Annexation and Expansion

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After the Civil War, the United States' long-standing goal to expand westward assumed a new determination and efficiency. Although the territorial claims to the region had been purchased from France, Spain, and Britain years earlier, questions regarding slavery had prevented formal progress. With that debate eliminated, politicians and capitalists used their substantially increased military and industrial powers to control the land and the people that were located between the existing states and the Pacific coast. Eventually, their sights were set beyond the North American continent.

Control of continental western lands proceeded quickly. In the 1860s Nevada and Nebraska became states, and a U.S. claim to Alaska was purchased from Russia; in 1876 Colorado joined the Union; in the 1880s Montana, Washington, North Dakota, and South Dakota followed suit; by the 1890s Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah gained statehood, while a claim to Hawaii was established. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Oklahoma, Arizona, and New Mexico became states as well. Perhaps more important, the United States embarked upon an imperialistic program across seas with the Spanish-American War in Cuba as its centerpiece.

Historians often categorize American expansionism during the period between 1870 and 1920 into two sections: westward acquisition before 1898 and overseas conquest after 1898. However, the reasons for both were essentially the same: the control of more land and people meant, quite simply, additional resources, wealth, and power.


Although initial interest in the western part of the continent centered upon fur and gold, enterprising individuals soon formed companies and political connections to exploit the seemingly unlimited potential for timber, minerals, fish, beef, and agricultural products. That these lands were already populated by indigenous peoples mattered very little to proponents of westward expansion. Increasingly, a philosophy of Social Darwinism was used to excuse the subjugation of others in the name of progress. Drawing upon On the Origin of Species (1859) by Charles Darwin (1809–1882), arguments for American hegemony tended to shift away from Manifest Destiny and toward natural selection. Insisting less often that U.S. imperialism was God's will, proponents contended instead that the fittest nation would survive the brutal competition for dominance. Ultimately this argument became dangerously linked to a belief in Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, which, in turn, gained support from many advocates of organized religion who sought to spread Christianity.

In fact, the existence of missionaries belied an enduring myth about the American West. Its lands were not open or unoccupied. Rather, a diverse number of Native American cultures thrived on the plains, in the deserts, in the mountain, and along the coasts. These cultures were systematically destroyed and the people relocated to often unfamiliar and barren tracts of land unwanted by Euro-Americans. Native resistance was able to slow the advance temporarily. In 1876 Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull famously defeated the forces of George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Also in the 1870s Chief Joseph organized the Nez Percé rebellion in Oregon and Idaho, and in the 1880s Geronimo led the Apache wars in the Southwest. The United States, however, was determined to secure western lands, even while some citizens called for the fair treatment of Native Americans. During the socalled Indian Wars from 1865 to 1890, federal troops wore down Native American resistance with an unrelenting assault that made use of military advancements and winter campaigning (when Native Americans typically organized themselves into smaller groups).

Not only did indigenous Americans have little chance to defend themselves physically, but they were also under attack culturally. A nationwide system of boarding schools was established across the country, defined by the ideas of Richard Pratt, who said, "Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" (Pratt, p. 260). The goal was to remove Native American children from their parents and community, divest them of their cultural heritage, and teach them job skills that would allow them to assimilate into Euro-American culture. Unfortunately, the schools often left students unable to blend comfortably back into their indigenous communities or to gain acceptance within a racially divisive mainstream society. Drawing upon their experiences within this school system, Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876–1938) and Luther Standing Bear (also known as Ota Kte or Plenty Kill, c. 1868–c. 1939) exposed the dramatic changes forced upon American Indian children and their communities in, respectively, "The School Days of an Indian Girl" (1900) and My People, the Sioux (1928).

The onslaught against American Indians continued on other fronts as well. In 1887 the Dawes Severalty Act (also called the Allotment Act) further diminished Native-controlled land by allotting parcels to individual American Indians. Although seemingly a generous effort to help Native Americans become yeoman farmers (each head of a household received 160 acres), it also allowed white settlers to purchase the remaining land, thus hugely diminishing reservation lands. Such outrages prompted many indigenous people to join the Ghost Dance religion begun by Wovoka, a Paiute who believed that the spirits of deceased Native Americans would return and that whites would be banished from the earth. The growing movement caused much anxiety among white settlers and federal agents. Laws were passed to criminalize its religious practices, and in 1890 approximately three hundred Ghost Dance followers were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. The slaughter has come to symbolize the end of Native resistance to Euro-American expansion.


During this period of American Indian dislocation, Euro-Americans flooded into the newly available western lands. The United States actively promoted the cheapness, fertility, and accessibility of frontier land to the legions of foreign immigrants arriving in America during this time. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres to any male willing to work the land for ten years, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 allowed the transportation of people and goods to market with relative ease. Huge influxes of European immigrants were encouraged to farm the Great Plains, increasingly emptied of their Native American and bison populations. By 1890 the government had given titles to over forty-eight million acres.

