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A Time Of Change:The 1880’s and 1890’s Kansas

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A Time Of Change:The 1880’s and 1890’s Kansas

As history cascades through an hourglass, the changing, developmental hands of time are shrouded throughout American history. This ever-changing hourglass of time is reflected in the process of maturation undertaken by western America in the late nineteenth century. Change, as defined by Oxford’s Dictionary, is “To make or become different through alteration or modification.” The notion of change is essential when attempting to unwind the economic make-up of Kansas in the 1880’s and 1890’s. Popular culture often reveres the American cowboy, which has led him to become the predominate figure in America’s “westering” experience (Savage, p3). However, by 1880 the cowboy had become a mythical figure rather than a presence in western life. The era of the cowboy roaming the Great Plains had past and farmers now sought to become the culturally dominant figure and force in the American West. Unlike the cowboys, farmers were able to evolved, organizing and establishing the Populist Party. The farmers’ newly formed political organization provided them with a voice, which mandated western reform. Furthermore, the populist ideas spread quickly and dominated western thought in the 1880’s and 1890’s. The period of the 1880’s and 1890’s marked the end of the American cowboy and gave farmers a political stronghold that would forever impact the modernization of the West.

Although early nineteenth century Kansas was vast in territory, the land was mostly unpopulated. This cheap abundant land along with the dream of a better life lured farmers from the east to start their lives in Kansas. Many people were driven to pack their belongings and start their westward bound journey. Floyd Benjamin Streeter, whose parents were pioneer settlers in Kansas, recounts that, “Young people, wanting a start in life, and older folks, dissatisfied with things in the East, loaded a few possessions into covered wagons and started for the Kaw where they took up claims or bought railroad land” (Streeter, 195). Clifford L. Lord quotes a family who journeyed from New York to Kansas in 1850, “We personally have had a good deal more than our average share of…trouble, but that is over now, and the next time it will be probably some one else’s turn. We feel now tolerably comfortable…and happy” (Lords, 10). The farmers were delighted to work their own land, while reaping its’ benefits. However, the seemingly bright future of the Kansas farmer was somewhat clouded by the emergence of the cowboy.
The annexation of Texas to the United States gave rise to the American cowboy. As the cattle business began to spread over a greater portion of the west, so too did the cattle drives. For example, a cow worth $4.00 in Texas may fetch as much as $40.00 in Kansas. In 1867, word quickly spread that Kansas was ready for cattle (Boggs, 20). The previous drives were led by only a few men accompanied by a crowd of cheaply paid Mexican boys; however, the “boom” in the cattle industry caused the price of cattle to rise, which meant better wages for the workers. With the end of the Civil War, the emergence of the cattle industry in Kansas lured in many returning Confederate soldiers who sought employment and adventure. The new demand of the cattle industry also provided recently freed slaves an opportunity for employment. Mostly an unsettled territory, the flat dry terrain of Kansas was ideal and well suited for driving and herding cattle.
Contrary to popular belief, the life and duty of a cowboy was not one to be admired. Employed by cattlemen for low wages to tend to cattle on the range or trail, the American
cowboy never got to feel the comfort of a bed, nor was he able to sleep under a roof. The duty of a cowboy was very dull and routine. He was to ride over the range to see that cattle did not roam. He drove the herd from one locale to another for roundup and branding. Other responsibilities were to drive the cattle to railroad stations for shipment to market (Savage, p77).

Perhaps the most grueling aspect of a cowboy’s life was the annual cattle drives and roundups that took place in the middle of April and the end of July. During these great cattle drives as many as 4,000 cattle were driven from Texas to the northern ranges. The typical cattle drive consisted of between eight and ten cowboys supplied with four horses each. There was also a provision wagon, a cook, and a boss who was in charge of the herd. While the trail boss rode ahead of the herd, the most experienced cowboys took the lead or “point” position followed by the lesser experienced cowboys at the “swing” and “flank” positions. The least experienced of the entire outfit were named the “drag riders.” Their task was the “dust-eating”, or riding behind the herd.

