Reconstruction in the West

Elliott West

For many western historians, or at least this one, the usual parameters of national Reconstruction are quite odd. As an inclusive slice of the national narrative—the “Reconstruction era”—it presumably includes the most notable developments of its day, yet as typically told, its story has virtually nothing to say about the hugely consequential events in the far West after the Civil War. A national “era” that ignores half its nation is an “era” with a problem. Then there is the term itself. “Reconstruction” is a dandy word to describe what was happening, but, the reconstructing began not in 1865 but about twenty years earlier, with the astonishing addition of more than a million square miles to the nation between 1845 and 1848, a process that ended with the United States bordering the Pacific Ocean and, almost immediately, in possession of the richest place on earth, California and its gold diggings. That expansion helped set loose momentous developments, including the Civil War, that would transform the nation—developments that, like the sectional crisis and war in the East, roughly culminated around the end of the 1870s.

There was, that is, a reconstruction of the United States in the middle of the century, but it was both wider and longer than usually defined. What I’ve suggested elsewhere as a “Greater Reconstruction” began around 1845.[1] It proceeded through an expansion that included the U.S.-Mexico War, the first federal efforts to control the new country in the 1850s, the rising strains in the East (provoked by expansion), secession, and the horrific bloodletting of the Civil War. This reconstruction continued with the dramas after 1865 of both eastern reunion and the consolidation of national control in the West, including the military defeat of resistant Indians. It saw the tentative efforts to redefine national citizenship to include former slaves, a slew of Indian peoples, the former citizens of Mexico and the slumgullion stew of immigrant newcomers, East and West. The whole shebang, covering about a third of a century, more or less reached a semi-resolution at Reconstruction’s traditional end date of 1877.

A question well worth asking is whether using “Reconstruction” to define developments both East and West is an improper preemption of an older, familiar term. Gregory Downs and Kate Masur, for instance, have recently argued that when the word is stretched to include not just expansion but topics ranging from racial theory to American liberalism, it is drained of meaning and becomes “metaphorical rather than descriptive.”[2] Some have added that if we want to use the word to describe taking and transforming the West, we have to subtract the first couple of letters; it was a matter of “Construction,” not “Reconstruction.” I cannot speak for other borrowings of the term, but for the acquisition and incorporation of the West, I disagree. “Reconstruction” applied there is not metaphorical; it is concrete and commonsensical—if (and this is the key point) we keep our focus not on parts of the nation but on the nation as a whole.

If we need a metaphor, how about this one. A family decides to expand its house. It adds a second floor. If we shield our eyes so we see only the new floor being built, we are seeing a construction, but if we drop our hand and watch the whole house and the entire process, it is a reconstruction. The house (the nation) is being rethought, rebuilt, replumbed with new infrastructure, the relations among its parts realigned and repurposed, its future prospects reimagined. The first and second floors cannot be understood apart from each other, either during the reconstruction or after it. It’s a rough metaphor, like most, but it makes the essential point, and it stresses that we need to revise—that is, literally, re-vision, look again—at how we have traditionally treated these years.

And in fact using “Reconstruction” is useful precisely because it is such a familiar term with another, narrower definition. If it jars us just a bit, that is a virtue, because the jarring might encourage us to go back to basics, the main themes we associate with the usual narrative of 1865–77. When we do that, I think we see that those themes strikingly parallel those of acquiring and integrating the West from 1845 to 1877. “Reconstruction” works both semantically, simply as a descriptive word, and in its historical resonance.

The argument, then, is that to understand the transformation of the nation in the mid-nineteenth century, we should place at the center of our attention not one but two equally consequential episodes. One, the Civil War, has always been the presumptive transformative event. The other, the expansion to the Pacific, has yet to receive its proper recognition as a force that fundamentally reshaped the United States. The trick is how to fit the two events together into a single narrative.

Start by recognizing that the Civil War and expansion are each episodes with their own narrative arcs and momentous consequences. Each deserves its own careful attention, with an eye to describing how each played its role in remaking America. The Civil War, including its roots in the escalating tensions between Southeast and Northeast, the conflict itself, and the struggles of reunification, has long received its due in that regard. No episode in our history has been more fully studied, and in none has the results of that study been more vigorously applied to connecting it modern America. By contrast, westward expansion of mid-century has rarely been approached as a similarly transformative event. Until it is, we will not come close to telling a full narrative of the middle years of the nineteenth century.

