United States Expansion, 1800-1860.
Leah S. Glaser
While not part of the original thirteen colonies, the western territories nonetheless played
a prominent and early role in the birth of the United States. The geography and vast lands to
the west provided irresistible economic opportunities in agricultural settlement, trade, and
commerce. The territories would also test the nation's political unity as different economic
and social systems, exemplified by slavery or "free labor," competed for dominance in the new
lands and exacerbated the sectional tensions that would lead to the Civil War. Supported and
justified through the ideas embodied in "Manifest Destiny," territorial expansion had drastic
and long-lasting social consequences that forever changed the lives of the region's original
and new inhabitants.
The Sociopolitical Landscape: Freedom and Property in an Agrarian Nation
From the nation's beginning, western lands possessed critical political importance. The
ratification of the Articles of Confederation was highly dependent upon the decision of states
with western claims to relinquish those lands for the formation of new states. The western
lands proved essential to the early ideological goals of the nation as well. The values laden
in republican concepts of liberty, independence, equality, freedom, and self-reliance could
all be fulfilled through property ownership and land production. Such ideas and ideals
contributed to the concept of "Manifest Destiny," the belief that America had the duty, the
right and the moral authority to acquire new lands and impose its political, economic, and
social systems upon other lands and peoples.
The geography of the West reinforced the idea of America as an agrarian nation, a place
distinct from the metropolitan centers of Europe. Literature, art, and the findings of
explorers like Stephen Long brought a very foreign landscape to the attention of the public.
As part of Thomas Jefferson's justification to fund the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the
Louisiana Territory, the President argued that understanding the geographic and scientific
characteristics of the new land could only benefit the nation. Leaders such as Jefferson
believed that the vast farmable lands in the West would be vital in "making America America"
by providing the means to establish a nation of self-sufficient yeoman farmers. These farmers
would own and improve their own parcel of land. At the same time, individual land ownership
would ensure rights even for the currently landless classes, who, as evidenced by past
uprisings (such as Bacon's Rebellion and Shay's Rebellion), could prove politically
destabilizing. Growth and settlement were thus key factors in the nation's development. The
new government would not act as a landlord as had been the case in England, but rather as a
"real estate agent."
Hundreds of settlers from the middle colonies had already established settlements in the
so-called backcountry, but the Northwest Ordinance of 1785 created a systematic survey for
selling what was then the Northwest Territories through a grid system that reflected notions
of equality and land ownership. The ordinance decreed land would be distributed through
orderly, "rapid, and democratic settlement." At the same time, the system would help avoid
speculative frenzy and conflict with Indians, and would extend further West as the country
acquired new lands. In 1787, Congress addressed the political future of the region,
stipulating the process by which it would eventually divide and form territorial governments
and then states. Furthermore, as part of a Constitutional compromise and in further support of
the yeoman ideal, slavery would be prohibited in the region.
The West symbolized America's future, hopes, and dreams, yet western expansion and Manifest
Destiny were conditioned largely by issues of political and social power. With the country
divided by two different political, economic, and social systems-based around the idea of
slavery (largely in the South) and "free labor" (predominantly in the North)-concerns about
such power were always close to the surface. Western settlement offered an avenue for
extending these systems and their values. As new territories applied for statehood, northern
and southern politicians debated the issue, thus fueling sectional differences. Eventually
disagreement over slavery and its moral, social, and economic effects led to southern
secession and the Civil War.
