West, American

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WEST, AMERICAN. In the minds of people all over the world, the American West and the frontier often conjure up images of the blue-coated army, cowboys and Indians, buffalo, and stand-tall men like Davy Crockett, George Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and John Wayne. While these images are the stuff of great entertainment, they also make for bad history. The West and the frontier—the two are not the same—have been romanticized and blurred from the time of Buffalo Bill's "Wild West and Rough Riders" shows early in the twentieth century to the later radio, film, and television exploits of Tom Mix, the Lone Ranger, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Matt Dillon, and many others, both fictional and real.

A history of the American West must first distinguish the "West" from the "frontier," as the concept of the frontier does not exhaust the history of the West. As a target for settlement, the American West moved across the map for over three centuries, from just outside the stockades of colonial villages to the flatboats and steamboats of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys to the great cities of the Pacific Coast. Each of those regions indeed became, for a time, the frontier. For the period before 1920, then, it might make sense to identify the West with the frontier. But it has been nearly a century since homesteading ended, since city-dwellers outnumbered farm-dwellers in the United States, and since "the West" became, simply, the western half of the country. The post-1920 West has been neither the fabled West of cowboys and Indians, soldiers and gunfighters, nor the real—but historically past—land of millions of homesteaders.

The Spanish and French West

Just as the West cannot be identified wholly with the frontier, the frontier itself was not just a move westward, from Atlantic to Pacific. The first European settlers came north from Mexico into the present-day United States. In 1598, Juan de Oñate, "the last conquistador," led a mixed-race group of several hundred men, women, and children north across the Rio Grande River, at El Paso del Norte, into the pueblo country of present-day New Mexico; Spain's provincial capital was established at Santa Fe a few years later. For the next two-and-a-half centuries, Spanish soldiers, missionaries, and most importantly, settlers, pushed northward from Mexico into New Mexico, southern Arizona (from the 1690s), southeastern Texas (from 1716), and finally California (beginning with San Diego in 1769). When Mexico became independent in 1821, these areas became northern Mexico. By 1848, the United States had conquered and annexed this region, first through a migration to Texas so large that it overwhelmed the Spanish-speaking population, and then by force in the Mexican-American War.

As the Spanish moved northward from Mexico, French settlers and fur traders moved southwestward from Canada's St. Lawrence Valley. French settlement began at Quebec in 1608 and by 1718 stretched thinly along the Great Lakes and the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans, long before any English or American colonial appearances west of the Appalachians. France lost these areas to Britain in 1763, not because of military incompetence, but simply on account of the difference in population: 65,000 French settled along the St. Lawrence, compared with nearly two million English colonists along the eastern seaboard.

The British and U.S. West

The English colonies began slowly, weakly, and very unpromisingly, starting with Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. In 1700 the English colonial population was still only about 250,000, and births had just begun outnumbering deaths sufficiently to allow the colonies to survive without constant infusions of new migrants. In the decades that followed, however, the population boomed. By the 1740s English-speakers from Maine to Georgia reached a million, and by 1776, 2.5 million. They continued to settle the thirteen states, and some began crossing the Appalachians into Kentucky, Tennessee, and the upper Ohio Valley.

After about 1710, Americans doubled their numbers every twenty-two years or so, and they continued to do so well into the nineteenth century. High fertility was sustained by practically limitless new territory in which to expand. The peace treaty of 1783 that ended the Revolutionary War generously extended the new United States to the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled that area. By 1848 the United States had annexed Texas, the Southwest, and present-day Oregon, effectively reaching its continental limits after sixty-five years of unparalleled territorial expansion. By then, Russian outposts along the northern California coast had come and gone. Indians had been "removed" from their homelands in Tennessee, Indiana, and other eastern states, and resettled in and near the Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. Men and women were heading to Oregon and California along the Overland Trail and the Latter-day Saints, to Utah by the Mormon Trail. A series of wars on the Great Plains and farther west, between the United States Army and Native Americans, sporadically erupted until 1890, "freeing" the Great Plains for settlement by Americans as well as hundreds of thousands of Irish, Germans, Scandinavians, Ukrainians, and many other Europeans.

The Federal Role

Between independence and the end of homesteading in the 1920s, the federal government encouraged westward migration. It enacted progressively more generous land laws. It encouraged European immigrants to come and settle. It protected settlers (and miners and cattlemen) by sending the military to subdue, round up, and if necessary annihilate Native Americans. It financed explorations beginning with Lewis and Clark's. It subsidized with huge land grants the construction of railways that took settlers west and their farm products back east to markets. These policies resulted in an exceptionally fast-growing western population, acquiring and occupying more new territory than any in modern history. Homesteading—the creation of family farms on land previously considered "empty wilderness" (though Indians had been living on it for centuries)—became the reality for millions of men and women from the Midwest all the way to the Pacific, wherever there was enough water to permit it. High birth rates, large families, cheap and accessible land: these became the formula for a repeating process of westward expansion that continued until about 1920, when little land was left that could be homesteaded. Western farm settlement had reached its historic and practical limits on the high plains just east of the Rocky Mountains.

In the post-homestead decades after 1920, federal agencies continued to play a large role in the development of the West by building dams, selling mineral rights dirt-cheap (in the 1872 mining law, which was still in force in the early twenty-first century), subsidizing farmers large and small, creating highway systems (the U.S.-numbered roads that began in the 1920s and the interstates in the 1950s), managing national forests and parks, establishing military bases, and in many other ways.

The Urban West

Less heralded, but ultimately involving many more people, was the evolution of the urban West. San Francisco began to boom with the Forty-Niner Gold Rush and reached a population of 100,000 in 1870, the first western city to do so. Los Angeles, a village of about 10,000 at that point, exploded after railroads arrived in the 1880s; it had passed San Francisco by 1920, soared beyond a million in 1930, and became the nation's second-largest city and metropolitan area in the early 1960s. Since then Los Angeles has become the most racially and ethnically diverse city, and California the first mainland state without a white majority, in the nation's history. Several hundred thousand African Americans, the majority women, arrived during World War II. For Asians, arriving in the American West meant an eastward, not westward, movement, starting with the Chinese who began coming after 1849 to the gold rush, followed by Japanese after 1890, Filipinos in the early twentieth century, and later South Asians, Vietnamese, and others. The American West assuredly included many Anglo-American homesteaders, but the full story must notice those who came from other directions—north from Mexico, south from Canada, and east from Asia; and also those who went not to farms but to cities and suburbs.

The West has always represented opportunity for Americans, from Puritan and Quaker colonists to mid-nineteenth-century Irish and German farmers and workers to the Asians and Latin Americans who have arrived in large numbers since the late 1960s. From the early 1700s to 1920, opportunity usually meant available farmland, but increasingly, through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cities provided opportunities as well—Chicago after its disastrous Great Fire of 1871, rebounding to over a million people by 1890; Los Angeles from the late 1880s on; Houston, Texas, and Silicon Valley in the 1990s. Opportunity did not always result in success. Many homesteading attempts failed, and many migrants to western cities did not achieve success. Yet the West remains America's fastest-growing region, as were the country's successive Wests for over three centuries.


Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The American West: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

Milner, Clyde A., II, Carol A. O'Connor; and Martha A. Sandweiss. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Nugent, Walter. Into the West: The Story of Its People. New York: Knopf, 1999.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

West, Elliott. The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.


See alsoExplorations and Expeditions: U.S. ; Frontier ; Frontier Thesis, Turner's ; Homestead Movement ; Lewis and Clark Expedition ; Oñate Explorations and Settlements ; Western Exploration ; Westerns ; Westward Migration ; Wild West Show .

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West, American