Westward Expansion before 19th Century

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Westward Expansion before 19th Century

American history was powerfully influenced throughout the 19th century by the steady push west and the development of the Western frontier. This began of course with the establishment of the first English colonies beginning with Jamestown (1607). At the time the Western Frontier was just a few miles up the James River. Gradually the Western Frontier was seen as the Appalachian Mountains. The British effort to close off the land beyond the Appalachians was one of the major causes of the Revolution (1776). The West for the early American Republic was the Ohio River Valley, which the Erie Canal played an important role in opening. To the south there were other lands beyond the Appalachians, which proved to be ideal for growing cotton based on slave labor and large plantations. The United States Western frontier was redefined by the Louisiana Purchase (1803). The economy of the West depended on the Mississippi River and the outlet to the sea at New Orleans.

It is no accident that the British in the War of 1812 attempted to seize New Orleans (1815). After the War of 1812 the American movement West focused primarily on the territory east of the Mississippi. Here the Erie Canal played an important role. There were wars with the Native Americans, which helped make Andrew Jackson the prominent political figure overseeing this period. The only American president with an era named after him. The frontier, which at first seemed endless played a powerful role in the development of the American character. The existence of huge quantities of virtually free land was very different from the situation in Europe. Some historians describe this as the vital fierce in the building of America. America settled these lands on two basic lines. North of the Ohio it was free labor and small family farms.

South of the Ohio it was slave labor and slave labor. Ironically the rise of the American economy was to a large degree based on slave labor that produced the cotton, which provided the principal export economy before the advent of industrial exports. The Mexican War again expanded the frontier (1856-58). After the Civil War the settlement of the frontier beyond the Mississippi began in earnest, including the Great Plains. The major figures of the Western movement are now legends clouded with myth: mountain men, riverboat men, pioneers, Native Americans, Pony Express riders, cowboys, homesteaders, cavalry, outlaws, bullwhackers, and others. The final phase of the Western expansion was aided by both the expanding railroad network and increased European immigration. The frontier was essentially closed in the 1890s, a fact that marked the transition from an agricultural to the world’s pre-eminent industrial nation.

Why frontier didn’t have similar effects on other countries?

Turner saw the frontier not of a borderland between unsettled and settled lands, but as an obtainable area in which a small man-land correlation and abundant natural resources provide a rare opportunity for the individual to better himself. Where autocratic governments controlled population movements, deficient resources, or where conditions prevented individuals from utilizing natural resources, this American frontier, could not exist.

Idea more than a reality?

The idea of the frontier was opportunity, the chance to pursue the American Dream of taking your own land, finding your own fortune, being a master of your own fate. It was for this reason why millions of people from Europe immigrated to the US in the 19th century. Upon arriving on the frontier they often found a different reality. The land might have already been gone, or living on that land with little or no money or supplies. They probably did not strike it rich in a gold mine. In this way, the reality of the frontier was very different from theidea of it. The promise it offered was more attractive than the frontier itself.

Passing of Frontier

Further proof that the westward expansion of the United States has been a powerful formative force has been provided by the problems facing the nation in the present century. During the past fifty years the American people have been adjusting their lives and institutions to existence in a frontier less land, for while the superintendent of the census was decidedly premature when he announced in 1890 that the country’s “unsettled area has been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there can hardly Ile said to be a frontier line” remaining, the era of cheap land was rapidly drawing
to a close. In attempting to adjust the country to its new, expansion less future, statesmen have frequently called upon the frontier hypothesis to justify everything from rugged individualism to the welfare state, and from isolationism to world domination. Political opinion has divided sharply on the necessity of altering the nation’s governmental philosophy and techniques in response to the changed environment.

Some statesmen and scholars have rebelled against what they call Turner’s “Space Concept of History,” with all that it implies concerning the lack of opportunity for the individual in an expansion less land. They insist that modern technology has created a whole host of new “frontiers”-of intensive farming, electronics, mechanics, manufacturing, nuclear fission, and the like-which offer such diverse outlets to individual talents that governmental interference in the nation’s economic activities is unjustified. On the other hand, equally competent spokesmen argue that these newer “frontiers” offer little opportunity to the individual-as distinguished from the corporation or the capitalist-and hence cannot duplicate the function of the frontier of free land.

The government, they insist, must provide the people with the security and opportunity that vanished when escape to the West became impossible. This school’s most eloquent spokesman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared: “Our last frontier has long since been reached. . . . Equality of opportunity as we have known it no longer exists. . . . Our task now is not the discovery or exploitation of natural resources or necessarily producing more goods.

