Post-Civil War Americans Move Westward to Make Money from Minerals
After the Civil War, Americans moved west as much to make a buck as to settle into a new life. The West was seen as a bottomless treasure chest of resources to exploit.
Some of those resources were mineral. Starting with the California Gold Rush of 1849, the West saw a steady stream of gold, silver, and copper discoveries touch off “rushes,” as hordes of miners careened like pinballs from strike to strike.
In 1859, thousands descended on Pike’s Peak in Colorado, looking for gold. Later that year, it was the Comstock silver lode in Nevada. In 1861, it was Idaho; in 1863, Montana; in 1874, the Black Hills of Dakota; and in 1876, it was back to Colorado.
Towns with 5,000 inhabitants sprang up virtually overnight, composed of miners-who-would-be millionaires, and the gamblers, thieves, swindlers, prostitutes, and liquor sellers that accompanied them. They formed violent societies. Justice was often in the form of vigilance committees or vigilantes, who set themselves up as the law and sometimes didn’t bother with a trial before stretching a defendant’s neck.
Where most of the mining money went reflected what was happening in the rest of the country. Big corporations, financed by stockholders from the East and Europe, had the capital to buy the equipment needed to mine on a large scale, and they reaped most of the profits. Most miners made little, and many of them ended up going to work as laborers for the large companies.
But mining had some positive impact on the West besides the wealth it created. The miners were the first to open much of the West, and they helped encourage the railroads to come. Some of those who came for the booms stayed on after the inevitable busts that followed.
Because miners had to set up governments in a hurry to deal with the instant towns, political organization took root. Coupled with the mineral wealth, these organizations gave the mining areas clout in Congress. This helped speed the admission of new states, such as Nevada.
By the dawn of the new century, the big, fever-producing mineral strikes were over in the West. But they were replaced by the rush to extract oil — “Black Gold” — beneath western lands, particularly in Texas and Oklahoma.