Westward expansion and the Wild West

lecture

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.