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“Westward Ho”: Westward Migration in the 1840s and 50s: Who, Where, Why, How?
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Theme: An Industrious People: American Economic History
Topic: “Westward Ho”: Westward Migration in the 1840s and '50s: Who, Where, Why, How?
Date: April 2006

Annotated Bibliography
| Mapping the West | The West as Place or Process | Native Westering | Market Revolution/Manifest Destiny | Contact of Peoples | Gold Rush

Websites and Web Resources |
Related Archives and Collections | Other

Resources and Links compiled and annotated by Beth LaDow, Ph.D., Independent Scholar and SALEM in History staff

Annotated Bibliography
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Secondary Sources


This bibliography is meant to balance secondary and primary sources. The two types of secondary sources are those that provide analytical context, and those that synthesize analysis and fine research with vivid narrative style. The different types of primary sources include music, graphic materials, and the written word.  While I believe that teachers should use primary sources in classroom instruction whenever possible, I have included an equal number of secondary sources in order to prepare teachers to find and use primary sources well.

Mapping the West

Beck, Warren A. and Haase, Ynez D.  Historical Atlas of the American West.  Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

A collection of 78 maps on the region west of the 100th meridian that illustrate not only the salient topics for teaching, but also includes with each map an excellent interpretive essay, making the book a first-rate teaching tool.  Missing are more maps on the management and distribution of water in the West, and on native peoples, the latter addressed by the Carl Waldman book.

Commager, Henry Steele, and Cantor, Milton, eds.  Documents of American History, Vol. 1 to 1898.  10th edition.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988.

An indispensable collection of official political, legal, and legislative primary source documents that fundamentally shaped the course of American history, beginning with early European explorers.

Waldman, Carl. Atlas of the North American Indian.  New York: Facts On File Publications, 1985. 

Ninety-six maps that chart pre- and post-contact experience for the native peoples of North America. Interpretive text goes well beyond the a-historical anthropological approach of earlier scholarship to portray historical change without being polemical.  Supplemented by excellent appendices of tribal names and tribes’ historical and contemporary locations, Indian place names, and a chronology of North American Indian history.

The West as Place or Process

Cronon, William.  “Revisiting the Vanishing Frontier: The Legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner.”  Western Historical Quarterly.  Vol. 18. April 1987, 157-176. 

Cronon was o ne of the so-called “New Western Historians” of the 1980s—along with Patty Limerick, Richard White, and Donald Worster. Cronon argues that the ideas of regional environments, ordinary people, and the search for abundant resources in Turner’s frontier thesis will continue to be strands in the central narrative of American history.

LaDow, Beth.  The Medicine Line: Life and Death on a North American Borderland.  New York: Routledge, 2001.

On a U.S. - Canada borderland, LaDow examines the “frontier” process of westward movement, colliding cultures, and the settlement of a harsh environment amidst false hope and popular mythologies. She argues that the physical environment of the arid West trumped Turner’s nationalist explanation of American history that distinguished it from a Canadian or a larger North American story.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson.  The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1987.

A path-breaking, often wryly humorous, synthetic work that summarizes and became a sort of “Bible” for the so-called “New Western History” of the 1980s and ‘90s. This history emphasizes a complex story of conflicting groups and neo-European conquest rather than the old triumphalist narrative of American national expansion.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. “What on Earth is the New Western History?”  from Trails: Toward a New Western History.  Ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick, Charles Rankin, and Clyde A. Milner II.  Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991. 

An essay written as a response to an “old guard” who found "New Western History" unduly negative. Limerick describes the West as both a place and a process, defined by the convergence of diverse people and their encounters with the natural environment of the West. Her stance was sufficiently broad and conciliatory so that it was hard to argue with  -- and, ultimately, made it hard to see the differences between “old” and “new” Western history as all that radical.

Milner, Clyde A. II, Anne M. Butler and David Rich Lewis, eds.  Major Problems in the History of the American West.  2nd ed.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1997. 

