How did westward migration impact the United States?

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The westward migration of people affected the United States in a number of ways. Let us look at a few of them. 

First, one historian named Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the availability of land in the west, and the fact that Americans moved onto it, made the United States more democratic. There were no masses of poor people in American cities, Turner argued in his "frontier thesis," because people could always move west onto cheap land. This thesis has been mostly rejected by historians for a number of reasons, but there is no doubt that westward migration created very real economic opportunities for millions of Americans. 

Second, westward migration secured for the United States the vast lands and natural resources of the West. American businessmen were quick in exploiting the timber, precious metals, and energy resources of the west, not to mention the vast lands that were put to farming. These lands, of course, were conquered from Mexico and Native Americans. 

A third effect of westward expansion was the near-destruction of Native peoples. This process, which began in the colonial period, is one of the great tragedies of American history. From Narragansetts in Massachusetts to Shawnees in the Ohio Valley to Tuscaroras in North Carolina to Apaches in the Southwest, Native peoples were driven from their lands to make way for white expansion.

Finally, westward expansion proved to be very politically divisive in the mid-nineteenth century. This was because westward expansion became intertwined with the toxic political issue of slavery. As the United States took lands from Mexico, the issue of whether slavery would be allowed in these territories quickly emerged, and political compromise proved powerless to resolve it. The issues of slavery and westward expansion would ultimately be a major factor contributing to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

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How did the movement West affect our nation?

This is a big question with many possible answers ranging from the impact of westward expansion on American politics to the influence of it on modern day pop culture.  Here is a look at some of the big picture implications of westward expansion.

1. The move West was a catalyst for the Civil War.  The Civil War likely would have happened sooner or later anyway but the addition of western states and territories escalated tensions.  Both abolitionists and pro-slavery groups wanted to bolster their numbers and eventually get more votes for their side in Congress by claiming the new Western areas as either free or slave territories.  While many compromises, including the Mason-Dixon line, attempted to keep things evenly balanced, there was always a new frontier to be contested.  While politicians on both sides might have been content if the opposing side could be limited geographically, both sides also could see the potential for the new western areas to tip the balance of power to one side or the other.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 allowed settlers in new territories to make their own choice regarding slavery.  In response both sides sent people to Kansas hoping to influence policy one way or the other.  They elected two conflicting territorial governments and started a violent conflict known as "Bleeding Kansas".  While many western territories did not experience the same outright violence over slavery as Kansas did, the status of western territories in regards to slavery continued to be a question of great political weight and conflict.

2. The move of European settlers through the Western United States led to the genocide and forced removal of Native American tribes.  Conflicts between Native Americans and Europeans had been a constant since European colonization of the United States began.  In the West, however, the United States government adopted policies intent on the eradication of Native American peoples.  One of these policies was the wide-scale hunting of bison.  Buffalo served as a primary food source for Native Americans living on the Great Plains.  Without the herds of buffalo, many tribes were driven by starvation to accept resettlement on government reservations.  Through armed conflict, forced resettlement, and the introduction of new diseases not only did many Native Americans lose their lives, but also their culture, language, and religion.  In the 1960's and 70's the American Indian Movement or AIM staged a series of protests and occupied various locations in an attempt to force the government to address the continuing repercussions of European settlement.  In 2008 AIM staged a walk from San Francisco to Washington DC to again bring attention to these issues.  The actions taken against Native Americans during westward expansion are likely to continue to impact the country's future.

3. The resources of the West were the basis of the fortunes of many influential men throughout history.  Mining concerns, railroads, and the fur trade were the basis of wealth for many.  John Jacob Astor made much of his money in the fur trade and later established the New York Public Library.  The Astor family dominated New York social circles and the family name even inspired the naming of the neighborhood of Astoria.  George Hearst became wealthy through several mining ventures throughout the West.  He served as a senator in California and his son, William Randolph Hearst, would go on to revolutionize American journalism.  Leland Stanford earned his wealth as a merchant in the California gold rush and then later became president of the Southern Pacific Railroad.  Stanford would eventually establish Stanford University.  These are just a few examples of the economic impact of western resources.  Wealth accumulated in the West would have far-reaching consequences for the nation as a whole.

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