101 Facts… US Expansion – United States Expansionism

John Gast American Progress cc0

101 Facts… United States Expansionism by IP Factly

The Playlist:

  1. America’s Territorial Expansion Mapped (1789-2014) by The Daily Conversation
  2. Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History #24 by CrashCourse
  3. War & Expansion: Crash Course US History #17 by CrashCourse
  4. Expansion of the United States Map 1763 – Present by dan izzo
  5. Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny by legendsofamerica
  6. American Imperialism: Crash Course US History #28 by CrashCourse
  7. The War of 1812 – Crash Course US History #11 by CrashCourse

101 Facts… US Expansion by IP Factly


Manifest Destiny
The Louisiana Purchase
The Corps of Discovery Expedition (Lewis and Clark Expedition)
The War of 1812
The Oregon Trail & The Great Migration of 1843
Slavery and Expansion Problems
The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears
American-Indian Wars
The Sand Creek Massacre
War and Conflict
The Monroe Doctrine
The Oregon Territory
Texas Annexation (Southern Expansion)
The Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846 – February 2, 1848)
The California Gold Rush
The Transcontinental Railroad
The Pony Express
The Homestead Act
The Klondike Gold Rush
Photo Credits

Manifest Destiny

Coined by journalist John O’Sullivan in 1845, the term “Manifest Destiny” was a driving force in 19th century America’s western expansion. It was the notion that Americans and the institutions of the US are morally superior and therefore Americans are morally and divinely obligated to spread those institutions from coast to coast in order to free people from the perceived tyranny of the European monarchies.

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Sketch of John L. O’Sullivan

The era of US territorial expansion is sometimes called the Age of Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny had its origin 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.

Common Sense, a 1776 pamphlet by Thomas Paine, echoed an argument for immediate revolution for independence. The sentiment stated, “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.”

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Scan of cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet by Thomas Paine

Particularly in the northeastern states, Democrats greatly supported Manifest Destiny. Democratic newspapers preached a utopian dream of spreading American philosophies through nonviolent, non-coercive means.

Fearing that a growing America would bring with it a spread of slavery, the Whig Party stood in opposition. In the case of the Oregon Territory of the Pacific Northwest, 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.

Inclined to active acquisition of territory, citizens of the Midwestern states relied more on non-coercive persuasion. As the century wore on, the South viewed Manifest Destiny as an opportunity to secure more territory for the creation of additional slaveholding states in Central America and the Caribbean.

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

The Louisiana Purchase

In 1803, during President Thomas Jefferson’s administration, the US purchased the Louisiana Territory from France for 50 million francs ($11,250,000) and the cancellation of debts totaling about 18 million francs ($3,750,000) for a total sum of 15 million dollars. This purchase more than doubled the area of the US, adding to it approximately 828,000 square miles (2,144,500 square kilometers). It removed France entirely from North America, and secured access to New Orleans in addition to transport along the Mississippi River.

France’s Louisiana Territory stretched from New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico northward through the plains into parts of modern Canada. Encompassing all or part of fifteen present states and two Canadian provinces, expansion continued from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains.

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Map showing a simplified history of territorial acquisitions by National Atlas of the United States.

Authorizing them to pay up to $10 million, Thomas Jefferson sent envoys to purchase New Orleans from France. This was done to secure New Orleans and the trade route to the western territories. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte offered them the entire territory for $15 million.

Questioned by many members of the US House of Representatives and even by Jefferson himself, the security and economic benefits of acquiring New Orleans won out over the possible unconstitutionality of the purchase, and the Senate ratified the treaty on October 20, 1803.

The Corps of Discovery Expedition (Lewis and Clark Expedition)

As a private secretary and military advisor, US Army captain Meriwether Lewis was asked by Jefferson in 1803 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.

After the purchase of the Louisiana Territory was finalized in October 1803, Jefferson expanded the mission of the Corps to include establishing friendly, diplomatic contact with as many Native American tribes as possible.

Second Lieutenant William Clark was selected by Captain Lewis in June of 1803 to be the joint commander of the expedition, which would be a corps in the US Army created solely for the expedition.

