Western USA in detail


Throughout time, the West has been a place for seekers to reinvent fortunes. Its first inhabitants crossed the Bering Strait between modern-day Russia and Alaska and moved south into diverse Native American communities that adapted to weather and landscape to build complex, sustainable societies. They were followed by the Spanish, explorers like Lewis and Clark, gold rush enthusiasts and today's immigrants and tech industries. Whatever comes next will be highly influenced by the frontier spirit of those who came before.

The First Americans

Western America's earliest inhabitants crossed the Bering Strait more than 20,000 years ago. When Europeans arrived, two to 18 million Native American people lived north of present-day Mexico and spoke more than 300 languages.

Pacific Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, early coastal inhabitants went out to sea in pursuit of whales or sea lions, or depended on catching salmon and cod and collecting shellfish. On land they hunted deer and elk while gathering berries and roots. Food was stored for the long winters, when free time could be spent on artistic, religious and cultural pursuits. The construction of ornately carved cedar canoes led to extensive trading networks that stretched along the coast.

Inland, a regional culture based on seasonal migration developed among tribes. During salmon runs, tribes gathered at rapids and waterfalls to net or harpoon fish. In the harsh landscapes of Oregon's southern desert, tribes were nomadic peoples who hunted and scavenged in the northern reaches of the Great Basin desert.


By AD 1500, more than 300,000 Native Americans spoke some 100 distinct languages in the California region. Central-coast fishing communities built subterranean roundhouses and saunas, where they held ceremonies, told stories and gambled for fun. Northwest hunting communities constructed big houses and redwood dugout canoes, while the inhabitants of southwest California created sophisticated pottery and developed irrigation systems that made farming in the desert possible. Native Americans in California had no written language but observed oral contracts and zoning laws.

Within a century of the arrival of Spanish colonists in 1769, California's Native American population was decimated to 20,000 by European diseases, conscripted labor regimes and famine.

The Southwest & Southern Colorado

Archaeologists believe that the Southwest's first inhabitants were hunters. As the population grew, wild game became extinct, forcing hunters to augment their diets with berries, seeds, roots and fruits. After 3000 BC, contacts with farmers in what is now central Mexico led to the beginnings of agriculture in the Southwest.

By about 100 AD, three dominant cultures were emerging in the Southwest: the Hohokam of the desert, the Mogollon of the central mountains and valleys, and the Ancestral Puebloans – formerly known as the Anasazi.

The Hohokam lived in the deserts of Arizona, adapting to desert life by creating an incredible river-fed irrigation system. They also developed low earthen pyramids and sunken ball courts with earthen walls. By about 1400, the Hohokam abandoned their villages. There are many theories on this tribe's disappearance, but it most likely involved a combination of drought, overhunting, conflict among groups and disease.

The Mogollon culture settled near the Mexican border from 200 BC to 1400 AD. They lived in small communities, often elevated on isolated mesas or ridgetops, and built simple pit dwellings. Although they farmed, they depended more on hunting and foraging for food. By around the 13th or 14th century, the Mogollon had probably been peacefully incorporated into the Ancestral Puebloan groups from the north.

The Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the Colorado Plateau, also called the Four Corners area. This culture left the richest archaeological sites and ancient settlements that are still inhabited in the Southwest. Their descendants live in Pueblo Indian communities in New Mexico. The oldest links with the Ancestral Puebloans are found among the Hopi tribe of northern Arizona. The mesa-top village of Old Oraibi, now inhabited by the Hopi, has been inhabited since the 1100s, making it the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.

The Great Plains

The seemingly endless plains that begin east of the Rockies, sweeping east through Montana, Wyoming and beyond, play a significant role in the story of the American West. Numerous Native American tribes called the plains home, among them the Lakota Sioux, Shoshone, Crow, Cheyenne and others. Prior to the European arrival and the push to colonize the West, the Great Plains were a vast realm of shifting alliances and territorial boundaries. All the tribal nations that lived in the region hunted vast herds of bison, including sophisticated strategies that drove entire herds off the cliffs. One place where the tradition took place and can still be imagined is the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park in northern Montana.

The Europeans Arrive

The Spanish arrived in the Southwest in the 1540s, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. Missions and missionaries followed in the 1700s as the Spanish staked their claim along the California coast.

Spain's Mission Impossible

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led the first major expedition into North America from the south in 1540. In addition to 300 soldiers, the traveling party included hundreds of Native American guides and herds of livestock. It also marked the first major violence between the Spanish and the native people.

