Manifest Destiny and The West, 1815-1860

The West has held a special place in the American imagination and has been depicted in a variety of ways by historians. While Frederick Jackson Turner contended that the western frontier shaped the American character and fostered American democracy and American exceptionalism, the tendency among modern scholars is to see the West as a meeting place of cultures.

During the first half of the nineteenth century writers of popular fiction, artists, and promoters depicted the West in a variety of ways, sometimes realistically but usually romantically and idealistically. For many early nineteenth-century Americans, the West represented the availability of land, the hope of economic independence, and the chance to improve one's socio-economic status. For Native Americans, the West represented forced removal from their ancestral lands at the hands of an American people and an American government that held an ethnocentric and racist frame of reference. As a result, the American migrants to the West and the government that aided them had little regard for those already living in the West or for their cultures. Americans of the early nineteenth century, like the English settlers of the early seventeenth century, tended to believe in white superiority and to believe that they had a superior right to western lands and to the profits to be extracted from those lands.

In looking at the migration of Americans into the Old Northwest (now generally referred to as the Midwest) during the 1820s and 1830s, we consider the reasons migrants decided to move and the variety of factors that affected their decision of where to move. In making the latter decision, we find that the status of slavery was, for many, a major factor. Although some southerners hoped their move would increase their chances of owning slaves, other white southerners and most white northerners wanted to move to an area that was not only free from slavery but also free from all African Americans. This racist frame of reference led some Midwestern states in the 1850s to enact laws barring the entry of African Americans, slave or free. In addition, settlement of the Midwest depended, in the minds of most potential white settlers on the removal of Native Americans. In some cases attempts by Indian groups to resist such removal led to violence, as seen in the Black Hawk War, which, with the defeat of Black Hawk and his followers and the subsequent imprisonment of Black Hawk in 1833, marked the end of Indian resistance in the Old Northwest.

As promoters began to depict the Midwest as a land of opportunity, labor saving devices such as the McCormick reaper and the steel plow made settlement in the region more attractive to Northeastern farmers. As farmers moved into the area, many had to undertake the long and often arduous task of clearing their wooded land to make it suitable for cultivation. Although most migrants to the Midwest were farmers, the depletion of forests in the East led lumber companies and their workers to move into the area around the Great Lakes, an area that became the center of the nation's lumber industry by the 1840s. In addition, river settlements and the emergence of cities around the Great Lakes furthered settlement in the Midwestern countryside, and these cities, in turn, became bustling commercial centers.

The characteristics of fur traders who migrated into the West prior to large-scale Anglo American migration. As these fur traders searched for better and quicker means of transporting their furs to market, they charted the Santa Fe Trail and rediscovered the South Pass. However, we find that large-scale settlement was eventually made possible by exploratory expeditions sponsored by the federal government. Therefore, we look at the objectives and accomplishments of such federally sponsored expeditions as those headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, Zebulon Pike, and John C. Frémont, who, as a second lieutenant in the U. S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, undertook three expeditions to the West. Not only was the Army Corps established by Congress for the express purpose of exploring the West in advance of settlement, but the American military was also assigned the task of improving transportation routes, assisting overland migration, and aiding in the removal of Indians. Furthermore, the federal government was instrumental in preparing public lands for settlement and, through the General Land Office, oversaw the distribution of those lands. Because the policies of the General Land Office favored speculators over individuals, farmers pressed for a federal policy of preemption. Such a policy was adopted by Congress in the Log Cabin Bill of 1841 and was extended to unsurveyed land with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862.

Large scale Anglo migration to Texas began under the auspices of the empressario system, begun by Spanish authorities in 1821 when Moses Austin received a land grant of some 200,000 acres in return for his promise to bring 300 Catholic families and no slaves with him when he settled the land. Ultimately, after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, it was the elder Austin's son, Stephen, who was the beneficiary of this grant of land. As both the economic hardships in the United States associated with the Panic of 1819 and the promise of cheap land in Texas drew large numbers of Anglo Americans into the region in the 1820s, Mexico, in 1824, passed the Colonization Law of 1824 to further expanded the empressario system. Even though one of the stipulations of the empressario system was that settlers were to bring no slaves, the Mexican government proved unable to adequately patrol its northern border and, therefore, was unable to enforce this provision.

Rather than becoming Mexicanized and assimilating into Mexican society as the Mexican government had hoped, Anglo-Americans migrant settled in their own separate communities and, by 1826, some had begun to call for secession from Mexico and the establishment of an independent republic. Despite attempts by the Mexican government to weaken the American presence in Texas, the independence movement gained momentum. After Santa Anna declared himself dictator of Mexico and led his army toward Texas, Anglos staged an armed rebellion that ended in the creation of the Lone Star Republic in 1836.

In some cases, such as that of Narcissa and Marcus Whitman and Eliza and Henry Spalding, migrants went to the Far West for the purpose of converting the inhabitants to Christianity. It is in this discussion that we find that an air of cultural superiority born out of an ethnocentric frame of reference led to tragic consequences for the Whitmans. After discussing the experience of the Mormons in Utah, the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, and armed conflict between the Mormons and the United States Army, we turn our attention to the majority of migrants who trekked along the Oregon and California trails in search of fertile farmlands and a better life for themselves. Although these migrants faced many physical and emotional hardships, for most of them the journey they took was not extremely dangerous. However, there were factors that caused tension between the migrants and the Native Americans they encountered. One such factor, the theft of livestock, was the spark that led to the Gratten Massacre in 1854, an incident that forever altered relationships between Anglo Americans and Native Americans along the Oregon Trail.

