How the West Was Won

The following is an article from the book History's Lists from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader.

America's great westward expansion took place between 1807 and 1912. It took a lot of people with a lot of gumption to tame the Old West, but those adventuresome types wouldn't have stood a chance without some important enterprises and contraptions.


The first explorers of the North American frontier were interested in one thing: making money by hunting the pelts of wild animals. Trading posts gave the fur hunters a market and supplied them with provisions. From the late 1600s to about 1850, posts were built along a vast arc of wilderness from Canada to the northern border of Mexico, mostly on waterways that linked them to the East Coast and the shipping lanes to Europe. Pockets of civilization grew up around the posts, a melting pot of Native Americans, Spaniards, french, Dutch, and English, all bartering with each other.

Significance: Believe it or not, it was fashion. European high style at the time was all about fur -beaver in particular- and North America had a seemingly endless supply.

Story: England's Hudson Bay Company got exclusive trading rights to the watershed of Hudson Bay in Canada in 1670 and constructed the first trading posts on the Western frontier. The posts hired white frontiersmen to trap animals, since the Indians had little interest in doing it. The traders shipped the fur to Europe to rake in huge fortunes. By the late 1700s, rival companies set up trading posts deep in the interior of Canada and points south. By 1808, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company -with its own frontier posts- dominated the West and made Astor the richest man in America. Many major North American cities began as trading posts, such as Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Edmonton, Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Montreal.

Demise: The demise of trading posts was due to a shortage of animal furs, caused by overkilling in North America and the introduction of silk as the new stuff of haute couture in Europe.


From the late 1700s to the early 20th century, these famous covered wagons were as common on trails heading west as today's tractor-trailers. The average 21-foot-long, 11-foot-high, 4-foot-wide wagon could carry two tons of cargo. Some freighter wagons with seven-foot-tall wheels were capable of carrying a massive eight tons. Designed like boats, with ends that were higher than the middle, once the wheels were removed the heavily-caulked wagon body could be floated across Western streams. The ride wasn't as smooth on land: pulled by horses, mules or oxen, the Conestoga moved over roads so rough and mountainous that most people preferred to walk alongside. But they kept inside at night for protection against inclement weather and wild animals.

Significance: At the time, the wagon was the only means of transporting heavy cargo to settlers in the remote West, far away from any navigable rivers. Wagon handlers also brought the only news from the outside world, even if it was outdated by the time they got where they were going.

Story: James Logan invented the Conestoga in 1716. As William Penn's commercial representative in the colony of Pennsylvania, he established freight service between Philadelphia and the Conestoga Valley in Lancaster County 60 miles away and named the wagon after its valley destination. It's believed that Logan based the design on army supply trains then used in Europe. In the wagon's heyday, big factories like future carmaker Studebaker in South Bend, Indiana, could turn out a complete wagon in seven minutes. The Fort Smith Wagon Company in Fort Smith, Arkansas, built 10,000 in a single year.

Conestogas were also called "prairie schooners" because they appeared in the distance like sailing vessels with their weather-resistant canopies of white canvas stretched over wooden hoops and billowing in the wind as they moved across the Great Plains. The expectation was that each animal hitched to a wagon could pull a payload equal to its own weight, and thus the modern expression "pull your own weight."

Demise: Railroads and motor vehicles ended the reign of the Conestoga wagon. The last one was manufactured in 1952 at the Springfield Wagon Company in Fayetteville, Arkansas.


Until the steamboat's arrival on the frontier in 1820, it took skilled oarsman piloting flatboats downstream to get goods to market. Since it was too difficult to paddle back upstream, the flatboats were normally broken up for firewood and the return trip was made by horseback or on foot. The steamboat changed all that.

Significance: Their speed and ability to carry huge cargos made them indispensable to the frontier economy at port cities along the inland waterways. By the mid-1800s, steamboats were seen everywhere on all the rivers to the frontier -the Cumberland, Tennessee, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and Mississippi. The month-long trip upriver 700 miles from New Orleans to Louisville in 1820 became a mere jaunt of four and half days by 1854.

Story: On August 22, 1787, John Fitch demonstrated a steam-powered watercraft on the Delaware River before members of the Continental Convention in Philadelphia. He patented the idea and went into the steamship business, carrying passengers and freight in either direction on the Delaware at four times the sped of previous riverboats. But it was Robert Fulton, who usually gets the undeserved credit for the invention, who saw its commercial potential in settling the West. Fulton partnered with wealthy New York politician Robert L. Livingston and inventor Nicholas Roosevelt to begin building large steamboats in 1817 in Pittsburgh. The result was a ship that could make the round-trip to New Orleans on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, setting a speed record of 10 miles per hour downstream and 3 miles per hour upstream.

For the first 30 years of their development, steamboats were an extremely dangerous way to travel: an estimated 500 vessels were lost, causing 4,000 deaths. Accidents were so frequent -due to fire, steam boiler explosions, and running aground- that the average life span of a steamboat was about five years.

Demise: Railroads began taking business away from steamboats in 1870. By 1880, steamships had given way to the 93,000 miles of rail lines that served all corners of the United States.


The telegraph was an important form of long-distance communication in the Old West. Its birth meant that news from the outside world no longer arrived by horses or riverboats after weeks and months of travel; over telegraph wires strung from wooden posts, communication became almost instantaneous.

