were playing billiards when two shots were fired from an unknown source. Morgan was fatally wounded.

As a U.S. deputy marshal, Wyatt had a legal right and obligation to bring Morgan’s killers to justice, but he quickly proved to be more interested in avenging his brother’s death than in enforcing the law. Three days after Morgan’s murder, Frank Stillwell, one of the suspects in the murder, was found dead in a Tucson, Arizona, rail yard. Wyatt and his close friend Doc Holliday were accused—accurately, as later accounts revealed—of murdering Stillwell. Wyatt refused to submit to arrest, and instead fled Arizona with Holliday and several other allies, pausing long enough to stop and kill a Mexican named Florentino Cruz, who he believed also had been involved in Morgan’s death.

In the years to come, Wyatt wandered throughout the West, speculating in gold mines in Idaho, running a saloon in San Francisco, and raising thoroughbred horses in San Diego. At the turn of the century, the footloose gunslinger joined the Alaskan gold rush, and he ran a saloon in Nome until 1901. After participating in the last of the great gold rushes in Nevada, Wyatt finally settled in Los Angeles, where he tried unsuccessfully to find someone to publicize his many western adventures. Wyatt’s famous role in the shootout at the O.K. Corral did attract the admiring attention of the city’s thriving new film industry. For several years, Wyatt became an unpaid technical consultant on Hollywood Westerns, drawing on his colorful past to tell flamboyant matinee idols like William Hart and Tom Mix how it had really been. When Wyatt died in 1929, Mix reportedly wept openly at his funeral.

Ironically, the wider fame that eluded Wyatt in life came soon after he died. A young journalist named Stuart Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall, a wildly fanciful biography that portrayed the gunman as a brave and virtuous instrument of frontier justice. Dozens of similarly laudatory books and movies followed, ensuring Wyatt Earp an enduring place in the popular American mythology of the Wild West.

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United States Geological Survey created


Year
1879
Month Day
March 03

Congress establishes the United States Geological Survey, an organization that played a pivotal role in the exploration and development of the West.

Although the rough geographical outlines of much of the American West were known by 1879, the government still had astonishingly little detailed knowledge of the land. Earlier federal exploratory missions under men like Ferdinand Hayden and John Wesley Powell had begun to fill in the map, yet much remained to be done. Congress decided to transform the earlier system of sporadic federal geological explorations into a permanent government agency, the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

From the beginning, the USGS focused its efforts on practical geographical and geological investigations that might spur western economic development. Since the vast majority of the nation’s public land was in the West, the USGS became one of the federal government’s most important tools for encouraging the exploitation of western natural resources. Congress appointed Clarence King, a brilliant young mining engineer and geologist, as the first director. King, who had previously done considerable work for western mining companies, viewed the USGS as a tool for aiding further mineral exploitation. As a result, the first major reports produced under King’s tenure concerned the economic geology of two important mining districts, Nevada’s Comstock Lode and Colorado’s Leadville silver district.

King’s attempts to aid western mining won him praise from both mining companies and western congressmen, but King was eager to make his own fortune in the mining business. He resigned as director in 1881 to pursue what he hoped would be more lucrative opportunities. John Wesley Powell, a bold geologist-explorer who had led the first American explorations of the Grand Canyon, succeeded King as director.

Powell extended the work of the survey into new areas like paleontology and soon became controversial for his bold assertion that much of the arid West would remain unsettled without large-scale irrigation projects. The direct and plainspoken Powell was so closely associated with the USGS during his 14-year term as director that many people have mistakenly believed he was the first director of the agency. Despite his expansion of the survey’s mission, though, Powell never abandoned the practical economic emphasis established by King.

Subsequent directors of the USGS also remained true to King’s early focus on aiding the economic development of the West, providing topographical and geological maps that have continued to prove essential to the mineral, agricultural and hydraulic development of the region to this day.

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The Texan Army captures San Antonio


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Year
1835
Month Day
December 09

Inspired by the spirited leadership of Benjamin Rush Milam, the newly created Texan Army takes possession of the city of San Antonio, an important victory for the Republic of Texas in its war for independence from Mexico.

Milam was born in 1788 in Frankfort, Kentucky. He became a citizen and soldier of Mexico in 1824, when newly independent Mexico was still under a republican constitution. Like many Americans who immigrated to the Mexican state of Texas, Milam found that the government both welcomed and feared the growing numbers of Americans, and treated them with uneven fairness. When Milam heard in 1835 that Santa Ana had overthrown the Mexican republic and established himself as dictator, Milam renounced his Mexican citizenship and joined the rag-tag army of the newly proclaimed independent Republic of Texas.

After helping the Texas Army capture the city of Goliad, Milam went on a reconnaissance mission to the southwest but returned to join the army for its planned attack on San Antonio-only to learn that the generals were postponing the attack on San Antonio for the winter. Aware that Santa Ana’s forces were racing toward Texas to suppress the rebellion, Milam worried that any hesitation would spell the end of the revolution. Milam made an impassioned call for volunteers, asking: “Who will go with old Ben Milam into San Antonio?”

