Westward Expansionin Nineteenth Century Essay Research Paper

Westward Expansionin Nineteenth Century Essay, Research Paper THE WESTWARD EXPANSION Introduction The Westward Expansion has often been regarded as the central theme of American history, down to the end of the19th century and as the main factor in the shaping of American history. As Frederick Jackson Turner says, the greatest force or influence in shaping American democracy and society had been that there was so much free land in America and this profoundly affected American society.

Westward Expansionin Nineteenth Century Essay, Research Paper



The Westward Expansion has often been regarded as the central theme of American history, down to the end of the19th century and as the main factor in the shaping of American history. As Frederick Jackson Turner says, the greatest force or influence in shaping American democracy and society had been that there was so much free land in America and this profoundly affected American society.


After the revolution, the winning of independence opened up the Western country and was hence followed by a steady flow of settlers to the Mississippi valley. By 1840, 10 new western states had been added to the Federal union. The frontier line ran through Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas on the western side of the river. All parts of the valley except Wisconsin and Minnesota were well populated. Thus a whole new section had been colonized with lasting effects on the American institutions, ideals and ways of living.

The far west was the land of high mountains, deserts, strange rock formations, brilliant colors and immense distance. Fur trade with Europe had now become a lucrative business and the fur traders became the pathfinders for the settlers. Migration was now possible by the discovery of paths over which ox-driven carts could be driven through seeking mountains and across the western desert. People wanted to move away from the overcrowded cities and this led to the migration into the uninhabited lands. Increased transportation like roads, railroads and canals and their construction created a demand for cheap labor making it easier for people to get jobs now, in contrast with the cities where there was unemployment.

The pioneer movement for 70 years after the revolution roughly represented the form of 3 parallel streams, flowing westwards from New England, Virginia and South Carolina. The first pioneer groups tended to move directly westward. Thus the new Englanders migrated into western New York and along the shores of the great lakes, Virginians into Kentucky and then into Missouri and the South Carolinians and Georgians into the gulf territories. Throughout the settlement of the Mississippi valley, most pioneers did not travel long distances and as a territory had been occupied, families would move into the adjacent one.

There were boom periods of great activity, during which million acres of land were sold, alternated with depression periods during which there was little further expansion of the frontier and many disappointed pioneers even backtracked from the west to the east.

When the treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the Americans had thought that they had enough land between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi river. Yet in 1803, by the Louisiana Purchase, the area of the United States doubled and not long after, it was augmented by the half-purchase-half-conquest of Florida. By the end of 1820, as many as 6 states were created, east of Mississippi-Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Alabama (1819), Maine (1820) and Missouri (1821). By the 1830s, the frontier line had been carried to Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas-about one-third of the way across the continent.

By the 1840s, the expansionist policy, typified by the Manifest Destiny doctrine, became very strong with many sections willing to go to war to acquire more land. Slavery became a bone of contention between the Northern and southern states with the control of the senate in question. The South wanted expansion to increase slave states, the North to keep the balance with free states and the West wanting expansion to increase their land. The antagonism between the North and the South sees the beginnings of sectionalism leading to the civil war later. The spirit of equality becomes a banner with which the expansionist policy was proclaimed.

Phases Of Development

Before the 1830s, most sections of the west passed through the same phases of development in a regular order. The first white men to usually enter a new area were the hunters and fur trappers, who had extraordinary skills to open up a new path through wilderness, finding food for themselves and dealing with the Indians. These men explored the country and brought news of its resources back to the east.

In many regions, the second phase was cattle ranching while some also passed through the mining phase. Parts of Missouri and Wisconsin, for example were settled by lead miners. Behind the cattle ranchers or miners came the first farmers, who were often squatters with no legal title to land. They were frequently restless and were impatient of the restrictions of civilised society, and were not interested in making permanent houses. Many of them, had a habit of moving every few years and would follow the frontier land as it carried further into the west.

