Technology and the Making of the West

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Technology and the Making of the West

Moving west took daring and courage. People risked their lives to open the West to commerce and settlement, braving harsh climatic and geologic conditions to cross the country and secure the land. Technology helped ease some of the strain and, in some cases, ensured success. Canals, stagecoaches, and railroads made it possible for thousands of people to settle the West. Securing the land often meant defending the chosen spot against Indian attack; advances in gun design swayed the battles in favor of the white settlers. New technologies aided farmers and cattlemen in places where standard fencing materials were scarce. Once settled, people wanted to correspond with the loved ones they had left behind or keep abreast of news in other parts of the country. Technological advances increased the speed of correspondence from months to weeks and then to minutes. Each technological advance further opened the West and helped bind the growing country together.


Traveling around America used to be quite difficult. During the colonial period, roads were primitive and rivers did not connect people to all the places they wanted to travel. By the Revolutionary War (1776–83), some had considered the benefits of creating man-made rivers called canals to connect natural waterways. As early as 1790, there were thirty canal companies working in the newly formed nation. The first canal made in America stretched 27 miles and connected the Merrimack River with Boston Harbor. Hundreds of canals were dug throughout America from the end of the Revolutionary War to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. French statesman and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859) noted that Americans had "changed the whole order of nature to their advantage," according to Russell Bourne in Floating West.

One of the most important canals was the 363-mile-long Erie Canal, which linked Rome, New York, to Buffalo,New York. Interest in building a canal across New York started when the new state was still a British colony, but work did not begin until 1817. Part of the appeal of such a canal was the ease and speed of travel it would offer to people eager to reach the frontier lands of western New York and Pennsylvania.

Building canals was slow, difficult work. Surveyors first laid out the path of the canal and planned locks along the route to "level out" the distance. Much of the digging was done by Irish immigrants who had left their homeland because of the potato famine (widespread starvation brought on by a disease that destroyed potato crops). The Erie Canal used about three thousand Irish "bogtrotters" to dig the forty-foot-wide and four-foot-deep ditch. Spending their days shoveling, sometimes through swamps and bogs, the workers were paid between 37.5 and 50 cents per day if they had a set wage, or work crews of three men earned about 12.5 cents for each cubic yard of earth they moved. As work progressed, many native New Yorkers joined the crews, and innovations in digging soon helped the work go faster. Horses and oxen pulled plows to break up the dirt before workers began to dig. The animals were also used to pull dirt off the work area. Cables were strung over tall trees and attached to tree stumps so that a single canal worker could pull out a stump by turning an endless screw. Crews called "blowers" that cleared away rock, could use Dupont's Blasting Powder, a substance that ignited when and how it was supposed to, instead of the more unpredictable black powder.

The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, and within a year it had collected $750,000 in tolls. Much of the canal's success came from the speed it gave travelers. When people walked or rode wagons or stagecoaches, it took them a few weeks to get from New York City to Buffalo. But the journey took only eight days on the Erie Canal. The canal became the most-used route west in the 1830s and 1840s. By 1830, about one thousand people arrived in Buffalo daily, ready to head west to settle in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. Not only was canal travel faster, but it was a cheaper method of shipping for merchants as well. Farmers in Buffalo who once paid one hundred dollars for a ton of freight to reach New York City in three weeks could now send the same material for ten dollars and it would reach its destination in eight days. The Erie Canal made Buffalo the busiest port on the Great Lakes.

The success of the Erie Canal started America's great canal-building era. Along the Atlantic Ocean, more than 800 miles of canals were completed during the 1820s. By the 1830s, 1,300 miles of canals were under construction, including the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Pennsylvania and Maryland systems. By 1840, more than 4,000 miles of canals linked American towns.

Despite the popular enthusiasm for canal travel, which offered unheard-of leisure and speed, America's attention soon turned to railroads. Like canals, trains could take people where rivers could not. But trains offered travelers more speed and luxury, and railroads were quicker to construct. Though revenues on the Erie Canal topped five million dollars annually in 1862, by 1869 railroads were carrying more freight than canals were. The competition from railroads forced many canals to close, and the construction of some canals was abandoned altogether.

