Settling the West
In the mid-1800s, Americans surged westward past the Mississippi
River, the previously drawn boundary of the frontier. As settlers
migrated toward the Pacific coast in their overloaded wagons, the
West became the fastest growing area of the country. Despite fierce resistance
from Native Americans, Mexicans, and the British, Americans eventually claimed
the entire region west of the Mississippi. However, westward expansion
had its costs: settlers, Native Americans, and the integrity of
the Union suffered at its hands.
Fueling the expansion westward was the popular belief
that it was America’s manifest destiny to expand across
Texas, toward the Pacific coast. In 1845, a New York journalist
wrote of “our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the
whole of our continent which Providence has given us for the development
of the great experiment of liberty.” Manifest destiny tapped into
America’s nationalist spirit, which had been growing since the War
of 1812, and echoed Protestant beliefs that America was a “called
nation”—that is, chosen by God as a haven where Protestants could
spread their faith.
Texas and the Mexican War
During the 1820s, Americans streamed into Texas, then
a Mexican territory, often receiving land grants from the Mexican
government. Mexico gave these grants in the hopes of promoting the
region’s trade and development. By 1830, about 7,000 Americans lived
in Texas, outnumbering Hispanic settlers two to one and alarming
the Mexican government. In 1834, rebel Texan leaders, most of them
American, declared their independence from the Mexican dictatorship.
After two years of fighting, Texas became an independent republic,
although the Mexican government refused to officially acknowledge
Because most Texan settlers were American, the question
immediately arose of Texas’s potential statehood. President John
Tyler, who became president in 1841 after William Henry Harrison
died in office, favored the annexation of Texas and its admission
to the Union. In 1844, Democrat James K. Polk won the
presidential election on a platform determined to “re-annex Texas
and re-occupy Oregon.” One month into his presidency, Congress voted
to annex Texas. In 1845, Texas was admitted into the Union as the
twenty-eighth state. Mexico, still refusing to recognize Texas’
independence, threatened war over the annexation.
War erupted a year later over the new state’s borders:
the U.S. argued that the southern Texas border lay along the Rio
Grande River, while Mexico insisted that the border lay much farther
north. After trying unsuccessfully to buy the New Mexican and Californian territories
from Mexico, the U.S. found a pretense to declare war against Mexico
in 1846, when Mexican troops crossed the Rio Grande. The Mexican
War spread throughout Texas, New Mexico, and California,
and into the Mexican interior, finally ending in U.S. victory. With
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed in February
1848, Mexico ceded Texas, New Mexico, and California to the U.S.
for $15 million. (Note that this ceded territory encompassed present-day
Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado,
and Wyoming.) The treaty secured the West for American settlement,
and American land now stretched continuously from the Atlantic to
the Pacific Ocean.
Polk’s presidential campaign slogan, “Fifty-four Forty
or Fight,” referred to the latitude coordinates of northwest territory
claimed by both the U.S. and Great Britain. The area included present-day
Oregon, Washington, and Idaho; parts of Montana and Wyoming; and
much of western Canada. Northerners also pushed for acquisition,
since the admission of Oregon, a free state, would balance the annexation
of slave-holding Texas. However, Polk, once in office, could not
commit to “fight” for the territory—already caught up in border
disputes with Mexico, he did not wish to engage in further conflict
and instead proposed a compromise with Britain. The 1846 compromise
divided the Oregon territory along the forty-ninth parallel. South
of this line lay U.S.-owned Oregon, and north lay the British-owned
Washington territories. Oregon was admitted as a state in 1859.
California Gold Rush
In January 1848, an American carpenter struck gold in
California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. As news of this discovery
drifted east, a gold rush began, drawing hordes to the West Coast
in search of their fortunes. California attracted about 100,000
immigrants in a single year, including Mexicans, Europeans, and
Americans from the East coast. This influx of settlers led to the
growth of numerous cities and mining towns, and pressure grew for
California to organize its own government, either independent of
the Union or as a state.
Removal of Native Americans
A central aspect of the opening of the West was the removal
of the Native Americans who already occupied the land. Removal started
during Andrew Jackson’s presidency with the Indian Removal
Act of 1830, which authorized the president to force the
removal of Midwestern tribes to reservations in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
By the early 1860s, the U.S. government had systematized this “Indian
territory” into small reservations and, in 1867 set aside two large
tracts of land—one north of Nebraska and one south of Kansas—for tribal
resettlement. The threat of force convinced many tribes to comply
with resettlement. But some tribes, the Sioux in particular, fiercely
resisted. In 1874, the U.S. Army sent Colonel George Armstrong
Custer into South Dakota to fight the Sioux. At the Battle
of Little Bighorn, in 1876, the Sioux crushed Custer and his men.
After this defeat, the Army adopted a different tactic by launching
a war of attrition, persistently harassing the Sioux and gradually
weakening their will to resist. U.S. forces finally vanquished the
Sioux in the Battle of Wounded Knee in 1890. Over the next decade,
the Sioux relocated to reservations.
