Westward Expansion Part I: The West before Europeans When Lewis & Clark

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Westward Expansion
Part I: The West before Europeans
When Lewis & Clark explored the Louisiana Territory in 1803, there were already millions of people living there, mostly Native Americans. Many historians estimate that there were over 400 different tribes each with their own unique language and culture. Northern tribes such as the Ojibwa and Ottawa relied on hunting, fishing and farming to get through the harsh winters. Tribes such as the Sioux Nation on the Great Plains became dependant on hunting a single species: the Bison. Tribes traveled seasonally, following the bison herds. They supplemented their diet with fruits and vegetables they gathered, as well as some farming. Other tribes such as the Haida of the Pacific Northwest had a plentiful diet of fish and plants to readily available, which freed up their people to concentrate on religion, the arts, and social matters. Still other tribes, such as the Powhatan in New England, had by the 1800s been mostly destroyed by white settlement. Some tribes were peaceful and lived in harmony with their neighbors, while some tribes practiced warfare as a way of life. The tribes of North America are so diverse that the only trait that they all share is that they lived in America long before Europeans arrived.

Most white Americans, however, did not appreciate their diversity. To them, Native Americans were all the same: “savages.” Native Americans were shocking to whites because of their long hair or shaved heads and unusual clothing. Unlike Europeans, most tribes dressed for the climate and did not wear head-to-toe clothing unless it was cold. They were also not Christians and did not follow European beliefs about marriage—some tribes permitted divorce, or even more shocking, having more than one spouse. Even their ideas about gender were strange. Many Native American cultures believed that farming was women’s work, while white Americans believed women should stay in the home while men farmed.

White Americans were also convinced that Native American culture was less advanced because they did not fully exploit the natural resources around them. Most tribes did not build permanent cities, but rather moved seasonally to follow food supplies or to avoid harsh weather. They only cleared the land they needed rather than cutting down forests and filling in swamps in every direction. Most tribes also had no written language and only basic metal-working skills. To Europeans and their descendants in America, the white man was superior and they deserved this new continent more than the native inhabitants did.


  1. Why isn’t it correct to say that white Americans such as Lewis & Clark “discovered the West”?

  1. Why did Europeans think that Native Americans were uncivilized “savages”?

  1. How did European Americans and many Native American tribes use land differently? How do you think this caused conflict?

Part II: The Backcountry & Early Settlement of the West
In the 18th century, the land on either side of the Appalachian Mountains was considered the Backcountry, the border between civilization and wilderness. Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky were considered “the West” until the early 1800s. There were only a handful of roads that crossed the Appalachian Mountains, so it was very difficult to get to the West in the first place. There were no railroads, so long-distance travel was accomplished with horse-drawn wagons, on foot, or by boat. Because of this, many early white settlements cropped up along major rivers. http://www.lib.washington.edu/exhibits/frontier/image/fr-cabin.jpg

Many early settlers went to the Backcountry to find land. Descendants of Europeans had been living on the Atlantic coast since the 1500s, so by the late 1700s most good farmland was in use, and buying land was very expensive. Some people went to the Backcountry because they were former indentured servants in the colonies and they wanted to start a new life. Others were recent European immigrants who could not afford to buy land in the colonies, or who preferred to live in relative isolation in the Backcountry. For all settlers, the Backcountry offered what seemed like an endless supply of land. The earliest white settlers in the Backcountry were squatters, people who claimed a piece of land by living on it rather than buying for it and signing a deed. Later, ownership of the land was formalized and professional brokers sold land in the west officially.

The pattern of settlement that the original backcountry settlers followed would remain relatively unchanged for generations, whether they were settling in the Ohio Valley, the Midwest, or the Great Plains. Once they found a piece of land they liked, settlers would cut down trees to build a fence and a home as soon as possible. Most frontier homes were extremely simple, usually a log-cabin with one large room that the family used for sleeping, cooking, working and eating. Walls were often drafty unless the family filled holes in the wall with mud, clay or strips of cloth. Floors were often bare dirt, and glass for windows was almost impossible to obtain outside of the civilized East. Living conditions were rustic, if not unpleasant, but families had little time to dwell on their home décor, as most of their time was spent working.

