Our Manifest Destiny to Overspread the Continent: Westward Expansion and the Mexican-American

Our Manifest Destiny to Overspread the Continent: Westward Expansion and the Mexican-American

“Our Manifest Destiny to Overspread the Continent:” Westward Expansion and the Mexican-American War (S1)

Moving West (S2)

--As we have learned, Americans were notably possessed with a footloose nature, which relentlessly drove them primarily West in search of land, opportunity, and adventure. With the addition of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, an inexorable force of Americans forded the Mississippi River and flooded into the unknown western territories, bringing their possessions and their institutions such as slavery with them. Historians have recognized the American West as fundamental in the shaping of the American character and in the democratization of the American polity. The movement West, however, would also strain the connections between the American South and the American North and force Americans to debate the future of their nation: ultimately, would the U.S. be a free or slave nation?

--By 1840, Americans occupied all land east of the Mississippi River and they had organized all territories except for Florida and Wisconsin into states. The frontier was considered to be the open land beyond the U.S. border—it was the unknown, the undeveloped, and it was extremely desirable.

--The National government sponsored expeditions into the West from 1803 to 1871 in order to explore and to map out the continent. 1803-1805: Lewis and Clark explored the Northern Territory of the Louisiana Purchase. 1806-1807: Zebulon Pike explored the Rocky Mountains. 1819-1820: Stephen Long explored the Great Plains. 1843-1844: John C. Fremont mapped out the overland trail to California and Oregon. 1859: Frederick Lander explored Colorado and Wyoming. 1869: John Wesley Powell mapped out the Santa Fe Trail and explored the Grand Canyon. Powell also warned that the Great Basin environment could not sustain overpopulation. Americans would learn this the hard way during the 1930’s with the onset of the Dust Bowl crisis.

--Once these trails were mapped, settlers followed the trails and laid down settlements. In 1869 the transcontinental railroad, which was built mostly by Chinese immigrants, was completed and it facilitated further westward movement.

Images of the West (S3)

--In the paintings of the West, there is a clear message of progressive forward movement and optimism in the future. Remember, optimism and restlessness were defining American characteristics, so the West in itself embodied the American character. The Western environment was depicted as an Eden in the American imagination, which was there for the taking or the taming. It was viewed as a wilderness in need of civilization. The West was not only regional, but also a state of mind for Americans—it represented opportunity, abundance, individualism, freedom, and progress. Indians were not usually depicted in the paintings of the West, which bespeaks the Anglo myth of the “vanishing Indian,” namely, the assumption that it was inevitable that Indians would be pushed back before the tide of Anglo Westward migration. In reality, however, Indians did not relent but rather continued to fight for their sovereignty in the American West, so conflict between the Indians and settlers was an ever-present. Indians continued to be a worrisome obstacle for American settlers and their pursuit of their Manifest Destiny.

“Our Hearts Fell to the Ground:” Indian Removal (S4)

--As we learned in last lecture, in 1830, Congress enacted the Indian Removal Act, which permitted the president to authorize treaties in order to remove all Indian tribes living east of the Mississippi to the western territories. This law affected the Choctaw, the Chickasaws, the Creeks, and the Cherokee. Even if Indian tribes attempted to assimilate into white civilization as did the Cherokee, they were forced to move west in order to make way for the inexorable waves of white settlement. In the Trail of Tears (1831-1839), ¼ of Indians died of disease and exhaustion en route to Oklahoma. The way was now cleared for Americans to achieve their Manifest Destiny.

Manifest Destiny (S5)

--What, then, is Manifest Destiny? In 1845, the editor John O’S ullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in order to describe the prevalent belief that the American Nation’s conquest of the continent from sea to shining sea was inevitable and divinely sanctioned. O’Sullivan argued that the United States should take Texas away from Mexico, which he saw as a weak and ineffective country. He also argued that California and Oregon would be inevitably absorbed into the American Nation as well. This ideology of Manifest Destiny also maintained that non-Anglos, such as Indians, Mexicans, and black Americans, were destined to be controlled and conquered by the more civilized Anglo-Americans.

“American Progress:” An Allegorical Painting by John Gast (1872)

--How does John Gast’s painting “American Progress” reflect the ideology of Manifest Destiny? For example, there is an Anglo-American goddess leading the way for civilization. The Anglo-Americans are bringing light to the dark savage west. Indians, wild animals and buffalo flee in front of covered wagons, the pony express, railroads, stagecoaches, and yeoman farmers—this is the pursuit of progress. The woman is stringing telegraph lines behind her and carries a book (enlightenment) in her arms.

