Austin, Stephen F.
Born November 3, 1793
Wythe County, Virginia
Died December 27, 1836
Diplomat and colonizer of Texas
"I make no more calculations except to spend my life here, [whether] rich or poor, here (that is in this colony) I expect to remain permanently."
Stephen F. Austin earned the title "Father of Texas." For almost two decades, Austin worked, to the exclusion of almost everything else, to create an American colony in Texas. But unlike other western heroes, Austin was not a hardy soul using his muscle strength to carve out civilization. Instead he was a slight man who suffered severe depression and continual bouts of sickness and who won his fame as a savvy diplomat. Austin shrewdly nurtured friendships with people of various political leanings who could push through the policies he wanted. The result of Austin's efforts culminated in a revolution that won Texas its independence from Mexico.
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Beckwourth, James P.
Born c. 1800
Died September 25, 1866
Near Denver, Colorado
Fur trapper, Indian chief, and mountain man
"The restless youthful mind, that wearies with the monotony of peaceful every-day existence, and aspires after a career of wild adventure and thrilling romance, will find, by my experience, that such a life is by no means one of comfort."
Jim Beckwourth led an extraordinary life. Born to a slave mother, he grew up to become a skilled fur trapper, a mountain man, an expedition leader, an army scout, and an Indian chief. Near the end of his life he recorded the details of his life in an autobiography that made him famous and fueled Americans' ideas about the excitement and danger of life in the West.
James P. Beckwourth claimed to have been born on April 26th, 1798—but like many elements of his life, this date is disputed. Diligent biographers suggest that a better date would be 1800. The identity of Beckwourth's father is certain: he was Sir...
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Born c. 1767
Saukenuk, Virginia Colony
(present-day Rock Island, Illinois)
Died October 3, 1838
Native American resistance leader and warrior
"I fought hard, but your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew.... My warriors fell around me; it began to look dismal. I saw my evil day at hand."
Black Hawk was a powerful leader of the Sauk (also called Sac) and Fox American Indians located in northwestern Illinois and southern Wisconsin in the early nineteenth century. Black Hawk was one of the few Sauk who urged his people to fight the settlement of whites in the region. Despite his fierce resistance, Black Hawk was forced to surrender after the Massacre at Bad Axe River in 1832. His autobiography is one of the best records of the Native American experience.
(The entire section is 2176 words.)
Born November 2, 1734
Exeter Township, Berks County, near
present-day Reading, Pennsylvania
Died September 26, 1820
Near St. Charles, Missouri
"Even in his own time the tale of Boone's role as the leader of colonists migrating through the Cumberland Gap into the Kentucky territories had begun to assume larger-than-life status. Boone came to be considered the consummate symbol of the American pioneer."
J. Gray Sweeney, in The Columbus of the Woods: Daniel Boone and the Typology of Manifest Destiny
Daniel Boone is considered the most famous American frontiersman in history. He guided settlers to establish the first American settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains in present-day Kentucky. At the time of Boone's early adventures, Native Americans vigorously defended their homeland west of the Appalachian Mountains against the encroaching waves of white settlers. Boone's efforts to carve out settlements in what he called "the dark...
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Born March 17, 1804
Died July 17, 1881
Mountain man, trapper, guide
"Only a man with extraordinary and relentless powers of observation, only a man with an utterly reliable memory could possibly gain and retain exact knowledge of the mighty welter of mountains, the endless tangle of streams and valleys which formed Bridger's vast hunting grounds."
Stanley Vestal in Jim Bridger: Mountain Man
One of the American West's most infamous mountain men and scouts, Jim Bridger also operated a key trading post on the trail to California and served as a guide for mapping expeditions and military crusades against the Indians. He is credited with discovering the Great Salt Lake in present-day Utah, as well as the pass that was later used by the Overland Mail and the Pony Express.
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Carson, Christopher "Kit"
Born December 24, 1809
Madison County, Kentucky
Died May 23, 1868
Frontiersman and guide
Kit Carson was "a symbol of the daring and intelligence by which the frontier was being extended."
Thelma S. Guild and Harvey L. Carter in Kit Carson: A Pattern for Heroes
The ultimate frontiersman, Kit Carson spent his career on the edge of the American frontier, exploring, taming, and conquering it. Guts and determination turned Carson from an illiterate runaway into a brigadier general. Fortunate to be friends with one of the greatest promoters of the American West, John C. Frémont (1813–1890; see entry), Carson was a humble man whose amazing exploits would become known to the world—in embellished form—and make him a national hero.
