Claiming the Near West: Territorial Expansion to 1812
From the moment that Europeans set foot on the North American continent in the sixteenth century, they began to expand their influence westward. By the mid-eighteenth century that expansion had progressed to the point that there were thirteen British colonies poised on the eastern coast of North America. These colonies had established themselves over a period of years by fighting a series of skirmishes with the Native American inhabitants of the region. By the 1760s they had largely carved out their geographic boundaries, which generally stretched from the east coast of North America to the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. But the population of these colonies continued to grow, fed not only by internal population growth but also by a continued stream of immigrants from England and other European countries, including Germany, Holland, Ireland, and Scotland. This increased population as well as the deteriorating quality of the soil on eastern farms put pressure on the poorly defined western boundaries of these colonies. The colonies were poised to expand westward, but how would they do so?
Up until the end of the War of 1812 (1812–14), the westward expansion of the colonies into what is known as the trans-Appalachian frontier (the area of land stretching from the crest of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River) was conducted within a complex struggle among a variety of forces. The...
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Opening the West
As the British colonies on the eastern seaboard grew ever more crowded in the mid-1700s, colonists began to look westward, beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and imagine the incredible riches the continent had to offer. At first, only the hardiest souls wandered far from civilization into the unknown. The stories these early adventurers told—first of the thick forests of the Ohio Valley, and later of the mineral-rich mountains in California, Colorado, and Nevada; the grassy plains of Texas and the Oklahoma and Kansas territories; and the fertile Willamette Valley of the Oregon territory—thrilled and shocked the incredulous but curious easterners.
Early wars and land purchases legalized Americans' claim to the continent (see Chapter 1). But these wars did not open the West—individuals did. Acting alone or in small groups, brave individualists ventured into virgin territory to claim what seemed to be "free" land or to profit from the abundant wild game. Without governmental protections, these frontiersmen stood alone in the wilderness. To keep their claims in the trans-Appalachian area (the area of land that stretched west from the crest of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River), early settlers fought almost constantly with Indians. "For the frontiersman who found his cabin in flames and his family mutilated, horror quickly hardened into a desire for vengeance. Backwoods morality...
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Driving the Indians Westward: Indian Removal to 1840
For more than three hundred years, white men battled Native Americans for control of the North American continent. From the early seventeenth century, when European settlers landed on the shores of the present-day United States, to nearly the dawn of the twentieth century, white settlers and soldiers waged an unrelenting war to claim the lands that Native Americans, or Indians, had long known as their own. The three-and-a-half-century war between whites and Indians consisted of battles large and small; of organized campaigns by the U.S. Army and daring daylight raids by Indian warriors; of extreme brutality and rare kindness. Though the underlying cause of the wars was the hunger of white settlers and governments for land, the tensions were heightened by the huge cultural differences that separated the two peoples. Whites and Indians thought very differently about land, family, promises, and warfare—differences that only added to the tragedy of what is known as Indian removal.
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Claiming the Far West: Territorial Expansion after 1812
Though America had won its independence from England in the Revolutionary War (1776–83), the years following that war were hardly peaceful. Conflict with Indian tribes throughout the trans-Appalachian west (the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River) kept settlers there from feeling comfortable in their new land. Fears that the Spanish would block American access to the port of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River alarmed both farmers and politicians. Most important, the British remained a force in the trans-Appalachian region, maintaining forts and supporting Indian hostilities. By the end of the War of 1812 (1812–14), however, these problems had largely been solved. The Indians had been defeated in the east, and the British no longer tried to exert an influence in the American territories. Moreover, the purchase of the Louisiana Territory (the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains) in 1803 meant that Americans controlled the important trading route along the Mississippi River. (See Chapter 1 for full details on all these events.)
The Louisiana Purchase opened vast expanses of land to American control, doubling the size of the young nation. A country that had once thought it would stretch only to the Mississippi River now saw its horizon expand all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and perhaps beyond to the Pacific. The possibilities of...
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Between 1800 and 1870, nearly half a million Americans set out across the frontier on the many trails that led west from settled America. Whether they took the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, or one of many others, these trappers, traders, farmers, and families set out on a journey of discovery. Lured by promises—of gold, of lucrative trade, or of fertile farmland—these pioneers endured weeks and even months of arduous travel across vast plains and arid deserts and over high mountain passes to reach their destination and build the communities that defined the American West. The trails they blazed helped pave the way for the civilizing of the West.
The first expeditions
Until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (see Chapter 1), the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River. Mere political boundaries had never stopped trappers and traders from traveling beyond the Mississippi, but before 1803 there were no organized settlements west of the great river. With the Louisiana Purchase, however, the vast lands to the west of the Mississippi were suddenly opened to organized exploration and settlement. The first of several expeditions to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory was led by Captains Meriwether Lewis...
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The Gold Rush
"It was a clear cold morning I shall never forget," wroteJames Marshall in his diary on January 24, 1848 (as quoted in Rosalyn Schanzer's Gold Fever!). "My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. Then I saw another piece. Putting one of the pieces on a hard river stone, I took another and commenced hammering. It was soft and didn't break; it therefore must be gold." With these words, carpenter James Marshall recorded his discovery of the mineral that would change California from a sleepy Mexican territory into the fastest-growing state in the rapidly expanding United States of America. Within six months of Marshall's discovery, word had spread that there was gold throughout the streams and hills of central California. It wasn't long before thousands of gold-hungry prospectors poured in from all over the world in what is now known as the great California gold rush.
The gold rush lasted just a few years, but it dramatically changed the lives of the individuals involved, the state, and the nation. Some who set out for California with hopes of instant riches never even made it to their destination; they died on the arduous journey west. Of the thousands who arrived in California, only a few struck it big in the goldfields. Many more built new lives...
