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Westward Movement

Image“Go West!” is a saying repeated through American history. The westward movement began soon after the first English colonists reached North America in the early 1600s. This movement took people from settled regions in the East to lands farther west. It led pioneers to cross rushing rivers, towering mountains, and windswept plains.

In a little over 200 years, American settlers pushed west from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, a distance of nearly 3,000 miles (nearly 5,000 kilometers). Most of these settlers had European ancestors. Each wave of pioneers expanded the land, wealth, and power of the United States.


English colonists came to America in 1607 and founded Jamestown, Virginia. Spanish colonists had already settled in Florida. Spanish explorers also went to the Southwest in the 1500s. They explored New Mexico, Colorado, California, and Texas. French colonists founded Québec in Canada in the early 1600s. The French also explored the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.


European colonists risked danger for economic gain. They found in North America unlimited land, thick forests for lumber, and many kinds of animals for food, furs, and skins. Some came in search of gold and silver.

Other settlers desired freedom, far from the control of European kings. Many longed for the freedom to worship as they wanted.


Britain became the dominant power in the areas that became the United States and Canada. In 1763, Britain defeated France and Spain in the French and Indian War. With this victory, Britain won eastern Canada, Florida, and all the lands between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

After 1763, Britain banned colonists from moving west of the Appalachians. Britain hoped to prevent costly frontier wars between white settlers and Native Americans. Some Americans ignored the ban. Frontiersman Daniel Boone led North Carolina families into Kentucky. Other settlers moved into western Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

In 1783, the United States won independence from Britain. Afterward, the trickle of settlers moving west turned into a flood.


The Northwest Territory was one of the first areas settled after independence. It included five future states: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

The Ohio River was the main route to the Northwest Territory. Thousands of flatboats carried families there. Most settlers wanted fertile land for farming.

Settlers also poured west onto lands in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Tennessee. Most of these settlers worked small farms. But some were wealthy planters who owned lots of land. They used African Americans to work the land as slaves.

Native Americans fought to save their lands. American soldiers defeated some tribes in battle. Other tribes signed away much of their land in treaties. After losing their lands, Native Americans were forced to move west, away from white settlers.


In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase added land west of the Mississippi River to the United States. President Thomas Jefferson bought this territory from France. Jefferson then sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the territory on a trip of discovery. The expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805. Explorers, such as Lewis and Clark, and fur trappers helped map the uncharted American West.


In the 1840s, Americans headed west to farmlands in the Oregon Territory and California. Most traveled by covered wagons along the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and other trails. Their wagon trains rolled over the Great Plains, but the plains seemed too empty and dry for farming.

Many Americans believed it was the destiny (fate) of the United States to control all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But Texas, California, and parts of the Southwest belonged to Mexico. Britain and the United States both claimed the Oregon Territory, which included the future states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

In 1845, the U.S. government took over Texas. Britain handed over the Oregon Territory in a treaty in 1846. That year, the United States went to war with Mexico. In 1848, Mexico surrendered the lands that included California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.


The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sent swarms of people west. The gold hunters sought quick and easy fortunes.

Gold rushes and silver strikes also brought fortune-seekers into Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, and other parts of the West. A huge Western mining business began in the mid-1800s.


In 1862, the U.S. government encouraged settlement on the Great Plains with the Homestead Act. The government offered 162 acres (66 hectares) of nearly free land to any one who would work the land. Life was not easy on the Great Plains. But many settlers stuck it out through drought (rainless periods), blizzards, and grasshopper invasions. They built sod (earth) houses on the treeless plains and used barbed wire for fencing. They grew wheat, corn, and other grains.

Cattle ranching became another thriving business on the plains. Prairie grasses were good for fattening cattle.


Ranchers and farmers needed a cheap way to send grain and cattle back east. In 1862, Congress loaned companies money for building a railroad across the West. Soon railroads were carrying goods and people east and west.


As the pioneers moved in, the tribes of the Great Plains, Southwest, and Northwest faced war and loss of their homelands. White people hunted and killed many of the buffalo that plains tribes depended on for food. Government officials broke treaties with Native Americans, and soldiers forced native peoples onto land called reservations.


For many Americans, the West represented freedom, hope, and a fresh start. The westward movement helped turn the United States into a large and wealthy nation. But this expansion came at the expense of Native Americans who called the West their home.

The West became part of American folklore. Movies, television shows, books, and art have celebrated the American West.

 Source: Microsoft ® Encarta