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Cody, William "Buffalo Bill"
Born February 26, 1846
Scott County, Iowa
Died January 10, 1917
Pony Express rider, army scout, showman
"Buffalo Bill was one of those men, steel-thewed and iron nerved, whose daring progress opened the great West to settlement and civilization.... He embodied those traits of courage, strength and self-reliant hardihood which are vital to the well-being of our nation."
Theodore Roosevelt, as quoted in Buffalo Bill: The Noblest Whiteskin
At the turn of the twentieth century, William F. Cody was known as "the greatest showman on the face of the earth," according to Nellie Snyder Yost in Buffalo Bill: His Family, Fame, Failures, and Fortunes. Growing up on the frontier, Cody loved the freedom and excitement of western life. But as more people settled the once "wild" West and as Indians were forced onto reservations, Cody saw that the way of life he had grown to love was disappearing. To preserve it, he turned his real life adventures into the...
(The entire section is 2729 words.)
Cooper, James Fenimore
Born September 15, 1789
Burlington, New Jersey
Died September 14, 1851
Cooperstown, New York
James Fenimore Cooper introduced the themes of the frontier, white/Indian conflict, and America's westward expansion as proper subjects for literary works. Perhaps even more importantly, he began to shape the romantic idea of the American West.
James Fenimore Cooper was a pioneer of American literature and the first writer to popularize the American West. Frustrated that most novels available in America were about English society, Cooper penned several books that have since become American classics. In his Leatherstocking Tales, which include such favorites as The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer, Cooper showed that American themes—the conquest of the West, the conflict between whites and Native Americans, and manifest destiny—could produce great literature. Cooper also created Natty Bumppo, the protagonist of these tales, a rugged, romantic, nature-loving hero who has been copied in novels, films, and television Westerns ever since.
(The entire section is 2000 words.)
Born c. 1842
Died September 5, 1877
Fort Robinson, Nebraska
Warrior and tribal leader
"He never wanted anything but to save his people.... It does not matter where his body lies, for it is grass; but where his spirit is, it will be good to be."
Black Elk, as quoted in Crazy Horse
Oglala Sioux warrior Crazy Horse was present at every major battle in the Plains Indians' long war to retain control of their lands in the West. A quiet, distant leader, Crazy Horse was noted for his uncommon bravery. He rose to a position of leadership not only within his own tribe but within the confederacy (loose grouping) of tribes that came together in the 1860s and 1870s to combat the white advance onto Indian lands in present-day South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. Crazy Horse led his people to their greatest victory in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. However, within a year of this victory over forces led by General George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876; see entry), the Indian forces were divided and Crazy Horse was dead.
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Custer, George Armstrong
Born December 5, 1839
New Rumley, Ohio
Died June 25, 1876
U.S. Army officer
Despite his early achievements as the "Boy General," the flamboyant George Armstrong Custer is most remembered for his death.
George Armstrong Custer made a name for himself early. As the youngest general in the Union army during the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery), he achieved fame as the "Boy General." Custer coveted such fame. He dressed to be noticed, with elaborate uniforms, sometimes made of velvet, and long, curly golden locks. Indians identified him as "Long Hair." Newspapers eagerly reported on his life and adventures. The flamboyant Custer's early fame was well grounded by his abilities in the field, however. He earned his reputation as "the best Cavalry General in the Army," according to Jeffry D. Wert in Custer: The Controversial Life of George Armstrong Custer.
Despite his impressive achievements, Custer is most remembered for his dramatic death. In 1876 he led the charge at the battle against the northern Plains Indians at Little Bighorn. In a hard-fought battle, his forces were slaughtered. The Indians had rallied to defeat one of America's...
(The entire section is 2114 words.)
Born March 19, 1848
Died January 13, 1929
Los Angeles, California
"He had killed only when he saw no other choice, and his victims had been criminals who deserved bullets, not sympathy. He believed, as strongly as a man can believe, that he had done everything he could to avoid killing."
Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford in Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp was one of the legendary lawmen of the Old West. Though he was a sheriff or marshal in several western towns, he is best known for his role in the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Like many western heroes and villains, Earp's life has become the stuff of myth, and has been distorted and misreported so frequently that it is difficult to sort out truth from falsehood. It is clear, however, that his bravery and skill made him one of the most respected and feared lawmen in the West.
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Fitzpatrick, Thomas "Broken Hand"
Born c. 1799
County Cavan, Ireland
Died February 7, 1854
Trapper, guide, government agent
Thomas Fitzpatrick was a prominent trapper and explorer who helped blaze the trails that allowed settlers to cross the difficult Rocky Mountains. He was also a seasoned guide who helped lead some of the most important mapping and military expeditions of the 1830s and 1840s.
Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick was not your ordinary mountain man. Like his peers—the famous mountain men Jim Bridger (1804–1881; see entry), Jedediah Smith (1799–1831), Kit Carson (1809–1868; see entry), and a few others—Fitzpatrick was a veteran trapper, an able explorer, and a seasoned and brave Indian fighter. Along with these men, Fitzpatrick blazed the way for the settlement of the vast lands west of the Mississippi River and helped guide important expeditions across the torturous Rocky Mountains. Unlike the others, however, Fitzpatrick was an educated and ambitious man who late in life established a distinguished reputation as a government agent to the Plains Indians. Fitzpatrick was...
(The entire section is 2351 words.)
Frémont, John Charles
Born January 21, 1813
Died July 13, 1890
New York, New York
Explorer, military leader, politician
"Frémont was required to work long hours in difficult wilderness conditions, yet he found his labors exhilarating and described the job as 'a kind of picnic with work enough to give it zest.'"
Edward D. Harris, in John Charles Frémont and the Great Western Reconnaissance
John Charles Frémont, known popularly as "The Pathfinder," was responsible for leading some of the greatest mapping expeditions of the nineteenth century. Covering more ground than the famous Lewis and Clark expedition (see Lewis and Clark entry), and reporting on his discoveries in far greater detail, Frémont's various expeditions west of the Mississippi River offered the American public a detailed view of lands that were then largely unknown. His reports helped fuel the national fever known as "manifest destiny" (the belief that the United States was destined to stretch all the...
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Born June 1829
No-doyohn Cañon, Arizona
Died February 17, 1909
Fort Sill, Oklahoma
Warrior and tribal leader
"He stood erect as a mountain pine, while every outline of his symmetrical form indicated strength and endurance.... His proud and graceful posture combined to create in him the model of an Apache war-chief."
John Clum, the only Indian agent to capture Geronimo, as quoted in Geronimo and the Struggle for Apache Freedom
The world has come to recognize Geronimo as one of history's great warriors. Leading small bands of Apache on bloody raids, Geronimo struck fear into the hearts of early settlers of New Mexico and Arizona. His ability to disappear into the dusty landscape proved frustrating to the U.S. troops who pursued him throughout the arid region. When he finally surrendered in 1889, Geronimo was the last renegade of the Chiricahua Apache. His final surrender marked the ending of Indians' real threat to white settlers of the...
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Gibbs, Mifflin Wistar
Born April 17, 1823
Died July 11, 1915
Little Rock, Arkansas
Abolitionist, pioneer, businessman, lawyer, elected official, college president
"Labor to make yourself as indispensable as possible in all your relations with the dominant race, and color will cut less figure in your upward grade."
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a pioneer in every sense of the word. In the 1850s he was among the many pioneers who set out for California in search of riches during the gold rush. Gibbs found not riches but racism, and he was forced to make his way not as a miner but as a shopkeeper. Refusing to accept the limits placed on him by racism, Gibbs became a pioneer for his race. He campaigned against discrimination in California before moving to Canada. In the 1870s he returned to the United States and began an illustrious career as a politician and public servant. He was the first black elected a municipal judge in the United States, and he received several federal appointments, eventually becoming consul in Madagascar. His autobiography, Shadow and Light, published in 1902,...
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Hill, James J.
Born September 16, 1838
Wellington, Ontario, Canada
Died May 29, 1916
St. Paul, Minnesota
Railroad builder, financier, and founder of the Great Northern Railway
Hill was "the railroad-building genius who opened up the great northwestern wilderness."
Obituary, World's Work, July 16, 1916, p. 243.
James J. Hill was a powerful business tycoon who established an extensive railroad empire that connected rail lines, farms, mines, and communities into a lucrative network of trade. His first rail network, the Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and Manitoba Railway, linked wheat producers throughout the thriving northern states and gave Hill the economic clout to pursue his dream: the creation of his own transcontinental rail line. In 1889 that dream was realized with the Great Northern Railway, which stretched from Minneapolis across the northernmost parts of the United States to Seattle, a prime port on the Pacific Ocean. The Great Northern Railway was not the first transcontinental...
(The entire section is 2875 words.)
Born March 15, 1767
Waxhaw Settlement, South Carolina
Died June 8, 1845
United States president, congressman, general, governor, judge
"I thank God that my life has been spent in a land of liberty and that he has given me a heart to love my country with the affection of a son. And filled with gratitude for your constant and unwavering kindness, I bid you a last and affectionate farewell."
From Jackson's farewell address to the American people, March 4, 1837
Few individuals played as crucial a role in the early westward expansion of the United States as Andrew Jackson. As a military leader, Jackson led his ragtag band of soldiers to victories over several tribes and scored a decisive victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812 (1812–14; a conflict between the British and the Americans over the control of the western reaches of the United States and over shipping rights in the Atlantic Ocean). Made famous by his...
