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Westward Expansion (1807-1912)

The Transcontinental Railroad and the Admission of Western States

The Plains Indians

The Transcontinental Railroad and the Admission of Western States, page 2

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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.

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