Second Western Movement Essay

Figure 17.1 Widely held rhetoric of the nineteenth century suggested to Americans that it was their divine right and responsibility to settle the West with Protestant democratic values. / 12.2014 Professor of History Ventura College In the middle of the nineteenth century, farmers in the “Old West”—the land across the Allegheny Mountains in Pennsylvania— began to hear about the opportunities to be found in the “New West.” They had long believed that the land west of the Mississippi was a great desert, unfit for human habitation.Newspaper editor Horace Greely, who coined the phrase “Go west, young man,” encouraged Americans to fulfill this dream. But now, the federal government was encouraging them to join the migratory stream westward to this unknown land.

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While much of the basis for westward expansion was economic, there was also a more philosophical reason, which was bound up in the American belief that the country—and the “heathens” who populated it—was destined to come under the civilizing rule of Euro-American settlers and their superior technology, most notably railroads and the telegraph.

While the extent to which that belief was a heartfelt motivation held by most Americans, or simply a rationalization of the conquests that followed, remains debatable, the clashes—both physical and cultural—that followed this western migration left scars on the country that are still felt today.

We have had patriots to defend our homes, our liberties, but no aspirants to crowns or thrones; nor have the American people ever suffered themselves to be led on by wicked ambition to depopulate the land, to spread desolation far and wide, that a human being might be placed on a seat of supremacy. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? —John O’Sullivan, 1839 Think about how this quotation resonated with different groups of Americans at the time.

When looked at through today’s lens, the actions of the westward-moving settlers were fraught with brutality and racism.

Land developers, railroad magnates, and other investors capitalized on the notion to encourage westward settlement for their own financial benefit.

Soon thereafter, the federal government encouraged this inclination as a means to further develop the West during the Civil War, especially at its outset, when concerns over the possible expansion of slavery deeper into western territories was a legitimate fear.

Still, most Americans who went west needed some financial security at the outset of their journey; even with government aid, the truly poor could not make the trip.

The cost of moving an entire family westward, combined with the risks as well as the questionable chances of success, made the move prohibitive for most.

The Oregon Trail is the most famous of these western routes.

Two thousand miles long and barely passable on foot in the early nineteenth century, by the 1840s, wagon trains were a common sight.

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