Once a new area had been opened up and shown to be fertile, it would soon attract men of sober and ambitious type, who had much more capital and more farming techniques and wanted homes where they could settle for the rest of their lives. They brought with them the habits of civilizations. They developed trade, established churches, schools and newspapers and set up institutions of government. The Federal government then assumed responsibility for guiding each area through the territorial stage until it was ready for statehood. But there were many parts of the west, where the white settlers provided for their own government, by the democratic methods long before the legal establishment of territorial institutions. Thus the society became more diversified once small towns sprang up to meet the economic, political and cultural needs of the population. In those cases that did not afterwards become urban and industrial, this represented the final stage.

Geographic factors also caused some variation in this usual pattern. Some mountain regions never passed beyond the squatter stage, while fertile countries, such as the black belt of Alabama and Mississippi, were sometimes settled, at the start, by men of more ambitious type. Geography also determined the order in which different regions were occupied. The early pioneers mostly preferred to make their homes in forest country or close to it, for they needed timber for shelter and warmth and also for fencing. The forest regions were therefore settled in advance of the open prairies.

By the 1830s, the frontier line had been carried into Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas. Immediately west of the Mississippi valley was the Great Plains, which after 500 miles sloped into the Rockies. The plains had a lot of wildlife with nomadic and highly warlike Indian tribes. Beyond the Great Plains, the way westwards was through the South pass between two immense mountain systems.

The Spanish territories of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California, including parts of Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming were passed onto the newly established Mexican government in 1821. But the Spanish had only made settlements in New Mexico and parts of Texas and California, so the rest of the areas were ripe for expansion.

To the north of California, the area of Oregon was to be occupied jointly by the Americans and the British according to the Anglo-American convention of 1818. From 1804 till 1807 and after 1812, the Federal government sent a number of exploring parties to the far west. This area was labeled as the “Great American desert”. And so the American government during the 1820s and the 1830s believed that the west might appropriately be left to the Indians and were willing to promise that they could keep it in perpetuity.

A more important role in expansion to the west was played by the fur trappers. They were the first white people to cover most of the western territories and find routes suitable for pioneer settlers. Between 1807 and 1835, the trappers penetrated into the mountains with intensive exploration and exploitation of the mountain country and discovering routes that helped establish the fur trade as well as open up the west for expansion.

Overland trade with Mexico also helped in the knowledge of the far west. The trade route from Missouri to Santa Fe and later upto California resulted in the Americans establishing contacts with New Mexico and California which prepared the way for annexation.

Texas and California

It can be assumed that the northern parts of Mexico would have eventually come under the control of the United States as the Mexicans did not colonize them, there was no effective sovereignty and American settlers would have resulted in American annexation. That the annexation occurred by force can be seen as the augmentation of an aggressive American nationalism and the Mexicans’ refusal to sell the land and inability to develop it.

Mexico achieved independence in 1821 with the installation of a constitutional government but from 1824 to 1857, the country was dominated by the army and chronic military revolutions.

The earliest of the northern parts of Mexico to come under the control of Americans was Texas. In 1823, Stephen Austin secured authorization from the Mexican government to colonize the area. The Mexican government was hoping for the quick settlement and mexicanisation of the area. By 1830, around 30,000 Americans were settled in Texas with local self-government. At the same time, the Mexican government barred any more Americans from settling in Texas. The dictatorial government meant negotiation was impossible and in March 1836, a convention of Texans issued a formal declaration of independence, drafted a constitution and chose Sam Houston as commander-in-chief of their army. The Texans were hoping for annexation by the Americans but the question of slavery meant the Lone Star Republic remained a republic. In 1844, a motion to make Texas a part of the United States failed but it became the main platform for the next presidential elections. James Polk won on the party platform of “reannexation” of Texas and “reoccupation” of Oregon. In 1845, a joint resolution was passed by Congress and Texas finally became a part of the United States.

