Voting Rights on the American Frontier
Felipe Rodriguez, Fall 2022
Many countries – especially the United States – have long fought to completely exclude certain social, ethnic, geographic, racial, or religious groups from voting, whether it be for the supposed purpose of protecting the poor and uneducated from manipulation, or simply as a result of widespread bigotry and intolerance. At the beginning of the 19th century, suffrage in the United States only applied to white men, and more specifically, until state legislatures began eliminating their property requirements for voting, suffrage only really applied to white men of means. However, as the doctrine of Westward Expansion drove opportunists to the American frontier throughout the century, people began to see the emerging local governments as ripe for political reforms that included progressive voting policies; though at the same time, competition for control of resources, land, and job opportunities fueled intense socio-cultural divisions. Ultimately, the states and territories on the American western frontier were highly inconsistent in their application of voting rights across various nationally disenfranchised groups; so while white women saw incredible successes in their efforts for universal suffrage in the West, dominant racial minority groups like African Americans, Native Americans, or Asian immigrants had a much more difficult fight to secure their suffrage and civil rights.
Despite the obvious importance of women over the entirety of human history, large-scale organized efforts for the enfranchisement of women only began around the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In the West, these early suffragists often made reference to an inherent egalitarianism of living on the frontier, and although such an idea doesn’t properly consider the varied experiences of other (arguably more oppressed) groups, white women in the western territories and states did typically receive praise for their hard work from their communities. This had the effect of creating a strong base of support for women’s suffrage in areas where co-dependence between men and women was essential to survive. Additionally, a lot of white men in the West, especially white male legislators, believed that women demonstrated a more universal support of the Puritan Christian values of the East, and that therefore their enfranchisement would lead to greater support for laws that would help reign in the social problems of the day, including theft, public intoxication, gambling, and prostitution; behaviors that had become associated almost exclusively with the male population in the West.
On December 6th, 1869, the passage of the Wyoming Territorial Legislative Session Council Bill 70, the Women’s Suffrage Act, saw the very first instance of white women being permanently guaranteed the right to vote in all territorial (and later state) elections and to hold any elected offices. From here, suffragist organizing in the West only expanded, thanks largely to the ongoing transportation revolution, and especially the new Transcontinental Railroad which had only been completed earlier that same year. Prominent women’s rights advocates like Anna Dickinson and Susan B. Anthony barnstormed through Western territories by train, while local activists like Mary Shields and Margaret Campbell traveled to more isolated camps and towns. Soon enough, quick transportation out West became associated with suffrage and women’s emancipation, and the extensive travel and efforts of these women were incredibly influential on voting rights legislation in other territories and states. Only two months after suffrage in Wyoming, on February 12th, 1870, the Utah territory also granted suffrage for women; over 43,000 women could now vote in Utah, which was roughly 40 times the amount of female voters in Wyoming.
Both Wyoming and Utah had decided to enfranchise women in the hopes that doing so would improve the image and reputation of their territories. For Wyoming, the territory’s population was mainly concerned with reigning in the aforementioned social ills of the region; however with Utah, people from outside the territory – rather than its own residents – were the most powerful force in bringing about change. This was because the Utah territory was populated by Mormons, who believed in and practiced polygamy. Opponents like Anna Dickinson argued that the conditions of Mormon women under such a marital system were deplorable and that in fact, most Mormon women would vote against polygamy if given the opportunity; thus, the efforts for voting rights in Utah became tied to the elimination of polygamy. Regardless, less than a year after suffragists like Dickinson and Anthony first traveled out West and began campaigning, tens of thousands of women could now vote, and by the time the 19th amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920, 13 out of 16 Western states had already long since granted women’s suffrage.
While it is reasonable to say that the social and political complexities of the West provided a unique atmosphere for the advancement of women, specifically in terms of voting rights, the same cannot largely be said for ethnic and racial minority groups. Early in the Reconstruction Era, African American migrants to the West hoped that Congress would extend their political rights to match those of white Americans by means of suffrage measures, in order to ensure the western territories as secure places for economic opportunity. Before the Civil War, the West had a history of strict anti-black legislation that included the denial of the right to vote (even though there were almost no free blacks in the West). So when the 15th amendment was ratified in 1870, the 284,000 African Americans living in the western states and territories now finally had the opportunity to participate in the electoral system and in government, yet things didn’t always go to plan.
Let’s use Texas as an example. In Texas, after the founding of the Texas Republican Party by 20 white and 150 black delegates, African Americans now had an organized force to help propel them into the state legislature. Opposition forces were significant; Texas Unionists, who were supposed to be on the side of black voters, were overwhelmingly against equal black political participation, and although they didn’t want to fully eliminate the black electorate, they were supportive of restricting African American suffrage. Additionally, widespread “frontier mentality” made the use of violence an acceptable measure to settle disputes, and thus groups like the Ku Klux Klan were able to get away with violence towards, and the intimidation of, black voters. Eventually, the tacit acceptance of political violence against African Americans, and white political support for restricting voting rights allowed for 1) western black voters to become fearful of participating in elections, and 2) black legislators in Western states and territories like texas to be ousted.
