Ideology and interest behind the westward expansion

The story of the US has always been one of westward expansion from the East Cost to the West Cost. In 1840, North America was home to 3 republics, 2 monarchies and dozens of Native American nations. Within less than a decade, most of it would belong to the US. Jefferson was the president who backed the expansion to the West because he was convinced that acquiring new lands was an important to create his vision of an agrarian democracy based in small governments. This process of expansion was first called by the journalist John L. O’Sullivan as a “Manifest Destiny”. O’Sullivan defended that the United States possessed a right granted by God to take territory in the West and install its values and system of government.  Many politicians defend this process as a necessity for the survival of American freedom. Others claimed that it was amoral issue to expand American values and institutions among the other European colonies in North America and the “less civilized” societies such as the Native Americans and the Mexicans. However, the main reason for the expansion was the baby boom and the increase of immigrations that quadrupled the population Land was needed for this people. About 4,000,000 people moved west between 1820 and 1850.

Jefferson opens the gates of the West: the Louisiana Purchase

Spain gave Louisiana back to France and this put in danger the Americans free navigation rights in the Mississippi River. The Americans also feared that Napoleon would forbid Americans access to New Orleans, the most important shipping port in the South. In 1802, Jefferson ordered Robert Livingston ad James Monroe to visit Paris and negotiate the purchase of New Orleans and Florida (Also important to the US). The president warned France that if France took possession of New Orleans, the US would ask for military help to the British. However, by 1803, napoleon suffered a humiliating defeat during the slave revolt in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) and he needed troops and money to conquer Europe. For this reason Napoleon withdrew his troops from America and sell Louisiana for $15 million to the US. This purchase was very criticize, mainly by the Federalists, because the Constitution didn’t give Jefferson the power to make such purchase and, what’s worse, he didn’t consult the Congress. This purchase doubled the size of the US (goes from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountain and from Canada to New Orleans) and 50,000 people living in Louisiana territory became US citizens. This also increase enormously immigrations from Europe. 

Lewis and Clark Expedition

The Louisiana Purchase offered the US natural resources, fertile lands and waterways. However it was a very large territory and even the French didn’t know its contents or borders. For this reason, Jefferson planned an expedition to know about plants, animals, geographical layout and inhabitants of the region, but mostly, he wanted to find a water route to connect the Mississippi River with the Pacific Ocean. In spring 1804, Jefferson’s personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and the veteran army officer William Clark, with 48 qualified men (“Corps of Discovery”), departed from St. Louis and traveled northwest along the Missouri River toward the Pacific Ocean. In the way, they met a French trapper and his Shoshone wife, who served as guides and interpreters. They finally return in September 1806. The group recorder hundreds of plants and animals new to American science, created 150 maps and established good relation with Indians but they didn’t fine what Jefferson want it more: a  water passage connecting the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.

Adams-Onís Treaty

  It was a treaty between the US and Spain signed in 1819. In the treaty Spain ceded Florida to the US and in exchange, the US gave up claims to Texas and recognized the Spanish claim to Texas. This treaty was negotiated in Washington D.C. between John Adams and the Spanish ambassador in the US, Luis de Onís.

In 1846, another treaty was signed with GB were the US acquired the north-western territories (today Washington, Oregon and Idaho)

Routes for American Pioneers

As the US Government bough and acquired new lands, mass of settlers or “pioneers” migrated a settled along the West, before 1800, the mountains of the West obstacle the pass to the West, and few people even knew what lands existed beyond those mountains. However, thanks to the Lewis and Clark expedition and the routes, the West became more known by the people.

The Wilderness Road: this route made possible for settlers heading westward to pass through the Appalachian Mountains.

The National Road: It was proposed as the 1st federal highway and connected Maryland with Washington DC (east) and Ohio (west)

The Erie Canal: opened in 1825, connected the Hudson River and NYC with the Great Lakes. The canal was such a success that soon NY was being called the “Empire State”

The Oregon Trail: it began in Missouri, travel the Rocky Mountains and end it in Oregon. Fort Laramie was an important outpost along the Oregon Trail (later become a military outpost) as well as the South Pass, a spot where travelers would stop climbing in the high mountains and began along descent to regions of the Pacific Coast.

Homestead Act

The Homestead Act was a law signed by Abraham Lincoln in May 1862, during the Civil War, allowing Americans, including freed slaves, to put claim for up 160 free acre of federal land to the first one to arrive to that land by paying a small registration fee or by living on this land for five years. The settler would become the owner of the land if he was willing to pay $ 1.25 an acre, after he had built a house, lived for six years and grown crops for 5 years. The act was amended over the years and stayed in effect until 1935. During this time, 285 million acres of land in the West were homesteaded.

The hazards of the Westward Expansion

Farming and ranching in the West was incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Framers couldn’t afford the steel plow, or didn’t have water to irrigate crops or to the animals. They didn’t have trees to build houses and burn fires and had to face extreme weather conditions (tornadoes, blizzards…) and raids by Native Americans, everything completely alone in their 160 acre land. So, groups of soldiers (filibusters or freebooters) carried out private expeditions to secure land.