Outside of the "Northwest Territories," newly acquired lands were not subject to the
anti-slavery provision of the Northwest Ordinance. When Missouri applied for statehood in
1820, southern congressmen insisted it be admitted as a slave state; to retain a balance of
slave and free states, Congress admitted Maine in as a free state. The Missouri Compromise of
1820, which made the 36� 30' latitude line the northern boundary for slavery, established the
rule for settling political power in the Louisiana Territory. However, the proclamations of
neither the Northwest Ordinance nor the Missouri Compromise applied to territories outside
their sphere. At the time of Texas's War of Independence, the U.S. Senate was equally balanced
between slave and free states. The admission of Texas in 1846 as a slave state and Iowa as a
free state preserved that balance, but the rapid settlement of territory acquired in the
ensuing Mexican War forced Congress to revisit the issue when applications for statehood
Even before the war ended, Pennsylvania Senator David Wilmot introduced a failed measure,
known as the Wilmot Proviso, hoping to stipulate that all territories obtained from Mexico
would be free, non-slave territories. The proviso generated great distrust in Congress since
it would have prevented southerners from continuing their way of life in the new territory,
and it failed to pass.
Northerners feared the new lands would support the spread of the slave system; the sectional
rift caused the break-up of the Democratic Party and the formation of the Free-Soil Party that
vowed to keep all the territories free (See 6b). In February of 1850, Henry Clay devised a
four-part plan: California would enter the union as a free state, but the populations of New
Mexico and Utah would determine the slave issue based upon popular sovereignty. The slave
trade would also end in Washington, D.C. Finally, to placate the southern states, Congress
would enact a fugitive slave law that would allow slaveholders to enter free northern states
to retrieve runaway slaves. The compromise was hardly satisfactory and further aggravated
sectional tensions. Four years later, when Kansas and Nebraska applied for statehood,
ambitious politicians, especially Stephen Douglas, upset several of these longstanding
compromises by repealing the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Opening the
remainder of the Louisiana Territory to popular sovereignty proved to be an enormous
motivation for western settlement as pro and anti-slavery forces poured in, especially to
Kansas where the issue of slavery was more contested, to help influence the vote with a
majority. Tensions proved so volatile that numerous conflicts earned the territory the
nickname, "Bleeding Kansas."
Economic Opportunity and Impact
Economics proved a powerful motivator for land acquisition as well as settlement. To justify
the purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory from the French in 1803 for twice the federal
budget, President Thomas Jefferson invoked Article 4, Section 8 of the Constitution, which
sought to "regulate commerce with foreign nations and among the several states, and with
Indian tribes." Without a European presence in or around the Mississippi River from its source
to its mouth, the purchase removed all obstacles to continental trade and commerce. Jefferson
instructed Lewis and Clark to pursue such goals with the Indian tribes in the new lands.
Advancements in transportation beginning in the 1820s rapidly removed the geographic
obstacles that had slowed Lewis, Clark, and other explorers as they traveled west. These
changes facilitated the movement of commodities and information, as well as people. Shorter
travel times allowed manufacturers in the North and Northeast to sell products to a wider
market and to do so less expensively. Creating a phenomenon known as the "market revolution,"
canals, steamboats, and railroads across the landscape formed new connections for production,
trade, and national unity.
These new markets and modes of production undermined the yeoman farmer's central role in the
nation's economy. Market expansion converted many would-be yeomans into entrepreneurs of
commercial agriculture, improving the land not just for self-sufficiency but for profit. The
trend coincided with the first major influx of western migrants intent on farming rather than
trading, and with the settlement of families, most often from lower- or middle-class European
backgrounds. Western immigrants also included a number of Chinese. The promise of land,
adventure, and religious freedom (i.e. the Mormons of Utah) inspired many who viewed the lands
in the West as opportunities to begin their worlds anew. The mass migration also came with
government intervention. By the mid-1800s, military posts dotted the West, serving to ensure
existing borders, but also to grant protection to the westward migrants.
Often credited to the expansionist ideas of President James K. Polk, the Mexican War opened
up even more territory in 1848 through which to spread the values of capitalism. The idea of
Manifest Destiny served as a rationalizing ideology to impose not only economic and political
control, but also cultural norms upon the Mexican, Asian, and Indian ethnic groups in the West.
The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill so soon after victory in the Mexican War served as
"proof" to many white Americans of their nation's manifest destiny to occupy the West.
