"Time after time, Congress and the people in the East saw the West as a safety valve, a place where you could go and escape the problems of where you were, it was part of the whole myth of the West. You could escape and be free. Well, we thought we could escape whatever national tensions and unresolved problems we had, but it came back you know, like a big wind from the prairie, bigger and bigger each time. - Dayton Duncan
The United States had envisioned an orderly expansion into the West: treaties were supposed to legitimize settlement; surveys were to map the land; then Americans would spread peacefully across it -- all under the guidance and protection of their government.
But the California Gold Rush and the war with Mexico changed everything. Americans were now moving west in ever-larger numbers, ahead of their government -- searching for new treasure, clearing land, building towns and cities, starting over.
But the new settlers brought with them their nation's oldest, and most divisive issue -- slavery -- and the West became a breeding ground for the bloodshed that would eventually engulf the whole country. When war finally came, the result in the West was chaos: hatred consumed entire communities, criminals led armies and no one was safe. The federal government, engaged in a struggle simply to hold the country together, could do nothing to stop it.
A pious New Hampshire woman who moved west hoping to keep the region free of slavery, instead would watch as her Kansas neighbors wantonly killed one another.
A devout Mormon who had fled west with his people to avoid persecution, would take part in the worst massacre of innocent pioneers in American history.
A fanatical Methodist parson would transform himself into a celebrated soldier -- and then try to build a political career based on murder.
While a Cheyenne chief, who wanted nothing but peace, would find no escape, as time and again his unsuspecting village became a battlefield.
"What was supposed to be this wonderful dream, that the West will unite the South and the North -- the West will be the kind of new child who brings this troubled marriage together. The 1850s carry a different lesson entirely, which is that this is the child that will blow up the marriage. That's the most consequential moment of the West for the nation. That's where there's no question about how central the West is to the whole story of the country." - Patricia Nelson Limerick
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