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Winning the West: Indian Wars after 1840
At the turn of the eighteenth century the territory east of the Mississippi River seemed like enough land for the growing U.S. population for generations to come. Early explorers had indicated that much of the land west of the Mississippi was either too arid or too mountainous to serve a nation of farmers. In fact, many maps depicted the area west of the Mississippi as the Great American Desert. But wars and the discovery of gold in the West soon led to a hunger for expansion. Settlers who had ventured into Texas (before the territory became a state) found themselves at odds with the Mexican governors of the territory. Eventually Americans joined the dispute, fighting a war with Mexico that earned the United States a vast territory, including present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California. (See Chapter 4 for more information about the Mexican-American War.)
The western lands acquired from Mexico in 1848 might well have remained relatively uninhabited and unvisited were it not for the California gold rush of 1849, which drew many thousands of gold seekers across the country to settle in California. Within a few years, the United States had added vast tracts of western land and a new state on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, an 1846 treaty with the British gave the Americans unimpeded control of the present-day states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. And, many Americans...
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Westward Expansion and Indian Culture
It has long been argued that the process of western expansion helped form the American character. Such arguments hold that white Americans were hardened and strengthened as they moved westward across the continent, carving communities out of the wilderness. But it must be remembered that westward expansion had equally momentous consequences for the peoples who already occupied the land. These people, known as Indians, Native Americans, or American Indians, experienced the westward expansion of European and American settlers as a four-hundred-year assault on their culture, their land, and their very lives. In this assault, Europeans and Americans used war, enslavement, and disease to wrest control of the continent from its native inhabitants.
The common culture of trade
The end result of the centuries-long conflict between whites and Indians was the devastation of traditional Native American culture. But in the middle of the eighteenth century the population of whites and Native Americans was fairly evenly balanced. The tribes of the eastern seaboard had largely been defeated and driven westward by the expanding British colonies. However, there were a number of tribes in the trans-Appalachian region (the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi...
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The Wild West
The 150-year-long conquest of the American West was one of the most colorful eras of American history. From the moment that small bands of settlers set out across the Appalachian Mountains in the 1750s to the closing of the frontier around 1890, Americans sprawled and fought their way across thick forests, vast prairies, and soaring mountains, claiming as their own lands once inhabited by Native American tribes, or by Spanish or Mexican settlers, if they were inhabited at all. Fierce battles with Native Americans, protracted wars with the British and the Mexicans, and the sheer difficulty of taming the wilderness shaped the expanding American nation. But when people today think of the "Wild West," they do not think of land claims, wars, or early conflicts with Native Americans in the forested East. Instead they think of gunfights in dusty western towns, masked outlaws holding up trains, cowboys on horses, and stalwart lawmen protecting law-abiding citizens. The Wild West has been romanticized, but it is based in fact. In this chapter, we will explore the real-life Wild West.
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Religion and the West
Religion had a significant impact on the settling of the West. Religious beliefs shaped how many Americans thought about the frontier and its possibilities. Some believed their religion would "civilize" the West, saving it from evil forces, and they ventured out into unknown areas to save souls. Others' religion caused them to seek refuge in the West as they were forcibly chased from the "civilized" East. The West became a vast testing ground for how tolerant America would become. The effects of religion on the West can best be understood by describing the experiences of three groups: the Native Americans, the Protestants, and the Mormons.
The first missionaries
By the early nineteenth century all Native Americans had had some degree of contact with Europeans. While there were certainly instances of pleasant, respectful meetings between Native Americans and Europeans, the majority of their interactions led to the eventual decimation of the Native Americans. Some early interactions with Europeans gave Native Americans cause to be wary of them. In 1598 Spain granted all of present-day New Mexico to Juan de Oñate (pronounced Wahn day Own-YAH-tay; c. 1550–1630) to found a colony. Oñate terrorized the Pueblo inhabitants of the Southwest, brutally and forcibly...
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Technology and the Making of the West
Moving west took daring and courage. People risked their lives to open the West to commerce and settlement, braving harsh climatic and geologic conditions to cross the country and secure the land. Technology helped ease some of the strain and, in some cases, ensured success. Canals, stagecoaches, and railroads made it possible for thousands of people to settle the West. Securing the land often meant defending the chosen spot against Indian attack; advances in gun design swayed the battles in favor of the white settlers. New technologies aided farmers and cattlemen in places where standard fencing materials were scarce. Once settled, people wanted to correspond with the loved ones they had left behind or keep abreast of news in other parts of the country. Technological advances increased the speed of correspondence from months to weeks and then to minutes. Each technological advance further opened the West and helped bind the growing country together.
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The Frontier and American Character
The frontier has long held a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. Since shortly after the first colonies were founded on the Atlantic coast, the frontier has beckoned to settlers. The frontier was the wilderness just outside the civilized towns; it offered people an opportunity to strike out and succeed on their own. In Europe, a serf (a laborer who works the land and is owned by the lord who owns the land) could never think of leaving his allotted plot of land to rise from poverty, nor could a shopkeeper's son ever hope to run his own store before his father's death. But in America, a hardy immigrant could determine his or her own destiny on the unknown frontier.
To venture into the wilderness took daring and courage. Pioneers carried their belongings until they found a spot worth claiming. Whole families or groups of people gathered to venture out into the unknown with a wagon train of supplies. Forging their own way or following others' dusty tracks, pioneers braved Indian attacks and unknown environments to find a satisfactory plot of land. After trekking hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, the pioneers built their homes and other necessary buildings, gathered and hunted the bounties of the new land or cleared fields for crops, and set about establishing the rules for their new life on the frontier. Each of these tasks made up the process of "frontiering." Despite the...
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