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1800-1860: Lifestyles, Social Trends, Fashion, Sports & Recreation: Overview

1800-1860: Lifestyles, Social Trends, Fashion, Sports & Recreation: Overview

The Old West. For white Americans in the early nineteenth century the West represented many things. For some it offered adventure or a chance to get rich quick; for others, the opportunity to own land. The stock figures of the Old West remain in American memory: the mountain man, the hardy pioneer, the immigrant on the Overland Trail, the gambler, and the gold miner. However, when Americans advanced into what they thought of as wilderness, they were entering a land with a long history. For uncounted generations Native American peoples had created their own cultures and told their own stories about the land on which they lived. Whites and Native Americans sometimes met peacefully, but more often disease and warfare took a heavy toll on the original inhabitants of the West. The West was also home to Spanish and Mexican settlers. Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California would become states of the Union, but in 1800 they were claimed by Spain. They would in turn pass to Mexico, which gained its independence in 1821. Conflicts between expansionist Americans and Mexicans would eventually lead to war.

Travel. Americans who sought to go west expected the trip to be difficult. By 1860 railroads extended from the East to Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Joseph, St. Louis, and Memphis, but travel was still timeconsuming. Rail gauges were not standardized, requiring the loading and unloading of cargo. Delays were common, and rail travel was still too expensive for many Americans. The first transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, but until then Americans who wanted to go from the East to the Rocky Mountains or Pacific relied on human and animal power. The 250,000 to 500,000 individuals who traveled on the overland trails anxiously watched the health of their horses and livestock as they crossed the plains and mountains.

Hardships. Life was often precarious for the peoples of the West. Native Americans feared disease, enemy attacks, drought, and hunger. They also faced the pressing problem of white immigration into the West. Trade, diplomacy, and warfare all seemed unable to slow the influx of Americans onto the plains. The Mexican and Spanish residents of the Southwest faced some of the same problems. Americans who moved into Texas brought an assumption of superiority with them, and tensions sometimes flared into violence. Americans in the West, like other peoples, faced hardships. Western farmers suffered through drought and dust storms while cholera epidemics devastated the wagon trains. Miners found cold and poverty more often than they found gold. Settlers in the West also suffered from loneliness and missing friends and family left behind.

Social Life and Sport. The inhabitants of the West faced hardships, but they also enjoyed social gatherings and sports. Observers commented on the wide variety of games played by Native Americans. Native Americans enjoyed lacrosse, shinny, and games of chance. White settlers seldom played the team sports that were gaining popularity in the East. Rather than baseball, for example, Westerners favored rough-and-tumble sports such as wrestling and gouging. Shooting contests were also popular as men sought to prove their skills. Women found fewer opportunities for sport although they were sometimes able to socialize in bees and frolics.

Diversity. The daily life of the peoples of the West reflected their diversity. A Native American in the West might belong to a people who followed the buffalo herds on the plains and praised the virtues of warriors. On the other hand, he or she might live in a relatively peaceful community in California or the Southwest. A Tlingit from the coast of what is now Alaska would have little in common with an Apache from the Southwest or a Crow from the plains. The cultures of Native Americans were not static. Members of various communities traded, fought, and intermarried with others despite vast differences in language and culture. The descendants of Europeans who came west had more similarities, but their cultures were also diverse. Recent emigrants from Germany and Ireland mingled with Kentuckians and residents of Santa Fe. For the white Americans who went west in great numbers, however, diversity was not a goal. They envisioned a West transformed by Euro-American hands, one that had little room for Native Americans or Mexicans.

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