Significance: The telegraph was vital to both sides in the Civil War and was used effectively by law enforcement to hunt down desperados in the Old West. By closing the gap between east and west, it also helped unify the nation well into the 20th century.

Story: In 1831, Samuel Morse invented a way of sending messages over a copper wire based on a series of dashes and dots that could be decoded by the receiver. Yet it wasn't until 1844 that he sent the first message over a telegraph line: "What hath God wrought!" Within six years, a group of businessmen in New York organized the New York & Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. Meanwhile, Ezra Cornell, who would go on to found Cornell University, organized a competing system, the New York & Western Union Telegraph Company in 1856 and the first transcontinental telegraph line came together on October 24, 1861, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The first transcontinental message was sent by Stephen J. Field, chief justice of California, to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, assuring the president that the western states would remain loyal to the Union during the Civil War.

Demise: The telegraph died by inches as telephones steadily gained a foothold in the 20th century. On January 27, 2006, Western Union sent its last telegram.


Railroads were the primary means of long-distance transportation from the 1830s to the mid-20th century. As far back as 1836, the idea of a nation-spanning rail line began to catch on -one that would shrink the travel time from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco from months of arduous journey by sea or wagon train to a mere eight days in passenger cars pulled by steam-powered locomotives. But the steep and rocky terrain, especially through the high sierras, seemed insurmountable.

Significance: The speed and safety of trains and their ability to carry huge quantities of cargo at low cost made them preferable to riverboats and wagons. Whereas a Conestoga might make 25 miles in a day, an "iron hose" could pull a train that same distance in less than an hour.

Story: In 1826, John Steven, the "father of American railroads," demonstrated that steam locomotives were feasible by running one on a circular track built at his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey. Small steam railroads sprang up in the East to displace canal boats, but the people who dreamed of a transcontinental railroad would have to wait until the 1860s. President Abraham Lincoln saw the military advantages of such a railroad and as a means to bond the Pacific coast to the Union; he supported California railroad engineer Theodore D. Judah, who convinced some wealthy partners to back a transcontinental railroad as a means of exploiting gold and silver mines in the West. Judah hired 13,000 immigrant workers from China to drive construction of the Central Pacific Railroad over the 10,000-foot high Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the boiling deserts of Nevada and Utah. At Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific linked up with the Union Pacific line heading west. the driving of a ceremonial "golden spike" memorialized the moment: the creation of the first transcontinental line in North America.

Sherman William George Crush lured a reported 40,000 spectators to a temporary town called Crush in western Texas, to see a publicity stunt: the crash of two trains. On September 15, 1896, Crush sent two six-car trains pulled by steam locomotives racing toward each other from a mile away. The engines collided head-on, causing their boilers to explode and sending shrapnel high into the air. At least three spectators were killed and many were injured.

Demise: Though far from dead, passenger travel was death near-fatal blows by the emergence of air travel and the interstate highway system developed in the 1950s. Freight is still carried by rail, but tracking has become the main way to transport cargo.


The liveliest debate over what won the West is about firearms. Did the Colt six-shooter or the Winchester rifle tame the wilderness? Law enforcement officers and peace-loving settlers in the Old West typically owned both -something like the army-issue .45-caliber Colt single-action revolver and the .44-caliber Winchester lever-action rifle. Revolver handguns were standard fare for close-range self-defense, but most experts agree that the Winchester rifle ruled because of its long-range accuracy and firepower.

Significance: To survive in the Old West, especially from 1800 to 1892, you needed a gun. Firearms were necessary for hunting and self-defense, especially in lawless areas -and it was a rite of passage to manhood to become skilled at shooting a gun.

Story: Two men gave their names to guns that ruled the West: Samuel Colt and Oliver Winchester. Colt, the son of a textile factory owner, patented his idea in 1836 and established a factory in Patterson, New Jersey. The Colt handgun became popular after soldiers reported success with it in the war with Mexico in 1846. It was standard fare during the Civil War and quickly took hold in the West, particularly the Colt .45 pistol.

Oliver Winchester improved on someone else's design. In 1848, Walter Hunt patented a "Volition Repeating Rifle" -the forerunner of the rifle made famous as a Union army firearm during the Civil War. One Confederate soldier called it "that damned Yankee rifle that they load on Sunday and shoot all week!"

As a safety measure, people who carried six-shooters loaded five rounds into the cylinder and left the hammer down on an empty chamber. There was no way to fire the gun without first cocking the hammer to advance to the loaded chamber. Gunslingers in the Old West customarily stuffed a rolled-up $5 bill in the empty chamber to pay for their burial if they lost a showdown.

Demise: Law enforcement and time tamped down gun violence in the West, but today there are more guns in more hands than ever.


The article above was reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader History's Lists. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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Miss Cellania - - you should find the original (1967) movie version of "How to succeed in business without really trying" with Robert Morse and Michelle Lee. Based on the very successful Broadway play and one of my favorite movies when I was a kid. Seems a little dated now, but still an enjoyable movie - - you will not regret taking the time to watch it.
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Robert is what the Bathroom Reader book has, but per your comment I looked it up, and the man they refer to was indeed named Samuel. So I will correct it. Thank you! I am not familiar with the actor.
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Robert Morse, the actor, invented the Telegraph?

All this time, I thought it was Samuel F B Morse who did it.

You learn something new here every day!
Thanks for making me smarter, Neatorama.
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