The best overview collection of primary source documents and interpretive essays on the American West, in which all of the sources in this section except one are excerpted.  The book includes some photographs, although the Library of Congress website is an infinitely better source for them.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” 1894.

This essay, given as an initially uneventful talk at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, is the single most influential argument and conceptual framework in the historiography of the West, and articulates one of the most central strands of American national mythology.  Criticized by later historians as Euro-centric, Turner couples the notion of a wilderness-to-civilization land-based frontier with American national character.  Not knowing this essay is like never having heard the Beatles.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. “The Problem of the West.” The Atlantic Monthly, 77, September, 1896.

Turner follows his “frontier” argument with further description of the West as a form of society rather than a place, distinguishing American history and character from those of Europe.

Webb, Walter Prescott.  The Great Plains.  New York: 1931. 

A classic work of Western American history by a University of Texas historian. In contrast to Turner’s emphasis on “process,” Webb puts geography and the physical environment at the center of his analysis of the American West, and aridity as its defining characteristic.

Worster, Donald.  “New West, True West: Interpreting the Region’s History.”  Western Historical Quarterly.  Vol. 18.  April 1987, 141-156. 

Worster, an eloquent and penetrating environmental historian, takes Webb one step further. He argues that the environment is what defines the West, a geographically mapable place marked by scarcity and aridity, and the human struggle to survive in it.

Native Westering

Flores, Dan.  “Bison Ecology and Bison Diplomacy on the Southern Plains: The Southern Plains from 1800 to 1850.”  Journal of American History.  Vol. 78.  September 1991, 465-485.

In one of those useful essays that takes on a universal yet little examined assumption in one of our common historical stories, Flores re-examines how the West’s vast herds of buffalo were nearly exterminated—not just by ravaging whites, but also by the short-lived and ecologically unstable buffalo-hunting culture of the Plains Indians.

White, Richard.  “The Winning of the West: the Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries.”  The Journal of American History.  Vol. 65, no. 2.  September,1978, 319-343.

One of the most frequently cited articles on Native American history by one of the West’s preeminent historians. White innovatively uses primary sources to reveal, in the 19th century westward movement of the Sioux, a (still) seldom-told story of conflict between native groups that sometimes trumped the conflicts between whites and natives, and certainly affected those conflicts in profound ways.  After you read this, you can no longer think of the West as a simple “whites versus Indians” place.

The National “Market Revolution” and “Manifest Destiny”

Calhoun, John C.  The Congressional Globe.  30th Congress, 1st session.  January 4, 1848, 98-99, 136-137. 

Calhoun, a Senator from South Carolina and an advocate of slavery, argues that, at the close of the Mexican War, Mexicans were too inferior to include as part of the United States.

Dix, John A.  The Congressional Globe.  30th Congress, 1st session.  January 26, 1848, 181-182.

Senator Dix of New York argues for the inevitable expansion of the United States and the annexation of Mexico, despite the inferiority of Mexicans.  Both Calhoun and Dix illustrate the deep early nineteenth century arguments over race and national identity that westward expansion exacerbated.

Hietala, Thomas R.  Manifest Destiny: Anxious Aggrandizement in Late Jacksonian America.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. 

In this well-researched secondary source study of attitudes toward territorial expansion during the presidencies of Tyler and Polk, Hietala’s last chapter on the “myths of manifest destiny” analyzes the original Jacksonian Democrat notion of manifest destiny and the subsequent glosses throughout American history of its racism and arrogance, much like the New Western Historians’ critique of Turner for ignoring issues of race and clashing cultures.

Stokes, Melvyn and Stephen Conway, eds.  The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious Expressions, 1800-1880.  Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.

A book-length response to Charles Sellers’s seminal 1991 work Market Revolution, this collection of scholarly essays covers the most recent debates on an important question concerning the men and women who participated in the westward movement: “when did America make the transition to capitalism?”  Sellers and these authors tend to agree that the events from 1814 to 1846 placed a capitalist market economy at the center of American life, but not with the uncontested and comfortable inevitability that earlier so-called “consensus” historians claimed, and not during the American Revolution as the earlier “Progressive” historians argued.

