Westward Expansion: How Does It Work

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Westward Expansion

During the mid-1800s, relocating to the west was a popular movement for American citizens. Many people migrated out west in hopes of a new, better life where they could cultivate their own land and live peacefully. Life on the frontier was trial and error, as there were many unexpected occasions that had to be dealt with. The challenges faced by western settlers are depicted throughout history in American literature. “The Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder significantly reflected the concepts of westward expansion through governmental encouragement, economic influence, and misled migration realities.

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American citizens were encouraged by the government to move west in order to help broaden and develop the nation. Westward expansion was influenced by the establishment of several new laws and land acts. These new changes included the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Manifest Destiny in 1845, and the Homestead Act of 1862. In chapter 18 of the first book, “Little House in the Big Woods”, Pa noticed “Indians are getting so thick around here that I can’t look up without seeing one!” (Porter). This book was based in Wisconsin in 1868, and refers to the amount of Indians in the west during the mid-late 19th century. After the government “removed” them out of the eastern states during the Indian Removal Act of 1830, many Indians were forced to migrate to western territory.

The Indian Removal Act was not the only governmental motion that influenced expansion in the west. In the 1840s, the term ‘Manifest Destiny’ expressed the idea that civilization was destined to spread across the entire country. Not too long after the Civil War, “the Ingalls family piled their few possessions into a covered wagon and started the trip into ‘Indian Territory’, to join the settlers pushing west in order to make manifest the destiny that America was determined to invent” (Churwell). Since expansion into the frontier was bound to happen, American settlers began to accept the idea and, with time, felt propelled to travel west. Settlers moved west in covered wagons, filled with their belongings. Many made the several-hundred mile transcontinental journey on foot, since their wagons were piled high with possessions. The United States wanted to beat Great Britain to settling on the west coast of North America, for it would increase the power of the country. Establishing a nation that stretched from coast to coast would be a great accomplishment, and the U.S. was determined to achieve its goal.

Subsequently, the Homestead Act of 1862 gave any adult citizen 160 acres of surveyed government land. The land was given to them for free, as long as they agreed to live on it for five consecutive years (Homestead). The movement provided opportunities for many people, and it “lured the Ingalls family in fall 1869 to Montgomery County, Kansas” (Kansas). In a way, it was used as bait for the national government to resurrect its economic funds. The act was passed during the Civil War and was created to help solve poverty and other discrepancies within the states. On the downside, however, many people could not afford to establish a farm on the land they were given, so the act was not as successful as planned.

Economic changes were another concept reflected through the “Little House on the Prairie” series. It impacted western expansion through the growing cotton industry, the hunt for gold and furs, and the transcontinental railroad. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1794 was a huge turning point in American history. Since it facilitated the production of harvesting cotton, there was more time and money to improve the cultivation of crops. Laura recalls from her childhood that “Aunt Ruby's dress was wine-colored calico,” which is a type of printed cotton fabric (Wilder). Many women wore dresses made of calico during this time period, including Laura, Mary, and Carry. Cotton was a popular material during the 1860s because it was inexpensive, comfortable, and fashionable. It was easy to acquire since production rates were considerably high due to an increase of slavery on large plantations in the south.

In the 1840s, the word spread that gold had been discovered in California. Many Americans and immigrants from other countries ventured to the west, hoping to find prosperity from gold and furs. As they migrated toward the Pacific coast in search of gold, “boomtowns” emerged, where gold miners could sell their discoveries. Gold was considered a very prized and important possession Laura referenced gold in everyday life, like after a dust storm when “The sunlight turned that huge dust-cloud to gold” (Smulders). Like other educated pioneers, she knew that gold was valuable and scarce.

When the transcontinental railroad was built, western communities had contact with the eastern cities and began to expand. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies joined together in Utah in 1862. Before building the railroad, it cost nearly $1,500 to travel across the country. After the railroad was completed, the price dropped to just $150. It became a lot less expensive and therefore easier to travel. It helped the United States become unified since goods, people, and information could be sent across the country. As the countries watched the growing success of this first major railroad, smaller railroads began to pop up across the nation. One of these smaller railroads was mapped to go through Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where Laura Ingalls lived for a period of her life. Although it would provide jobs and economic growth, the townspeople did not like the idea since it would disrupt their harmonious community. An episode of the “Little House on the Prairie” TV show was later made about this conflict.

When civilians imagined moving west, they expected it to be glorious and simple. They were unaware of the hardships they were about to face, including geographical issues and encountering different types of people. Those who Migrated hoped to find prosperity in the west, but it was not as easy as it seemed. Troubles sprouted up, including natural disasters, economic troubles, and problems amongst pioneer settlers. “The American government itself encouraged its citizens to move west, in large part by acquiring new territory from foreign powers”, but their was a mislead reality behind the scenes (Cummins).

Hardships like river crossings, wagon accidents, disease, fatigue, and bad weather were all troubles that western settlers faced when pursuing the unknown. Traveling 650 miles was not a reasonable undertake, and several geographical problems occurred such as droughts, cold winters, and dust storms. People were not prepared for these treacheries and had a hard time dealing with them. From one point of view, there was more to it than just room for expansion. There was quality about it as part of the persistent deep psychological drives of the westward movement (Meinig). A chunk of American men seemed to like the idea of starting a new life on the frontier with their families. They wanted to fend for themselves and to be away from the troubles of a growing society.

One huge problem on the trail was cholera, a deadly, mysterious disease for which there was no cure. At times, conditions were so bad that “often, an emigrant would go from healthy to dead in just a few hours” (Hardships). While sometimes people had formal burials, there were other times when bodies were left in beds on the side of the trail, later to be pulled apart and scattered about by wild animals. The effects of this were frightening and inhumane, and left the settlers skeptical of what their future may hold.

Conflicts also arose when Indians were encountered. Sometimes settlers and Native Americans peacefully co-inhabited the same land, while other times they did not. On the peaceful side, some American travelers like Laura Ingalls Wilder spend their time “Sympathizing with the Indians whom she, as a settler, had displaced” (good indian). Negative collaborations were not uncommon though, like killing, stealing, and raiding one another’s sites.

When Americans imagine the West and Great Plains, “a vague concoction of pioneers in covered wagons, hardworking, honest farmers, and, of course, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ comes to mind (Khomina). In 1937, at age 70, Laura Ingalls explained to a Chicago crowd her inspiration to write about her past:

I began to think what a wonderful childhood I had had. How I had seen the whole frontier, the woods, the Indian country of the great plains, the frontier towns, the building of rail-roads in wild, unsettled country, homesteading and farmers coming in to take possession. I realized that I had seen and lived it all—all the successive phases of the frontier, first the frontiersman, then the pioneer, then the farmers, and the towns. Then I understood that in my own life I represented a whole period of American History.... I wanted the children now to understand more about the beginnings of things, to know what is behind the things they see—what it is that made America as they know it. Then I thought of writing the story of my childhood in several volumes—an eight volume historical novel for children covering every aspect of the American frontier. (Smulders)

There have been great debates about the accuracy of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s accounts of the actual historical events depicted in her stories. Writing the books over 50 years later, it is probable that some of her information was twisted around a bit, but the main concepts are true. The Indian Removal Act, Manifest Destiny, Homestead Act, growth of the cotton industry, hunt for gold, railroad production, misled realities, cholera, and encountering the Indians were all true events in history. The 8 books written by this talented author help to explain important events that took place in America as settlers moved west. Changes in the government, economy, and American dreams were all components of westward expansion that were reflected in the Little House on the Prairie books. Literature has been a key source to understanding the past, and will continue to be as more changes are made in the future.

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