True the popular perception of adventure; the 2-3 month cattle-drives (a slow moving herd only covered an average of about ten miles per day) frequently subjected the cowboys to danger. Being trampled by stampedes, driving herds into rivers full of quicksand and cattle rustling were just some of the concerns of the contemporary cowboys. Indian attacks and brutal weather conditions also claimed the lives of many cowboys (Myers, 26). These dangers were illustrated during a drive from Texas to Colorado along a trail, later recognized as the Goodnight-Loving Trial, the famous cowboy Oliver Loving died from wounds he sustained during an Indian attack (Boggs, 20). In 1878, approximately 353 members of the Little Wolf and Dull Knife bands of the Northern Cheyenne Indians crossed into Kansas raping twenty-five women and killing forty-one settlers. Days later, a group of cowboys sitting around a campfire were attacked and murdered by Indian braves (Miner, 110).

The early settlers of Kansas were also confronted with trouble on the frontier. Troubles included: droughts, blizzards, fires, and grasshopper invasions. The year of 1874 was one of the hardest years the farmers of Kansas faced. The winter, as Streeter describes, “Had been an unusually severe; one which left the stock in poor condition with a scanty supply of hay and grain.” Conversely, Streeter explained the spring as “backward. “It required additional feed for the stock from the depleted supply” (Streeter, 217). While a large amount of the stock perished, 1874 also marked the grasshopper and insect invasion. The farmer not only had to battle the severe weather, but also had to contest with insects destroying the crops. Anne E. Bingham who lived on a farm with her husband during the summer of 1874 recounts the grasshopper incident,

The year 1874 we had a good wheat crop. Our peach trees had come to their first bearing and hung full of fruit. One afternoon in August as I sat sewing I heard a noise on the roof like hailstones. Stepping out I saw the air full of grasshoppers…They [the insects] got down to business right away. The leaves began falling from the cottonwood shade trees about the house. We saw, too, that our fine peach crop was on the way to destruction….The grasshoppers would alight in the middle of the day for their ‘siesta.’ The sides of the house and the walks were covered with them…The situation was beyond expression…I saw times through those years that I wouldn’t have given the snap of my fingers for the whole of Kansas. Everybody wanted to sell and nobody wanted to buy. Few could leave, because they had not the means to get away with it” (Rich, 149).

The farmers were not only growing restless with the severe weather and insect invasions, but were also growing weary of the Texas cattle drovers. The drovers took liberty in feeding and watering their cattle herds on the farmers’ cultured land. This enraged the farmers and deeply enrooted a continual strife with the Texas cattle herders. Everett Rich described these incidents, saying, “The homesteaders were afraid the longhorns would spread Texas fever among the native stock. The cattle got into their fields and destroyed the crops. The cowboys sometimes tore down their fences to let the thirsty cattle have water” (Rich, 159). As the settlers became more resentful of the cowboy presence, they began adopting violent means of resolve. Emphasizing their indignation, the farmer implemented the use of shotguns to ward off any offending cowmen.

In 1871, the Ellsworth County farmers suffered major financial losses due to disease and damaged crops caused by the near-by Kansas Pacific trade route. In an effort to curb the crop damage in 1872, farmers formed the Ellsworth County Farmers Protective Society. The newly formed society had but one objective, “driving of Texas cattle must be stopped.” They explicitly informed cattle drovers that they “couldn’t and wouldn’t allow the driving of Texas cattle through the county, that they would resist to their utmost capacity and they would prevent it peaceably if possible, forcibly if necessary” (Streeter, 199). Later, legal restrictions on local open-range herding were passed by the government and implemented into the law.

Investors eyeing the chance for prosperity began to establish a “built” or created environment of railroads and agriculture. T.C. Henry was a pioneer in the establishment of agriculture and large-scale farming in Kansas. By 1875 Henry had developed a 1,200-acre wheat farm, which during that time was almost unheard of (Miner, 41).

Attempting to also encourage settlement and stimulating population growth, the government gave railroads a part of the public domain. This expansion of the railroad system helped to establish settlement, which in turn interested powerful corporations. These corporations saw in Kansas a potential market and were motivated to offer aid to the building of the railroads This left the cowboy with no choice but to hang up his lasso, wide rimmed hat and clanking spurs and to adopt a new trade, one that they had so fiercely loathed; farming. Theodore Roosevelt commented in his book Ranch Life and the Hunting Trial “To appreciate properly his fine, manly qualities, the wild rough rider of the plains should be seen in his own home. There he passes his days, there he does life-work, there he meets death, there he faces it as he has faced many other evils, with quiet, uncomplaining fortitude.