Native Americans also suffered at the hands of bigotry and intolerance on the western frontier, and like with African Americans, the conflicts between Native peoples and white settlers had existed for centuries prior to the era of Westward Expansion. In Article 1, Section 2 of the original draft of the United States Constitution – the section of the Constitution that contains the infamous three-fifths compromise – the phrase “excluding Indians not taxed” indicated that, while African American slaves were to be counted as 3/5th of 1 white U.S citizen in population total, Native Americans were not to be considered at all. Although many Native tribes had continually fought to maintain an independent status, the fact that some of the most important governing documents and laws in the United States up to that point had purposefully excluded any Native Americans who did desire citizenship made the efforts for their enfranchisement all the more powerful. Western territories and states in the 19th century did not allow Native Americans to vote, and though some white politicians out west supported their enfranchisement, the general consensus was that Natives would first need to be properly assimilated into mainstream white American culture.
This is the approach the federal government preferred, and in 1870 (after white women had already been enfranchised in Wyoming and Utah) the Senate Judiciary Committee argued that Natives who maintained tribal relationships and failed to assimilate were not citizens. The Dawes Act of 1887 was intended to spur this assimilation; but in reality, all it did was destroy Native cultures and revoke legally held tribal lands. There were some exceptions to assimilation, like with the Supreme Court case Standing Bear v. Crook where the Ponca Chief Standing Bear was afforded full civil rights despite continued tribal allegiance, but these instances were few. The Western territories and states followed the precedents established by the federal government of allowing Natives to essentially choose between cultural loyalty and self-governance or enfranchisement, up until the passage of the Snyder Act of 1924 that granted them full, unconditional U.S citizenship.
Lastly, another group that endured significant hardship in the West, and on the way towards enfranchisement, were Asian immigrants. By the mid-19 century, Asian immigrants of various backgrounds had come to represent a major segment of the American western frontier; ranging from 8.7% of the population in the Nevada territory to 28.5% in the Idaho territory. A multitude of different factors contributed to their mass migration into the United States, including working in mining, agriculture, textile manufacturing, construction, etc, but whatever the case, white westerners soon grew very displeased with their presence.
Chinese immigrants in particular constituted a larger portion of the total Asian immigrant population, and as the number of these Chinese laborers grew, and more and more became successful, anti-Chinese sentiment began to take hold in the West. Individual western territories and states began implementing restrictive measures against Chinese people and other Asian migrants; such as California, where in 1879 the state’s new Constitution explicitly denied the right to vote or hold state employment to naturalized Chinese citizens. In 1882, the federal government took these efforts a step further with the passage of the Chinese exclusion act, which denied Chinese limited all Asian migration but especially Chinese migration to the United States, and prevented naturalized Chinese people from becoming citizens. By preventing the large populations of naturalized Chinese immigrants in the West from becoming citizens, it blocked them from voting, and provided a justified reinforcement of anti-Chinese and general anti-Asian sentiments in western states and territories for generations; until full enfranchisement was finally achieved again in the 1960s.
By examining the application of voting rights across each of these groups, the argument that the West was not a hub for equality and universal suffrage, should be abundantly clear. While it is important to not discount the progress made by women’s rights advocates and suffragists in the western territories and states, it must also be acknowledged that the American frontier was far from a progressive beacon of citizenship.
 Rebecca Mead, How the Vote Was Won: Woman Suffrage in the Western United States, 1868-1914, 1st ed. (New York University Press, 2004), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/worcesteruniv-ebooks/detail.action?docID=2081644, 3-5.
 Ibid, 17-18, 20.
 Holly J. McCammon and Karen E. Campbell, “Winning the Vote in the West: The Political Successes of the Women’s Suffrage Movements, 1866-1919,” Gender & Society 15, no. 1 (February 2001): 55–82, https://doi.org/10.1177/089124301015001004, 57.
 Wyoming Territorial Legislature, “1869 Council Bill 70, the Women’s Suffrage Act” (1869).
 Virginia Scharff and Carolyn Brucken, Home Lands: How Women Made the West (University of California Press, 2010), 64-66.
 Beverly Beeton, “Woman Suffrage in Territorial Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly Vol. 46, no. 2 (1978), 102.
 Ibid, 106.
 McCammon and Campbell, Winning the Vote in the West, 55.
 Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990 (New York: Norton, 1999), 104.
 Ibid, 110.
 U.S. Const., art.1, § 2.
 Library of Congress, “Voting Rights for Native Americans,” Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, n.d., https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/elections/right-to-vote/voting-rights-for-native-americans/.
 Jeanette Wolfley, “Jim Crow, Indian Style: The Disenfranchisement of Native Americans,” American Indian Law Review 16, no. 1 (1991): 167, https://doi.org/10.2307/20068694, 173.
 Library of Congress, Voting Rights for Native Americans
 U.S. ex Rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, 25 F. Cas. 695, 5 Dill. 453 (D. Neb. 1879)
 Library of Congress, Voting Rights for Native Americans
 Gail M. Nomura, “Significant Lives: Asia and Asian Americans in the History of the U. S. West,” The Western Historical Quarterly 25, no. 1 (1994): 69, https://doi.org/10.2307/971070, 79.
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