The stagecoach

Stagecoaches had carried travelers throughout the East from the time roads were wide enough to accommodate four wheels. By 1820 regular stagecoach service reached St. Louis, Missouri. But the dirt trails farther west had only been tackled by several two-wheeled wagons traveling west from Missouri in the 1820s and by one four-wheeled wagon, which made it to Fort Boise, Idaho, before falling apart in 1836. The first wagon train of emigrants left Missouri for California in 1836, beginning a large migration of people to the Oregon Country in the 1840s. Demand for overland passenger service soon became great enough to establish stagecoach service to the West.

Before the opening of transcontinental stagecoach lines, regional lines offered service in many areas throughout the West. By the mid-1800s stagecoach service was offered from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico; throughout the Willamette Valley in Oregon; and throughout the states of Texas and California. The routes offered people without livestock or the ability to travel on foot a way to get from place to place. The stagecoach lines of California, however, had a special purpose: they opened in response to the demands of gold rush miners, who would pay handsomely to transport gold and mail from the mines. James E. Birch, who had traveled to California from Rhode Island to seek his fortune in the mines, soon discovered he could make more money running a stagecoach line. He did very well carrying the miners' goods from mines near San Francisco to the city and newcomers to the mines. In the late 1840s and 1850s California was served by more than seven stagecoach lines.

The Overland Mail Company

In 1857 Congress, which was interested in establishing regular mail service between the Mississippi River and California, passed a post office measure. As the operator and owner of stage lines, steamships, and express companies in the East, John Butterfield knew the delivery industry well, and he won the contract to establish regular mail service in the West. Butterfield and his investors spent more than one million dollars to establish and grade roads, dig wells, and build stations every nineteen miles along the route. Under his efficient management, Butterfield's Overland Mail Company opened for service on September 16, 1858. The mail traveled from St. Louis to Tipton, Missouri, by train and was then transferred to stagecoach for the trip to San Francisco. Butterfield's line complied with the government's demand that service be "performed in good four-horse coaches and spring wagons, suitable for the conveyance of passengers, as well as the safety and security of the mails." But the twenty-four-day trip took a toll on passengers. In Throw Down the Box! George A. Thompson quotes Waterman Ormsby, a New York Herald reporter who was the first to ride the stagecoach line. Ormsby said of his trip, "I know what Hell is like, for I've just had twenty-four days of it!" Butterfield operated the Overland Mail Company for two and a half years until he retired.

"Dreary weariness"

Stagecoaches were not known for comfort. In Getting There: Frontier Travel without Power, Suzanne Hilton quoted one man's opinion about his stagecoach journey: "Dreary weariness comes over the coach-crowding passengers. The air gets cold. The road grows dusty and chokes you. The legs become stiff and numb. The temper edges. Everybody is overcome with sleep but can't stay asleep. Everybody flounders and knocks about against everybody else in helpless despair."

In addition to being uncomfortable, stagecoaches were vulnerable to attack. Robbers, called "road agents," stopped coaches, stole all the valuables, and sometimes killed passengers or drivers. Stagecoaches carrying bullion (bars of gold) from the mines were especially targeted. The most famous road agents were Black Bart (see box on p. 212), who terrorized stage lines in California, and Henry Plummer in Montana. But history has shown that the road agents' high jinks did not pay; thieves were generally either jailed or hanged for their efforts. Indians were another threat to stagecoach travel. Enraged by the further encroachment of settlers on their lands, the Sioux, Apache, and other tribes along the stagecoach lines attacked way stations and ran off horses.

The stagecoach kings

In 1861, Benjamin F. Holladay became one of the

Black Bart

Though many bandits and gangs robbed stagecoaches, Black Bart earned special recognition as a highwayman because he robbed so many people, never fired a shot, and proved so elusive to the law. Black Bart robbed twenty-eight California stagecoaches between 1875 and 1883. Always masked in a flour sack with eyeholes and carrying a shotgun, Black Bart would demand that the drivers "Throw down the box!" After he collected the treasure from the express box, Bart would leave on foot. Twice he left behind a message in verse. According to Jay Monaghan's The Book of the American West, the poem Black Bart left at his fourth robbery read as follows:

I've labored long and hard for bread,
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tred
You fine-haired sons of bitches.
Black Bart,
The Po 8

(Po 8 meant PoEight or Poet)

Soon Wells Fargo, California governor William Irwin, and the postal authorities collectively posted eight hundred dollars as a reward for Black Bart's capture and conviction. In 1883, detectives found a handkerchief with a laundry mark (a tag identifying a commercial laundry or cleaners), F.X.O.7, at the scene of a Black Bart robbery. This tag would prove to be the criminal's undoing. Wells Fargo detective J. B. Hume had long been on the lookout for evidence that would lead him to Black Bart. He ordered that San Francisco's ninety-one laundries be searched for the matching laundry mark. The search led him to C. E. Bolton. Thought to be the owner of a mine who lived in a nearby hotel, Bolton was a well-dressed man with a gray mustache and goatee. Detectives searched his room and found clothing with an identical laundry mark and poems in the same handwriting as those left at Black Bart's robberies. Bolton was soon convicted and was imprisoned at San Quentin on November 21, 1883.