Consider four basic points. Start with the land acquired, specifically what was in and on it. The nearly 900 million acres added turned out to be an extraordinary storehouse of resources. In the age of wood, the Pacific Northwest would provide the raw stuff for massive construction for generations to come. As we entered an industrial age, copper was an essential metal for factory machinery and the communication web of the telegraph, and the West would yield the greatest copper deposits in history, in Montana, Arizona, and elsewhere. There were gargantuan deposits of coal, eventually far surpassing those in the East. As time passed and new needs arose, now for this resource, now for that one, the new West would provide them again and again. The first sample of uranium was isolated only in 1841, but decades later when it became the essential stuff for weaponry and energy, the West turned out to have vast deposits in Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas. Molybdenum is needed to produce essential metal alloys; two of the five largest concentrations on earth are both in Colorado. And beyond all that, of course, were deposits of the universal measures of wealth itself. Gold and silver strikes in California and Nevada were at the time the richest in history, and by 1880 others had come in Colorado, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, and elsewhere. This outpouring of raw wealth came at exactly the time the nation was pursuing the costliest enterprise in its history—the retooling from a primarily agrarian society and economy to an industrial and urban one. The general point is made easily by asking a counterfactual: How would the nation’s economic trajectory, the lives of its peoples, and its place in global power relations be different had its borders remained where they were in 1844?

Second, western lands presented physical challenges radically different from the East’s. Looking at a topographical map of the nation, you might be tempted to label the West as Wrinkleland. It is ribbed with chains of mountains, dozens of them more than twice the altitude of the highest point east of the Mississippi. In most of the West, precipitation is well under half that of most of the East, and what rain there is comes erratically. As a result, the physical reconstruction of the nation demanded a redefinition and expansion of federal responsibilities, beginning with physically binding the new country into the nation. In the 1850s, the army surveyed and began to improve more than twenty-two thousand miles of roads there, then the crisis of war provoked construction of the first transcontinental telegraph and railroad. Each of them pioneered a new relationship between the central government and corporate power (Western Union and the Union/Central Pacific Railroads, respectively), a partnership that would proliferate across the economy and nation in the years ahead. The railroad surveys of the 1850s and four geographical surveys after the war involved not only an unprecedented scale of mapping the land; they also included what was arguably the most ambitious and wide-ranging program of scientific gathering and description in the history of the world until that time, and they led to yet more institutionalized scientific efforts in the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology.

Third, acquiring the far West made an already diverse nation far more so. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought within our borders about a hundred thousand former citizens of Mexico. They would join dozens of Indian peoples, themselves differing from each other as much as the denizens of Finland and New Guinea, and often differing significantly within any tribal unit. Unlike native peoples of the East, few of these had had the slightest significant exposure to national institutions. As the West boomed and was linked to the outside through roads and railroads, its peoples were joined by immigrants from across the world, starting with the great flocking to California goldfields. This made the West from its birth what it remains today—the most ethnically mixed part of the nation. The census of 1870 showed that the Atlantic coastal state with the highest portion of foreign-born persons was New York, with about 25 percent. Set in competition with the West’s states and territories, New York would have ranked tenth.

Finally, expansion ended a kind of diplomatic age of innocence for the United States. Until then, given the shadowy, distant presence of Spain and Mexico, our only effectively shared boundary was with a nation, Canada, with peoples and institutions closely akin to ours. After 1848 the United States had two international borders that remain today arguably the world’s two longest without the slightest geographical sense. That has raised issues in our relations to both the north and south, but especially to the latter. For the first time, we were snuggled close to a populous nation that was significantly different ethnically, culturally, in its political structures and history, and over time in its level of economic wellbeing. Beyond Mexico, we were suddenly far more open to all of Latin America, with all its tensions and opportunities. To state the obvious, the ramifications remain with us today. Its new western boundary similarly opened the United States to a range of new contacts and relationships, those of the vast Pacific basin. The implications of that, some to be noted below, can hardly be overstressed.