Southern vs. Northern Movement (S7)

--As we have already learned, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which was invented in 1793, facilitated the movement of slavery west. His machine easily stripped the seeds from cotton (it took 10 hours of labor for 1 pound of cotton before the cotton gin, and 1 hour of labor for 10 pounds of cotton after the cotton gin). The cotton gin, thus, made cotton production more profitable, which persuaded Southerners to start growing it on their plantations as a cash crop. Cotton became king in the South and boosted the American economy, but it also regionally divided the country—the South and the North became very distinctive from one another. The North had smaller farms, food crops, waged labor, and the market catered mostly to the domestic market. The South had plantations, cash crops, slave labor, and the market catered mostly to the foreign market. Despite their differences, both the North and the South upheld the ideology of Manifest Destiny. They both viewed the West as promising and progressive and wished to expand their respective economies into the West. Both regions knew that the way the West went, was the way the Nation would go. Namely, if the West became predominately free labor, then the U.S. would be a free nation. In turn, if the West was predominated by slavery, then, the U.S. would be a slave nation. Both regions were set on defining the course of the nation their way. As Northerner Abraham Lincoln told Southerner Alexander Stephens, “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended, while we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted. I suppose that is the rub.” This was the fundamental “ rub” or disagreement that would cause the Civil War.

Why Move West? (S8)

--Easterners moved West for several reasons: for adventure; for a new start; because they were in trouble with the law in the East; for agricultural reasons; and especially because the West represented a place of opportunity. The West was deemed to be the veritable “land of milk and honey.” The Democrat party felt that men should go West untrammeled or with no governmental controls. The Whig party also favored westward expansion, but they wanted more governmental control of westward movement.

The Overland Trail (S9)

--By 1860, 300,000 Easterners had embarked on the overland trail to California and Oregon in the iconic Conestoga wagons. Individuals on the overland trail almost always traveled in groups, so they would have protection from Indian attacks, so they could pool their resources, and so they could hire a guide. These overland trail groups elected leaders and drew up constitutions, so the trips were controlled and planned. The groups traveled fifteen miles a day and they moved along the Platte River; they diverged in Wyoming to go to either California or Oregon. They faced many hazards on the trail such as Indian attack, disease, starvation, and lack of water. The tragic story of the Donner Party, who turned to cannibalism in the Sierra Nevada, serves as an example of how dangerous the trail could be if one got lost and hit with inclement weather. Although Hollywood has popularized the image of settlers circling their wagons and firing behind them at marauding savages, Indian attacks were mostly rare occurrences on the Overland Trail. Some Indians did steal guns or livestock from the settlers who were encroaching on their land, which sparked some hostility. But, Indians were actually more likely to aid the settlers than harm them by ferrying wagons, guiding lost parties, and sharing their food.

The Lone Star Republic (S10)

--In 1821, Mexico revolted and gained its independence from Spain. In the same year, the Spanish government granted Moses Austin (an American) 18,000 square miles within Texas. In Texas, Austin’s son established a community of cotton planters and slave owners. In 1830, the Mexican government acted to restrict American immigration, levy taxes, and outlaw slavery in Texas. The proscription against slavery especially rankled the Americans and the Tejanos (Hispanic farmers living in Texas), who depended on the institution. The American immigrants outnumbered the Tejano residents 6 to 1 and their institution of slavery, their Protestant religion, and their English language served to alienate the new American settlers from Mexican law and culture. In 1835, the Americans and the Tejanos banded together in order to demand their independence from Mexico. The Americans seized San Antonio, but the Mexican army under General Santa Ana counterattacked in 1836 and slaughtered the Americans trapped in the Alamo. Santa Ana’s army and the American army under Sam Houston clashed in the Battle of San Jacinto and Santa Ana was routed. On May 14, 1836, Santa Ana signed a treaty declaring Texas independent, which the Mexican government refused to recognize. The American government was wary about annexing Texas in 1836, because the state wanted to retain a slave status and its annexation would unbalance the ratio of slave to free states. Therefore, Texas remained a Lone Star State until it was annexed in 1845 under President Polk.

OregonFever (S11)

--In the early 1800s, the Americans and the British competed in the fur trade in the Oregon Country (includes Oregon and Washington state). In the early 1840s, there was “Oregon fever” with big wagon trains crossing the overland trail: American settlement in Oregon had reached 5,000 by 1845. American expansionists demanded the border between British Canada and the U.S. be at 54’40. If Britain dared to not accept these terms, then the expansionists pushed for war with England. In a treaty with the British (1846), the division between the U.S. and British Canada was set at the 49th parallel.

