Creating the American West title

Important dates in the history of the American West through 1924

This timeline features selected dates in recorded history. We also acknowledge the Indigenous people who have lived in the American West for thousands of years and continue to call its regions their homelands.

The Hohokam create extensive irrigation canals along the Salt and Gila rivers, servicing more than 100,000 acres of mostly arid desert country in what is now known as southern Arizona.

The Mimbres culture of southwest New Mexico, a branch of the Mogollon region, is known for their distinctive pottery, featuring expressive black-on-white designs.

Stone and earth dwellings are built along cliff walls in the Southwest by Ancestral Puebloans.

As many as twelve million people inhabit lands north of the Rio Grande when Christopher Columbus arrives in the present-day Bahamas during a voyage sponsored by the Crown of Castile (now Spain).

Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León leads the first known European voyage to present-day Florida. 

A gulf hurricane upends the expedition of Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca. De Vaca and three other survivors wash up on what is now the Texas coast, near present-day Galveston Island. They are the first known Europeans in the American West. For the next eight years, they travel across what is now the American Southwest living with various Native American groups. In 1536, they reconnect with Spanish settlements in Mexico.

Hernando de Soto lands in present-day Florida and is the first European to cross the Mississippi River. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado arrives in present-day New Mexico by traveling north from Mexico. De Soto and Coronado develop hostile relationships with Indigenous peoples and introduce diseases such as measles and smallpox.

Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate establishes Nuevo México near the upper Rio Grande (now Santa Fe, New Mexico). It becomes the northernmost province of New Spain and the first European settlement in the American West. Oñate confiscates a pueblo and establishes it as his headquarters, renaming it San Juan. 

English pilgrims land at Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Alonso de Léon establishes a mission at San Francisco de los Tejas near the Neches River, the first Spanish settlement in present-day Texas. 

French fur traders Pierre and Paul Mallet are the first Europeans to report an uncharted mountain range, now known as the Rocky Mountains, during their expedition through the interior of the continent.

Father Junipero Serra and Spanish Franciscans establish the first mission in present-day California. By 1823, twenty more missions are established, bringing European culture to the Indigenous peoples of the region and contributing to a decline in their population.

The Revolutionary War between Britain and its North American colonies begins.

The Northwest Ordinance sets guidelines for settlement on the American frontier, including the prohibition of slavery and a requirement to deal fairly with Indigenous peoples.

The US Constitution is approved by the Constitutional Convention and ratified the following year.

The United States agrees to buy the French colony La Louisiane from the French Republic, acquiring an area of land that extends from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.

Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the Corps of Discovery expedition sets out to explore and chart the territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the thirty-member party is accompanied by a French trader named Toussaint Charbonneau; his wife, Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman; and their baby. During the two-and-a-half-year expedition, the party makes contact with 70 groups of Indigenous peoples, produces 140 maps, and documents more than 200 plant and animal species.

The Treaty of Fort Clark is signed. The Osage Nation cedes its territory east of Fort Clark (present-day Brackettville, Texas) and north of the Arkansas River to the United States.

The Missouri Compromise brings Missouri and Maine into the union and slavery to the American West.

By this time, more than 20,000 Indigenous peoples are enslaved on the California missions.

The first 297 pioneer families and partnerships known as the Old Three Hundred are granted land titles in present-day Texas by the Mexican government. By 1824, most of the colonists had settled in the area.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs is established within the War Department of the US government. Its primary duty is to regulate and settle disputes arising from trade with Indigenous nations.

The federal government adopts a policy of exchanging tribal lands in the East for public lands in the West, where Indigenous peoples can live beyond state jurisdiction and organize their own forms of government.

The Indian Removal Act is signed into law by President Andrew Jackson, authorizing the US government to forcibly remove Indigenous peoples from the Southeast to federal territory in present-day Oklahoma.

Thousands of Indigenous peoples, including Cherokee, Choctaw, and Muscogee (Creek), are forcibly removed from their homelands in the Southeast, traveling to Indian Territory along the Trail of Tears.

