Westward U.S. Expansion (1820-1860)

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  • 0:01 Manifest Destiny
  • 0:54 Native American Displacement
  • 1:36 Settlers & Statehood
  • 2:36 Gold
  • 3:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain America's 19th century expansion into the West. It will define the concept of Manifest Destiny and highlight the displacement of Native Americans.

Manifest Destiny

In the year 1845, a journalist named John O'Sullivan coined the phrase Manifest Destiny. Little did he know it would have such sticking power. Generations later, Manifest Destiny is used to describe America's 19th century attitude toward expansion. From the East to the West, America felt its expansion across the continent was not only justifiable, it was destiny. With this in mind, let's build a timeline of this expansion from 1820 to 1860.

We'll start with the Erie Canal, which is located in the East. Opened in 1825, the canal connected the cities of the East to the West. With its completion, and the completion of many other smaller canals that followed, booming industrial towns, like New York City, had a much easier way to get their goods to the West.

Native American Displacement

Of course, there are many dark pages in the history of American expansion. For instance, we have the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Feeling that expansion was its right, the U.S. Congress forcibly moved all Native Americans living in the Southeast to west of the Mississippi River.

We also have the infamous 1838 Trail of Tears, in which the U.S. government forced the Cherokee nation to relocate from the East Coast to Oklahoma. Whether young or old, the Cherokees were forced to march, and many thousands died. Blind to this suffering, the powers of the U.S. saw it as a chance to capture more land.

Settlers & Statehood

With the way seeming clear to them, American settlers jumped on the Oregon Trail, a wagon route beginning in Missouri and ending in Oregon. Starting around 1840, hundreds of thousands of settlers took this dangerous route in search of new life in the West. Along the way many died, but many others fulfilled their own personal manifest destinies. This eventually led to the Oregon Treaty of 1846 in which the U.S. gained the Oregon Territory from England.

Falling in line with the dream of Manifest Destiny, Texas became a U.S. state in 1845. Of course, Mexico was none too happy about this. From 1846-1848, the Mexican-American War waged over the right to Texas. However, in the end the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave the U.S. not only Texas, but the massive area that would become parts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona and California.


Speaking of California, in 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. When word of this spread, thousands upon thousands came looking for gold. Known famously as the California Gold Rush, gold fever not only brought people, it altered the landscape of California. Cities sprung up complete with industry, restaurants, and saloon upon saloon for thirsty miners.

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