The expedition's goal was to reach the fabled, immensely rich Seven Cities of Cibola. For two years, the expedition traveled through what is now Arizona, New Mexico and as far east as Kansas. Instead of gold and precious gems, the expedition found adobe pueblos, which they violently commandeered. During the Spaniards' first few years in northern New Mexico, they tried to defeat the pueblos, with much bloodshed.

When 18th-century Russian and English trappers arrived trading valuable otter pelts from Alta California, Spain concocted a plan for colonization. For the glory of God and the tax coffers of Spain, missions would be built across the state and within 10 years these would be going concerns run by local converts.

Spain's missionizing plan was approved in 1769, and Franciscan Padre Junípero Serra secured support to set up presidios (military posts) alongside several missions in northern and central California in the 1770s and '80s. Clergy relied on soldiers to round up conscripts to build missions. In exchange for their labor, Native Americans were allowed one meal a day (when available) and a place in God's kingdom – which came much sooner than expected due to the smallpox the Spanish brought with them. In the Southwest, more than half of the pueblo populations were decimated by smallpox, measles and typhus.

Westward, Ho!

As the 19th century dawned on the young nation, optimism was the mood of the day. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 – followed by threshers, reapers, mowers and later combines – agriculture was industrialized, and US commerce surged. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase doubled US territory, and expansion west of the Appalachian Mountains began in earnest.

Exploiting the West's vast resources became a patriotic duty in the 1840s – a key aspect of America's belief in its Manifest Destiny. During the early territorial days, movement of goods and people from the East to the West was very slow. Horses, mule trains and stagecoaches represented state-of-the-art transportation at the time.

An estimated 400,000 people trekked west across America between 1840 and 1860, lured by tales of gold, promises of religious freedom and visions of fertile farmland. The 'Wild West' years soon followed with ranchers, cowboys, miners and entrepreneurs staking claims and raising hell. Law, order and civilization arrived, hastened by the telegraph, the transcontinental railroad and a continual flow of new arrivals who just wanted to settle down and enjoy their piece of the American pie.

One of the major routes was the Oregon Trail. Spanning six states, it sorely tested the families who embarked on this perilous trip. Their belongings were squirreled away under canvas-topped wagons, which often trailed livestock. The journey could take up to eight months, and by the time the settlers reached eastern Oregon their food supplies were almost gone. Other major routes included the Santa Fe Trail and the Old Spanish Trail, which ran from Santa Fe into central Utah and across Nevada to Los Angeles in California. Regular stagecoach services along the Santa Fe Trail began in 1849; the Mormon Trail reached Salt Lake City in 1847.

The arrival of more people and resources via the railroad led to further land exploration and the frequent discovery of mineral deposits. Many Western mining towns were founded in the 1870s and 1880s; some, like Santa Rita, are now ghost towns, while others, like Tombstone and Silver City, remain active.

The Long Walk & Apache Conflicts

For decades, US forces pushed west across the continent, killing or forcibly moving whole tribes of Native Americans who were in their way. The most widely known incident is the forceful relocation of many Navajo in 1864. US forces, led by Kit Carson, destroyed Navajo fields, orchards and houses, and forced the people into surrendering or withdrawing into remote parts of Canyon de Chelly. Eventually, they were starved out. About 10,000 Navajo were rounded up and marched 400 miles east to a camp at Bosque Redondo, near Fort Sumner, NM. Hundreds of Native Americans died from sickness, starvation or gunshot wounds along the way. The Navajo call this 'The Long Walk,' and it remains an important part of Navajo history.

Further north on the Great Plains, massacres took place against the Shoshone at Bear River (Idaho) in 1863, and of the Cheyenne and Arapaho in Sand Creek (Colorado) a year later. The 1876 victory of a Native American coalition led by Crazy Horse, inspired by Sitting Bull, and comprised of the Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand, was the last victory for the Plains tribes. The retaliatory campaigns were devastating and decisive, and the massacre of the Lakota (Sioux) at Wounded Knee (in modern-day South Dakota) in 1890 effectively marked the end of Native American resistance across the Great Plains.

The last serious conflicts were between US troops and the Apache. This was partly because raiding was the essential path to manhood for the Apache. As US forces and settlers moved into Apache land, they became obvious targets for the raids that were part of the Apache way of life. These continued under the leadership of Mangas Coloradas, Cochise, Victorio and, finally, Geronimo. The latter surrendered in 1886 and was for a time confined to a reservation in Arizona after being promised that he and the Apache would be imprisoned for two years then allowed to return to their homeland. As with many promises made during these years, this one, too, was broken.

