Westward Expansion summary: The story of the United States has always been one of westward expansion, beginning along the East Coast and continuing, often by leaps and bounds, until it reached the Pacific—what Theodore Roosevelt described as "the great leap Westward." The acquisition of Hawaii and Alaska, though not usually included in discussions of Americans expanding their nation westward, continued the practices established under the principle of Manifest Destiny.

Even before the American colonies won their independence from Britain in the Revolutionary War, settlers were migrating westward into what are now the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as parts of the Ohio Valley and the Deep South. Westward expansion was greatly aided in the early 19th century by the Louisiana Purchase (1803), which was followed by the Corps of Discovery Expedition that is generally called the Lewis and Clark Expedition;  the War of 1812, which secured existing U.S. boundaries and defeated native tribes of the Old Northwest, the region of the Ohio and Upper Mississippi valleys; and the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly moved virtually all Indians from the Southeast to the present states of Arkansas and Oklahoma, a journey known as the Trail of Tears.

In 1845, a journalist named John O’Sullivan coined the term "Manifest Destiny," a belief that Americans and American institutions are morally superior and therefore Americans are morally obligated to spread those institutions in order to free people in the Western Hemisphere from European monarchies and to uplift "less civilized" societies, such as the Native American tribes and the people of Mexico. The Monroe Doctrine, adopted in 1823, was the closest America ever came to making Manifest Destiny official policy; it put European nations on notice that the U.S. would defend other nations of the Western Hemisphere from further colonization.

Westward the Course of Empire
Westward the Course of Empire

The debate over whether the U.S. would continue slavery and expand the area in which it existed or abolish it altogether became increasingly contentious throughout the first half of the 19th century. When the Dred Scott case prevented Congress from passing laws prohibiting slavery and the Kansas-Nebraska act gave citizens of new states the right to decide for themselves whether their state would be free or slaveholding, a wave of settlers rushed to populate the Kansas-Nebraska Territory in order to make their position—pro- or anti-slavery—the dominant one when states were carved out of that territory.

The slavery debate intensified after the Republic of Texas was annexed and new lands acquired as a result of the Mexican War and an agreement with Britain that gave the U.S. sole possession of a portion of the Oregon Territory. The question was only settled by the American Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting slavery.

When gold was discovered in California, acquired through the treaty that ended the war with Mexico in 1848, waves of treasure seekers poured into the area. The California Gold Rush was a major factor in expansion west of the Mississippi.

That westward expansion was greatly aided by the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, and passage of the Homestead Act in 1862. That act provided free 160-acre lots in the unsettled West to anyone who would file a claim, live on the land for five years and make improvements to it, including building a dwelling.

From the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 through the migration that resulted from the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act, Americans engaged in what Theodore Roosevelt termed "the Great Leap Westward." In less than a century, westward expansion stretched the United States from a handful of states along the Eastern Seaboard all the way to the Pacific. The acquisition of Hawaii and Alaska in the mid-19th century assured westward expansion would continue into the 20th century.

The great losers in this westward wave were the Native American tribes. Displaced as new settlers moved in, they lost their traditional way of life and were relegated to reservations. However, westward expansion provided the United States with vast natural resources and ports along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts for expanding trade, key elements in creating the superpower America is today.

Timeline of Westward Expansion

Manifest Destiny 

Manifest Destiny, a term coined by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845, was a driving force in 19th century America’s western expansion—the era of U.S. territorial expansion is sometimes called the Age of Manifest Destiny. It was the notion that Americans and the institutions of the U.S. are morally superior and therefore Americans are morally obligated to spread those institutions in order to free people from the perceived tyranny of the European monarchies.

Those beliefs had their origins in the Puritan settlements of New England and the idea that the New World was a new beginning, a chance to correct problems in European government and society—a chance to get things right. Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, echoed these sentiments in arguing for immediate revolution for independence: "We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest, purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

Manifest Destiny found its greatest support among Democrats, particularly in the northeastern states, where Democratic newspapers preached a utopian dream of spreading American philosophies through nonviolent, noncoercive means. The Whig Party stood in opposition, in part because Whigs feared a growing America would bring with it a spread of slavery. In the case of the Oregon Territory of the Pacific Northwest, for example, Whigs hoped to see an independent republic friendly to the United States but not a part of it, much like the Republic of Texas but without slavery. Democrats wanted that region, which was shared with Great Britain, to become part and parcel of the United States.

Citizens of the Midwestern states were more inclined to active acquisition of territory, rather than relying on noncoercive persuasion. As the century wore on, the South came to view Manifest Destiny as an opportunity to secure more territory for the creation of additional slaveholding states in Central America and the Caribbean.

Although Manifest Destiny’s proponents envisioned the use of nonviolent means to achieve their goals, in practice America’s westward expansion was greatly hastened by a war with Mexico and the violent suppression of the native tribes of the West. It also nearly resulted in war with Great Britain over the Oregon Territory. Learn more about Manifest Destiny.

Louisiana Purchase

In 1803, during President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, the U.S. purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for 50 million francs and the cancellation of debts totaling about 18 million francs. This purchase more than doubled the area of the U.S., removed France entirely from North America, and secured access to New Orleans and transport along the Mississippi River.

