Conquest of the West and expansion of the United States in the 19th century

Conquest of the West and expansion of the United States in the 19th century

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The conquest of the West American begins at the beginning of the 19th century. After having conquered their independence, the American colonists try to join the Pacific Ocean. The immense territories located beyond the eastern seaboard allow the settlement of millions of European immigrants in search of fortune and a better life. But for the white settlers to establish themselves, the indigenous populations of Indians will be expelled, deported, massacred, in defiance of the founding principles of the United States.

The conquest of the west and the Indian tragedy

Theterritorial expansion of the United States begins with the purchase of Louisiana from France in 1805 under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson and of Florida to Spain in 1819. Texas in turn joined the Union in 1845, after s' be freed from Mexico; the rest of the southwest, including California, was taken back to Mexico during the Mexican American war of 1846-1848 (treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo) or obtained by the Gadsden purchase in 1853. In 1846, the line of the border with Canada, at the 49th parallel, integrates the territory of Oregon; Alaska was then bought from Russia for more than $ 7 million in 1867.

Before colonization, North America was very sparsely populated: a million Indians divided into a myriad of tribes, which will not weigh heavily against the European push. White Americans indeed regard their expansion across the continent as their "manifest destiny." To settle, settlers expelled Native American tribes from their lands. In 1830, the US government passed the Indian Removal Act, a law that forced the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole nations to leave the southeast for Indian territory west of the Mississippi. Thousands of Indians perished on this journey, soon dubbed "the trail of tears."

As more and more farmers move to the prairies, semi-nomadic peoples like the Sioux and Métis tribes of Manitoba, Canada, are forced to leave their lands. The construction of the linetranscontinental railway accelerates the Indian genocide by promoting settlement in the west. We no longer even respect the reserves, lands exclusively vested in the Indians by government decree. From 1830, entire swathes of Indian territory were opened to settlers. In 1874, the arrival of prospectors in the Sioux Reservation of the Black Hills, Dakota, met with fierce resistance; the American cavalry dispatched to protect the gold diggers are totally defeated by the Sioux and Cheyenne at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Sioux chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse are hunted down and eventually forced to surrender, ending the Indian wars. In New Mexico and Arizona, Apache leader Geronimo led a guerrilla war until 1886. Desperate to destroy their way of life, many Indians rally to the cult of the "dance of the spirits" which promises them freedom from the law of whites. An infamous tragedy unfolds in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with the slaughter of over 200 Sioux "dancers" or by US troops. That same year, in 1890, the western border was officially abolished, and there were only 200,000 Indians left in North America. The west has been conquered, but at what cost?

The gold Rush

On January 24, 1848, Colonel James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in a stream near the future town of Fort Sutter, California. Word spread quickly, especially as the message from the President of the United States, James Polk - in which he spoke of the existence of untold riches in California (December 1848) - exacerbated the gold rush.

By land or sea (by doubling Cape Horn), around 100,000 people - mostly single men from the Eastern United States, but also immigrants from Europe, Asia and Latin America - went to in California in order to make a fortune as quickly as possible. The result of precarious shelters, undernourishment and lack of medicine, nearly 10,000 people die of dysentery and other epidemics in the first year. In the mining camps with revealing names like "the land of Hell" or "the city of the Hanged men", the men live in summary conditions, under the rule of the law of the strongest; therefore, to cope with the high crime rate, mining camps are gradually being regulated.

In the 1860s, further gold rushes took place after the discovery of veins in Colorado (1858), Idaho (1861-1864) and Montana (1863). On the outskirts of the gold-bearing areas, “mushroom” towns are created which, once the site has been exploited, are deserted for another valley: vestiges of this past rush, “ghost towns” then dot the American West of the 19th century. century.

The parenthesis of the Civil War

The fathers of the American constitution dreamed of freedom, but not all had the same vision of it according to the color of the skin, and the question of slavery would divide the nation. By the middle of the 19th century, the number of African-American slaves, deprived of the most basic rights, rose to some 4 million people. The planters of the South are worried: the election to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, an abolitionist who wants to prevent the spread of slavery in the new territories of the West, is for them the first step towards an abolition in the whole Union. The issue of slavery reignites the debate on the right of the federal government to interfere in state jurisdiction.

In 1861, the Civil War bursts. Very early on, the Southern Confederacy won several victories, but following the battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg in 1863, the conflict soon turned in favor of the Union Army. The South, weakened by famine and a shortage of vital resources, had to lay down its arms in April 1865. Within five days of winning its fight to preserve the Union and abolish slavery, Lincoln was assassinated.

The North emerges from the war with industry and commerce almighty. In contrast, the rural economy of the South is in ruins, and it will take decades to recover. In 1868, the former slaves obtained their American citizenship and a year later the right to vote; black Americans, however, are still persecuted mainly in the South. Many will emigrate to the cities of the North in search of work.

On the way to growth

The railway plays a key role in theeconomic expansion from North America. It connects farms to large shopping centers, allows for the exploitation of mineral deposits and accelerates the diffusion of manufactured products. The first transcontinental line was completed in 1869. In both the United States and Canada expansion was stimulated by the west gold rush.

The United States attracts those who flee political or religious repression, want freedom, find stable work and access education. In the middle of the 19th century, a first wave ofmassive immigration surges from Ireland, Great Britain and Germany; later, Scandinavians, Italians, East Europeans and Asians joined them. Living and working conditions were harsh and conflicts eventually led to the great strike of 1877. In 1910, the United States had some 90 million inhabitants, 50 times more than in 1776 and was the very first global industrial power.

At the same time, their policy is asserting itself on the world level; in 1898, the return to the "Monroe doctrine" after three decades of isolationism enabled Cuba to be freed from Spain. By gaining control over Cuba, Puerto Rico and the former Spanish territories of the Philippines, but also Hawaii (annexed the same year), the United States joined the ranks of imperialist nations modern.


- By Bernard Vincent, History of the United States. Fields of history, 2008.

- By René Rémond, History of the United States. PUF, 2003.

- By Angie Debo, History of the Indians of the United States. Albin Michel, 1994.

For further

- DVD: Indian Lands - Four centuries of American history told by the Indians. Arte Editions, 2010.

Video: Building an American Empire: The Era of Territorial and Political Expansion