Westward Expansion


     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.

Motives 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. Oregon 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. Utah 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.

Interpretations Sectional Opinions: q John 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. q Boucher 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. q

James 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. q William 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. q Norman 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. q Wern
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: q Carlos 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. q Richard 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. q The 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.