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Moving West the History of the American Frontier

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The History of the American Frontier

The American Frontier is often pictured as Hollywood's rendition of the Wild West: gold, cowboys and shootouts at dusk. It is, however, far more than what the popular Wild Western films suggest. Instead, the American Frontier was about the continual westward expansion of early American settlers, which began the moment that the first European settlers set foot in Virginia. As settlers sought and spread into new lands, they moved the outermost lines of their territory steadily toward the west. This is why the American frontier is so frequently referred to as the Western frontier.

Early British colonists made their homes almost exclusively along the coast with the thirteen colonies. Because of the availability and relative inexpensive nature of land ownership, many colonists became land owners and expansion was inevitable. By the 1770s British colonists had moved to the Mississippi River, across the Appalachians, into parts of Tennessee, Ohio, and Kentucky, as well as Western Pennsylvania. Following the Revolutionary War, a group of forty-eight men became the first American pioneers to enter the Northwest Territory. They established the first American settlement under the new United States in Ohio, which was Marietta, Ohio. The Northwest Territory as it is known today includes not only Ohio, but also Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, and northeast Minnesota. Further advancement into the frontier also involved claiming lands owned by the native population. As a result, they were often met with hostility as the Native Americans attempted to keep them out of their lands. America's westward advancement reached St. Louis, Missouri and the Mississippi River by the 1800s. Large amounts of territory were sold to the United States by the French in the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country. It was from here that the Lewis and Clark Expedition began in 1804.

In addition to the northwest, pioneers also began to push their way into the southwest to areas such as Alabama and Texas, starting as early as the 1770s. Eventually the territory of Texas was formed and in 1836 they declared independence from Mexico. Their war with Mexico eventually led to the United States-Mexican war ten years later. America's victory against Mexico in 1848 resulted in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which led to even more expansions, including the adding of California to the union, as well as Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and parts of Arizona.

Slavery was a major issue in the expansion of the United States. The annexations of territories such as Texas were delayed by political fights over slavery. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 halted the expansion of slavery in areas north of the Oklahoma panhandle, or the 36-30′ parallel. The admission of states into the union was halted for fifteen years, from 1821 to 1836, because of the Missouri Compromise and the pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces fighting to maintain a balance of power.

The drive to expand westward led to the concept of Manifest Destiny, which developed over a period of over half a century. Manifest Destiny was the term that Americans used to justify their conquest of the continent, from the east coast all the way to the west coast. It was also invoked as a call to bring "American" values to the rest of the world with the blessings of God to back up their cause. Practically speaking, this meant that Americans felt they had a duty to bring technology, their own religion and morals, and their language to all people that they encountered. American leaders invoked Manifest Destiny during the Louisiana Purchase, the war with Mexico, and other events that led to America's expansion up to 1860 when the Civil War broke out.

The American Frontier following the Civil War is the period that is most associated with the western frontier. The effects of the expansion into the new frontier were visible, and in some cases, damaging. The American bison, for example, were slaughtered by settlers almost to the point of extinction for their hides and as a way of controlling the Indians who used every part of the bison for food clothing or other needs. By 1886 the census showed that less than 550 bison remained.

After the Civil War, America saw the development of the transcontinental railroad, which made it easier and faster to travel from one end of the country to the next. The building of railroads saw the arrival of workers from as far away as China. Former slaves were also among the pioneers moving into the western frontier. Railroads also led to accelerated migrations of individual settlers and their families from the east to the west. Alaska became the single largest and furthest northwestern territory annexed by the United States in 1867, when it was purchased from Russia.

Westward expansion after 1865 was also marked by the clarification and definition of acquired territories. Large territories were broken up into smaller individual states. For instance, the Dakota territories became the 39th and 40th states known respectively as North Dakota and South Dakota, while territory was transferred from the Utah territory to Nevada before Utah became the 45th state in 1896. Although the continental United States had taken its current shape with the admission of Arizona as the 48th state in 1912, the expansion of the country was still incomplete. The westward growth of the country concluded with the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th states in 1959.

American Frontier Pre-Civil War

American Frontier During and Post-Civil War

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