Settling The New World

In addition to going to extraordinary lengths to constitutionally define “personhood” (at least until Roe v. Wade) and “citizenship” through conflict and Constitutional Amendments, the end of the Civil War set the stage for the most enduring immigration to America in our history and brought the final end to the American frontier.

The Western Territories that had played such an important role in the lead-up to the Civil War would now be settled as soldiers moved west to lands they had seen in the wartime campaigns in the Western Theater and immigrants now flooded into America, on both coasts, seeking their fortunes in the newly “united” nation or arriving as 19th Century versions of the indentured servants who came with the original settlers in North America. This time, instead of clearing land for small colonial farms, they would build the railroads that would finally “unite” the States.

“The period between the American Civil War (1861–65) and the end of the 19th Century in the United States was marked by tremendous expansion of industry and agriculture as well as the spread of settlement across the continent. The population of the United States more than doubled during this period. Most of the economic growth was concentrated in the Northeast, Midwest, and plains States. The South remained largely agricultural, its total industrial production totaling about half that of New York State. The Northeast clearly emerged as the industrial core of the nation with 85 percent of the nation’s manufacturing – processing raw materials from the Midwest and West.

For several decades prior to the Civil War, Northern interests were forced to delay or compromise several of their national economic policy objectives due to Southern opposition and the strong position the southern States held in the Senate. As soon as the southern States seceded, Congress began enacting this delayed agenda. The Morrill Tariff of 1861 raised tariff rates to 20 percent on average, ending more than 30 years of declining tariffs and immediately making Northern goods more competitive.

As mentioned earlier, funding for three transcontinental railroads was enacted in the Transcontinental Railroad Act. The Morrill Land Grant Act (1862) established agricultural and mechanical colleges by allotting each State that remained in the Union 30,000 acres of land for each member of Congress. The Homestead Act (1862) provided 160 acres (a quarter section) in western territories free to anyone who settled on it for five years and declared their intention to become a citizen. Each of these policies profoundly shaped the development of the U.S. economy for the rest of the century.

Northern and Midwestern populations grew much faster than those of the South and the expansion of the nation’s railroad system tied those two regions closely together. A large part of the industrial expansion during the post-Civil War years was based on connecting the industrial northeast with the farm and grazing areas of the Midwest and Plains States and completing the transcontinental railroads. Railroad mileage in the United States doubled between 1865 and 1873 and increased by an additional 50 percent between 1873 and 1881.

The iron and steel industry, of course, was one direct beneficiary of the expansion of the railroad system. In 1874 the United States was second to Great Britain in pig-iron production. By 1900 the U.S. produced four times as much as Britain. Carnegie Steel alone produced more than the British. The expansion of iron and steel production led to comparable increases in iron and coal mining.

An important part of the tremendous economic growth following the Civil War was innovation. The number of patents issued by the Patent Office increased steadily. In 1815 the agency issued 173 patents which increased to 7,653 in 1860. After the Civil War the rate of innovation increased tremendously. At least 15,000 patents were issued annually during this period and 45,661 patents were issued in 1897 alone. While not every patent represented a useful product, many of them did, such as the typewriter, cash register, calculating and adding machines, and the Kodak camera. Other patents were for improvements in industrial machinery such as faster spindles and looms in textiles, new processes for making steel, and the application of electricity to industrial production.

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone. By 1895 there were 310,000 phones in the United States. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was formed in 1885 to consolidate all of Bell’s patents. Thomas Alva Edison invented the electric light. He also made invention and industrial innovation a process, creating new products and improving existing ones on a regular basis. His Menlo Park, New Jersey facility was the first modern industrial research lab. Edison became a national hero [and an electric train enthusiast].

Nikola Tesla developed systems for the transmission of high voltage electricity over long distances. He also developed the electric motor, which had a wide range of uses in the economy, especially in the street car and the electric railroad car. Tesla also developed the electric sewing machine for home and industrial use, and a wide array of industrial applications for electricity.

