Edited By: R. A. Guisepi
In July 1845,
amidst all the agitation over getting Texas into the Union,
editor John L. O'Sullivan of the United States Magazine and
Democratic Review wrote an editorial in which he denounced
other nations who had "the avowed object of thwarting our policy
and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the
fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the Continent
allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly
multiplying millions." This was probably the first use of the
phrase "manifest destiny," but the idea implied in the term was
current long before 1845.
One of the
grievances that led to the American Revolution was the attempt
by Britain, as stated in the "Proclamation of 1763," to prevent
colonists from settling beyond the Appalachians. As soon as the
Revolution had been won, the new government of the United States
under the Articles of Confederation started making plans for the
addition of new states. The demand for a well-defined policy
over the western territories led to the passing of the Northwest
Ordinance of July 13, 1787, which organized the northern portion
of the Ohio Valley as dependent territories and made provision
for the formation of new states.
ordinance, along with preceding statutes that had been passed in
1784 and 1785, initiated a policy of land acquisition and
organization that the United States followed until it reached
the Pacific Coast. It was a policy that would breed virtually
countless frontiers until 35 more states were added to the
Union. In the mid-20th century, two more states--Hawaii and
Jefferson buys Louisiana. The first official exploration of the
Far West began in 1803. In that year President Thomas Jefferson
ordered Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find the source of
the Missouri River. Before their expedition began, word came
that the United States had bought the enormous western territory
called Louisiana from France.
In 1804 and
1805 Lewis and Clark led their party up to the source of the
Missouri. They crossed the Rockies--the western boundary of the
Louisiana territory--and went down the Columbia River to the
In the winter
of 1805 Zebulon Pike was sent up the Mississippi from St. Louis
to find the river's source. He did not discover the real source.
It is in a district of lakes and swamps that was then under
thick ice and snow. He did, however, bring back much information
about the country above the mouth of the St. Peter's, or
In the summer
of 1806 Pike was sent out again, this time to find the sources
of the Red River and the Arkansas River. Again he found neither,
but he saw the great peak which has come to be known as Pikes
Peak. He also visited the place where the Rio Grande rises in
southern Colorado. Here he was arrested by Spanish soldiers for
trespassing on Spanish territory. Nothing west of the Rio Grande
could upon any claim be treated as a part of Louisiana. Pike was
escorted--half prisoner, half guest--through New Mexico, the
northern provinces of Mexico, and Texas. In 1807 he was returned
unharmed to the American army post at Natchitoches. He published
a book a little later that aroused the ambition of traders on
the Missouri border to visit Santa Fe and capture the markets of
the Spanish settlers.
of the desert. The general area of the Far West was now known,
but there was no rush of settlers to occupy it. Louisiana became
a state in 1812, and Missouri did so in 1821. Three more states
along the Mississippi--Arkansas (1836), Iowa (1846), and
Minnesota (1858)--were admitted in time. West of Missouri there
was no serious move for a new state until after 1850.
United States accepted the verdict of the early explorers and of
Stephen H. Long, who crossed the Great Plains in 1819 and 1820.
Their opinion was that farmers could not make settlements in the
country west of the states along the Mississippi. There were few
trees to use in building homes. Rainfall was too scanty to grow
crops. In some places the land was rocky and mountainous.
Elsewhere there were bare rock and sand, bunch grass, and
sagebrush. Schoolbooks called it the Great American Desert. It
teemed with wild game. Buffalo herds grazed their way up the
Plains each spring and down again each autumn. There were other
animals whose numbers amazed those who visited the region.
Indians followed the roving herds with fleet ponies descended
from the animals the Spanish explorers had turned loose or had
lost. The farming frontier developed east of the Mississippi and
in the new states west of it. The Far West remained for several
decades a land of Indians and wild game.
Missionaries and traders. Long before Americans explored the Far
West the country had been known to the French and Spanish.
Missionary explorers and soldiers had visited it many times.
Traders had come, tempted by the profits of the fur trade. From
New Orleans they had worked their way up the river to St. Louis.
From St. Louis they reached out toward the Rocky Mountains. They
had come too from Quebec and Montreal and from the shores of
Hudson Bay. They persuaded the Indians to bring in furs and sent
out trappers to collect them. Their runners scoured the Plains
and searched the mountains for good trapping sites. They knew
many details of the land long before surveyors arrived to map
When the Far
West became part of the United States, the government wanted to
protect the fur trade for American citizens. It tried to drive
out foreign trappers, particularly those of the Hudson's Bay
Company. John Jacob Astor, a New York merchant, took the lead in
organizing American fur companies. Stockaded posts were built
for agency houses, where trade with the Indians was carried on.
goods for the Indians were sent to the posts. There were
blankets, guns, powder, tools, needles, beads, and other things
the Indian lacked and wanted. After the winter hunt the Western
tribes journeyed to the posts to trade their furs. Out of the
posts white traders and half-breeds, who were the children of
white male traders and Indian women, traveled to the fur country
with pack trains of trading goods. Around many of the posts, the
cabins of these trappers and their families were the beginnings
of white occupation.
