Westward Expansion (1807-1912)


The Surge West

Summary The Surge West


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.

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