We cannot possibly explain the course of modern American history without considering the implications of these and other developments, strictly on their own terms. And consequently we cannot claim fully to tell the story of the midcentury remaking of America without allowing those developments a central spot in the narrative.

Those events become doubly revealing when we consider them not just on their own but in how they related to events around the other transformative episode, the Civil War, including its immediate origins and its aftermath. For all their different concerns and consequences, when we step back and consider expansion and the war together, we see them in resonance. They raised strikingly similar issues. Those issues had been around since the birth of the republic, but the reconstruction of the nation, both East and West, forced them to the fore, demanding answers, and the answers, both East and West, together shaped profoundly the arc of American history from then until now.

An obvious instance was the question of whether a nation as large and diverse as ours could hold together as a single entity, a union. This question was argued from the outset, and it came to its sticking place most obviously as the Southeast and Northeast increasingly diverged, finally to the point of war. Also forcing the question was the acquisition of the far West, a region more than twice the size of the Confederacy, vastly different in its geography and economic possibilities, and with its primary population separated by hundreds of miles of deserts and mountains. Washington met the twinned crises—keeping an older section within the union, bringing a new one into it and keeping it there—with an unprecedented combination of military force and new arrangements in support of new technologies, notably the railroad and telegraph. Preserving and expanding the union in turn forced clarification of a second old question: What should be the relation between the federal government and the states and sections? Specifically, where does the authority of the one stop and the others’ begin, and regarding Washington’s power, what particular forms should it take? Again, and most obviously, the war affirmed federal sovereignty, and afterward Washington engaged in unprecedented social engineering, however ultimately botched, in providing for freed slaves and beginning to insinuate them into the national family. And again, and less obviously, out West Washington expanded its powers and asserted new authorities to meet the challenges of the new country—corporate partnerships in providing transportation and communication networks, a new executive department (Interior) to wrestle with western issues, scientific endeavors matching any across the world, the world’s first national park, and in the reservation system a catalogue of powers and roles far surpassing those for freedpeople in the Southeast.

That last point suggests a third common issue. Expansion and war together brought more persons by far into citizenship or onto the path toward it, not only more than 4 million freed slaves but also former Mexican citizens now within our borders, the tens of thousands of foreigners drawn to the West’s gold and silver fields and its fertile farmlands and rich pastures, and the array of native peoples ranging from the Pueblos of New Mexico to the Tlingits of the Pacific Northwest. To meet this unprecedented challenge, Washington adopted strategies that were strikingly similar. Look at the parallels between freedpersons and Indians. First, Christianity: missionaries were sent to the Southeast under the Freedman’s Bureau, headed by the ardent evangelical Oliver O. Howard, and the clergymen appointed as Indian agents under President Grant’s “Quaker policy” with conversion of their charges a prime responsibility. Second, the freeholds and labor of agriculture: freed slaves were to be given their own land to farm (a policy only slightly carried through), while Indians would be trained as farmers on reservations and eventually given individual farmsteads. Third, education: the rising generation would be schooled in educational basics and, just as insistently, in the values of mainstream culture—black children in Freedman’s Bureau classrooms, Indians in reservation schools and distant boarding institutions like Carlisle. In the Hampton Institute they would meet and live together.

Responses to these programs were wildly different, of course. Freedpeople, long entwined in white society, were far more receptive than Indians, most of them cultural outsiders. And looking ahead, all programs of social, political, and economic integration fell far short of stated goals. Of the ten counties today with the lowest per-capita income, four have majorities of Indians, two of Hispanics, and one of blacks. It is just as clear, however, that, looking back, the expansion to the Pacific and the Civil War were tandem episodes that together reconstructed America and in the process raised strikingly similar issues that provoked equally similar responses. Neither episode alone can cover the most consequential developments that remade the nation. Each should be respected on its own and given its due regard. Both should be seen as in a kind of conversation, shaping each other and working their way into a common ground.