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Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by Urban

A mixed group of thirty-three soldiers, skilled civilians, and Lewis’ slave York, the Corps of Discovery was assembled by Clark and Lewis, and the group departed from Camp Dubois, just upstream of St. Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804. Later they met French trader Toussaint Charboneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea, who joined and aided the corps. On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her first child, Jean Baptiste, just before departing with the Corps of Discovery on April 7.

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Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark at Three Forks by Edgar Samuel Paxson

After the first transcontinental expedition, a two-and-a-half-year journey, 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. The route that they took became part of the Oregon Trail.

The Corps of Discovery helped open the American west to further exploration and settlement, providing valuable geographical and diplomatic information, giving the US a foothold in the region’s fur trade and making contact with more than seventy-two Native American tribes.

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Painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell

Lewis and Clark Expedition provided great scientific advancement, including the discovery of 178 new plants and 122 previously unknown species and subspecies of animals, such as the grizzly bear, prairie dog and pronghorn antelope.

The War of 1812

Sometimes called the Second War of American Independence in the US, the War of 1812 was fought against British, Canadian and Native American troops. The British allied with Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader of a confederation of native tribes.

After the first handful of battles fought on the Canadian border in Michigan and near Niagara Falls, the Americans who initially saw themselves both as defenders of their own country and as liberators of the Canadian settlers learned that the Canadians did not want to be “liberated”. Thus, the war unified the Canadians and is viewed by them with great patriotic pride to this day.

The War of 1812 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. Borders at the end of the war remained the same, despite both countries having invaded the other!

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The War of 1812 by Royal Milatary College of Canada Archives.

While the US and Britain would both claim victory, the War of 1812 had no clear victor, but did have a clear loser, the native tribes. When Tecumseh was killed on October 5, 1813, his confederation was greatly weakened at the Battle of the Thames. The confederation was 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 US settlement.

Many settlers in Ohio and the Indiana and Illinois Territories had been threatened by Native American raids prior to the war. However, 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.

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Sakawarton (John Smoke Johnson), John Tutela, and Young Warner,
three Six Nations veterans of the War of 1812 by Liberary and Archives Canada.

The Oregon Trail & The Great Migration of 1843

The Oregon Trail refers to a path that stretches 2200 miles across the United States. It was used by thousands of people to populate the western frontier.

In the 1840s, Americans began their major push west of the Mississippi, into lands that were largely unsettled except by indigenous tribes. Some went in search of land, some in search of gold and silver, and in the case of the Mormons, some went in search of religious freedom.

Four trails provided the migration’s primary pathways: the Santa Fe Trail to 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, isolation and attacks by Native Americans or wild animals, the number of settlers migrating west rose into the tens of thousands. Increasingly, Americans talked of the prospect of a transcontinental railroad.

The first major migration took place in 1843 when a single large wagon train of 120 wagons, 5000 cattle and around 1000 people made the trip.

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Conestoga wagon on Oregon Trail by National Archives and Records Administration.

In 1978, the US Congress officially named the trail the Oregon National Historic Trail. Although much of it has disappeared over the years, about 300 miles of it have been preserved and you can still see the ruts made from wagon wheels.

Slavery and Expansion Problems

The application for statehood of the slaveholding territory of Missouri in 1819 led to a confrontation between those who favored the expansion of slavery and those who opposed it.

In 1820, an agreement called the Missouri Compromise was passed by Congress, under which states would be admitted in pairs, one slaveholding and one free.

In the 1857 Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court ruled that the 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.

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This 1856 map shows slave states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. territories (green), and Kansas (white) by Reynolds

Through the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, territories would henceforth have the right of popular sovereignty, with the settlers of those territories, and not Congress, determining for themselves if they would permit or prevent slavery within their borders. With each side eager to establish its claim, settlers on both sides of the issue poured into the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, swelling the population there faster than would have occurred otherwise.

The Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears

Signed by President Andrew Jackson, The Indian Removal Act became a law on May 28, 1830.

