The Western Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War

by Mary Cronin (Volume editor) Debra van Tuyll (Volume editor)
©2021 Edited Collection VIII, 328 Pages
Series: Mediating American History, Volume 19


Although the American Civil War has received extensive scholarly attention in the 150+ years since its conclusion, far less scholarly work has been devoted to western newspapers and their experiences of that bloody conflict. This first volume of a two-volume set reveals that the West was not immune from the war’s battles, military recruitment, national anxieties, or partisan infighting. The Western Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War explores how editors throughout the region (from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast) responded to secession, the war, and its immediate aftermath. This edited volume examines editors’ outspoken partisanship (including political feuds), their newsgathering techniques, their financial concerns, and their responses to wartime press censorship. The book also reveals how the war was reported in the western press, while also casting a light on reporting of home front issues. This first volume reveals the financial and editorial lengths that editors went to in order to meet readers’ demands for war and home front news across a vast region where infrastructure was poor and news, therefore, was often slow to arrive. The second volume, The Midwestern Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War, focuses on the press in the midwestern United States.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: Land. Lots of Land. And Newspapers, Too: Westward Migration and the Creation of Western Journalism (Mary M. Cronin, Debra Reddin van Tuyll, and Bill Huntzicker)
  • 1. By the Numbers: Facts and Figures of Western Editors and Their Newspapers (Debra Reddin van Tuyll)
  • 2. “Give Us the War News!”: News Gathering, Distribution, and Audiences (Mary M. Cronin)
  • 3. Press Roles and Functions: Community Building in the West (Glen Feighery and David J. Vergobbi)
  • 4. No ‘Cliques or Factions’: Politics, Partisanship and the Press in the West (Erika J. Pribanic-Smith)
  • 5. “Stirring Times”: The Coming of the American Civil War in the Western Press (Crompton Burton)
  • 6. Acts of Disloyalty: Legal and Extralegal Restrictions on the Far Western Press in Wartime (Mary M. Cronin)
  • 7. A Distant and Bloody Mirror: The Western Press and the Fighting (Hubert van Tuyll)
  • 8. From Sea to Shining Sea: Domestic and International News from the Plains to the Ocean (Jennifer E. Moore)
  • 9. “Words are Not Sufficient”: The Western Press Reports the End of the War and the Death of Lincoln (Katrina Quinn)
  • Epilogue: In the Final Analysis: A Region of High-Risk Opportunity (Mary M. Cronin and Debra Reddin van Tuyll)
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

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Land. Lots of Land. And Newspapers, Too: Westward Migration and the Creation of Western Journalism

By Mary M. Cronin, Debra Reddin van Tuyll, and Bill Huntzicker1

Americans treat the Civil War and westward expansion as two separate events. That thinking obscures the history of the West and the Western press during the war years. Americans are used to thinking of the war as a North/South matter centered on the regions touching the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They forget that the conflict did, in fact, span from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific. New Mexico Territory, including what is now Arizona, was the site of two major battles and several lesser ones, and the Texas Gulf Coast saw its share of action as well. The Confederate Navy waged war on civilian whaling vessels and convinced San Franciscans that Confederate raiders might confiscate their gold. The West contributed men to regiments that would travel to the theatres of war in Virginia and Tennessee, including volunteers from Indian Territory (Oklahoma), though far more westerners would stay home and take up the Indian-fighting duties of the Army regulars called into action back east.2

Westerners debated the causes of the war as hotly as their brethren in Massachusetts or South Carolina. Free-soilers who migrated west during the California gold rush argued just as passionately with Southerners who had responded to the call of gold and who brought their slaves with them—by 1860, some 4,000 slaves toiled in California gold mines. The profits of those mines helped finance the Union effort. Some mining operations sent as much as $1 million east in a single shipment, a fact of which the Confederacy was fully aware and had considerable interested in diverting some of that wealth into its own coffers. Some Southern migrants to California even worked to get the ←1 | 2→Golden State to secede.3 There can be no doubt that the Civil War was far more than a fight between New England and mid-Atlantic Yankees and Southeastern Rebels. The West was fully invested in the war while, at the same time, dealing with its own regional conflicts. California troops occupied the Utah Territory for most of the war, with the stated reason being protection of telegraph lines and the Overland Mail route from Native Americans—when the United States was actually more concerned about the Mormons than Indians. New Mexico Territory was even split over the war-related questions; in 1861, Colonel John Baylor of Texas created a Confederate territory out of southern New Mexico, the area now known as Arizona, and named himself governor.4 War-related issues and events unfolded in the West even as the great battles in Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, and Pennsylvania were playing out.

