U.S. Westward Expansion in the Late 19th Century – The Big Picture Overview

In colonial days, the U.S. started out mainly hugging the East Coast (because our colonizers came from Europe, and that was the first place they landed). Many European Americans had a desire to expand the United States to the west, but they faced major barriers along the way: rugged terrain (mountains, desert, etc.), lack of transportation, nowhere to stop and get supplies, not many people intrepid enough to make the journey, and especially the people who were already living on that land – the Native Americans. Westward Expansion in the late 19th century was the same story. Here’s a big picture overview to help you review.

Step 1: Acquiring new land

Throughout the early 19th century (1800s – conversion tip: just subtract 1 from the century because there was no 0th century 😉 ) the U.S. acquired land stretching all the way to the West Coast. The Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican-American War got us most of that land. Take a moment to examine this map and review how the U.S. expanded geographically.

Map of U.S. in 1853

Map courtesy of http://users.humboldt.edu/ogayle/hist420/ManifestDestiny.html

Step 2: Populate the land

By 1850, the United States had a lot of land with not a lot of citizens living on it. Sure, the California Gold Rush of 1849 caused some brave souls to head out west, but the western United States remained largely unpopulated by U.S. citizens. From 1850 – 1860 tensions over slavery stood in the way of encouraging people to move west, but once the South seceded Congress was able to pass two laws that made it easier to move west:

  • Homestead Act – Allowed people to buy 160 acres of land for a very small filing fee; they just had to live on the land for at least 5 years and make improvements (build a house and farm or ranch on the land)
  • Morrill Land Grant Act – Provided money for states to create agricultural colleges where people could learn how to farm and ranch successfully (example: Texas A&M)

Now notice I said there weren’t a lot of U.S. citizens living in the west. There were people living on that land, though. There were Native Americans who had been living there for centuries, plus a lot of Native Americans who had already been driven west when the Eastern U.S. was conquered by Europeans. All of those peoples were driven onto reservations (and over time more and more land was taken a away from those reservations). This is another example in a long pattern of broken treaties with Native Americans by the U.S. government.

During the late 19th century, the U.S. tried to assimilate (bring into U.S. culture) Native Americans. One assimilation tactic was the creation of Indian Boarding Schools. These schools focused on using education as a tool of assimilation. They taught academics and European American values (like owning private property, acquiring wealth to be self sufficient, etc.).

Another way they attempted this was through the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. The Dawes Act split up tribal land into individual plots. Native Americans who registered with the government got a plot of land to farm. Sounds good, right? Well, there were several problems:

    The land was often un-farmable desert land.
    They didn’t have the tools or knowledge necessary to successfully farm the land.
    Tribal culture is about shared land.
    Often times kids who were away at the boarding schools inherited the land and were not even there to try and farm it.
    All of the left over land was sold to white settlers, effectively taking away more land from Native Americans.

Some Native Americans continued to fight back against the U.S. government taking their lands. Events you should review on this subject include the Sioux Wars and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Step 3: Succeed on the land

The Great Plains was a tough place to thrive in for several reasons:

  1. Isolation from other people and supplies
  2. Lack of infrastructure
  3. Hard, rocky soil
  4. Extortion by railroad, general store, and grain elevator monopolies

Here’s an illustrative example:

Imagine you are a member of a young family who finally made it out west onto your homestead after a long, arduous journey in your covered wagon. You have to build a Soddy to live in, because the only thing to build a house out of is mud and grass.

Sod house image courtesy of nationalcowboymuseum.org


Your life on the frontier is extremely demanding. The next family is many miles away, and the closest store to buy supplies is even further. They charge high prices, because they know you don’t have any other store to buy from. The same goes for the railroads and grain elevators. There’s only one railroad anywhere near you to ship your corn harvest back east to market, and there’s only one grain elevator anywhere near to store the rest of your corn. The lack of competition allows for sky high prices that you can’t afford.

Since life was so hard for many frontier families, they eventually banded together and started trying to better their situations. That started out as the Grange Movement and was mostly about social gatherings. As the frontier settlers started to socialize, though, they realized they all shared the same problems with monopolists charging high prices. From there the movement started to get political. Farmers Alliances were formed, “Granger Laws” were put on several state books and then struck down by the Supreme Court (but the federal government did at least create their own law to start the process of regulating monopolies – the Interstate Commerce Act). Ultimately the woes of farmers on the Great Plains snowballed into The Populist Party.


And that’s a little bit about westward expansion in the late 1800s! Post your questions below!

– Mrs. Lemons


P.S. A lot of the activity described above happened in the Great Plains. Here’s a map so you know what region of the country I’m talking about 🙂

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