Though Black Bart claimed while in jail that his name was Bolton and that he had been a captain in the Civil War, a Bible in his room in San Francisco was inscribed "Charles E. Boles, First Sergeant, Company B. 116th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, by his wife as a New Year's gift." Whether his name was Bolton or Boles will never be known. He was released from prison on January 21, 1888. Shortly thereafter some stage lines were held up, and rumors circulated that Black Bart was operating again. But soon the holdups and the rumors disappeared—as did any trace of Black Bart.

most powerful stagecoach kings in the country when he purchased the entire Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express and changed the name to the Overland Mail Company (the company contained portions of John Butterfield's now dismantled Overland Mail Company). Holladay intimidated his competition and consolidated other stagecoach lines into the Overland Mail Company. In 1866, Holladay sold his company to Wells, Fargo and Company for more than two and a half million dollars. Wells Fargo now owned every stage line of importance west of the Missouri River. By 1865, travelers could buy a $250 ticket on a stagecoach that left the Missouri River on Monday through Saturday to make the six-day trip to the Rocky Mountains. Stagecoaches suffered from competition with the Transcontinental Railroad when it was built in 1869. The stagecoach lines couldn't match the speed or the relative safety offered by the trains. Wells Fargo sold its stagecoach lines to another stagecoach company, Gilmer and Salisbury, in 1869. The latter company continued operation of the profitable lines, which offered service between outlying areas and the railroads, into the 1900s.


Railroads were an efficient and quick method of transportation in the East long before a transcontinental railroadwas possible. By 1860, more than 30,000 miles of track connected the major cities of the East. Construction of a transcontinental railway was not delayed for lack of vision, however. As early as the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 (see Chapter 2), eastern entrepreneurs longed for a shortcut to Asian markets. In 1844 New York City merchant Asa Whitney even proposed that Congress sell him a strip of land running west from Wisconsin to the Pacific Ocean so that he could construct a railway to provide easy access to the riches of Asia. While Whitney's idea was met with interest, it ultimately failed because Congress could not decide which city should be the starting point for the railroad. For nearly two more decades interest in a transcontinental railroad remained high, but political lobbying between the North and the South over where to begin the line kept the project from being started.

Mary Fields

Mary Fields was the first black woman to deliver mail in the United States. Born a slave in Hickman County, Tennessee, Fields was granted her freedom when the Civil War ended in 1865. A letter from her old master's daughter and her best friend, Dolly Dunn, encouraged her to move near Cascade, Montana, where Dolly was a nun at the mission. A strong, capable woman who was good with horses and quick with a gun, Fields bested forty others for a job as the stagecoach driver on the difficult mountain trail between the St. Peter's Mission and Cascade, Montana. She was sixty years old when she got the job. Fields delivered the mail on time for eight years, battling bandits and once packing the mail on her back when the winter snow stopped her horses. After her retirement as Stagecoach Mary Fields, she opened her own laundry business. She was eighty-two when she was laid to rest.

When the Southern states seceded and the Civil War began in 1861, Congress was finally able to pass a bill that provided private corporations with federal land and government money to build the railway. Congress launched the construction of the transcontinental railroad with the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862. President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) signed the legislation and decided where the line would start. The railroad would stretch from Sacramento, California, to Omaha on the Missouri River in the Nebraska Territory. With government aid, the California-chartered Central Pacific company would lay the track from the west and the federally chartered Union Pacific company would construct the line from the east. In 1864 a second act was passed to provide more loans and land grants to the railroad effort.