Migration to the newly acquired territory exploded with the California Gold Rush of 1849,
which brought approximately 250,000 "stampeders" from around the world. But many of those who
arrived planned only on finding wealth and returning home, rather than settling permanently.
Upon arrival, a new Anglo population, many native-born and northern, encountered immense
diversity in California. Previously, the region's Mexican inhabitants lived relatively
isolated lives, primarily on the coast. These residents barely noticed when Mexico achieved
independence from Spain in 1821. When the United States obtained the territory after the
Mexican War, these former Mexican citizens known as Californios
lived a primarily pastoral lifestyle, not unlike their counterparts in the plantation South,
but employing Indians as laborers. Any similarities to the Southern slave labor system,
however, fell by the wayside as the Gold Rush migration swept across California. Not everyone
could share in the wealth, however, or even scrape together a few nuggets of gold after years
of digging. Instead, the most important legacy of the Gold Rush, most scholars now agree, was
not material, but social-the ethnic diversity of California and the west.
The era of and after the Gold Rush saw a capitalistic transformation of a pastoral society,
and a distinct shifting of class and social structures in California. In the process, the U.S.
government passed several laws that many people today interpret as discriminatory. The
legislation dispossessed the Californios from their property and
relegated them to the status of unskilled laborers, whether or not they had just arrived in
the area or hailed from families that had lived in California for generations. Additional
problems emerged as blacks and Chinese worked for lower wages than Euro-Americans, threatening
the economic privileges the latter enjoyed in the free-labor system. Consequently,
California's new residents tended to use race as the foremost organizing principle in
determining access to economic and political privileges. The Gold Rush had, if possible, an
even more profound effect on California's Native Americans. Between 1848 and 1858, the
population fell from 150,000 to 25,000. No longer needed as laborers under a "free labor"
system, Indians died from starvation in addition to disease. A declining birthrate also
accounted for much of the population's decrease. Despite the dwindling numbers, recent
scholarship has emphasized that native people and culture did survive by adjusting to the new
historical and cultural influences around them and forming new identities.
Impact of Western Expansion on American Indians and Mexicans
The fate of California's Indians, who tended to be organized into small tribes and who had
also lived under Spanish and Mexican rule for many years, was tied to the processes of eastern
colonization and western expansion. Following the American Revolution and the War of 1812,
Indians, many of whom sided with the British, were treated as conquered peoples. Any
negotiations for land usually involved the cession of their hunting grounds. In the view of
Thomas Jefferson and others, however, these losses would be more than offset when Indians were
turned into productive yeoman farmers. The idea and practice of individual land ownership in
English law and custom stood in sharp contrast to the Indian idea, practice, and law of
communal property. Indian culture, according to the English, was wholly inferior and did not
deserve, in their minds, to be preserved or maintained. It could, they thought, and should be replaced.
President Andrew Jackson, a hero of the War of 1812, viewed Indians as former allies of the
British and therefore as traitors. At best, Indians served as obstacles to settlement, which
Jackson viewed as essential to economic democracy. His policy of Indian removal changed the
longstanding, if sometimes weakly admitted, attitude of the American government that Indians
were in fact sovereign nations. Moreover, hunger for land and the invention of the cotton gin
created immense opportunities to expand the plantation system. Georgia and Mississippi
encouraged the policy of removal of Indians from their states. Thus, despite several signs
that Indians had adopted many "American" values toward land, and despite fierce grassroots,
military, and legal resistance (Cherokee Nation v Georgia, 1831; Worcester v Georgia, 1832),
the southeastern tribes of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Seminoles, and the Creeks
(known as the Five Civilized Tribes) were "removed" with federal assistance to Indian
territory (modern day Oklahoma) in 1835 via a brutal 200-mile journey known as the Trail of Tears.