Most white settlers in the West were substance farmers, meaning that they only grew enough food to feed their families. This is different than most farmers on the Atlantic Coast who grew excess crops to sell for a profit. Western farmers had to cut down trees and pull out the stumps to clear land to plant crops. Farming itself was hard work and children were expected to work alongside their parents in the field. To supplement their diet, men hunted for deer and bears in the wilderness and trapped small animals such as rabbits and squirrels. Women were responsible for not only helping their husbands farm and occasionally trap animals, but also caring for the youngest children and all animals; cooking and storing food; cleaning the house; and sewing, washing and mending clothing. Children had many responsibilities as well, helping their mothers and fathers, and most received no formal education. file:ilustration from daniel boone & the hunters of kentucky by w.h.bogart 1854.png

In spite of the difficult living conditions, settlers in the Backcountry were determined to lead full lives. Most white settlers were Christians, and although there were rarely communities large enough to support a church, traveling preachers went from community to community to teach the Bible, perform marriages and baptize children. Lucky families who lived near a town might have access to a permanent church. When there was not a minister available, families performed informal weddings and read the Bible with their children. Although most families lived very far from their nearest neighbor, they found occasions to socialize when they could. Barn-raising, harvest-time, weddings and holidays were often excuses for distant neighbors to get together for music, dancing and a big meal. These celebrations punctuated the difficult work and hardships the settlers faced, making an otherwise difficult life bearable.

Life was not all fun and games, however, and another major problem the white settlers faced was that Native Americans lived on the land they claimed long before Europeans arrived. Some of the tribes just past the Appalachian Mountains were actually tribes who had once lived on the East Coast but had been driven out by the original European immigrants several generations earlier. Native Americans in the Ohio River Valley were accustomed to hunting wherever they wanted, so if a deer crossed over a fence onto a farmer’s land, they followed it. White settlers were outraged that Native Americans did not respect their ideas about land-ownership and felt entitled to shoot any trespassers on their land. This prompted bloody feuds between whites and Native Americans, resulting in countless deaths on both sides. Native Americans and white frontiersmen grew up hating each other, and most white settlers believed the only sure way to achieve peace was to completely destroy Native Americans or drive them further west.

White settlers too began to move further west and the area just across the Appalachians filled up. By the early 1800s, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio contained thriving cities, and in 1828 Andrew Jackson became the first US president from west of the Appalachian Mountains. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/usa_population_distribution_1800.png


Use the map on the right for questions 1 - 2. The darkest areas are the most highly populated areas. White areas indicate fewer than two non-Native American inhabitants per square mile. Light gray areas indicate between 2 and 18 non-Native American inhabitants per square mile.

  1. In what part of the country do most Americans live, not including Native Americans?

  1. Look at the way the population is distributed. Why did the population end up that way?

  1. For what reasons did white settlers travel to the West?

  1. What is a subsistence farmer? Does that sound like a good job? Why/why not?

  1. What was life like for settlers on the frontier? Be specific.

  1. How did Native Americans & white settlers on the frontier get along?

  1. Why do you think many Americans felt it was symbolic when Jackson was elected president? What do you think it said about the West?

Part III: The Nation Expands
The United States began as the original thirteen colonies along the Atlantic Coast from Georgia to what is today Maine, extending west only as far as the Appalachian Mountains. The US claimed land as far west as the Mississippi River, but it was inhabited by Native Americans and white Americans knew very little about it. The first major US expansion into the West occurred in 1803 when Thomas Jefferson authorized the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million, which more than doubled the size of the US (see map).