In its efforts to negotiate treaties with Native Americans, the Indian Office not only attempted to prevent Indian interference with western migrations but also attempted to protect the commercial interests of the United States. We also see, as had been the case with the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans during the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, the impact of diseases on Indians and the ecological impact of Anglo American migrants on Indian lands and cultures. A case in point is seen in California, where the discovery of gold and the subsequent Gold Rush brought swarms of forty-niners with a get-rich-quick mentality into the region. This sudden sweep of people into California adversely affected Indian cultures, led to the California agricultural boom, and, with the introduction of mining companies, had adverse ecological consequences.

Having looked at American settlement of the Midwest, the Southwestern Borderlands, and the Far West, we next turn our attention to The Politics of Territorial Expansion. Here we look at the ideologies of the Democratic and Whig parties with regard to western expansion and western settlement. And, once again, through the concept of Manifest Destiny, we encounter an ethnocentric frame of reference that provided a political rationale for westward expansion. The concept of Manifest Destiny held that the American people were a God-chosen people who were destined to carry their civilization and their culture throughout all of North America. Within this framework, we discuss the election of the expansionist James K. Polk to the presidency in 1844, the successful negotiations with the British over the Oregon Country, and the annexation of Texas to the United States. Texas annexation caused friction between the United States and Mexico. This friction, and the expansionist agenda of President Polk, would eventually lead to the Mexican War, a war that would propel the question of the expansion of slavery into the territories onto the national political stage and eventually lead to the Civil War.

National Expansion; Sectional Division 1839-1850

1818 Anglo-American Convention establishes joint American and British occupation of Oregon Country.

1821 Mexico launches revolution and achieves independence from Spain.

1836 Texas Revolution and declaration of independence from Mexico.
The Alamo, Goliad massacre, and Battle of San Jacinto secure independence for Texas.

1837 President Jackson rejects Texas statehood but recognizes the republic of Texas.

1842 Webster-Ashburton Treaty establishes boundary with British Canada.

1844 James K. Polk defeats Henry Clay in presidential election.

1845 John L. Sullivan coins the term "Manifest Destiny." Texas admitted into the Union. Oregon annexed up to 49th parallel.

1848 Mexicans surrender and negotiate Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Mexican cession brings California and the American Southwest into the Union. Zachary Taylor defeats Lewis Cass and Martin Van Buren in presidential election. Gold is discovered in California.

1849 California gold rush begins.

1850 California applies for admission into the Union as a free state.
Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas devise the Compromise of 1850.

A House Dividing 1851-1860

1838-42 Lieutenant Charles Wilkes?s United States Exploring Expedition.

1848 American Association for the Advancement of Science founded in Philadelphia.

1848-61 Federal government surveys the West in "The Great Reconnaissance."

1850 Compromise of 1850. Order of the Star-Spangled Banner (Know-Nothings) founded in New York.

1851 London's Crystal Palace exhibition.

1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom's Cabin. Franklin Pierce defeats Winfield Scott in the presidential election. Whig Party begins disintegrating.

1854 Ostend Manifesto divulges American plans to seize Cuba from Spain.
Gadsden Purchase from Mexico provides a route for a southern railroad.
Commodore Matthew Perry undertakes diplomatic mission to Japan. Kansas-Nebraska Act reopens Louisiana Territory to slavery. Republican Party founded on antislavery platform.

1855-60 Thirteen-volume Pacific Railroad Reports published.

1856 John Brown commits the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas. Preston Brooks canes Charles Sumner in the Senate. Know-Nothing Party divides into "North Americans" and "South Americans." James Buchanan defeats John C. Frémont and Millard Fillmore in presidential election.

1857 Dred Scott decision undermines free-soil movement. Panic of 1857 begins.

1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates win support for Republican cause and Abraham Lincoln.

1859 John Brown launches raid on national armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

1860 Lincoln is elected president in four-way race with less than 40 percent of the popular vote.



American Diversity: Manifest Destiny and the acquisition of the western reaches of North America introduced ethnic groups that played little role in previous United States History. The Southwest infused a Hispanic population and culture into American society.

Demographic Changes: The addition of new lands furthered the movement of the American population westward. As settlement pushed westward, the geographic center of the American population moved westward also.

Politics and Citizenship: Manifest Destiny rekindled the issue of the expansion of slavery in the new territories. During the 1850s in particular, the political system broke down as regional political interests overcame national political parties.

War and Diplomacy: The Mexican War had dramatic consequences for the United States by increasing its territory. It also established a pattern of brittle relations with Mexico that continues to the present.

Digital History

Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

Until 1821, Spain ruled the area that now includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah. The Mexican war for independence opened the region to American economic penetration. Government explorers, traders, and trappers helped to open the West to white settlement. In the 1820s, thousands of Americans moved into Texas, and during the 1840s, thousands of pioneers headed westward toward Oregon and California , seeking land and inspired by manifest destiny, the idea that America had a special destiny to stretch across the continent. Between 1844 and 1848 the United States expanded its boundaries into Texas, the Southwest, and the Pacific Northwest . It acquired Texas by annexation; Oregon and Washington by negotiation with Britain; and Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming as a result of war with Mexico.

Lecture Outlines

National Expansion 1800-1848