Custer con i gradi brevet di generale 1865 - Biblioteca del Congresso

Heroes of the Old West

Eroi del Far West (Leggi versione in italiano)

The conquest of the West happened with the help of courageous men, true heroes of that time and that place. They were settlers, soldiers, cowboys engaged in the war against Mexicans, Indians, and in the war of secession between unionists and confederates.

Since 1789, the year of independence of the United States of America conquered with bloody battles against the British, the goal of all Americans was to expand their country to the west. This expansion process had its own step in the acquisition of French Louisiana in 1803 by the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte and in the war against Mexico, which also occupied Florida, Texas and California. During the conquest of the West there were clashes between settlers and Native Americans. The massive intervention of the army had the consequence to confine Indian tribes into specially prepared reserves.

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson proclaimed the independence of the United States of America, which was formed by 13 still formally British colonies. This gesture followed the rebellion of Americans against the imposition of England of the English tea to Americans. The Boston Tea Party, a group of American patriots, decided to rebel and gain independence. The alliance of the settlers with the French of Mississippi helped them.

His Majesty’s soldiers, despite being allied with American Indian, were defeated in 1781 in Yorktown, Virginia, by settlers of English and French origin. On March 4, 1789, the United States Constitution was promulgated by Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, James Madison. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were absent. The first was in France to deal with the French Revolutionary Government for the purchase of Louisiana and the second was in England to obtain the recognition of independence. Battles and clashes were with the British until 1815. That year was signed the treaty of Ghent which decided the definitive recognition of American independence by the British.

In 1821 Mexico became independent of Spain. The control of the new nation was reduced on the Spanish territories in United States. Florida immediately went under the control of the Americans. While Texas, New Mexico and California remained under Mexican control until the Mexican-US War of 1846. The proclamation of the republic of Texas by settlers of English origin was the warning sign of the war between the United States and Mexico. In 1836 the defeat of the settlers besieged in Fort Alamo by the Mexican army was a tough one to get over. The United States offered Mexico to buy the territorial band from Texas to California for a considerable sum, but the offer was refused. In 1846, the latent conflict between the United States and Mexico exploded with the arrest of the Mexican governor of Sonoma by the British settlers of California. The United States decided to intervene militarily as they feared the occupation of California by England. The war against Mexico lasted two years, during which the blue jackets of the US Army occupied most of the territories of Texas, New Mexico, Nevada and California. A column of blue soldiers, commanded by Winfield Scott, invaded the Mexican territory heading toward Mexico City. After some clashes with the Mexican army, General Scott occupied Mexico City. The following year, in 1848, there was the peace treaty with which Mexico transferred to the United States the entire territorial belt between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean in exchange for about $ 20,000,000, a large sum equivalent to about one billion dollars today.

The West’s epic had started in the beginning of the century. It was a continue step to step headed West by the settlers to create farms where to breed the herds with the help of the legendary Cowboys. Further the land was also acquired by the farmers whose demands collided with those of the breeders, enclosed areas for the first against open grasslands for the natural forage of cows the second. With the acquisition of Louisiana, a huge territory that went from Florida to Canada, and then with the conquest of ex-Mexican lands that came to the Pacific, exploded the conquest of the West as American filmography has told it.

The advancing toward west of the settlers caused clashes with Native American tribes, who had their traditional hunting territories occupied by farmers. Indian wars can be divided into two phases. The first, during the Independence War against the British, with the Indians ally with the British and the Americans. The second phase had the Indians opposed to settlers who invaded their lands.

The Indian tribes of the Iroquois and Cherokee, who lived in the territories of New England and Eastern Canada, were divided into alliances. Part of the tribes were allied with the British, the rest of them sided with the Americans. There was therefore a war in the war with clashes between British and colonists, between Indians and Indians, and then Indians against British and Indians against Independents.

