• The American West

    The American West

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Among those who struggled most to adjust to changes were thousands of American Indians and Mexican Americans who had long been living in the West. Sadly, cultural clashes in the late nineteenth century would result in both groups losing a sense of place. How and why did this happen? More generally, how did the real changes occurring in the West during the Gilded Age transform America?

Conquest and Survival

American Indian choices and responses to the encroachment on their lands in the late nineteenth century resulted in rapid changes. Conquest and Survival presents an American Indian perspective on the conflict at Little Big Horn and the heart-breaking story of Wounded Knee as they fought to restore their pre-reservation lifestyle.

Look for answers to these questions when watching the video:

  • How and why were lives of the American Indians in the West being affected by the socioeconomic transformations taking place in that region? What choices did they have in light of the conditions they faced?
  • What factors led to the "Indian wars" between the 1860s and 1890? In particular, what brought U.S. troops and American Indians to the Little Bighorn River in June 1876? What happened there? What were the consequences?
  • Why did Ghost Dancing become popular among Indian tribes in 1889–1890? How was Ghost Dancing connected to the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890? What happened there? What were the consequences of this massacre?

Download the transcript of Conquest and Survival


A Sense of Place

Still image of Hopi Petition to US government. enlarge photoHopi Petition

With the closing of the western frontier in the late 1800s, U.S. Indian policy shifted from conquest to assimilation. Some aspects of assimilation, with the notable exception of boarding schools, were of interest to American Indians. A Sense of Place analyzes the effects of the federal government's policies promoting assimilation of American Indians in the late nineteenth century. Vine Deloria Jr. contributes to the Indian perspective.

Look for answers to these questions when watching the video:

  • Generally, how did Indians view assimilation in the late nineteenth century? Why was Christianity attractive to some Indians? Why did the government subsidize missionaries?
  • What was the purpose of Indian boarding schools? What happened at these schools? What were the consequences?
  • Why was the Dawes Act passed? What were its results?


Download the transcript of A Sense of Place


Mexican American Displacement

Mexican Americans in the West in the late nineteenth century lost title to vast amounts of land. This video analyzes how and why Mexican Americans were displaced from their land holdings in the Southwest, the effects of this displacement, and the responses to it by Mexican Americans.

Look for answers to these questions when watching the video:

  • How and why did so much land in the West change ownership from Mexican Americans to Anglo-Americans during this era? What were the consequences for Mexican Americans of the decline in their land ownership?
  • How did Mexican Americans cope with the conditions they faced? How and why did they form a uniquely Mexican American identity?

Download the transcript of Mexican-American Displacement



The Measuring Woman

Alice Fletcher looking at documents to divide land. enlarge photoAlloting land to Nez Perce Indians

Alice Fletcher, a pioneer anthropologist, land surveyor, and advocate of Indian rights, dedicated much of her life to assimilating Native Americans. Like other well-intentioned reformers, Fletcher's actions had both positive and negative results. "The Measuring Woman," as Fletcher came to be known, helped implement the Dawes Act, which attempted to move Native Americans into the mainstream of American life by ending tribal ownership of reservation lands. Unfortunately, many Indians eventually sold their individual allotments and "surplus" lands fell into the hands of white settlers and speculators. Consequently, the program left about two-thirds of the Indian population landless or not owning enough land to earn a subsistence living.

Consider how decisions made and actions taken in the American West during the late 1800s often led to unintended consequences. Can you think of similar situations in contemporary society?

Unintended Consequences

Legislative acts designed to benefit people sometimes become an instrument of unintended destruction. This activity looks at both positive and negative effects of legislation related to white encroachment in the American West during the late 1800s.

Download the transcript of Unintended Consequences


Additional Resources


Assimilation through Education
Photos, early film footage, federal government reports, cartoons, and maps tell the complex tale of efforts to assimilate Native Americans through education.


Alice Fletcher Diary
The online edition of Camping With the Sioux: Fieldwork Diary of Alice Cunningham Fletcher is based on two journals kept by Fletcher during a six-week venture into Plains Indian territory in 1881.