Polk now had to get Mexican consent to the annexation of Mexico and fix the boundary line, which the Texans said was Rio Grande while the Mexicans insisted on Nueces. Mexico had also defaulted on the repayment of the debt of 2 million dollars. This made Polk order the American army under General Zachary Taylor to occupy the disputed boundary region. Mexican troops were also ordered to hold the same region and when a clash between the two armies occurred in 1846, Congress declared war. The Northeast, under the leadership of Emerson, Thoreau and James Russell opposed war, as they feared slavery. The planters of the South wanted Texas but knew that New Mexico and California were unsuited for slavery and so wanted limited expansion while the people of the West wanted war for expansion.

Texas was soon conquered and with California being taken in 1847, the American annexation of the Far West was complete. A treaty was signed in 1848 whereby Mexico ceded Texas with the Rio Grande boundary, New Mexico, California and the rest of the western territories. The United States would pay Mexico 15 million dollars and assumed its debt of 3.25 million dollars. The treaty was ratified by the Senate. The settlement of California was accelerated by the Californian Gold Rush, when gold was discovered in 1848. In 1849, elections were held in California and California asked Congress for admission to the confederation. California became a state in 1850.


The settlement of Oregon was preceded by lot of propaganda, which was nationalistic in nature led by Kelley and later Wyeth. Religious missions, from Methodist to Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Catholic, all tried to settle this area and they were the first permanent American settlements in Oregon and became the centers of agriculture and cattle-raising.

The great migration began in 1841 and was stimulated by the depression of 1837 with people with some capital hoping to make a fresh start. By 1845, there were 6,000 Americans in Oregon, and the United States government tried to make the 49th parallel as the boundary without success. The fur trade had since declined in this area so the British agreed to the 49th parallel as the boundary in a treaty in 1846 and thus, American sovereignty was established over the area covered by Washington, Oregon and Idaho.


The Mormon Church under the able leadership of Brigham Young settled the area south of Oregon and by 1847 had settled the area of Utah.

Immediate Problems after the War

The new acquisitions meant that problems like transportation had to be tackled. A canal across Panama was planned but this didn’t materialize for many years. The building of a transcontinental railroad with the financial assistance of the government was debated upon. Also the question of slavery in the newly acquired territories was a more troubling issue and this decided the fate of the United States for the next few years.

Manifest Destiny

F. Merk in his book Manifest Destiny says “a sense of mission to redeem the old world by high example was generated in pioneers of idealistic spirit on their arrival in the new world.” It was generated by the immense potential in the virgin land of the American continents. Successive generations also gave this sense of mission life in various ways from the struggle of religious liberty in Plymouth and Boston at the time of the early colonies right uptil the 14 points of Wilson when the 13 colonies had matured into a major world power.

In the mid-1840s, a new form of expansionism, novel in name, appeal and theory made its appearance in the United States. It was Manifest Destiny. It meant expansion, prearranged by heaven, over an area, which according to some was the region to the pacific, to others it was the North American continent and to others it was the hemisphere. Its public appeal was enormous as it meant an opportunity to gain admission to the American Union. John O’ Sullivan coined the phrase “Manifest Destiny” and many other politicians supported him like John Wentworth (Ill.), Stephen Douglas (Ill.), Daniel S. Dickenson (NY) and Andrew Kennedy (Ind.) The people of the Old South under Calhoun supported the annexation of Texas but were against going further as area beyond it was unsuitable for plantation style of farming of the South and also because balance of free state and slave states would be disturbed.

Its dominant feature was federalism, which left control of local affairs-such as slavery-to the states and entrusted to the central government control over only such extra-local functions as foreign affairs, inter-state and foreign commerce, coinage and taxation for Federal purposes. Federalism permitted a spreading of the domain of the union almost in definitely without danger of central tyranny. The people entering the union were protected by ‘ States’ rights’ as it was republicanism on confederated states. It signified republicanism as freedom with a government of a classless society. Religious freedom was stressed as a feature of this doctrine. Democracy was explained as political democracy with wide suffrage and frequent elections as well as economic democracy with democracy of land ownership, ease of land acquisition and the glorification of free trade along with the promise of the development of the natural resources. This economic democracy sounded very attractive as Mexico’s failure to improve California was attributed to an incompetent local bureaucracy, degenerating into a state of anarchy and to a slothful population. The same was true of the agriculture and mining potentialities. If these areas were brought into the American confederation, the people would be taught both the value of their resources and trained at their development. It was believed that occupation was the moral force, which should and would move territory to America. It was talked of as a refuge from monarchial Europe.

