The Westward Movement was one of the greatest human migrations in history. It was a giant movement of people from all over the earth into nearly 2 million square miles newly acquired by the United States. Trappers came for fur, hunters for buffalo, settlers for rich farms, miners for gold and silver, cowboys for cattle, and carpenters, smiths, shop keepers and railroad workers to support all the rest. Everyone wanted land they could own themselves.
Northern Europeans came from the east, African Americans from the southeast, Spanish from the South and Chinese from the west across the Pacific. It was a saga of great idealism, in which many saw the new lands as a second chance, a new beginning. But it was also a story of great greed, first because the lands were already occupied by forty different Native American nations, and second because slave holders wanted to be able to own slaves in the west - much against the wishes of those who hated slavery.
Thomas Jefferson started the western movement in 1803 by negotiating a purchase of almost 828 thousand square miles from France, called the Louisiana Purchase but extending far, far beyond that state up into the Northwest. His idea was that the young experiment in democracy called the United States could not survive unless it grew and grew with virtuous, hard-working citizens. He viewed private ownership of land as the key to loyalty.
There were many who answered this call: by 1840 almost 40% of the United States - seven million people - lived west of the Appalachian Mountains. Keep in mind, though, that the US claim to the land could be no better than that of France. And how exactly did that come about? Was it purchased from those living here already? The short answer is no.
Between 1838 and 1843 the United States acquired another 823 thousand square miles of land from Mexico, part by purchase, part by war. And more settlers swarmed into these lands, some of which had been occupied by Spanish and indigenous peoples for hundreds of years, creating yet more questions about the legitimacy of the land claims.
The other great moral problem was whether the new states in the expansion area were to be free or slave. The slaveholders in the South did not want to lose more votes in the Senate, which could happen if new Free states were added. People who wished to abolish slavery were quite passionate about halting any expansion of slave areas. A series of complicated negotiations went on: sometimes one slave and one free state would be added at the same time, in other cases the determination was to be left to those living there - Kansas was an example.
Tempers were high: the South Carolina representative Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor and nearly killed him. Neither side really wished the people living in Kansas to decide themselves: small private armies entered to coerce or protect with arms; the affair was called 'Bleeding Kansas'. Eventually the Civil war ended the free versus slave argument on the side of freedom.
There are many in the west whose ancestors came across the Oregon Trail or some other long, dangerous trek requiring perseverance and courage to travel. But there are many descendants of the Native American peoples who feel they have been treated unjustly.
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