To make the point, we might look at what until now has been one of the more understudied developments of those years—the nation’s turn toward the Pacific world. As recent works by David Igler and Gregory Cushman have shown so well, during the thirty years before national expansion the United States and nations of western Europe had shown a quickening interest in the Pacific basin.[3] Vigorous exploration; mapping; and trade in skins, slaves, and especially bird guano created an elaborate web of connections binding continents and islands across 50 million square miles of seawater. Honolulu was emerging as one of the busiest ports on earth, with dozens of ships every year unloading, among other things, Italian brandy and, from one, fifty-one French accordions. Then, at the very moment those Pacific connections were coming into their own, the United States acquired the far West and gold was discovered on the American River. California immediately plugged into that waiting network. First came a flood of imports (food from Hawaii, Chile, and Peru and dray horses, bricks, and blankets made from kangaroo hide from Australia) and then, remarkably soon, exports: California grain to South America and elsewhere and coastal redwood to Australia and Taiwan. The California boom sent the growing Pacific trade into high gear. Between 1848 and 1860, the amount of freight arriving in Hong Kong increased ten times over.

The narrative so far is wholly from the perspective of the West, and, given its implications for the future, it deserves attention on those terms alone. But it also resonates with events in the East, ones leading up to the coming of war. Recent scholarship has taught us that the slave states had their own expansionist ambitions, particularly toward the Caribbean and northern Mexico.[4] Those ambitions faced westward as well, however, into the opening markets of the Pacific. As early as 1841, before the great expansion, Texans were proposing a system of canals, steamboats and rails to connect the Gulf Coast to the Gulf of California, from which southerners could “converse with the people of China through a speaking trumpet.” [5] Markets of the Pacific offered triple the consumers of the Atlantic, noted the great oceanographer and slavery advocate Matthew Maury, and they were only “meagerly supplied.” He argued for a rail link across Panama to make New Orleans the head of a “thoroughfare of travel between South America, California, and China.”[6] In 1853 California’s senator William Gwin, a Mississippi slaveholder and the state’s leading pro-southern politician, proposed a rail network of more than five thousand miles to link Oregon and California with the Southeast, thus opening his home section to the trade of Hawaii, “the Japanese Islands, soon to be unsealed,” and to the ports of “Oceanica.”[7] Arkansan Albert Pike campaigned for a south-to-west line, financed wholly by slave states, that would shave eight hundred miles from potential routes from New York and Boston to “the great ports of Hindostan” and China. “The world’s route to the Indies is through the territory of the Southern States,” Pike argued: “The trade is ours, if we choose to take it.”[8]

Of the four possible transcontinental rail routes surveyed under the Department of War, headed by Jefferson Davis, the two connecting the Southeast to the Pacific through New Mexico Territory were easily the leading contenders, partly because of supposed advantages of climate and partly because the more northern routes would have to pass through territory yet to be organized politically. Indeed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was essentially Stephen Douglas’s act of desperation to save the first transcontinental connection for Illinois and non-slave states. A rail line to California was also, of course, considered key to possible expansion of African slavery, but interests of all parties went beyond that. It is not too much of a stretch to say that Douglas lit the fuse of the Civil War partly to block the slave states’ commercial linkage to Honolulu, “Oceanica,” and the “great ports of Hindustan.”

After the war had secured the route for the Northeast, the first transcontinental became not a point of sectional division, but a symbol of reunification. A western tourist guide published by George Crofutt, who commissioned American Progress, the famous painting of a feminine American spirit floating westward while trailing a telegraph wire, recalled that the “red hand of war” had first prevented the Union from fracturing into North, South and West, then had produced the railroad that now would hold them all together and project them farther still.[9] Vice President Schuyler Colfax agreed. Invoking a series of muddled metaphors to celebrate the driving of the golden spike, he orated that the war had seen America’s rebirth, and the national body lay now facing westward. The railroad its spine; it had “iron ribs in every direction;” its strong arms were reaching eagerly for the commerce of greater Asia.[10] That traffic could never match the grandiose predictions, but it was nonetheless prodigious, especially after Japan opened its ports to trade and sizeable gold strikes in Australia added a new stimulus to exchanges. By the traditional date of Reconstruction’s end, 1877, 7 percent of all exports from all American ports departed from San Francisco. Much went to Europe—the large majority of wheat imported by England in the late 1860s had been grown in California’s central valley—but most was sent around the Pacific rim.

