Westward Expansion Facts for Kids

  • The Wild West has been romanticized in film, television, and books. It’s become a symbol of independence and adventure. 
  • What many people don’t know is that westward expansion was the backbone of American history.

The Louisiana Purchase

In the first half of the 19th century, America’s population grew a lot. There was a boom in immigration and more people were born. This is because of two economic depressions. People moved to new places where they could start a new life or live cheaper.

President Thomas Jefferson bought the land of Louisiana from France. The land was 828,000 square miles and stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.  It made the country twice as big as before.

Jefferson wanted to go further into the west. He did that with the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which was an American expedition to explore the newly acquired Western United States.

The journey took almost two years: They braved harsh weather, unforgiving terrain, deadly waters, injuries, hunger, sickness, and both friendly and hostile Native Americans on their way.

Jefferson also wanted to take over Spanish Florida in 1819. He believed that owning land was very important. He thought people who owned farms would be independent and virtuous.

Manifest Destiny

In 1840, 40% of the people in America lived in the area west of the Appalachian mountains. They had left their family and friends to go to a new place with more opportunities for them.

Many people who came to the US were like Thomas Jefferson. They thought that owning land and farming gave more freedom than working in a factory. Europeans living in factories might have felt enslaved because they could not get out, but the frontier offered independence for all.

In 1843, 1,000 people tried to get to Oregon. They did this by walking on the Oregon Trail. This was a trail that emigrants used to travel from Missouri to Oregon. The road was created by fur traders and trappers in the 1800s. The Oregon Trail was improved over time, making the trip safer and faster.

A journalist named John O’Sullivan created the idea of people moving West. He said that it was important for people to go to the Western frontier. O’Sullivan believed that Americans should carry “the great experiment of liberty” (freedom) all the way to the edge of this country. If they did not, then America’s freedom would be lost, and this would lead them into trouble.

O’Sullivan coined the phrase “manifest destiny”. The idea of “manifest destiny” is that the United States was meant to expand its power and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.

President James Monroe finally took over Spanish Florida, though they yield to Spain the territory of Texas, where many people were settling.

In 1823, Monroe used the terms Manifest Destiny when he spoke before Congress. He said that if European countries tried to colonize the “American continents,” they might be at war with America.

This policy became known as the “Monroe Doctrine”. It was first used to intervene in Latin America after 1870.

Slavery and Westward Expansion

Slavery had been an issue for states in the Western part of the country. The question of whether or not slavery was allowed in these states was important to people.

The Missouri Compromise

In 1820, there was a compromise. It admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, which made it so that there were enough slaves and free people for both sides to be happy.

The US Constitution said that in the future, slavery would be prohibited north of the southern boundary of Missouri (the 36º30’ parallel) in the rest of the Louisiana Purchase.

However, the Missouri Compromise did not apply to new territories. That is why the topic of slavery continued to be debated as the country grew. The Southern economy depended on cotton and forced labor.

Northerners came to believe that the expansion of slavery interfered with their own liberty. They did not mind slavery, but they didn’t like how it seemed to keep them from making money.

The Mexican War

After the Missouri Compromise, Americans continued to move west. Thousands of people crossed the Rockies and moved into what was part of Great Britain’s territory.

There were also thousands more who moved into Mexico’s territories: California, New Mexico, and Texas. In 1837, American settlers in Texas joined with their Tejano (Mexican people of Spanish origin) neighbors and won independence from Mexico.

In 1844, James K. Polk became president. He was excited about the annexation of Texas and other Mexican territories. It did not become a priority before then.

Texas joined the union as a slave state. By 1846 Oregon joined as a free state after negotiations with Great Britain.

Polk declared war on Mexico. He said that the Mexican army had invaded our country and killed Americans. But this was not true. Many people in the North did not like the war because they thought it was only fought to get more land and to get more slaves.

In 1846, a Congressman tried to put in a measure that said slavery cannot be in any new land. He wanted this law to be put on the Mexican territory. It was not successful, but it made people think about how slavery can affect the land.

The Compromise of 1850

In 1848, the Mexican War ended and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. The US got a lot of land from Mexico. It was a big deal because it was 1 million square miles bigger than the Louisiana Purchase.

The conversation about slavery and new American territories was re-opened when the Missouri Compromise was passed. Two years after this, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay proposed another compromise.

The Compromise of 1850 was a law that tried to help people in different parts of the country.

  1. The first part said that California would be free.
  2. The second part said slavery could not be legal in any other new states.
  3. The third part said slavery was banned in Washington DC but slaveowners could still trade them.
  4. The fourth part gave Southerners more power over slaves who had escaped to Northern states.

The philosophy of expansion in the 19th century led to the forced removal of Native Americans from their homes. When new states were added to the Union, slavery became an issue because there was more territory. This led to a civil war.

The Gold Rush

In the 1800s, people found gold in California. That made many people want to head to California with their pans. But it turned out not everyone would find gold.

Six days before the Mexican War was over, gold was found in California. No one at the signing of the treaty could have imagined that it would be easy to find gold in California.

The United States and Mexico didn’t think much of the area which is now California. The land was dangerous and dry and had native tribes living there. The war had been about territory – not what the territory was like. People were more likely to go to Oregon than they were to California because Oregon’s land was fertile.

John Marshall, a carpenter and sawmill operator, found gold on January 24, 1848, at Sutter’s Mill. John was making his routine check of the mill when he saw gold in the water. He grabbed it and knew that it was gold.

By June 1848, 75% of the men in San Francisco left for the Sierra Nevada. They were looking for gold. All of Sutter’s workers left him too. They were also looking for gold, but he was mad because his cook left too! The Gold Rush changed life in San Francisco.

When people found out about gold in the East, many men left their jobs as bankers, lawyers, and doctors to search for gold in the West. They went knees deep into the freezing water to move rocks. Their hands ended up numb and bleeding.

The discovery of gold sparked a massive wave of westward migration. Prospectors who arrived in 1849 became known as the Forty-Niners. The population of San Francisco skyrocketed, and prices for goods rose greatly.

The Gold Rush brought people from all around the world to California. The Panama shortcut was a popular and easy route. it was a 7,000-mile journey with an approximate travel time of two to three months. The second route was the longest and safest and it was through the Pacific Ocean, but it had the risk of high waves. The third route was very treacherous and it was by land. The overland route across the US was by wagon train and took 3-7 months.

The gold rush in the 1850s caused an insane amount of money to come into California. It provided $187 billion worth of gold in today’s dollars. Women were more likely to be successful in the Gold Rush because there was a shortage of women and traditionally female jobs like washing clothes.

The gold rush led to the settlement of the western US on a massive scale. The Gold Rush in California brought many settlers from other countries, such as China and Australia.

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