Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

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Motivations for Westward Expansion in the 1800s

Summary:

The motivations for Westward Expansion in the 1800s included the promise of economic opportunities, such as farming, mining, and the fur trade. Additionally, the belief in Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were destined to expand across the continent, drove settlers westward. Other factors included the availability of cheap land through government policies and the desire for adventure and new beginnings.

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Why did Americans move west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s?

Ultimately, American westward expansion was driven by the belief that the land west of the Mississippi River held better opportunities.

By the 1830s, the East Coast was beginning to feel overcrowded and the soil overworked. Farmers dreamed of huge, relative untouched, fertile pieces of land to work west of the Mississippi. Additionally, eastern states had well-established political machines in place, and citizens wanted to forge new states where they would have a hand in building the eventual political representation.

By the 1840s, the Oregon Trail began, which formed a viable path to the Oregon Territory and the Pacific Ocean for families to travel by covered wagon. Many made it all the way, but a significant population stopped short and settled the land in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions. A motivating driver by this point was the idea of Manifest Destiny, which was the idea that American culture and politics were sacred and morally correct, and Americans had the duty, handed down by a higher power, to spread American way of life from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the late 1840s, a massive gold rush to California convinced people to go west, driven by dreams of financial prosperity.

Aside from covered wagons, travelers also relied on the steamboat to travel rivers. Others traveled west to practice their religion. The best example of this is the Mormons settling in Utah.

This westward expansion was supported through the American government’s ability to secure new territories through both war and diplomacy.

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Why did Americans move west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s?

By the 1830s, the United States government was pushing a program of Westward expansion and encouraging white settlers to move west of the Mississippi River. By 1824, 30% of the population of the United States lived in the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. A slow move west had already been occurring, and by the 1830s, families cited overcrowding, depleted soil, urbanization, lack of economic opportunities, and undesirable politics as reasons to move West, away from the dense and saturated East coast. This move directly coincided with further genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples as white setters colonized land and brought the force of the United States's militias westward.

By the 1830s, westward-bound settlers traveled by river via steamboat and canalboat and over land on trails via horse/oxen-drawn wagons and on foot. Many of these settlers moved to Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Oklahoma. By the 1840s, as white settlers moved West, the United States began to secure more territory through its war with Mexico. In 1841, the Oregon Trail opened and over the next 20 years, over 300,000 people traversed the trail by wagon. Many of these travelers settled in Oregon Country. Many others settled in Colorado, Nevada, Wyoming, California, and Texas.

By 1845, the idea of Manifest Destiny, in which white settlers believed they had a divine right, given by their christian god, to expand westward (killing and displacing thousands of indigenous people as they went) became an accepted term and racist perspective.

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Why did Americans move west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s?

Americans moved west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s-40s for many reasons. One reason was the American people believed the Americans should control the land from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This belief, called Manifest Destiny, encouraged the United States to acquire land and to have American people move to these lands. There was a belief that the American way of life was the best way of life, and therefore, the Americans should control this land.

There were other reasons for the westward movement. Some people moved westward because they saw a great deal of economic opportunity. These people wanted to farm their own land or to start their own businesses. They believed the western lands were a golden area filled with many new economic opportunities. Some people were also looking for a sense of adventure. Moving westward fulfilled this desire for adventure. The Mormons moved to Utah in the hope that they could practice their religion without harassment.

Westward movement was accomplished in several ways. Texas was added to the United States in 1845. The United States fought Mexico in the Mexican-American War and gained a great deal of land from Mexico in 1848. The United States also divided the Oregon Territory with Great Britain. As more people moved to these western lands, railroads and roads were built to facilitate the westward movement. People moved to the Great Plains and also to the areas near the Pacific Ocean, such as Oregon and California. People also moved to areas where minerals were found. For example, California’s population grew dramatically when gold was discovered there.

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Why did Americans move west of the Mississippi River during the 1830s and 1840s?