Inspired by Milam’s bold challenge, three hundred men did volunteer, and the Texas Army began its attack on San Antonio at dawn on December 5. By December 9, the defending forces of the Mexican army were badly beaten, and the commanding general surrendered the city. Milam, however, was not there to witness the results of his leadership–he was killed instantly by a sniper bullet on December 7. If Milam had survived, he might well have been among the doomed defenders of the Alamo that were wiped out by Santa Ana’s troops the following March.

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Texas Ranger “Big Foot” Wallace born

Year
1817
Month Day
April 03

The legendary Texas Ranger and frontiersman “Big Foot” Wallace is born in Lexington, Virginia.

In 1836, 19-year-old William Alexander Anderson Wallace received news that one of his brothers had been killed in the Battle of Goliad, an early confrontation in the Texan war of independence with Mexico. Pledging to “take pay of the Mexicans” for his brother’s death, Wallace left Lexington and headed for Texas. By the time he arrived, the war was over, but Wallace found he liked the spirited independence of the new Republic of Texas and decided to stay.

Over six feet tall and weighing around 240 pounds, Wallace’s physique made him an intimidating man, and his unusually large feet won him the nickname “Big Foot.” In 1842, he finally had a chance to fight Mexicans and joined with other Texans to repulse an invasion by the Mexican General Adrian Woll. During another skirmish with Mexicans, Wallace was captured and endured two years of hard time in the notoriously brutal Perote Prison in Vera Cruz before finally being released in 1844.

After returning to Texas, Wallace decided to abandon the formal Texan military force for the less rigid organization of the Texas Rangers. Part law-enforcement officers and part soldiers, the Texas Rangers fought both bandits and Indians in the vast, sparsely populated reaches of the Texan frontier. Williams served under Ranger John Coffee Hays until the start of the Civil War in 1861. Opposed to secession but unwilling to fight against his own people, Williams spent most of the war defending Texas against Indian attacks along the frontier.

During his many years in the wilds of Texas, Wallace had hundreds of adventures. Once, Indians attacked Wallace while he was working as a stage driver on the hazardous San Antonio-El Paso route. He escaped with his life but the Indians stole his mules, leaving him stranded in the Texas desert. Forced to walk to El Paso, Wallace later claimed he ate 27 eggs at the first house he encountered after his long journey, then he went into town to have a “real meal.”

In his later years, Wallace decided he had enough of life as a fighter and adventurer. In exchange for his loyal service, the state of Texas granted him land along the Medina River and in Frio County in the southern part of the state. Always happy to regale listeners with highly embellished tales of his frontier days, Wallace became a contemporary folk hero to the people of Texas. As one of his admirers concluded, Wallace was the perfect symbol of “old-timey free days, free ways, and free land.”

Wallace died in 1899 and is buried in the Texas State Cemetery.

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Stephen Austin imprisoned by Mexicans


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Year
1834
Month Day
January 03

Escalating the tensions that would lead to rebellion and war, the Mexican government imprisons the Texas colonizer Stephen Austin in Mexico City.

Stephen Fuller Austin was a reluctant revolutionary. His father, Moses Austin, won permission from the Mexican government in 1821 to settle 300 Anglo-American families in Texas. When Moses died before realizing his plans, Stephen took over and established the fledgling Texas community on the lower reaches of the Colorado and Brazos Rivers. Periodic upheavals in the government of the young Mexican Republic forced Austin to constantly return to Mexico City where he argued for the rights of the American colonists in Texas, representing their interests as a colonial founder. Yet, Austin remained confident that an Anglo-American state could succeed within the boundaries of the Mexican nation.

Mexican authorities were less certain. Alarmed by the growing numbers of former Americans migrating to Texas (8,000 in Austin’s colonies alone by 1832) and rumors the U.S. intended to annex the region, the Mexican government began to limit immigration in 1830. Though Austin found loopholes allowing him to circumvent the policy, the Mexican policy angered many Anglo-American colonists who already had a long list of grievances against their distant government. In 1833, a group of colonial leaders met to draft a constitution that would create a new Anglo-dominated Mexican state of Texas by splitting away from the Mexican-dominated Coahuila region it had previously been tied to. The colonists hoped that by decreasing the influence of native Mexicans, whose culture and loyalties were more closely wedded to Mexico City, they could argue more effectively for American-style reforms.

Once they had hammered out a new constitution, the colonial leaders directed Austin to travel to Mexico City to present it to the government along with a list of other demands. Austin conceded to the will of the people, but President Santa Ana refused to grant Texas separate status from Coahuila and threw Austin in prison on suspicion of inciting insurrection. When he was finally released eight months later in August 1835, Austin found that the Anglo-American colonists were on the brink of rebellion. They were now demanding a Republic of Texas that would break entirely from the Mexican nation. Reluctantly, Austin abandoned his hope that the Anglo Texans could somehow remain a part of Mexico, and he began to prepare for war. The following year Austin helped lead the Texan rebels to victory over the Mexicans and assisted in the creation of the independent Republic of Texas. Defeated by Sam Houston in a bid for the presidency of the new nation, Austin instead took the position of secretary of state. He died in office later that year.

