Benjamin Harrison: The American Franchise

Benjamin Harrison: The American Franchise

At noon on April 22, 1889, just a few weeks after Harrison’s inauguration, a gunshot signaled the opening of the Indian Territory in Oklahoma—some 1.9 million acres—to white settlers. That day, 20,000 people crossed into the territory, claiming all the available acreage. This event in Oklahoma was on the heels of the land rush for over 11 million acres of Sioux Indian territory in the Dakotas two months earlier. On October 15, 1892, Harrison made an additional 1.8 million acres of the Crow Indian reservation in Montana available for general settlement. Indeed, during Harrison's administration, Native Americans continued to be pushed out of the last vestiges of their homelands.

End of the Frontier Era

In a desperate bid to end the poverty, disease, apathy, and alcoholism that characterized reservation life, a revitalization movement known as the "Ghost Dance" sprang up among the Sioux Indians of the western plains. These mysterious and emotionally charged rituals supported the passionate belief that an Indian spirit, or savior, soon would destroy the hated whites, returning stolen lands to the Indians once and for all. Alarmed by the frenzy, federal troops confronted a band of Sioux—a nonviolent group who had left the reservation fearful of being caught up in the Indian awakening—at Wounded Knee in the Dakota badlands. In this last battle waged on December 29, 1890, the United States Army massacred 150 Sioux men, women, and children; only 25 soldiers died during the killing. With the Battle of Wounded Knee and the final distribution of Indian lands, the frontier era of American history had finally passed. Thereafter, white Americans would look to foreign lands, outer space, and their inner selves for new frontiers, leaving the West to history, myth, and cinema.

New States and Immigrants

Over the four years of Harrison's term in office, more states were admitted into the Union than during any previous presidential administration: North Dakota and South Dakota (November 2, 1889), Montana (November 8, 1889), Washington (November 11, 1889), Idaho (July 3, 1890), and Wyoming (July 10, 1890). These actions brought new electors to the ballot box. Additionally, the new states impacted American politics by focusing political attention on western issues like never before. Located far from the eastern United States, the new West at the turn of the century would demand government support for transforming the landscape. Mesas, buttes, dry terrain, and vast grasslands were turned into ranches, farms, mines, timber factories, fisheries, and vacation resorts. The new communities of the West would also need infrastructure for basic needs such as commerce, transportation, communication, water, and power. Thus, the government would become involved in giving land to railroad and telegraph companies, constructing dams and irrigation canals, and providing mining concessions.

On January 1, 1892, at the beginning of Harrison's last year in office, federal officials designated Ellis Island in New York Harbor as the official entry point for the flood of immigrants arriving in New York City. From 1888 to 1892, the nation's population had grown from 60 million to over 65 million. As many as half of the new people listed in the census were immigrants. In the twenty years prior to 1900, almost 9 million immigrants had swelled the nation's population, marking one of the largest folk movements in world history.