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  • Notes From The Frontier

Manifest Destiny

If you remember any of your history lessons from high school, you might remember the words, "Manifest Destiny," the 1800s philosophy that white settlers were destined--in fact, directed by their God--to settle our continent. Newspaper editor, John O'Sullivan, was credited with coining the term in 1843, to promote the annexation of Texas and Oregon territories.

Harvard historian Frederick Merk wrote that Manifest Destiny came from an emigrant and colonial "sense of mission to redeem the Old World by high example…[to build] a new earth [into] a new heaven." Not all U.S. leaders condoned the philosophy. Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Henry Clay, and Zachary Taylor opposed the movement. But, others, such as Andrew Jackson and former Presidents John Quincy Adams and Thomas Jefferson supported it.

The United States was settled through land acquisitions, some purchased from European countries and Russia, some through conflicts with inhabitants. Transactions were mostly between white immigrant colonists and white European governments claiming "discovery" of the land. The agreements conveniently ignored the fact that the continent had already been "settled" by nearly 600 Native American tribes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and that they had inhabitated the continent for at least 15,000 years (and possibly 30,000-40,000 years, based on modern research and archeology). Early estimates in the 1800s of indigenous populations before whites arrived vary wildly from one to two million. But, again, more contemporary archeology and research reveal that the numbers were much greater--between 7-18 million. (By 1800, European diseases and systematic extermination of native people had reduced the population to about 600,000!)

The American Revolution (1775-1783) set the path of western and southern white expansion. When the original thirteen colonies won independence from Great Britain, King George III signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The agreement massively enlarged the boundaries of the new United States to the banks of the Mississippi River and to the south almost to the Gulf of Mexico and included already-established southern colonies. The new land extending to the Mississippi was parceled out between the colonies of Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia (see 1783 map).

President Thomas Jefferson had a vision for expanding the continent, "to fill up the canvas" the nation had begun, he wrote, so that "rivers would lead to Edens, and Edens would become empires." In 1803, he engineered the massive Louisiana Purchase for $15 million from France-about 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. He quickly commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore the new acquisition and to search for a Northwest Passage, a water passage from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson envisioned such a waterway would serve as a super-highway for expansion and commerce in the new frontier.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition marked a dramatic turning point in the nation's growth. Ironically, Native Americans-the Nez Perce-saved Lewis and Clark from starvation and freezing to death, then showed them the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The Nez Perce smoked the peace pipe with Lewis and Clark and, for the next 74 years struggled to maintain peace with white civilization in honor of the "white fathers" Lewis and Clark. Also, ironically, the Nez Perce would be one of the last tribes to lose their land to whites and only when they were forced to fight in a brutal struggle that nearly decimated their culture.

The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition opened the floodgates of westward expansion. The first wagon train left St. Louis in 1830 to Wind River, Wyoming, on a fur-trading excursion. For the remaining 19th century, about 1.3 million westering pioneers, many of them immigrants, went West. As the numbers of white settlers flooded to the frontier, the numbers of Native Americans dwindled through disease, systematic extermination, and conflict. The many millions of indigenous inhabitants across the continent were decimated to about 250,000 by1890. (More about his in a future post.)

PHOTOS: (1) Artist John Gast's iconic painting, "American Progress," 1872, depicted a highly romanticized allegory of Manifest Destiny. A filmy gowned woman, Columbia, leads white settlers west, holding a lantern to illuminate the path, holding a book to spread knowledge, stringing telegraph lines, and leading all modes of travel to "civilize" the continent. (2 & 3) Flyers promoting land sales in the western frontier, including a Homestead Act of 1862 poster touting "Millions of acres" in Nebraska and Iowa, and a 1910 poster for government land taken from Native Americans in Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The flyer even depicts a Native American chief in the photograph and signed by the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs! (4) A great graphic from the Annenberg Learner interactive website,, shows how America was settled through land acquisitions (some purchased from European countries and Russia, some over conflicts with inhabitants). (5) An 1783, post-Treaty of Paris with British King George III map, showing how the newly acquired lands extending to the Mississippi River were allotted between the colonies. (6) George Caleb Bingham's painting, "Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through the Cumberland Gap," 1851. (7) Artist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, best-known for his painting Washington Crossing the Delaware. In 1860, the U.S. Congress commissioned Leutz to paint a massive staircase mural in the Capitol Building in Washington, DC. His Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, also known as Westward Ho! celebrates Manifest Destiny in an era when the Civil War threatened the republic. (8) A westward-bound wagon train. The first was in 1830 from St. Louis to Wind River, Wyoming, on a fur-trading excursion. About 1.3 million westering pioneers, many of them immigrants, went west in the 19th century.

water closet improvements. Nonetheless, his name holds the dubious honor of being most associated with toilets today.


Posted June 13, 2019

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