Americans moved west of the Mississippi River for the same reason they always did—greater opportunity.  Mexico initially welcomed Americans in Texas until they realized that the new immigrants would not give up their Protestant faith or their slaves.  Texans finally declared their independence from Mexico and created the Republic of Texas, which would be annexed into the United States in 1845.  Settlers moved into the Willamette Valley in Oregon following the Oregon Trail via wagon train from 1840 to 1860.  They moved here looking for cheap, fertile land.  The emigrant flow only increased once the United States gained clear title to the territory in 1846.  The Mormons of Nauvoo, Illinois moved to Salt Lake starting in the 1840s in order to find a place to practice their faith without persecution.  This group of emigrants were famous for taking large handcarts with them to move their supplies.  Finally, the California Trail began in 1849 after John Sutter found gold in the territory.  After the discovery, thousands came from all over the world—some came via the overland route which was also part of the Oregon Trail, while others took a sea and land route with a portage through Panama.  They had to take a land route through Panama as there was no canal there back then.  Others took clipper ships around the tip of South America to reach California.  Once there, only a minority struck it rich, though many realized that the region could grow crops nearly year-round and there was a good market in selling miners supplies and food.  

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Why did people move to the West in the 1800s?

When looking at the reasons for people moving out West, we also need to bear in mind the conditions of the major cities back East. The United States experienced a rapid period of urbanization during the nineteenth century. With this unprecedented change came the myriad problems associated with life in a growing city. Eastern cities such as Boston and New York experienced massive overcrowding, grinding poverty, crime, and high mortality levels. The quality of life for far too many people was exceptionally poor, prompting growing numbers to seek a better life for themselves elsewhere.

The West seemed like the natural place to relocate for those worn down by the horrors of urban life back East. With its plentiful land and wide-open spaces, the West provided a chance for people to start again, to take the myriad opportunities for prosperity and advancement opened up by the new frontier. Large numbers of immigrants had settled in the Eastern cities in search of opportunity. Yet many had become thoroughly disillusioned amidst all the squalor and rampant exploitation. For these people, the expansion of the West revived the original promise of America, the enduring self-image of the United States as a place of opportunity.

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Why did people move to the West in the 1800s?

People moved west for a number of reasons in the nineteenth century, but by far the most prevalent motive was the availability of land. Beginning with the Northwest Territory after the American Revolution and ending with the closure of the frontier on the Great Plains in 1890, Americans sought the cheap land that would afford them (so they hoped) economic independence. The federal government did much to encourage these hopes, most notably with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, which parceled out 160 acre homesteads to people who would settle and farm there. This sparked a large wave of settlers on the Great Plains, formerly inhabited by Native Americans, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Other motives were primarily economic in nature as well. Many Americans moved west to work for the mining companies that formed to exploit the vast mineral resources of the West. Others became loggers, ranchers, or especially railroad workers. Still others came west to take advantage of the business opportunities afforded by this large-scale migration. A minority of people--most notably the Mormons--came west seeking religious freedom, and some others came as missionaries and teachers who worked with Native Americans. But the vast majority of Americans who came west were seeking land to farm. 

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Explain why people migrated West?

The answer to this question depends on the time period in American history you are talking about. If this question was posed about the Colonial Period then the answer would be for agricultural land. As settlers poured into the thirteen English colonies land eventually became scarce. Settlers began to seek out land west of the Appalachian Mountains which led to conflicts with Native Americans who had gone there to get away from the English. Additionally it led to conflicts with the French as they claimed that territory for themselves.

The Louisiana Purchase and subsequent explorations by Lewis and Clark further drew people to the seemingly limitless and virtually free land to those willing to take on the expense and risk of getting there and settling the land.

There were also on-agricultural pull factors that led to westward expansion. Technology and jobs drew people west. The canal, railroad system, and the Trans-Continental railroad required an incredible about of labor, and many of those workers used their earnings to make a new life in the west. Additionally the discovery of gold in California in the 1840's drew hundreds of thousands of people west in search of riches. While most didn't find the fortune they sought, they almost always stayed resulting in a population boom in California.

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