The second phase marked the advance of settlers beyond Mississippi to settle in the Far West. At first the Indians welcomed the colonists. Then, day by day, farmers subtracted hunting grounds that were indispensable to their survival. They lived mostly by hunting the buffalo that grazed in the middle of the Central American plain. In the early years the settlers were armed to counter the Indians. There were raids and small clashes, but they had a big impact on American public opinion because of the ferocity that the Indians demonstrated against the settlers. They were usually isolated farms to be targeted by these Indian groups. In these small but bloody clashes settlers were killed, women raped and killed, children kidnapped. Soon, Army posts were set up. The soldiers housed in forts made with wooden staircases and barracks. Army intervention soon yielded its fruits, and in a few years the tribes were defeated, many Indians were killed, those who remained alive were transferred to the so-called “Indian Reserves”.

Sooner or later, the slave question in the southern states would burst. The slave trade, which was brought from Africa and sold to the southern landowners who used them in field work, was an unbearable boil for an advanced society like the one in the United States. But the south resisted the abolition of slavery, as its wealth was mainly based on agriculture, whose costs would have exploded with the abolition of slaves, used as free labor.

Abraham Lincoln, the first republican president, a passionate advocate of the abolition of slavery, made a law in this regard among his first acts. This law was the spark of civil war between the northern industrial states, proponents of abolition, and those of the south.

In 1860, seven states of the South, which belonged to the territorial band between the Atlantic coast and Texas, joined a confederation and exited themselves from the United States. It was immediately war. The Unionist North rebelled against this detachment that represented the end of the United States as they were until then and moved against the South States. The Southern Army, much more trained than the northern one, with the presence of good officers and good knights who already knew the use of weapons because of their agrarian life, was overwhelming in the early days of the war.

The presence of a highly developed industry allowed the North to recover the initial military handicap with the production of modern weapons that were provided to unionist soldiers. It was a long and bloody war. It developed on four fronts: the East Front that affected the Atlantic coast, the Western Front that included the east part of the Mississippi River, the Trans-Mississippi Front representing the conflict in the states belt from Missouri to New Mexico, the front of the Pacific coastline that covered the states of the strip along the Pacific Ocean coast. 750,000 deaths were counted among the military of the two fronts. Both armies, aware of their common origin, avoided as far as possible involvement of civilians in the war.

The clashes ended in 1865 with the victory of unionists. The war left a long trajectory of resentments between the North and the South. The Northerners were for a long time regarded as occupying usurpers. The southern agricultural economy collapsed because of the war and the slave-bailout, who moved in a good proportion to the northern industrial cities.

In the long and almost uninterrupted east-to-west march of US settlers, it was inevitable that some heroic protagonists played a prominent role in narrating the history of North America. They were soldiers, sheriffs, cowboys.

Davy Crockett - Biblioteca del Congresso 1850
Davy Crockett – Biblioteca del Congresso 1850

Davy Crockett (1786-1836)
Fort Alamo’s last resistance saw Davy Crockett at the command of his 188 soldiers to resist for long days the Mexican army commanded by General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. From February 23 to March 6, 1836, two thousand Mexican soldiers, assisted by a strong artillery, attacked fiercely Fort Alamo with its 188 defenders. The Texas Rangers of Fort Alamo were all slaughtered at the end of the strenuous resistance that caused major losses to the Mexican army.

Davy Crockett was born in Greene, Tennessee, in 1786. He was poorly housed in his family of farmers. His father, who considered him incapable, often punished him with straps. Soon Davy left home and to become a hunter. At first he hunted small fur animals, then went to hunt the bears. The years of youth were consumed by trying to pay the debts that his father had contracted.

When a war broke out against the Creek Indians, who attacked the isolated farms, he enlisted in the army as an explorer serving General Andrew Jackson. In the decisive battle against the Creek, his courage and that of the other thirteen army explorers succeeded in making the fate of the battle turn to the best. The creeks were destined for a reserve on the east of Mississippi. Returning to civil life he was appointed judge of peace and colonel of the local territorial defense regiment.

In 1828 he was elected deputy to the Congress. In 1829 his general Andrew Jackson became President of the United States. Jackson wanted to promulgate a law by which several Indian reserves were moved to the west of Mississippi. Crockett opposed it because it meant losing the word given to the Indians and exposing the now-peaceful Creek to the raids of the wild Indians living alongside the river. Not having been able to change President’s mind, he resigned as a member of the Congress by saying in the assembly the famous phrase: “Go to hell, I’m going back to Texas.” He resumed his old hunter’s career and also wrote the book “A narrative of the life of the Davy Crockett“.

