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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

The Surge West


Land Policy and Speculation


The westward movement of the American population occurred in intermittent flurries of settlement. The first began early in the nation's history, resulting in the statehood of Vermont, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, all of which were admitted to the Union between 1791 and 1803. With the Louisiana Purchase the US doubled in size, opening up new regions to exploration and settlement. Once the War of 1812 ended, expansion began in earnest. The government was eager to enlarge the Union, and, accordingly, six new states joined the Union between 1816 and 1821: Indiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Alabama, Maine, and Missouri.

Settlers of the west, called pioneers, usually migrated as families and settled along the rivers of the West in order to facilitate trade. Pioneers often settled among others who hailed from the same areas of the East, or shared similar customs or religion. For instance, Indiana was overwhelmingly populated by southern migrants. As a result, many New Englanders chose not to settle there and instead moved on to Michigan, which became primarily populated with former New England residents. Even before there were organized cities and towns, there was a strong sense of cooperation and community in the West. Inhabitants met regularly to participate in sports and hold fairs, parties, and "hoedowns," or dances.

There was a measure of rivalry between East and West, which was ever-present in the minds of many western settlers. Easterners thought westerners were primitive and uncouth, and westerners in turn chided the East for its soft and luxurious lifestyle. The identity of the West grew up around the ideals of simplicity, openness, and honesty. This identity was universally known throughout the settlements, and the westerners strove to support it with actions, consistently trying to demonstrate their simplistic sophistication to easterners and the eastern press, which painted the west as the domain of the unintelligent and backwards.

The federal government encouraged western expansion throughout the early nineteenth century. Most prominently, soldiers had been promised western lands in return for enlisting in the American army during the War of 1812. A total of six million acres were dealt in this manner as "military bounties," and many soldiers moved west at their earliest convenience to find arable land for farming after the war's end in 1814. Furthermore, in 1816, Congress authorized the appropriation of funds for the formerly postponed project of construction of a National Road, which by 1838 reached Vandalis, Illinois, and was widely used as a connection to western lands.


In 1806, Zebulon Pike journeyed into the Rockies of what is now southern Colorado and sighted the peak now named for him. The Lewis and Clark explored laand in the Far West. Both of these expeditions returned East with maps of the explored territory and stories that quickly became exaggerated into the legend of the West, which enticed many an easterner to risk the uncertain journey to the little known territory.

The first settlers of the West, who in settling opened the west up to further settlement, were entrepreneurial fur traders. In 1811, John Jacob Astor of New York, founded Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon as a center for the fur trade. In the 1820s and 1830s, fur trading grew up all along the Missouri river. Some white fur traders became legends in their own time for their astounding feats of bravery in surviving harsh conditions to gather and sell furs. These "mountain men" included Jedediah Smith, Kit Carlson, and Jim Beckwourth. All of them became intertwined in the legend of the West.

Ordinary settlers did not flock to the West in the hopes of finding adventure. The typical migrant sought a greater measure of stability. Indeed, it was not until the spread of canals in the 1820s and 1830s, or railroads in the 1860s, that settlers would even venture from the shores of the major rivers of the West. To most Americans, "the West" still referred to the area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Before 1840, few ventured into the Far West. Knowing that the average migrant wanted stability and security, newspaper reports and pamphlets aimed at describing the West to easterners usually stressed the bountiful resources of the region over its perils and sometimes harsh conditions. A legislator from the Missouri Territory wrote east in 1816 in efforts to encourage migration that in the territory of what is now the Midwest, "there neither is, nor, in the nature of things, can there ever be, any thing like poverty there. All is ease, tranquility and comfort." This description demonstrates the desire on the part of the federal government and the evolving western governments to encourage the settlement and development of the west, which they thought could serve as a great bounty to the nation as a whole.

The rivalry between East and West was a result of the sharp contrast between western and eastern life. Indeed, life in the west was rough, with only a sprinkling of elegance amid a vast sea of manual laborers and dirty towns with few modern amenities. The exchange of insults between East and West had a profound affect on western identity. Westerners prided themselves on their simple manners and were not only hostile to the decadent East but also intolerant of other westerners who demonstrated pretensions to gentility. Anyone who acted as if they were above the masses was ostracized, and even a politician who rode to a public meeting in a buggy instead of horseback lost votes.

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