During the 1830s and 1840s, American nationalism and westward expansion had merged into the widespread belief in manifest destiny. Proud of their democratic roots and traditions, faced with a seemingly boundless continent, many Americans thought of themselves as the forbearers of freedom.
Nationalistic revivalist preachers added fuel to the fire by proclaiming that Americans were God’s chosen people and that it was their right and duty to spread democracy and Protestantism from sea to shining sea. Many also looked to nearby Canada and Mexico, and even as far away as South America. Whereas the Old World had been dominated by monarchy and aristocracy, Americans were determined that the whole of the New World would be free.
Settlers moving west took any of several major routes, most of which started in Missouri. Of these, the Oregon Trail is most famous. Hundreds of thousands of Americans moved to Oregon Territory (now Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) during the years before the Civil War, most of them settling in the fertile Willamette Valley.
The Mormon Trail to Utah and Nevada was also popular, as was the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico, and the California Trail to Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay area. Because there were no railroads in the West, the transcontinental journey had to be made in wagons or on horseback. Thousands even made most of the journey on foot.
People left their homes in the East for new opportunities, for adventure, or for religious reasons—or to strike it rich, after gold was discovered in California in 1848. Life on the trails and on the frontier was difficult because of weather, disease, and bandits, and thousands of travelers never made it to their destinations. Many of the first settlers were criminals who had fled the states to escape sentences or execution. There was little law enforcement except for the occasional band of vigilantes. There were also few or no women in many areas.
The manifest-destiny fervor exacerbated territorial tensions with Britain—tensions that had been mounting since the War of 1812. Although some disputes had been temporarily settled during Monroe’s and Adams’s presidencies, several major issues remained unresolved.