(The entire section is 3351 words.)
Born September 5, 1847
Clay County, Missouri
Died April 3, 1882
St. Joseph, Missouri
"When these guys wanted money, they went in daylight to [take] their money. No one would dare shoot when they robbed a bank.... The James boys were liked by the poor and God knows there was plenty of us and the law made no serious effort to get them."
L. A. Sherman, as quoted in Jesse James by Theodore Miller
To some, Jesse James was a hero, a brave defender of the South who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. To others, he was a worthless criminal, a cold-blooded murderer interested only in himself. The facts seem to show that Jesse James was a criminal, but as with many western figures the facts don't tell the whole story. For Jesse James was more than a person, he was a legend, a modern day Robin Hood, and his exploits were popularized in fiction and song, and later in movies.
(The entire section is 2570 words.)
Lewis, Meriwether and William Clark
Born August 18, 1774
Albemarle County, Virginia
Died October 11, 1809
Born August 1, 1770
Caroline County, Virginia
Died September 1, 1838
St. Louis, Missouri
Lewis and Clark's discoveries whet the nation's appetite for information about the West.
Between 1804 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the most famous expedition in American history. They were the first Americans to record the riches of the continent's interior. Publication of the expedition's discoveries provided vital information to those who followed in their footsteps, and it stirred the imaginations of people living in the East. Lewis and Clark's discoveries whet the nation's appetite for information about the West.
(The entire section is 2487 words.)
Born August 13, 1860
Darke County, Ohio
Died November 3, 1926
"The largest share of applause was bestowed on Annie Oakley, a young girl whose proficiency with shotgun and rifle seems almost miraculous."
London (Ontario) Free Press. September 2, 1885.
Annie Oakley was one of the best sharpshooters of her time. In fact, her ability with guns seemed magical to many fans. A small woman—five feet tall, one hundred pounds—she could handle several heavy rifles at one time to shoot down flying glass balls. From thirty feet, her bullet could split a playing card—held with the thin side facing her—in two. She could shoot a moving target behind her back while looking at the reflection in a knife blade. Speeding around an arena on horseback or on a bicycle, Oakley could hit targets. She performed her feats in stage shows around the world, but her real fame came from her performances in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. As a part of the notorious Wild West Show, she became renowned as a western hero even though she had never lived in the West.
(The entire section is 2138 words.)
Singleton, Benjamin "Pap"
Born c. 1809
St. Louis, Missouri
Leader of "Kansas Exodus" and racial unity activist
"I am the whole cause of the Kansas immigration!"
Benjamin "Pap" Singleton was an African American man who played an important part in the massive emigration of ex-slaves from the South to the West. Although he was not the single source of inspiration for the black exodus from the South, Singleton did play a significant role in helping blacks escape the oppressive social climate of the South following the Civil War (1861–65; a war fought between the Northern and Southern United States over the issue of slavery) and find greater opportunities in the West.
Little documentation of Singleton's life
As is true with many ex-slaves, there are precious few documents recording Singleton's life. Other than a record of his birth in 1809, little is known about him prior to the great exodus of blacks from Tennessee to Kansas, which occurred when Singleton was in his seventies. It is known that as a slave he was sold to various owners in the Gulf States...
(The entire section is 2328 words.)
Born February 5, 1848
Died February 3, 1889
Near King Creek, Indian Territory
Rancher and cattle rustler
Belle Starr, known also as the Bandit Queen, lived an exciting and interesting life, but her flamboyant personality fostered many untrue stories of her escapades in Texas.
Known as the Bandit Queen, Belle Starr is one of the most famous characters to come out of the Old West. Describing her as a female Robin Hood, stories recounted how she stole from the rich to give to the poor. Her flamboyant personality fostered exciting stories of her escapades in Texas. She reportedly rode through Dallas whooping and shooting her twin pistols, gave birth to the daughter of famous bandit Cole Younger, married her second husband on horseback while riding away from her disapproving parents, escaped from every jail she was put in, and led several outlaw gangs. Exciting though these tales may be, they are not entirely true. Like the lives of many western heroes and outlaws, an embellished...
(The entire section is 2252 words.)
Sutter, John Augustus
Born February 15, 1803
Died June 18, 1880
"I have been robbed and ruined by lawyers and politicians.... my cattle were driven off by hungry gold-seekers; my fort and mills were deserted and left to decay; my lands were squatted on by overland immigrants; and, finally, I was cheated out of all my property. All Sacramento was once mine."
