Go West Young Man

"Go West, young man, and grow up with the country," said Horace Greeley in 1854. Thousands took the newspaper editor’s advice, and the unknown lands of the western frontier became part of America.

The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States. President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to map and explore this largely unknown territory in 1804. They charted a path to the Pacific.

During the War of 1812, the government promised soldiers that they would be given land in the west if they enlisted in the army. About six million acres were transferred to soldiers as "military bounty." Pioneers typically moved westward in the hope of finding a stable life on uncultivated land. At first, they settled mostly near rivers, because of easy transportation. Later, they settled along canals, and later still, along railroads.

Before about 1840, the "West" was the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Very few people, mostly fur traders, ventured into the far West. Wholesale removal of Indians from their lands made even more land available to settlers.

Some American pioneers settled in California and Oregon in the 1840s. The first wagon train left Missouri on May 1, 1841, and reached California on November 4th. The overland route was difficult and dangerous, and many died along the way. There were several overland routes, but the Oregon trail was the most traveled northern route, and the Santa Fe trail was the most traveled southern route.

  • The Donner Party had an especially difficult journey
  • Map of the Oregon Trail

The idea of moving westward and filling the continent became part of the country’s concept of itself. By 1845, O’Sullivan wrote that it was America's "Manifest Destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions," in the Democratic Review.

In January of 1848, gold was discovered in California. The news spread rapidly, and by the end of 1849, about 80,000 prospectors had moved to California, searching for gold. About half had traveled overland, while the other half had taken ships that sailed around the tip of South America.

In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which offered 160 acres of land to any settler who paid ten dollars, lived on the land for five years, and made improvements. Migration increased, especially after the Civil War ended.

The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, when tracks from the east and west met at Promontory Point, Utah. Congress gave the railroad companies 170 million acres in land grants, and the companies quickly began recruiting settlers.

In 1890, the US Bureau of the Census announced that the western frontier was closed. Although some land was still available for pioneers, the West had been settled. It had not, however, been tamed.