For several decades, the US had border disputes with European nations who claimed land in America. The Spanish controlled Florida and the Southwest. The British were active in Canada, often encroaching on American land in the Great Lakes. The British and the US also both claimed that they owned the Oregon Country, which includes modern-day Oregon, as well as Washington, Idaho and parts of Canada. In 1818, the US signed the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain. In this treaty, the US promised to give up their claim on Texas if Spain acknowledged that the US owned Oregon. Why would the US sign a treaty with Spain rather than one with Britain? The US and Britain were still on shaky terms after the War of 1812, and Spain was the other major superpower in North America. If Spain supported the US’s claim on Oregon, it would make Britain’s claim weaker. The Oregon question was finally solved in 1846 when Britain the US signed an agreement that split Oregon along the 49th parallel. This gave the US access to the Pacific Ocean and avoided another war between the two countries.

The US was also in conflict with Spain—and later Mexico, after it declared independence from Spain—over territory in the West. Texas was a particularly hot area of dispute. Many Americans from the South moved to Texas because of its fertile farmland, and because in the 1930s the Mexican government had invited Americans to become citizens. Once they moved to Mexico, however, the US settlers retained their language and culture, and many wanted their new home to become a part of the US. Americans in Texas declared it an independent republic in the 1930s and many Texans wanted it to become a state, but Congress did not want to risk war with Mexico. In February 1945, Congress passed a Joint Resolution to admit Texas as a state. President Tyler signed it into law in March 1945, just before James K Polk was inaugurated as president. Mexico was understandably upset and the two countries went to war from 1846 – 1848. After the Mexican American War, Mexico and the US signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848. In this treaty, Mexico recognized the US’s claim to Texas and agreed to give most of the Southwest (parts of Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Utah) to the US in exchange for $15 million to repay war debts. The US completed the modern contiguous United States (the main part of the US without Alaska & Hawaii) in 1853 when it bought a small area south of the Gila River from Mexico for $10 million. map%20guadalupe%20hidalgomaine-oregon_3


1. In what ways did the US get new territory?

2. Which new territory was the best deal? Explain your answer.

3. Which new territory was the worst deal? Explain your answer.

4. When did the modern-day contiguous US get completed?

Part IV: Later Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny
Throughout the 19th century, white Americans continued to travel to the West. Some purchased land to become a farmer. Others moved to western cities such as St. Louis and Cincinnati to start businesses. Still others were sick of urban life and wanted to find adventure exploring the new sparsely populated land in the West. By the mid-19th century, a new idea also contributed to Americans’ desire to go West: Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny was the belief that God wanted white Americans to settle the whole continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Although land in the West was already claimed by Native Americans, as well as Spain (later Mexico, after their revolution) and England, Americans thought that it was their duty to spread their population to the West, bringing their culture, values, and technology with them. Art and literature celebrated this idea as well, portraying American expansion into the West as a positive, almost spiritual mission. http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pics/hostpics/6741383c-e14b-4bd6-bbcb-7fe26fb9e547manifest-destiny-3.jpg

There were also economic motives for Manifest Destiny. In the East, many natural resources such as timber and farmland were running out. The nation also needed even more natural resources than ever because it was in the midst of industrializing: creating new factories and industries such as railroads and steel production. New factories needed raw materials to produce goods, and since thousands of men worked in factories rather than on farms, they needed to buy food instead of growing it. Industrialization required vast supplies of minerals, leather and agricultural products which could not be produced in the East, so they looked West.

Some people also wanted to go to the West for religious reasons. Although many of the original European settlers in North America arrived to escape religious persecution in Europe, their descendants did not always give that freedom to others. New religious groups such as Mormons had beliefs and customs that were strange to Americans in the East, and in many parts of the US they were not permitted to practice their religion or were literally driven out of town. Mormons saw the West as a great opportunity, because they could create their own communities based on their values. Mormons originally settled in the Midwest during the 1830s and 1840s, but their most famous settlements were founded in Utah in 1847. Throughout the 19th century, Americans of all religious groups traveled west and it soon became as religiously diverse as all other parts of the country, containing Catholics, Jews and dozens of Protestant sects.