The backbone of the rapid industrial growth of the U.S. economy during these years was the nation’s natural resources. The United States had huge reserves of coal, iron ore, copper and other metals, petroleum, timber, and water power, as well as fertile land for agriculture. Iron reserves in northern Minnesota and along the Michigan–Wisconsin border were developed to augment those on the south shore of Lake Superior.

Coal reserves in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee were developed. Silver and gold mines were developed in Nevada and Colorado. Copper found in Montana replaced that of Michigan as the main source of this increasingly important metal needed for the transport of electricity. An expanding range of uses for petroleum was discovered, its many components being used as lubricants and cleaning solvents. Its use as a fuel began only at the very end of the period. There was little in the way of raw material necessary for industrial expansion at this time that was not abundantly available in the United States.

The growing scale of the economy bought several structural changes. The larger scale of industrial plants and companies and the more complex technology they used made their capital financing (the essential ingredient of capitalism) more complicated and more expensive. Investment bankers played an increasingly important role in the economy, supplying the capital that fueled growth. J. P. Morgan was among the more visible of these new players in the nation’s economy.

The resources that banks had were a reflection of a high savings and investment rate among U.S. citizens after the Civil War. By 1880 banks held approximately $819 million in savings [$363.25 per capita in 2016 dollars] and by 1900 just under $2.5 billion [$884.58 per capita in 2016 dollars]. [For comparison; America’s per capita savings in 2016 is $107.69.] Foreign investment also flowed into the economy, increasing from about $1.4 billion in 1870 to $3.6 billion by 1900, much of it in railroads and utilities as well as municipal bonds.

A second change in the economy was the emergence of monopolies in major industries and the Trust as a way of managing them. In the petroleum industry, John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Company in 1863 when the industry was in its infancy. He began by consolidating control of refining through acquisition of competitors. He then moved to “vertically integrate” by controlling transportation and distribution. By 1879 he controlled 90 percent of the nation’s refining capacity and in 1882 he reorganized the Standard Oil Company as a trust to operate and manage the near monopoly.

When he retired from active business in 1897 Rockefeller’s personal fortune was estimated at $900 million (the equivalent of about $1.8 trillion today – when the average annual salary was less than $500. Similar concentrations developed in nearly every industry. In each industry no more than a handful of firms dominated – often one or two. Seven companies controlled two–thirds of the railroad mileage in the country by 1900.”

So, in the years between the American Civil War and the end of the 19th Century the modern U.S. industrial economy developed and took a clear shape. The United States emerged as one of the major economies in the world. Its growth rate, vast reserves of natural resources, stable political system and constitutionally protected liberty and freedom made it attractive and positioned it well for continuing growth. The expanding economy needed an ever increasing work force, and large numbers of immigrants thronged to the United States during this period.

Throughout the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s hundreds of thousands entered the country each year, nearly 800,000 in 1882 alone. Toward the end of the period the immigration patterns changed with more immigrants coming from Scandinavia and Southern and Eastern Europe. As mentioned above, during this period the population more than doubled from 35 million to 76 million. Approximately half of the growth was due to immigration. About one-third of foreign immigrants came from the British Isles and another one-third came from Germany/Central Europe”.

But, what came before this mighty, modern wave of immigrants to, what is now, the United States of America? As reviewed above, “… it is probable that earlier humans (what is called the Clovis culture), arrived in what is now Central America over 10,000 years ago, along routes that included

  • ice-free land bridges from modern Siberia to present-day Alaska and then along several snow-free routes along the Pacific Coast and farther inland to the heartland of North America to Lower Mississippi Valley mounds sites (beginning 3500 BC-2800 BC);

A good example of these “mound sites” is Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, located on the site of a pre-Columbian city (c. 600–1400 CE) situated directly across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis, Missouri.