Manifest Destiny also encompassed the idea that the duty of the United States was to regenerate backward peoples of the continent.

The enthusiasm and belief for the doctrine of Manifest Destiny was enormous with every level of intelligentsia, though the scope and enthusiasm for its separate features differed widely.

The growth of Manifest Destiny can be attributed to certain factors:

?Technological changes in transport especially the plans to build the transcontinental railroads in the mid-1840s.

?Uneasiness of insufficiency of good land.

?Economic distress- the crises in 1837, 1839, and 1841 encouraged the flight of farmers in search of better land.

?The idealism of youth, which fueled reform with vision and high enthusiasm.

?Geography of the western country.

?Dissemination of the ideas of Manifest Destiny through the press with the advancements in communication.

The forces that produced Manifest Destiny were domestic for the most part with

expansionism as the dominant thread.


Sectional Opinions:

qJohn Rhodes in his monumental work History of the United States says that John C. Calhoun and others lobbied for annexation of Texas against the protests of northern Whig traders. He says that the Whigs never forgave the South for the holocaust of the war. He talks of the Mexican war being a Southern conspiracy. He blamed the South for the Mexican war saying that excessive Southern democracy provoked Mexico into war; that in order to acquire land in which they could establish slave states, South caused the Mexican war of 1844. T. Parker and William Jay support him. Rhodes’ opinion assumes unity of purpose and action in the South.

qBoucher thinks that the South was disunited and so couldn’t carry out the pact. He talks of different leaders, some who advocated war against Mexico, some who like Calhoun placed the blame for the war on James Polk. He says there was no effective democracy, which compelled the South to fight against the anti-slavery men who favored war.

qJames Douglas Fuller agrees with Boucher’s view that there was no Southern conspiracy. He says that this is obvious when it became clear that the Mexican territory was not suited for plantation agriculture.

qWilliam Dott favors sectional interpretations but he holds a section of West responsible for war saying that West had been interested in expansion. Manifest Destiny was America’s slogan and Westerners were its boldest advocates. The West helped Jackson and Jefferson who were in favor of expansionism to get elected and in 1804, West declared expansionist policy through the democratic platform and elected Western leader James Polk. He says that 70,000 people volunteered for the Mexican war of which 40,000 were from the West.

qNorman Grabler says that neither the West nor the South were responsible, rather it was the commercial interest of the North, which was responsible for the war. Yankee merchant ships moved from Boston to the Pacific coast and San Diego to Mexico. They exchanged goods for Californian hides & they exploited the Pacific. Eastern mercantile interests dreamt of having lucrative trade with the Orient. He says that these men dictated expansion of trade, as the occupation of western lands was the way to reach the ocean-a barrier to be crossed. Beyond Texas, expansion of America is different unless it is explained in terms of commerce and harbors. Polk won on a party programme based on conquest to fulfill commercial interests.

qWern says that it was concept of Manifest Destiny and not mercantile interest, which was responsible for expansion. Americans were expansionist-minded and felt that entire continent was for them. Manifest Destiny reflected more than mere land hunger. American democracy symbolized freedom. Men moved further on to acquire freedom. Freedom allowed them to carry the institutions. Expansionists believed that by being free in nature and not weak and impotent like autocratic character of Mexicans, they would inherit the earth. God had built weak Mexico to be bettered by his chosen ones-the Anglo-Saxons i.e. the Americans. The interpretation of Manifest Destiny was less a matter of expansion than purpose. Concept of expansion as a destiny meant it was a means to fulfillment of certain ideas. The preservation and perfection of American providential mission or destiny. He talks of how it had economic implications. There was a vast land held by America yet Americans were acquiring more land. The main motive was to acquire land for future population before the need arises. The guilt of population was fundamental cause towards territory and expansion. He talks of how economic and social liberty was sought without which political liberty was meaningless.