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France’s Louisiana Territory stretched from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico northward through the plains into what is today part of Canada, and from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains—encompassing all or part of 15 states and two Canadian provinces. To secure New Orleans and the trade route to the western territories, Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to purchase New Orleans from France, authorizing them to pay up to $10 million. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte offered them the entire territory for $15 million. 

The constitutionality of the purchase was questioned by many members of the U.S. House of Representatives and even by Jefferson himself, but the security and economic benefits of acquiring the territory won out, and the treaty was ratified on October 20, 1803. Learn more about the Louisiana Purchase

The Corps of Discovery Expedition (Lewis and Clark Expedition) 

In late 1802, Jefferson asked his private secretary and military advisor, U.S. Army captain Merriweather Lewis, to plan an expedition through the Louisiana Territory to survey its natural resources, look for "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent," and explore the Pacific Northwest in order to discover and claim it before Europeans could. Following the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, finalized in October 1803, Jefferson expanded the mission of the Corps: they would also establish friendly, diplomatic contact with as many of the Native American tribes as possible.

In June 1803, Lewis selected William Clark to be joint commander of the expedition, which would be a corps in the U.S. Army created solely for the expedition. Over the next year, they assembled the Corps of Discovery, a 32-man mixed group of soldiers, skilled civilians, and Lewis’ slave York. Along the way they were joined and aided by a French trader named Toussaint Charboneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who gave birth to her first child—named Jean Baptise—on February 11, 1805, just before they departed with the Corps of Discovery on April 7.

After a two and half year journey—the first transcontinental expedition—the Corps of Discovery arrived back in St. Louis on September 23, 1806. They had achieved their objectives, except for the discovery of a Northwest passage via water to the Pacific, although the route that they took became part of the Oregon Trail. Their journey helped open the American west to further exploration and settlement, providing valuable geographical and diplomatic information, giving the U.S. a foothold in the region’s fur trade and making contact with more than 72 Native American tribes. Their scientific data alone provided great advances, including the discovery of 178 new plants and 122 previously unknown species and subspecies of animals. Learn more about the Lewis And Clark Expedition

The War of 1812

The War of 1812 is sometimes called the second war for independence in the U.S. since it was fought against British colonial Canada, which allied Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader of a confederation of native tribes. The Americans initially saw themselves both as defenders of their own country and as liberators of the Canadian settlers, but after the first handful of battles fought on the Canadian border in Michigan and near Niagara Falls, it became clear that the Canadians did not want to be "liberated." Instead, the war unified the Canadians and is viewed with great patriotic pride to this day.

The war lasted for three years and was fought on three fronts: the lower Canadian Frontier along the Great Lakes, along the border with Upper Canada—now Quebec—and along the Atlantic Coast. Although both countries invaded each other, borders at the end of the war remained the same. There was no clear victor, although both the U.S. and Britain would claim victory. Learn more about the War Of 1812

The War of 1812 did have a clear loser, however: the native tribes. Tecumseh’s confederation was greatly weakened when he was killed on October 5, 1813, at the Battle of the Thames. The confederation completely dissolved at the end of the war when the British retreated back into Canada, breaking their promises to help the tribes defend their lands against U.S. settlement. Prior to the war, many settlers in Ohio, the Indiana Territory, and the Illinois Territory had been threatened by Indian raids; following the war, the tribes were either restricted to ever-shrinking tribal lands or pushed further west, opening new lands for the United States’ westward expansion.

Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

When the slaveholding territory of Missouri applied for statehood in 1819, it led to a confrontation between those who favored the expansion of slavery and those who opposed it. An agreement called the Missouri Compromise was passed by Congress two years later, under which states would be admitted in pairs, one slaveholding and one free. Then, in the 1857 Dred Scott case the Supreme Court ruled Congress had no right to prohibit slavery in the territories. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the law that prohibited slavery above the 36 degrees, 30 minutes longitude line in the old Louisiana Purchase. Territories would henceforth have the right of popular sovereignty, with the settlers of those territories, not Congress, determining if they would permit or prevent slavery within their borders. As a result, settlers on both sides of the issue poured into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, eager to establish their sides’ claim, swelling the population there faster than would have occurred otherwise. Learn more about the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Monroe Doctrine

December 2, 1823, the U.S. adopted the Monroe Doctrine, which stated that America would view any additional colonization in the Western Hemisphere by any European country as an act of aggression. It was the closest that Manifest Destiny would come to being written into official government policy. The doctrine was authored mainly by John Quincy Adams, who saw it as an official moral objection to and opposition of colonialism. Although the doctrine was largely ignored—the U.S. did not have a large army or navy at the time to enforce it—Great Britain supported it, mainly on the seas, as part of Pax Britannica. The Monroe Doctrine implied that the U.S. would expand westward into remaining uncolonized areas—indeed, it necessitated expansion to free or annex European colonies. Learn more about The Monroe Doctrine.

Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

 On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law, which formally changed the course of U.S. policy toward the Native American tribes. It had immediate impact on the so-called Five Civilized Tribes—the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole—who had been until then been permitted to act as autonomous nations on their lands the southern U.S. While removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) was supposed to be voluntary, the Indian Removal Act allowed the U.S. government to put enormous pressure on the chiefs to signs removal treaties and provided some legal standing to remove them by force.