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A portrait of US President Andrew Jackson by Longacre, James Barton

The Indian Removal Act formally changed the course of US 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 until then been permitted to act as autonomous nations on their lands in the southeastern US.

While removal to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) was supposed to be voluntary, the Indian Removal Act allowed the US government to put enormous pressure on the chiefs to sign removal treaties and provided some legal standing to remove them by force.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek was the first treaty signed following the passage of the Act. It was signed on September 27, 1830.

The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek removed the Choctaw people from land east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Oklahoma and money and assistance in the resettlement. The US 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.

Interviewed in late 1831 shortly after the blizzard, a Choctaw chief 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.

One of the strongest supporters of the Indian Removal Act was Georgia. With the discovery of gold near Dahlonega, Georgia in 1829, tensions between the Cherokee and settlers had risen to new heights, leading to the first US gold rush, the Georgia Gold Rush.

Georgia put enormous pressure on the Cherokees to sign a treaty, and a minority of the tribe’s political faction (the Treaty Party) signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. Without Principal Chief John Ross’ agreement or that of the majority of Cherokees, the treaty was narrowly passed in the House and Senate in 1836 after much legal maneuvering.

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A Portrait of John Ross by Robfergusonjr

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 on Army rations in the forts — little more than stockades — for up to five months before starting their journey to the Indian Territory.

As a result of conditions in the forts, of the journey to Oklahoma (on foot, by wagon and steamboat), and of the consequences of the relocation, more than 4000 of the approximately 16,000 Cherokees died. About 1000 Cherokees stayed behind, living on private lands or eking out an existence in the wilderness.

American-Indian Wars

The American-Indian Wars were armed conflicts fought between native inhabitants of North America and whites, from 1850 to 1880. It was often represented by government forces, during the period of exploration and settlement. Like all wars, it originated from a series of betrayals, attacks and broken promises.

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An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians by Werner Co, Ohio.

The most extensive conflicts generally included the most powerful and populous Native American nations. Some of these were the Comanche and Kiowa in the southern Plains; the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshone and Blackfoot in the northern Plains; the Apache and Navajo in the southwest; the Ute, Shoshone, Bannock and Paiute in the Great Basin; and the Nez Perce, Spokane and Yakama in the northwest. These and other Native American nations resisted white expansion and fought brutal campaigns for their own survival.

Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache tribes waged guerrilla wars throughout New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico for more than a generation. Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho leaders united to drive non-natives out of their grazing and hunting lands. Many Native American leaders, such as Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph, migrated or tried to migrate to Canada to escape US settlers and soldiers.

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A portrait of Chief Joseph by O.S. Goff in Bismarck

Initially, the US government intended that reservations be protected enclaves, territories where Native Americans could live away from the destructive influences of white settlers. At the treaties of Medicine Lodge (1867) and Fort Laramie (1868), for example, the US government negotiated enormous land sessions with northern and southern Plains peoples, respectively.

To the Native Americans’ misfortune, however, white settlers and prospectors continued to demand their lands, even in federally protected reservations. After the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874, miners rushed onto the Great Sioux Reservation while the federal government stood idly by.

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Alleged photo of Crazy Horse by Felix

Enraged Sioux leaders such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull defeated US Cavalry forces, led by George Armstrong Custer, in the summer of 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. At Wounded Knee in 1890, however, US Cavalry forces exacted revenge for Custer’s defeat, killing more than 300 Sioux men, women and children, the great majority of whom were unarmed bystanders.

The Sand Creek Massacre

The Sand Creek Massacre was the brutal attack on Cheyenne natives (consisting mostly of women and children) by Union soldiers that occurred, despite the Cheyenne flying an American flag to show that they were peaceful and a white flag after the attack began, in Colorado on November 29, 1864.

Until a massive influx of gold prospectors entered their territory in the late 1850s, the Cheyenne had been peaceful toward non-native settlers. Conflicts between the Cheyenne and settlers escalated after that, though, with United States military forces burning Cheyenne villages and Cheyenne warriors in turn raiding settlements of non-natives.

