Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny and the Donner Party
The white population of the new United States did not stretch far beyond the eastern seaboard until the 19th century. The British Proclamation of 1763, the War of 1812, geological barriers and the lack of modern-day transportation all provided resistance against westward migration. But by the mid-1800s, the concept of Manifest Destiny–the belief that Americans had a divine right to expand their territory–gained footing, and Americans began to buy into the inevitability of settling both unexplored and already-claimed western frontiers, including the lands that now make up Texas, California, Colorado and Oregon. The California Gold Rush, the construction of railroads and a growing pioneer spirit all contributed to the expansion of the "wild west."
Europeans began populating the land within the continental boundaries of the mainland United States shortly after the first colonial settlements were established along the Atlantic coast. The first British settlers in the New World stayed close to the Atlantic, their lifeline to needed supplies from England. By the 1630s, however, Massachusetts Bay colonists were pushing into the Connecticut River valley. Resistance from the French and the Indians slowed the movement westward, yet by the 1750s northern American colonists had occupied most of New England.
In the South, settlers who arrived too late to get good tidewater land moved westward into the Piedmont. By 1700 the Virginia frontier had been pushed as far west as the fall line—the point upstream at which the rivers emptying into the Atlantic became unnavigable. Some pioneers climbed beyond the fall line into the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the major flow into the backcountry regions of Virginia and the other southern Atlantic colonies went southward rather than westward.
Germans and Scots-Irish from Pennsylvania moved down the Shenandoah Valley, largely between 1730 and 1750, to populate the western portions of Virginia and the Carolinas. By the time of the French and Indian Wars, the American frontier had reached the Appalachian Mountains.
The British Proclamation of 1763 ordered a halt to the westward movement at the Appalachians, but the decree was widely disregarded. Settlers scurried into Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. After the American Revolution, a flood of people crossed the mountains into the fertile lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. By 1810 Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky had been transformed from wilderness into a region of farms and towns.
Despite those decades of continuous westward pushing of the frontier line, it was not until the conclusion of the War of 1812 that the westward movement became a significant outpouring of people across the continent. By 1830 the Old Northwest and Old Southwest—areas scarcely populated before the war—were settled with enough people to warrant the admission of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Alabama, and Mississippi as states into the Union.
During the 1830s and '40s, the flood of pioneers poured unceasingly westward. Michigan, Arkansas, Wisconsin, and Iowa received most of them. A number of families even went as far as the Pacific coast, taking the Oregon Trail to areas in the Pacific Northwest. In 1849 fortune seekers rushed into California in search of gold. Meanwhile, the Mormons ended their long pilgrimage in Utah.
In the spring of 1846, a group of nearly 90 emigrants left Springfield, Illinois, and headed west. Led by brothers Jacob and George Donner, the group attempted to take a new and supposedly shorter route to California. They soon encountered rough terrain and numerous delays, and they eventually became trapped by heavy snowfall high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Purportedly reduced to cannibalism to survive through the winter, only half of the original group reached California the following year. Their story quickly spread, and before long the term "Donner Party" became synonymous with one of humanity's most ingrained taboos.
The Donner party left Springfield, Illinois, in April 1846. Led by two wealthy brothers, Jacob and George Donner, the emigrants initially followed the regular California Trail westward to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. From there, however, the emigrants decided to leave the established trail and take a new and supposedly shorter route to California laid out by an unscrupulous trail guide named Lansford Hastings. Hastings was not at Fort Bridger at the time–he was leading an earlier wagon train along his new route. He left word for the Donner party to follow, promising that he would mark the trail for them.
Reassured, the group of 89 emigrants left Fort Bridger with their 20 wagons and headed for Weber Canyon, where Hastings claimed there was an easy passage through the rugged Wasatch Mountains. When they reached the head of the canyon, they found a note from Hastings attached to a forked stick. Hastings warned the Donner party that the route ahead was more difficult than he had thought. He asked the emigrants to make camp there and wait until he could return to show them a better way.
Hastings' note troubled the emigrants. To return to Fort Bridger to pick up the established route would have meant wasting several days. They decided to wait for Hastings. After eight days, when Hastings had still not arrived, the emigrants sent a messenger up the canyon to find the guide. The messenger returned several days later with instructions from Hastings to follow another trail, and the emigrants complied. The alternate route, however, turned out to be even worse than the Weber Canyon road, and the emigrants had to carve a fresh road through thick trees and boulder-strewn ground.
The Donner party finally made it through the Wasatch Mountains and arrived at the Great Salt Lake. Hastings' route had cost them 18 valuable days. Unfortunately, their difficulties were only beginning. The "shortcut" to California had cost them many wasted days, and the Donner party crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains late in the season. On October 28, a heavy snowfall blocked the high mountain passes, trapping the emigrants in a frozen wilderness. Eventually reduced to cannibalism to survive–at least according to legend and journals–only 45 of the original 89 emigrants reached California the following year.
Between the gold rush and the Civil War, Americans in growing numbers filled the Mississippi River valley, Texas, the southwest territories, and the new states of Kansas and Nebraska. During the war, gold and silver discoveries drew prospectors—and later settlers—into Oregon, Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and Montana.
By 1870 only portions of the Great Plains could truly be called unsettled. For most of the next two decades, that land functioned as the fabled open range, home to cowboys and their grazing cattle from ranches in Texas. But by the late 1880s, with the decline of the range cattle industry, settlers moved in and fenced the Great Plains into family farms. That settlement—and the wild rush of pioneers into the Oklahoma Indian Territory—constituted the last chapter of the westward movement. By the early 1890s, a frontier had ceased to exist within the 48 continental states
Draw a map showing how the west was possessed by the Americans and the routes they took to do so. Start at Massachusetts and end at California. Make sure each journey is dated and labeled. Use the journeys in this article to make your map. Include the Donner Party. Make a key to your map if you use symbols.
Describe why the Donner Party made the decisions they did that eventually led to cannibalism. It might help to envision yourself as a young person eager to move to the “Golden: state and get on with a glorious and obvious manifest destiny.