The site covers 2,200 acres or about 3.5 square miles but the ancient city was actually much larger. In its heyday, Cahokia covered about six square miles and included about 120 human-made earthen mounds in a wide range of sizes, shapes, and functions.

Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement in the Mississippian culture which developed advanced societies (for North America at that time) across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 500 years before European contact. Cahokia’s population at its peak in the 13th Century was more than 25,000 and would not be surpassed by any city in the United States until the late 18th Century.

  • over ice-bridges from northern Europe/modern-day Scandinavia to the Atlantic Coast of North America and on to the Gulf of Mexico to Poverty Point culture sites (2200 BC–700 BC) in the Lower Mississippi Valley and surrounding Gulf coast;
  • by sea following the Pacific Rim, from what are today Japan, Korea and China and then down the Pacific Coast of North America or, finally,
  • across the southern Pacific Ocean from Southeast Asia across present-day Sumatra, Borneo, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand and Easter Island to the west coast of South America and then north to the area of the modern Mexico-Guatemala border – called the SoconuscoRegion in the southwest corner of the state of Chiapas in modern Mexico.

“The Soconusco Region is a narrow strip of land wedged between the Sierra Madre de Chiapas Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is the southernmost part of the Chiapas coast, distinguished by its history and economic production. The Olmec were the first ‘major’ civilization in, what is now, Mexico following a progressive development in Soconusco.  They lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, in the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco. It has been speculated that Olmec derive in part from neighboring Mokoya, or ‘Mixe-Zoque’ people.

The area is home to the oldest Mesoamerican culture discovered to date in what is now the municipality of Mazatán. Their Tapachultec language is considered to be the old language. The culture is called Mokaya (‘people of the corn’ in Mixe-Zoque) and it is dated to about 4,000 years ago when cacao and ball-courts appear.

It is thought that migrations out of this area to the east gave rise to the Olmec civilization.  A later, but also important Mesoamerican culture was centered on the site of Izapa, considered the most important on the Chiapas coast. It dates to about 1500 BCE and is classified as Mixe-Zoque but it is also considered to be the link between the older Olmec civilization and the later Mayan ones. The site was important for about 1000 years as a civil and religious structure.

The Olmec flourished during Mesoamerica’s formative period, dating roughly from as early as 1500BCE to about 400 BCE. Pre-Olmec cultures had flourished in the area since about 2500 BCE. It seems that the Olmec had their roots in early farming cultures of Tabasco, which began between 5100 BCE and 4600 BCE. These shared the same basic food crops and technologies of the later Olmec civilization.

Three major Olmec centers are spaced from east to west across the domain so that each center could exploit, control, and provide a distinct set of natural resources valuable to the overall Olmec economy. The Tuxtlas Mountains rise sharply in the north, along the Gulf of Mexico’s Bay of Campeche.

  • Here the Olmecs constructed permanent city-temple complexes at La Venta, the eastern center, which is near the rich estuaries of the coast, and also could have provided cacao, rubber, and salt. The ancient city of La Venta is dated to between 1200 BCE through 400 BCE which places the major development of the city in the Middle Formative Period. Located on an island in a coastal swamp overlooking the then-active Rio Palma River, La Venta probably controlled a region between the Mezcalapa and Coatzacoalcos Rivers.
  • San Lorenzo, at the center of the Olmec domain, which controlled the vast flood plain area of the Coatzacoalcos basin and river trade routes Early Olmec culture had emerged, centered on the San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan site near the coast in southeast Veracruz.
  • Finally, Laguna de los Cerros, adjacent to the Tuxtlas Mountains, was positioned near important sources of basalt, a stone needed to manufacture monuments. Over 170 Olmec monuments have been found within the area.

The Olmecs were the first Mesoamerican civilization and laid many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed.  Among other “firsts”, the Olmec appeared to practice ritual bloodletting and played the traditional Mesoamerican hoopball game, hallmarks of nearly all subsequent Mesoamerican societies.