A difficult journey

Over the years construction continued haltingly. During the Civil War, workers and materials were hard to secure. In 1863 work began in California. Charles Crocker led the laborers and hired ten thousand Chinese workers to help blast a passage through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Chinese laborers made up four-fifths of the workforce and were paid two-thirds what white laborers were. By 1865 only forty miles of track had been laid westward from Omaha. In Nebraska, General Grenville M. Dodge added ten thousand men, mostly ex-soldiers and recent Irish immigrants. The laborers on both sides of the country suffered miserable conditions while working, sometimes in gale-force winds and snowstorms or hanging in baskets over rock faces. Hundreds died in the effort.

Even with the thousands of workers and hundreds of wagons continuously carrying materials to job sites, Indian attacks frequently delayed production. Indians viewed the railroads as a disaster. As the land was cleared, hunters slaughtered the buffalo on which the Indians depended. The transcontinental railroad split the buffalo country into two "herds" when it reached Cheyenne, Wyoming; the construction of the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1868, the Santa Fe Railroad through Kansas in 1871, and the Northern Pacific Railroad through the Dakotas in 1880 threatened the Indians' way of life and dependence on the buffalo even further. Of the millions of buffalo found in the West in the previous decade, only 1,091 remained in 1887. Indians were displaced all along the route as land was claimed for the railroads.

The Central Pacific and Union Pacific fiercely competed with each other. By 1868, the Central Pacific was forging across the Nevada desert and the Union Pacific tackled South Pass, laying 5 to 10 miles of track a day. The crews were working so quickly that the graders actually passed each other. Congress finally ruled that the two roads would join at Promontory, Utah. On May 10, 1869, a ceremony celebrated the completion of the project. Officials from both companies and other guests assembled to watch the last spikes driven into the railroad ties: one silver spike from Nevada; one of gold, silver, and iron from Arizona; and two gold ones from California. When the two companies' engines met nose to nose, the telegraph carried the news across the nation, starting a series of celebrations from the East to the West.

The railroad mania

Passenger service began on the railroad five days after the golden spike was driven. From Omaha, the trip cost $111 for first-class tickets, which included private toilets and sleeping coaches called "Pullmans" and "Silver Palace Cars"; $80 for second-class seats, which were unreserved coach accommodations; and $40 for emigrant-class tickets that bought passengers seats in a car that had hard seats, bunks with straw-filled mattresses, a toilet, and a coal-burning stove. The dining cars were open to all. The scheduled trip took four days, four hours, and forty minutes, unless washouts, buffalo, train robberies, or Indians delayed the train.

The transcontinental railroad started what became a railroad mania that would only begin to lag after four other railroads reached the Pacific coast and the "Great Empire Builder" James J. Hill completed, without federal subsidy, his Great Northern Railroad, the fifth transcontinental railroad, in 1893. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, 3,272 miles of track had been laid west of the Mississippi River, and by 1890, 72,473 miles of track connected major areas of the West.

The railroads dramatically changed the economic viability of the West. The "iron horses" led to the development and economic prosperity of new towns, helping support the success of many farms and industries. Carrying passengers more quickly and in greater comfort than other forms of transportation could, the railroads brought another economic bonus as well: tourism.


Aside from the devastating effects of disease on Native Americans when whites advanced across the continent, guns proved to be the biggest threat to the native tribes. Nearly a century before the first white settlers arrived in the West, the Spanish matchlock or hand cannon gave the Spanish invaders an advantage over the original North American inhabitants. Jay Monaghan's The Book of the American West noted that, "these early firearms not only paved the way for the winning of the West but became our first sporting weapons, bringing down game as well as humans."

When Lewis and Clark made their famous expedition west in 1804, they would fire their cannon or shoot a flying duck if they needed to impress or scare the Indians they encountered. But guns were not altogether new to Native Americans. Traders had supplied Indians with older versions of guns since about the seventeenth century. Cheaply constructed muskets and more expensive and well-made rifles, known as "trade guns," were manufactured especially for sale to Indians in the early 1800s. Native Americans also acquired other weapons as gifts or stole them. Over the years Indians became known for their ability to handle a gun on horseback, firing and reloading at full gallop. The Indian victory at Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876 (see Chapter 7), is often held up as the greatest display of Indians' ability with guns. By 1890 and the battle at Wounded Knee (see Chapter 7), Americans' possession of more advanced weaponry—in this case, the Hotchkiss guns that fired two-pound explosive shells—would end the days of Indians freely roaming the Plains.

