Westward Expansion

From Sea to Shining Sea

Westward Expansion and the Pioneers

by Gabriela Schneider

The United States has been growing ever since it began, from a narrow strip along the East Coast to a nation spanning the width of North America and beyond. Although a few colonists had begun to migrate west even before the American Revolution, expansion began in earnest after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Suddenly, the US gained a huge swath of territory, and took on the imperative of filling it. The drive to spread across the continent was expressed in the philosophy of Manifest Destiny: a belief that Americans were fated and obligated to bring their supposedly superior culture to the “dark” and “uncivilized” West. While the tragic flaws in this plan are clear in hindsight (the west was, of course, neither empty nor uncivilized, and the westward migration caused decades of violence against the Native American tribes), the basic concepts of going to the frontier, pushing boundaries, and spreading democracy are still powerful myths in contemporary American culture.

American Progress painted by John Gast (1872)

After the Louisiana Purchase, Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery travelled all the way to the Pacific Ocean, blazing a trail for the pioneers who would soon follow (the famous Oregon Trail largely followed Lewis and Clark’s route). Between the 1840s and the 1860s, hundreds of thousands of Americans traveled west in covered wagons pulled by teams of oxen. There were four main overland routes, all branching out from Independence, Missouri: the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, The Mormon Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail. They came seeking affordable farmland, religious freedom, and a way to strike it rich. In 1848, the discovery of gold in California triggered the largest wave of migration, although the earlier pioneers (including the doomed Donner party) had already made the trek a few years before that. The Homestead Act of 1862 brought another wave of settlers, many of whom were farmers; the new law allowed people to claim 160-acre plots of land at essentially no cost except for building a dwelling.

A map of the major pioneer trails across the American west.

A pioneer family in Nebraska, c. 1886

The Railroad

The era of covered wagon emigration came to an end when the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, linking the east and west coasts of America by train for the first time. Its construction was a massive undertaking, totaling 1,907 miles of track laid across the most mountainous parts of the country. Two companies, the Union Pacific in the east and the Central Pacific in the west, built the track from both ends, meeting in the middle at Promontory Summit in Utah. The Central Pacific’s laborers were mostly Chinese immigrants, who made up the first significant group of Asian Americans. The railroad opened up the west to a new level of mobility; a journey that had taken six months or more by wagon could now be done in about a week. The Wild West was not so wild anymore, but the image of the frontier and the perseverance it took to get there has remained as a defining piece of American history.

The ceremonial driving of the "golden spike" at the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory summit, Utah, May10th 1869.

The Donner Party

Perhaps the most notorious true story from the pioneer era is that of the Donner Party, who became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The original party consisted of two families, the Donners and the Reeds, who left Springfield, Illinois for California in the spring of 1846. They first travelled to Independence, Missouri, the crossroads of the major pioneer routes. From there, they set off along the California Trail, joining up with other wagon trains they met along the way.

A map of the route taken by the Donner Party, including the ill-advised Hastings Cutoff

Their fateful mistake was the decision to take a shortcut called the Hastings Cutoff, which split off from the California Trail in Utah and went directly across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Although the Hastings Cutoff appeared shorter on the map, it was in fact slower than the main route, and very dangerous. By the time the Donner Party reached the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada, they were a month behind schedule and already running low on supplies. Heavy snowfall began in late October, stranding them just below the steep divide now known as Donner Pass.

After several failed attempts to cross the pass, the party holed up near Truckee Lake (now Donner Lake), building log cabins for shelter. When people began to die of starvation, the survivors decided to use their bodies for food. A few members of the party managed to cross the pass on snowshoes and alert the settlers at Sutter’s Fort, who sent rescue parties. Still, travelling through the snow was so difficult that it took several months to get all the survivors to safety. Of the 87 people who started down the Hastings Cutoff, only 48 survived.