The battle over land and its resources was one of the most fascinating, violent, and corrupt chapters in the nation's history, and many writers recognized its literary potential. Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835–1910) and Charles Dudley Warner (1829–1900) cowrote The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873) to satirize the graft and greed of the time. Henry Adams (1838–1918) used his novel Democracy: An American Novel (1880) to expose Washington corruption, focusing particularly on Ulysses S. Grant's administration. Later, Frank Norris (1870–1902) produced The Octopus: A Story of California (1901), which investigated the conflict between the railroad conglomerates and the California farmers while also illustrating a fading Spanish culture. During the 1870s and 1880s, a veritable pack of writers began churning out dime novels that glorified the exploits of cowboys, ranchers, outlaws, prospectors, and prostitutes (those with hearts of gold anyway). Most of this fiction was influenced by Bret Harte (1836–1902), who, writing in San Francisco, created a new western genre with short stories like "The Luck of Roaring Camp" (1868) and "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" (1869). Writing from Boston, Owen Wister (1860–1938) finalized the prototype with The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), introducing the refined but rugged cowboy that would profoundly influence twentieth-century books, movies, and television programs. The iconic cowboy figured prominently in the fiction of the prolific Zane Grey (1872–1939), who won popular acclaim with Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) and The U. P. Trail (1918).

A new style of writing named realism emerged in the late nineteenth century. Responding to the swiftly changing cultural landscape, realists sought to capture the often-gritty truths of society as accurately as possible, avoiding the idealization associated with earlier Romantic writers. Twain was one of the most popular realists who capitalized upon the American West, developing an internationally recognized western persona in The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims' Progress (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi (1883). A number of realists made serious literary topics of western homesteading. Hamlin Garland (1860–1940) focused on hardscrabble farming in Wisconsin, Iowa, and South Dakota in his collection Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories (1891); Willa Cather (1873–1947) outlined the varied successes of immigrant women transplanted onto the Nebraska plains in O Pioneers! (1913) and My Ántonia (1918); and O. E. Rölvaag investigated the psychology of the initial Scandinavian pioneers in the upper Midwest in Giants in the Earth (1927). Looking farther west, Mary Austin (1868–1934) described the rhythms of life in the arid Southwest, most notably in The Land of Little Rain (1903) and Lost Borders (1909). Jack London (1876–1916) drew upon his experiences in Alaska (purchased from Russia in 1867, although not made a state until 1959) and the Yukon Territory during the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and 1898. The result was The Call of the Wild (1903), which illustrated London's ideas about survival of the fittest. He explored a similar theme in The Sea-Wolf (1904). Rex Ellingwood Beach (1877–1949) also wrote two novels about life in the far north during the gold rush: The Spoilers (1906) and The Barrier (1908).

Although writers (and filmmakers) would continue to recognize and exploit the cultural magnetism of the American West, many politicos and capitalists sought new conquests. In 1890 a census indicated that western lands were essentially filled by white settlers, and as a result the historian Frederick Jackson Turnerfamously declared the frontier closed. Having secured Native American territories, advocates of expansionism turned their attention overseas.


Several factors enabled the United States to broaden its power beyond continental borders. In the 1880s and 1890s the navy increased its number of steel ships at the recommendation of Alfred Mahan's historical study of the importance of sea power to national ambition. The new fleet provided additional strength and authority on the oceans while simultaneously requiring additional bases throughout the world. Moreover, the expanded productivity of the plains and mountain states resulted in a glut of agricultural and industrial products with no market. The economic panic of 1893 and the deep recession throughout the 1890s prompted many capitalists to call for the opening of new markets, particularly in heavily populated Asia. The state-of-the-art U.S. Navy would facilitate this process.

Increasingly, Hawaii was viewed as a convenient stopping place for ships trading with Pacific-rim countries. In addition, the islands had long held a fabled place in America's eyes. Not only was it the location of Captain James Cook's ignominious end, but it was viewed as a sort of paradise beyond the strictures of civilization. Mark Twain had helped promote this view of Native Hawaiian life. After his four-month visit in 1866, he gained fame in the 1860s with his letters to the Sacramento Union (which he revamped for Roughing It). That his talks about the islands remained one of his most popular addresses on the lecture circuit attests to America's fascination with Hawaii. So when, in 1893, colonial sugar planters wrestled control of the islands from the monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, a serious debate began about annexing the islands into the United States.

