Resources and reference material on the Old West
February 3, 2013 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Need resources and references on life on the frontier in the post-Civil War Period.

I'm working on a historical fiction novel set in Kansas in the years after the Civil War, specifically the early 1870s. I'm looking for resources and reference material that gives a general feel for life in a small town during the period. The more detailed the info, the better. Information on railroad towns a plus.
posted by ronofthedead to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My first bit of information for you is that you need to recognize that people in Kansas didn't really consider themselves to be on the frontier. Whereas in the 1830s Caldwell County, MO was pretty much the furthest western US settlement, by 1870 San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Duluth, and Denver had all been firmly established. These people had telegraph access, you could take a train to get most of the way there from NYC or Chicago, etc. Montgomery Ward was publishing mail order catalogs in 1872, you had access to machine-knit fabrics to make clothing, you could buy farm implements instead of making them...

Also please consider carefully what you mean by "small town." Today, for example, a small town would probably be anything below 10,000 people. Back then it's probably under 500 or something similar, depending on the area. Depending on the requirements of your story, you may not be able to have the kind of small town that anyone (in the story) would think of as small.

Oh - and think about whether you want it to be more of a "town" or more of a "the one spot in the county that everyone comes over to, in order to exchange goods." The first kind might have 1,000 people living in the city limits and have a jail and a school and stuff, the other might have 1,000 people living in a twenty mile radius and everyone goes to school on individual farms or whatever. There are a few dozen tiny farm schools in the area around my mom's house - ruralish Ohio. They're always on the corner of the property nearest to the largest intersection of roads; they didn't build a big modern community school in the area until the 1920s.

Check out this description of the growth and development of Manhattan, KS (PDF) for some information on how Kansas developed. In 1870 there were about 365,000 people living in the state - only 5,104 people lived in the entirety of Riley County (where Manhattan was located.)

There's a map on page 10 of that PDF that shows the locations of the various towns and roads in Kansas. In general, the more cities you have in an area, the higher the population density, and a higher ratio of industry to farming (even if all of the towns are smaller.) They'd be "towns" of the sort you can still find all over the place. Meanwhile, if there are hardly any towns or big roads, those people live on big farms and might go a week or more without seeing anyone other than their immediate neighbors.
posted by SMPA at 9:50 AM on February 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, forgot to add: every biggish town is at least a "everyone in the surrounding county comes here once a week to sell and buy stuff" place. Manhattan had 2,000 people in it, and 8,000 people in the surrounding county. Counties are increasingly huge out there, by the way. People who drew county lines (and state lines) got ridiculously lazy around the 1820s.

For an illustration from Ohio, because I know it better: right now there are three cities/villages worth mentioning in Crawford County - Bucyrus, Galion, and Crestline. Bucyrus has 13,000 people, Galion 9,000, and Crestline 5,000. Each of the three has a school district (which all draw students from outside the city/village limits,) plus there are a couple more in the county. Because of the population density changes, there are high schools with 300 kids in them and high schools with 1,000 kids in them.

There are I think five more official villages in Crawford County - all but one have less than 300 people in them. They are today's version of the places where people live but have to go somewhere else for shopping, etc. - basically, what used to be six farms turned into two blocks of houses, and six of the houses are affiliated with bigger chunks of agricultural land in the immediate vicinity. These people think of driving to Bucyrus as a significant trip, and many have never left the county. They are exactly like the people who lived there 100 years ago. Which is why I've now realized that one of the things you need to look at is called rural sociology.

This book written in 1922 should be very helpful for the "way of life" question, so long as you can tolerate the hilarious We Are So Progressive tone (written in 1922, etc.)
posted by SMPA at 10:06 AM on February 3, 2013

Ken Burns series on the Old West.
posted by COD at 10:11 AM on February 3, 2013

SMPA's answer is awesome in every respect. Have to agree with him, take a look at some of the media from the time and it's not exactly "frontier" - they already have public school districts, teacher colleges, and a thriving industrial and commercial life. (The population of kansas just about tripled between 1860 and 1870).
posted by absalom at 10:20 AM on February 3, 2013

Google Books has a bunch of old books scanned as .pdfs that detail the histories of various counties in various states. My impression is that many of them were written in the late 1800s or early 1900s by county historians who wanted to detail recent histories. Lots of bios of prominent citizens...kind of revealing of what they're proud of and think is worthy of note.
posted by vitabellosi at 11:27 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just found out that my best-friend-since-seventh-grade has a new book coming out: Nature's Noblemen: Transatlantic Masculinities and the Nineteenth-Century American West
In this fascinating book Monica Rico explores the myth of the American West in the nineteenth century as a place for men to assert their masculinity by “roughing it” in the wilderness and reveals how this myth played out in a transatlantic context. Rico uncovers the networks of elite men—British and American—who circulated between the West and the metropoles of London and New York.

Each chapter tells the story of an individual who, by traveling these transatlantic paths, sought to resolve anxieties about class, gender, and empire in an era of profound economic and social transformation. All of the men Rico discusses—from the well known, including Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill Cody, to the comparatively obscure, such as English cattle rancher Moreton Frewen—envisioned the American West as a global space into which redemptive narratives of heroic upper-class masculinity could be written.
posted by Lexica at 5:46 PM on February 3, 2013

Best answer: Tabletop RPG source books may be of interest, as well as this GURPS Old West Bibliography.
posted by fings at 6:03 PM on February 3, 2013

Great answer, SMPA! The only thing I have to add that no one else has mentioned yet is that you do know that Kansas fought a civil war for almost a decade before The Civil War, right? Even by your proposed date of the 1870s, memories of Bleeding Kansas and its feuds will be very strong in the area.
posted by seasparrow at 8:35 PM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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