While the onward march of the railroads is generally credited with bringing people to the Great Plains, it was only the technology of fencing that made serious settlement of the region possible. According to writer Richard O’Connor in his fascinating history of railroad expansion, “Iron Wheels and Broken Men,” railroads could have been built across and through the Plains as early as the 1850s and filled the region with people — but the development of effective fencing to make the region work for serious farming and settlement of the lands didn’t come along until the 1870s.
From the fabled “medicine show” to actors to circuses — entertainers and entertainment advanced westward as settlements and towns grew up throughout the Old West. It’s surprising to see how widespread and important this part of westward expansion really was. So many stereotypes like gunfights, cattle ranching, town marshals, covered wagons, railroad expansion, etc., make up what we all think of as the Old West. But we forget that people who settled on the Great Plains and throughout the mountains and valleys of the Western two-thirds of our country were folks who brought with them many of the same desires for entertainment and for “culture” that they had when they lived back East in more settled lands.
Known to many as “Crazy Bob” for his wild early years as a cowboy, for his constant boozing, and for the years he spent digging in Poverty Gulch, Bob Womack discovered the ore that ultimately led to Colorado’s greatest gold strike at Cripple Creek. But more than 15 years after his discovery, which led to millions of dollars in gold, Bob died in poverty in Colorado Springs.
If you’ve ever wondered why stories of the Old West speak of lawmen who are sheriffs and others speak about marshals, and in both cases the nature of the job is unclear, you’re not alone.
Although the local citizenry throughout the West understood the necessary distinctions, time has somehow blurred the lines of authority and the setup of the law in ways that might be confusing today. Modern society and modern law enforcement has its own twists and turns, yet most of us know pretty clearly who to call when we need “the police.” (You must remember, too, that there was no “9-1-1” available in the Old West; heck, even telephones were few and pretty far between.)
As with many towns of the West, promises of sudden wealth brought the first settlers to Boise, Idaho — prospectors drawn by an 1862 gold strike. But it was the rich soil, coaxed into bearing crops by a complex of irrigation channels cut into the Idaho desert that turned fortune seekers into settlers.
Originally named “Les Bois” (French, meaning “wooded”) by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers who came into the area as early as 1834, the stretch of wooded land was transformed first into gold diggings, then a small town, and finally the capital of the state of Idaho. It grew from about 400 houses and other permanent structures in 1868 to a city of more than 205,000 population by 2009.
Grass not only covered thousands of square miles of the West as U.S. pioneers began expanding from the East, it also shaped life across the Plains — even molding common language and “Westernisms” that gave color to the American English of the day.
Stories abound about the hardships and dangers settlers faced as they cleared and tamed the center of our continent. From bison herds numbering in the tens of thousands to prairie grass fires that raged uncontrolled as far as the eye could see, the obstacles were many and sometimes seemed deceptively benign. For instance, who would think children setting out on foot through the grasslands of Nebraska to look for their older brother who was out herding cattle were facing any particular dangers?