Contact of Peoples in the West

Brogan, Martha L. “Family Values: Lessons in Material Culture.” Common-Place 2005 5(3). [online at]

In this piece, an amateur historian describes finding a collection of family photographs and letters and, through them, learning about pioneer settlers in Indiana in the mid-19th century.

DeVoto, Bernard.  The Year of Decision 1846.  Boston: Little Brown, 1943.

A classic and beautifully written narrative of the American West, well researched and driven by DeVoto’s powerfully synthetic and analytical mind.  The book, one in a trilogy, reflects not so much the influence of World War II but the national feeling that World War II was to confirm – the sense of union and an “American people.” This is an interesting contrast to more recent scholarship, especially that of the “New Western Historians” cited above, who tend to be more uniformly critical of the United States.  Although he is somewhat anachronistic, everyone should read DeVoto for the sheer pleasure of his incomparably bracing language, startling powers of description, and slightly irascible passionate judgments of everything he encounters.  He makes you love history and feel as if you have lived it.

Brooks, James F.  Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

A recent book that won every possible scholarly award because of its innovative and ground-breaking research into a “second” and little-known kind of North American slavery – slavery in the native and eventually Spanish southwest – that destroys our simple assumptions of neo-European invaders as the unilateral oppressors of native peoples.

Holmes, Kenneth L.  Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails 1840-1849, Vol. 1.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press: 1983, reprinted 1995.

A representative collection of previously unpublished or obscure women’s overland diaries and letters, transcribed with spelling and grammatical errors intact. These cover a number of routes West, the Mormon exodus, and include letters from women's rights advocates.   Excellent introductions to each entry and explanatory footnotes are helpfully provided.

Hopkins, Sarah Winnemucca.  Life Among the Paiutes  -- Their Wrongs and Claims.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1883.  Reprinted, Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1994.

The author’s descriptions of her people’s first contact with whites, which occurred during her childhood in the 1840s, is one of the most vivid and moving of such first-hand accounts.  Hopkins became a well-known lecturer and Indian advocate, though she was not always popular among Indians because of her accommodationist stance.  I have read the “buried alive” passages to fifth graders with great effect.

Parkman, Francis.  The Oregon Trail.  1847. 

An eyewitness account of a 1,700-mile journey across the continent by the great narrative historian of nineteenth-century America—think Jon Krakauer as a Boston Brahmin with deep empathic powers and a brilliant narrative style. While words like “savages” betray the assumptions of Parkman’s time, Parkman approaches the West as a place of diverse and interacting cultures and gives Indians considerable variety and stature as agents of change.

Stegner, Wallace.  Mormon Country.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1942. Reprinted 1981.

A sociological portrait of the Mormons centered on their notion of community, both economic and spiritual, which, one could argue, was their response to the upheavals created in the booming market economy of the 1830s and 40s. The book is by one of the great Western writers and American novelists. and although far from the last scholarly word on Mormons, it is a vivid window into their world, along with Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail.

Stott, Annette. “Prairie Madonnas and Pioneer Women: Images of Emigrant Women in the Art of the Old West.” Prospects 1996 21: 299-325.

“Artistic portrayals of pioneer women of the American West first promoted western expansion and later celebrated the conquest of the West by whites and Anglo-European cultural values. During the period of westward movement, 1840-90, women appeared in depictions of the pioneer family as a Madonna, a repository of Christian virtue and innocence. After 1890, female figures appeared as defiant, active, and sturdy pioneers. The change resulted from a shift in patronage and audience from eastern males to western men and women, a shift in the process of settlement from risk-filled pioneering to community establishment, and a change in the dominant image of women from the cult of true womanhood to the New Woman.” – American History & Life

The California Gold Rush

Black, Eleanora, and Robertson, Sidney, compilers.  The Gold Rush Song Book: Comprising a Group of Twenty-Five Authentic Ballads as They Were Sung by the Men Who Dug for Gold in California During the Period of the Great Gold Rush of 1849.  San Francisco: The Colt Press, 1940.