Surely no one surveying our history during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would deny that our turn toward the Pacific after 1848 would prove to be one of the more consequential developments of its time. Letting that western episode into the story also casts new light on the East, both the ambitions of the slave states and the sectional tensions that led to war. Bringing the two narratives together—the one about expansion and its spinoffs, the other about the eastern states’ march toward disaster—points us toward a far fuller and more satisfying understanding of the nation’s profound transition during the mid-nineteenth century. “Reconstruction” is a perfectly good term for what happened during that transition—as long as it is stretched a bit in time and applied continentally. Taken that way, however, it can give us some revealing insights and take us to some interesting places, including Tasmania and Hong Kong.


Elliott West is Alumni Distinguished Professor of history at the University of Arkansas. He is the author of several articles and books, including, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (Oxford University Press, 2009), which won the Westerners International’s Co-Founders Best Book Award for 2009 and the Caughey Prize from the Western History Association.


[1] Elliott West, “Reconstructing Race,” Western Historical Quarterly 3 (Spring 2003): 6–26; West, The Last Indian War: The Nez Perce Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
[2] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “Echoes of War: Rethinking Post–Civil War Governance and Politics,” in The World the Civil War Made, ed. Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 4.
[3] David Igler, The Great Ocean: Pacific Worlds from Captain Cook to the Gold Rush (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Gregory T. Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[4] See for instance Robert E. May, The Southern Dream of a Caribbean Empire, 1854–1861 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973); David C. Keehn, Knights of the Golden Circle: Secret Empire, Southern Secession, Civil War (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2013); Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013).
[5]William Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Republic of Texas, vol. 2 of 2 (London: R. Hastings, 1841), 395–96.
[6] Quoted in Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 298–99.
[7] Cong. Globe, 32d Cong., 2d Sess., 280–84 (1853).
[8] Albert Pike, Address on the Southern Pacific Railroad (New Orleans: Emile La Sere, 1855), 7–8.
[9] Crofutt’s Trans-Continental Tourist’s Guide (New York: George A. Crofutt, 1873).
[10] Chicago Tribune, May 11, 1869.

One thought on “Reconstruction in the West

  1. As always, Elliott West makes a compelling case for paying attention to Reconstruction in the West. I am, however, somewhat puzzled by his response to Greg Downs and Kate Mazur’s claim that “When historians stretch the concept of Reconstruction to cover the conquest of western land, changing racial dynamics in the North, or the rise of industrial capitalism, the term becomes metaphorical rather than descriptive, emptied of its core meaning. It alludes to everything and nothing.” His use of Reconstruction, West insists, is not “metaphorical; it is concrete and commonsensical.”

    As a literary critic–and observer of politics– I do not quite understand why these extremely accomplished historians’ resist to embracing the term’s metaphorical significance. As I argue in my piece in the print version of this issue, actors at the time chose the term “Reconstruction” precisely for its metaphoric significance. After its Civil War and Cromwell’s rule, Great Britain had Restoration. In the United States, many aware of this history felt it was not enough to restore the Union. Instead, it had to be reconstructed to put it–not just the South– on a new foundation and to overcome the wrong of slavery. To be sure, some at the time, like Robert E. Lee, did think that restoration of the union was enough. But they were almost always opposed to Reconstruction, especially the Reconstruction set in motion by passage of the Reconstruction Act 150 years ago this past Wed, which they warned was “revolutionary.”

    “Reconstruction” was the appropriate term because metaphorically it occupies a space between the alternatives of “restoration” and “revolution.” “Restoration” implies a return to things as they were. It is an effort to preserve an essence, such as the restoration of a damaged painting. “Revolution” means to turn things on their head; to make a radical break. Those proposing “Reconstruction” envisioned neither the complete restoration of what existed before the Civil War nor revolutionary change, such as with the Declaration of Independence. “Reconstruction” was not about preserving an essence. It was not about turning the world upside down. It was about rebuilding structures. The fact that at the time–and later for people like Thomas Dixon and Claude Bowers–the effort to reconstruct the nation was condemned as revolutionary while today it is praised as “America’s unfinished revolution” points to how difficult the task of Reconstruction was, an understanding enhanced by attention to the metaphoric connotations of the term.

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