The Mining Frontier
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)

Many Americans were lured west by the chance to strike it rich mining gold and silver. Miners reversed the traditional pattern of expansion. Instead of moving from east to west as the earlier pioneers had done, many journeyed from west to east. From the California coast, they fanned out eastward, ever in search of new ways to make their fortune.

Video Introduction

The Mining Boom

The western mining boom had begun with the California Gold Rush of 1849. When the Gold Rush ended, miners looked for new opportunities. The merest rumor sent them racing east in search of new strikes.

Gold and silver strikes

In 1859, two young prospectors struck gold in the Sierra Nevada. Suddenly, another miner, Henry Comstock, appeared. "The land is mine," he cried, and demanded to be made a partner. From then on, Comstock boasted about "his" mine. The strike became known as the Comstock Lode. A lode is a rich vein of gold or silver.

Comstock and his partners often complained about the heavy blue sand that was mixed in with the gold. It clogged the devices used for separating the gold and made the gold hard to reach. When Mexican miners took the "danged blue stuff' to an expert in California, tests showed it was loaded with silver. Comstock had stumbled onto one of the richest silver mines in the world.

Miners moved into many other areas of the West. Some found valuable ore in Montana and Idaho. Others struck it rich in Colorado. In the 1870s, miners discovered gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. In the late 1890s, thousands rushed north to Alaska after major gold strikes were made there.

Video Review

Boom towns and ghost towns

Gold and silver strikes attracted thousands of prospectors. Miners came from across the United States, as well as from Germany, Ireland, Mexico, and China. Towns sprang up near all the major mining sites.

First, miners built a tent city near the diggings. Then, thousands of people came to supply the miners' needs. Traders brought mule teams loaded with tools, food, and clothing. Merchants hauled in wagonloads of supplies and set up stores.

Soon, wood frame houses, hotels, restaurants, and stores replaced the tents. For example, it took less than a year for the mining camp at the Comstock Lode to become the boom town of Virginia City, Nevada.

Most settlers in the boom towns of the mining frontier were men. However, enterprising women also found ways to profit. Some women ran boarding houses and laundries. Others opened restaurants, where miners gladly paid high prices for a home-cooked meal.

Many boom towns lasted for only a few years. When the gold or silver ore was gone, miners moved away. Without miners for customers, businesses often had to close. In this way, a boom town could quickly go bust and turn into a ghost town.

Still, some boom towns survived and prospered even after the mines shut down. In these towns, miners stayed and found new ways to make a living.

Video Review

Impact of the boom

The surge of miners into the West created problems. Mines and towns polluted clear mountain streams. Miners cut down forests to get wood for buildings. As you will read, they also forced Native Americans from the land.

Foreign miners were often treated unfairly. In many camps, mobs drove Mexicans from their claims. Chinese miners were heavily taxed or forced to work claims abandoned by others.

Few miners got rich quickly. Much of the gold and silver lay deep underground. It could be reached only with costly machinery. Eventually, most mining in the West was taken over by large companies that could afford to buy this equipment.

Governing the mining frontier

Lawlessness and disorder often accompanied the rapid growth of a town. In response, miners sometimes resorted to organizing groups of vigilantes. These self-appointed law enforcers tracked down outlaws and punished them, usually without a trial. A common punishment used by vigilantes was lynching.

Informal methods of government gradually gave way to more formal arrangements. In 1861, Colorado, Dakota, and Nevada were organized into territories. Idaho and Arizona followed in 1863 and Montana in 1864. The process of more permanent settlement and government had begun.

The populations of these territories continued to grow as other types of settlers moved west. Colorado became a state in 1876, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Montana became states in 1889. And Wyoming and Idaho were admitted to the Union in 1890.

Video Review

READ More About It!

THE TASK - you will start the TASK in this module, and will continue it throughout this study. Here's the directions for the total task...

Using your historical imagination, pretend you are a Mountain Man who first went west in the years before the Civil War at a very young age - perhaps the age you are now!

Through clean living and good luck you were able to live until a very old age. Thus, you were able to witness the settlement of the American west in the years after the Civil War.

Now, you weren't just any Mountain Man, you were one of the few who could actually read and write! As such, late in your life, in the year 1910, you decided to write a memoir - a collection of memories written about the events in the author's life. Unfortunately, your memoir was never published. The only copy - the manuscript you wrote - was locked away in a trunk and put in storage.

Let's further pretend that in the year 2014 your manuscript - long lost -  has been discovered! A major news magazine has bought the rights from your descendants to print six excerpts from your memoir.

Your task is to create these pages!

  • You will type your pages in Microsoft Word.
  • You will need one "chapter" for each of the following topics:
    • Chapter 1 - Prospectors on "the Mining Frontier"
    • Chapter 2 - Cowboys and Cattle Ranchers
    • Chapter 3 - Homesteaders on the Great Plains
    • Chapter 4 - The Transcontinental Railroad and the Growth of Railroads
    • Chapter 5 - Changes in Technology that Made Farming on the Great Plains Possible
    • Chapter 6 - What Happened to the First Americans?
  • Each "chapter" should include:
    • a graphic of some sort (picture, map, graph, etc.)
    • one or more paragraphs about what you "witnessed" concerning each topic. Remember to write as if you were there; as if you actually saw and experienced what was happening!

  • Create a title page for your memoir. Staple the pages together, and turn it in!

Sample memoir entry.

To get started, create your memories of "The Mining Frontier."  Use information from the reading, the documents, and the videos above.

Your page must include...