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The first treaty signed following the passage of the act was on September 27, 1830: the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek removed the Choctaws from land east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Oklahoma and money. The U.S. Army and the newly formed Bureau of Indian Affairs did not plan the removal well, resulting in delays, food shortages, and exposure to the elements, including a blizzard in Arkansas during the first phase of the tribe’s removal. A Choctaw chief who was interviewed in late 1831 shortly after the blizzard called the removal a "trail of tears and death" for his people—a phrase that was widely repeated in the press and seared into popular memory when it was applied to the brutal removal of the Cherokee from Georgia in 1838.

Georgia had been one of the strongest supporters the Indian Removal Act. Tensions between the Cherokee and settlers had risen to new heights with the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1829, leading to the Georgia Gold Rush—the first U.S. gold rush. The state put enormous pressure on the Cherokees to sign a treaty, and a minority of the tribe signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. After much legal maneuvering, the treaty was narrowly passed in the House and Senate in 1836 without Chief John Ross’s agreement or that of the majority of Cherokees. From May 18 to June 2, 1838, the Cherokees were rounded up into forts as settlers began moving onto their lands. Some Cherokee were forced to live in the forts—little more than stockades—on Army rations for up to five months before starting their journey to Indian Territory. Of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees, more 4,000 died as a result of conditions in the forts, some from the journey—on foot, by wagon and steamboat—to Oklahoma, and some from the consequences of the relocation. About 1,000 Cherokees stayed behind, living on private lands or eking out an existence in the wilderness. Read more about the Indian Removal Act.

The Oregon Trail And Oregon Territory

Disputes over who owned the Oregon Territory nearly led to a third war between the United States and Britain. Ultimately, the question was settled peacefully in a manner that gave the United States clear possession of its first important Pacific port, the area of Puget Sound.

The Oregon Territory stretched from the northern border of California into Alaska, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific. Britain, Spain, Russia and the U.S. all laid claim to parts or all of it. The U.S. claim was based on the fact that in 1792 Captain Robert Gray had sailed 10 miles up a river, which he named for his vessel, the Columbia. By international principle, his journey gave the United States a claim to all the area drained by the river and its tributaries.

President John Quincy Adams, who dreamed of an America that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, used threats and diplomacy to end Spain’s claims to the northwest in Transcontinental Treaty, signed in February 1819. This treaty also defined the western borders of the Louisiana Purchase, which had been somewhat vague. The southern borderline would be the 42nd parallel, the top of present California, and would extend across the Rockies to the Pacific.

That left the northern boundary to be defined. The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 between the U.S. and Britain placed the border of British North America (Canada) along the 49th parallel, from the Great Lakes to the Rockies, and opened all of the Oregon Territory to citizens of either country. Under the treaty, the question of dividing that region could be revisited every 10 years. In 1824, Russia abandoned its claims south of the 54 degrees, 40 minutes parallel (54-40). 

In the 1840s, Americans began their major push west of the Mississippi, into lands that were largely unsettled except by the indigenous tribes. Some went in search of land, some in search of gold and silver, and in the case of the Mormons, in search of religious freedom. Four trails provided their primary pathways: the Santa Fe Trail into the Southwest, the Overland Trail to California, the Mormon Trail to the Great Salt Lake (in the future state of Utah), and the Oregon Trail to the Northwest. Braving harsh weather, attacks by Indians or wild animals, and isolation, their numbers rose into the tens of thousands. Increasingly, Americans talked of the prospect of a transcontinental railroad.

The Oregon Territory took on renewed importance to America’s dream of Manifest Destiny. In the presidential election of 1844, Democrat James K. Polk narrowly won on a platform of national expansion. The youngest president up to that time, Polk tended toward confrontational diplomacy. Britain had long offered to split the Oregon Territory, along the line of the Columbia River. The U.S. preferred the 49th parallel as the boundary. The only area of contention was Puget Sound, which promised its owner a deep-water port for trade with China and Pacific Islands.

In March 1845, the British ambassador spurned Polk’s offer to divide Oregon along the 49th parallel, not even informing his government of the offer. Polk then demanded the whole territory, north to the 54-40 line. In April 1846, Congress authorized Polk to end the joint agreement of 1818. Americans took up the slogan "54-40 or fight," and war loomed with Britain. The British, however, saw little value in another war with its former colonies in order to protect the interest of the Hudson Bay Company along the Pacific Coast. An agreement was reached that split the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel (excepting the southern portion of Vancouver Island) in exchange for free navigation along the Columbia for the Hudson Bay Company. Despite the "54-40 or fight" rhetoric, the United States didn’t need war with Britain; a war with Mexico was breaking out.

Mexican-American War

In 1845, during the administration of President John Tyler, the U.S. annexed the Republic of Texas (present-day U.S. state of Texas and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico). Texas had won independence from Mexico in 1836, although Mexico refused to officially acknowledge the republic or its borders.  Tyler’s successor, James K. Polk, who had campaigned on a platform that supported Manifest Destiny and expansion, secretly sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico City to negotiate the purchase of provinces of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México—present-day California, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Upon learning Slidell was there to purchase more territory instead of compensate Mexico for Texas, the Mexican government refused to receive him. Slidell wrote to Polk, "We can never get along well with them, until we have given them a good drubbing." Polk began preparations to declare war based on Slidell’s treatment.

