Westward movement, in the United States, events and conditions comprising the several major migrations by which the country was settled. The exploration and settlement of the U.S. frontier was an ongoing process that began with the first communities founded on the Atlantic seaboard in the 17th century and ended in the 1890s with the settlement of the Great Plains between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Whereas the history of European countries is the story of gradual accretion of territories and extension of authority over centuries, involving many peoples with deep and sharply differing regional loyalties, the establishment and settlement of the territories that now make up the continental United States was swift and dynamic. The previous occupants of the land, the Native Americans, largely nomadic peoples, were unable to mount any long-term effective resistance and, in the end, proved to be more victims than adversaries. The United States was a new land. Its government was revolutionary, its society democratic, its spirit pragmatic and forward looking. All these factors fed into and were fed by its westward expansion.
The first settlers of what was to become the United States came to the Atlantic coast early in the 17th century. Jamestown, Va., was established in 1607, becoming the country's first English settlement. In Massachusetts, other settlers from England founded Plymouth Colony and Boston, and the Dutch established New Amsterdam, later to become New York City.
Colonial America, beginning as it did, at the very edge of a literally uncharted continent, retained close ties with Europe in certain respects while in other ways it began breaking ties from the outset. Many who came to America were religious dissenters, like the Puritans and Quakers. Others came as indentured servants willing to pay their way for the chance for a new life in exchange for their labor. Still others came with royal charters, while black Africans, beginning in 1619, were imported as slaves. In the end, one of the common elements among all these different people and the waves of immigrants who would follow was the attraction of the nearly limitless opportunity of the new continent's open lands. From the original settled towns and communities, the expanding ranks of the colonists spread out, at first along the valleys of the James, York, Rappahannock, and Potomac rivers. By the end of the 17th century, the colonial Americans had expanded from the Atlantic coast to the low hills of the Appalachians. The following century, the 18th century, would culminate in the Revolutionary War, but throughout the century, before the war and after, the colonists would settle the Old West, consisting of the back country of New England, the Piedmont, and the valleys of the Appalachians. With fresh influxes of Germans, Scots-Irish, and Scandinavians, colonists settled the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
Colonial expansion was both aided and hindered by the British. While still British colonists, the Americans fought in the French and Indian War (1754–63), and Great Britain won territory from France between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In 1763 Britain put a temporary halt to westward expansion in order to keep peace between the Native Americans and expansionist colonials. Eventually, treaties had to be renegotiated and in any case they proved ineffective in stopping the settlement of Kentucky and Tennessee under the leadership of adventurers like Daniel Boone, who opened the Cumberland Gap in 1775. During the Revolutionary War, America's military successes led it to claim the Old Northwest territories, between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. After the war, settlers moved to the area and to the old Southwest, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and lands toward the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government took an active part in aiding, organizing, and encouraging the settlements.
The Ordinance of 1785 divided the land of the Old Northwest into salable parcels. Large tracts were bought from the government by speculators who then sold them in lots to settlers. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 settled the political organization of the territories. A territory's original officials would be appointed by Congress. When the population reached 5,000, the adult males elected an assembly and sent a nonvoting representative to Congress. When the population reached 60,000, a territory could apply for statehood. With these ordinances, the U.S. government laid the groundwork for the organized settlement of its expanding territories. Kentucky joined the Union in 1792 and Tennessee in 1796.
As the Old Northwest and the Old Southwest were being rapidly settled, the United States expanded its territory by 827,987 sq mi (2,144,476 sq km) at a cost of $15 million paid to France. The Louisiana Purchase, completed by Thomas Jefferson, expanded U.S. territory from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The area would be explored by Merriwether Lewis and William Clark (1803–05), by Zebulon Pike (1806), and by MajorStephen H. Long (1820), but would not actually be settled until the latter half of the 19th century. In the meantime, America fought the British in the War of 1812, bringing an end to British power in America and an end, as well, to effective resistance from Native Americans in the region who had largely sided with the British. The attempt by Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, to unify the Native Americans from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico had already been undone by their defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. After the War of 1812, the defeated Native Americans were consigned to an Indian Territory west of the Mississippi in what is present-day Oklahoma. Thousands died of disease and starvation on their way west.
With the threats of the British and the Native Americans eliminated, the Old Northwest was settled rapidly. By 1820 there were 792,000 settlers in the region, and the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 hastened the development of towns and cities. In the meantime the Adams-Onís Treaty with Spain (1819) opened up Honda, Alabama, and Mississippi. Aided by the river traffic of the Mississippi, the area became home to huge and successful cotton plantations. In the decades before the Civil War, the westward expansion had taken possession of lands from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Maine to Honda, and from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi. The last large area of settlement before the Civil War was the Far West.