From Fool's Gold by Richard Dillon
John Augustus Sutter has been heralded as one of the heroes of America's westward expansion. According to popular history, Sutter left Europe for the American frontier, where he realized his dream of creating an empire in the Sacramento Valley of the Mexican territory of California. At his California colony—named New Helvetia—Sutter welcomed the immigrants who streamed into the territory, especially after gold was discovered at his mill on the American River. However, Sutter claimed that miners ignored his claim to the land and deprived him...
(The entire section is 2952 words.)
(an Indian village near Springfield, Ohio)
Near the Thames River, Ontario, Canada
Warrior and tribal leader
"Before the palefaces came among us, we enjoyed the happiness of unbounded freedom. How is it now? Wants and oppressions are our lot; for are we not controlled in everything? ... Are we not being stripped day by day of the little that remains of our ancient liberty?"
From Tecumseh's speech to the Choctaw, quoted in Tecumseh, Shawnee Rebel
At the height of his power in the first decade of the nineteenth century, Shawnee war chief Tecumseh was the single biggest obstacle to continued American expansion into what was known as the Old Northwest (the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan). Leading first his own people and then a confederacy (organized group) of Native American tribes, Tecumseh harassed Americans settling in the area and then defeated American military forces in several key battles....
(The entire section is 2563 words.)
Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe
Born July 4, 1808
Monterey, California, New Spain (Spanish territory)
Died January 18, 1890
Lachryma Montis, near Sonoma, California
"We are republicans—badly governed and badly situated as we are—still we are all, in sentiment, republicans.... Why then should we hesitate still to assert our independence?"
Vallejo in a speech to Californians, urging them to push for annexation by the United States, quoted in General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans
In the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the biggest boosters of the U.S. annexation of California was not a miner, an army soldier, or a U.S. politician, but rather a longtime Mexican rancher and landowner named Mariano G. Vallejo. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Vallejo had become one of the biggest landowners and most powerful politicians in the Mexican territory of California. But Vallejo had grown impatient with the mismanagement of Mexican rule, and he longed to bring his beloved country under the more democratic and enlightened rule of the United States. His crafty political maneuvering and well-forged alliances helped him survive the transition to American rule and play an important role in the growth of...
(The entire section is 2474 words.)
Whitman, Narcissa Prentiss
Born March 14, 1808
Prattsburg, New York
Died November 29, 1847
Waiilatpu, Washington (near present-day
Walla Walla, Washington)
"The missionary work is hard, up-hill work, even the best of it. There are no flowery beds of ease here."
Narcissa Whitman in a letter to her parents, October 6, 1841, quoted in Where Wagons Could Go
Though many emigrants moved west in the nineteenth century to establish farms, trap beaver, or dig for gold, others came on a holy mission to convert western Native Americans to Christianity. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, along with her husband, Marcus Whitman, established their mission in Oregon Country in 1836, making Whitman the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. The missionaries helped prepare the way for the great migration west along the Oregon Trail in later years, but they never succeeded at converting many Indians to their religion. In 1847 Indians slaughtered the Whitmans in their home.
(The entire section is 2379 words.)
Born c. 1844
Near Humboldt Lake, in Nevada
Died October 16, 1891
Henry's Lake, Idaho
Native American rights advocate, author, interpreter, and lecturer
"We will look on her as our chieftain, for none of us are worthy of being chief but her."
Chief Winnemucca quoted in Sarah Winnemucca: Northern Paiute Writer and Diplomat.
As tensions between Native Americans and whites increased on the frontier in the late 1800s, Paiute Indian Sarah Winnemucca won regard as a steadfast peacemaker. Winnemucca was a valued spokeswoman for her people to white society. Unwavering in her insistence on peace, she dedicated her life to improving the lives of Indians and eventually became a nationally known lecturer and lobbyist for Indian causes.
(The entire section is 3385 words.)
Born June 1, 1801
Died August 29, 1877
Salt Lake City, Utah
Mormon leader Brigham Young led his followers on a trek across the American plains to the Great Salt Lake Valley in present-day Utah.
Through most of the nineteenth century, the American West was considered the land of opportunity. Settlers and entrepreneurs moved westward for the diverse economic opportunities: to dig for gold, to herd cattle, or to farm. Yet for the Mormons, the West offered religious freedom and an escape from the persecution the religious group faced elsewhere. The leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), Brigham Young led his followers on a trek across the American plains to the Great Salt Lake Valley in present-day Utah. There he oversaw the establishment of a Mormon city and agricultural society. Known as Salt Lake City, it quickly became an important stopping point for travelers headed to points further west; it was one of the first major cities in the...
(The entire section is 2162 words.)