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In January 1846, to defend the disputed Texas border and put pressure on Mexican officials to work with Slidell—and perhaps to provoke the Mexicans into a military response—Polk ordered General Zachary Taylor with a small U.S. Army contingent to the north bank of the Rio Grande. Texas and the U.S. government said the Rio Grande was the southern border Texas; Mexico said the border was about 200 miles farther north, along the Nueces.

On April 25, 1846, a patrol under Captain Seth Thornton encountered a force of 2,000 Mexican soldiers; 11 Americans were killed and the rest captured. One wounded man was released by the Mexicans and reported news of the skirmish. Polk received word of the conflict a few days before he addressed Congress. The Thornton Affair, which "shed American blood upon American soil," provided a more solid footing for his declaration of war, though the veracity of the account is still questioned today.

Some opposed the war on grounds that war should not be used to expand the U.S. Some thought that Polk, a Southerner, wanted to expand slavery and strengthen the influence of slave owners in the federal government. Despite the opposition by Whigs—Polk was a Democrat—the U.S. declared war on Mexico May 13, 1846. Many Whigs continued to question the validity of Polk’s war, including a freshman Congressman from Illinois, the future president Abraham Lincoln. 

American success on the battlefield was swift. By August, General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico—there had been no opposition when he arrived in Santa Fe. Securing California would take longer, although on June 14, 1846, settlers in Alta California began the Big Bear Flag Revolt against the Mexican garrison in Sonoma, without knowing of the declaration of war. Armed resistance by the Californios didn’t end until mid January 1847.

In Northeastern Mexico, Taylor had immediate success in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Cumulative U.S. victories threw the Mexican government into turmoil, and in mid-August, its former president Antonio López de Santa Anna saw an opportunity to come out of self-imposed exile in Cuba. He promised the U.S. that he would negotiate a peaceful end to the war and sell New Mexico and California, if given safe passage through the U.S. blockade. Once in Mexico City, however, he reneged on the agreement and seized the presidency. Taylor pushed south into Monterrey, Mexico, in September. After a hard-won victory, Taylor negotiated the surrender of the city and agreed to an eight-week armistice, during which the Mexican troops would be allowed to go free.

Polk, upset by these conciliatory terms and nervous about Taylor becoming a political rival, began to shift Taylor’s men to other commanders to participate in Major General Winfield Scott’s invasion of central Mexico. In January 1847, Santa Anna learned of the U.S. plans and moved to defeat Taylor, and then attack Scott on the coast. Instead, Taylor, with about 500 regulars and some 4,500 volunteers who had not yet seen combat, was able to defeat Santa Anna’s force of about 22,000 men at the Battle of Buena Vista on February 23, 1847. Santa Anna began the long march back to Mexico City.

Scott’s forces captured Veracruz by the end of March 1847 and began the campaign toward Mexico City, which they captured and occupied on September 13, 1847. Although the fighting was largely over, the war didn’t end until February 2, 1848, with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico renounced all rights to Texas, set the permanent border at the Rio Grande, and ceded land that is now California, Utah, and Nevada, as well as parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado for $15 million. In 1853, James Gadsden, the American minister to Mexico, arranged for the purchase of what is now part of southern Arizona and New Mexico for an additional $15 million. Read more about the Mexican American War.

California Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold in the American River at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada range northeast of Sacramento. Although he and Sutter tried to keep it a secret, word got out—the first printed notice of the discovery was in the March 15, 1848, San Francisco newspaper The Californian. Not long after, gold was discovered in the Feather and Trinity Rivers, also located northeast of Sacramento.

The first people to rush the gold fields were those already living in California, but as word slowly got out overland and via the port city of San Francisco, people from Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Pacific Islands arrived 1848 to find their fortunes. In 1849, there was such a huge influx of gold-seekers—approximately 90,000—that they would be referred to collectively as "forty-niners." They came over the Rockies from other parts of the U.S. Foreign treasure hunters came by ship from Australia, New Zealand, China and other parts of Asia, and some from Europe, mainly France. It is estimated that by 1855 some 300,000 people had streamed into California hoping to strike it rich. Silver discoveries, including the Comstock Lode in 1859, further drove California’s population growth and development—over the course of the gold rush, California went from a military-occupied part of Mexico to being a U.S. possession to statehood as part of the Compromise of 1850. The port town of San Francisco went from a population of about 1,000 in 1848 to become the eighth largest city in the U.S. in 1890, with a population of almost 300,000. Read more about the California Gold Rush.

Klondike Gold Rush

The Klondike gold rush consisted of the arrival of thousands of prospectors to the Klondike region of Canada as well as Alaska in search of gold. Over 100,000 people set out on the year long journey to the Klondike, with less than one third ever finishing the arduous journey. Only a small percentage of the prospectors found gold, and the rush was soon over. Read more about the Klondike Gold Rush.

Transcontinental Railroad

The first concrete plan for a transcontinental railroad in the United States was presented to Congress by dry-goods merchant Asa Whitney in 1845. Whitney had ridden on newly opened railway lines in England and an 1842–1844 trip to China, which involved a transcontinental trip and the transport of the goods he had bought, further convinced him that the railroad was the future of transport. In 1862, Congress passed the first of five Pacific Railroad Acts that issued government bonds and land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. The act, based on a bill proposed in 1856 that had been a victim of the political skirmishes over slavery, was considered a war measure that would strengthen the union between the eastern and western states.