Originally attracted by the reports and surveys of John C. Fremont in the early 1840s, settlers began moving to California. The first to come were usually trappers and traders, followed by the wagon trains that crossed the prairies over the Oregon Trail that branched into the Santa Fe or Spanish Trails to California. Settlers had already begun moving into Oregon as early as 1835. At first the British were a residual presence in Oregon and contested U.S. expansion, but the Oregon Treaty of 1846 settled all claims between the United States and Britain and established the territory that now comprises the states of Oregon and Washington and the northwestern border with Canada. Two years later, in 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, and the first gold rush brought California's population from 15,000 in 1848 to 100,000 in 1849. Eventually, gold and silver fever would contribute to the settlement of South Dakota, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada. The decades before the Civil War also saw the settlements of Texas, the Southwest, and Utah.
Originally settled by Stephen F. Austin in the 1820s with the permission of the Mexican government, Texas was Mexican territory. But less than 20 years after Austin's settlement, the settlers were strong enough to contest Mexican authority and, under Samuel Houston, defeat the Mexicans at the Battle of San Jacinto, declaring Texas an independent republic. It joined the union as a state in 1845. Three years later, the United States ended its war with Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and gained California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 completed the acquisition of the lands that now form the border between Arizona and New Mexico and Mexico.
Within the same period, Utah was settled by Mormons. They first settled the Great Salt Lake region in 1847. By dint of remarkable industry, the Mormons succeeded in settling arid country. Persecuted for their religious beliefs, the Mormons at first proved hostile to other settlers. In order to discourage outsiders, they even disguised themselves as Native Americans and attacked several wagon trains until they were stopped by the U.S. Army.
An anomaly in some ways, the conduct of the Mormons was not completely without precedent. The original colonists had, with few exceptions, fled governments inimical to them. They became self-reliant and self-governing and defeated a major European power in armed struggle over the issue of governance. The Constitutional Convention was marked from beginning to end with a certain hostility toward and suspicion of centralized governments. The settlers carried these same attitudes to the frontier where experience tended to confirm and deepen them. Backwoods and frontier citizens resented the more settled people of the East and, above all, the constraints of authority. The most common grievance was over taxes to be paid to a government that was remote, did little to better their daily lives, and was dominated by people who seemed alien to the plain-spoken, straightforward westerner. That there was much romanticizing and self-serving talk in all of this should not disguise real differences in outlook that bound in common the men who led the Whiskey Rebellion, Sam Houston's Texas Republic, the Mormons in Utah, and the general suspicion of and contempt for Washington, D.C., its politicians and bureaucrats, that has deep roots among western citizens.
Begun before the Civil War and completed by 1890, the last frontier to be settled was the Great Plains, the land west of the Mississippi and extending to the Rocky Mountains, and the intermontane region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Gold and silver were the leading inspiration for the last stage of the U.S. westward movement. Rich strikes were made in Nevada and Arizona and also helped open South Dakota, Montana, and Idaho. In the meantime the railroads crossed the plains completing the transcontinental line in 1869. The railroads provided the transport necessary for commerce and the development of towns and cities. But in the beginning, they brought the cattle boom. Taking advantage of the vast stretches of open prairie ideal for grazing livestock, ranchers hurried west to take part in the boom that would last nearly 20 years, 1867–87. At the same time, the U.S. government encouraged settlement with the Homestead Act of 1862. Anyone who would improve the land over 5 years could have 160 acres of it free. At first the farmers had a hard time of it. The Great Plains were treeless and dry. But in the 1870s several developments brought dramatic changes. Barbed wire made it possible to fence off land without wood. Dry farming techniques made raising crops viable, and wind mills provided a means for drawing underground water. The farmers went west. They fought the elements, the Native Americans, and the ranchers, and turned the Great Plains into the country's bread basket.
According to the U.S. census of 1890, there was no more frontier. But it was the last frontier, the last of the westward movement, that would prove in many ways the strongest and most enduring in the country's imagination, peopled with cowboys and outlaws, vigilantes, Native Americans, lawmen, and the cavalry. But for all its robust energy, vitality, and ruthless optimism, the last of the U.S. westward expansion also marked the end of the Native Americans as independent peoples. In the mid-1860s the Sioux were defeated in order to open the Bozeman Trail through their hunting grounds in Wyoming. They were defeated again when gold was discovered in 1874 in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Arapaho and Cheyenne, the Kiowa, Comanches, and other Native American peoples were in turn subdued, and when they resisted being moved to reservations, they were defeated again in the Red River War of 1874–75. The Indian Territory, which had been established in present-day Oklahoma, proved no more secure than the open plains. Giving in to land-hungry settlers, the government opened the Indian Territory to settlement in 1898. The last armed encounter between the United States and Native Americans occurred in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek in S. Dak.
In one sense, the entire history of the United States can be seen as a series of westward movements, beginning with the original colonies and ending with the last frontier in 1890. Fed by successive waves of immigrants seeking new lands and new opportunities, these westward movements not only settled the land but also indelibly stamped the character of the people. Energetic, restless, and impatient with authority, they are distinct from the peoples of Europe and Asia. Less regional, they are defined by the nation more than the place, and by ideals and outlooks more than religions or creeds. In many ways, U.S. citizens continue to see themselves in terms whose origins are in its westward movements.