Although many Americans went to the West for various reasons—economic, religious and social—many Americans did not go. People who were very rich and successful in the East had little motivation to start a new life; they remained in the well-established eastern states. The poorest Americans also did not go West, usually because they could not afford to go. It cost a significant amount of money to bring supplies for the long journey and to set up a new household. By the mid-19th century, “the West” was in the Great Plains, the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest and took months to get there on foot or with horse-drawn wagons. One famous trail Americans traveled was the Oregon Trail—yes, like the computer game. Families who had enough money to buy horses or oxen, a sturdy wagon, and supplies to feed the family for months could afford to go to Oregon, buy land and set up a homestead. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wallner/_borders/oregon%20trail.gif


  1. For what reasons did people want to go West? (include economic, religious & other reasons)

  1. What is Manifest Destiny?

  1. How did Industrialization help motivate Manifest Destiny?

  1. Who were the Mormons?

  1. Why did some people choose not to go to the West?

  1. What was the Oregon Trail?

Part V: US Indian Policy
Throughout the process of expanding westward, the US struggled with what to do about Native Americans. In the 18th Century Americans fought against northeastern tribes in the French and Indian War, and faced off with Great Lakes tribes in Pontiac’s Rebellion. Once the US became a nation, Tecumseh led a pan-Indian movement to resist American encroachment. The further west Americans moved, the more resistance they encountered.

Early on, the American government viewed Native Americans as a conquered nation, because they had lost to the British & Americans in the French and Indian War, and had allied with the British in the Revolutionary War. According to European military tradition, the victorious country won the land of the conquered nation, so Americans felt entitled to take Native American land. Native Americans were not bound by European traditions, so they didn’t recognize the Americans’ claim. This led to numerous clashes between Native Americans and military officers or white settlers along the frontier.

President Thomas Jefferson adopted a different policy toward Native American tribes: the factory system. The federal government sent Indian Agents, government officials sent to monitor relations with the Native Americans, and “factors” who were in charge of trading American goods to Native Americans in exchange for valuable furs. This was meant to reduce corruption and prevent the sale of alcohol to Native Americans. It was also used to get Native Americans into debt so that they would sell their land to the government to pay their debt. Jefferson measured the success of each Indian Agent not by how they helped the Native Americans, but by “the benefits he can obtain for us.” He was open “to obtaining lands from the Indians by all honest and peaceable means and I believe that the honest and peaceable means adopted by us will obtain them as fast as the expansion of our settlements… will require.” This system continued for years, and many tribes were coerced into giving up their homeland, something most of them had never considered an option.

By the 1830s, member of the Cherokee nation in Georgia decided that the best way to protect their rights was to use the court system. By the 1800s, the Cherokee had been living in Georgia for countless centuries. Many of them had adopted a lifestyle similar to their white neighbors, owning single-family farms, wearing European-style clothing and even owning slaves. The Cherokee were also the first Native American culture to create a written form on their language, which allowed them to write a constitution for their nation, establishing a formal structure for their government and how it would interact with the US government. In spite of their accomplishments, white Georgians resented them and wanted control of the rich farmland they owned, and they started taking steps toward “removing” the Cherokee from their homes.

In 1830, the state of Georgia created a law that required non-Native Americans living on Cherokee land to obtain a special license. This mostly targeted missionaries and teachers who lived on Cherokee land. Because the Cherokee were a sovereign nation, the state of Georgia should not have been able to make laws that impacted their land. The US government had recognized the Cherokee as a sovereign nation, because they signed formal treaties with them, just as they did with foreign nations. The Cherokee leadership and their allies decided to challenge this law to assert their rights. One of the missionaries impacted by the new law, Samuel Worcester, sued the state of Georgia, arguing that Georgia did not have the authority to create that law, since the Cherokee nation was sovereign. The case went to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice John Marshall, and in 1831 the court ruled in Worcester v. Georgia that the Cherokee nation was a domestic dependent nation. This meant that the Cherokee were a separate nation within the US who had a right to occupy their own land, but they were a part of the US and the federal government had jurisdiction over them.

Even though the Supreme Court ruled that the laws of Georgia did not apply to the Cherokee and that they had a legal right to their land, the removal plan went forward. President Andrew Jackson, a former frontiersman widely known as an “Indian-hater,” helped create a law to forcibly relocate the Cherokee to Oklahoma, which was then barren and uninhabited. Congress eventually approved the law, in spite of numerous protests from the Cherokee and their white supporters. The law also blatantly defied the Supreme Court’s decision in Worcester v. Georgia, but the court was powerless to enforce their decision. Supporters of the Native Americans were outraged by the government’s decision to ignore the Supreme Court. Even the president would not obey the court. John Ross, a prominent member of the Cherokee nation in Georgia, summed up the significance of that decision in a speech to the Iroquois League:

Brothers: The tradition of our Fathers . . . tells us that this great and extensive Continent was once the sole and exclusive abode of our race. . . . Ever since [the whites came] we have been made to drink of the bitter cup of humiliation; treated like dogs . . . our country and the graves of our Fathers torn from us . . . through a period of upwards of 200 years, rolled back, nation upon nation [until] we find ourselves fugitives, vagrants and strangers in our own country. . . .
The existence of the Indian Nations as distinct Independent Communities within the limits of the United States seems to be drawing to a close. . . . You are aware that our Brethren, the Choctaws, Chickasaws and Creeks of the South have severally disposed of their country to the United States and that a portion of our own Tribe have also emigrated West of the Mississippi -- but that the largest portion of our Nation still remain firmly upon our ancient domain. . . . Our position there may be compared to a solitary tree in an open space, where all the forest trees around have been prostrated by a furious tornado.
Although the court had ruled that Native American tribes were independent nations within the United States, their rights would be ignored. By forcing the Cherokee to leave, the US government set the precedent that Native American tribes were sovereign only on paper, and in reality they were controlled by the US government and had even fewer rights than white US citizens. from trail of tears national historic trail by elliott west. copyright © 2000 by elliott west. reproduced by permission.

Some families willingly left Georgia on their own, taking their possessions with them in horse-drawn wagons. Others refused, choosing to stay in their homes until they had no choice. Many believed that the government would not dare to forcibly remove them. They were wrong. The removal of thousands of Cherokee from their homes in Georgia and their subsequent forced march to Oklahoma is now known as the Trail of Tears. Today the routes the Cherokee took are commemorated as national historic sites.


  1. Why did Americans treat Native Americans like a conquered nation? What did this mean for Native Americans?

  1. What was the purpose of Jefferson’s policy toward Native Americans?

  1. What was the case Worcester v. Georgia about? What important decision did the Supreme Court make?

  1. Think about what we learned about the Supreme Court’s power in the previous chapters. If the Supreme Court made a decision, how was it possible that the President, Congress & the state of Georgia ignored it?

Annual Message to Congress on December 7, 1835:

All preceding experiments for the improvement of the Indians have failed. It seems now to be an established fact they can not live in contact with a civilized community and prosper. Ages of fruitless endeavors have at length brought us to a knowledge of this principle of intercommunication with them. . . .

No one can doubt the moral duty of the Government of the United States to protect and if possible to preserve and perpetuate the scattered remnants of this race which are left within our borders. In the discharge of this duty an extensive region in the West has been assigned for their permanent residence. It has been divided into districts and allotted among them. . . .

Such are the arrangements for the physical comfort and for the moral improvement of the Indians. The necessary measures for their political advancement and for their separation from our citizens have not been neglected. The pledge of the United States has been given by Congress that the country destined for the residence of this people shall be forever secured and guaranteed to them.

A country west of Missouri and Arkansas has been assigned to them, into which the white settlements are not to be pushed. No political communities can be formed in that extensive region, except those which are established by the Indians themselves or by the United States for them and with their concurrence. A barrier has thus been raised for their protection against the encroachment of our citizens, and guarding the Indians as far as possible from those evils which have brought them to their present condition.
Read these excerpts from a speech by President Jackson and use it to answer these questions:

  1. Who is the intended audience of this speech? How do you think that will impact what President Jackson says to them?

  1. According to Jackson, why is it important to move the Native Americans from their land?

  2. How does Jackson describe how they will be removed and where they’ll go? Does this sound like a good solution? Why/why not?

  1. Does President Jackson have any biases that will impact this statement? Explain your answer.

  1. Use the internet to find Robert Lindneux’s painting of the Trail of Tears. How are the conditions on the journey portrayed in this image? Be as specific as you can.

  1. Search the internet to find statistics and facts on the Trail of Tears. Answer these questions:

    1. How long was the journey?

    1. How many people died?

    1. What caused people to die on the Trail of Tears?

    1. What happened when they got to Oklahoma?

  1. How do you think conditions on the Trail of Tears changed Native Americans’ attitudes toward the US government?

  1. For a long time, the Trail of Tears was not taught in American schools. Why do you think it wasn’t taught for so long?

  1. Do you think it’s important for students to learn about the Trail of Tears? Why/why not?

Part VI: There’s Gold in Them There Hills!
In 1848, a deposit of gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in California. Word quickly spread around the globe and within a year, California was swarming with “49ers,” men who went to California in 1949 to get rich mining gold. While most 49ers were Americans, it was truly a global phenomenon, attracting immigrants from as far away as Australia and Germany. The Chinese called California “the Golden Mountain” and many young men sailed to America with the hopes of getting rich and then returning home to start a new life. Others moved to California to make a fortune selling supplies to the miners. Levis Strauss left Germany with trunks full of blue denim cloth that he wanted to use to make tents for miners. When he got to California he realized that miners needed sturdy pants more than tents, and he made history by selling the world’s first blue jeans. Many immigrants who came to California intending to only stay a few years became permanent residents. This mass migration to one place to find gold became known as the California Gold Rush. Other parts of the world, including Alaska and Australia, would have their own gold rushes later. http://www.manifestdensity.net/2007/02/28/20070228_goldrush2.jpg

Boom Towns”—hastily built towns meant to meet miner’s needs—sprung up near mines throughout the West. They included stores to sell mining gear, cheap housing, and saloons to give single miners a place to spend their money. After the mine was exhausted and people had no reason to stay, many towns became abandoned ghost towns. Others, such as San Francisco, are still thriving cities today.

The Gold Rush is remembered today as a time of big dreams and hope, even though most people who looked for gold did not get rich. Mining gold is difficult and without tremendous luck, it is only profitable with a large, commercial mining operation. Most single men or families moving to the West could not hope to compete with well-funded mining companies who had the latest technology and a large supply of workers. Some people went home disappointed. Others stayed in the area to become farmers or to work for a larger mining operation. The people who got richest from the Gold Rush were actually the shop-owners who made a fortune overcharging miners for shovels and saloon-keepers who sold overpriced meals and ran crooked card games.

One important outcome of the Gold Rush is that California became a state in 1850. To become a new state, a territory had to have a large enough population, establish its own government, and then formally apply for statehood. The influx of non-Native American immigrants from other parts of the US and around the world increased California’s population tremendously, and many of those people were interested in California becoming a state. In the autumn of 1850, California became the 31st US state after one of the shortest petitions for statehood ever.


  1. What started the California Gold Rush? When did it start?

  1. From where did people come to participate in the Gold Rush?

  1. Did most miners become rich in the Gold Rush? Why/why not?

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