Immigrants and Exiles in the American West


The U.S. came to possess the vast bulk of the West as a result of the Mexican War (1846-48). The indigenous peoples who inhabited the region were numerous and varied. The arrival of the Euro-American Empire, as opposed to the Europeans on the whole meant the end of independence for indigenous peoples. The search for resources and markets included occupying the land itself when it came to the Americans. From Massachusetts to California this was the case.


The Irish Catholic immigrants of the 1840s and ’50s are remembered for their work in building railroads in the eastern U.S. Certainly many Irish came west and created Irish communities in places like Kansas City, Denver, and San Francisco. Indeed, many of them fought in the Mexican War and some, realizing that they were in a Protestant army fighting Catholics, changed sides. Irish culture became an essentially part of western Americana through the music, which provided the melodies for many classic western songs like “Streets of Laredo” and many others.

After the Mexican War and the discovery of gold, California had seen a massive influx of Anglo-Americans, but also Chinese immigrants fleeing poverty in Asia. Many of these immigrants found work on the railroads, especially after the Civil War. Because of the cultural and linguistic gulf with the Anglos, they tended to start their own communities. These communities began to be scapegoated and even attacked by Anglos who considered them a threat. This bigotry eventually became codified in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act which restricted Chinese immigration to individuals who had immediate family members in the U.S.


Another group subject to the intense bigotry characteristic of much of American history was African Americans in the South. In the late 1870s, a northern black man named Benjamin “Pap” Singleton traveled to Tennessee to assist southern blacks in migrating to the West, particularly to Kansas. Those who undertook to migrate west were known as “Exodusters,” and much of the present-day black population of Kansas can trace their lineage to them. North Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence, Kansas City, and Independence are among the larger black communities in the state, but smaller communities like Nicodemus in northwest Kansas were also created by Exodusters.

Many blacks of course had joined the Union Army during the war and many more joined or continued as soldiers afterward. The course of empire had taken its way onto the Great Plains, and the “problem” of driving the Indians off their lands and onto reservations became the focus of the U.S. army. Many black soldiers were assigned to the Plains Indian Wars. The Indians dubbed them “Buffalo Soldiers” because their hair reminded the Indians of bison fur.

Flight of the Nez Perce

The last of these confrontations involved removing the Nez Perce people from their homes in modern-day Idaho, and the Apache people from their homes in the Southwest. The leader of the Nez Perce at this time was a man known to the whites as Chief Joseph. He had sworn to his father on the latter’s death bed that he would defend their lands against white encroachment.

But when the Nez Perce began to be overwhelmed by white advancement and the chances of violence between the groups seemed inevitable, Joseph agreed to remove the Nez Perce to Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma). However, before they were underway, a number of young men rejected Joseph’s peace overtures and attacked whites who were building on Nez Perce lands. Numerous whites had beaten and even killed Indians in the region without being punished; this exacerbated already tense relations between the groups. Once violence had broken out, Chief Joseph endeavored to lead his people to Canada, where they could live in relative peace in familiar surroundings.

The U.S. government would now allow this, however, and a pursuit of the Indians through the northern Rockies ensued. Cavalry leaders such as General O. O. Howard were amazed by the stealth with which 700-800 men, women, children, and elderly were able to negotiate the rugged terrain, largely on foot. For five months, the U.S. cavalry pursued the Nez Perce before finally surrounding them in early October of 1877. Chief Joseph, having witnessed a summer of intense stress and suffering among his people, surrendered to General Howard on October 5. A few of the Nez Perce had made it to Canada, but the bulk of them were rounded up and sent by train to Fort Leavenworth, in Kansas, and then to Indian Territory. In 1885, close to 300 Nez Perce were returned to the northern Rockies, divided and put on the Wallula Reservation in Washington and the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. Chief Joseph died in 1904 at the Colville Reservation in Washington state.


In the Southwest, Goyahkla – AKA Geronimo – led resistance to encroachment by both Mexicans and Euro-Americans. As a Chiricahua Apache, Geronimo rose in the resistance movement beginning in 1858. By the 1880s, he had become famous through his military exploits and what whites might have called his “wily Indian ways,” such as hiding in a cave and eventually disappearing although there was only one known entrance. By 1886, the resistance movement had dwindled to about twenty members and they elected to surrender to the U.S. at that time. Geronimo claimed he had been promised a conditional surrender, but military authorities claimed it was unconditional. The men were taken to Florida, where they were incarcerated at Fort Pickens.

Seven years later, Geronimo was moved to a military prison in Alabama, and eventually to Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1904. “America’s Greatest Indian Chief,” as he was often dubbed in the press, was at the World’s Fair in St. Louis that same year selling autographs and photos and he reportedly rode the Ferris Wheel. The next year he was in Teddy Roosevelt’s inaugural parade. In February 1907, the aging Geronimo apparently fell off his horse and lay unconscious on the ground all night. He was found in the morning, but had been severely chilled. He soon contracted pneumonia and died.


Eve Ball, Indeh: An Apache Odyssey. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.
Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! New York: Norton, 2009.