From 1812 to
1846 the fur trade was the chief resource of the Far West. The
great region seemed destined to continue a wild land of Indians
and traders. Congress decided to use the land as the basis of a
permanent Indian policy.
Indians. Since the beginning of white settlement in America, the
Indians had given way before the advancing cabins of the pioneer
farmers. The states wanted the Indians removed from their
borders. White farmers and land speculators demanded their land.
White communities feared having Indian tribes as neighbors.
Removal Act of 1830, Congress offered to buy the lands of tribes
living in the settled states east of the Mississippi and to give
them new land in the West. The Indians of the Plains were
persuaded to admit the tribes moved from the East. An Indian
Bureau was established to look after their needs. Troops were
sent to guard the frontier.
made treaties with the tribes as sovereign nations. It granted
them land forever--"as long as the grass shall grow and the
waters run." These promises were not kept. Once the notion of
the American Desert was found to be largely a myth, white
travelers, traders, and settlers began following the overland
trails into the West. The government did not keep them out of
the lands given to its Indian wards. Friction and warfare
between the two peoples followed
country claims. To the northwest lay the Oregon country, valued
for its furs and as a way station for ships in the China trade.
To the southwest was Spanish California. It was dotted with
Spanish missions. Around them grew little colonies of Indians,
retired soldiers, and traders.
subject to the claims of both Great Britain and the United
States. It was held in joint occupation until the owners could
agree how to divide it. The United States became interested in
the early 1830s, when trappers began to send parties up the
Missouri and the Platte rivers and into the valleys of the
Columbia. Missionary societies began sending missions to the
Indians. The famous Marcus Whitman took his bride to the mission
farm at Waiilatpu (see Whitman, Marcus). He then carried
glowing reports back East. An Indian agent went out from
Washington, D.C., in 1842.
west. In the spring of 1843 there gathered near the bend of the
Missouri River, on the eastern edge of the Indian country, more
than a thousand homeseekers. They were determined to risk the
long and dangerous overland trip for the sake of farms in
Oregon. In 1846 Britain and the United States divided the Oregon
country along the line of 49o north latitude. The overland
trails now took on new importance. To the Indians the trails
were a calamity. They carried thousands of whites into the
Indian country. To the farmers of the Middle West, they were the
channel to the greatest long-distance migration in American
Trail was the chief and most famous of the routes. Francis
Parkman, the great historian, visited it while it was new. He
described it in a book that is still popular, 'The Oregon
Trail'. The Trail began at that stretch of the Missouri River
where the stream turns sharply eastward at the mouth of the
Each year, in
May, when prairie grass was soft and prairie roads were dry
enough to carry loads, the overland emigrants gathered along the
Missouri above the bend. They completed their outfits at the
stores near Independence, Mo.
Oregon Trail. The main highway, well trodden by 1846, began in
Missouri at Independence and Westport Landing (now Kansas City).
It ran across country to Fort Kearney, on the Platte River. The
fort was built to protect the travelers and to outfit them. The
main Oregon Trail followed the south bank of the Platte to the
junction of the North and South forks. It then followed the
south bank of the North Platte through Mitchell Pass to Fort
Laramie, at the mouth of the Laramie River. A band of religious
emigrants, the Mormons, ascended the Platte in 1847. They
followed the north bank, thereafter known as the Mormon Trail.
merged as one along the Sweetwater branch of the North Platte.
Beyond the head of the Sweetwater the wagons crossed the
Continental Divide through South Pass, which had been first
visited by fur traders in 1824. West of South Pass the Oregon
Trail followed the Snake River, passing Fort Hall and Fort Boise
in what is now Idaho. From Fort Walla Walla the Trail followed
the south bank of the Columbia to an area near Fort Vancouver.
Most of the travelers left the Trail there and settled in the
Willamette Valley. Some, however, followed the Columbia on to
the Pacific coast.
The Trail was
bordered with the graves of those who died on the way and with
discarded goods as the animals became too worn out to draw heavy
loads. Also along the trail were abandoned broken wagons and
skeletons of horses and oxen, picked clean by coyotes. These
animals howled out of campfire range at night and scavenged the
campgrounds after the travelers left. Thousands of people
followed the Oregon Trail into Oregon. In 1848 Congress created
the Oregon Territory, parts of which eventually became the
states of Oregon and Washington.