Artist George Catlin begins his voyage up the Missouri. He travels more than two thousand miles with trappers from the American Fur Company to their outpost at Fort Union and paints hundreds of portraits of Indigenous peoples along the way.

Congress restructures the Bureau of Indian Affairs as the Department of Indian Affairs, expanding the agency’s responsibilities to include administering the Indigenous lands of the West.

John Bidwell organizes the Western Emigration Society and leads the first wagon train of pioneers across the Rockies.

The Great Migration, a party of one thousand pioneers, heads west from Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail. The migration becomes an annual event, with thousands more making the trek every year.

John L. Sullivan, editor of The US Magazine and Democratic Review, argues that it is “our Manifest Destiny . . . to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

After two years of conflict with the United States, Mexico cedes Texas and the territory that encompasses present-day California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and some of New Mexico.

After the discovery of gold in California, prospectors heading for the gold fields expand the network of trails across the continent. They pioneer the boomtown life that will follow miners throughout the West. By the end of the year, more than eighty thousand people travel to California, tripling the territory’s population.

With miners flooding the region and devastating the land, Indigenous peoples of California find themselves deprived of their traditional food sources and are forced to raid mining towns and settlements for food. Miners retaliate by hunting down Indigenous peoples and brutally abusing them. The California legislature responds by passing the Indenture Act, establishing a form of legal slavery in which white settlers can declare Indigenous people vagrant and auction off their services. This law also allows for the enslavement of Indigenous children, leading to widespread kidnapping.

The first Fort Laramie Treaty is signed in present-day Wyoming by the United States and representatives of the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Arikara, Assiniboine, Mandan, Gros Ventre, and other Indigenous nations. The treaty defines the territory of the Plains, promising protection and annuities to the Indigenous peoples in exchange for safe passage for settlers and the right to build roads.

By the end of the year, more than twenty thousand Chinese immigrants have come to America, arriving in San Francisco to join the search for gold.

California begins confining its remaining Indigenous population on harsh military reservations. As many as 150,000 Indigenous people lived in the state before 1849; by 1870, fewer than 30,000 will remain.

Frederick W. Lander leads a government expedition to the Rocky Mountains that includes artist Albert Bierstadt.

Gold is discovered in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, sparking the Pikes Peak gold rush which brings 100,000 people to the Rockies.

The Homestead Act is signed. This legislation allows private citizens to purchase up to 160 acres of public land in the western US for $1.25 per acre; they are entitled to own the land after five years of residence and improvement.

Colonel Kit Carson leads a campaign of destruction against the Navajo in northwestern New Mexico. When the Navajo surrender, eight thousand are marched on the Long Walk across New Mexico to a reservation near Fort Sumner, where they are held as prisoners of war until 1868.

General Philip H. Sheridan takes command of US forces in the West, proposing to bring peace to the Plains by exterminating the buffalo. “Kill the buffalo and you kill the Indians,” he says.

The United States and representatives of the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyanne, Arapaho, and other southern Plains nations sign the Medicine Lodge Treaty. This agreement moves Indigenous peoples to reservations in present-day Oklahoma in exchange for their native lands.

Chief Red Cloud and General William Tecumseh Sherman sign the second Fort Laramie Treaty, which brings an end to war along the Bozeman Trail. Under terms of the treaty, the United States agrees to abandon its forts along the Bozeman Trail and grant enormous parts of the Wyoming, Montana, and Dakota Territories—including the Black Hills area—exclusively to the Lakota people.

Seven years after the Pacific Railroad Act was authorized by Congress in 1862, the first transcontinental railroad, known originally as the Pacific Railroad, is completed.

Photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran accompany a geological surveying expedition of the Rocky Mountains and the Yellowstone region. Their depictions help to raise interest in these locations.

Yellowstone is designated a National Park.

Congress passes the Indian Appropriations Act, ending the treaty system that had recognized tribes as independent domestic nations and bringing Native American affairs under congressional control.

