Sunday, October 16, 2016

How the West Was Won: Westward Expansion

With a government and economic system firmly established, the Natives placed on reservations (or murdered), and cheap land in the Mid-West for sale, the way was prepped for migration to the territories.

The people who would come to settle in the Mid-West were: young New Englanders (from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island), farmers from New York and Pennsylvania, Southerners of Scotch-Irish descent, various Native peoples (either by force or by choice), and free blacks. The Mid-West was like a salad--each group that settled the land was distinct and had an important role in how the Mid-West was framed. French-Canadian boatmen and trappers, Spanish traders from the Southwest, and Virginia backcountry planters and their droves of slaves mingled with German, Scotch-Irish, and English farmers.

Four main routes led into the territories west of the Appalachians: one route was called the Genesee Route and it went from Albany to Buffalo, NY where travelers could then easily cross over into Ohio and beyond; a second route ran through Pittsburgh, PA and ran into Ohio and beyond; a third route wound its way through the mountains starting at Alexandria, PA and made its way into Kentucky and then into Missouri; and the final route from the East to the West passed through the Cumberland Gap and ran through Kentucky. Settlers heading into the West traveled using covered wagons and teams of horses, which was the easiest method for moving goods and people across an expanse of land at the time. People could choose to sleep in the covered wagons and camp out along the trail, or they could rent a room in one of the numerous inns that dotted the way along whichever route they chose to traverse.

In 1792, Kentucky and Vermont entered the Union and became states. To assert their independence, Kentucky wrote into its state constitution that all free white males could vote regardless of whether or not they owned land. Tennessee would follow along the same steps towards democracy once it was admitted into the Union. Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois soon followed as they also gained statehood.

The entrance of these states would continue to open up the West for settlement, especially by young men who wanted to forge their own lives and destinies.

Slowly over time, the Louisiana Territory would be opened up to settlers and as their populations grew, each territory would be admitted into the Union. From the Louisiana Territory purchased in 1803, 15 new states were created: Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Minnesota, New Mexico, northern Texas, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado.

Due to the people who came to inhabit the region, the West developed its own personality. One unnamed person from the era of westward expansion described the West as having "A spirit of adventurous enterprise, a willingness to go through hardship to accomplish an object...independence of thought and action." The men of the West were truly free and independent, and it was this attitude which would lead to the Texas Revolution and the annexation of Texas.


In the 1830s, Texas belonged to Mexico, however, Mexico allowed American settlers to buy land, cultivate it, and raise cattle. The Americans had started to bring slaves over to Texas, and the centralist government in Mexico decided to put limits on what the Texans could and could not do...which led to Mexico's leader Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna banned slavery in the Republic of Texas. hostilities erupted in October 1835 and the Texas Revolution was in full swing.

President/General Santa Anna vowed to retake Texas himself, and in mid-February 1836 he led his Army of Operations to San Antonio where his troops would meet with a garrison of Americans at the Battle of the Alamo.

The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution. Several months prior to the February 1836 battle, Texans had driven all Mexican troops out of Mexican Texas. About 100 Texans were garrisoned at the Alamo, and they were met with reinforcements led by Colonel William Travis and James (Jim) Bowie.

On February 23, approximately 1,500 Mexican soldiers, led by General Santa Anna, marched into San Antonio with the goal of retaking Texas. For the next ten days, 185 men at the Alamo defended their garrison from Santa Anna's forces. Through enduring multiple  aid, and more men, bringing the total to 260 men at the Alamo.

On March 6, the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. The Texans could no longer hold their garrison and were overtaken. Most accounts list between 182-257 of the 260 men at the Alamo had been killed and 600 Mexicans had been killed or wounded.

Twelve years later, Texas would be annexed to the United States and would become the 28th state.


The west was won by land expansion, and its personality was forged by those who came to inhabit its lands, both by choice and by force. I already briefly wrote about the Cherokee Removal in a previous blog post, but I believe the atrocities it caused warrant mentioning again, and going more in depth with the act of the forced removal itself.

In April 1830, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. For those who had known President Jackson, this news came to no surprise. In 1814 as a US military colonel he commanded his forces to go to war with the Creek nation; in their defeat, the Creeks lost 22 million acres of land in Georgia and Alabama. In 1818, Jackson's troops invaded Spanish Florida and fought the Seminoles to punish them for harboring fugitive slaves. From 1814 to 1824, Jackson negotiated nine out of eleven treaties with Natives, which created a period of voluntary migration (although many of those Natives did not migrate). However, in 1830, Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act which gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Native tribes. Jackson's views of the Natives were paternalistic and patronizing--he saw the Natives as children in need of guidance and believed the removal policy benefitted the Natives.

The Indian Removal Act would lead to the destructive Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was a series of forced relocations of Native American nations from the Southern states to reservations in the West. The Native nations who were affected by this were the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw who were forcefully removed from their ancestral lands to west of the Mississippi River. Over 20,000 Cherokee alone were marched along the Trail of Tears and a quarter of them died before reaching their final destination.


Many people imagine the American West like a spaghetti western movie--cowboys and Indians, shootouts at high noon, and characters like Jesse James and Billy the Kid roamed free, but that wasn't always the case. For many, life was more like "Little House on the Prairie" than "Gunfight at the OK Corral".

Form 1811 to 1840, the Oregon Trail opened up the West to new settlers and Oregon, Washington State, and California would enter the Union shortly after.

The Oregon Trail began as a network of unconnected trails used by Native Americans and fur traders. The Oregon Trail was a route taken by settlers from the East migrating to build a new life in the West. The Oregon Trail was 2,000 miles long, starting in Independence, Missouri and ending in Oregon City, Oregon. The Oregon Trail could be treacherous, as the settlers would have to cross fast-moving rivers, mountain passes in the Colorado Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains; and drowning, dysentery, and starvation were huge risks during the six-month long journey.


Many people were caught up in the fervor of westward expansion in the 1830s through 1840s, taking the Oregon Trail and its less famous counterpart, the California Trail, but not everyone was prepared for the journey and tragedy struck.

The most famous tragedy regarding settlers moving out West was the Donner party tragedy. On April 16, 1846 nine covered wagons departed Springfield, Illinois for California, a 2,500 mile journey. James Reed, the originator of the group, read about a new trail, the Hastings Trail, which promised a journey 350 to 400 miles shorter than the Oregon Trail...but unbeknownst to Reed the new trail hadn't been tested. Reed soon found others who were interested in a new life in California, including the Donners, Graves, Breens, Murphys, Eddys, McCutcheons, Kesebergs, Wolfingers, and others. The group initially consisted of 32 men, women, and children and would pick up countless others as they made their way across the US.

The group faced dangerous storms and high waters, and lost one of their members due to sickness a month into their journey. At a stop in Fort Laramie, Wyoming James Reed ran into an old friend who told him to get off the Hastings Trail and onto the California Trail, but Reed didn't listen, and brothers Jacob and George Donner, their families, and a sizeable group of pioneers they picked up along the way decided to split from the main party. The Donner party became trapped by snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in October and soon ran out of supplies. To survive, they ate their pack animals, twigs, bark, and dirt...in December, the group that now numbered 89 pioneers, decided that if one would die the others might live. On Christmas Day 1846, the group ate their first human. As people continued to die, the bodies were dismembered and the meat was labeled so the pioneers didn't eat their family members. After spring broke, the 45 people that remained continued on the trail to California and arrived in 1847. The pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains was named the Donner Pass, after George Donner who had died.


The West was won through land expansion, forced relocation, voluntary migration, and through the blood, sweat, and tears of those who traveled along the dangerous trails and had to fight for their parcel of land.

As we continue to move throughout American history, we're going to continue to explore the themes of expansion and innovation so we can see how our country has developed over the years.



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