With the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and Mexican lands, the United States acquired
the lands of plains and southwestern Indian tribes, who, unlike the eastern tribes, had less
contact with European ways. The expansion of Americans and Europeans had a tremendous impact
on western tribes, but it is important to remember that the cultural history of these tribes
had evolved for centuries. Several decades earlier, the Spanish introduction of horses allowed
the tribes of the Plains to greatly expand their hunting territory. Indians adopted the
weapons of English and French fur traders, including firearms. Migrants, however, strained the
availability of resources such as timber, water, and grazing lands. They also introduced
cattle, pigs, and sheep who ate away at the grasslands of the elk, buffalo, and antelope the
Indians hunted for food and clothing. With the coming of the railroad, the killing of buffalo
for their hides further undermined the chief resource for many tribes. Such environmental
pressures and the presence of settlers and forts led to several Indian conflicts involving
military campaigns, failed peace negotiations, imprisonment and controversial treaties which
often limited homeland territory or replaced it altogether. Expansionist-minded tribes such as
the Sioux and the Apache put up fierce resistance to protect their lands for years, finally
ending in the campaigns after Little Big Horn in the North and in the famous surrender of
Geronimo in 1886 in the South. Though they would attempt to both resist and negotiate American
culture and governance into the twentieth century, the persecution of Native Americans
dramatically diminished their numbers and left them in a severely weakened bargaining position.
The Historiography of the American West
For years, the 1893 "frontier thesis" of historian Frederick Jackson Turner dominated
interpretations of western expansion. Turner argued that the frontier line progressively
advanced across the country from east to west. Each time it did so, as he confronted the
frontier and experienced its transformative power, the yeoman farmer-the hero of Thomas
Jefferson's agrarian republic-redefined notions of independence, innovation, and democracy. As
long as there was land on which to expand, America could remain democratic and the actions of
the farmers would continue to preserve the nation's ideals. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s,
historians such as Herbert Eugene Bolton, who stressed the "Spanish frontier," Walter Prescott
Webb, who introduced environmental issues, and Earl Pomeroy who stressed colonialism and
urbanism, began to challenge Turner's ideas. Still, Turner's broad thesis remained the
defining interpretive model for Western history, one that Americans appreciated for its
powerful confirmation of American ideals of democracy and independence. At a time when more
and more Americans were moving to cities, when more and more immigrants were arriving on
America's showers, when large and impersonal businesses seemed to dominate the country's
finances and production, Americans appreciated Turner's frontier thesis. The frontier, Turner
suggested, was a continual process of American conquest and self-invention, and in the process
the engine of democratic ideals.
Over the last thirty years, scholars such as Patty Limerick, Richard White, Donald Worster,
and William Cronon agree that Turner's thesis is an inadequate paradigm for understanding the
complexities and significance of the west, or even understanding its boundaries. Rather, they
have focused increasingly upon the region as central to national identity and history beyond
territorial expansion. The "New Western" historians have redefined the idea of a "frontier,"
describing it as a zone of interaction or a meeting place instead of a dividing line between
"civilization" and "wilderness," as Turner implied. Their research describes a region of study
unto itself with a complicated history that challenges the simple idea of progress by
emphasizing interaction and conquest. Additional studies have stressed the role of ethnic
groups, multicultural interaction, and resource competition in defining and developing the
The role of the western territories in sectional politics reveals that although many people
saw the west as an "escape valve" from the east and a place for new beginnings, the new lands
also extended the political, economic, and social relationships of the original nation.
However, new relationships between diverse peoples and a unique landscape also created new
challenges for Americans.
Works Cited and Further Reading
Haas, Lisbeth. Conquests and Historical Identities in California,
1769-1936. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Hoxie, Frederick E. Parading Through History: The Making of the Crow
Nation in America, 1805-1935. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Hurtado, Albert L. Indian Survival on the California Frontier. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.
Limerick, Patricia Nelson. Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the
American West. New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.
Ruiz, Ramon Eduardo, ed. The Mexican War: Was it Manifest Destiny?
New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1963.
Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America,