Opportunities open in the west
Yet, a quarter of a century later, virtually all the country had been carved into states and territories. Settlement was spurred by the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted free farms of 160 acres to citizens who would occupy and improve the land. By 1880, nearly 56,000,000 acres had thus found their way into private hands. The wars with the Indians had come to an end. Miners had ranged over the whole of the mountain country, tunneling into the earth, establishing little communities in Nevada, Montana, and Colorado. Cattlemen, taking advantage of the enormous grasslands, had laid claim to the vast region stretching from Texas to the upper Missouri River. Sheepmen, too, had found their way to the valleys and mountain slopes. Then the farmers swarmed into the plains and valleys and closed the gap between the east and west. By 1890, the frontier had disappeared. Five or six million men and women now farmed where buffalo had roamed only two decades before.
Speeding the process of colonization were the railroads. In 1862, Congress voted a charter to the Union Pacific Railroad which pushed its track westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa. At the same time, the Central Pacific began to build eastward from Sacramento, California, toward an undetermined junction point. The whole country was stirred as the two lines steadily approached each other, finally meeting on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point in Utah. The month of laborious travel hitherto separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was now cut to a fraction of that time. The continental rail network grew steadily, and by 1884 four great lines joined the central Mississippi Valley area with the Pacific.
The first great rush of population to the far west was drawn to the mountainous regions. Gold was found in California in 1848, in Colorado and Nevada ten years later, in Montana and Wyoming in the sixties, and in the Black Hills of the Dakota country in the seventies. Throughout these areas, miners opened up the country, established communities, and laid the foundations for more permanent settlements. Yet even while they were digging in the hills, some settlers perceived the farming and stock-raising possibilities of the region. Some few communities continued to be devoted almost exclusively to mining but the real wealth of Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho as of California was ultimately proved to be in the grass and in the soil.
Cattle raising had long been an important industry in Texas. After the war, enterprising men began to drive their Texas longhorns north across the unfenced public domain. Feeding as they went, the cattle arrived at railway shipping points in Kansas larger and fatter than when they started. Soon this "Long Drive" became a regular event and, for hundreds of miles, trails were dotted with herds of cattle moving northwards. Cattle raising spread rapidly into the trans-Missouri region, and immense ranches appeared in Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota territory. Western cities flourished as centers for the slaughter and dressing of meat.
Ranching introduced a colorful mode of existence with the picturesque cowboy as its central figure. "We led a free and hardy life, with horse and with rifle," wrote Theodore Roosevelt, twenty-fifth President of the United States, in his reminiscences of his own experiences in Dakota. "We worked under the scorching mid-summer sun when the wide plains shimmered and wavered in the heat; and we knew the freezing misery of riding night guard round the cattle in the late fall roundup.... But we felt the beat of hardy life in our veins and ours was the glory of work and the joy of living."
Altogether some six million cattle were driven up from Texas to winter on the high plains of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana between 1866 and 1888. The cattle boom, in fact, reached its peak in about 1885. By then, the range had become too heavily pastured to support the long drive and it was beginning to be criss-crossed by railroads. Not far behind the rancher creaked the prairie schooner of the farmers bringing their womenfolk and children, their draft horses, cows, and pigs. Under the Homestead Act they staked off their claims and fenced them in with barbed wire, ousting the ranchmen from lands they had possessed without legal title. During the two terrible winters of 1886 and 1887, herds were annihilated in the open ranges by the freezing weather. The romantic "wild west" gave way to settled communities, to fields of wheat, corn, and oats.