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What is no one spoke English anymore? What if it was illegal to celebrate Christmas? What if a new race of people decided to invade America and force Americans out of their homes? This was what happened to Native Americans during America’s Westward Expansion. Native American culture disappeared because America’s westward expansion forced them out of their homeland, disease and violence killed millions of them, and new laws gave them no rights.
Life in the Western Hemisphere was much different before it was invaded by explorers.
The large unexplored area was home to over 30 million Native Peoples that had their own languages and cultures (Bruhac). Their way of life was much different than many people think. They made numerous advancements in the medical field, such as birth control and pain medicine and also worked hard in agriculture by finding ways to prep land for and domesticate crops (Bruhac). The Natives farmed potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, yams, and corn (Bruhac). After being discovered, these crops helped lower the disease and hunger that were happening in Europe (Bruhac).
This is how life was like for the Natives before being found by Europeans.
Their ways of lives changed when explorers came. In the 1300s, the Pope split the world into sections and decided which countries would get what parts of the world (Basu). Pradeep Kumar Basu explains this by saying, “He drew a line vertically down the Atlantic Ocean on a world atlas. The East was for England, France, Holland; and the west was for the Spaniards and Portuguese.
” When the Spanish first landed in the New World, they landed in the Caribbean and took over the Natives’ way of life. These conquerors would trick the Natives and use force or violence to push them out of their homeland, murdering innumerable innocent people in the process (Basu). These new people would capitalize off of the Natives’ resources and labor, basically making the Natives the Europeans’ slaves (Basu). This treatment of the Natives took away their dignity and made it impossible for them to ever return to the state they were in prior to European exploration (Basu). This is how their lives changed when the explorers came.
Then explorers found the continent of North America. In 1607, a group of men founded the Jamestown colony in present-day Virginia (Basu). These were some of the first settlers in North America, closely followed by the Pilgrims of present-day Massachusetts in 1620 (Basu). More and more settlers came and following the Revolutionary War, a new country was formed called America. When the early Americans started to run out of room, they decided to expand to the rest of the continent. In 1787 George Washington passed the Northwest Ordinance which came up with a way to turn unoccupied territory into states (Kowalski). “It called for the United States to practice ‘utmost good faith… towards the Indians’ who already resided in those areas,” says Kathiann Kowalski. But there were many instances where promises were not kept and treaties were broken. In 1804, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, led by a Lemhi Shoshone woman named Sacagawea, traveled accross the North American continent searching for an all-water route that would transfer people to the Pacific Ocean (Westward Expansion). While they didn’t find the route they were looking for, they discovered a whole country that no one knew existed until then. This is how the North American continent was inhabited by explorers.
There were many reasons people wanted to expand to the Western United States. Some thought it was our responsibility, others saw it as an experiment, and still, others thought it was our right (Yoder). Of course, other factors came into play such as the California Gold rush of 1849 which brought tons of new settlers (Westward Expansion). Another factor could be people wanted some elbow room and the government was giving away free land in the Great Plains (Westward Expansion). But probably one of the main reasons was that Americans felt entitled to the West and saw it as their “right of conquest” (Mann). The thing they didn’t consider was the other people living on the land they wanted to take.
When new settlers wanted to cross the West they used the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was actually a series of trails that led to the West Coast (Kellaher). Travelers were aiming to make it to Oregon Country. Oregon Country wasn’t part of the United States so not many people lived there except for Native Americans (Kellaher). “The main challenge they faced was the unknown,” says park ranger Rachael Nickens (qtd. in Kellaher). Settlers would make the journey in many different ways. Some traveled by wagons and farmed their way across the continent (Kellaher). At the end of the Civil War, construction began on the transcontinental railroad (Bruhac). Building the railroad forced Native Americans to give up their land to make room for the tracks (Bruhac). Then in 1869, when the railroad was completed, the settlers could cross the country in a much more timely manner (Kellaher). This shows how settlers used the Oregon Trail and other ways to reach the West Coast.
The Oregon Trail had positive and negative effects on the daily lives of Native Americans. Before settlers would begin their journey accross the continent, they had preset images in their minds of what the Natives would be like (Yoder). The Native Americans were viewed as unfriendly, weak obstacles in the way of the settlers’ dreams of Manifest Destiny (Yoder). But in the beginning, relations between the white men and Native peoples were good (Kellaher). The travelers engaged in trade with the Pawnee and Shoshone tribes that lived near where the settlers made their way (Kellaher). However, as more and more settlers came, the hardships of the Native Americans grew (Kellaher). When the pioneers came, they ruined the land in the Midwest. The wagons they traveled with left deep ruts in the ground and the farming the settlers did, disposed of a lot of the Great Plains’ grass (Kellaher). There was no grass left for the Native Americans’ horses to eat and no wild buffalo left for the tribes to hunt and feed their families with (Kellaher). The pioneers killed millions of Natives by bringing diseases that the tribes had never encountered before (Kellaher). In order to survive, many tribes had to move away from their homeland to places where no pioneers were traveling (Kellaher). These are the effects that the Oregon trail had on the Native American peoples.
