How did the federal government’s post-Civil War policies in the West affect Native Americans?


How did the federal government’s post-Civil War policies in the West affect Native Americans?

On May 10, 1869, the ceremonial Golden Spike was driven into the railroad tracks at Promontory, Utah. It was ceremonial, for it marked the completion of the transcontinental railroads. The transcontinental railroads are both a cause and a consequence of the dramatic levels of westward migration that occurred in the generation after the Civil War. Americans from the East and immigrants entering the continent from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts poured into and across the Great Plains of North America in search of mineral riches or land for farming. The creation of railroad networks made the process of traveling to those arid regions and making a living there possible. The stories of the adventures and challenges experienced by the pioneers are compelling and often inspirational. They have become an important aspect of the story of America we tell ourselves: Americans are tough, rugged individuals, willing to risk it all for a chance to strike it rich, or call a plot of land their own.

Of course, there is another story, that of the conquest of the peoples who already claimed the Western Plains and mountain regions as their home: Native Americans. Indeed, the story of the Indians’ fight for their very survival is also quite compelling. Not only did American settlement and economic patterns interfere with traditional ways of hunting, threatening the physical survival of native tribes, the needs and ways of the growing American presence nearly extinguished Native American culture. The documents for this Primary Source Exercise offer the student glimpses into more than one side of the story of the transformation of the West.


Document 1 is an image of a woman and a child on the arid Great Plains. They are collecting buffalo dung for fuel.

Document 2 is a painting created by the artist George Catlin. Catlin became an admirer and astute observer of Native Americans of the Great Plains. Photographs and paintings are compositions, and the purpose and point of view of the “composer” must be taken into account as you analyze them.


1. Read Chapter 18 of the textbook, with special attention to The Settling of the New West, pages 746-752; Life in the New West, pages 752-757; and Women in the West and The Fate of Western Indians, pages 757-767.

Book= America

A Narrative History


2. Analyze Document 1, Photo: Woman and Child on the Great Plains Collecting Buffalo Dung. Write down your initial impressions and specific details you observe.

3. Analyze Document 2, Painting: Wi-Jun-Jon – The Pigeon’s Egg Head Going to Washington: Returning to his home. Wi-Jun-Jon is the subject of both sides of the painting. Write down the differences you see in both representations of the chieftain.

4. Answer the Focus Question.


Woman and Child on the Great Plains Collecting Buffalo Dung

Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images


Credit: Library of Congress

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