The Texas pistol

Long before Wounded Knee, advancements in gun manufacturing gave Americans the advantage over Indian tribes in the West. One of the most revolutionary guns was the Colt revolver; inventor Samuel Colt (1814–1862) received a patent for a revolving pistol and revolving rifle in 1836. Unlike earlier muskets or rifles, revolvers could hold six shots. So many of Samuel Colt's guns were in Texas by 1839 that they became known as the "Texas pistol" or "Texas arm." In the early 1840s, Colt learned about machinery and the possibilities of mass production.

Colt made a deal with Eli Whitney, Jr. (son of the eighteenth-century inventor), to build machines that could produce weapons for a U.S. government contract Colt won in 1846. Though Colt lost money on his contract with the government to manufacture one thousand six-shooters, he retained Whitney's machines. Colt soon added more machines with the help of Elisha K. Root, an excellent mechanic who designed nearly four hundred machines to mass-produce Colt's guns. A visitor to their factory was fascinated by the new machines, as quoted by David Freeman Hawke in Nuts and Bolts of the Past: "Each portion of the firearm has its particular section. As we enter ... the first group of machines appears to be exclusively employed in chambering the cylinders; here another is boring barrels; another group is milling the lock frames; still another is drilling them; beyond are a score of machines boring and screwing the nipples.... Here are the rifling machines ... now we come to the jigging machines that mortice out the lock frames." These machines were faster than people, but they were not precise. Though Colt bragged about the uniformity of his gun parts, historian David Hounshell reported that the parts "did not come close to being interchangeable," according to Hawke.

Though Colt's guns were among the most popular in the West, he was not the first to mass-produce guns. Since the early 1800s at Harpers Ferry Armory, John Hall had been mass-producing guns with such precision that "if a thousand guns were taken apart and limbs thrown promiscuously [casually] together in one heap they may be taken promiscuously from the heap and will all come out right," according to Hawke in Nuts and Bolts of the Past. Historian Merritt Roe Smith pronounced Hall's advances in precision manufacturing to be "one of the great technological achievements of the modern era," according to Hawke. By the 1840s, many small manufacturers were producing muskets and rifles with inter-changeable parts.

Colt revolvers' ability to hold more than one shot was more important than interchangeability was in winning the West. Samuel Colt's 1849 .31-caliber pocket pistol became one of the most popular and longest-selling of his models. But the 1851 Navy Model and the 1860 Army Model, called "Navys" and "Armys," were to become the "standard sidearm out West till the advent of cartridge revolvers after the Civil War," according to Monaghan. Renowned explorer John C. Frémont (1813–1890) reportedly slept with two Colts near his head and a Colt rifle under his blanket. Famous scout Wild Bill Hickok (1837–1876) used a "Navy" Colt. The outcome of an Indian attack in 1841 confirmed the superiority of the revolvers. Frontiersman Kit Carson (1809–1868) and a small party used Colt Paterson eight-shot cylinder rifles and five- and six-shot Paterson revolvers to kill or wound about one hundred attacking Kiowa and Comanche warriors; Carson and his party lost only one man. In 1844 Colonel John Hays and fifteen Texas Rangers used Colt revolvers against an attack of eighty Comanche, killing forty-two of them. These and similar stories bolstered Colt's position in the marketplace.

Colt died in 1862. Root became president of the company but died three years later. By that time, the power of the gun had been firmly established in the West. Since then, technological advancements in weaponry have continued to influence territorial disputes around the world.

The Pony Express

When the United States was consolidated east of the Mississippi, communications between the states were fairly swift. But after the California gold rush drew many thousands of Americans westward, helping California become a state in 1850, it became extremely difficult to exchange mail and information with business associates, friends, and relatives who lived on the other side of the continent. There was simply no efficient way to get mail from one side of the country to the other. The railroads reached no farther than the Missouri River, and the telegraph lines stretched only to St. Joseph, Missouri. Ships that traveled around the tip of South America took six months to reach their destinations, though travelers who took the shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama might shorten the journey by a month. Overland travelers took nearly as long. Most people entrusted their mail to strangers, who promised that they would pass the mail on when they reached the other coast. By 1857, the Butterfield Overland Mail Company won a contract to carry U.S. mail on its stagecoaches traveling the overland trails, but the trip still took about twenty-five days. A better solution was needed.