At the same
time, many homeseekers were moving toward California. These
settlers followed the Oregon Trail as far as Soda Springs (in
what is now Idaho). There they turned southwestward to the
Humboldt River, the Carson Sink, and the Sierra Nevada entry
into California. American occupation of the Pacific Slope had
Great Santa Fe Trail. Southwest from the bend of the Missouri,
the Santa Fe Trail crossed the Great Plains to New Mexico. Here
Pike had seen a market in 1807. Regular use of the Trail had
begun after Mexican independence from Spain in 1821. Wagons
began to cross the Kansas plains to the great bend of the
Arkansas River. The main route ascended the river to the mouth
of the Purgatoire, near La Junta in Colorado. It then continued
up the Purgatoire, across Raton Pass, and down the slopes to the
town of Santa Fe.
There was a
shortcut, dry and dangerous. It crossed the Arkansas near the
Mexican boundary at 100o west longitude and ran through the
country of the Cimarron River, entering Santa Fe from the east.
The Santa Fe Trail--and its extension to California, the Spanish
Trail--was not an emigrant road. It was used chiefly by traders.
Their prairie schooners full of goods raced across the Plains
and followed the market down the Rio Grande. Sometimes they
crossed the Chihuahua Desert below El Paso and penetrated as far
south as Mexico City.
Mexico. It is probable that the American migrations to
California would, within a few years, have led to an
Americanization of the region even had there not been a war with
Mexico. As it turned out, however, war hastened the process.
When, in 1846, preparations were made to invade Mexico, an army
was assembled on the border. It mobilized at Fort Leavenworth
(which had been built in 1827 to protect the Santa Fe trade) and
marched into New Mexico. The invading army was under the command
of General Stephen Watts Kearny.
Mexico Kearny, guided by Christopher (Kit) Carson, proceeded to
Upper California, as California north of San Diego was called.
When Kearny arrived at Los Angeles, he found that California
already had been largely conquered by the Navy and resident
United States citizens. At the head of the latter group was the
picturesque explorer John Charles Fremont.
Pathmarker." Fremont was a young engineer attached to the Army.
He was already known as "the pathmarker" and "the pathfinder"
before the Mexican War. In 1842 he had been sent to survey the
route to South Pass. In 1843 and 1844 he had been ordered again
to the Far West, this time to the Columbia country from which he
returned by way of California and a southern trail. In the West
again in 1845, Fremont was on the margin of the Spanish
settlements when the Bear Flag Revolt broke out in 1846. He
placed himself at the head of the American settlers who
cooperated with the Army and the Navy in the conquest of
trails in operation, the Indian country was doomed. In 1849 the
gold rush to California broke all records for migration. New
mining camps began calling for government and protection. In the
Compromise of 1850 California became a state. Utah and New
Mexico were organized as territories. Four years later, with the
repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas and Nebraska
territories were cut out of the Indian country. The latter was
reduced to the size of the state of Oklahoma.
and mail. In 1858 the famous overland mail service from Missouri
to California was started. Travelers in Concord coaches spent
more than three weeks in cramped quarters with little sleep.
Poor food was provided at the stations where the horses were
changed. In 1860 the best-known of the Pony Express services
started to run between St. Joseph, Mo., and Sacramento, Calif.
Riders on fleet ponies carried letters in special saddlebags.
transportation between East and West was improved when the Union
Pacific and Central Pacific railroads met in Utah. The
importance of the wagon trails soon began to diminish. Twenty
years later irrigation ditches were making the dry lands bloom.
More railroads were crossing the once desolate desert. The
Indians were becoming almost a forgotten people. The high plains
had entered upon their last phase as "cow country."
and cattle trails. Vast herds of cattle were bred in Texas and
driven northward into the Great Plains. The most famous cattle
trails were Goodnight-Loving, Western, Chisholm, and Shawnee.
The Shawnee Trail divided into West and East branches near the
junction of the Canadian and Arkansas rivers. Abilene was a
chief outlet for Texas longhorns consigned to Kansas City and
Chicago packing plants.
Civil War the cowboys were the last picturesque figures of the
American frontier. From their dwindling ranks Buffalo Bill
recruited a group to form his world-famous Wild West Show. The
cowboys left a musical legacy to the nation. The ballads they
sang around campfires have become a part of America's folklore.
and lawmen. If the frontier offered opportunity to the pioneer,
it offered it also to the lawless--criminals who wanted to
escape the confines of civilization to live as they pleased. It
is this aspect of the frontier that has been more celebrated
than any other in books and films. And it is this aspect, too,
that earned the American frontier the name Wild West. The names
of many criminals have become legendary: Joaquin Murieta, Sam
Bass, Belle Starr, Billy the Kid, the James brothers, the
Younger brothers, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
The kinds of
crimes committed included most of those common to settled
communities and many unique to the West. There were horse
thieves, cattle rustlers, and train and stage robbers. Of these,
frontier people regarded the horse thieves with the greatest
contempt; and they were the most severely punished. The horse
was the primary means of transportation and essential for cattle
As long as
there was an open range in the West, cattle rustling flourished.