Brave, hospitable, hardy, and adventurous, he is the grim pioneer of our race; he prepares the way for civilization from before whose face he must himself disappear” (Savage, p171).


The age of the cowboy (1865-1890) had come to an end, paving the way for the farmer and the emergence of populism.

However, the 1880’s and 1890’s were not a period of great prosperity for farmers in the American West, either. Farmers needed their lives to improve and many looked to politics as a means to attain the standard of living they so desired. “Farmers knew that if they did not dominate in the political arena they had little hope of achieving economic justice or maintaining a way of life that they held dear” (McNall, 5). The Republican and Democratic Parties did not represent farmers, nor did they push for their rights. The Farmers decided to form their own party to establish a political voice. First organizing the Farmers Alliance, the farmers then founded the Populist Party in 1890.

According to William Allen White, a Kansas Editor, Populists were attempting “to use government as an agency of human welfare…to establish economic as well as political equality, to help the underdog, to cut down some of the privileges that wealth carried by reason of its size and inherent power” (Clanton, 559). The aspirations of the Populist Party were less specific than they were ideological, but several key issues formed the party’s political basis. The three main objectives of the Populist Party were the government regulation of railroads, free and unlimited coinage of silver, and tax reform.

William Jennings Bryan was a Populist orator who received far more national proclaim and notoriety than any Populist before or after his time. Known as the great commoner, Bryan personified the movement he represented and was the most renowned source of Populist ideology. He progressed through various governmental jobs, eventually showing up at the 1896.

Democratic National Convention as an elector. Although, prominent political figures at the conference knew little of Bryan, except his hard line stance on the unlimited coinage of silver, he surprisingly walked away from the conference with the Democratic Presidential Nomination. Bryan was not a politician prone to suggesting concrete policy changes that he believed should be enacted, but won the people over with his character and dignity.

The speech Bryan gave at the Democratic National Convention, which ultimately won him the nomination, is one of the most famous addresses in history. Perhaps his most compelling argument for the unlimited coinage of silver was his rebuttal of the Democratic assertion that moving away from the gold standard would hurt the businessmen of the country. However, Bryan’s contention was that people “have made the definition of a businessman too limited in its application. The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer…the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day—who begins in the spring and toils all summer—and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the board of trade and bets upon the price of grain…”(Metcalfe, 321). The argument presented by Bryan elated the farmers and bestowed hope upon them. Politicians were now looking out for the farmers’ best interests. In the closing lines of his speech, Bryan furthered illustrated the importance of the coining of silver to the populist movement, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (Metcalfe, 331).

The late nineteenth century was a very important time in Kansas’ history, reflecting the vast economic change and expansion of Kansas. In fact, agriculture as formally established in 1880, still maintains a stronghold on the Kansan life-style existing through the 20th and into 21st century Kansas. The fate of the cowboy was as preordained as the establishment of society. As the small towns began to spring up throughout the state, the presence of the Kansas cowboy was lost. Seeing the ultimate fate of the cowboy rapidly approaching, the Kansas Cowboy acknowledged the defeat of the cowboy, “The days of the cowboy in his pristine glory at Dodge are almost numbered, new and varied interests are rapidly springing up, the quiet pursuits of agriculture and manufacturing will soon take the place of the once great cattle interests” (Haywood, p34). The onset of agriculture and the development of small towns led to the inevitable transformation of cattle-towns into large well-populated cities. In June of 1887, a survey conducted by Bradstreet ranking real-estate transactions listed Wichita third with a population increase of 500% (Miner, 174). As the cowboys lost national prominence, farmers became organized groups and gained access to government offices. The Populist Movement brought national attention to the struggling farmer, and secured them an unprecedented quality of life. No longer a diminutive group that the government could ignore, many populist leaders had now attained prominent spots in the House and Senate. The western voice was now abundant, an unyielding force that not only legitimatised farmers, but also helped facilitate the development and modernization of Kansas and other territories throughout the American West.

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