By 1860, the country bubbled with the turmoil of the coming civil war. To keep the growing population of California abreast of the news, the country needed an express mail service. After a conversation with California senator William M. Gwin, William Russell persuaded his partners, Alexander Majors and William Waddell, to start a delivery service they called the Pony Express. Russell's ambitious plan was to deliver mail between Sacramento, California, and St. Joseph, Missouri, in ten days. Russell's partners were reluctant because they could see no way to make a profit from such an enterprise. Nevertheless, they agreed and quickly established a plan for the service to succeed.

In order for the Pony Express to deliver mail in ten days, it needed the fastest horses and the most committed riders. To beat the clock, riders would have to run their horses at top speed. But the horses tired quickly and had to be changed frequently. To supply fresh horses, the company built relay stations every 10 to 20 miles along the nearly 2,000-mile route. The riders would spend about two minutes at a station, just long enough to throw the mochila (the leather saddlebag that held the mail) over the back of a fresh horse and ride off again.

"Willing to risk death daily"

The route was difficult and dangerous. The riders spent long hours in the saddle and were sometimes threatened by hostile Indians, horse thieves, or unbearable heat or cold. Russell, Majors, and Waddell knew the kind of men they needed. Their help-wanted announcements read: "Wanted—young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 per week." From the hundreds who applied, eighty were hired. William F. Cody (1846–1917) was the most famous of the riders. Cody joined the Pony Express when he was fourteen and holds the record for the longest ride without a break for sleep (384 miles). Cody later became famous as Buffalo Bill Cody, the leader of a traveling Wild West show.

Pony Express riders were admired for their skill and bravery. Many became local heroes when they reached towns. But even those who never saw a Pony Express rider were enthralled by the idea of men who would risk everything to speed the mail across the country. Writer Mark Twain (1835–1910) captured the public's fascination with the riders in Roughing It, which he wrote while traveling west by stagecoach:

We had a consuming desire from the beginning, to see a pony rider; but somehow or other all that passed us, and all that met us managed to streak by in the night and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could get our heads out of the windows. But now we were expecting one along any moment, and would see him in broad daylight. Presently the driver exclaims:

"Here he comes!"

... [T]he flutter of hoofs comes faintly to the ear—another instant and a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider's hands but no reply and man and horse burst past our excited faces and winging away like the belated fragment of a storm!

So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy, that but for a flake of white foam left quivering and perishing on a mail sack after the vision had flashed by and disappeared, we might have doubted whether we had seen any actual horse and man at all, maybe.

The end of the Express

After just eighteen months of faithful service, the Pony Express became obsolete. With the transcontinental telegraph line completed on October 24, 1861, messages could reach the West Coast in minutes. But the Pony Express had captured the hearts of Americans and lives on today in the legends of the men who would brave any perils to deliver the mail. Through harsh conditions, the Pony Express completed 308 runs and delivered 34,753 letters, losing one rider and one mochila along the way. An article at the time in the Sacramento Daily Bee summed up the public sentiment toward the orders to discontinue the service:

Farewell and forever, thou staunch, wilderness-overcoming, swift-footed messenger. For the good thou hast done we praise thee; and, having run thy race, and accomplished all that was hoped for and expected, we can part with thy services without regret, because, and only because, in the progress of thy age, in the advance of science and by the enterprise of capital, thou hast been superseded by a more subtle, active, but no more faithful, public servant.

The telegraph

Also known as the "talking" or "singing" wire, the telegraph came to the United States in 1843, when Congress passed a bill enabling Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) to construct the first telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Morse had conceived of the telegraph much earlier, in 1832, and the first telegraph message was sent in 1838 after Morse coordinated his efforts with business associates Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale. The instant communication offered by Morse's system of wire taps (later called Morse code) inspired many entrepreneurs, who hastily built small local and regional telegraph systems. By 1851, fifty telegraph companies were operating in the United States. But by 1856, Hiram Sibley had begun consolidating the independent telegraph lines into his newly formed company, Western Union Telegraph Company. Between 1857 and 1861 other companies consolidated until the U.S. telegraph interests were held by only six systems.

By the beginning of the Civil War, commercial interests were keen to build a transcontinental telegraph line. To connect the eastern telegraph systems with the West, Congress passed the Telegraph Act of 1860, which granted the lowest bidder public lands and a yearly contract to operate a telegraph line connecting the East to San Francisco, California. Sibley won the contract and formed the Pacific Telegraph Company to start construction westward from Omaha, Nebraska, to Salt Lake City, Utah. Sibley sent his associate Jeptha H. Wade west to form the Overland Telegraph Company, which would handle construction eastward from Fort Churchill in the Nevada Territory (on the border of California) and extend the existing California lines to Salt Lake City. In July 1861, the Pacific Telegraph Company and the Overland Telegraph Company raised the first poles for the transcontinental telegraph line.

