Why It Matters: Westward Expansion

A painting shows a white woman in flowing white robes flying westward, high over the American frontier. Where she has been, the scenery is bright; where she has yet to go, it remains dim. She hangs telegraph wire with one hand and holds a book in the other. Beneath her, farmers and other pioneers travel on foot and by covered wagon; trains and ships are visible in the distance. To the extreme west of the image, Indians and buffalo flee, driven further and further by the onslaught.

Figure 1. In the first half of the nineteenth century, settlers began to move west of the Mississippi River in large numbers. In John Gast’s American Progress (ca. 1872), the figure of Columbia, representing the United States and the spirit of democracy, makes her way westward, bringing light to the darkness as she advances.

Why learn about Westward Expansion?

After 1800, the United States expanded westward across North America through a combination of land acquisition and settlement. American pioneers and those who supported them were confident of their right and duty to gain control of the continent and spread the benefits of their “superior” culture to the indigenous populations living in the interior of the country. In John Gast’s American Progress, the White, blonde figure of Columbia—a historical personification of the United States—strides triumphantly westward with the Star of Empire on her head. She brings education, symbolized by the schoolbook, and modern technology, represented by the telegraph wire. White settlers follow her lead, driving the helpless Natives peoples away and bringing successive waves of technological progress in their wake. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the quest for control of the West led to the Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas, and the Mexican-American War. Efforts to seize western territories from Native peoples and expand the republic by warring with Mexico succeeded beyond expectations. Few nations had ever grown so quickly. Yet, this expansion led to debates about the expansion of slavery into the new Western territories, increasing the tension between Northern and Southern states that ultimately led to the Civil War.