Westward expansion and the Wild West

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Course: The United States of America: History and Political System
Book: Westward expansion and the Wild West
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Date: Tuesday, 23 April 2024, 7:34 PM



Territorial expansion

In the beginning of the 19 century, America enjoyed a period of rapid economic and territorial expansion. During this period, the United States expanded westwards and the colonization of the whole continent was completed. The frontier of settlement was pushed west to the Mississippi River and beyond.

The huge Louisiana territory, stretching from the Middle West to the Gulf of Mexico, was bought from France for $15 million. Florida was purchased by force of arms from Spain for $5 million. Meanwhile, thousands of Americans were settling in Texas then a part of Mexico. However, the Texans found Mexican rule increasingly oppressive, and in 1835 they rebelled and defeated the Mexican army. In 1845, the United States annexed Texas. As a result, Mexico suspended all diplomatic relations. In May 1846, Congress declared war on Mexico. In this war the Americans conquered over a half of Mexico's territory (the present states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado). Thus, America became a truly continental power and by the middle of the 19th century this country had reached almost its present dimensions.

In 1862 the Homestead Act was adopted to make lands opening up in the west available to a wide variety of settlers. It made the process of formal land acquisition easier and it lowered the land price for squatters who had occupied the land for minimum of 14 months. The famous Pony Express, a system of horses and riders, was set up in the mid 1800s to deliver mail and packages to the distant areas. It employed 80 deliverymen and between four and five hundred horses, that were changed in the horse-changing stations. However, the First Transcontinental Telegraph linked Omaha, Nebraska and San Francisco in 1861 and the Pony Express ended soon after because it could not compete with the telegraph.

The new territories were commonly reached on foot or by horseback. The Oregon Trail is a reference to the path stretching 2000 miles across the United States and used by people, inspired by dreams of rich farmlands, travelling from Missouri to Oregon. The Oregon Trail was laid down by traders and fur trappers and by the year 1836 the first of the migrant train of wagons was put together. The journey took approximately half of the year and the trail was used by an estimated 350 000 settlers from the 1830s through 1869. After the first railroad was completed, use of the trail quickly declined.

The great improvement in transportation facilities was an important stimulus to western prosperity. In this period a national network of roads and canals was built, and the first steam railroad was opened in Baltimore, Maryland. From 1850 to 1857 the Appalachian Mountain barrier was pierced by five railway trunk lines. In those days, the Industrial Revolution had reached America. By the 1850s, factories had been producing rubber goods, shoes, sewing machines, clothes, guns and farm implements.

Donner Party: Did They or Didn’t They?

by Gabrielle Burton, The Huffington Post, 17 June 2010

 Human flesh on the menu for the Donner Party or not? That burning question is back in the news again.

Americans have a hard time remembering last week’s crook or celebrity, but we seem to have lasting fascination with the ill-fated pioneer party from 164 years ago. Well, at least the cannibal part. It’s one of our shared cultural memories, a source of bad macabre jokes, that the Donner Party of 1846, trapped by early snows in the Sierra Nevadas for four months, turned to cannibalism to survive.

But did they?

News reports of a study by a team of biological anthropologists at Appalachian State University are creating a stir. Analyses of bone remains found at the Alder Creek Donner campsite in 2003-2004 digs show no evidence of cannibalism. In 2006, a preliminary report of this same study created a similar stir.

Because I’ve published two books on the Donner Party in the last year (a memoir,Searching for Tamsen Donner, and a novel in Tamsen Donner’s voice, Impatient with Desire), I’ve been deluged with email links to newspaper, TV, and online accounts of the “new finding.” Most are variations of:

New study says Donner Party didn’t eat each other!


It says that, by using modern technological methods, researchers have identified bone fragments of cattle, horse, deer, and dog, but no human bone

fragments. They’re not saying cannibalism didn’t happen there, they’re saying they haven’t found any PHYSICAL evidence of cannibalism, they haven’t found evidence so far that confirms cannibalism.

Maybe they won’t ever find physical evidence at Alder Creek where Tamsen and George Donner were, but certainly cannibalism occurred at one, two, or three of the campsites and in the open mountains on escape and rescue attempts. Credible rescuers wrote about and testified to seeing evidence at the camps; members of the party wrote and spoke about it at the time and later. We may never get archeological evidence but there’s plenty of historical evidence.

