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Theme: An Industrious People: American Economic History
"Westward Ho!" Westward Migration in the 1840s and '50s:
Who, Where, Why, How?

Date: April 2006
Scholar: Beth LaDow, Ph.D. Independent Scholar

Overview | Required Reading | Reading Questions

Materials selected and syllabus compiled by Beth LaDow, Ph.D. Independent Scholar


The 1840s and '50s were a time of extraordinarily rapid change in the United States -- including a transportation and technological revolution, territorial expansion, and the beginnings of a large-scale westward movement of Americans into the western half of the continent. Using the arguments of various historians and an array of primary documents, we will dissect this westward movement and examine its parts:

- Destinations on the rapidly changing political map of the "West" (west of where?);
- The movement west as a reaction to, or a part of, a shift away from local subsistence toward an expanding market economy;
- The idea of "Manifest Destiny" as political propaganda and myth;
- The many routes to the West on land and sea;
- Who came to the West and why, including which native peoples;
- Who was already there;
- and the varieties of contact among an astounding variety of peoples and cultures.

We will greatly expand on the stock images of optimistic white people headed into the great unknown in covered wagons. How did the government aid westward expansion? How did the movement to the West of the 1840s and '50s -- of native peoples, Asians, neo-Europeans -- ease or exacerbate the tensions and pressures they felt? How were the people already in the West affected? In thinking about how to teach students, we will try to connecct the details and ambiguities of diaries, songs, images, and written records with these big themes and questions.

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Your course materials are grouped into five sections:

I. Where and what is "west"?

1. Land ordinance of 1785.
2. Six maps -- territorial expansion I and II, federal wagon roads, overland trails, Mormon lands, and international routes to California.
3. Frederick Jackson Turner and the New Western Historians.

II. Native westering -- how, why and which native peoples moved west.

4. Excerpt, Richard White, "The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the 18th and 19th Centuries" Journal of American History, Vol. 65, No. 2 (Sept. 1978)" 319-343
5. Dan Flores, "Bison Ecoloy and Bison Diplomacy on the Southern Plains," Journal of American History 78.2 (1991): 465 - 85

III. The "market revolution" and the myth of "Manifest Destiny" -- what did "going west" mean in the shifting economic, political and social climate of early 19th century America?

6. Melvyn Stokes, introduction to The Market Revolution in America (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996)
7. Thomas R. Heitala, "The Myths of Manifest Destiny" (1985).

IV. Westward movement and the complex contact of and between peoples.

8. Excerpt, Bernard DeVoto, The Year of Decision 1846 (1942).
9. Tables -- emigrants and Indians killed on the Overland Trail.
10. Senator John C. Calhoun (South Carolina) and Senator John A. Dix (New York) argue in Congressional debates in 1848 on acquiring Mexico and Mexicans.
11. Excerpt, James F. Brooks, Cousins and Captives (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), slavery and conflict in the southwest borderlands of the 1840s
12. Excerpt, Francis Parkman, The Oregon Trail (1847).
13. Excerpt, Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, Life Among the Paiutes (1883).
14. Excerpt, Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country (University of Nebraska Press, 1942).
15. Excerpt, diary of Patty Sessions, pioneer Mormon, 1847, from Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849 (1983).

To further explore on your own, see also:
http://memory.loc/gov/ammem/award99/upbhtml/caption.html, "Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters 1846-1869," on the Library of Congress American Memory website, for the Mormon "emigrant's guide" in facsimile and other interesting stories.

V. The Gold Rush

16. J.S. Holliday, introduction to The California Gold Rush: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets Covering the Years 1848-1853 by Gary F. Kurutz (San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1997).
17. Advertisement for the ship Sweden from Boston to San Francisco, 1849
18. Letters from Sabrina Swain to William Swain, 1849-50, from The World Rushed In: An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West, J.S. Holliday (New York: Touchstone, 1981).
19. Excerpt, Sucheng Chan, "The Economic Life of the Chinese in California, 1850-1920," (1988).
20. Images of Chinese in California c. 1850 and excerpt of Charles Bate's diary on Chinese in San Francisco, c. 1870s
21. Songs from The Gold Rush Song Book (1940).

To further explore, see: "Maritime Perspective on American Expansion 1820 - 1890" and "The Chinese in California," both of which are on the Library of Congress American Memory website.


--none suggested-

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1. Where do you stand to tell the story of westward expansion? In Massachusetts, Missouri, California, on the plains with the Sioux or Pawnee? On the Truckee with the Paiutes? Along the new or old Mexican borderland? How does the story look from each place? Is there "one" story -- a narrative? Is it properly described as a "westward movement"? It is a "frontier" or a "place?"

2. Think about how dry the West is and about the grasslands and deserts at its center. Consider how this geography affected the history of the West.

3. Think about how these source materials challenge what students and most Americans know or assume about the westward movement of the 1840s and '50s. Think particularly about the contrast between the standard simple imagery -- "Manifest Destiny," the "covered wagons going west," and the "rugged individual" of the movie Westerns -- and the enormous variety of people, movies, cultures, conflicts, and failures in what we see and read here. How much of that complexity is appropriate at the different grade levels?

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