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The settling of the American West

“The settling of the American West,” according to an eminent contemporary historian, “has been perceived as a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures of rugged individuals pushing across the continent.

But in fact, the history of that region from 1850 to 1900 can be best understood as an economic and cultural conquest.”

Meditate on this assertion by comparing Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis to the lived experiences of Mormons, Mexican-Americans, and Native Americans in the West.

Do you agree more with Turner or the eminent historian? Why?

In 1892, the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the United States had expanded in its continental advance, not to control territory or resources but to establish and maintain democracy.

A century later, an eminent contemporary historian claimed that this statement constituted “a type of nationalistic self- congratulation” on the part of Turner and his compatriots.

The country may have expanded from territory to democracy, but it also transformed from bison herds to barbed wire.

The settling of the American West, asserts this historian, has been perceived as a series of quaint, violent, and romantic adventures of rugged individuals pushing across the continent.

But in fact, the history of that region from 1850 to 1900 can be best understood as an economic and cultural conquest.

Turner’s thesis, as presented in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most influential statements ever made about American history.

The thrusts of his argument are these: from the colonial era to 1890, the United States expanded along a single front; and during that time, there was a singular development—the expansion of democracy. Turner’s thesis and its implications were, to be sure, hotly debated.

For example, some historians challenged the idea that American democracy has always been of the grass-roots variety; others disputed the fact that it was ever a reality at all (Hine, 2017). The crucial portion of Turner’s essay is found in his statement that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development. . . . The existence of an area of free land explains American development.”

Whereas the nineteenth century might have provided a convenient organizing principle for historians of the West, it was not always so. In 1828, a prominent eastern politician named Daniel Webster spoke at an event marking the defeat of “the Indians” in Ohio—Native Americans, that is.

The host, John Mason Weems, asked Webster’s opinion on how long this “progress of civilization and virtue” would continue. Webster’s response was succinct and to the point: “In that progress, there is no place for a halt.”

In its wake, more than twenty-five years passed before the eastern frontier was even imagined. In its aftermath, historians in both the East and the West tended to think of American history in terms of legislative developments or economic phenomena.

Yet in the mid-nineteenth century, with the expansion of railroads across the continent, events on this front started to become quantifiable.

Throughout the 1850s, the United States experienced an economic boom, which led to a population boom, which in turn caused a political boom (Brands, 2020). As a result of these demographic changes, the government started to examine its policies toward Native Americans. Until that time, these policies had generally been described as benevolent.

But as easterners continued their westward migration and as they became aware of the extent of “the Indian problem”—the resistance and outright hostility that Indians were supposedly offering white settlers—a change in thinking was inevitable.

In other words, the government was forced to reexamine its policies toward Native Americans, which in turn led to the implementation of different policies.

In 1810, when settlers first began to arrive in what is now Missouri and Arkansas, there were about five hundred thousand Native Americans in the United States.

At that time, it was reasonable for the public to believe that these new arrivals would assimilate quickly into American society. Indeed, it seemed that the country was relatively unconcerned about assimilation since most of these natives were scattered over vast areas and lived without centralized leadership.

By 1860, however, they were widely imagined to be an insidious threat to democratic society—and they were suddenly lumped together as “Indians.” Their number had also increased to about eight hundred thousand.

The dramatic growth in their numbers was attributed largely to westward expansion. Their increased visibility seemed to be the result of firsthand experience. As more Americans chose to settle in the plains, they were bound to run into these natives, either in person or through some form of media reporting.

In 1851, President Millard Fillmore commissioned two reports on how these natives should be handled. The recommendations that grew out of the ensuing “Indian investigations” tended to support a policy that would allow white Americans to advance westward without undue interference.

And for the most part, these new settlers were not asking for much. In 1853, an English traveler noted that with regard to Native Americans: “they want no war; they are prepared for peace and industrious pursuits. . . . [and] their wish is to be let alone.”

The year 1855 marked a definite shift in American policy regarding indigenous people and their lands.

It was the year that President Franklin Pierce signed the Treaty with the Osage Indians, which resulted in their forced removal from the Missouri and Arkansas Territory and relocated them closer to Kansas in what is now Oklahoma. In 1856, the “Santa Fe Trail” was officially established. And by 1860, many new settlers had already taken up residence in what is now (Texas Boggs, 2020). By 1865, the long period of civil unrest known as the Civil War had come to an end. With the end of that war came a new chapter in American history.

As the United States continued eastward, it encountered some of the most formidable Native American forces in its history.

The infamous “Cheyenne Uprising” took place at this time: a bloody rebellion that occurred when Cheyenne warriors seized thousands of horses from white settlers on the plains. It was not the sort of event that helped convince the public that it could live peacefully with these natives.

In 1867, President Andrew Johnson made a significant error when he signed the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, which required that “all white persons” leave Indian Territory, which included what is today eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

While this treaty might have been viewed as a gesture of peace by Native Americans at the time, it was eventually viewed by white Americans as an affront to their authority.

Some twenty years later, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which officially approved Indian removal in its broadest sense: all tribes on reservations were now meant to be assimilated into the white community.

This act focused on extinguishing tribal relationships through the process of dividing communal land into individual allotments that would be given to individual tribal members.

Individual members who were deemed competent (i.e., those who spoke English, practiced a “white man’s” religion, and those who could support themselves) would be given full title to their allotments.



Hine R. V. (2017). American west : a new interpretive history. Yale University Press.

Brands H. W. (2020). Dreams of el dorado : a history of the american west (First trade paperback). Basic Books.

Boggs J. D. (2020). The american west on film. ABC-CLIO an imprint of ABC-CLIO LLC. Retrieved October 24 2022 from

Last Updated on April 25, 2023

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