The Central Pacific started work in Sacramento, California, in January 8, 1863, but progress was slow due to the resource and labor shortage caused by the Civil War. The Central Pacific faced a labor shortage in the west and relied heavily on Chinese immigrants, who represented over 80 percent of the Central Pacific’s laborers at the height of their employment. The California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad brought the first great waves of emigration from Asia to America. Learn more about the Transcontinental Railroad

The Union Pacific also faced war shortages as well as incompetence, corruption, and lack of funds; it broke ground in Omaha, Nebraska, on December 12, 1863, but the first rail wasn’t laid until July 10, 1865. Since construction began in earnest after the end of the war, most of the workers on the Union Pacific were Army veterans and Irish immigrants who had come to the U.S. because of the Irish Potato Famine.

When the railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, with the ceremonial driving of the last spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, it had already facilitated further population of the western states in concert with the Homestead Act. The railroads led to the decline and eventual end to the use of emigrant trails, wagon trains, and stagecoach lines, and a further constriction of the native population and their territories. The supposed Great American Desert—the western Great Plains—was rapidly populated. Telegraph lines were also built along the railroad right of way as the track was laid, replacing the first single-line Transcontinental Telegraph with a multi-line telegraph.

Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 was intended to make lands opening up in the west available to a wide variety of settlers, not just those who could afford to buy land outright or buy land under the Preemption Act of 1841, which established a lowered land price for squatters who had occupied the land for a minimum of 14 months. In the 1850s, Southerners had opposed three similar efforts to open the west out of fear that western lands would be established as free, non-slaveholding areas. Most of those objecting to such legislation left Congress when the Southern states seceded, allowing the Homestead Act to be passed during the American Civil War. Learn more about the Homestead Act

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The Homestead Act required settlers to complete three steps in order to obtain 160-acre lots of surveyed government land. First, an application for a land claim had to be filed, then the homesteader had to live on the land for the next five years and make improvements to it, including building a 12 by 14 shelter. Finally, after five years, the homesteader could file for patent (deed of title) by filing proof of residency and proof of improvements with the local land office, which would then send paperwork with a certificate of eligibility to the General Land Office in Washington, DC, for final approval. The land was free except for a small registration fee. Homesteaders could also apply for patent after a six-month residency and after making small improvements, but they would have to pay $1.25 per acre for the land.

The first homesteader was Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout scheduled to leave Gage County, Nebraska Territory, on January 1, 1863. On New Years Eve, he met local Land Office officials and persuaded them to open early so he could file a land claim. By the end of the century, more than 80 million acres had been granted to over 480,000 successful homesteaders. In total, about 10 percent of the U.S. was settled because of the Homestead Act, which was in effect until 1976 all states except for Alaska, which repealed the Homestead Act in 1986.

Other Events of Westward Expansion

Pony Express: The Pony Express was a system of horse and riders set up in the mid-1800s to deliver mail and packages. It employed 80 deliverymen and between four and five hundred horses. Read more about Pony Express.

Battle Of The Alamo: The battle of the Alamo was fought from 2/23-6/6/1826 between the United States and Mexico for what is now San Antonio, Texas. It resulted in Mexico taking control. Read more about Battle Of The Alamo.

French Indian War: The French and Indian War was fought from 1756-1763 between the British and the French. It took place in North America and involved many Native American people. Read more about French Indian War.

The Sand Creek Massacre: The Sand Creek Massacre was the brutal attack of Cheyenne Indians consisting mostly of women and children by Union Soldiers that occurred, despite the flying of an American flag to show that they were peaceful and a white flag after the attack began, in Colorado in 1864. . Read more about The Sand Creek Massacre.

Oregon Territory: The Oregon Territory was the name given to the area that became the state of Oregon. It became an official state in February of 1859. Read more about Oregon Territory.

The Oregon Trail: The Oregon Trail is a reference to the path that stretches 2,000 miles across the United States. It was used by thousands of people to populate the western frontier. Read more about The Oregon Trail.

Black Hawk War: The Battle of Black Hawk refers to several conflicts between the United States government and a group of Native Americans called the British Band. They were led by a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk. Read more about Black Hawk War.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre: The Mountain Meadows Massacre refers to an event where militia men from Utah attaché a group of wagon travelers that had made camp for a rest. . Read more about The Mountain Meadows Massacre.

John Jacob Astor: John Jacob Astor was a wealthy merchant and fur trader whose enterprise was played an important role in the westward expansion of the United States. Read more about John Jacob Astor.

O.K. Corral: The O.K. Corral refers to a fight at this corall in Tombstone, Arizona. It’s one of the most famous gunfights in American history and has many films made about it. Read more about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Davy Crockett: Davy Crockett was a famous Tennessee outdoorsman who also served many political offices in North America. He was part of the Texas Revolution and died at the Alamo. Read more about Davy Crockett.


Articles Featuring Westward Expansion From History Net Magazines

Featured Article

The Great Fossil Feud in the American West

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scientists as well as society at large were fascinated by the ancient, often enormous, fossils that were being unearthed in great quantities from North America. Many of the most exciting finds were due largely to the efforts of two men, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who stood at the forefront of vertebrate paleontology. Between 1870 and the late 1890s, the two men classified 136 new species of North American dinosaurs. Scientists had previously known of only nine.