By way of example, consider the Sand Creek Massacre. This was one of the darkest moments in American history. Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who lived in arid eastern Colorado believed they were safe because they thought they were on the verge of a peace treaty with the United States. They were wrong. On the morning of November 29, 1864, hundreds of irregular (militia) American cavalrymen led by Colonel John Chivington stormed the Indians’ village. Although many of the Native Americans were waiving white flags and one even had an American flag flying over his teepee, the soldiers killed some 150 Indians—mostly women, children, and elderly. The troops burned the village to the ground and mutilated bodies of the fallen, even taking body parts as trophies.5

Meanwhile, at exactly the same moment in Georgia, Major General William T. Sherman’s 60,000 infantrymen and 6,000 cavalry were in the second week of wreaking Georgia, which was the sole source of food for Southern troops on the eastern front in Virginia. Sherman’s mission was two-fold: to destroy the rail-lines that allowed food and other materials to move from the deep South to the soldiers in Virginia, but also to wage total war so as to conclude the long, bloody conflict. The March to the Sea was a far less vicious attack on a non-military population than the Sand Creek Massacre. The March to the Sea resulted in only about 100 civilian casualties, a figure that includes both killed and wounded. Property damage was extensive, around $100 million (in 1865 dollars) but loss of civilian life was far lower than it was in Chivington’s raid.6

The West’s Role in the Coming War

Even beyond military action, though, the West was as intimately involved in the coming of the Civil War as either the South or the North. Westward ←2 | 3→Expansion had been fueled first by the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 following the Mexican-American War. These two land acquisitions made a vast amount of land available to settlers who ventured west. The Manifest Destiny ideology—that Americans had a responsibility to spread democracy and conquer the land all the way to the Pacific—proposed by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845, also helped lure Americans west, as did the discovery of gold in California in 1849.7

White Southerners looked to the West as the salvation of their peculiar institution.8 In many places in the South, the reproductive labor of slaves exceeded what could be accommodated on the available land. Further, in some parts of the South, the slave population equaled or exceeded that of whites. This created a “crisis of fear,” in the words of historian Stephen Channing—a nagging fear that those laboring in cotton fields or Low Country rice patties might not be quite as content as Southerners liked to portray them. Alexis de Tocqueville predicted just such a conflict in his 1830s study of American democracy—and he, too, grounded his prediction in the inevitable growth of the slave population overcoming that of the white.9 Given the opportunity to funnel slaves into western territories, Southern fears of overpopulation and consequent slave revolts would be resolved, but that expansion was not to be.

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 put a period to Southern hopes of westward expansion by limiting where their slaves could go and still be slaves—the famous, perhaps infamous, 36o30′ parallel. Slavery would be permitted below that line but not above, with the exception of Missouri, whose admission to the Union as a slave state with that of Maine as a free state was meant as a power-balancing move. Following the Mexican-American War, the Compromise of 1850 would divvy up territories acquired during that conflict between Texas and the federal government. The borders of Texas would be set, and the territories of New Mexico and Utah established—with the right to determine when they applied for statehood whether they wished to come into the Union as slave or free states.10 That same year, California achieved statehood, placing it in the position of straddling the 36th parallel. Four years later, the Missouri Compromise would be repealed by the Kansas and Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers in territories that were on the verge of statehood to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Southerners applauded the Act. Northerners deplored it.11