Even after the wars were over, Native Americans were treated like second-class citizens. Non–Native Americans used legal loopholes and technicalities to take over reservation land. Many children were removed from reservations and shipped off to boarding schools where they were taught in English and punished for speaking their own languages or behaving 'like Indians' – this practice continued into the 1930s.

Reforming the Wild West

When the great earthquake and fire hit San Francisco in 1906, it signaled change for California. With public funds for citywide water mains and fire hydrants siphoned off by corrupt bosses, there was only one functioning water source in San Francisco. When the smoke lifted, one thing was clear: it was time for the Wild West to change.

While San Francisco was rebuilt at a rate of 15 buildings per day, California's reformers set to work on city, state and national politics, one plank at a time. Californians concerned about public health and trafficking in women pushed for passage of the 1914 statewide Red Light Abatement Act. The Mexican Revolution (1910–20) brought a new wave of migrants and revolutionary ideas, including ethnic pride and worker solidarity. As California's ports grew, longshoremen's unions coordinated a historic 83-day strike in 1934 along the entire West Coast that forced concessions for safer working conditions and fair pay.

At the height of the Depression in 1935, some 200,000 farming families fleeing the drought-stricken Dust Bowl in Texas and Oklahoma arrived in California, where they found scant pay and deplorable working conditions at major farming concerns. California's artists alerted middle America to the migrants' plight, and the nation rallied around Dorothea Lange's haunting documentary photos of famine-struck families and John Steinbeck's harrowing fictionalized account in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.

California's Civil Rights Movement

When 117,000 Japanese Americans along the West Coast were ordered into internment camps by President Roosevelt in 1942, the San Francisco–based Japanese American Citizens League immediately filed suits that advanced all the way to the Supreme Court. These lawsuits established groundbreaking civil-rights legal precedents, and in 1992 internees received reparations and an official letter of apology for internment signed by President George HW Bush.

Adopting the nonviolent resistance practices of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, labor leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta formed United Farm Workers in 1962 to champion the rights of underrepresented immigrant laborers. While civil rights leaders marched on Washington, Chávez and Californian grape pickers marched on Sacramento, bringing the issue of fair wages and the health risks of pesticides to the nation's attention. When Bobby Kennedy was sent to investigate, he sided with Chávez, bringing Latinos into the US political fold.

WWII & the Atomic Age

The West took on a more important economic and technological role during WWII. Scientists developed the atomic bomb in the secret city of Los Alamos. War-related industries, such as timber production and work at naval yards and airplane factories, thrived in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Los Alamos

In 1943, Los Alamos, NM, then home to a boys school perched on a 7400ft mesa, was chosen as the top-secret headquarters of the Manhattan Project, the code name for the research and development of the atomic bomb. The 772-acre site, accessed by two dirt roads, had no gas or oil lines and only one wire service, and it was surrounded by forest.

Isolation and security marked every aspect of life on 'the hill.' Not only was resident movement restricted and mail censored, there was also no outside contact by radio or telephone. Perhaps even more unsettling was the fact that most residents had no idea why they were living in Los Alamos. Knowledge was on a 'need to know' basis; everyone knew only as much as their job required.

In just under two years, Los Alamos scientists successfully detonated the first atomic bomb at the Trinity site, now White Sands Missile Range.

After the US detonated the atomic bomb in Japan, the secret city of Los Alamos was exposed to the public. The city continued to be cloaked in secrecy, however, until 1957, when restrictions on visiting were lifted.

Changing Workforce & New Industries

California's workforce permanently changed in WWII, when women and African Americans were recruited for wartime industries and Mexican workers were brought in to fill labor shortages. Contracts in military communications and aviation attracted an international elite of engineers, who would launch California's high-tech industry. Within a decade after the war, California's population had grown by 40%, reaching almost 13 million.

The war also brought economic fortune to the Pacific Northwest, when the area became the nation's largest lumber producer and both Oregon's and Washington's naval yards bustled, along with William Boeing's airplane factory. The region continued to prosper through the second half of the 20th century, attracting new migrations of educated, progressively minded settlers from the nation's east and south.