The extinct animals that Cope and Marsh introduced to science include many dinosaurs commonly known today, such as Triceratops, Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus. They also named and catalogued innumerable, long-vanished species of mammals, fish, and birds. Today, more than a century after their great discoveries, the names Cope and Marsh–like Lewis and Clark or Stanley and Livingstone–remain linked together in history books. Unlike these other famous duos, however, Cope and Marsh hated each other with a passion.

As their intense competition to uncover dinosaur bones raged across the fossil fields of the American West, Cope and Marsh quarrelled continuously in the press and amid the government circles of the nation’s capital. As a result, not all of the animals that they described became permanent additions to the roster of extinct species. Their race for preeminence sometimes caused the two paleontologists to give different names to the same species and announce discoveries of new animals without having adequate evidence. Yet while their mutual hatred often expressed itself in petty ways, it did spur activity in the field and greatly increased man’s knowledge of extinct creatures.

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Born in 1831, Othniel Charles Marsh inherited at age 21 a dowry that his rich uncle, George Peabody, had provided for Marsh’s mother. He used the money to attend preparatory school where his advanced age earned him the nicknames ‘Daddy’ and ‘Captain.’ After graduating valedictorian, Marsh decided to pursue a career in the sciences, and he persuaded his uncle to finance his education at Yale College. He earned an undergraduate degree there in 1860 and a master’s degree from Yale’s Sheffield School of Science two years later. The scholar then traveled to Europe to study, and while visiting his uncle in England Marsh approached him with the idea of awarding money to Yale for a museum of natural sciences, which Marsh could run as a professor. After some negotiation–Peabody preferred Harvard–Marsh got his way. In 1866 he became the first professor of paleontology in North America.

Unlike Marsh, Edward Drinker Cope was an early achiever. Born in 1840, at the tender age of six he recorded his impressions of a fossil known as Icthyosaur. When Cope was 18 he published a scientific paper on salamanders, the first of some 1,400 writings he would produce in his lifetime. Like Marsh, he was attracted to the natural sciences, but Cope’s education consisted of briefly attending the University of Pennsylvania, studying abroad, and working at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Cope’s Quaker father sent his son to Europe not only to study, but to keep the volatile young man from signing up to fight in the Civil War. Both Marsh and Cope were attending Germany’s Berlin University in 1863 when they met and initially became friends. A year later Cope returned to the United States and joined the faculty of Pennsylvania’s Haverford College as professor of zoology and botany. In 1867 he left Haverford and moved to Haddonfield, New Jersey, to study fossils found there.

At that time, the study of dinosaurs was relatively new. British scientist Richard Owen had coined the word ‘dinosaur’ (from the Greek word for ‘terrible reptile’) in 1841. Discoveries made in the United States, however, soon revised Owen’s hypothesis of low-slung, lizard-like creatures. In 1855 fossil-hunter Ferdinand Hayden found some Iguanodon-like teeth in Montana that were the first North American fossils determined to be from dinosaurs. But it was Joseph Leidy’s study of the fossils found in Haddonfield in 1858 that changed the conventional view of the creatures. These bones from a dinosaur called Hadrosaurus showed that the animal must have walked erect rather than on all fours like a lizard. The find attracted both Marsh and Cope, and the two men spent a week together in 1868 exploring the fossil fields there.

Perhaps marsh and cope were fated to clash. Both men were notoriously flawed personalities competing in a relatively exclusive field. Paleontologist William Berryman Scott sided with Cope but was forced to admit that ‘Despite his greatness–in some measure, indeed, because of it–he had some unfortunate personal peculiarities, was pugnacious and quarrelsome and made many enemies.’ Scott had even worse to say about Marsh. ‘Indeed, I came nearer to hating him than any other human being that I have known,’ he wrote. Marsh, who never married and had few if any intimate friends, earned the nickname ‘The Great Dismal Swamp’ at one of his clubs. Throughout his life his detractors said that he was autocratic and petty; that he appropriated the work of his assistants and published it under his own name; and that he was a tightwad who never paid his employees on time.

Marsh and a dozen students set out on his first Yale-sponsored expedition in August 1870. He picked up an army escort in Nebraska and explored portions of Kansas and the territories of Wyoming and Utah. (For one day his guide was ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody.) The expedition returned to Yale in December with 36 boxes of specimens, which included a hollow bone fragment that appeared to be from the wing of a flying reptile known as a Pterodactyl. Marsh himself had found the fossil in a narrow canyon in western Kansas. He calculated that the creature must have had a wingspan of 20 feet, ‘truly a gigantic dragon even in this country of big things, where hitherto no Pterodactyl large or small had yet been discovered.’

As the race to discover extinct species intensified, Cope and Marsh began to clash. In 1872 Cope attempted to search for fossils in a part of Wyoming Territory that Marsh considered his turf. ‘Thus began the intense rivalry in field exploration and the bitter competition for priority of discovery and publication, which led to an immediate break in the previously friendly relations between Cope and Marsh,’ wrote Henry Fairfield Osborn in his biography of Cope. By 1873 the two were exchanging heated letters. Marsh was particularly incensed when Cope temporarily lured away one of his field collectors, Sam Smith, and then somehow gained possession of Marsh’s fossils. ‘The information I received on this subject,’ Marsh wrote to Cope, ‘made me very angry, and had it come at the time I was so mad with you for getting away Smith I should have ‘gone for you,’ not with pistols or fists, but in print . . . . I was never so angry in my life.’

