Age of Western Expansion

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At some time in American history, every part of the United States except the easternmost region qualifed as "the West," the last frontier of settlement. As the idea of the West expanded in the public imagination, it became a land of cowboys, buffalo herds, a vast wilderness, and a society that operated on the other side of the law. The West was also the site of frontier warfare between settlers and American Indians. To a large extent, that picture was real, but the American West is far more than just a treasure trove of folklore. It is a vital part of the nation's growth and development, a rich depository of its history.

The age of western expansion refers mainly to the period following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Western expansion includes the lands acquired by treaty or warfare west of the Mississippi River. As a result of the war with Mexico (1846–1848), the United States added land in the Southwest stretching from Texas to the Pacific, including California. Although Nebraska, Kansas, and the Dakotas are not generally considered western states today, much of the fighting for land between white settlers and American Indians and much of the trail blazing and cattle drives took place in those states. War and western expansion went hand in hand. That expansion, a form of continental imperialism, not only created modern cultural icons such as the frontiersman, the cowboy, and the homestead family, but also reinforced American identity. Western expansion reinforced the view that American society was superior to all others and that it was the nation's "Manifest Destiny" to spread its institutions across the continent.

the first great journey

Thomas Jefferson managed the greatest land bargain in U.S. history when, acting as president, he purchased 828,000 square miles of territory from France in 1803. The boundaries of the purchase were vague; it covered land west of the Mississippi River, comprising what became all or parts of the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Utah. It doubled the size of the United States.

The purchase was real, but no one knew precisely what the United States had bought. So, in 1804, Jefferson sent explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on the first overland expedition to the Northwest. On the twenty-eight month journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to the Pacific Ocean and back, Lewis and Clark kept detailed records of the people, plants, and terrain they encountered. The successful expedition not only provided boundaries for the Louisiana Purchase, but it began the great wave of western expansion that pushed the boundaries of the United States all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

"westward ho"

Long before Lewis and Clark's expedition, fur trappers had been exploring parts of what became the West. The fur trappers were after the wealth of beaver pelts to be found in the streams of the western wilderness. Some of the trappers became scouts for the army. The military hired experienced mountain men such as Kit Carson and Jim Bridger to lead expeditions during the early and the mid-nineteenth century. The U.S. government had a keen interest in exploring the West and in promoting settlement there. All these explorers and trappers were directly responsible for opening the West to later migration because they established trails through the wilderness. Without these trails, the covered wagons that took settlers to the Pacific could not have crossed the dangerous terrain.

On their first expedition, Lewis and Clark carved out much of what became the Oregon Trail, one of the great emigration routes first used by fur traders and missionaries. It wound from Independence, Missouri, to the Columbia River region of Oregon, a distance of some 2,000 miles. By the 1840s, the trail was traveled by some 12,000 emigrants on wagon trains heading west. The journey took from four to six months, with an occasional stop for supplies at various forts set up along the way. Although films of the Wild West generally describe the main hazard on the trail as attacks from American Indians, the emigrants were far more apt to suffer from accidents, wagon breakdowns, and cholera. The Oregon Trail was in use longer than any of the trails west. Even after the railroad began to link both coasts and reduced the need for wagon trains, the trail was still used for cattle and sheep drives heading east.

A route that helped to open the Southwest was the Santa Fe Trail, running from Independence, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, although it was used more as a commercial road than an emigration highway. Merchants sent wagon caravans from the Missouri River, following the divide between the Arkansas and Kansas river tributaries, to present-day Great Bend, Kansas, and then along the Arkansas. Three routes turned south at the western end heading for Santa Fe. Use of the trail stopped when the Santa Fe railroad was completed in 1880.

the mormon emigration

During 1846 to 1847, a great wave of migration headed west, following the Oregon Trail for part of the journey. The travelers were followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as the Mormons. Long persecuted for their beliefs, the Mormons, headed by Joseph Smith, Jr., had fled from New York to Ohio, Missouri, and to Illinois. Following Smith's death, the new leader, Brigham Young, led the first wave of migration. Over the next two decades, some 70,000 Mormons made the trek from Nauvoo, Illinois, across Iowa, to the Great Platte River Road at the Missouri River. At Fort Laramie, the Mormons crossed to the south side of the Missouri to pick up the Oregon Trail. After crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass, they left the trail and used a route blazed by earlier groups heading for California. The Mormons followed the faint trail of the ill-fated Donner party into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The first leg of the trip to the Missouri covered 265 miles; the second to the valley of the Great Salt Lake covered some 1,032 miles. The Mormon trail (much of it no longer visible) is now an historic site, part of the National Trails System. The Mormons settled what is now Salt Lake City, which later became the capital of Utah, and

in the surrounding areas. But they also helped to spur migration to California. Prospectors who flocked west after hearing word of gold deposits often stopped for a few days of rest in Salt Lake City.

gold rush

California's statehood was hastened by the discovery of gold early in 1848. John Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, was building a sawmill on land owned by John Sutter on the American River near Coloma. On January 24, he came upon flakes of gold and that started the famed Gold Rush to California, which in turn started the flood of settlement in the West. Although the two men at first tried to keep the gold a secret, by the summer the surrounding hillsides were crowded with some 4,000 tents of would-be prospectors anxious to strike it rich. Some 6,000 wagons made the trek, carrying some 40,000 people. Few of them became rich, but many of them stayed in the area and became westerners. The fact that California joined the Union in 1850, just two years after it had been ceded from Mexico, further spurred the flood of migration to the Pacific.