After the war, industry took on new forms, with Silicon Valley's dot-com industry drawing talented entrepreneurs to the Bay Area in the 1990s. The film industry still holds strong in Los Angeles, but tax incentives have drawn filmmakers to other western enclaves, particularly New Mexico.

Hollywood & Counterculture

In 1908, California became a convenient movie location for its consistent sunlight and versatile locations, although its role was limited to doubling for more exotic locales and providing backdrops for period-piece productions. But gradually, California began stealing the scene in movies and iconic TV shows with waving palms and sunny beaches.

Not all Californians saw themselves as extras in a movie, however. WWII sailors discharged for insubordination and homosexuality in San Francisco found themselves at home in North Beach's bebop jazz clubs, bohemian coffeehouses and, later, the City Lights bookstore. San Francisco became the home of free speech and free spirits, and soon everyone who was anyone was getting arrested: Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg's epic poem 'Howl', comedian Lenny Bruce for uttering the F-word onstage, and Carol Doda for going topless. When flower power faded, other Bay Area rebellions grew in its place: Black Power, gay pride and medical marijuana clubs.

But while Northern California had the more attention-grabbing counterculture from the 1940s to '60s, nonconformity in sunny Southern California shook America to the core. In 1947, when Senator Joseph McCarthy attempted to root out suspected communists in the movie industry, 10 writers and directors who refused to admit communist alliances or to name names were charged with contempt of Congress and barred from working in Hollywood. The Hollywood Ten's impassioned defenses of the Constitution were heard nationwide, and major Hollywood players boldly voiced dissent and hired blacklisted talent until California lawsuits put a legal end to McCarthyism in 1962.

On January 28, 1969, an oil rig dumped 200,000 gallons of oil into Santa Barbara Channel, killing dolphins, seals and some 3600 shore birds. The beach community organized a highly effective protest, spurring the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970).

Geeking Out

When California's Silicon Valley introduced the first personal computer in 1968, Hewlett-Packard's 'light' (40lb) machine cost just $4900 (about $29,000 today). Hoping to bring computer power to the people, Steve Jobs (aged 22) and Steve Wozniak (aged 26) introduced the Apple II at the 1977 West Coast Computer Faire. It had unfathomable memory (4KB of RAM) and microprocessor speed (1MHz).

By the mid-1990s, an entire dot-com industry boomed in Silicon Valley with online start-ups, and suddenly people were getting their mail, news, politics, pet food and, yes, sex online. But when dot-com profits weren't forthcoming, venture funding dried up, and fortunes in stock options disappeared on one nasty Nasdaq-plummeting day: March 11, 2000. Overnight, 26-year-old VPs and Bay Area service-sector employees alike found themselves jobless. But as online users continued to look for useful information and one another in those billions of web pages, search engines and social-media websites boomed. Between 2011 and 2015, social-media giant Facebook jumped from 2000 employees to 6800.

Meanwhile, California biotech was making strides. In 1976, an upstart company called Genentech cloned human insulin and introduced the hepatitis B vaccine. California voters approved a $3 billion bond measure in 2004 for stem-cell research, and by 2008 California had become the biggest funder of stem-cell research and the focus of Nasdaq's Biotech Index.

America Turns Inward

After a highly contentious campaign season, Donald Trump defied the pollsters and became the 45th president of the US on November 8, 2016. His platform, 'America First,' has set the stage for the current phase of US politics. With precarious relations with NATO and new terms for many international alliances, a new era has begun. This is not to say that all of America waxes nostalgic for the 'good old days.' Shortly after Trump's inauguration, half a million people stood up against the administration at the Women's March on Washington on January 21, 2017, joined by five million marchers worldwide. This initial tour de force of dissent was followed by subsequent marches for science and climate change. And, on a topic that carries particular currency out West, immigration from Central America has become a defining issue of the Trump presidency.

On January 27, 2017, President Trump issued an executive order suspending entry from seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa and cutting the US refugee program. While various courts have banned implementation of the ban, it has a huge psychological impact on immigrant communities and there's speculation that it could result in a brain drain from Silicon Valley and tech industries. Companies like Google, Expedia and Amazon have spoken out against the ban. His tirades against immigrants and frequent war of words with Mexico over illegal immigration from Central America has also been felt across the Southwest. Numerous groups have sprung up to protest against the government's immigration policies and their impacts upon migrants. Among those based in the region is the El Paso–based Detained Migrant Solidarity Committee (www.facebook.com/DMSCElPaso).