The aspect of the Olmecs most familiar now is their artwork, particularly the aptly named “collossal heads”. The Olmec civilization was first defined through artifacts which collectors purchased on the pre-Columbian art market in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Olmec artworks are considered among ancient America’s most valuable.

The Toltec civilization  flourished in central Mexico between the 10th and mid-12th Centuries CE. Continuing the Mesoamerican heritage left to them by the earlier Olmec, Teotihuacano and Mayaand cultures, the Toltecs would build an impressive capital at Tollán and, ultimately, pass on that heritage to later civilizations such as the Aztecs, who regarded the Toltecs as a great and prosperous civilization, even claiming descent from this once great civilization.

Most information on the Toltec comes from Aztec and post-colonial texts documenting earlier oral traditions. However, these are by no means complete, and information can be colored by the Aztec’s particular reverence for all things Toltec and their delight in merging myth with fact to help establish a lineage with these old masters. Nevertheless, a careful comparison with earlier Mayan texts and the surviving archaeological record does allow for at least the main elements of this civilization to be outlined.

The Toltecs had roots in the Tolteca-Chichimeca people, who, during the 9th century CE, had migrated from the deserts of the northwest to Culhuacán in the Valley of Mexico. According to the Aztecs, the first Toltec leader was Ce Técpatl Mixcoatl (One Flint Cloud Serpent, i.e. the Milky Way), and his son Ce Acatl Topiltzin (One Reed Sacrificer, born in either 935 or 947 CE) would go on to gain historical fame as a great ruler and acquire the name of the great god Quetzalcoatl (‘Feathered Serpent’) amongst his titles.

The first settlement of the Toltecs was at Colhuacan, but they later established a capital at Tollán (or Tula, meaning ‘place of reeds’, a general Mesoamerican phrase to apply to all large settlements). The city grew to an area of 10 sq. mi. and acquired a population of between 30,000 and 40,000. The heart of the city was laid out in a grid pattern and it is remarkably similar to the Mayan city of Chichén Itzá. Intriguingly, the Maya also had a version of a cultural hero known as the ‘Feathered Serpent’, translated as Kukulcan and contemporary with the Toltec Quetzalcóatl; this and architectural similarities, suggest that there was a close cultural link between the two civilizations.

The exact origins of the Aztec people are uncertain, but they are believed to have begun as a nomadic tribe of hunter-gatherers in northern Mexico and whose name came from that of their homeland, Aztlán (or “White Land”). [Remember that name.] The Aztecs were also known as the Tenochca (from which the name for their capital city, Tenochtitlan, was derived) or the Mexica (the origin of the name of the city that would replace Tenochtitlan, as well as the name for the entire country). The Aztecs appeared in Mesoamerica – as the south-central region of pre-Columbian Mexico is known – in the early 13th Century. Their arrival came just after, or perhaps helped bring about, the fall of the previously dominant Mesoamerican civilization, the Toltecs.

When the Aztecs saw an eagle perched on a cactus on the marshy land near the southwest border of Lake Texcoco, they took it as a sign to build their settlement there. They drained the swampy land, constructed artificial islands on which they could plant gardens and established the foundations of their capital city, Tenochtitlan, in 1325 A.D.

Their relatively sophisticated system of agriculture (including intensive cultivation of land and irrigation methods) and a powerful military tradition would enable the Aztecs to build a successful state, and later an empire. In 1428, under their leader Itzcoatl, the Aztecs formed a three-way alliance with the Texcocans and the Tacubans to defeat their most powerful rivals for influence in the region, the Tepanec, and conquer their capital of Azcapotzalco.

Itzcoatl’s successor Montezuma I, who took power in 1440, was a great warrior who was remembered as the father of the Aztec empire. By the early 16th century, the Aztecs had come to rule over up to 500 small states, and some 5 to 6 million people, either by conquest or commerce. Tenochtitlan at its height had more than 140,000 inhabitants, and was the most densely populated city ever to exist in Mesoamerica. From their magnificent capital city, the Aztecs emerged as the dominant force in central Mexico, developing an intricate social, political, religious and commercial organization that brought many of the region’s city-states under their control by the 15th Century.