Spanish School:

qCarlos Garcia felt that to understand expansion of the United States, it is essential to understand the colonial background of America and Mexico. The English masters of the 13 colonies had no place for red Indians in their society. The Indians were eliminated and then the Anglo-Saxons society existed. According to him, in the case of North America the ends justified the means. If the Americans wanted more land, they conquer it by eliminating its barbaric neighbors. The Americans unwillingness to assimilate Indians and Mexicans explains the enthusiasm for conquering sparsely populated Mexico and their failure to go beyond Rio Grande. Thanks to their colonial heritage, that part of Mexico remained Mexico. It was racial supremacy that held them back.

qRichard Steinberg holds Polk responsible for the Mexican war. He argues that Polk’s party platform was to annex Texas and if he carried out this plan, it would be his responsibility totally. He encouraged people of Texas to ask to have Rio Grande as the boundary. Mexicans had severed their relations with the United States. Americans provoked Mexicans into war.

qThe Mexican scholar Sierra was aware of the shortcomings of his nation. He blamed the church, politicians and stupid military for their betrayal to the public cause. The United States was aggressive and attacked the Mexican territory and Mexico was not defended properly.

Significance Of The Westward Movement

Any discussions on the significance of the Westward Expansion must take into account the views and criticisms of Frederick Jackson Turner whose thesis was that the westward movement had been the central factor in the evolution of American civilization and the chief reason for the differences between America and Europe. He says, “ the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” According to Turner, the chief effects of the frontier were to promote the formation of a new, composite nationality and decrease the dependence on Europe, to strengthen national unity and increase the powers of the Federal government, and to stimulate individualistic and democratic attitudes and institutions.

However, many criticisms of Turner’s thesis exist with scholars like George Pierson, Hofstader and Robert Riegel challenging his arguments. They say that the frontier is an inappropriate interpretative framework for studying American history, when other themes like class struggle, economic forces of growth, level of technology, growth of urbanization, the immigrant experience or the role of continuity and urbanization exist. David Potter says that Turner failed to see that technology and industry also produced abundance, which shaped the American character of individualism, egalitarianism and immense opportunities. Scholars say that the states of the upper valley became democratic primarily because they were founded by men who already believed in democratic ideals. So to say that the frontier brought about democracy is an exaggeration. Turner’s idea of the Westward Expansion being a safety valve for urban discontent sounds faulty to Charles Bearde who said that the people who moved were wholly agricultural people as the urban workers had neither the agricultural skill nor the capital needed to settle on the frontier.

Despite the various valid criticisms of Turner, many points of his thesis are acceptable. On the whole, the West was certainly more democratic than the East and had a stronger faith in human equality as it was settled by people looking for wider opportunities. Even the safety valve theory has an element of truth when applied to ambitious young men of the professional class who had a better chance of making it big much quicker in the West than in the East. Without the open frontier, moreover, there would have been a much larger migration of young people from the farms to the cities; thus the frontier helped indirectly to check the exploitation of the working class by preventing it from expanding too rapidly. The Westward Expansion also weakened state and regional loyalties and promoted national unity due to its inherent mobility. Most westerners thought of themselves primarily as Americans, and wanted strong national government with broad powers for developing transportation and promoting the general welfare.

The most significant feature of the Westward Expansion was that the pioneers took with them the essential institutions of their civilization. Thus we must look upon the Westward Expansion as one of the factors in the shaping of the American civilization but not the only one.


Roll No. 385

Tute. Grp.- Tuesday, 1st Pd.

the history of the united states of america -H.B.Parkes