It is the sober, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, of seeking to reestablish foreign markets for our surplus production, of meeting the problem of under-consumption, of adjusting production to consumption, of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people, The day of enlightened administration has come.” To Roosevelt, and to thousands like him, the passing of the frontier created a new era in history which demanded a new philosophy of government. The recurring rebirth of society in the United States over a period of three hundred years did endow the people with characteristics and institutions that distinguished them from the inhabitants of other nations.

Beginnings’ of Frontier

The first phase of the government’s plan for settlement was building the Transcontinental Railroad. The railroad provided a way to bring settlers and manufactured goods west and ship their agricultural and mining produce east. The Transcontinental Railroad was an essential artery for rapid development of the frontier. The second phase of the government’s plan was a liberal land distribution policy that made it possible for many people to homestead. With these two key elements—transportation and cheap land—the government rapidly achieved its goal of persuading people to move west, settle on farms, and push back the frontier. The West saw remarkable population growth in the 1870s and 1880s, though this growth was by no means evenly spread across the western lands.

Though we often think of the West as a large, homogenous region, in reality it was as diverse in history, culture, and development as the eastern half of the United States. Foreign-born immigrants accounted for half the settlers in the west, making it a remarkably diverse group. The first settlers in the west were the Spanish in New Mexico and California. Though New Mexico remained relatively sparsely populated, California grew rapidly throughout the nineteenth century. San Francisco was the urban heart of California. By 1880, it had become the economic hub of the entire Pacific Coast with a diverse Hispanic, Anglo, and Asian population of a quarter million. From the California coast, settlement proceeded east through the valleys and passes of the coastal ranges and into the high, arid region west of the Rocky Mountains.

Initial settlement of the Far West was often for mining, but was then followed by pioneers interested in timber, ranching, and farming. Settlement on the Great Plains was by people from equally varied backgrounds. Canadians migrated southward and Mexicans northward to homestead, while Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians settled in enclaves that developed into towns and areas of distinct cultural imprint. At the same time, as many as a quarter million blacks left the Old South and moved west in search of opportunity and a more egalitarian society. Americans from the east headed west in record numbers to seek a new start, while immigrant settlers from nearly every country of Europe, the Near East, and Asia were represented among the people who came to live, work, and raise their families on the American frontier.

For the most part, western settlement followed a pattern. After a relatively brief pioneering phase of rough-and-ready farming or mining, the various regions of the west developed rapidly as entrepreneurs arrived in the boomtowns to conduct trade and provide the services and financial institutions necessary to sustain a community. With the motivation, the people, and a plan, western settlement that had been predicted to take centuries was accomplished in decades.

Frontier Passes into History

It is true that farmers were the most likely to move west to greener pastures. But this meant that in hard times rather than flocking to the cities, rural people tended to move to the frontiers. Immigrants with a farming background also often chose the rigors of frontier settlement on free land over life in the industrial city tenements. If unemployment was high, immigrants would have been even more likely to move on to the west than stay in a city. In these ways the existence of the frontier acted to limit unemployment in the east. In addition, due to the continuous draw of the population westward, eastern wages tended to be higher than they otherwise might have been if workers had no other option. In spite of the disappearance of a distinct frontier, there were still large regions of unsettled government land, and families continued to homestead. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the general migration pattern into rural areas had reversed itself, and more people were moving to the city in search of employment than were moving out of the city and onto a farm.

These job-searchers did not always go to the eastern cities, but rather to the industrial giants and trade capitals of the west: Chicago, St. Louis, Denver, and San Francisco. As time went on, farmers felt the impact of the loss of the frontier as the land available for homesteading became increasingly marginal. Traditionally, American farmers were not tied to the land as in other countries. Original settlers would often sell their land for a profit to later arrivals and move on. With no new and better lands to move to, farmers had to make do with what farmland was available. They also had to contend with the political and economic forces that they had sought to escape by moving west. In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” one of the most influential essays written in America.

In it he claimed that American history had been a study of expansion and settlement of a succession of “Wests”: the West beyond the Atlantic Coast, the Appalachian West, the Old Northwest, the Mississippi Valley, the Western Plains, the Old Southwest, and the Far West. Turner claimed that prolonged frontier experience had affected the thinking of the American people, their culture, and their institutions, and that the isolation and hardship of the frontier had fostered self-reliance, individualism, and movement away from the influence of Europe. In each successive advance westward, the need to create civilization anew accounted for the vigor, ambition, and democracy of America. With the loss of the frontier, Americans lost a critical foundation for their culture, and an era had ended with unforeseen abruptness and startling finality.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 7 January 2017

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