Early America—Westward Expansion

1770 to 1900
California Missions to Hawaii Becomes a Territory

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—Westward Expansion

By 1848, the United States had established state governments in the entire region east of the Mississippi, and had wrestled control of much of the American southwest from Mexico. Within fifty years the rest of the mainland was settled and all but five of the eventual 50 states were admitted to the union.

civil war
California—The first European settlers in California were Franciscan monks who built dozens of missions along the California coast between the years 1770 and 1833. At its height, the missions ministered to over 150,000 natives, but their fortunes fell in the 1830s when a republican government "disestablished" the missions and their property fell into the hands of bandits, speculators, and politicians. The native residents were left with nothing and by the time Kit Carson led the first American expedition into the region, in 1842, the native population had plummetted.

At the time the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, there were about 1500 Americans and non-Hispanic whites in California, and about five times that many Mexican Californios. As soon as rumors of hostilities reached the settlers a small group of Americans and other foreigners seized the garrison at Sonoma and declared California an Independent Republic. As soon as John C. Fremont arrived on the scene however, they turned over control of the government to the American army.

Scarcely a year after Mexico ceded California to the the United States, gold was discovered at John Sutter's Mill, and the immigrant population swelled. Speculators came from all over the world, including hundreds of immigrants from China. Within a year, California became the 31st state in the union. At first almost all settlers came by boat, so San Francisco became the largest and most important commercial center in the region. In 1869, only twenty years after gold was discovered, the first transcontinental railroad made travel easier and opened up a larger areas for settlement.

Alexander McKenzie
Northwestern States—The Columbia River and Puget Sound were discovered and claimed for Britain by George Vancouver in 1795. Ten years later Merriwether Lewis and William Clark led an overland expedition of the region. Fort Astoria, the first settlement in Oregon territory, was founded by John Jacob Astor a few years later to establish a fur-trading post with the Northwest Indians. Traders associated with Astor's company also discovered a pass through the Rockies in Wyoming and established an overland route that later became the Oregon Trail.

In the early 19th century both Britain and the United States had fur-trading operations in the Pacific Northwest, but neither founded permanent settlements. Beginning slowly in the 1830's and much faster after 1846, a steady stream of pioneers began to settle the area. Marcus Whitman started one of the first missionary settlements in the region in 1836 and seven years later lead the first wagon train into southwest Washington (before they were massacred by Indians). Other early settlers, such as the Denny Party that settled Seattle in 1851, arrived by boat.

Once the boundary disputes between the United States and Canada were resolved, migration to the Northwest states began in earnest. Over 400,000 pioneers arrived by way of the Oregon Trail, and when the transcontinental railroad system became established, the population of all the Northwest states grew so quickly that all of the northwest States, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, were admitted to the union by 1890. Six years later, gold was discovered in the Klondike, and the economy boomed.

Zebulon Pick
Rocky Mountain States—Storis of Zebulon Pike, the Mormons, and Denver

Characters—Westward Expansion

Character/Date Short Biography

American Explorers and Missionaries

William Clark
Led an expedition up the Missouri River, map-making, gathering information, and looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean.
Merriwether Lewis
With William Clark, followed the Missouri river to its source, crossed the Rockies and followed the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
Zebulon Pike
Led and expedition to explore the source of the Arkansas river. Followed the river to Colorado.
Kit Carson
Famed Frontiersman who guided Fremont on his expedition to Colorado, and served during the Mexican-American war.
John C. Fremont
American explorer who, along with Kit Carson, led an expedition to California by way of Wyoming and Nevada.
Buffalo Bill
Colorful character of the Old American West. Produced a wild-west show that toured eastern towns with western frontier heroes.
Marcus Whitman
Early missionary who founded the first settlement in Washington State near the columbia river. Massacred by Indians.
General Custer
Cavalry general whose force was ambushed and massacred by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
Oliver Otis Howard
Civil war General who later oversaw the Freedman's bureau, founded Howard University, and was involved in the Indian Wars.
Brigham Young
Leader of the Church of Latter Day Saints after the death of Smith. Led the Mormans to Utah.
John Sutter
Founded a European settlement in the Sacramento Valley where gold was found in 1849.

Spanish Explorers and Missionaries

Francisco de Coronado
Spanish explorer who was a governor in Mexico, and explored regions of the Southwest United States.
Junipero Serra
Franciscan Friar who founded over a dozen missions along the coast of California.
Juan Bautista de Anza
Spanish governor of New Mexico who explored California and established an overland route to the San Francisco.