Not only were the Natives affected by Manifest Destiny, but wildlife was also affected as well mainly bison. The population of bison was affected by Westward Expansion for many reasons. The first being, new settlers came and hunted them for fun (Lopata). Another reason was that men building the transcontinental railroad would kill the buffalo in order to make room for the tracks (Kowalski). The use of guns made it easier for them to kill hundreds at a time (Lopata). When these new people would murder the bison they would only use certain parts of the animal, they left the rest of the remains to rot (Kowalski). This was unfortunate for Native Americans because they used the entire buffalo when they hunted (Kowalski). The Native Americans ate their meat and used their hide for shelter and clothing (Kowalski). Then in 1830, their population began to decline and by 1883 there were none left in the wild (Lopata). This was damaging to life on the Great Plains. Peg Lopata says, “Bison migrations, grazing patterns, and behaviors were once a key part of this region’s ecology.” Without bison, life in the Midwest was much harder for the people and animals living there. Thankfully, some efforts have been made to restore the bison population that was affected by Westward Expansion. Today wild buffalo roam throughout Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (Lopata).
When settlers needed a place to live, Native Americans were forced out of their homelands. “Native Americans didn’t believe land could be owned. Native groups and the animals they depended on roamed freely,” says Kathiann M. Kowalski. Native Americans were expected to live on reservations, sections of land set aside for them, when they were characteristically nomadic (Kowalski). One of the earliest instances of this was called the Indian Removal Act passed by Andrew Jackson in 1830 (Kowalski). This act took Native American tribes that lived east of the Mississippi River and moved them to the other side (Kowalski). Then in 1838, the government and Cherokee tribes signed the Treaty of New Echota, which traded the Cherokee land for different land in Oklahoma (Kowalski). The Cherokee were forced out of their land and marched along a 1000 mile march, the Trail of Tears, and killed 25% of the tribe’s population (Kowalski). An event similar to this happened when 2000 Navajo and Mescalero Apache lives were lost when the tribes were forced out of New Mexico and taken 450 miles away to Bosque Redondo (Black). Again this happened in 1887 when the Dawes Act forced more Native Americans onto reservations and took away 90 million acres of their land to give to settlers (Bruhac).
When Abraham Lincoln was elected into office, things were going to change for lots of groups of people at that time. Unfortunately, Native Americans were not one of those groups. One of Lincoln’s most famous achievements, The Emancipation Proclamation, freed slaves but gave no rights to the Native Americans (Black). Abraham Lincoln did nothing to end Native American discrimination, in fact, some things he did might have harmed them. He was in power when the Homestead Act was passed in 1862 which gave free land to new settlers (Black). He also passed the Pacific Railway Act which made it easier to cross the continent and also harder for Natives to keep their land and culture (Black). He always made promises during his congress speeches but never took action on them and continued to place policies that would harm them (Black).
Not many of the promises that were made to the Native Americans were kept. The government used force to keep Native Americans away from the settlers (Kowalski). Agreements made with Natives were not kept and when treaties were signed the Natives were often forced to sign or unethical ways were used to get their signatures (Kowalski). When the Natives started to protect their land from settlers, the government made the Treaty of Ft. Laramie in 1851 which promised money to the Natives and promised to limit settlers (Kowalski). But when the government stopped providing money and aid, they had had enough (Kowalski).
When the Natives were fed up with being treated as collateral damage, they fought back. One of the earliest instances of this was in 1791 when a Shawnee tribe leader named Tecumseh joined the many midwest tribes together to fight off American troops (Bruhac). They ended up eliminating 600 troops near the Wabash river (Bruhac). Again in 1811, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa led an attack called the Battle of Tippenhoe (Basu). The Shawnee were not as successful this time around (Basu). These fights continued throughout the 19th century being led both by Native Americans and by white settlers. In 1862, the Dakota War was fought which resulted in 38 Native men being hung (Black). Then in 1864, hundreds Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives were killed in the Sand Creek Massacre (Black). It all came to an end at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 where the Sioux were destroyed in the final significant battle of the century (Kowalski). The Native population was decreasing and with it their culture and traditions.
Today life is very different for Native Americans. There are 326 reservations and 11 state reservations (Bruhac). Native Americans make up 1.7% of America’s population (Basu). Half of the languages they spoke have almost disappeared (Bruhac). They still face many prejudices but steps have been taken to make wrongs write. Many acts have been passed such as the 1978 Religious Freedom Act which made it legal for them to practice their religions (Vincent). There was also the Archaeological Resources Act in 1988 which protected Native artifacts that were found in archeological sites (Vincent).
As it can be seen from these examples, there are many things that contributed to the disappearance of Native American culture. The westward expansion contributed by bringing settlers and pioneers. Their land was taken away to make room for these people and more of their land was taken to make room for the transcontinental railroad. Their rights were taken away and they were made to feel like criminals. They were murdered when they tried to protect their land and they continue to lose culture everyday. Even though there have been steps to make things right with the Native Americans, nothing can be done about the massive amount of bloodshed and culture destruction that was done to them in America’s quest for Manifest Destiny.
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