At the end of February, 1847, trapped nearly four months, Patrick Breen wrote in his diary:

Mrs. Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would commence on Milt & eat him. I don’t think she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnos {Donners} told the California folks (the 1st rescue, a group too small to take everyone out) that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time.

I’ve always felt that people make too much of the cannibalism, while simultaneously not really getting it. The idea of cannibalism may be so emotionally laden that people automatically layer their own fears and revulsion on it, but rationally, cannibalism was a terrible yet natural progression for members of the Donner Party in their determination to keep themselves and their families alive.

After 160 plus years, bone fragments of cattle and other animals were there to be found in the archeological digs because those bones had been cooked long periods of time to make them edible. The hard facts are that, after the Donners ate the cattle flesh, they scraped the hair off the hides, cut them into strips, and boiled them into a gluey pulp. Then they boiled and burned the bones, crumbling them into bits to eat. They ate mice, pet dogs, shoelaces... until there was nothing left but dead bodies.

Any cannibalism at the camps would have occurred at the very end of the pioneers’ entrapment, and would have lasted only a short period of time—until rescue or death, whichever came first. Because the period was short, the energy flagging, and the supply of dead humans plentiful, the even harder fact is that it’s highly unlikely that humans would have been processed the way the animals had been. Only the flesh would have been cooked, not the bones. Since uncooked bone disintegrates quickly in acidic soil, the absence of human bones may mean only that they weren’t there to be found in the digs.

Then why these headlines: Donners eat dog but not people...? Although the scientists aren’t claiming they’ve proven there was no cannibalism, reporters are writing on deadline with pressure to grab the attention of a media saturated public.

I have a soft spot for the reporters. A lot of scientific writing is tedious and boring—it’s that precision thing. In my early years married to a research scientist, I tried in vain to perk up his papers by eliminating all his pesky qualifiers—maybe, perhaps, theoretically... Not only was I unable to convince him to streamline his writing; somehow, slowly, sneakily, he taught me an appreciation of the precision science requires in its methods and language.

But none of this IS THE ISSUE. For people nearly unshockable, we’re a bit obsessed by cannibalism. It’s practically a shivery parlor game: Would YOU eat human flesh? Grossssssss.

Here’s the real issue and it’s dramatic and shivery enough. The story of the Donner Party is a HUMAN story of people who suffered greatly and tried mightily to survive. A story of people for whom the American dream—heading west for a better life—turned nightmare. A story of people who paid part of the heavy price to open up this country.

Of the 81 pioneers trapped in the mountains, a little over half survived. Even if it were provable that no one ever turned to cannibalism, why do people today care so much whether they did or didn’t? If they didn’t cannibalize, would that make them better people? Or just fewer survivors?

Source: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gabrielle-

Wild West

The first great wave of immigration from Asia was brought by the building of Transcontinental Railroad and also by California Gold Rush. California Gold Rush started after James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848 in the American River at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Not long after, gold was discovered in the Feather and Trinity Rivers, also located northeast of Sacramento. The first people to rush the gold fields were those already living in California, but as word slowly got out, people from other parts of the United States as well as from foreign countries (Mexico, Chile, Peru, Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, China and other parts of Asia, and some from Europe, mainly France) arrived. It is estimated that by 1855 some 300,000 people had streamed into California hoping to strike it rich. The port town of San Francisco went from a population of about 1,000 in 1848 to become the eighth largest city in the U.S. in 1890, with a population of almost 300,000. Several decades later, a similar gold rush broke out in the Klondike region. The Klondike Gold Rush consisted of the arrival of prospectors to the Klondike region of Canada as well as Alaska. Over 100 000 people set out on the year long journey to Klondike, with less than one third ever finishing it. Only a small percentage of the prospectors found gold and the rush was soon over.

Popular attention is focused on the Western United States in the second half of the 19th century, a period commonly called the Old West, or the Wild West. A more complex term, however, is the American Frontier covering the geography, history, folklore, and cultural expression of life of American expansion since first English colonial settlements untill admission of the last mainland territories as states in 1912. The term Wild West frequently exaggerates the romance and violence of the period and is easily associated with Indian wars, cowboys, wagon trains, saloons and banditry.