The Gold Rush (S12)

--From the very beginning, California was the origin of dreams of treasure. It was believed that the mythical El Dorado or Lake of Gold was located in California during the Spanish Era (1769-1821). Twenty-one missions were established in California under the Spanish. Gold was found in 1816 in the Spanish borderlands. In 1828, gold was found in Southwest Colorado, which drew thousands of people to Colorado. In the 1840s during the Mexican Era (1821-1848) of California, gold was found in Los Angeles, which really caused Gold Rush hysteria.

The Gold Rush Continued (S13)

--Why did the Gold Rush occur in 1848-1849 instead of earlier? Technology, the telegraph, and transportation had to improve first and the Spanish Crown had mineral rights in California before. When California became a United States territory in 1848, however, the timing was just right.

--In 1848, James Wilson Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill and the word quickly spread. Once gold was discovered, people quit their jobs and ran for California in order to make a new start. In 1848, there were 15,000 people in California. In 1851, there were 250,000 people in California.

--The California mining communities were composed mostly of men. Because of this, men would often have to take on domestic roles such as cooking and cleaning within the mining camps. The Gold Rush was also a global and multi-ethnic phenomenon: there were Native American, Australian, South African, Mexican, German, French, Russian, and Chinese miners. As a result, gender and racial classifications were blurred in the mining communities. Banks and hotels sprang up to service the many different peoples. Mexican miners were the most experienced in mining technology. The mining technologies were dry washing (throw dirt up into the air), ditching, panning, damming, sluicing, and using sophisticated water systems. Racism and crime abounded in these unstable communities because there was so much multi-ethnic interaction and no police force.

The State of California (S14)

-- California entered the Union in 1850 as a free state because the California Constitution outlawed slavery. African slavery was illegal in California, but a de facto enslavement of Indians was endorsed in the California Constitution. The California Constitution, however, was more liberal toward women: women secured the right of property and they could petition for divorces. Moving to California offered women the chance to obviate gender restrictions and gain more independence, thus. Still, women made up only 10% of the Gold Rush population. Women, whether they were Mexican, Indian, or Anglo-American, worked as business owners, entrepreneurs, journalists, saloon shopkeepers, booksellers, cooks, and miners.

--The United States Government wanted California because it would give the U.S. better access to trade in Asia and it extended the U.S. territory to the Pacific Ocean, so the annexation of California completed the United States’ dreams of Manifest Destiny.

The Mexican-American War (S15)

--The Mexican-American War (1846-1848): In 1844, James K. Polk (a Jacksonian Democrat) was elected as president and immediately strong-armed the nation into war. He pushed for the annexation of the Oregon territory from Britain, which America obtained in 1845. During the same year, Polk sent a secret envoy named John Slidell to offer Mexico $30 million for New Mexico and California and to set the border between Mexico and the United States at the Rio Grande River. The Mexican government refused the offer, so Polk sent General Zachary Taylor to the Rio Grande. In 1846, American soldiers skirmished with Mexican soldiers along the Rio Grande, which gave Polk the excuse he needed to declare war on Mexico for the shedding of American blood on American soil. In 1846, John C. Fremont returned to California and the Americans in California declared their independence from Mexico in the Bear Flag Revolt. In 1847, American General Winfield Scott captured Mexico City, and in 1848 the United States and the Mexican government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. The Americans won the war, so they obtained the California and New Mexico territories and the desired Southern boundary of Texas at the Rio Grande. In return, the U.S. government paid Mexico $15 million.

Significance of the Mexican-American War (S16)

--There was an emerging anti-Mexican-American War press and the abolition movement strengthened in response to the war. In July of 1846, Henry David Thoreau was jailed for one night in Concord, Massachusetts for his refusal to pay his taxes, which was his response to the injustice of the Mexican-American War. The Northern worry was that the United States government would conquer Mexico and Central America, which then would become part of the slave south, making Southern representation stronger in Congress. The North was mostly anti-war, thus. Abraham Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer, was also a prominent opponent of the war and its intent to seize more territories for the spread of slavery. The Wilmot Proviso (1846): following approval of the Texas application for U.S. annexation (1845), the Wilmot proviso proposed that any territories won from Mexico, in the event of a successful war, would be free from slavery. It was passed in the House, but rejected by the Senate. John C. Calhoun argued that Congress had no constitutional power to limit the extent of slavery. Southerners became very defensive about their constitutional rights to expand slavery into the western territories. The Southerners claimed that under the Constitution, all occupants of the states have the right to take their property wherever they like, and slaves were property defended under the Constitution. This stance was called “state sovereignty.”

Significance of Mexican-American War Continued (S17)

--The military legacy of the Mexican-American War was that the officers, such as Scott, Taylor, Lee, Grant, and Longstreet, who would fight in the Civil War, fought in and received their training in the Mexican-American War. These men who would be on opposite sides in the Civil War had fought alongside each other in the Mexican-American War.