In the early morning hours of November 29, 1864, Colonel John M. Chivington and his soldiers of the Third Colorado Cavalry attacked a peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho under Southern Cheyenne chief Black Kettle at Sand Creek, Colorado.

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A delegation of Cheyenne by Charles William Carter

Killing an estimated 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people (more than half women and children, and most of whom were still sleeping) the Sand Creek Massacre is considered one of the worst atrocities in Native American history.

The federal government condemned the Sand Creek Massacre and attempted to make amends to those who survived by paying them reparations. However, to this day, tribal descendants are still in litigation over the payments.

As a result of the Sand Creek Massacre, Cheyenne warriors participated in subsequent wars against US forces on both the northern and southern Plains, as allies of the Sioux, Arapaho, Comanche and Kiowa.

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A monument showing sand creek battle ground by Carptrash CC3.0

War and Conflict

The Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine was adopted by the Unites States on December 2, 1823. It stated that America would view any additional colonization in the Western Hemisphere by any European country as an act of aggression, requiring US intervention.

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A painting of President James Monroe by Samuel Morse

As the closest idea to Manifest Destiny to be written into official government policy, the Monroe Doctrine was authored mainly by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, who saw it as an official moral objection to and opposition of colonialism.

Because the United States did not have a large army or navy at that time to enforce it, the Monroe Doctrine was largely ignored. However, Great Britain supported it, mainly on the seas, as part of Pax Britannica.

Implying that the US would expand westward into remaining uncolonized areas, the Monroe Doctrine necessitated expansion to free or annex European colonies.

The Oregon Territory

Due to disputes over who owned the Oregon Territory, a third war between the United States and Britain nearly happened. 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 Ocean. Britain, Spain, Russia and the US each laid claim to all or parts of it. The US claim was based on the fact that in 1792 Captain Robert Gray had sailed ten 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.)

Dreaming of an America that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams used threats and diplomacy to end Spain’s claims to the northwest, in a Transcontinental Treaty signed in February 1819.

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John Quincy Adams Secretary of State by Charles Robert Leslie

The Transcontinental Treaty, also known as the Adams-Onis Treaty, defined the western borders of the Louisiana Purchase, which had been somewhat vague. The southern border would be the 42nd parallel (the top of present-day California), and would extend across the Rockies to the Pacific.

The Anglo-American Convention of 1818, between the US 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 ten years. In 1824, Russia abandoned its claims south of the 54 degrees, 40 minutes parallel (54-40).

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Oregon Territory (Blue) as per 1848 by Matthew Trump CC3.0

The Oregon Territory renewed the importance of America’s dream of Manifest Destiny. Democrat James K. Polk narrowly won on a platform of national expansion in the presidential election of 1844.

Being 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 US preferred the 49th parallel as the boundary. Promising its owner a deep-water port for trade with China and the Pacific Islands, Puget Sound was the only area of contention.

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.

In exchange for free navigation along the Columbia for the Hudson Bay Company, an agreement was reached that split the Oregon Territory along the 49th parallel (excepting the southern portion of Vancouver Island). Despite the “54-40 or Fight” rhetoric, the United States didn’t need war with Britain, because in the meantime, a war with Mexico was breaking out.

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The state of Oregon (Blue) in 1859 by Matthew Trump CC3.0

The Oregon Territory was the name given to the area that became the state of Oregon. It became an official state on February 14, 1859.

Texas Annexation (Southern Expansion)

In 1845, during the administration of President John Tyler, the US annexed the Republic of Texas (the present-day state of Texas and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico).

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A Portrait of John Tyler by Library of Congress

Texas had won independence from Mexico in 1836, although Mexico refused to officially acknowledge the republic or its borders.

Campaigning on a platform that supported Manifest Destiny and expansion, James K. Polk, President John Tyler’s successor, secretly sent diplomat John Slidell to Mexico City to negotiate the purchase of the provinces of Alta California and Santa Fe de Nuevo México (present-day California, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma).

Upon learning that Slidell was there to purchase more territory instead of to 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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Map of the states and territories of the United States (1842~1845) by Golbez CC3.0

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 US Army contingent to the north bank of the Rio Grande.