The rustlers were hard to catch because, in the early years at
least, cattle were not always branded by their owners. When
branding became common, rustlers found ways to alter the brands.
Because this crime was so little punished by law enforcement,
the cattle ranchers usually had to take the law into their own
Most of the
cattle grazing was done on open ranges that were federal
property. When sheep ranchers began moving in, competing for
water and grassland, range wars of great ferocity developed
between the cattle and sheep ranchers. Another conflict over
grazing lands emerged in Texas when barbed wire was introduced
and the open range began to be closed off. The transition was
marred by the Fence Cutters' War of 1883 and other lesser
outbreaks for about a decade, until the open range was virtually
ranchers also had their own wars. The most publicized was the
Johnson County War in Wyoming in the years 1892 and 1893. Here
the conflict was between the owners of large herds who wanted
all the open range they could get and the smaller owners who had
staked claims under the homestead acts to small sections of free
land. In the end, it was the pioneer homesteaders who won; and
the day of the great cattle barons was nearly over.
have come in for their share of fame: men such as Pat Garrett of
Lincoln County, N.M., who captured Billy the Kid; Wild Bill
Hickok of Abilene, Kan.; Bat Masterson of Dodge City, Kan.; and
Wyatt Earp. Earp started his law enforcement career in Wichita,
then moved to Dodge City as deputy marshal. But it was as deputy
sheriff in Tombstone, Ariz., that he made his name a legend.
With his fellow deputies Morgan Earp and John H. "Doc" Holliday,
he faced a gang of outlaws in a shootout at the OK Corral that
was to become the most celebrated of all the gunfights in the
justice was normally swift and summary. And many frontier judges
were only too willing to dispense the harshest punishments.
Hanging judges they were called, and the most notable was a
federal judge at Fort Smith, Ark., Isaac C. Parker. Appointed to
the bench in 1875, he spent 21 years trying thousands of
criminals. By 1896, when he died, the frontier was history.
of the frontier. On July 12, 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner, one
of the most eminent of American historians, read a paper
entitled "The Significance of the Frontier in American History"
to a meeting of the American Historical Association at the
World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. His interpretations,
usually called the "Turner thesis," have provided historians
ever since with a wealth of material by which to determine what
the frontier experience had done to shape the United States.
introduction, Turner noted that the superintendent of the census
had stated in 1890: "Up to and including 1880 the country had a
frontier of settlement, but at present the unsettled area has
been so broken into by isolated bodies of settlement that there
can hardly be said to be a frontier line." This quiet statement
was in fact an epoch-making announcement. For the first time in
American history, there was no frontier. Something that had been
from the beginning an essential feature of the nation's life was
finished. (To be sure, there was Alaska, but that territory in
its remoteness was not drawing great numbers of settlers.)
It was time to
assess what the frontier had done for the nation. For one thing,
as Turner pointed out, "the frontier promoted the formation of a
composite nationality for the American people. . . . In the
crucible of the frontier the immigrants were Americanized,
liberated, and fused into a mixed race."
frontier promoted the interdependence of the sections of the
United States. It created a diversified agriculture and made
demands on the older communities for manufactured goods. The
opening of the West also prompted the federal government to
begin a large program of internal improvements, the building of
roads, canals, and railroads that tied the sections together.
This created a mutual interdependency of sections and of town
and rural areas. Most of these internal improvements, however,
took place in the North rather than in the South.
frontier promoted nationalism in another way. People in the
territories did not regard themselves as citizens of a state,
but as citizens of the United States. Turner stated: "As
frontier states accrued to the Union, the national power grew. .
. . The economic and social characteristics of the frontier
worked against the sectionalism of the coast."
most important effect of the frontier has been the promotion of
democracy here and in Europe. . . . The frontier individualism
has from the beginning promoted democracy. . . . The rise of
democracy as an effective force in the nation came in with
Western preponderance under [Andrew] Jackson and William Henry
Harrison, and it meant the triumph of the frontier--with all of
its good and with all of its evil elements."
frontier had done so much to formulate American nationalism, it
had also had a singular impact on the American character. Turner
noted this at the close of his address: "That coarseness and
strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that
practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients, that
masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but
powerful to effect great ends, that restless nervous energy,
that dominant individualism working for good and for evil, and
withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with
freedom--these are the traits of the frontier, or traits called
out elsewhere because of the frontier."
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