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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

The Transcontinental Railroad and the Admission of Western States

The Plains Indians

Study Questions & Essay Topics


When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the US contained fifteen free and fifteen slave states. Controversy surrounded all of the proposed solutions to the problem of slavery in the territories. Additionally, northerners railed against the legality of slavery in the District of Columbia, and southerners, in turn, complained of northern failure to comply with the Fugitive Slave Law. All of these issues had to be resolved if new states were to enter the Union.

Early in 1850, Henry Clay proposed a solution, known as the Compromise of 1850, to resolve these disputes. His proposal had six major points:

· The admission of California as a free state.
· The division of the remainder of the Mexican cession into two territories, New Mexico and Utah, without restrictions on slavery in either.
· The settlement of a New Mexico-Texas border dispute in favor of New Mexico;
· An agreement that the federal government would assume Texas' debt.
· The continuation of slavery but abolition of the slave trade in the District of Columbia
· The institution of a more effective Fugitive Slave Law

He presented all of these proposals together in an omnibus bill. Though Congress rejected the bill, all of its individual measures were passed.

Still, the issue of the future of slavery remained far from settled, and the disagreement between North and South eventually spawned the Civil War. As the national focus centered on the growing conflict, the conflict itself, and, later, on the period of Reconstruction, expansion no longer monopolized Americans' attention. Even so, expansion continued at a steady pace. Between September 1850, when California was admitted to the union, and 1870, Minnesota, Oregon, Kansas, Nevada, and Nebraska were all admitted as states. Even so, much of the territory in the West remained uninhabited and unorganized.

On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies connected tracks extending from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska. The historic moment created the first transcontinental railroad, enabling travelers to go from coast to coast in a week's time, making it markedly easier to travel west in search of land for settlement. By 1872, under the Pacific Railroad Act, Congress awarded the railroads over 170 million acres in land grants. The railroads created bureaus and sent agents to the East and to Europe to attract potential settlers on these lands. Portraying the West as a land of limitless opportunity, the bureaus offered long-term loans and free transportation to the West. Between 1870 and 1900, not only did the railroads attract settlers from nearby states, but also brought 2.2 million foreign immigrants to the trans-Mississippi West. Desiring quick payment of loans, railroads encouraged these settlers to grow and sell cash crops.

The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, offered 160 acres of land to anyone who would pay $10, live on the land for five years, and cultivate and improve it. The Act encouraged many additional Americans and foreigners to move to the undeveloped West. Despite the romantic portrayals of the railroads, Western farmers continued to face difficult conditions. Suffering a depression between 1873 and 1878, and facing the constant threat of natural disaster, many returned East. Those who remained struggled to build homes and communities amid mosquito infestations and other harsh conditions. Farm settlements eventually became thriving communities, with churches, schools, and markets, and farmers grew close with their neighbors. The towns built opera houses and hotels and labored to bring modernization and sophistication to the West.

Once settlers had established permanent towns, many territories applied for statehood. Colorado joined the Union in 1876, followed in 1889 by North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington. Wyoming and Idaho were admitted the following year, and Utah was admitted in 1896. Oklahoma was admitted in 1907, followed by Arizona and New Mexico in 1912. The West was complete.


The question of the future of slavery as new states were admitted to the Union was one that absorbed the United States in the years leading up to the Civil War. The famous Lincoln-Douglas debates held this issue at their core, and the South attempted secession partially as a response to its distaste for the way in which expansion was unfolding. However, even the Civil War could not dampen the spirit of expansion for long, and with the rise of the transcontinental railroad, migration was easier than ever before.

During the 1840s, when Americans were first settling the territories of Oregon and California, settlers from the East coast endured a six to eight month journey in perilous conditions. After 1870, railroads made the trip up to 20 times faster, and far less dangerous. Additionally, the transcontinental railroad assured insecure settlers that should they fail it would be relatively easy to return East, which many did.

The period of the late 19th century during which the railroads served as western landlords recreated the scenario of the land rush of 1815 to 1819 to a great degree. Rather than speculators, railroad companies now owned huge tracts of land in the West, which they sold to farmers for a profit. Much like the farmers of the Midwest during the earlier land rush, farmers of the Far West were encouraged to try their hand at growing cash crops in order to quickly repay the loans they had taken out to purchase their land. Cash crops, as before, often proved profitable in the short-run. However, in the long run many farmers became dependent on single crops and their markets, and thus were overly sensitive to market fluctuations.

The Homestead Act of 1862 added to the far western land rush. Now farmers who intended to stay on their land for five years could purchase 160 acres for a meager registration fee of $10. The land they purchased this way was often worth up to and beyond one hundred times as much. Farmers often failed to reap the full benefits intended by the Homestead Act. Unscrupulous speculators commonly sent agents West to file false claims for the best locations. Additionally, in many areas, 160 acres was not enough land due to dry conditions or geographical obstacles to farming. However, the federal government remained committed to encouraging migration, and added clauses to the Homestead Act that would allow for the expansion of farmers' land claims in certain situations. Thus encouraged, huge numbers of citizens moved west.

The high transiency rate in the West during the late 1800s was the result of frequent failure to adapt to the new environment. Some areas experienced as much as an 80 percent turnover rate, due to the harsh conditions of western life and the attractiveness of speculation in other areas. However, some groups of settlers remained committed to continuous landownership and worked together to survive. Cooperation was necessary in an environment where everyone was vulnerable to sudden disaster. Settlers helped each other in times of need and formed strong communities that eventually translated into towns, cities, and states, as the organization of the territories was completed. Those who made it through the difficult building years often came to identify closely with the West. A distinctive western society emerged during the late 1800s as the last of the contiguous United States gained their place in the Union.

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