Texas and the US government stated that the Rio Grande was the southern border of Texas. On the other hand, Mexico said the border was about 200 miles farther north, along the Nueces River.

The Mexican-American War (April 25, 1846 – February 2, 1848)

On April 25, 1846, a patrol under Captain Seth Thornton encountered a force of 2000 Mexican soldiers under the command of General Torrejon; eleven of Thornton’s men were killed and six wounded, while the rest were captured (including Thornton). 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.

Shedding “American blood upon American soil”, the Thornton Affair provided a more solid footing for President James K. Polk’s declaration of war, though the veracity of the account is still questioned today.

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President James K. Polk by Brady, Mathew B

Opposing the war on grounds that war should not be used to expand the United States, some thought that Polk, a Southerner, wanted to expand slavery and strengthen the influence of slave owners in the federal government.

On May 13, 1846, the US declared war on Mexico despite the opposition by Whigs (Polk was a Democrat) in the North and South. Many Whigs continued to question the validity of Polk’s war, including a freshman Congressman from Illinois who became the future president, Abraham Lincoln.

By August, General Stephen W. Kearny had captured New Mexico, as 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 Bear Flag Revolt against the Mexican garrison in Sonoma, without knowing of the declaration of war. Armed resistance by the Californians didn’t end until mid-January 1847.

In northeastern Mexico, Zachary Taylor had immediate success in the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la Palma. Cumulative US 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, promising the US that he would negotiate a peaceful end to the war and sell New Mexico and California, if given safe passage through the US blockade.

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An illustration of a battle during American Mexican War by United States Army

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.

Upset by the conciliatory terms and nervous about Taylor becoming a political rival, Polk 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 US plans and moved to defeat Taylor, and then attack Scott on the coast.

The Mexican-American War ended on February 2, 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, otherwise known as the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement, between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic, 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 $10 million.

Gold, Industry and Homesteading

The California Gold Rush

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, on January 24, 1848.

Despite actions to keep the Californian gold discovery a secret, the word got out with the first printed notice of the discovery on March 15, 1848, in the San Francisco newspaper The Californian. Not long after, gold was discovered in the Feather and Trinity Rivers, also located northeast of Sacramento.

The inhabitants of California were the first people to rush to the gold fields, but as word slowly got out overland and via the port city of San Francisco, people from Oregon, Mexico, Chile, Peru and the Pacific Islands arrived in 1848 to find their fortunes.

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Merchant ships fill San Francisco harbor, 1850–51 by US Library of Congress

In 1849, approximately 90,000 gold-seekers, referred to collectively as “Forty-Niners”, came over the Rockies from other parts of the US. Foreign treasure hunters came by ship from Australia, New Zealand, China and other parts of Asia, and some from Europe, mainly France.

It was 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 US possession, to statehood as part of the Compromise of 1850. The port town of San Francisco went from a population of about 1000 in 1848, to being the eighth-largest city in the US in 1890, with a population of almost 300,000.

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Sluice for separation of gold from dirt with water by Lordkinbote

The Transcontinental Railroad

Highly successful dry goods merchant Asa Whitney, who presented to Congress the first concrete plan for a transcontinental railroad in the United States in 1845, had ridden on newly opened railway lines in England and on an 1842 to 1844 trip to China, which involved a transcontinental trip and the transport of the goods he had bought, further convincing him that 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 and Central Pacific Railroads. Based on a bill proposed in 1856 that had been a victim of the political skirmishes over slavery, the act was considered a war measure that would strengthen the union between the eastern and western states.

The California Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad brought the first great waves of emigration from Asia to America.

Completed on May 10, 1869 with the ceremonial driving of the last spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, the railroads led to the decline and eventual end to the use of migrant trails, wagon trains and stagecoach lines, and to a further constriction of native populations and their territories. The so-called Great American Desert, the western Great Plains, was rapidly populated.

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Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad by Andrew J. Russell

Telegraph lines were also built along the railroad right-of-way as the track was laid, replacing the original single-line Transcontinental Telegraph with a multi-line telegraph.