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Soldiers massacre sleeping camp of Native Americans


Year
1870
Month Day
January 23

Declaring he did not care whether or not it was the rebellious band of Native Americans he had been searching for, Colonel Eugene Baker orders his men to attack a sleeping camp of peaceful Blackfeet along the Marias River in northern Montana.

The previous fall, Malcolm Clarke, an influential Montana rancher, had accused a Blackfeet warrior named Owl Child of stealing some of his horses; he punished the proud brave with a brutal whipping. In retribution, Owl Child and several allies murdered Clarke and his son at their home near Helena, and then fled north to join a band of rebellious Blackfeet under the leadership of Mountain Chief. Outraged and frightened, Montanans demanded that Owl Child and his followers be punished, and the government responded by ordering the forces garrisoned under Major Eugene Baker at Fort Ellis (near modern-day Bozeman, Montana) to strike back.

Strengthening his cavalry units with two infantry groups from Fort Shaw near Great Falls, Baker led his troops out into sub-zero winter weather and headed north in search of Mountain Chief’s band. Soldiers later reported that Baker drank a great deal throughout the march. On January 22, Baker discovered a village along the Marias River, and, postponing his attack until the following morning, spent the evening drinking heavily.

At daybreak on the morning of January 23, 1870, Baker ordered his men to surround the camp in preparation for attack. As the darkness faded, Baker’s scout, Joe Kipp, recognized that the painted designs on the buffalo-skin lodges were those of a peaceful band of Blackfeet led by Heavy Runner. Mountain Chief and Owl Child, Kipp quickly realized, must have gotten wind of the approaching soldiers and moved their winter camp elsewhere. Kipp rushed to tell Baker that they had the wrong group, but Baker reportedly replied, “That makes no difference, one band or another of them; they are all Piegans [Blackfeet] and we will attack them.” Baker then ordered a sergeant to shoot Kipp if he tried to warn the sleeping camp of Blackfeet and gave the command to attack.

Baker’s soldiers began blindly firing into the village, catching the peaceful Native Americans utterly unaware and defenseless. By the time the brutal attack was over, Baker and his men had, by the best estimate, murdered 37 men, 90 women, and 50 children. Knocking down lodges with frightened survivors inside, the soldiers set them on fire, burnt some of the Blackfeet alive, and then burned the band’s meager supplies of food for the winter. Baker initially captured about 140 women and children as prisoners to take back to Fort Ellis, but when he discovered many were ill with smallpox, he abandoned them to face the deadly winter without food or shelter.

When word of the Baker Massacre (now known as the Marias Massacre) reached the east, many Americans were outraged. One angry congressman denounced Baker, saying “civilization shudders at horrors like this.” Baker’s superiors, however, supported his actions, as did the people of Montana, with one journalist calling Baker’s critics “namby-pamby, sniffling old maid sentimentalists.” Neither Baker nor his men faced a court martial or any other disciplinary actions. However, the public outrage over the massacre did derail the growing movement to transfer control of Indian affairs from the Department of Interior to the War Department–President Ulysses S. Grant decreed that henceforth all Native agents would be civilians rather than soldiers.

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Senate passes Missouri Compromise


Year
1820
Month Day
February 17

The Senate passes the Missouri Compromise, an attempt to deal with the dangerously divisive issue of extending slavery into the western territories.

From colonial days to the Civil War, slavery and western expansion both played fundamental but inherently incompatible roles in the American republic. As the nation expanded westward, the Congress adopted relatively liberal procedures by which western territories could organize and join the union as full-fledged states. Southern slaveholders, eager to replicate their plantation system in the West, wanted to keep the new territories open to slavery. Abolitionists, concentrated primarily in the industrial North, wanted the West to be exclusively a free labor region and hoped that slavery would gradually die out if confined to the South. Both factions realized their future congressional influence would depend on the number of new “slave” and “free” states admitted into the union.

Consequently, the West became the first political battleground over the slavery issue. In 1818, the Territory of Missouri applied to Congress for admission as a slave state. Early in 1819, a New York congressman introduced an amendment to the proposed Missouri constitution that would ban importation of new slaves and require gradual emancipation of existing slaves. Southern congressmen reacted with outrage, inspiring a nationwide debate on the future of slavery in the nation.

Over the next year, the congressional debate grew increasingly bitter, and southerners began to threaten secession and civil war. To avoid this disastrous possibility, key congressmen hammered together an agreement that became known as the Missouri Compromise. In exchange for admitting Missouri without restrictions on slavery, the Compromise called for bringing in Maine as a free state. The Compromise also dictated that slavery would be prohibited in all future western states carved out of the Louisiana Territory that were higher in latitude than the northern border of Arkansas Territory.

Although the Missouri Compromise temporarily eased the inherent tensions between western expansion and slavery, the divisive issue was far from resolved. Whether or not to allow slavery in the states of Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska caused the same difficulties several decades later, leading the nation toward civil war.

READ MORE: America’s History of Slavery Began Long Before Jamestown

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