Each of these sectional conflicts dealt with slavery, but not slavery in the South—slavery in the West. Would it or would it not be permitted? Southerners brought slaves west to work in California’s gold fields, New Mexico’s legislature enacted a slave code, and Oregonians and Californians vigorously debated slavery (with many citizens believing the presence of ←3 | 4→African Americans would devalue white labor).12 In this way, the West was intimately involved in the coming of the Civil War. The region was a key touch point in early mid-nineteenth century politics as well as in American identity in the antebellum period. Further, while Southerners may have been gripped in a crisis of fear over slavery and the potential for slave revolt, Westerners, those in Kansas particularly, had to deal with bloody violence related to the sectional crises that would eventually lead to the Civil War.13 During the war, the West might not have supplied as many troops to fight in the East as other states, but they provided men to take up the positions left vacant when U.S. troops were called back to Virginia or Tennessee or wherever the theatre of war happened to be at the moment.14

Western Communities of Journalism

Still, Americans flocked westward. In 1820, 2.4 million Americans lived west of the Appalachians, and western migration had become a well-established part of the American psyche. By 1860, the American West had been fully expanded to the Pacific Ocean, if not entirely conquered, and the idea of Manifest Destiny beckoned even more black and white Americans to move west.15 And where Americans went, newspapers followed.

Barbara Cloud, probably the foremost scholar of the western press, focused her 2008 work, The Coming of the Frontier Press: How the West was Really Won, on the press’s development in the post-war years, but the first newspapers established in the West started much earlier than that. The Gaceta de Texas debuted in May 1813 and was soon followed by eighty-six more newspapers before 1846.16 Newspapers existed in the far-west states of California and Oregon during the 1840s, as well. Cloud argues that there would not have been a West as early as it developed without newspapers promoting settlement.17 Americans were devoted republicans and committed newspaper readers. That did not change just because they lived on the frontier. Further, those early western newspapers, printed on hand presses—or even handwritten—housed under hastily thrown-up tents on rude, muddy “main” streets helped build the West and connect it with the greater American national culture. That meant getting involved with the slave question and getting dragged into a war over slavery.

This book moves forward to the end of the opening of the West when the United States was trapped in an internecine war, the bloodiest in its history even yet, and seeks to explain how western newspapers performed their journalistic and socio-cultural roles in the farthest-flung corners of America. The chapters will examine how western press obtained, produced, and distributed ←4 | 5→news; helped build villages, towns, cities, and states into participants in mainstream American culture; and pursued its roles as an economic, educational, social, and political institution. Once the war came, most western papers, peripatetic as they were, did what they could in their limited life spans to deliver news about the conflict, explain the causes of the war, recruit men into either the Union or Confederate army (depending on the editor’s loyalties), to boost civilian morale, and perhaps most importantly of all, to act as promoters for their fledgling, though proliferating, towns so as to attract more settlers to fuel growth—and permanence—of their settlements.18 In the process, some editors become more interested in developing their towns than in promoting the distant war that some came west to avoid.

This work follows the model of co-editor Debra Reddin van Tuyll’s earlier study of the structural-functional role of the Southern press during the Civil War. Like that work, this one is grounded in the notion that journalism history is intimately tied to the social, political, cultural and economic functions of society and serves as a forum for discussing issues related to those functions, including the Civil War.19 Further, as the legendary journalism historian James W. Carey argued, the history of journalism [includes] the history of reporting. Carey actually says the history of journalism IS the history of reporting.20

This work will address issues related to reporting. In fact, those are some of the more important issues for the Western press. Most western newspapers were a long way from the common news sources—New York and other metropolitan newspapers or telegraph lines that brought news from the Associated Press. Only a handful had paid correspondents in the field reported the war news firsthand. Instead, western newspapers had to rely on the very limited western rail and telegraph lines to bring the big-name newspapers into editorial warrens, though more often, they were reliant on wagon train, Pony Express, or visitors to bring news or newspapers they could shape into stories for their papers.21 The telegraph moved faster (and could be used for big stories), but the technology was an expensive luxury and mostly unavailable for newspapers outside of the larger western towns and cities.22