The colonial planters who staged this coup lobbied hard to declare Hawaii a state in order to avoid import taxes and keep profits high. Their gambit was a reaction to their lost exemption from the U.S. tariff, a special arrangement that Congress eliminated to protect U.S. interests in the Cuban sugar industry. Rather than annex Hawaii outright, Democratic president Grover Cleveland commissioned a study to determine if annexation would appear too much like imperialism, of which he was apprehensive. Moreover, of the ninety thousand inhabitants, only a few thousand were of European descent. The majority were Native Hawaiians and Asians. This also gave pause, as xenophobia in the United States was high, particularly regarding Asians. The Chinese Exclusionary Act had been passed in 1882 and renewed in 1892, squelching immigration from China. Allowing Hawaii into the Union would make those Asians living in the islands U.S. citizens. Cleveland also learned that only a minority of Hawaiians desired annexation, and the coup was orchestrated by a small number of wealthy planters. He decided not to officially annex the islands, but in the 1898 elections Republicans gained the majority, and Hawaii was procured by congressional resolution.

More dangerous diplomatic games were being played in South and Central America. When Britain asserted its claim to Venezuela in an attempt to secure its newly discovered gold fields, Cleveland strongly resisted, arguing that the Monroe Doctrine reserved all the Americas for U.S. interests. Britain ultimately backed down, hoping to acquire the United States as an ally against an increasingly hostile Germany. The victory resulted in a growing sense of international influence for the United States.


A major test of the United States' bold new tactics occurred when Cubans rebelled against colonial Spanish rule in 1895. The Spanish responded by imprisoning thousands in camps, where many died in deplorable conditions. A great debate ensued in the United States over whether to act and why. Some argued for intervention to help Cuba fight for independence; some believed U.S. investments in Cuba must be safeguarded and expanded; some saw military involvement as a method to release domestic tension building over labor disputes and economic recession; others saw involvement as a selfish attempt to exert power over more people and land. Leading the charge for war were the Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge, both outspoken nationalists and expansionists.

President Cleveland, however, opposed intervention, siding with those who believed that involvement would contradict the founding principles of the United States. His successor, William McKinley, who took office in 1897, shared this view initially, but eventually several factors changed his outlook. Roosevelt, assistant secretary of the navy, began redirecting forces to instigate war. Usurping his superior's powers, he even sent a telegram to a commander of the Asiatic squadron, telling him to prepare for "offensive operations in Philippine Islands" (Brands, p. 324), also controlled by Spain. In addition, contemporary newspapers drummed incessantly for war, printing sensationalistic and distorted news stories to agitate readers and increase circulation. A newspaper battle broke out between William Randolph Hearst, owner of the San FranciscoExaminer and the New York Morning Journal (later renamed the American), and Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World. Hearst, in particular, lobbied for war and flooded Cuba with correspondents; he reportedly cabled the illustrator Frederic Remington, "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war" (Brands, p. 306).

Two specific incidents probably did more to facilitate U.S. involvement than any other. A private letter written by Spanish ambassador Enrique Dupuy de Lome was intercepted and publicized as an insult to McKinley, thus enraging many. Also, the U.S. battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor (it was there as part of an early agreement between the United States and the warring factions in Cuba) in February 1898, killing 266 Americans. The press and Congress quickly blamed Spain. (While an 1898 study indicated that the explosion came from outside the ship, a 1976 study determined that it came from inside the boiler room, suggesting mechanical failure, not sabotage.)

The United States began its war with Spain in early 1898, and fighting ended in mid-August with Spanish forces defeated and the United States in control of Cuba. The episode raised serious questions about U.S. ambitions. Never did the United States extend diplomatic recognition to the Cuban rebels, and despite the fact that the war resolution expressly precluded annexation of Cuba, the United States still took control of the island. The Americans maintained their occupation until 1902, when the Republic of Cuba was established, but the Platt Amendment to the new Cuban constitution established the island as a protectorate of the United States. It did not stop there. The relatively easy victory and the inordinate success of the U.S. Navy prompted increased nationalism within the United States and created many additional supporters of expansionism.

With its victory over Spain, the United States assumed control of not only Cuba but also the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Most historians agree that both imperialists and anti-imperialists were motivated by some level of racism. The imperialists felt no compunction about exploiting non-Europeans, and the anti-imperialists feared allowing nonwhites into a protracted alliance with the United States. Although the United States paid Spain $20 million in compensation, the people of the occupied nations received nothing but a new colonial ruler. The inhabitants of the Philippines immediately revolted against U.S. rule, particularly angry over McKinley's statements describing them as incapable of self-rule and announcing the intention to "uplift and civilize and Christianize them" (Brands, p. 330) (even though the majority were already Catholic). Filipinos employed guerrilla tactics, and the United States reacted by increasing its troop presence to seventy thousand. By 1902 the conflict was over, but 300,000 civilians had been placed in concentration camps, 5,000 U.S. soldiers and 220,000 Filipinos had died, and $160 million had been spent.

The Spanish-American War and its aftermath was managed in the interests of the United States, not the Cubans or Filipinos. The complacency engendered by the conflict was epitomized by the diplomat John Hay, who fatuously described the hostilities as "a splendid little war" (Dobson, p. 95). Roosevelt gained much fame for his bravado. His cavalry unit, dubbed the Rough Riders, stormed San Juan Hill amid flying bullets, a scene that Richard Harding Davis (1864–1916)—son of the novelist Rebecca Harding Davis—helped memorialize in Notes of a War Correspondent (1910). Some credit Davis's best-selling romance Soldiers of Fortune (1897) with helping to build support for economic and cultural imperialism. Stephen Crane also served as a war correspondent, as did Frank Norris. While Crane supported the administration and admired the Rough Riders' courage, he criticized Roosevelt's unit for carelessness. A collection of Crane's war stories set in Cuba was posthumously published as Wounds in the Rain: War Stories (1900), but it is considered inferior to most of his earlier works.

In fact, few great literary works are associated with the Spanish-American War. William Dean Howells believed that the war "can inspire nothing that is worthy in art or letters" (Foner, p. xiv), and yet many writers tried. Howells's own short story "Editha" (1905) takes a strong stand against the war. The poets William Vaughn Moody, Henry Blake Fuller, Ernest Howard Crosby, and William Lloyd Garrison published anti-imperialist poems. Crosby also wrote the humorous antimilitary novel Captain Jinks, Hero (1902). Raymond Bridgman penned the more solemnly didactic Loyal Traitors (1903), and Gertrude Atherton's Senator North (1900) criticized the decision for war. Satires by George Ade, Finley Peter Dunne, and Ambrose Bierce attacked U.S. involvement. Mark Twain was perhaps most scathing. Skeptical of U.S. intentions from the beginning, he wrote, "I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched and dishonored from pirate-raids in Kiao-Chow, Manchuria, South Africa and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies" (Foner, p. xxxi). The poet Carl Sandburg (1878–1967), who served in Puerto Rico, described it as "a nightmare of blood, fever and blunders" (Niven, p. 43), although his published accounts in Always the Young Strangers (1953) are less dire. Edward Stratemeyer's Fighting in the Cuban Waters (1899) stands as one of the few novels that explicitly supported the war.


The year 1898 set the tone for twentieth-century actions around the globe. In 1900 the United States sent twenty-five hundred troops to China to put down the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising against foreign influence, and to gain a market foothold. In 1903 President Roosevelt orchestrated the expulsion of Britain and France from Colombian-controlled Panama, then fomented revolution within Panama. Quickly arranging a contract with the revolutionaries, the United States began constructing the Panama Canal and completed it in 1914. In 1905 the United States asserted control over the customs agency of the Dominican Republic, and from 1914 through 1924 U.S. Marines occupied the country. An occupation also began in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1914 and lasted six months. It came about because of a perceived slight to the American flag. In 1917 the United States paid Denmark for its claim to the Virgin Islands. If these incidents gained less attention than those earlier, it is perhaps because the imperialism of the United States was overshadowed by the European machinations that culminated in World War I. In addition, writers increasingly were experimenting with modernist forms and themes, distancing themselves from the realist tenet that artists could describe the exterior world objectively. As a result, less literary attention was paid to political and military subjects in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

See alsoFrontier; Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism; Indian Wars; Mexican Revolution; Migration; My Ántonia; Philippine-American War; Spanish-American War; The Western


Secondary Works

Brands, H. W. The Reckless Decade: America in the 1890s. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Dobson, John. Reticent Expansionism: The Foreign Policy of William McKinley. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1988.

Findling, John E., and Frank W. Thackeray, eds. Events That Changed America in the Nineteenth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Foner, Philip S., ed. The Anti-Imperialist Reader: A Documentary History of Anti-Imperialism in the United States. Vol. 2, The Literary Anti-Imperialists. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1984.

Healy, David. U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890s. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1970.

Kaplan, Amy. The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Kaplan, Amy, and Donald E. Pease, eds. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Niven, Penelope. Carl Sandburg: A Biography. New York: Scribner's, 1991.

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Paterson, Thomas G., ed. American Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism. New York: Crowell, 1973.

Peyser, Thomas. Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of American Literary Realism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998.

Pratt, Richard H. "The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites." In Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian," 1880–1900, compiled by Francis Paul Prucha, pp. 260–271. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.

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Western Literature Association, sponsor. A Literary History of the American West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987.

Western Literature Association, sponsor. Updating the Literary West. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997.

Joseph L. Coulombe

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Annexation and Expansion

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