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Post Civil War Westward Expansion History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Both before and after the Civil War, people were exploring and settling into the West, discovering new sources of income, freedom, and adventure. These were the times of westward expansion and manifest destiny. The belief in manifest destiny inspired Americans to be obligated to settle and exploit new opportunities in the newly opened lands, since they “would extend the domain of free government and free enterprise” (Historyteacher.net). As more Americans settled the West, the lands they inhabited were established into territories.

In the 1840’s, Texas, Oregon south of the 49th parallel, and the area between the Rockies and California were acquired for the United States. Texas was annexed after nine years of independence from Mexico after the Texas Revolution, which led to the Mexican War as the United States and Mexico disputed over the southern border. As a result of this war, the United States acquired the Rio Grande border, and the territories of New Mexico, and California. Soon, gold was discovered in California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1848 and people started flooding in for the Gold Rush. This population boom essentially established the city of San Francisco and new financial opportunities for women.

However, when these new territories of New Mexico and California were to be admitted as states, the issue of slavery came up: if one more free state was added than a slave state, then there would be unbalance of power between the North and South. This presented a problem for the nation, since it was necessary to decide whether or not and how slavery would be allowed in the territories. In effort of finding a solution, the Compromise of 1850 was drawn up by Henry Clay, which entailed that only California would be added as a free state and the rest of the territories from Mexico would have no restrictions on slavery.

The Civil War then rolled in in 1861 and its conclusion four years later vanquished any future for slavery. Once the war was over, westward expansion commenced full steam ahead, as construction of the Transcontinental Railroad gained momentum in 1866, having the last spike hammered down in 1869. Quite a number of ex-slaves migrated West to escape threats of Jim Crow laws in the South. Cattle raising, farming, and mining became substantial new markets, and all the new settlers impacted both the land, economy, and most significantly the original inhabitants and new minorities.

Into the West traveled from the East thousands of Anglo-Americans and some European immigrants looking for gold and silver, and pastures for farming and ranching. What enabled so many to go out there were the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act gave out 160 acres of federally owned land for a small fee to citizens for them to cultivate and improve it. The strategy and initial plan often failed, however it enticed enough people to go out to the West and start making a living.

Between the 1860s and 1890s a mining boom occurred as a result of corporations taking over the search for metals where the individuals had finished scouring the surface. A few of the locations where this took place were the Comstock Lode and the Black Hills. In general, mining focus shifted from gold and silver to copper and lead, for they were metals considered more important, and were sent back to the East. A result of the increased corporate mining was the increase in so-called boomtowns, in which could be found excitement, large quantities of men (mainly those who worked for the mining business), and vigilantes fighting the lawlessness. Once the mines had been excavated to their fullest extent, the mines were closed, and consequentially, the boomtowns abandoned.

Cattle ranchers were the first settlers to take over the Great Plains, raising their cattle on open ranges, becoming the cowboys we know today. These settlers would obtain their techniques and equipment from the original Mexican and Texan herders. To send their cattle to the East, they would round up their 2000-5000 cattle and drive it up to a railroad, the most popular being initially being at Abilene, Kansas. Open ranges began to disappear as farmers and other herders of cattle and sheep began to arrive, bringing competition and barbed-wire fences, constricting the cattle herds. Cattle became a popular commodity; corporations began to expand around the industry. Unfortunately, they produced more cattle than the East could take and their facilities became overstocked, causing a massive quantity of cattle death, and the decline of the industry.

Prior to the rejuvenated expansion, Hispanics populated the Southwest region of the United States. New Mexico’s Hispanics maintained a Pueblo society based on a hierarchy of aristocracy, peasants, and Indian laborers. Soon the Anglo-Americans began to move in, bringing with them ranching, farming, and mining, and subordinating Mexican immigrants. Californian Hispanics lived in missions replaced in the 1830’s by an aristocracy, also forcing Indians into labor. Both in California and in Texas the surge of Anglo-Americans caused the Hispanics to become a minority and be persecuted, lose land, and change to industrial work.

The Chinese were also represented a significant portion of Western population, as by 1880, over 200,000 Chinese workers had migrated into the United States, especially into California. At first they were welcomed and prospered, but soon they struggled from discrimination, as a result of being seen as a threats and rivals for jobs. The Chinese found work, building 90% of the Transcontinental Railroad for the Pacific Railroad Company. However successful the labor of the Chinese may have been, anti-Chinese sentiment among American workers rose, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned immigration for 10 years and allowed no naturalized citizenship.

The Native American people fared worst of all. As Anglo-Americans ventured into their land, they saw the Natives as an obstacle, and thus worked to remove them from their path. The new settlers completely ignored the sanctity of the treaties created prior, and so the federal government had to created new ones and relocate the natives. Also, the lifestyles of the Native Americans of the Great Plains absolutely relied upon the buffalo herds; when the buffalo numbers withered from the millions to only a few thousand due to overhunting, the Natives’ lives were changed for the worse. In response to this attack on their lifestyles, there were constant Indian wars from 1850-1880 resisting White expansion. This led to the Dawes Act of 1887 which took away all tribal land rights and gave the land away to individual heads of families. The goal of this act was to assimilate the Indians into white society and culture, eradicating them of their heritage and own traditions.

The sources used for this research did not significantly differ amongst each other in the information they provided. They generally wrote about the same themes and focused on the main ideas of this chapter in history and in our textbook. This is because the information given by sources describing this time period consisted of events which carried minimal sources of inconsistency, as they were well documented. Westward expansion had a great impact upon the United States and its history. The land of the Great Plains changed shape as agriculture became a staple market and industry. California and the Southwest became the home of a multitude of cultures and diverse ethnicity, the effect of which can be seen today. This also applies to the current state of Indian affairs, as the effect of American expansion into their land wreaked havoc upon them. Now, the Americanized west is no longer a separate entity, but part of the whole of the United States, in government, people, and history.


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