Top of page

Collection Meeting of Frontiers

American Acquisition and Migration

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

Map of Upper and Lower California Showing the Military Stations and distribution of Troops, 1847. LC Map Collections. The United States acquired California and other western territories as a result of the Mexican-American War.

Before the arrival of the railroads, new settlers made their way to the West in wagons or on foot along one of many immigrant trails. Those desiring to establish farms in the fertile river valleys of Oregon generally gathered in Independence, Missouri, before venturing forth in wagon trains across the expansive Great Plains and the formidable Rocky Mountains. What began as a trickle in 1841 increased to a flood by 1845, when an estimated three thousand migrants made their way across the continent to the destination by which the path of their journey became known. Parties who wished to settle in California departed from the Oregon Trail near Soda Springs, Idaho, and headed south across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Traffic on the California Trail increased significantly after the 1848 discovery of gold in California. Individuals interested in traveling from Missouri to areas in the Southwest generally followed the Santa Fe Trail. Developing into a major commercial artery by 1821, the Santa Fe Trail linked up with the historic Chihuahua Trail that ran south into Mexico.

Villa of Brule, 1891. LC Grabill Collection. Although the Sioux and Cheyenne won the Battle of the Little Bighorn, they ultimately lost the war for control of the Northern Plains.

Between 1803 and 1898, the United States more than tripled its geographical size. Through purchase, compromise, and conflict, it became a continental nation with several noncontiguous possessions. This period of remarkable territorial expansion began with the unexpected opportunity to purchase all of Louisiana from France on April 30, 1803 for the bargain price of $15,000,000. Approximately 828,000 square miles (2,144,520 square km), the acquisition cost less than three cents per acre. The experience of conquering, exploring, and settling the vast territory gave birth to a spirit of "Manifest Destiny" among European Americans, who increasingly believed that it was their providential mission to expand across the continent. To this end, on December 29, 1845 the United States annexed Texas, which had declared its independence from Mexico in 1836. This action and a subsequent dispute over the southern border of Texas precipitated a two-year war between the United States and Mexico that ended with an American victory in 1848. The resulting peace treaty gave the United States control of vast new territory extending to the Pacific Ocean. At the same time that the United States was debating with Mexico over the southern border of Texas, it was also arguing with England about the northern border of Oregon. Since the beginning of the century the two countries had challenged the validity of each other's territorial claims. In 1846, however, they finally reached a compromise and established the border at the 49th parallel. Acquired from Mexico primarily for the purpose of building a railroad, the 1853 Gadsden Purchase added another 30,000 square miles (78,000 square km) to the now enormous nation. This would be the last contiguous expansion, as the United States had finally extended itself from ocean to ocean. In the future, it would have to look elsewhere for new territorial acquisitions. And it found them in Alaska and Hawaii, which it purchased and annexed in 1867 and 1898, respectively.

Resettlement Manuals

The Pacific Northwest: Facts relating to the history, topography, climate, soil, and agriculture . . . etc., of Oregon and Washington Territory . . ., 1882. LC General Collections. "As soon as seekers after homes begin to understand that the richest prizes of this fruitful country await the first comers, the tide of immigration will set in and swell to vast proportions."

In the United States, federal and state governments joined local boosters and transportation companies in a concerted effort to maximize the flow of settlers and capital investment to the underdeveloped hinterlands. To this end, they published an abundance of promotional literature. Books, brochures, and advertisements all heralded the opportunities that supposedly awaited prospective settlers and investors. Relocating to the West, this literature promised, would most certainly increase one's wealth, health, and happiness.