Lawmen & Outlaws

james_pinkerton02In the late 1800’s, the West wasn’t as “wild” as the stereotype suggests, but there were plenty of reasons to require some kind of law enforcement.  In most Western towns, that meant a Sheriff, but there was also the U.S. Marshall Service, and the Pinkertons aka the Pinkteron Detective Agency. The Pinkertons had such a good reputation, that the federal government hired them in 1871.  However, primarily due to their conflicts with labor unions, Congress passed the Anti-Pinkerton Act in 1893 to prevent anyone from the agency or any other similar agency from working for the federal Government.

You can read more about Allan Pinkerton & his start in the detective business here.


Jesse James

Lawmen were needed in part because of gangs like the Dalton Brothers or the James-Younger gang.

The James-Younger Gang consisted of brothers Jesse & Frank James and Cole & Jim Younger, as the core of the gang. They lasted much longer than most other gangs, but eventually they all got caught or killed. Biography has a great documentary about Jesse here. (Warning: The “coming up next” at the end during the credits is for a Larry Flynn thing, so maybe turn it off before the credits roll.)

The Dalton Brothers murdered more than stole, as opposed to the James-Younger Gang, who tried not to hurt people whenever possible.  Ironically enough, the two of the most famous gangs of the “wild west” were related!  The Dalton Brothers’ mother was the aunt of Cole & Jim Younger of the James-Younger gang.  The Daltons didn’t start off bad though, they were U.S. Marshals. They turned to a life of crime when they weren’t paid for their work as lawmen.  Their first robbery was in February of 1891.  Their last robbery was Oct5, 1892, in Coffeyville, Kansas.  When they attempted to rob both Coffeyville banks at the same time, the town responded with deadly force.

Enjoy a 1954 episode of Stories of the Century, featuring the Dalton Gang:


More Resources about the Dalton Brothers:

Ranchers didn’t like the homesteaders so much because the homesteaders fenced in the ranges the cowboys used for cattle drives.

Ranchers raised cattle and other livestock, but cows were the popular choice of the late 1800’s in the West.

Cowboys were employed to help herd the cattle and keep them healthy.  They were also responsible for cattle drives – herding the cattle hundreds or even thousands of miles to the best market.

Margaret Heffernan Borland was the only woman to ever lead a cattle drive.  After the death of her 3rd husband & several of her kids, she took her remaining children (2 sons under age 15, and a 7 yr old daughter), as well as her 6 yr old granddaughter, and led the cattle drive from her ranch in Texas on the Chisholm Trail.  Unfortunately, she died in her boarding room before she could sell the cattle.

Because the cows would roam freely for most of their life, ranchers used a brand to mark their herds so they could tell which cows were whose.  For a fun activity, think up a name for a ranch, then make up a brand.

American Heartland had a video about ranchers:


More Resources:

Homesteaders & Locust Plauges

Homestead Act AdvertismentThe Homestead Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln, gave anyone, 21 years old or older, who had never taken up arms against the government, 160 acres of land in the West.  The only catch – you had to live on the land for 5 years, and make improvements.  Because the law said “anyone” it meant that women and African-Americans could be homesteaders.  As a result, after the civil war, freed slaves made their way west in drove.  In Kansas, towns populated entirely of freed slaves sprung up.  The freedom, and the feeling of a fresh start drew many.

Unfortunately, only about 40% of those who tried, were successful.  There are were many hardships that faced the homesteaders, everything from Indian attacks, to claim jumpers, to harsh winters, to droughts.  Most of the people who took claims, were too poor to afford to do much with their claims.  Some were killed by claim jumpers, others by Indians, and others by disease.  But many more just simply gave up and left to try to make their way elsewhere.

**** A side note to any who many be reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books:  Pa Ingalls got his homestead under the Timber Culture Act of 1873, which was one of the acts that modified the 1862 act.  Under this act, the homesteader got 160 acres, but they had to plant 40 acres of trees within a set time frame.  Someone who had already gotten 160 acres under the 1862 could make another claim under this act, giving them a total of 320 acres.  The Ingalls did not get a homestead claim until 1880, thus they only got the 160 acres under the Timber Culture Act.

A guy named Corey Branigan did this awesomely funny video explaining the Homestead Act.

Then a kid who goes by Jack made a Lego Version:

More Resources:


E.V. “Hardy” Hardenburg

*** As an interesting side note, the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 which gave states land to sell to fund agricultural colleges, led to the formation of Cornell University, the alma mater of my 2nd cousin 3x removed, Professor Earle Volcart “Hardy” Hardenburg.  “Hardy” was a well respected expert on potatoes, earning his doctorate in 1919, and serving on many agricultural boards as well as speaking across the United States and Canada.


A Kansas farm family fights a losing battle with the relentless "hoppers" in a cartoon by 19th-century illustrator Henry Worrall. (Kansas State Historical Society)

A Kansas farm family fights a losing battle with the relentless “hoppers” in a cartoon by 19th-century illustrator Henry Worrall. (Kansas State Historical Society)

The Locust Plague of 1874-1875

** FYI – This is what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about in her book On the Banks of Plum Creek.  When she writes about the swarm of grasshoppers, it was really an insect called the Rocky Mountain Locust.  These things were a pest to the settlers for several years, but the worst was the years of 1874-1875.  Eventually, the Rocky Mountain Locust went extinct, with the last documented sighting in 1902.

Here’s a video about it:


More Resources:

Death of the Super Hopper by Professor Jeffery Lockwood. – FYI, the good professor believes in Evolution and Global Warming, but he has several good points.


Transcontinental Railroad

Instead of reading the book, Charlie Brown & company have a nice little video that covers this topic nicely, and will likely be remembered far longer then a few pages of dry, oversimplified text.

Discussion Questions:

  • Name the company that started building in Omaha, Nebraska?
  • Name the company that started building in Sacremento, California?
  • What did the Federal Government promise the railroad companies for building?
  • Where did the two tracks join?
  • What is the “Golden Spike”?
  • When did building start? When did it end? How many years did it take to complete?
  • Which President signed the order to start?  Who was President when it was completed?

Golden Spike

More Resources:

Central Pacific Railroad Museum

Today in History (a .gov website)

Golden Spike Photo & information (a .gov website)

History Channel


PBS Documentary:  American Experience Trans Continental Railroad
——- Video available on YouTube – Part 1 & Part 2

Steam Locomotives – How do they work?

steam_engine_21The book‘s explanation of a steam locomotive reads like something I’d read to my 3 year old nephew, not a 3rd grader.

“The steam presses on pipes inside the locomotive. It moves a special part that turns the wheels.”

So I found a video that explains it all in proper terms: piston, valve, etc.

So after watching the video, we can read the slightly less childish text on page 215 that describes the job of a fireman and the engineer.

Discussion Questions:

  • How is the fireman on a train different than a fireman in our neighborhood?  How are they the same?
  • What is the engineer’s job?
  • What kind of problems might an engineer see on the tracks ahead?
  • What movie can you think of where an engineer saw a problem on the tracks ahead?

Links for more information:
How the Steam Engine of the Locomotive Works

Animated Engines
Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum