Wagon Train Heading West

 The phrase “manifest destiny” was coined in 1845 in an article written by John Louis O’Sullivan.  By the time the article was written, the United States was well into the process of claiming the “Wild West” of the continent, taking land by negotiation, thievery, trickery and war if necessary.

 What was behind this need to conquer lands?  Citizens were driven by a hunger for adventure, democratic ideals, hopes for a better life and in many cases outright greed, either individual or corporate.  In addition, the population in the new colonies was increasing, thus increasing the desire for more land.

 The Impact of the Louisiana Purchase

 In the early 1800s the westward expansion was preceded by the Louisiana Purchase.  Purchasing this territory was the beginning of the exploration and expansion west of the Mississippi.  Before that, the young nation was focused on the civilization of the eastern portion of the country.   The only interest in the west up until that point was the fur trade.

 President Thomas Jefferson, concerned Napoleon would interfere in U.S. trade through the port of New Orleans, wanted to buy the port city.  To his surprise, Napoleon’s counter offer was the whole of Louisiana for $15 million.  The deal was concluded in 1803 and the U.S. was the owner of 800,000 square miles of land stretching from the Gulf Coast to the Canadian border and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.  The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the new nation.

 With the purchase of the new lands, President Jefferson commissioned explorers Lewis and Clark to navigate the waters and explore the new land.  After a two year journey, Lewis and Clark returned to report of the rich beaver supply from the Western rivers.  This enticed a rush of trappers to head out west.

 As explorers and trappers headed west, the population in the east was growing which created the pressure for more lands to settle.  The majority of the Louisiana Purchase consisted of plains between Missouri and the Rockies; land that was scorned by many.  However, the farming regions of the Ohio and the upper Mississippi were quickly advancing to the edge of the plains.  The advancement funneled into the Oregon Trail and eventually a flood of emigrants traveled along the trail to the Northwest.

 The Oregon country provided a wealth of possibilities for fur traders.  The U.S. and Britain agreed to an uneasy compromise for joint occupation of the territory.  Thousands of entrepreneurs and several well known missionaries traveled the Oregon Trail to the new frontier.   

 “Remember the Alamo”

 While many adventurous settlers made their way to the Oregon country, others were settling in the Texas territory.  By 1821 Mexico had won its independence from Spain and though they found the number of American settlers troubling, they hoped settlement would discourage Apache and Comanche raids.  They also erred in believing Americans would return loyalty in exchange for grants of large tracts of lands.

 The new Texans were fierce in their desire to overthrow their benefactors.  At the time General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna became the new president in Mexico City. He led several thousand soldiers into Texas to bring the settlers in line, but though vastly outnumbered, the Texans were stubborn in their campaign.  A contingency of 187 held their ground at the Alamo in San Antonio.  The Texans chose to fight rather than escape and the ensuing bloody battle left mostly only women and children standing.

 Shortly after the battle at the Alamo mission, Santa Anna took 371 prisoners at Goliad, Texas and executed all of them.  In April, General Samuel Houston took an army of 800 and screaming “Remember the Alamo,” killed hundreds of Santa Anna’s army at the San Jacinto River.  Subsequently, Santa Anna was forced to sign a treaty granting independence to the Republic of Texas as it was to be called.

 Gaining the California Territory

 Not long after Mexico gave up the Texas territory, American settlers began to make the journey to California.  The first group numbered only 69, but the following year 200 made the trip.  In 1843 1,000 journeyed to California, 4,000 in 1844 and 5,000 in 1845.  James Polk was the president by then and was interested in the Texas territory, California and all the land in between.  He declared his intentions and in 1848, Mexico officially ceded California and New Mexico (which today includes Arizona, Utah, Nevada and a western portion of Colorado).

 With the whole west now under U.S. control, emigration surged.  The gold rush in 1849 brought at least 30,000 to California alone.   Once the lands in the west and northwest were claimed by settlers, new pioneers looked to the earlier scorned plains.  In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Act made the two states U.S. territory and opened them up to settlers. Following the Civil War, the plains offered a fresh start for many.  The U.S. government assisted visionary railroad builders with legislature that provided for the endeavors.  The government also provided homesteading boons drawing farmers to the plains in droves.  

 Manifest destiny—to journalist O’Sullivan it was a God-given right for America to expand to the west.  In 1845 he wrote “The American claim is by right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us.”   In the minds of most Americans, his words marked moral approval for what American expansion was already doing. By the end of the century, America had expanded from sea to shining sea.



Conlan, Roberta (Ed.).  The Wild West. New York: Time Warner Books, Inc., 1993


The copyright of the article “The Westward Expansion of the 1800s” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.