Impact of Westward Expansion on Native American and the Birth of America

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Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Before 1942: The Pre-Columbian Era
  • 1492- 1607: First Interactions Between Native American and Europeans
  • 1607-1754: The Beginning of North American Colonization
  • 1754-1800: Impact of Westward Expansion
  • 1800-1848: The Beginning of the Expansionist Era
  • 1844-1877: The American Immigrants
  • 1865-1898: The Industrial Revolution Boosted the Expansionist Era
  • 1890-1945: The Two World Wars and the Great Depression
  • 1945-1980: The Prosperous Postwar Era
  • 1980-2010: With the 21st Century Comes Globalisation


The history of America is intertwined with a rich tapestry of expansion, interaction, and immigration. From the pre-Columbian era to the present day, the United States has witnessed remarkable transformations shaped by the movement of peoples, the clash of cultures, and the pursuit of new frontiers. This essay will explore key periods and themes in this multifaceted narrative, highlighting the diverse experiences and significant events that have shaped the nation's identity, such as the impact of Westward expansion on Native American.

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Before 1942: The Pre-Columbian Era

Before Columbus’ arrival, the pre-Columbian era, various tribes with very different cultures and lifestyles were spread throughout the country. In the Pacific Northwest, tribes, like the Chinook tribe, typically lived in permanent homes mostly made of wood and survived through hunting, foraging, and especially fishing. Tribes like the Iroquois, in the northeast, lived in permanent single-family shelters and survived through agriculture and local hunting. Much like the northeastern tribes, the southeastern tribes also lived in permanent single-family houses, surviving through hunting, gathering, and crop farming. However, Native Americans who lived in the region of the Great Plains normally lived in a nomadic lifestyle living tent made from animal skins and surviving on hunting bison. Other tribes, including the Pueblo people, in the southwest, had permanent shelters made out of clay and survived on dry farming and corn cultivation. Tribes in the far north region [present-day Alaska], were typically nomades surviving through hunting, gathering, whaling, and fishing.

1492- 1607: First Interactions Between Native American and Europeans

Columbus’ arrival in 1942 marked the beginning of the period in which Europeans and Native Americans interacted. Christopher Columbus (accidentally) arrived in the Caribbean islands that are now known as the Bahamas and Hispaniola (now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in the name of the Spanish King and Queen. He originally was trying to find a new route to India and the Spice Islands, hoping to trade with them and to bring back loads of silks and spices to Europe. After Columbus’ “discovered” the New World, explorers, soldiers, and settlers from several European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, France, England, and the Netherlands traveled to America wanting to collect their own valuable resources of the New World. This desire of precious native American resources, in combination of the desire for international power, and the desire to convert the native people to Christianity, started off the European exploration and colonization first in the Caribbean region, spreading in the early sixteenth century to parts of North and South America, and eventually a large number of regions in the western hemisphere. Especially the Spanish colonizers succeeded in building an empire by forming profitable and productive enterprises such as sugar harvesting and silver mining. As the cultivation of sugar needed large numbers of laborers to take care of the crop, colonists satisfied the need for labor by importing slaves from Africa.

1607-1754: The Beginning of North American Colonization

Until the English Defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Spain was the major colonial superpower in the Americas. Following the decline of Spain’s power, other European nations, mainly Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands, used the opportunity to do their own exploration and colonization in North America. The colonists of France and the Netherlands were essentially motivated by trading opportunities and consequently had rather more interactions with the Native Americans. France’s principal colonial positions were along the St. Lawrence River, including Quebèc City which was founded 1608. As mentioned their motivations were principally the search of trade alliances, the search for natural resources and the mission for religious converts. Similarly, the Dutch’s main motivation was the search of trade alliances, the opportunity for the slave trade, the creation of merchant centers, and the quest for a global power position in the west. One of their major colonial positions included New Amsterdam, which is now known as New York, founded in 1625. In 1606, the Atlantic seaboard was divided in two by King James I, giving the southern half to the Virginia Company and the northern half to the Plymouth Company. The English settlers often moved to the New World in families either seeking wealth or fleeing religious persecution. The first successful English settlement, Jamestown, was founded in 1607. Due to the excellent farmland for grain production, the Middle colonies were often called the “bread colonies”. Those colonies were very ethnically diverse having settlers who identified as Dutch, Swedish, English, Irish, Quakers, Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, protestant, and jews, making the region more tolerant of religious and cultural differences. Unlike the Middle-colonies, the southern colonies were mainly motivated by economic opportunities and vastly English. The southern colonies had rich and fertile soil, enabling the cultivation of cash crops, mostly grown by indentured servants and slaves. The first colonies on the east coast which were founded between 1620 and 1732 are now called the 13 pioneer colonies which eventually became the United States.