The best collection of authentic Gold Rush songs I have found.  If there is a better one, it is in California.

Brands, H.W.  The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream.   New York: Random House, 2002. 

A historian’s recent, lively, well-written narrative that follows various individuals as exemplars of social or racial groups that shaped, and were shaped by, the great rush.  While there is no path-breaking scholarly interpretation here, this is a well-researched and entertaining story of the gold rush.

Chan, Sucheng.  “The Economic Life of the Chinese in California, 1850-1920.”  Early Chinese Immigrant Societies: Case Studies from North America and British Southeast Asia.  Lee Lai To, ed. 1988. 

Chan’s summary of the economic forces that pushed and pulled Chinese immigrants to America beginning in the 1850s is clear, informative, comprehensive, and short.

Holliday, J.S.  The World Rushed In: An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

In the bewildering flood of often rudimentary gold rush diaries and first-person tales, this stands out as a masterfully edited primary-document account of the gold rush story of a New York school teacher and farmer, William Swain, one of the most engaging of gold rushers. Holliday weaves together Swain’s diary, several people’s letters, newspaper accounts, and a few other accounts, largely achieving what Holliday intended to be “an authentic, vicarious experience for the modern reader.”

Kurutz, Gary F.  The California Gold Rush: A Descriptive Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets Covering the Years 1848-1853.  San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1997.  Introduction by J.S. Holliday.

Holliday, perhaps the most knowledgeable scholar of the California gold rush, summarizes from a researcher’s point of view the breadth and depth of primary source materials from this self-conscious moment in American history. Kurutz offers a brief analysis of the relationship of the gold rush as mostly “not part of” the larger westward movement.  The bibliography itself is an invaluable summary of sources.

Levy, Joann.  They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush.  Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1990.

Though a secondary source, this is an excellent primary-source-filled tour of the variety of women’s gold rush experiences, with lengthy quotes from journals, diaries, letters, and newspapers about women in every walk of life, from nurses and midwives, to lawyers and photographers, to actresses, fortunetellers, and whores.

Schultz, Charles R. “Gold Rush Voyage of the Ship Sweden.” International Journal of Maritime History [Canada] 2003 15(1): 91-127.

“Between 1 December 1848 and 31 December 1849, over 750 vessels of every type sailed from the East and Gulf Coasts of the United States to California. The vessels carried gold seekers and freight… Little other than the departure and arrival dates is known about most vessels, but the voyage of the Sweden is well documented in five firsthand passenger accounts.” – American History & Life

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Websites and Web Resources
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

American Heritage Project
National Endowment for the Humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities American Heritage Project is an excellent shared database of finding aids describing and providing access to collections on American heritage and culture.

American Memory
Library of Congress

The American Memory website from the Library of Congress has several collections of primary sources relating to westward expansion. The collections are all searchable, and you can view digital scans or transcriptions of the sources. The collections include:

  • “Trails to Utah and the Pacific: Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869” ( which includes both diaries and letters written by Mormon pioneers, as well as maps and guides that were published for migrants.
  • “California as I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900” ( which includes text and illustrations of eyewitness accounts of the growth of California from the Gold Rush through 1900.
  • “The Chinese in California: 1850-1925” ( which includes photographs, letters, art, business documents and published material documenting 75 years of Chinese immigration to the west coast.
  • “Westward by Sea: Maritime Perspective on American Expansion, 1820-1890” ( which includes logbooks, diaries, business papers and maps that document the logistics of sea travel and the social life of sea voyages to California, Alaska, Hawaii, Texas and the Pacific Northwest.