The dinosaur rush began in earnest in 1877 after a mining teacher named Ar-thur Lakes wrote to Marsh about fossil bones he had discovered near Morrison, Colorado. When Marsh did not reply, Lakes sent some samples to Cope. That move galvanized Marsh, and he quickly sent $100 to Lakes, who dutifully asked Cope to send the bones on to his rival. Marsh then dispatched one of his field collectors, Benjamin Mudge, a professor at the Agricultural College of Kansas, to look over Lakes’ find. ‘Satisfactory arrangement made for two months,’ Mudge cabled back, adding that ‘Jones’–code for Cope–‘cannot interfere.’ Within a few weeks Mudge and Lakes shipped a ton of bones back east. The shipment included the first remains of a Stegosaurus.

At about the same time that Lakes made his discovery, another Colorado teacher, O.W. Lucas, found fossil bones near Cañon City, Colorado, and contacted Cope. Unlike Marsh, Cope responded quickly. Among the first specimens Lucas sent to him were the vertebrae of a huge animal that Cope named Camarasaurus (chambered reptile) after its hollow bones. Yet Lakes had come upon portions of the same species of creature, and Marsh had already named it Titanosaurus. Marsh had published first, and according to scientific tradition he won the right to name the animal. Cope declared that Marsh’s designation was already taken, and Marsh changed the name to Atlantosaurus.

Taken all together, Cope’s Colorado fossils were preferable to Marsh’s, because they were larger and easier to remove from the surrounding rock without breaking. In the spirit of underhanded competition that would characterize the relationship, Marsh asked Mudge to woo Lucas over to his side, but the schoolmaster remained loyal to Cope. For his part, Cope would try several times to win over Mudge, to no avail.

Marsh got his chance to trump Cope in July 1877, when he received a letter from William Reed and W. E. Carlin, two railway workers from the Como, Wyoming, station, who wrote that they had discovered ‘a large number of fossils.’ Marsh sent collector Samuel Williston to check out their find. Williston cabled back, ‘They tell me the bones extend for seven miles and are by the ton . . . . The bones are very thick, well preserved, and easy to get out.’ Perhaps even more important, he added, ‘I think for three months the matter can be kept perfectly quiet & by that time I hope you will have the matter all your own.’

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The site at Como Bluff proved to be a mother lode of dinosaurs from the Jurassic Period, a stage in the Mesozoic Era that ended 135 million years ago. In the first year of digging alone, Marsh’s men shipped 30 tons of bones east, including those of Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus, and many others. From Como came another dinosaur, Brontosaurus (‘thunder lizard’), which Marsh had the privilege of naming. Although perhaps the world’s best known dinosaur, the designation Brontosaurus was eliminated on a technicality. After Marsh’s death paleontologists determined that his Brontosaurus was really another example of a dinosaur Marsh had earlier named Apatosaurus.

Digging for dinosaur remains wasn’t easy. The men working for Cope and Marsh had to carefully extract the fossil bones from the surrounding rock, laboring through searing summer heat or frigid winter cold. They toiled in the West during a time when hostile Indians were a very real threat.

Cope and Marsh made occasional visits to the digs but usually continued their feud by proxy. After the discovery at Como Bluff, Reed became one of Marsh’s best collectors while Carlin transferred his allegiance to Cope. The competition between the rival camps grew in intensity and animosity. If Reed accumulated more bones than he could use, he smashed them so Carlin wouldn’t get them. Marsh’s man Samuel Williston was so paranoid about Cope that when a man arrived at his camp one day in 1878, Williston contrived to obtain a handwriting specimen to determine if the man was really Cope in disguise.

One day a year later, Cope really did show up at a Marsh dig and managed to charm his rival’s men. Lakes wrote in his journal that Cope ‘entertained his party by singing comic songs with a refrain at the end like the howl of a coyote.’ After Cope’s departure, Lakes wrote, ‘I must say that what I saw of him I liked very much his manner is so affable and his conversation very agreeable. I only wish I could feel sure he had a sound reputation for honesty.’

While Cope displayed genius in his work, Marsh had a financial advantage in the support he received from Yale and later the U.S. Geological Survey, which allowed him to hire many collectors. Some of them, like Williston and John Bell Hatcher, eventually went on to make their own names in paleontology. Williston, forbidden by Marsh from publishing in any competing fields, became an expert on extinct flies! Hatcher made his name recovering wonderful specimens of horned dinosaurs known as Ceratops, collecting portions of 50 of them between 1889 and 1892. The best-known example of these is a three-horned creature Marsh named Triceratops. Hatcher discovered it after some cowboys showed him horns they had broken off a huge skull embedded in the side of a canyon. They had tried to dig out the rest of the skull, which had ‘horns as long as a hoe handle and eye holes big as your hat,’ but the fossil broke free and tumbled to the bottom of the canyon. Hatcher found and recovered the shattered skull.