One aspect of journalism’s relationship to the larger culture that cannot be studied for this book is that of the relationship between newspaper and reader. No postmaster newspaper subscription lists or news agent distribution lists could be located for such an analysis. That does not, however, mean that David Paul Nord’s concept of the community of journalism will be entirely ignored. Nord argues that “communities are built, maintained, and wrecked in communication” such as that which newspapers provide. He referred to that as their “forum function.” Communication, and ←5 | 6→particularly nineteenth-century newspapers, provided public forums that allowed Americans to find their identities, to build camaraderie, to convey community values. While Nord agrees that more static forms of communication such as religion, ritual, or habit have contributed to building American communities, the true “vortex” of community building has occurred in “formal, public, printed communication, including journalism.” Newspapers also can provide tools that readers can use to build communities—advertising, opinions on public issues, and partisanism.23 This work is grounded in the ideas that culture and communication are the building block of communities, and those were the building blocks, we argue, that western newspapers provided for the construction of the West during the Civil War.

Print culture in Antebellum America was robust. That alone gave it the power to build communities. Americans were reading about the same events as other Americans, perhaps with a different take or spin, but perhaps verbatim in the form of a reprint from an another newspaper. Antebellum Americans were newspaper readers extraordinaire. They craved information, and they craved a public forum where they could read about and discuss the multitudinous issues of the day. Those debates were not the civilized political discourse of the twenty-first century (truly, what Americans deal with today is pablum compared to what their nineteenth-century ancestors read and hurled at one another). They were raucous, roll-around-in-the-dirt, bloody nose, all-out scrapping.24

Individuals turned to newspapers for information, for entertainment, for help teaching children, and, during the Civil War, for information about national politics, and for the all-important stories of what was happening with their friends and relatives who were serving on far-away, or even nearby, battlefields. Some of the most important content, from a reader perspective, anyway, was the reports from the battlefield of who had been wounded, killed, or was missing in action, but Americans also wanted to know how the war was going—and commonly, newspapers based that assessment on their geography, but equally commonly on their politics. Democratic Copperheads in the Union assessed and reacted to military and political matters through a difference lens from their Republican counterparts; the same was true for peace journalists in the South who opposed the war and pushed for an early peace.

Little attention has been paid through the years to the war in the West, much less the press that served those living on the Great Plains or the Pacific Coast, but they, too, had a “dog in the fight.” Many, if not most, had family members involved in fighting the war, and that made them anxious for information. This book will examine how those 200-odd newspapers on the plains, in Rocky Mountain mining camps, in the Southwest, and on the ←6 | 7→Pacific coast addressed that and other community and reader needs despite the lack of raw materials, having few correspondents in the field, and frequent instances of military censorship.

Editors Move West

Given the personal nature of journalism in mid-nineteenth century, it is impossible to separate editors from their publications. In a sense, the newspapers were the personification of their editors and a place where their readers could be in conversation with the editor. Those conversations ranged widely, from politics to agriculture to literature. As the Salt Lake City Mountaineer framed it in an 1861 article, “A newspaper is a sermon for the thoughtful, a romance for the light-hearted, a museum for the curious, a history for the studious, a dictionary for the scholar, a library for the poor, a depot of useful information, and a blessing to everybody.”25 However, a newspaper could only bestow those blessings based on the skill and tenacity of its editor.


VIII, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (September)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. VIII, 328 pp., 2 b/w ill.,16 tables.

Biographical notes

Mary Cronin (Volume editor) Debra van Tuyll (Volume editor)

Mary M. Cronin (Ph.D., Michigan State University) is a professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico. A former news reporter and editor, Cronin’s research interests include nineteenth- and early twentieth-century press performance issues, U.S. Civil War coverage, media law, and coverage of women and minorities. She is the author, editor, or co-editor of four previous books, as well as numerous scholarly articles, on media history. Debra Reddin van Tuyll (Ph.D., University of South Carolina) is a professor of communication at Augusta University. She is winner of the AJHA Kobre Award for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism History and the Donald L. Shaw Award for Lifetime Achievement in Service to Journalism History.


Title: The Western Press in the Crucible of the American Civil War