The Admission of New States

Westward expansion map.

Westward expansion map.

By Charles Austin Beard and Mary Ritter Beard, 1921

The Spirit of Self-Government – The instinct for self-government was strong in western communities. Initially, it led to the organization of volunteer committees, known as “vigilantes,” to suppress crime and punish criminals. As soon as enough people were settled permanently in a region, they formed a more stable government. An illustration of this process is found in the Oregon compact made by the pioneers in 1843, the spirit of which is reflected in an editorial in an old copy of the Rocky Mountain News:

“We claim that anybody or community of American citizens which from any cause or under any circumstances is cut off from or from isolation is so situated as not to be under any active and protecting branch of the central government, have a right, if on American soil, to frame a government and enact such laws and regulations as may be necessary for their own safety, protection, and happiness, always with the condition precedent that they shall, at the earliest moment when the central government shall extend an effective organization and laws over them, give it their unqualified support and obedience.”

Self Government by George C. Bingham, 1854.

Self Government by George C. Bingham, 1854.

People who turned so naturally to the organization of local administration were equally eager for admission to the Union as soon as any shadow of a claim to statehood could be advanced. As long as a region was merely one of the territories of the United States, the appointment of the governor and other officers was controlled by politics in Washington. Moreover, the disposition of land, mineral rights, forests, and water power was also in the hands of national leaders. Thus practical considerations were united with the spirit of independence in the quest for local autonomy.

Covered wagon at Chimney Rock, Nebraska

Covered wagon at Chimney Rock, Nebraska.

Nebraska and Colorado – Two states, Nebraska and Colorado, had little difficulty securing admission to the Union. The first, Nebraska, had been organized as a territory by the famous Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which did so much to precipitate the Civil War. Lying to the north of Kansas, which had been admitted in 1861, it escaped the invasion of slave owners from Missouri and was settled mainly by farmers from the North. Though it claimed a population of only 67,000, it was regarded with kindly interest by the Republican Congress in Washington and reduced to its present boundaries; it received the coveted statehood in 1867.

This was hardly accomplished before the people of Colorado to the Southwest began to make known their demands. They had been organized under territorial government in 1861 when they numbered only a handful, but within ten years, their affairs had completely changed. The silver and gold deposits of the Leadville and Cripple Creek regions had attracted an army of miners and prospectors. The city of Denver, founded in 1858 and named after the governor of Kansas, when came many early settlers, had grown from a straggling camp of log huts into a prosperous center of trade. By 1875 it was estimated that the territory’s population was not less than 100,000. The following year Congress, yielding to the widespread appeal, made Colorado a member of the American Union.

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis, 1905. Color by LOA.

Cheyenne Warriors by Edward S. Curtis, 1905. Color by LOA.

Six New States (1889–1890) – Congress had a deadlock over admitting new states for many years. The spell was broken in 1889 under the leadership of the Dakota Indians. For a long time, the Dakota Territory, organized in 1861, had been looked upon as the home of the powerful Sioux Indians, whose enormous reservation blocked the advance of the frontier. However, the discovery of gold in the Black Hills marked their doom. Pioneers swarmed over the country before Congress could open their lands to prospectors. Farmers from adjoining Minnesota and the Eastern states, Scandinavians, Germans, and Canadians, came in swelling waves to occupy the fertile Dakota lands, now famous even as far away as the fjords of Norway. Seldom had the plow of a man cut through richer soil than was found in the bottoms of the Red River Valley, and it became all the more precious when the opening of the Northern Pacific in 1883 afforded a means of transportation east and west. The population numbered 135,000 in 1880 and passed the half-million mark before ten years had elapsed.

Remembering that Nebraska had been admitted with only 67,000 inhabitants, the Dakotans could not see why they should be kept under federal tutelage. At the same time, Washington, far away on the Pacific Coast, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, boasting of their populations and riches, put in their eloquent pleas. But the members of Congress were busy with politics. The Democrats saw no good reason for admitting new Republican states until after their defeat in 1888. Near the end of their term the following year, they opened the door for North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Montana. In 1890, a Republican Congress brought Idaho and Wyoming into the union, the latter with women’s suffrage, which had been granted 21 years before.

Brigham Young was an ardent supporter of polygamy, marrying 56 wives during his  lifetime and fathering 57 children. This photo shows less than half of his wives.

Brigham Young was an ardent supporter of polygamy,
marrying 56 wives and fathering 57 children during his lifetime. This photo shows less than half of his wives.

Utah –  Although Utah had long presented all the elements of a well-settled and industrious community, its admission to the union was delayed because of widespread hostility to polygamy. The custom, it is true, had been prohibited by an act of Congress in 1862; but the law had been systematically evaded. In 1882 Congress made another and more effective effort to stamp out polygamy. Five years later, it even went so far as to authorize the confiscation of the property of the Mormon Church in case the practice of plural marriages was not stopped. Meanwhile, the Gentile or non-Mormon population was steadily increasing, and the leaders in the Church became convinced that the battle against the country’s sentiment was futile. At last, in 1896, Utah was admitted as a state under a constitution that forbade plural marriages absolutely and forever. Horace Greeley, who visited Utah in 1859, had prophesied that the Pacific Railroad would work a revolution in the land of Brigham Young. His prophecy had come true.

Rounding out the Continent – Three more territories were not part of the Union. Oklahoma, long an Indian reservation, had been opened for settlement to white men in 1889. The rush upon the fertile lands of this region, the last in the history of America, was marked by all the frenzy of the final, desperate chance. At a signal from a bugle, an army of men with families in wagons, men and women on horseback and on foot, burst into the territory. During the first night, tents were raised at Guthrie and Oklahoma City. In ten days, wooden houses rose on the plains. There were schools, churches, business blocks, and newspapers in a single year.

Within 15 years, there was a population of more than half a million. To the west, Arizona, with a population of about 125,000, and New Mexico, with 200,000 inhabitants, joined Oklahoma in asking for statehood. Congress, then Republican, looked with reluctance upon adding more Democratic states; but in 1907, it was compelled by public sentiment and a sense of justice to admit Oklahoma. In 1910 the House of Representatives went to the Democrats, and Arizona and New Mexico were under the roof within two years.” So the continental domain was rounded out.

Fertile field near Yuma, Arizona by Carol Highsmith.

Fertile field near Yuma, Arizona, by Carol Highsmith.

By Charles Austin Beard and Mary Ritter Beard; History of the United States, Macmillan, 1921. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated March 2023.

Also See:

Development of the Great West

Mining and Manufacturing in the West

Pioneers of the American West

Westward Expansion and Manifest Destiny