The year is 1883. The Brooklyn Bridge opens to traffic after a 13 year construction. The first steps towards America’s Niagara Falls State Park are underway. Thomas Edison installs the first overhead electric lighting system in Roselle, New Jersey, and 73 people perish in a horrific fire at Newhall Hotel in Milwaukee.
Out West, “Black Bart the Po-et” makes his last stagecoach robbery, leaving incriminating clues that lead to the end of his reign. Omaha, Nebraska hosts the debut of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and America’s Westward Expansion is in full effect.
Enter Yellowstone prequel 1883. Taylor Sheridan’s fictionalized retelling of this pivotal time in U.S. history shows how the ancestors of John Dutton (Kevin Costner) won the West through blood, sweat, and tears. But what was our country truly like during this great age of expansion? Who was president? Who was America, for that matter? And most of all, what could cause a Tennessee farmer to leave everything he’s ever known to pursue the unknown? Let’s break it down.
The Contention of America’s Gilded Age
1883 does a masterful job of illustrating the perseverance of American pioneers. But the show’s namesake is but one year in a three-decade-long period known as The Gilded Age.
America’s Gilded Age took hold during the late 19th century. Beginning in the 1870s and “ending” at the turn of the 20th century, The Gilded Age at large is known as such for the rapid economic growth of the Western world during this time period. Specifically, the Northern and Western United States saw tremendous growth (as 1883 illustrates for the latter).
The rapid influx of European immigrants 1883 showcases is also highly accurate to history. Wages in America began significantly outpacing European earnings in the late 19th century. U.S. industrialization could pay a worker twice what they would earn doing the same skilled labor in Europe at the time.
This built the modern American Dream. But it also brought about the darker side of The Gilded Age. Poverty and inequality were rampant as millions of immigrants sought a better life in an unwelcoming land. Black Americans continued to struggle after Emancipation amidst a deeply prejudiced and segregated society.
Those who saw themselves as “true Americans” were wildly hesitant to accept their new peers as equals, subjecting immigrants like 1883‘s Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) to intense prejudice, as well. The wealth and earnings gap also became severe during this time period, leading to severe contention between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
The Depression of 1882-1885
Congruently, this disparate wealth and rapidly changing time would create the Depression of 1882-1885, which 1883 takes place in the heart of. Railroad expansion fueled mass growth from 1879 to 1882, placing America firmly on a pedestal she wasn’t ready to have kicked out from under her. Many “have nots” lost everything as a result.
This alone would’ve been enough to drive a Tennessee farmer like James Dutton (Tim McGraw) to pick up his entire family and chase a better life out West. No matter the cost.
Who Was President in 1883?
As the Duttons made their way across America’s Westward Expansion, politics would’ve been as volatile as the West itself.
At the time of 1883, America was led by Civil War veteran, Vermont native and New York-based Lawyer Chester Alan Arthur. Born October 5, 1829, President Arthur (R) served as the 21st Commander in Chief of the United States from 1881-1885.
Arthur first entered the White House as the 20th U.S. Vice President under President James A. Garfield. Garfield’s presidency was cut short by his assassination, however, and the office was left vacant for two months – a shocking oddity our Constitution now prevents.
In September of 1881, Arthur would assume the presidency and serve a full term, making him president during the time 1883 is set. 19th century journalist Alexander McClure best sums up Arthur’s leadership, writing: “No man ever entered the Presidency so profoundly and widely distrusted as Chester Alan Arthur, and no one ever [retired] more generally respected, alike by political friend and foe.”
Suffering from poor health for the last years of his life, Arthur would die of cerebral hemorrhage that began November 17, 1886. He would pass in an unconscious state the following day, Nov. 18, 1886 at 57-years-old.
Why Was There No Vice President in 1883?
Shockingly, there was no U.S. vice president during Arthur’s entire time in office. Arthur was James Garfield’s VP, so when President Garfield died, Arthur was made U.S. President. At the time, however, there was no mechanism to immediately fill the VP vacancy this left.
If Arthur himself had died while holding office, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate would’ve taken his place. It feels archaic now, but this process wouldn’t be ratified until almost a century later, well into the 20th century.
Much like John Dutton’s irreverence for modern politics, his Dutton ancestors were likely not overly-concerned with the politicians of the time. Understanding this broader picture, however, leads to a far more fruitful appreciation of the timeless American stories that inspired 1883.