After gold is discovered in the Black Hills of Dakota, a sacred part of Lakota territory, the government defies the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty that protected Lakota lands and instead works to negotiate access for miners. The Lakota refuse to alter the terms of the treaty and decline an offer from the government to purchase the land.

Federal authorities order the Lakota chiefs to report to their reservations by January 31. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and others refuse, sparking the Great Sioux War. Crazy Horse surrenders and is killed, and Sitting Bull and his band flee to Canada, where he remains in exile for four years.

Congress repeals the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 and takes back the Black Hills, along with forty million more acres of Lakota land. With the threat of Indian attack removed, mining camps and boomtowns crowd the Black Hills.

Racial discrimination in the post-Reconstruction South sparked a wave of migration of Black Americans to the West from former slave states. 

Congress creates the US Bureau of Ethnology to coordinate study of the region’s native peoples and complete a record of their cultures before they vanish under the pressure of expanding white settlement. 

A group of eighty-four Lakota children become the first students at the newly established US Indian Training and Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This boarding school removed Indigenous children from their native culture and assimilated them into Euro-American culture. Over the next two decades, twenty-four more schools on the Carlisle model are established outside the reservations.

In Tombstone, Arizona, deputy marshal Wyatt Earp and his brothers gun down the Clantons in a showdown at the O.K. Corral, becoming the inspiration for countless scenes in western film and television episodes.

Intensifying its anti-Chinese policies, Congress passes the Chinese Exclusion Act, which completely prohibits both immigration from China and the naturalization of Chinese immigrants already in the United States for a period of ten years.

“Buffalo Bill” Cody stages his first Wild West show at the Omaha fairgrounds, featuring a herd of buffalo and a troupe of cowboys, “Indians,” and vaqueros who reenact a cattle roundup, a stagecoach holdup, and other scenes drawn from Cody’s own life on the frontier.

After nineteen years, the Northern Pacific Railroad, connecting the northwestern states to the East, is finally completed.

Apache leader Geronimo surrenders to General Nelson A. Miles in Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, after more than a decade of guerilla warfare against American and Mexican settlers in the Southwest. The terms of surrender require Geronimo and other Apache to settle in Florida.

Congress passes the Dawes Severalty Act, granting allotments of Indian reservation land to individual tribe members and making surplus land available to white settlers.

President Benjamin Harrison authorizes opening unoccupied lands in the Indian Territory to white settlement. Within nine hours, the Oklahoma Land Rush transforms almost two million acres of tribal land into thousands of individual land claims. Many of the most desirable plots are taken by “Sooners,” so called because they crossed into the territory sooner than was permitted.

Congress establishes the Oklahoma Territory on unoccupied lands in the Indian Territory, breaking a sixty-year-old pledge to preserve this area exclusively for Native Americans forced from their lands in the East.

Congress establishes Yosemite National Park.

The US census indicates that the western United States has been populated to the extent that there is no longer an official frontier.

Under the Dawes Act, nearly two million acres of Crow tribal land is opened to white settlers in Montana.

John Muir founds the Sierra Club in Yosemite Valley, California, to “protect the nation’s scenic resources” and oppose the lumber industry’s encroachments on public forests.

After two decades of hunting buffalo, experts estimate that fewer that two thousand remain of the more than twenty million that once roamed the western plains.

More than one hundred thousand white settlers rush into Oklahoma’s Cherokee Outlet to claim six million acres of former Cherokee land.

The Spindletop oil gusher in Beaumont, Texas, opens a century when “black gold” will play a vital role in the economy of the West, as Americans exchange the horse for the horsepower of the automobile.

Congress confers US citizenship on all Native Americans residing in the Oklahoma Territory.

Under the Dawes Act, 700,000 acres of former tribal land is opened to white settlers in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The steady erosion of tribal integrity represented by the Dawes Act will continue until its repeal in 1934.

Congress declares all Native Americans to be citizens of the United States.

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