In later years the Cope-Marsh battlefield shifted to Washington, D. C. Marsh proved himself an able power broker, and Cope saw his own prospects decline, helped along by poor investments that dried up his funds. In 1882 John Wesley Powell, director of the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey, named Marsh the survey’s vertebrate paleontologist. When the government cut off Cope’s funding for publication of work from an earlier survey, he suspected that Powell and Marsh were behind the decision. He haunted government offices in an attempt to get Congress to restore his funding. ‘A great deal depends on official position,’ he wrote bitterly to his wife. ‘It regulates everything, especially society. It makes less difference what a man knows than what office does he hold. Hence inferior men like Powell and Marsh may have great influence, simply because they have gotten position. It makes little difference how this was done.’

For Cope, the last straw came in December 1889 when the secretary of the interior ordered him to turn over some of his specimens to the government. Cope, who had collected the specimens at his own expense, was outraged, and he went on the attack, using the press as a weapon. ‘I don’t think writing private letters of a critical kind to such hardened sinners as Marsh and Powell does the least good; especially in the case of Marsh,’ he wrote to another paleontologist. ‘But when a wrong is to be righted, the press is the best & most Christian medium of doing it. It replaces the old time shot gun & bludgeon & is a great improvement.’

On January 12, 1890, the New York Herald printed the first of a series of articles about the feud. Cope had been preparing his attack for years, and he let loose with everything he had. ‘Unable to properly classify and name the fossils his explorers secured,’ Cope said, Marsh ’employed American and foreign assistants who did the work for him and to which he has signed his name.’ After citing a number of works that Marsh had allegedly either plagiarized or had his assistants write, Cope did give his rival credit for one work–‘the most remarkable collection of errors and ignorance of anatomy and the literature on the subject ever displayed.’

Powell counterattacked in the same article. Cope, he said, was what he considered a’species fiend,’ one who would ‘ransack the earth for leaves or bones or fragments of shell and then rush into print that their names may be quoted as the discoverers.’ The fact that Marsh was equally culpable apparently didn’t trouble him. Powell wrote that ‘. . . Professor Cope’s mental and moral characteristics unfit him for any position of trust and responsibility. In addition to his great vanity, which leads him into vicious species work, he is inordinately jealous and suspicious of every other worker, and these two traits combined give him that hysterical temper and gift of voluble denunciation rarely found in persons of his sex.’

Marsh’s comments appeared a week later. ‘If my language may seem severe,’ he wrote in a tone of pained resignation, ‘it should be remembered that for ten years I have suffered these attacks in silence, because it seemed to be due to the positions I have held to abstain from all personal controversy.’ He went on to describe his first meeting with Cope in 1863, claiming that even then he had’some doubts as to his sanity.’

He saved his most damning story for last: the tale of the Elasmosaurus. In the 1870s Cope had written extensively about this large aquatic reptile, and he had set up a reconstructed skeleton at the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences. When Marsh examined the skeleton, he told the Herald, he noted that Cope had transposed tail and neck. ‘When I informed Professor Cope of it,’ Marsh reported, ‘his wounded vanity received a shock from which it has never recovered, and he has since been my bitter enemy.’ Furthermore, Marsh contended that Cope then attempted to recall all the copies of his scientific paper with drawings of the incorrect restoration. ‘I returned to Professor Cope at his request the one he sent me,’ Marsh said, ‘but have two others, which I since purchased.’

The newspaper battle petered out on January 26. According to William Berryman Scott, who was quoted in support of Cope, the Herald series ‘was not even a nine days’ wonder; it fell completely flat.’ But Cope’s attack may have merely taken time to hit home. In 1892, Congress, eager to cut government spending, pounced on Marsh’s work for the Geological Survey as an example of waste. Some congressmen thought the professor’s book about extinct birds with teeth, called Odontornithes, was particularly disgraceful. It was irrelevant that Marsh had paid for the publication himself, or that Charles Darwin commented that the book ‘has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years.’ The phrase ‘birds with teeth’ became a catch phrase for government waste, and paleontology became the perfect place to start trimming the budget. As a result, Powell sent Marsh a telegram on July 20: ‘Appropriations cut off. Please send your resignation at once.’ With the Survey’s financial support gone, Marsh was forced, for the first time in his career at Yale, to accept a salary. He died in 1899.

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Cope had died two years earlier and had willed his body to science as an anatomical specimen for students to study. But that wasn’t the end of his story. In 1993 a National Geographic photographer named Louis Psihoyos obtained Cope’s skull from the University of Pennsylvania and took it with him as he traveled around the world interviewing paleontologists for a book. He referred to the skull as ‘Eddie.’ Later, he and paleontologist Robert Bakker tried to have the skull named as the ‘type specimen’–the standard of a species to which all others are compared–for Homo sapiens. ‘In all branches of Natural Science, type specimens are the lights that mark the present boundaries of knowledge,’ wrote one scientist in the nineteenth century. ‘They should be, therefore, not will-o-the-wisps, leading unwary votaries of science astray, but fixed beacon lights to guide and encourage investigators in their search for new truth.’

Those words were written by Othniel Charles Marsh, and it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t have wanted them applied to his hated rival. In any event, the effort to turn Cope into a type specimen was a futile one. It turned out that Swiss botanist Carolus Linnaeus, the man who created the scientific naming system that classes specimens based on genus and species, had received that honor in 1959. Edward Drinker Cope had been trumped one last time.

This article was written by Tom Huntington and originally published in the August 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!

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