The American West: History & Settlement

Instructor: Bailey Cavender

Bailey teaches High School English, has taught history, and has a master's degree in Anthropology/Historical Archaeology.

The settlement of the American West began in the 1840s and ended in the early 1900s. Several factors influenced this settlement, including the use of the Oregon Trail and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.

The American West: History and Settlement

After the first European settlers arrived in the Americas, they began to move westward. In time, many would journey beyond the Mississippi River, encouraged by the promise of prosperity. From the mid-1800s to early 1900s, there were several waves of settlement in the American West. The first is the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, along with the concurrent use of the Oregon Trail .

The second was the call of Manifest Destiny , the idea that American westward expansion was an American right and something that was guaranteed to happen. While the settling of the American West began in earnest in the 1840s, the most famous period in the region's history, the Wild West, began in 1865 after the American Civil War (the war fought between the Northern and Southern United States between 1861 and 1865) and ended in 1895.

The Oregon Trail and the Railroads

The Oregon Trail was created by trappers in the early 1800s, but by the 1840s, it was being used to transport large groups of settlers across the country. The Oregon Trail later diverged, with another route leading to Santa Fe. Some historians estimate that between three hundred and four hundred thousand Americans used the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails between 1840 and 1868.

Wagon Train

Although it was popular, the Oregon Trail could be dangerous. Wagon Trains , or very large groups of wagons traveling together, could face a variety of issues. These included running out of food, having trouble crossing rivers, encountering bad weather, and illness. However, the Trail still remained in frequent use from the 1840s well into the 1860s. With the development of the railroads in the 1860s, however, people took advantage of the faster travel times.

In 1869, the first American Transcontinental Railroad was completed. This line linked the American West to the East Coast. Since the majority of finished goods and products on the East Coast, the people in the West had easier access to these products. Before the finishing of the transcontinental line, however, many smaller railway lines had already dotted across America. With the improving technologies and added safety features, railroads became the preferred method of transportation for many settlers heading west.

Gold Rush

In 1848, John Sutter arrived in California, ready to build a lumber empire. While building a sawmill, however, his team made an unexpected discovery. The river was not only a perfect place for their sawmill, it also contained gold. Sutter tried to keep this news quiet, but by 1849, the word had gotten out.


People began pouring into California to get rich, often traveling by boat or by covered wagon. These people were called the 49ers because they arrived in 1849. Unfortunately, many of the people who moved west during the gold rush did not strike it rich. Most often, it was the food and supply store owners who made the most money in gold camps. The California Gold Rush officially ended in 1855. While some returned to their homes on the East Coast, many stayed.

Manifest Destiny

Many people went west on the Oregon Trail because of Manifest Destiny. In 1845, a journalist named John O'Sullivan wrote about the manifest destiny of Americans. This was referring to the right that Americans had to move west and take the land. Not only was it something that they had the right to do, but it was also a right given to them by God. People latched on to the idea that there was a rich and fertile land they had a right to own. The idea of Manifest Destiny was not a new one. Whenever a country wishes to take over another, the conquest is often framed in a positive light for their own people.

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny was also helped by the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Preemptive Actof 1841. Both acts sold land on the Great Plains of the American West to settlers for an extremely reasonable price. The Homestead Act, in particular, said that settlers were able to own over one hundred acres for a small fee and a promise to live on the land for five years. This seemed very reasonable to many Americans, who longed for a better life for themselves and their families. This promise of land was very appealing, and people excitedly wrote to their friends and family about their new homes.

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