As the companies advanced, they set up new telegraph stations daily to keep in touch with Sacramento and Omaha. To bridge the distance not yet linked by wire, Western Union had made a special arrangement for Pony Express riders to carry messages between the two companies as they slowly worked toward each other.

By October 24, 1861, telegraphers sent the first message from San Francisco to Washington. The message from Chief Justice Stephen Field of California assured the recipient, President Abraham Lincoln, of California's loyalty to the Union. The New York Times is quoted in Seven Trails West as remarking that "the work of carrying westward the transcontinental telegraph line has progressed with so little blazonment [publicity], that it is with almost an electric thrill one reads the words of greeting yesterday flashed instantaneously over the wires from California." The coasts of the country, the article continued, are now "united by this noblest symbol of our modern civilization." Two days after that first message, the other U.S. express message service, the Pony Express, ended—a financial failure, but secure as a legendary part of conquering the West.

The stringing of telegraph wire across the country did not inspire the hero worship that the Pony Express riders did, but the telegraph was one of the most transforming technologies to influence the development of the West. The telegraph was the first American industry based on electricity and the first monopoly, and it turned a profit from the beginning. The telegraph's ability to send news from one coast to the other in a matter of minutes fostered the growth of news agencies and other commercial enterprises, and it revolutionized railroad operations. The telegraph remained one of the most important technologies in the development of social and commercial life in America until the emergence of the telephone and the radio in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Barbed wire

Barbed-wire fencing revolutionized the practice of raising cattle in the West. Fencing was not new to cattlemen; fencing in other parts of the country had typically been constructed from stones, tree trunks, or any surplus material left after clearing the land. But the western prairies, stretching from Texas north to Canada, didn't have surplus building material. The western prairies were the ultimate grazing ground for livestock, a natural rangeland with few trees or rocks. Since the government owned the prairies, the rangeland and water for the cattle were free. Thinking that traditional methods of fencing their herds would be too expensive and too difficult to maintain, cattlemen instead hired cowboys to help herd their animals across the prairies from the lush natural grasslands to water. A culture of long, cooperative cattle drives came to characterize the prairies as cowboys drove herds to market. But cheap, easy-to-install barbed wire would soon change ranching forever.

At the De Kalb County Fair of 1873, three men saw a piece of wood with bits of wire sticking out of it that Henry M. Rose had made to control a "breachy" cow (a cow that tries to escape): lumberman Jacob Haish; hardware merchant Isaac Leonard Ellwood; and farmer Joseph Farwell Glidden, a man worried about raising his crops without the security of good, strong fencing. Ellwood remembered the day in A History of De Kalb County, Illinois, noting that "all three of us stood looking at this invention of Mr. Rose's and I think that each one of us at that hour conceived the idea that barbs could be placed on the wire in some way instead of being driven into the strip of wood." With Glidden's wire stretcher and barbedwire design, which he patented in November 1874, farming on the prairie would soon change dramatically. Glidden and Ellwood became partners in The Barb Fence Company, and Haish became their first competitor with his own barbed-wire design. Their products were met with enthusiasm in the marketplace, and the barbed-wire industry grew rapidly.

The Barbed-Wire Industry

Figures from 1874 to 1880 show the growth of the barbed-wire industry.

YearAmount of Barbed Wire Made and Sold
Source: Walter Prescott Webb. Great Plains. (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1931).
187410,000 lbs.
1875600,000 lbs.
18762,840,000 lbs.
187712,863,000 lbs.
187826,655,000 lbs.
187950,377,000 lbs.
188080,500,000 lbs.

The Homestead Act of 1862 and the railroads that came later moved many people onto the prairies. The cattle that had freely roamed the vast prairies were soon impeded by homesteaders (people who were granted ownership of land by living and working on it) who strung barbed fences around their newly acquired property. Sensing that their way of life was threatened, ranchers, who had up to this point worked out informal range rights among themselves, began to homestead as much property as they could. What they could not homestead they bought or leased. If they could not acquire the land, they sometimes fenced it anyway.