He arrived in Mexican Texas at the outbreak of the revolt of American settlers proclaiming independence from Mexico and the “Republic of Texas“. He moved to Fort Alamo, near today’s city of San Antonio, with his Ranger company, a few days before it was attacked by the Mexican army. After a 13-day siege, Fort Alamo fell and all his defenders were killed. 21 April General Sam Houston, who had come to Fort Alamo for help but did not arrive on time, hired in San Jacinto a clash with Mexican General Santa Anna, responsible for the murder. The serious losses suffered by the Mexican in the battle of Fort Alamo determined the defeat of General Santa Anna.

Davy Crockett was recognized as one of Alamo’s heroes and became a legend in the United States with his trusted advance rifle, his hunter uniform and his hat made of raccoon skin.

George Custer (1839-1876)

(Top photo: Custer con i gradi brevet di generale 1865 – Biblioteca del Congresso)
Little Bighorn was the last battle of General Custer. The general ignored the warnings of his explorers and subordinate officers, who reported to the general the huge number of Indian warriors in comparison to the seven hundred soldiers of the general. He wanted to attack without even giving his men time to rest after a long and fast march. The result was the defeat of Blue Jackets and the end of the discussed career and life of the General.

George Custer was born in 1839 in a small Ohio town by a humble family of artisans. Still boy went to live with his sister who resided in Monroe (Michigan). At school he distinguished for his physical qualities and his courage, but not for profit in his studies. He was admitted to the West Point academy with recommendation of Judge Baconn, the father-in-law, where he was the last of his course as a profit in studies, but the first in military virtues.

At the outbreak of the secession war he enlisted among the unionists, where he was not late to emerge for his command qualities. In 1863, only 23, he was promoted from captain to general, in the form of a “brevet”, it became general for a predetermined period to conduct some delicate war operations. In 1864 he participated in the Battle of Widerness, decisive for the fate of the secession war. The clash ended with the defeat of the confederates who were forced by Custer’s cavalry to retreat beyond the Chickahominy River.

In 1866 he was dismissed from the reserve with the rank of captain, the degree he had before provisional promotion to general, after some missions in Texas and Louisiana. Despite his humiliating degradation he was known as General Custer. The following year, promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he was entrusted with his most controversial mission to Smoky Hill. During the 1000-mile operation there was a large number of desertions among his soldiers. Custer shot all the deserters captured, going beyond the military regulations.

This cruel initiative, extraneous to US military traditions, cost him an indictment before the martial court. He was judged by the abandonment of command and private use of military vehicles, because he had temporarily departed from his unit to reach his wife, and for executing his soldiers without a regular trial. He was only sentenced to suspension by grade and salary for one year, thanks to his reputation and policy recommendations enjoyed by Washington

In the following years, he was reinstated in the army and he was tasked with various missions against the Cheyenne and Sioux Indians who attacked farms and caravans by killing entire family of settlers. With his characteristic ruthlessness Custer faced the Indians in various clashes. The most discussed was the mission against Indian of leader Black Kettle, who lived peacefully under a treaty signed with the US government. Surprised in sleep, a large number of Indians were killed with women and children. All their horses were killed and the village burnt down.

In 1873, gold was discovered on the Black Hills, in the Indian Sioux Reserve. What happened later was quite predictable. A multitude of gold seekers invaded the hills with no regards for the Indians. There were clashes between the Sioux, the Cheyenne and the seekers. The government decided to intervene by sending three columns of soldiers to bring order to the region.

Giovanni Martini (militare) 1900
Giovanni Martini (militare) 1900

In 1876, General Custer’s column, about 700 soldiers of cavalry, chased a particularly warlike Cheyenne tribe. On June 25, the Indians were spotted by explorers around Little Bighorn. They reported to Custer that the Indians were ten times more than the soldiers. Custer decided to attack the Indians, not resting his men, tired of a long pursuit. He divided his column into three parts to carry out an encircling maneuver. The large number of Indian warriors blocked the encirclement and the three groups of soldiers found themselves isolated to fight overwhelmingly supreme forces. They all died, except for a small group of soldiers who had been able to stand on top of a hill and could withstand the arrival of reinforcements. The only survivor of General Custer’s group was also the last to see alive the general. He was John Martin, trumpeter, the Italian Giovanni Crisostomo Martini, a Neapolitan of Sala Consilina. Martini had made the drummer in the red shirts of Garibaldi and in 1873 he emigrated to America, enlisted in the United States Army. He saved because he was sent by the general to seek help to the column of soldiers remaining in the back. General Custer died fighting the Cheyenne Indians on June 25, 1876.