In 1821, Mexico won its independence from Spain. However it had difficulty attracting settlers into the Northeast due to the instability and the Native American attacks. For this reason, Mexico encouraged Americans to settle in the area, known today as Texas. During the 1815 cotton boom and the Panic of 1819, Americans went to Texas searching for land. By 1823, 3.000 Americans lived in Texas. By 1830, about 7.000 Americans lived there, outnumbering the Hispanic settlers. Mexicans depended enormously on American trade and Americans settlers conformed to the life of Hispanic settlers but their difference (Catholicism vs Protestantism; Spanish vs English language) increase conflicts between them. Then, Mexico imposed a series of laws about religion, immigration, taxation and slavery, provoking revolts (like Haden Edwards’ revolt) but didn’t succeeded. In 1830, Mexico closed Texas to American immigration but, despite the effort, by 1835, over 1000 Americans per month entered Texas.

Meanwhile, the Mexican government was unstable and in 1834, President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, began to stern restrictions on the independent powers of the governments of the Mexican territories. Some rebellions born but Santa Anna’s brutality in crushing this rebellions alarmed Stephen Austin and other Americans. First, they cooperate with Mexican liberals but, by 1834, Austin was convinced of the need of Texas independence. In February 1836, Santa Anna’s troops sited the town of San Antonio, where 200 Texans resisted, retreating to the mission the Alamo. The defenders of the Alamo were wiped out by March 6 and later, Mexicans massacred 350 Texan prisoners at Goliad. As a revenge, Americans led by Sam Houston surprised Santa Anna’s troops near to San Jacinto and killed 2/3 of Santa Anna’s men in 15 minutes. Then, they take him as prisoner and forced him to recognize Texas’ independence. Texas become part of the US ten years later in 1845.

Mexican- American War

President Polk was concerned that Mexico might be planning to sell land to Britain to help them to pay debts and separate their border from the US. Polk decided to sends the congressman John Slidell to buy California and New Mexico from them. When the Mexican government knew about Polk’s plan, they sent back Slidell, which provoked a response of the US by sending troops to disputed territory between Texas and Mexico in 1846. (Texas was annexed in 1845). Then, due to the killing of several Americans by Mexicans (there were no conclusive proofs) war broke out between Mexico and the US. However, this war was openly criticized by Americans: some claim that it was an unjust war against weaker nation, abolitionists were concerned about the expansion of slavery and southern slave owners opposed it because they didn’t want non-whites admitted to the Union.  From 1846 to 1948, the US army scored several victories and occupied Mexico City and forced them to capitulate (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo). Mexico ceded new states that would become Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah. California entered the Union in 1850 at the price of $15 million and the US assume $3.5 million in debts in exchange for setting the Texas border at the Rio Grande.

 An economic blessing: the gold rush and new means of transportation

Not all settlers and immigrants were motivated by lands but by the gold in California, provoking the movement of nearly 90,000 people to California. San Francisco became the landing point, growing from a settlement of 200 people to a metropolis of nearly 35.000 people in 1850. By 1840, nearly the 40 percent of the nation’s population lived outside the original 13 states. Most of them left their homes searching for better opportunities to begin a new life.  However, all this settlers lived in vast open spaces with a poorly communication and transportation. States responded by giving charters to private companies to build roads, railroads, bridges, canals… to keep the nation together. The primary connection were roads like the National Road but in 1807, Fulton and Livingston introduced the steamboat, a quicker and safer transportation. Between 1817 and 1855, the number of steamboats grew from 17 to 727. The popularity of steamboats provoked the creation of more canals. The most important one was the Erie Canal, which connected NYC (by the Hudson River and the great lakes) directly to Ohio. Lake cities also grew such as Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. Then, in 1840, railroads gain popularity, (creation of the Baltimore and Ohio Road, the Worcester Railroad, the Western Railroad) and provoked the rapid growth of towns and cities, NYC population grew from 100.000 to 800.000 between 1820 and 1860. The railroads eased life for many settlers bringing more people, services and opportunities and become the “vertebral column” of the US.

In consequence, many states started to join the Union:

Colorado (1876)

North and South Dakota, Montana and Washington (1889)

Wyoming and Idaho (1890)

Utah (1896)

Oklahoma (1907)

Arizona and New Mexico (1912)

Alaska and Hawaii (1959)

Alaska was purchased to Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million and Hawaii was annexed when the war with Spain broke out in 1898. They were both include in 1959.

The Frontier Thesis

The Frontier Thesis by Frederick Jackson Turner argued that America’s strength and vitality could best be explained by the fact that for centuries, the nation always had a frontier, new lands to conquered, settled, and promoted democracy trough out this lands. For Turner there were three main waves of the frontier settlement: the first one were pioneers, brave and adventure people who looked for new places to live. They were survivals. The second wave were the immigrants, that made improvements creating villages, schools, roads… and the third one were the capitalist, creating great towns and cities. The history of America is unique, because, while the Europe boundaries were already fixed, America had new boundaries to create and new places to discover. It also provoked the creations a nation made of different cultures, countries, and nationalities => a multicultural American society.