By the 1880s, cattlemen had realized that ringing their herds with barbed-wire fences allowed them to reduce their labor costs by employing fewer cowboys. It also gave them more control over their herds, keeping their prized bulls from wandering and impregnating competitors' cattle and allowing ranchers to rotate herds from pasture to pasture to prevent overgrazing. Barbed wire ended the old methods of ranching. Gone were the long trail drives that characterized the prairies from 1866 to 1880 (see Chapter 9). Cowboys no longer lived the rough-and-tumble life that fostered so many romantic visions. Instead of herding their boss's cattle over vast public prairie lands, they now worked more as traditional farmhands, drilling wells to provide water to pastures that did not border on streams and tending the fenced herds. The longhorn cattle, a hybrid of Spanish and British cattle, were soon bred out of existence as fencing was used to separate breeds and improve a cattleman's stock.

The Fence-Cutters War

As barbed wire changed the practice of ranching, conflicts erupted over its impact. Controversy over the improper and unfair use of barbed fencing provoked arguments over who had the right to use public lands. After erecting miles of fencing around public lands, the largest cattle-raising companies tried to secure leases to graze their animals on federal lands. By 1883, those opposed to fencing the open range had begun cutting barbed fences in a protest since labeled the fence-cutting wars (see Chapter 9). Texas ranchers were so evenly divided over the issue and so violent in their opinions that civil war seemed a real possibility. Texas governor John Ireland called out the Texas Rangers to protect the peace and held a special legislative session to solve the problem. Legislation regulating how and where fences could be erected on or near public lands curbed the fence cutting in Texas in 1884, and similar legislation soon eased tensions in other states. The impact of the laws was impressive: they ended the fence-cutting wars less than a year after the conflicts started and reinforced the patterns of ranching introduced by barbed-wire fencing. Nevertheless, the pain of the struggle was so great that fence cutting remained a felony in Texas at the end of the twentieth century.


Westward expansion would still have proceeded without the technological achievements described in this chapter, but it would have happened more slowly and in a very different way. Inventions helped determine the very shape of the West. The telegraph instantly connected Americans across thousands of miles; railroads killed some towns and gave birth to others; the gun quickly established the settlers' dominance over the country; and barbed wire created vast ranching empires. In the end, technology was one of many factors that contributed to the making of the American West.

For More Information


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Moody, Ralph. Stagecoach West. New York: Crowell, 1967.

Voight, Virginia. Stagecoach Days and Stagecoach Kings. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing, 1970.

Webb, Walter Prescott. Great Plains. Boston: Ginn & Company, 1931.

West, Tom. Heroes on Horseback: The Story of the Pony Express. New York: Four Winds Press, 1969.

Web sites

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Everett, George. "Ex-Slave Mary Fields at Home in Montana Whether Working in a Convent or Managing a Mail Route." Wild West. [Online] (accessed April 14, 2000).

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Boies, Henry L. A History of DeKalb County, Illinois. Evansville, IA: Whipporwill Publications, 1987.

Bourne, Russell. Floating West: The Erie and Other American Canals. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.

Coe, Lewis. The Telegraph: A History of Morse's Invention and Its Predecessors in the United States. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 1993.

Dale, Rodney. Early Railways. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Dicerto, Joseph J. The Pony Express: Hoofbeats in the Wilderness. New York: Franklin Watts, 1989.

Ferris, Robert G., series ed. Prospector, Cowhand, and Sodbuster: Historic Places Associated with the Mining, Ranching, and Farming Frontiers in the Trans-Mississippi West. Vol. 11. Washington, DC: United States Department of the Interior National Parks Service, 1967.

Hawke, David Freeman. Nuts and Bolts of the Past: A History of American Technology, 1776–1860. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Hilton, Suzanne. Getting There: Frontier Travel without Power. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980.

Lauber, Patricia. Cowboys and Cattle Ranching Yesterday and Today. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.

Laughlin, Rosemary. The Great Iron Link: The Building of the Central Pacific Railroad. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds, 1996.

McCallum, Henry D., and Frances T. McCallum. The Wire That Fenced the West. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

McNeese, Tim. America's Early Canals. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.

McNeese, Tim. America's First Railroads. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.

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Thompson, George A. Throw Down the Box! Treasure and Tales from Gilmer and Salisbury the Western Stagecoach King. Salt Lake City, UT: Dream Garden Press, 1989.

Van Der Linde, Laurel. The Pony Express. New York: Macmillan, New Discovery Books, 1993.

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Technology and the Making of the West

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Technology and the Making of the West