1754-1800: Impact of Westward Expansion

As France and England were disagreeing over the control of the Ohio River Valley, which would enable expansion of their settlements into the area, the westward English settlers in 1754 started feuding with the French fur traders, who were afraid that the English were trying to invade their territory, starting the French and Indian War. The English ultimately won the war, obtaining the control of Canada and the area east of the Mississippi Valley. This victory sparked hope to English colonists that they could use the aftermath of the French and Indian War victory and move westward. That hope was quickly destroyed though by the Pontiac’s Rebellion and the following Proclamation of 1763, stopping any westward expansion. When the Revolutionary War started 1775, colonists either as Loyalists or Patriots, and some refused to pick parties, like the Quakers and hoped the war would go away from itself. As it started to seem that the Patriots had a good chance of winning, many Loyalists moved up north to Canada, settling in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. During the Revolution, the American movement towards the western frontier made the relationship between the US and the Native Americans even more hostile. As the Native Americans weren’t protected by the British anymore, the Americans forced a westward migration, in particular towards the Northwest Territories, which became a territory 1787.

1800-1848: The Beginning of the Expansionist Era

In this time period, the United States gained immense territorial expansions and an extensive increase in power. Strict policies, such as the Monroe Doctrine, ended the European colonization and interference within the Americas. While the country also acquired its Western and Southwestern regions through both military conquests, for instance the acquisition of West Florida in 1810 and the Texas Annexation of 1845, and political purchases, like the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and managed to expand its northern border while also avoiding war with the British with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Many of these acquisitions were often very big and unknown, for instance, the Louisiana Purchase; a territory which was doubled the size of the United States itself. After the iconic duo, Lewis & Clark, went out on their expedition to explore the mysterious regions, set up trade relationships with natives near the Missouri River, and claim the Pacific Northwest & Oregon Country for the United States, they inspired hundreds of prosperity-seeking pioneers to as well explore the adventurous west, starting the migration which led to the basis for the creation of the Western and Midwestern United States and optimism towards the future of the United States. On the other hand, the westward expansion also led to the relocation and removal of Native American tribes, such as the Indian Removal Act of 1830, raising controversy of the moral of thousands of Native Americans being displaced to enable migration and greater land opportunities for white Americans.

1844-1877: The American Immigrants

Starting with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, more and more Americans migrated westward, settling new frontiers and establishing trading markets, farms and ranches, mines, and towns in areas that had previously been untouched [by Americans]. Beginning with President Thomas Jefferson’s instruction of the Lewis & Clark expedition to explore the Northwest territories, adventurers began to settle and document areas along the Oregon Trail [today’s Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, and Kansas]. Some of those explorers also moved southwards into California, when one lucky miner found gold in Californian Mountains in 1484. This led to an enormous boom of settlers moving to California in the Gold Rush looking for gold and prosperity. Most of those pioneers didn’t get rich from their diggings, but they built big urban centers like San Francisco. The Californian Gold Rush also attracted many immigrants - in particular from China, Mexico, France, Germany, Russia, and Ireland - who also wanted to try their luck at gold mining. Though the Gold Rush attracted many immigrants, it was not the main factor boosting immigration into the United States. Immigrants were typically poor, working-class families, who were looking for better lives and opportunities in America. As most immigrants came from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia the Northeast, in particular, received massive waves of immigrants, though some immigrants migrated to the West and Midwest as well. Most of these working-class immigrant families often experienced resistance and hostility from other working-class Americans afraid that the new immigrants would steal their jobs.