homestead act

Even after the Gold Rush and migrations by such groups as the Mormons, the American West was still sparsely populated by the middle of the nineteenth century. Most Americans thought of it as a savage land with impossible terrain, little water, and vast deserts, and populated by American Indians who were, for the most part, unfriendly. Then came the Civil War and the Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. It provided 160 acres of public land free of charge after a small filing fee to anyone 21 years old or head of a family, who was a citizen or had filed for citizenship, and who had lived on and worked the land for at least five years. Before the war, there had been a good deal of opposition to homesteading. Southerners viewed homesteaders as anti-slavery; eastern employers did not want their workers to leave low-paying jobs to travel west; and eastern landowners were afraid that land values would fall if the government gave away land. But as the twentieth century began, more than 80 million acres had gone to the homesteaders and helped to settle the West.

promoting settlement

Although the covered wagon played a huge role in transporting emigrants westward, no invention increased western settlement so much as the railroad. In the United States, John Stevens built a steam locomotive in 1825 and demonstrated it on his front lawn in Hoboken, New Jersey. Two years later, the first railroad company in the United States, the Baltimore and Ohio, was chartered. Almost from the beginning, promoters of the railroad saw it as a source of commerce not only for eastern cities, but for western expansion as well.

As other railroads were built, the thrust was westward. The first railroad reached the Mississippi from Chicago in 1854. In 1865, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act to provide enormous federal assistance for a transcontinental railroad. Thus, the greatest boost to expansion of the West took place at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, when the Union Pacific Railroad, heading west from Omaha, Nebraska, met the Central Pacific Railroad, heading east from Sacramento, California. During the following years, nine major routes connected the West Coast to the Midwest and South.

Other inventions promoted development of western lands. A machine to manufacture barbed wire fencing was introduced in 1874 by Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, Illinois. Now ranchers could more easily keep track of their herds in the vast expanse of pasture lands. By 1890, barbed wire fencing had just about replaced the open range in the West, but not without fostering conflicts over land between farmers and ranchers. Improvements in irrigation also helped to promote settlement, especially in dry desert areas, although disputes also arose over who had rights to water.

Another inducement to white settlement was the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians. From the beginning of European migration to North America, different policies were adopted concerning American Indians. Early English law forbid unauthorized confiscation of their land. The Proclamation of 1763 gave all the land west of the Appalachians to the native people. But the Indian Removal Act of 1830 made the first departure from these policies. The act allowed the president to give unsettled western prairie land to certain tribes in exchange for their already settled, and more desirable, territories within the states, especially in the southeast. Trouble arose when the government, especially under the administration of Andrew Jackson, used force to make the exchange of lands, ultimately leading in this case to the forced migration of Cherokees, an event that came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

With the discovery of gold in California, there was no stopping massive white migration westward. Treaties with American Indians were nullified in the rush to claim desirable land. Many horrific battles followed, including the massacre of American Indians at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 and the victory of the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876. By 1887, most American Indians had been moved onto reservations and no longer stood in the way of westward expansion.

the western image

Even for those who had no thought of migrating, the American West was a subject of great fascination in the early days of expansion. "Go West, young man," wrote Indiana newspaperman John Soule in 1851. (The quote is usually and wrongly attributed to Horace Greely.) The western image was enchanced by showmen such as Buffalo Bill and by artists such as Frederic Remington. William "Buffalo Bill" Cody was a buffalo hunter and an army scout, who created his image of the West with melodrama. He was a superb showman and organized his first Wild West exhibition in 1883. His enthusiastic audiences were shown what the "real West" was like with an exhibition of fancy shooting, a Pony Express ride, a buffalo hunt, and screaming battles between cowboys and American Indians. Famous rifle shooter Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull later joined his traveling troupe.

Artist and sculptor Frederic Remington won fame for his realistic portrayals of life in the American West. After studying at Yale University art school, he traveled widely west of the Mississippi and devoted his work to life on the plains, including American Indians, cowboys, and soldiers. One of his most famous works is the bronze statue Bronco Buster.


American expansion westward fostered enormous opportunities but also enormous problems for this nation that moved far beyond the acts of migration and settlement. One major problem was the ownership of land, for most white migrants felt they had a right to the most desirable lands, even if American Indians and Mexicans, who had long lived in the West, claimed that land as their own. Expansionist ideas and the demand for more western lands ultimately led to the outbreak of the War with Mexico in 1846. Less directly, by raising the question of slavery in the western territories acquired in the 1848 peace settlement, westward expansion helped to define issues that led to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. After the Civil War ended, this relentless quest for western land by white Americans led to many bloody battles between new settlers and soldiers and American Indians, who fought to hold on to tribal lands they felt were rightfully theirs. Thus, western expansion played a significant role not only by contributing to events that led to the Civil War but more importantly, as a source that has helped to define American character. The many and varied conflicts produced by the expansion have been the source of novels, stories, poems, and movies that have created mythical heroes, a national self-image that celebrates the rugged and resourceful individual, and a sense of destiny for the nation as a whole.


Arrington, Leonard J. Brigham Young: American Moses. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1986.

Carrell, Jennifer. "How the Bard Won the West." Smithsonian 29 (August 1, 1998): 99-102, 104.

Durham, Michael S. Desert between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin, 1772-1869. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Lockley, Fred, and Helm, Mike. Visionaries, Mountain Men & Empire Builders: They Made a Difference. Eugene, OR: Rainy Day Press, 1982.

Ronda, James. "The Oregon Trail." Columbia 9, no. 3 (Fall 1995): 39.

Corinne J. Naden and

Rose Blue

See also:Compromise of 1850; Farming; Homestead Act; Indian Removal and Response; Kansas Nebraska Act; Manifest Destiny; Railroads.