Native Chieftains and Leaders

Black Hawk
Important Indian chief in the Illinois territory. Inspired the Sauks to resist the Americans during the Black Hawk War.
Indian woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark during their explorations of the Louisiana Purchase.
Apache Indian War Chief.
Chief of a Piute tribe. First befriended the white settlers, but rebelled when his tribe was mistreated.
Red Cloud
Sioux Indian War Chief.
Last Apache Warrior to hold out against the U.S. Army. Finally capitulated and became a celebrity.
Sitting Bull
Medicine man who organized resistance to U.S. Army. His warriors defeated Custer at Little Bighorn.
Captain Jack
Led a tribe of Modocs off the Klamath reservation to their native home, where they held out caves for several months.
Crazy Horse
Dakota Indian chief who fought against the American army at Rosebud and Little Big Horn.
Chief Joseph
Led Nez Perces in a resistance against the encroachment of white settlers. Finally surrendered.
Last King of the Hawaiian Islands.
Last Queen of the Hawaiian Islands.

Timeline—Westward Expansion

AD YearEvent


1598 Santa Fe established as the capital of the Spanish province of Mew Mexico
1769-70 Gasper de Portola leads first Spanish expedition to Alta California.
1774-77 Juan Bautista de Anza Juan Bautista de Anza leads second Spanish expedition to Alta California.
1770-84 Junipero Serra founds Missions in California
1833 California missions "disestablished". Property looted, sold to speculators. Native population plummets.
1842-46 Early John C. Fremont expeditons to California with Kit Carson.
1846 "Bear Flag" revolt in Sonoma—California settlers revolt from Mexico.
1846-48 Mexican American War ends as Mexico is forced to sell California to America.
1849 Gold found at John Sutter's Mill. Gold Rush brings thousands of settlers to California.
1850 California admitted to the Union.
1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

Northwestern States

1791-95 George Vancouver discovers the Columbia River and Puget Sound. Claims Oregon for Britain.
1804-06 Merriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition.
1840-46 Jesuit Pierre deSmet travels throughout Oregon Territory setting up Indian missions.
1846 Boundary dispute between Britain and the United States resolved. Border established at 49th parallel.
1843 Marcus Whitman leads wagon trains to Oregon Territory.
1847 Whitman Massacre kills 14 early settlers in Washington State.
1867 William Seward arranges for the U.S. to purchase Alaska from Russia.
1877 Nez Perce War led by Chief Joseph
1896 Klondike Gold Rush attracts settlers to Seattle and Alaska.
1899 Hawaii becomes and American Territory.

Great Plains and Mountains

1806-07 Zebulon Pike expedition to Colorado
1847 First Mormons, under the direction of Brigham Young arrive in Utah Territory.
1860-61 Buffalo Bill takes a route on the the Pony Express at age 14.
1854-90 Plains Indian Wars
1862 Dakota War drives Santee Sioux out of Minnesota Territory
1863-65 Colorado War devastates Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho, and Cheyenne tribes of the Rockies.
1866-68 Lakota and Cheyene fight for their tribal lands in Red Cloud's War in Montana/Wyoming.
1876 General Custer's army of six hundred wiped out at Battle of Little Bighorn in Sioux territory.
1890 300 Lakotas killed at Wounded Knee Massacre, when army attempts to confiscate guns.
1859 Pike's Peak Gold Rush brings settlers to Colorado
1869 First Transcontinental Railroad
1889-90 Six Northwestern States admitted to the Union: North and South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Wy

Recommended Reading—Westward Expansion

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Highly Recommended

Otis Kaler - Seth of Colorado    entire book
Otis Kaler - Philip of Texas    entire book
Otis Kaler - Antoine of Oregon    entire book
Otis Kaler - Martha of California    entire book
Guerber - Story of the Great Republic   Early Times in California to Rush to California (3)
Cody - The Adventures of Buffalo Bill    entire book
Sabin - Boys' Book of Border Battles   The Battle of Adobe Walls to When Ghost Shirts Failed (7)
Sabin - Frontier Fighters   Hugh Glass and Grizzly Bear to The Sibley Scout (10)
Sabin - Boy's Book of Indian Warriors   Black-hawk the Sac Patriot to The Ghost Dancers (12)

Also Recommended

Howard - Famous Indian Chiefs I Have Known    entire book
Hudson - The Famous Missions of California    entire book
Sabin - Opening the West with Lewis and Clark    entire book
Sabin - With Lieutenant Pike    entire book
Sabin - Gold Seekers of '49    entire book
Eastman - Indian Heroes and the Great Chieftains    entire book
Morris - Historical Tales, Vol I: American   Alaska Gold, Furs, and Fish to How Hawaii Lost its Queen (2)
Drake - Indian History for Young Folks   Indian Wars to The Indians of the Present Day (6)
Grinnell - Trails of the Pathfinders    entire book
Abbott - The Adventures of Kit Carson    entire book
Fitch - Junipero Serra    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep