Throughout the early Republic, the definition of what constituted "the West" in the United States underwent numerous changes. This occurred for the obvious reason that the western boundaries of the United States shifted dramatically and that white settlement moved from the trans-Appalachian to the trans-Mississippi region and finally to the Plains. But changes in definition also reflected equally dramatic demographic shifts as well as fundamentally colliding perspectives. The results were western experiences that were hardly uniform and often contradictory. Throughout the early Republic, people most often understood the West as a series of places between the Appalachian and the Rocky Mountains and would describe those places in terms of rapid resettlement, uncertain social rules, and regular outbursts of intense violence.
These varied experiences emerged in part as a result of three very different forms of western development in both political and social terms. After initial ad hoc efforts by state and national leaders in Kentucky and Tennessee (which became states in 1792 and 1796, respectively), the newly installed federal government took a more planned approach in the Old Northwest and Old Southwest. Experiences there in turn informed federal responses to the new challenge in western government that emerged from the Louisiana Purchase. The experience of western residents was equally varied. Kentucky and Tennessee saw the fastest shift from a world of Native American villagers and interracial contact to a place dominated by whites. In sharp contrast, the Northwest and the Southwest would be the sites of racial conflict between whites and Native Americans that continued for a generation. Finally, much of the region west of the Mississippi River remained a place of Indian control well into the nineteenth century.
Differences in policy in different times and places notwithstanding, the broad contours of government and society remained the same. The West would be a place where, ironically, the greatest form of continuity was the regularity of great change. After decades in which European empires, Indian villagers, and Anglo-American migrants had reached varying forms of accommodation, the United States in the years of the early Republic pursued more aggressive policies designed to establish federal sovereignty and, in the end, secure racial supremacy. The people living in the midst of these political developments were redefining themselves in the process.
The overlap of white migration, interracial contact, and national politics first emerged in the trans-Appalachian West, where the American Revolution had been a war for racial supremacy as well as the site of a vicious civil war. White settlers, many of whom joined the Patriot movement in response to British efforts to restrain incursions onto Indian land, joined or initiated a series of military ventures against Indians as well as Loyalists. Those efforts enjoyed considerable support among Patriot leaders because it furthered their strategic goal of defeating a broader British alliance while requiring only minimal resources from the Continental Army or the state militias.
A very different situation was emerging to the north. In the Great Lakes region, Indians remained both numerous and powerful. During the eighteenth century, they had built elaborate trade relationships with the French, in large part because the French had been eager parties in this arrangement. Rather than promote migration from Europe, the French had hoped to generate revenue through the Indian trade. French-speaking settlers were indeed scattered throughout the Illinois country (a region corresponding roughly to modern Illinois and Indiana), but they had never come in the same eager rush as the Anglo-American settlers who came to Kentucky and Tennessee. While the French surrendered the Illinois country and Canada to Great Britain as a result of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), many of the institutions and practices constructed during the French period remained in place after the American Revolution. The first signs of change came when George Rogers Clark led an expedition of Virginia militiamen to the Illinois country in 1778. In his efforts to defeat both the British and the Indians, he drew on his experiences in the trans-Appalachian West, hoping to replace the old multiracial system with a racial hierarchy that placed whites clearly in charge.
In stark contrast to the trans-Appalachian West and the Illinois country, where Europeans and Anglo-Americans were struggling to secure sovereignty from Indians, much of the land west of the Mississippi was clearly under Indian control. Throughout the Missouri River valley, a series of large, permanent Indian settlements controlled trade and set the rules of cultural contact. The same held true in the eastern Plains, with the Osages enjoying particular power over their Indian neighbors as well as the small number of Europeans and Anglo-Americans there. The Europeans remained the weakest power in the region. Only in the Lower Mississippi Valley were whites securing real power over Indians. Meanwhile, in the western Plains and the Rocky Mountains, relations between independent Indian villages remained dominant. White visitors occasionally observed developments there but rarely influenced them in any substantive way.
The greatest catalyst for change in these western regions would be the arrival of white settlers, most of them Anglo-American migrants from the eastern United States. At a time when land ownership was nearly synonymous with liberty and opportunity in the United States, white settlers often concluded that their prospects were dim in an East where land prices continued to rise and where intensive agriculture was exhausting the soil. Many saw their own future in the West, and they demanded that the state and federal governments make that future secure. In addition to these pressures, state and federal leaders worried about defending western boundaries against European powers and Indians. Western policy would be among the most important forces shaping the politics, institutions, diplomacy, and demography of
the new Republic, with ramifications that extended long after the early years of the nation. It defined the contours of federal policymaking and created a cohesive vision of the Union premised on commercial development, an aggressive foreign policy, and racial supremacy.
settlement, conflict, and conquest
The process of settlement and government began soon after independence. States increasingly realized they lacked the means to control their western reserves. Kentucky was formed out of Virginia territory, and Congress created Tennessee after North Carolina reluctantly surrendered its western lands. In 1787 Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, combined land ceded by several states into a single Northwest Territory, containing Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. The Northwest Ordinance defined territorial policy for over a century. In a radical break from the European colonial model, the ordinance provided for the eventual incorporation of new states with rights identical to those of other states. Article II of the ordinance also provided for the eventual elimination of slavery.
The federal Constitution, written at the same time as the Northwest Ordinance, offered the means to implement this plan for the West. Unlike the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution provided the fiscal resources for the government to fund direct civil administration. The Constitution also created a diplomatic structure that would enable the United States to negotiate more effectively with Europeans in an effort to settle western boundary disputes. Finally, the Constitution made possible a military that could assert federal sovereignty and racial supremacy in the Old Northwest. Indeed, no sooner was the Constitution ratified than the federal government dispatched a series of increasingly large armies to the Northwest.
As western settlement caused profound changes in Anglo-American politics and culture, similar changes were emerging within Indian communities lying in areas where there was increasing contact with whites. While the village remained the fundamental locus of Indian social organization, increasing pressure from the United States and from Anglo-American settlers would lead a growing number of Indians to endorse stronger alliances between villages. Congress dispatched those ever-larger armies to the West because they were repeatedly challenged and often defeated by an increasingly organized Indian response. And as military conflicts consumed whole villages, many Indians were forced to create new communities and social practices as a means of survival. These changes were most dramatic in the Northwest Territory, where older systems of contact and exchange gave way to an increasingly violent racial landscape.
Nothing reflected the intersection of domestic governance, racial conflict, and foreign policy in the West more clearly than three treaties signed within a year of each other: Jay's Treaty (1794), the Treaty of Greenville (1795), and the Treaty of San Lorenzo (1795). Although Jay's Treaty is known primarily for creating political disputes over relations with Great Britain that fueled the creation of the first political parties in the United States, the British made important concessions by agreeing to surrender forts on American territory and by foreswearing aid to Indians at war with the United States. The end to old British-Indian alliances proved crucial to the American victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the collapse of the militant Indian coalition in the Ohio country. The new state of affairs in the Northwest enabled the United States to impose the Treaty of Greenville, through which a series of Indian tribes surrendered claims to land in much of Ohio.
While the Jay Treaty and the Treaty of Greenville secured American concerns in the Northwest, the Treaty of San Lorenzo redefined power in the South. In addition to normalizing trading relations between the United States and Spain, the agreement also ceded Spanish lands, including what became Alabama and Mississippi, with the notable exception of the Gulf Coast. Forced to govern yet another vast western domain, in 1798 Congress passed legislation creating a separate Mississippi Territory and moved "to establish therein a government in all respects similar to that now exercised in the territory northwest of the river Ohio, excepting and including the last article of that ordinance." The "last article" in the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery. That vital passage from the Mississippi governance act not only guaranteed that slavery would remain in place in Mississippi, but also extended a rough North-South line separating free and slave territory.
Throughout the 1790s, the number of white settlers and slaves grew in direct relation to the declining power and population of Indians. The federal government focused on securing its existing western holdings, and while white settlers might covet land further west, the constant demands and expenses of governing existing territories left federal leaders unprepared to consider any major acquisitions. In 1803 Ohio became the first new state to emerge from the Northwest Territory, and this seemed to suggest an orderly process of western government for a United States whose West ended at the Mississippi River. But the Louisiana Purchase of the same year transformed that definition of the West by adding a vast new space to the national domain.
The federal government responded by extending the general principles of the Northwest Ordinance and the Mississippi governance act to Louisiana. As had been the case in the Northwest and later in Mississippi, the Purchase territories would become the sight of unending racial conflict caused primarily by white settlers and the federal government. A series of federal military ventures combined with epidemic diseases to decimate Indian populations and destroy Indian power. The United States made sovereignty a reality in the land immediately west of the Mississippi River during the 1810s and 1820s, just as a new surge of white settlers descended on the Mississippi Valley and the eastern Plains. The policy of removal, first developed by President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) and implemented by General Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), emerged accordingly as a means to force Indians off the first areas of white settlement. In sharp contrast, early federal expeditions farther west to the Plains and Rockies failed to achieve clear authority over Indians.
changing conceptions of the west
For white settlers, slaves, and Indians, the West increasingly became a place of dislocation and redefinition. Whites might seek western land to settle, but once they arrived they immediately longed for communal connections. They rushed to create churches, social organizations, and other institutions. Slaves in the Southwest faced new physical hardships as they were driven to carve farms and plantations from land that had never seen intensive agriculture. Meanwhile, Indians continued to seek a means of responding to the death and forced relocation brought on by the federal government and white settlers.
These developments together contributed to changes in the ways that Anglo-Americans conceived of the West. After decades in which public officials had doubted whether the United States could successfully expand into the West, they began to conclude that expansion was not only possible but necessary. This outlook would reach fruition in the principle of Manifest Destiny during the antebellum era and attained its most tangible expression when the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846 in pursuit of a new western domain that stretched clear to the Pacific.
The people who most consistently espoused the notion that the West was a place of opportunity were white settlers. Resettlement to the West remained a difficult and dangerous process for whites, many of whom failed to find prosperity or success in their new homes. But the promise of the West as a place where whites could achieve independence, prosperity, and respectability remained a powerful tug for people who concluded that life in the East had its own drawbacks. The western settlers also created an increasingly democratic political culture that an emerging class of western politicians struggled to navigate. Henry Clay (1777–1852) of Kentucky and Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, young men in new states, exemplified the possibilities and limitations of their society. Both born to modest means, they concluded that their own success as attorneys and planters at the turn of the nineteenth century reflected the tremendous opportunities that abounded in the West. But where Jackson embraced the rough-and- tumble politics of frontier democracy, Clay early on feared that frontiers settlers needed an orderly system of public and private institutions to preserve a stable society. Both men, however, believed in the West as a place of equality and opportunity, despite the fact that both owned slaves and both endorsed near-genocidal campaigns against Indians.
Jackson and Clay could emerge as national leaders because, by the end of the early Republic, their outlook had spread beyond the West. This happened in large part because western migration was rapidly making the region an increasingly powerful political constituency. After a generation of presidents from the East, Andrew Jackson was the first in a series of western presidents who dominated national politics through the Civil War. In 1861, when Kansas joined the Union, the thirteen western states equaled the number of colonies that had declared independence in 1776. Secession in 1860 and 1861 also resulted in two governments run by men from the first federal territories, Abraham Lincoln from an Illinois carved out of the Northwest Territory and Jefferson Davis from Mississippi. By the close of the nineteenth century, the passage from Indian control to territorial status to fully incorporated state had become the normative experience for the vast majority of the polities that together constituted the United States.
See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Relations; American Indian Removal; American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; Frontier; Frontiersmen; Jackson, Andrew; Northwest; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Pioneering .
Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Peter S. Onuf. The Midwest and the Nation: Rethinking the History of an American Region. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Cronon, William, George Miles, and Jay Gitlin, eds. Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America's Western Past. New York: Norton, 1993.
White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.
Peter J. Kastor
From the Middle Ages the West has designated Europe (and later America) as seen in contrast to other civilizations; in the 20th century, the term also denoted the non-Communist states of Europe and America contrasted with the former Communist states of eastern Europe. The West was also traditionally used for the western part of the United States, especially the states west of the Mississippi.
The west is also referred to allusively as the place of the sun's setting.
West Bank a region west of the River Jordan and north-west of the Dead Sea. It contains Jericho, Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem, and other settlements. It became part of Jordan in 1948 and was occupied by Israel following the Six Day War of 1967. In 1993 an agreement was signed which granted limited autonomy to the Palestinians; withdrawal of Israeli troops began in 1994.
West End the entertainment and shopping area of London to the west of the City; the name is recorded from the late 18th century.
West Lothian question a rhetorical question that identifies the constitutional anomaly that MPs for Scottish and Welsh constituencies are unable to vote on Scottish or Welsh matters that have been devolved to those assemblies, but are able to vote on equivalent matters concerning England, whilst MPs for English constituencies have no reciprocal influence on Scottish or Welsh policy. It is named for West Lothian, a former parlimentary constituency in Central Scotland, whose MP, Tam Dalyell, persistently raised this question in Parliament.
West Point the US Military Academy, founded in 1802, located on the site of a former strategic fort on the west bank of the Hudson River in New York State.
West Side the western part of any of several North American cities or boroughs, especially the island borough of Manhattan, New York.
West Wing the part of the White House housing the executive offices of the President, including the Oval Office.
west / west/ • n. (usu. the west) 1. the direction toward the point of the horizon where the sun sets at the equinoxes, on the left-hand side of a person facing north, or the part of the horizon lying in this direction: the evening sun glowed from the west a patrol aimed to create a diversion to the west of the city. ∎ the compass point corresponding to this. 2. the western part of the world or of a specified country, region, or town: it will become windy in the west. ∎ (usu. the West) Europe and its culture seen in contrast to other civilizations. ∎ (usu. the West) hist. the noncommunist states of Europe and North America, contrasted with the former communist states of eastern Europe. ∎ (usu. the West) the western part of the U.S., esp. the states west of the Mississippi. 3. (West) Bridge the player sitting to the right of North and partnering East. • adj. 1. lying toward, near, or facing the west: the west coast. ∎ (of a wind) blowing from the west. 2. of or denoting the western part of a specified area, city, or country or its inhabitants: West Africa. • adv. to or toward the west: he faced west and watched the sunset the accident happened a mile west of Bowes.
Hence west sb. XII, adj. XIV (anticipated by OE. comps. such as westdǣl west part, westwind). westerly adj. XVI; adv. XVII; see -LY1, -LY2. western late OE. westerne. westward XIII, -wards XVI. OE. westweard, -weardes; see -WARD, -WARDS.