The Pony Express

Started by William H. Russell, William B. Waddell and Alexander Majors, the Pony Express was a system of horses and riders set up in the mid-1800s to deliver mail and packages. It had more than one hundred stations, employed eighty deliverymen and used between four and five hundred horses. Using the Pony Express, mail could arrive in California in as few as nine days and twenty-three hours, rather than the weeks it took to arrive when sent by horse carriage. At the height of its business, it had over 400 horses and around 180 riders.

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Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri by Poster CC2.5

The most famous of the Pony Express riders was Buffalo Bill, who earned fame putting on Wild West shows.

The fastest transcontinental delivery in the history of the Pony Express was seven days and seventeen hours. It was to deliver President Abraham Lincoln’s inaugural address to the West Coast, in March of 1861.

Despite its place in American history, the Pony Express didn’t stay open very long. It opened on April 3, 1860 and closed on October 24, 1861. It was forced to close after the opening of the transcontinental telegraph. Telegraphs could be sent much faster and with less expense. In the end, the business venture of the Pony Express lost a lot of money and became outdated fairly quickly.

The Homestead Act

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 to buy it under the Preemption Act of 1841, the Homestead Act of 1862 established a lowered land price for squatters who had occupied the land for a minimum of fourteen 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.

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Dugout home from a homestead near Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940 by Russel Lee

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.

Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout scheduled to leave Gage County in the Nebraska Territory on January 1, 1863, was the first homesteader. By the end of the century, more than eighty million acres had been granted to over 480,000 successful homesteaders. In total, about ten percent of the US was settled because of the Homestead Act, which was in effect until 1976 in all states except Alaska, which repealed the act in 1986.

The Klondike Gold Rush

The Klondike, or Yukon, gold rush consisted of the arrival of thousands of prospectors to the Klondike region of northwestern Canada and southeastern Alaska in search of gold.

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Mining operations in the Klondike by John McLain

Over 100,000 people set out on the year-long journey to the Klondike, and less than one-third finished the arduous journey. In the end, only a small percentage of the prospectors found gold, and the rush was soon over.

Photo Credits

Sketch of John L. O’Sullivan

Scan of cover of Common Sense, the pamphlet by Thomas Paine

Map showing a simplified history of territorial acquisitions by National Atlas of the United States.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark by Urban

Sacagawea with Lewis and Clark at Three Forks by Edgar Samuel Paxson

Painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell

The War of 1812 by Royal Milatary College of Canada archives.

Sakawarton (John Smoke Johnson), John Tutela, and Young Warner, three Six Nations veterans of the War of 1812 by Liberary and Archives Canada.

Conestoga wagon on Oregon Trail by National Archives and Records Administration.

This 1856 map shows slave states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. territories (green), and Kansas in center (white) by Reynolds

A portrait of US President Andrew Jackson by Longacre, James Barton

A Portrait of John Ross by Robfergusonjr

An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians by Werner Co, Ohio.

A portrait of Chief Joseph by O.S. Goff in Bismarck

Alleged photo of Crazy Horse by Felix

A delegation of Cheyenne by Charles William Carter

A monument showing sand creek battle ground by Carptrash CC3.0

A painting of President James Monroe by Samuel Morse

John Quincy Adams Secretary of State by Charles Robert Leslie

Oregon Territory (Blue) as per 1848 by Matthew Trump CC3.0

The state of Oregon (Blue) in 1859 by Matthew Trump CC3.0

A Portrait of John Tyler by Library of Congress

Map of the states and territories of the United States(1842 to March 1845) by Golbez CC3.0

President James K. Polk by Brady, Mathew B

An illustration of a battle during American Mexican War by United States Army

Merchant ships fill San Francisco harbor, 1850–51 by US Library of Congress

Sluice for separation of gold from dirt with water by Lordkinbote

Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad by Andrew J. Russell

Pony Express statue in St. Joseph, Missouri by Poster CC2.5

Dugout home from a homestead near Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940 by Russel Lee

Mining operations in the Klondike by John McLain



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