Not all Americans supported such aggressive removal tactics.
Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor,
published in 1881, attempted to raise public awareness
of the Native American plight. Some hoped to “save” the Native Americans
through religion, or to “civilize” them by teaching them white ways.
Other humanitarians suggested that the best approach would be to
fully integrate the tribes into white society.
These latter concerns were expressed in the 1887 Dawes
Severalty Act (or simply the Dawes Act), which called for
the breakup of the reservation system and the treatment of Native
Americans as individuals rather than as tribes. Congressman Henry
Dawes believed that private land ownership would help Native Americans
become “civilized” and assimilated. Under the act, formally communal
land from the reservations was distributed to individuals in 160-acre
allotments, and these individuals were guaranteed U.S. citizenship
after twenty-five years. The surplus land that remained of the reservations
after these allotments had been made was sold to white settlers
and land speculators. In practice, much of the land parceled out
to Native Americans wound up in white hands after poverty forced
many Native Americans to sell their plots. As a result, many Native
Americans were left homeless, destitute, and dependent on federal
aid for survival. Though passed with good intent, the Dawes Act
had disastrous effects: it disintegrated tribal communities and
deprived Native Americans of millions of acres of land, clearing
the way for American settlement in the process.
Another factor impairing the Native American way of life
was the mass slaughter of buffalo. Many Plains tribes depended on
buffalo for food, leather, and other material needs. But by the
1870s the buffalo population hovered near extinction, as white hunters killed
9 million buffalo between 1872 and 1875. American hunters often
killed the animals solely for their hide, leaving the carcass to
rot, while Army generals killed the buffalo in deliberate attempts
to drive Native Americans off of desired lands.
The Homestead Act and the Transcontinental Railroad
To promote settlement of the West, Congress passed the Homestead
Act in 1862, which offered 160 acres to anyone who would
cultivate and improve the land. Much of this western land, however,
was ill-suited to farming, so ranchers and railroad builders ended
up owning most of it.
Another way Congress spurred settlement was by extending
the railroad network into the West. In 1862, Congress passed the
Pacific Railway Act, which chartered the Union Pacific Railroad
company and authorized the building of the transcontinental
railroad. While the Union Pacific Railroad Company built
tracks westward from Iowa, the Central Pacific Railroad Company
built tracks eastward from California. The two tracks converged
on May 10, 1869 in Promontory, Utah. This historic moment marked
the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, and by 1884,
there were four such lines. Whereas just fifty years earlier it
had taken pioneers many grueling months to cross the nation, Americans
could now travel from coast to coast in a week’s time. Railroads
attracted many new settlers to the newly accessible West by offering
free transportation and long-term loans to travelers.
Effects of Expansion: Sectional Tension Intensified
The expansion of the U.S. into the West reopened a controversy
that had been temporarily settled by the 1821 Missouri Compromise:
the balance of slave-holding versus free lands. Regional passions
flared as the nation debated the extension of slavery into the new
territories. In 1844, Congress repealed the 1836 gag rule,
which had suppressed all debates on slavery, and disputed the status
of the newly acquired territories. Texas entered the Union as a slave
state in 1845 because the territory was already slave-holding when
it sought admission. But the other lands ceded by Mexico—including
California and New Mexico—were undecided, so Northern and Southern
interests rallied to recruit these lands to their side.
In 1846, Democratic congressman David Wilmot attempted
to preempt the debates that would erupt when the U.S. gained additional
western lands by proposing the Wilmot Proviso, which
stipulated that slavery be prohibited in any territory gained from
Mexico. With strong support from the North, the proviso passed through
the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, where it
was repeatedly reintroduced without success. The issue sparked intense
sectional debate. In the debates, four main arguments emerged:
- Antislavery Northerners cited the Northwest
Ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery north of the Ohio
River, as proof that the founding fathers opposed the extension
of slavery, and therefore that America should add no new slave states.
- Southerners, led by John C. Calhoun, argued that all lands
acquired from Mexico should become slave-holding.
- Moderates, including President Polk, suggested that the
36º30' line from the Missouri Compromise be extended into the Western
territory, so that all territory north of the line would be free,
and all territory south of the line would be slave-holding.
- Others suggested the system of popular sovereignty,
in which the settlers themselves, through their local governments,
would decide whether their regions should be slave-holding or free.
Before the 1848 election, antislavery advocates united
to form the Free-Soil Party and nominated Martin Van
Buren for president. The Free-Soil Party consisted of antislavery Whigs, members
of the abolitionist Liberty Party, and a faction of the Democratic
Party (known as the Barnburners) that supported the Wilmot
Proviso. Although the Free-Soil Party did not win any electoral
votes, it did earn 10 percent of the national popular vote. Van
Buren lost the election to Whig candidate Zachary Taylor.