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WESTWARD EXPANSION

AMERICA’S WESTWARD EXPANSION 

This is a story of lore and legend, of fame and fortune, and of devastation and destruction as we journey with those who crossed the Mississippi River as part of the greatest migration in human history! 

From 1820 to 1890, millions of people flowed into a vast countryside defined by the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican Secession and the Northwest Agreement. Far different from the lands east of the Mississippi, these sparsely populated lands quickly provided clues to the rich resources they possessed. Rapidly outnumbering the native population, new states entered the Union, unsettling the delicate balance of the North and South. 

By the early 1840s, the population began pushing across the vast plains, jumping off from Independence, Missouri, to reach the fabled city of Santa Fe, or on to California via a more northerly route. All came in search of the golden farm lands or the life a new land offered. 

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the newly acquired California produced an explosion of travelers with lines of wagons proclaiming “California or Bust!” in search of easy wealth “waiting for people to simply scoop it out of the water!” Millions left Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri, everything they owned crammed into a wagon pulled by oxen, hitting the trail with huge hopes and fragile dreams. 

As steamboats and railroads pushed nearer, later adventurers left from further north, making Nebraska City, in the Nebraska territory, their launch point. If the destination was California or north, all these trails led to their first extended stop at Ft. Kearney. From there, they passed the landmarks of Courthouse Rock, and Chimney Rock, as their overland journey pushed on to Ft. Laramie. They had to face mountains, desert, and weather to reach the promised riches of the mining fields stretching from California to Montana. 

Many recalled the brutal pain of the four-month passage, and the sacrifices made. For some, the trip ended in a swift and painful death due to cholera and tragic accidents along the trail. Others called it quits before they made it to their destinations. They decided to stay in the area we consider home, the Great Plains within the Nebraska territories. 

For those who made the trip and persevered beyond the Plains, the forbidding mountain ranges, the arid lands, the big sky country of Montana, the Pacific coast of Oregon, or the fertile fields of California, it remained the adventure of their lifetime. 

We will follow in their footsteps as these hardy souls break trails into history with their challenging passage to a new beginning. We will trace the various waves of different nationalities and their trials and triumphs. We will review the realities of the conflicts as the old inhabitants of the regions contested this onslaught of humanity. We will also see the massive undertaking to reap the rich harvest of minerals in the new land, an unprecedented undertaking at that time! 

In the process, they rewrote the future of the continent and the country. Join historian Russ Gifford to relive the era and perhaps gain a new appreciation of the efforts and the sacrifices of the people and their time. 

MONDAYS, SEPTEMBER 23, 30, OCTOBER 7, 14, 21; NOON TO 2 P.M. 

Location: Cargill Auditorium, Entrance 14, Lot 4 
Fee: No charge / Max: 100
Lifelong Learning membership required 
Course #20/FY-CPDV-3009-01 

Wagons West! 1815 to 1870: Crossing the Mississippi 

The War of 1812 drew to a close and people began to populate the “land between two rivers.” We will see the beginnings of the Mormon Crossing, the first of the wagon trains, and the draw of the oldest city on the continent, Santa Fe. Thousands left their diaries, and the entries will help us walk in their shoes as they trudge beside the oxen team hauling the wagon, which held all their possessions. We will also ride along with the Pony Express in the brief time before technology outpaced the fastest horses! 
Monday, September 23, NOON TO 2 P.M.

The Mining Boom: 1849 -1889 

The discovery of gold in the newly acquired state of California created a fever that couldn’t be ignored. Millions rushed to California in search of easy wealth, which changed the state, the people, and themselves. Many traveled by boat around the dangerous passage at the tip of South America or combined ship and land travel by making the arduous foot journey across the strait of land at Panama. But for most, it was a question of money. The majority took the overland route from Independence in their pell-mell drive to get to the gold. 

The story of the west is more than the Gold Rush. This period saw the most extraction of wealth in minerals in American history. As each played out, a new one came to the foreground from gold, silver, copper, iron, petroleum, and coal. These forces shaped the story of the west, and we will explore the major players and the minor pawns. 
Monday, September 30, Noon to 2 P.M. 

Indians and the Plains Wars: 1860 – 1880 

While certainly underpopulated, the region of the Louisiana Purchase was not vacant. The Plains Indians, as Native Americans were called, had seen their lives change continuously as more and more people entered the lands they had roamed for years. Some were latecomers displaced by the Americans as they consumed the land east of the Mississippi. Many were attempting to adjust to being assigned limited areas to live, waiting on promised supplies earned via the trade of their traditional lands. In Minnesota, negligent, inept, or corrupt government agents failed to keep those supplies coming or pocketed the money instead. A killing drought created a situation that sparked an Indian uprising that swept across the plains. The resulting conflict claimed thousands of lives over the next 30 years. 
Monday, October 7, Noon to 2 P.M. 

Cattle, Commerce, and the Coming of the Railroad 

With the addition of Texas, prime grazing lands of the southwest were of a size beyond imagination in the country’s earlier years. Ranchers and businesses combined to bring to market herds of cattle to match the scale of the open spaces and fed the growth of the large meat processing plants in growing towns like Chicago. This required numerous men working together toward a single goal, something the experiences of army life during the Civil War made possible. These cattle drives to the rail head became the stuff of legend, but it also resulted in bringing the rail lines further into the wilderness. 

This potential was powered by the railroads striving to lash the country together by miles of steel rails. It was a dream powered by public funds, and it made private fortunes. The demand for steel created factories larger than any in Europe. It created a demand for coal to power those factories, for iron ore to feed them, and for men to run them. It also created a new class of wealthy men. 

Those newly minted millionaires spent money in the right places to make more money and gave rise to conglomerates, trusts, lobbyists, and corruption. We will see how the coming of commerce and more people into the region changed the countryside, the country, and the world for those who lived in the West. Monday, October 14, Noon to 2 P.M. 

The Closing of the Frontier and the Coming of a New Era 

The motivating factors driving western expansion eventually decreased. The last of the rushes were based in the Dakotas to the north and Oklahoma to the south. As the fever for quick riches broke and the last of the native tribes were subdued, the Great Plains became the region to fill. Farmers battled the land and the elements to survive. They, too, transformed the land and the people who lived there. Farming, not ranching, not extraction of its resources, decided the future of the west. 

We will look at the century that followed after the closing of the frontier to see if the region and its history have left an imprint on today’s inhabitants. 
Monday, October 21, Noon to 2 P.M.

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