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Going West Was Our Manifest Destiny

Brown compass and pouch West direction on top

We've been talking lately about migration from Colonial New England across the developing United States. The (President James) Monroe Doctrine of 1823 declared that no other country would be doing any colonization or intervention in North America. In 1830 we entered the Era of the US "Manifest Destiny" and the settlement of the West.

The Manifest Destiny of President Andrew Jackson was the idea that white Americans were "divinely ordained" to settle the entire continent of North America, no matter who currently lived there or at what cost. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 had opened up new territory for settlement across the southern states, the 1832 map below illustrates what North America looked like then. You can see British territories, Mexico, tribal lands, and Florida which was still Spanish largely occupied by Seminoles.

1832 Map of North America. US States and Indian tribes

Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The northern part of the country was largely populated by Apaches and Comanches, and the government found it difficult to entice Mexicans to move there. What to do? Invite foreigners in, exempt them from taxes for seven years, and even though slavery had been abolished in 1829, allow slaveholders to continue using their forced labor. People began to flood into the territory that would become known as Texas.

By the time we get to 1835, you could say relationships were souring between the Texians and the new government under dictator ("Caudillo") Santa Anna. You may remember an event in 1836 called the Siege of The Alamo?

Artistic rendering of the Alamo saying Remember the Alamo

The Texas Revolution soon ended, Santa Anna signed a treaty, and returned to Mexico. However, he had been deposed while at war, and the new government refused to recognize Texas's independence, saying that Santa Anna had signed the agreement under duress as a prisoner of war. Meanwhile, raids by Native American tribes were occurring in the new Republic as well as the other new territories opening up across the US.

The United States was determined to civilize the West and spread the agrarian system that had been so successful in the East. They negotiated with Britain for Oregon, but you can see from the 1837 map here, the vast majority of the land between the US and the Pacific Ocean was owned by Texas and Mexico.

Library of Congress map of N America 1837
Library of Congress Map,-0.029,1.251,0.789,0

Mexico threatened to go to war with the US in 1836 if they tried to annex Texas as a state as the newly independent Texans requested. Texas was recognized as an independent republic by the US in 1837 but the US took no further action towards annexation until 1844. Perhaps alarmed by the new interest of Britain in blocking the US expansion in order to gain financially by trade with an independent Texas, and to tamper with US tariff and slavery policies (per the Texas State Historical Association handbook link below), the question of annexation arose again in 1843. On December 29, 1845 Texas was admitted as a slave state to the United States.

You will note there is a section of the above map running from Mexico up into Colorado that is "claimed by Texas AND Mexico." In 1846, newly elected President James Polk decided the US should have all of that territory, and sent troops to occupy it. Hence the beginning of the Mexican American War, or as the Mexicans call it, the War of the American Invasion. The war ended in 1848, and the US gained 525,000 square miles (about 55% of prewar Mexican land) for a $15 million lump sum payment and assumption of some debt.

Expansion into the American West continued, and then exploded in 1848, with the discovery of gold in the new California territory, which was quickly made a state in 1850. Approximately 300,000 people came to California from other states and foreign countries in search of gold.

Locations of California Native American Tribes

We know about the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma from the southeast after the Indian Removal Act, but there was also sanctioned by local and federal governments hunting down of Native Americans in California.

Although California was admitted as a "free state" the "California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians" is passed, legalizing the capture and enslavement of Native Americans. This law remained in full effect until 1865 with the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, but it was not repealed in its entirety until 1937.

Despite what some saw as the "lofty idealism" of The Manifest Destiny, the rapid expansion over the first half of the 19th century resulted not only in war with Mexico, but in the dislocation and brutal mistreatment of Native American, Hispanic and other non-European occupants of the territories newly being occupied by the United States. This era also saw the beginnings of American Colonialism in Central and South America, but we will leave those for another time.

These were fearful, tumultuous, exciting, and fascinating times in our American history. While there was great growth during the 1830's and 1840's the really explosive western expansion would come after the Civil War when the railroads were completed across the country.

cartoon block of color train

Journalist Horace Greeley was cited as having said in 1865, "Washington [D.C.] is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country,"

in the New-York Daily Tribune, July 13, 1865.

Have you tracked your own family's journey across America? Were they among the early settlers of a place? Check for "Gazetteers" in Ancestry or Family Search (free records at Family Search) to see if you can find one of your ancestors mentioned. Check Wikipedia for articles and further sources for the history of your town, your county, and your state. You will find there is so much more information than there was time to learn about your in school history class. It may shed light on one of your brick walls!

Thanks for sharing your ideas and questions with me, I love hearing from you. Please send me an email if I can try to help you - free peek, free quote.


Leslie Ryan

No compensation is received for any links or referrals herein. No copyright infringement is intended.

Additional reading or sources: for numerous maps and timelines including

PBS American Experience Film

Library of Congress 1837 map

Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas History

Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly. "Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians" (PDF). 50 California Research Bureau, California State Library. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-10-12. Retrieved 11 October 2023.

The Jim Crow Museum for more information about slavery


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