Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 188-89.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Since 1967, historians of the Reconstruction era have turned away from the Confederate states and Washington to focus their attention on the Northern states. David Montgomery, Felice A. Bonadio, James C. Mohr, and others have studied labor, Ohio, New York, and the border states during Reconstruction. The present book adds to that body of literature a broad-gauged examination of the trans-Mississippi West during the years from 1865 to 1870, omitting the former slave states and Iowa, which are considered more middle western than western. The author of a previous work, The Frontier Against Slavery, Berwanger brings a distinguished background to his new book.

Earlier studies of the North during Reconstruction have defined the leading issues as trade unionism, prohibition, prostitution, and legal equality for blacks. Earlier studies of the trans-Mississippi West during Reconstruction have focused upon Indians, cowboys, miners, cattlemen, and nesters. It was a West in which the concerns engaging the attention of eastern states and Washington lawmakers had little place.

Lincoln's assassination, according to Berwanger's findings, sparked the West's interest in Reconstruction; and Andrew Johnson's stubbornness and unseemly conduct were alienating western Republicans by the end of 1866. The president's inept handling of patronage disappointed Republicans and Democrats alike. As Congress began to gain ascendancy, westerners supported the Republican party and congressional policy.

Congress bestowed suffrage upon blacks in the territories nearly two months before it decreed suffrage for blacks in the unreconstructed states. It has been little noticed by historians that the Territorial Suffrage Act was strongly influenced by a protest from Colorado blacks against a proposed state constitution that would leave them unenfranchised. Though Congress failed to override a presidential veto of the Colorado admission bill in 1866, it soon thereafter enfranchised adult black males in the federal territories and forced Nebraska to amend its proposed constitution and provide black suffrage as a "fundamental condition" of admission.