Charles Bates Diary
California Historical Society

This circa 1870s diary addresses Chinese in San Francisco and illustrates common nineteenth-century attitudes toward the Chinese.  Original document is in the California Historical Society.

General Land Records Office
Bureau of Land Management

The Bureau of Land Management is part of the department within the federal government that manages all public land in the United States, mostly located in the western states. The General Land Records Office within the BLM maintains the historical records of the original deeds transferring ownership of federal land to individuals. These records are called Land Patents and date from between 1820 and 1908. On the BLM website, visitors can search for land patents by state and last name of the grantee, then view a digital version of the original patents. The land patents include the name of the grantee, the date the land was granted and a description of the land. Unfortunately, you need to know a name and a state in order to search. (Try searching for James Toney in Little Rock, Arkansas to see a land patent granted to one of our research assistant, Heather Cole's, ancestors.) The website also includes a Visitor’s Center and a FAQ that explains the type of land grants and how the land grant process worked in greater detail.

Gold Rush! California’s Untold Stories
Oakland Museum of California

For the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the California Gold Rush, the Oakland Museum of California put together a series of museum exhibits. Their website now has an online version of those exhibits, including photographs, documents, stories and historical context. The website also has related lesson plans for the 4th, 8th, and 11th grades.

Historical Photographs
Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

The Lee Library at BYU has digitized and put online the collections of five 19th century western photographers, including two landscape photographers and one who documented the Indian Wars. The photographs are searchable by keyword and can be viewed, enlarged and printed. Also included is information on the photographer and brief annotations on the photographs.

Lee Library also has an online collection of 19th century Utah newspapers: the Deseret News (1850-1898) and the Salt Lake Tribune (1871-1899). The newspapers are digitized and searchable on the Utah Digital Newspapers page:

Illustration of “Chinese life”
Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Dupont Street, San Francisco, c. 1850. Also see:, which depicts the bar of a gambling saloon circa 1850s showing people from various walks of life and origin, including Chinese. Both are from the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Map Collections
Library of Congress

Search within the “Discovery and Exploration” section for historic maps of specific states or, generally, the west. Maps are full color and can be downloaded and printed.

“Migration North to Alaska”
National Archives & Records Administration

This page of the NARA website has primary sources from the National Archives relating to the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1868 and the subsequent northern Gold Rush in the 1880s. Among the documents are photographs, naturalization records, and the check that was used to purchase Alaska.

Also of interest on the NARA website are documents and lesson activities relating to the “Sioux Treaty of 1868” ( Through this treaty the Sioux agreed to settle on a reservation in the Black Hills of Dakota, and the U.S. government agreed to leave them alone. This treaty was broken when gold was found in the Black Hills, and led to a land battle between the Sioux and the federal government that continues today.

Mormon Pioneer Trail
National Park Service

This website provides history and photographs on the westward migration of thousands of Mormons in the 1840s. It also includes contemporary photographs of historic sites along the trail, which goes through parts of Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah. Also see websites for the Oregon Trail ( and the Santa Fe Trail (

Online Archive of California
Bancroft Library

The Online Archive of California and the Bancroft Library on-line resource are gold mines of primary source documents on the Chinese in California.  There are 177 hits on the Chinese and westward expansion.

Pioneer Overland Trail Routes, 1847-1869
Marriott Library, University of Utah

This collection includes scans of the diaries of six westward pioneers and maps of their journeys. You can view either scans of the original diaries or transcriptions. Two of the writers were women.

The Oregon Trail

This website is based on the PBS documentary The Oregon Trail and includes historical information and a Teacher’s Guide for using the documentary in the classroom: Also see the website for the PBS documentary, The Gold Rush (


Treaties Between the United States and Native Americans
Avalon Project, Yale Law School

This page of the Avalon Project website has transcriptions of treaties between the federal government and Native American tribes from 1778-1868.

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Related Archives and Collections
Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

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Compiled and annotated by SALEM in History staff

Teachers Resources & Lesson Plans

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