The Spanish first heard of Mexico during the Juan de Grijalva expedition of 1517, the natives kept “… repeating: Colua, Colua, and Mexico, Mexico, but we did not know what Colua or Mexico meant …”, until encountering Montezuma’s Governor at the mouth of the Rio de las Banderas.

The territory became part of the Spanish Empire under the name of New Spain. Mexico City  was systematically rebuilt by Cortés following the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. Much of the identity, traditions and architecture of Mexico were created during the colonial period.

The first European to visit Mexican territory was Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, who arrived in Yucatan from Cuba with three ships and about 100 men in early 1518. Cordoba’s reports on his return to Cuba prompted the Spanish governor there, Diego Velasquez, to send a larger force back to Mexico under the command of Hernan Cortes.

In March 1519, Cortes landed at the town of Tabasco, where he learned from the natives of the great Aztec civilization, then ruled by Montezuma II. Defying the authority of Velasquez, Cortes founded the city of Veracruz on the southeastern Mexican coast, where he trained his army into a disciplined fighting force.

Cortes and some 400 soldiers then marched into Mexico, aided by a native woman known as Malinche, who served as a translator. Thanks to instability within the Aztec empire, Cortes was able to form alliances with other native peoples, notably the Tlascalans, who were then at war with Montezuma.

In November 1519, Cortes and his men arrived in Tenochtitlan, where Montezuma and his people greeted them as honored guests according to Aztec custom (partially due to Cortes’ physical resemblance to the light-skinned Quetzalcoatl, whose return was prophesied in Aztec legend).  Shortly thereafter came the massacre in the Main Temple, a key incident in the Spanish conquest of what is today, Mexico, which occurred on May 20, 1520.

Though the Aztecs had superior numbers, their weapons were inferior, and Cortes was able to immediately take Montezuma, and his entourage of lords, hostage, gaining control of Tenochtitla. The Spaniards then murdered thousands of Aztec nobles during a ritual dance ceremony and Montezuma died under uncertain circumstances while in custody.

Cuauhtémoc, his young nephew, took over as emperor, and the Aztecs drove the Spaniards from the city, but he was among the first to fall from the smallpox epidemic a short time later. Unintentionally introduced by Spanish conquerors,  smallpox ravaged Mesoamerica in the 1520s, killing more than 3 million Aztecs. Severely weakened, the Aztec empire was easily defeated by Cortés and his forces on his second return.

So, with the help of the Aztecs’ native rivals, Cortes mounted an offensive against Tenochtitlan, finally defeating Cuauhtémoc’s resistance on August 13, 1521. In all, some 240,000 people were believed to have died in the city’s conquest, which effectively ended the Aztec civilization. After his victory, Cortes razed Tenochtitla and built Mexico City on its ruins; it quickly became the premier European center in the New World.

Smallpox was a devastating and selective disease – it generally killed Aztecs but not Spaniards, who as Europeans had already been exposed to it for centuries and were therefore much more immune to it. The deaths caused by smallpox are believed to have triggered a rapid growth of Christianity in Mexico and the Americas.

At first, the Aztecs believed the epidemic was a punishment from an angry god, but they later accepted their fate and no longer resisted the Spanish rule. Many of the surviving Aztecs blamed the cause of smallpox to the superiority of the Christian god, which resulted in the acceptance of Catholicism and yielding to the Spanish rule throughout Mexico.

The Aztec language, Nahuatl, was the dominant language in central Mexico by the mid-1350s. Numerous Nahuatl words borrowed by the Spanish were later absorbed into English as well, including chili, avocado, chocolate, coyote, peyote, guacamole, ocelot and mescal.

Next: A short history of Mexico and the Mexico-America dilemma.


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