Buffalo Bill (1846-1917)
Six strokes for six buffalo, it was the bet William Cody had done with his friends. He killed six buffalo without wasting a shot. He won the bet. He managed to kill seven buffalo with six strokes. A shot had managed to recover it from a bison he had killed. It was under skin, almost out of sight. So he had her beautiful nickname “Buffalo Bill“. It had been the nickname of William Comstock, with whom he had won the bet.

Buffalo Bill Cody1911 - Moffett Chicago Biblioteca del Congresso
Buffalo Bill Cody1911 – Moffett Chicago Biblioteca del Congresso

William Cody was born in 1846 in La Claire, Iowa. He left home that was a boy. Bill read an ad with which they were looking for boys to ride for Pony Express service. He was immediately hired. Still seventeen, he enlisted as a knight in the unionist army, participating in the secession war on the part of the Unionists. During a license to Saint Luis he was acquainted with his wife, Louisa Frederici, who belonged to a family of Alsatian origin, founder of the Immaculate Conception Church.

Between 1868 and 1872 Bill had the task of procuring food for the workers who were building the Pacific Railway. He killed 4,000 buffalo by procuring the meat to the workers who mounted the rails. In 1876 he took the scallop to Indian Cheyenne Pahaska who, as Buffalo Bill told, was what had killed General Custer at Little Bighorn. Writer Ned Buntline told Buffalo Bill’s adventures by publishing his stories in newspapers. Buffalo, who became famous for his adventures, made the actor interpreting the part of himself in various circuses and outdoor shows.

In 1883 he founded his circus that circulated for the United States representing the West conquest, It goes without saying that the protagonist of the stories was almost always the same Buffalo Bill. Also stars in the show were Calamity Jane, Indian leader Sitting Bull and Wild Bill Hickock. The circus performed its show during the next 20 years. He also came to Europe where he made a long tour of the main cities. In 1890 Buffalo Bill’s show came to Italy with his Wild West Show. The caravan landed in Naples where he mounted the rodeo in Corso Meridionale (near railway station). The interest of the Neapolitan audience went down, after the first performances attended by a crowd of spectators, among whom Matilde Serao. Buffalo Bill bought a page of newspaper “Mattino” by announcing his show, challenging the Neapolitan to find a horse that resisted him. A group of street urchins, the day of the show, presented themselves with a horse that had been well prepared by them. The horse had been peppered in the bottom. Of course, Buffalo, without falling off this horse, had to give up. In Rome, indeed in Cisterna di Latina, where he camped with his performance, he was challenged by the locals “butteri” to tame horses. A certain Augusto Imperiali, called “Augustarello“, won which became famous for his exploit. A school in Cisterna di Latina was dedicated to him. At the end of 1890 Buffalo Bill was recalled by the US Army to face some rebel Sioux tribes.

He died in 1917 at the age of 71. Before dying he had converted to Catholicism. He had been received by Pope Leo XIII in Rome.

In 1890 the end of the Frontier was officially declared by the United States Statistical Office, as almost all the territories beyond the Mississippi had become stars of the American flag. The pioneering adventure, that had characterized life Frontier and the epic of the West, ended with the defeat of the Indians, the construction of the railroad that united the states of the East with the Pacific Ocean and the arrival of representatives of the state and its police and justice.

Bibliography:
Viviana Zarbo, Storia del Far West, Tascabili economici Newton, 1994
E.L. Meadowcroft, Davy Crockett, Mondadori, Milano, 1970
Roberto Maccarini, La guerra civile americana. Storia del conflitto tra Nord e Sud, Genova, Il Portolano, 2012
Andrea Bosco, Domenico Rizzi, I cavalieri del West, Le Mani (Recco Genova) 2011
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/West
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffalo Bill
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/George Armstrong Custer
it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guerra di secessione americana