1865-1898: The Industrial Revolution Boosted the Expansionist Era

Before 1880, most immigrants arrived from northern and western Europe, but in the later part of the 19th century, the wave of immigrants was made up of Southern and Eastern Europeans, as well as Asians, who were attracted by the flourishing of the United States due to its industrial boom. The new immigrants had a far more different culture than the northern & western Europeans and white Americans forcing them to see much stronger discrimination than the immigrants before 1880. This was extensively shown in acts like the Chinese Exclusion Act, preventing Chinese workers from immigrating. Advancements in mass transportation, like the railroad lines, trolley cars, and the newly constructed subways, let middle-class families move to nicer neighborhoods, in suburbs outside of the city, and simply commute to work. This led to city populations being vastly made up of immigrants. Post-civil war racial tensions made the life of an African American living in the South extremely hard around 1879. Wanting to escape racial discrimination and white-supremacist hate crimes, black leaders promoted the idea of the Exoduster Migration: blacks moving westward hoping for opportunities to obtain their own land and becoming landowners. With the help of the Transcontinental Railroad construction, the Homestead act of 1862 and the Morrill Land Grant act of 1862, ranching and mining on the western frontiers were flourishing, growing industries, which drew many new settlers who were looking for employment. Settlers who couldn’t find any work often started to fill in the territory by homesteading. Because of the rapid population growth some regions experienced due to the transcontinental railroad, many new states could join the United States [including Nevada, Nebraska, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.] Although, the expansionist era was very advantageous for the United States, the Native Americans suffered a lot in this time. Even though pioneers saw tribes as sovereign nations, at first, that relationship broke over time leading the government forcing Native Americans onto reservations, generally with the most undesirable land in a tribe’s traditional area.

1890-1945: The Two World Wars and the Great Depression

Before World War I, the United States saw an influx of immigrants from several different countries, in particular from Southern and Easters European Countries such as Italy and Russia. Similar to the immigrants in the past, they too were often disliked and experienced discrimination and hostility. Especially after the victory of World War I and the rise of communism [following the Russian Revolution], the fear of Eastern and Southern European Immigrants - especially those who embraced communist or socialist beliefs - was intensified, making those immigrants even more unpopular. Following this inrush of undesired immigrants, Immigration Acts [including the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924] limited the annual number of immigrants from a given country, which effectively decreased the number of Southern and Eastern European Immigrants. Even though the frontier line had disappeared in the expansionist era, the American population went also changed in the early half of the 20th century. As World War I created more industrial jobs in the big cities, black Americans often engaged in the Great Migration, moving northwards in search of those jobs. During the Great Depression Americans - including white Americans - were forced to take any work they could have, meaning that they had to leave their rural and suburban areas to also move to the major cities. However, although black and white Americans lived in the same cities, neighborhoods often remained racially segregated. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, Japanese-Americans -even though most were native-born- were seen as potential threats to national security. Over 100’000 Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps against their will for the duration of the war.

1945-1980: The Prosperous Postwar Era

In the latter half of the 20th century, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 changed the policy to promote immigration from countries other than Europe, causing an increase in non-European immigrants, in particular, Hispanics and Asians. In the postwar era, American society became more affluent enabling mobility for many white Americans. Those white Americans often migrated to the suburbs and the sought-after “Sun-Belt” states. Yet, not all Americans were as equally affected by the wave of affluence and prosperity as white Americans. The labor demands of war industries prompted millions of Americans to move to the [Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf] coasts where most defense manufactories were placed. This led to overpopulation in many major cities and resulted in the “white flight” phenomena; a shift in economic and political power from the Northeast to the densely [white] populated South, as well as major big cities becoming mostly populated by minorities.

1980-2010: With the 21st Century Comes Globalisation

On the contrary of nationalism, in which a country’s interests are solely focused internally, globalism, which is significantly increased during the last decades of the 20th century, encourages interconnectivity of nations with economic agreements, immigration, and military mediation. Even though most immigrants came from Europe around 1890, the largest immigrant groups in the early 2100s include Hispanics and Asian settling in Southwestern regions such as California, Texas, and Florida. As automation took over America, many jobs in the North East and Midwest, also known as “Rust-belt” began to incline, causing many Americans migrating south and west seeking work opportunities in the technology industry. 

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