Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

1763–1890

“Manifest Destiny” is the idea that Americans had a “God-given right” — a divine right — to expand across the continent, from the east coast to the west coast, from “sea to shining sea,” planting democracy, capitalism, and Christianity along the way.

Manifest Destiny, American Progress, Painting, Crofutt

This painting by George A. Crofutt depicts Americans moving West, guided by Manifest Destiny.

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Manifest Destiny Summary

Although the desire to expand westward existed when the first explorers set foot in the New World, it was not given a name until 1845. Advocating for the United States to annex Texas, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan said, “Annex the Republic of Texas, not only because Texas desired this, but because it was our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Although the desire to expand westward existed when the first explorers set foot in the New World, it was not given a name until 1845. Advocating for the United States to annex Texas, newspaper editor John O’Sullivan said, “Annex the Republic of Texas, not only because Texas desired this, but because it was our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

John O'Sullivan, Illustration, Manifest Destiny
John O’Sullivan. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Westward expansion was not a new idea and dated to the Colonial Era. From the early 1600s to 1763, colonists traveled across the Allegheny Mountains into the western frontier. Although the Proclamation of 1763 made it illegal for colonists to settle west of the mountains, it did not completely stop Americans from moving west.

In 1769, frontiersman Daniel Boone was on a hunting trip when he first passed through the Cumberland Gap, a route through the Appalachian Mountains. Boone eventually established Boonesborough in Western Virginia — present-day Kentucky. There were also settlements in Western North Carolina — present-day Tennessee — including Watauga and Nolichucky. These settlements on the western frontier are where militia forces known as the Overmountain Men formed during the American Revolutionary War.

Daniel Boone, Cumberland Gap. Bingham
This painting by George Caleb Bingham depicts Daniel Boone leading settlers through the Cumberland Gap. Image Source: Wikipedia.

After the war, America expanded westward, over the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River. The Confederation Congress took steps to organize the territory, which led to the formation of new states, including Ohio. The same year Ohio joined the Union, President Thomas Jefferson — who envisioned a nation that covered the entire continent — authorized the Louisiana Purchase.

From then on, westward expansion continued, relatively unchecked, until the continental United States as we know it today was complete. Although the acquisition of new territory was always done through treaties, some of those treaties were the result of wars or outright coercion of weaker nations.

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As America expanded, the economy grew and it benefitted the nation, but westward expansion also had its price. Many minorities, especially Native American Indians and African-Americans, suffered from greed and a desire to acquire new land — until there was none left. Although people like O’Sullivan justified the nation’s actions by arguing it was all part of Manifest Destiny, it tarnished the accomplishments of the brave people who risked their lives to open the frontier.

Facts About Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

  1. The Northwest Territory, Kentucky, and Tennessee were some of the first areas colonists settled west of the Appalachian Mountains.
  2. In 1803, Ohio became the first state in the Northwest Territory to be admitted to the Union.
  3. The Louisiana Purchase basically doubled the size of the United States.
  4. From 1800 to 1900, the population of the United States grew from around 5.2 million people to 76.2 million.
  5. Frontiersmen like Daniel Boone, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson helped blaze the trails that Americans used to travel westward.
  6. Some of the most famous trails Americans used were the Wilderness Road, Oregon Trail, and Santa Fe Trail.
  7. The Pony Express and Transcontinental Telegraph dramatically improved and sped up communication, which contributed to westward expansion.
  8. The Transcontinental Railroad connected East to West and replaced many of the old trails as the primary mode of transportation for both people and freight.
  9. The westward expansion of the United States increased tension over the controversial practice of slavery and contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.
  10. By 1890, the contiguous United States stretched from the East Coast to the West Coast.

Important Events Related to Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

These are some of the most important events that are related to Manifest Destiny and the drive to expand the nation west, from the Allegheny Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Expansion into Former British Colonial Territory

The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, officially ending the American Revolutionary War. In the agreement, Britain ceded its territory east of the Mississippi River to the United States and ceded its territory in Florida to Spain. The territory west of the Allegheny Mountains to the Mississippi River became the new western frontier of the United States.

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Between 1791 and 1796, three new states were added to the Union. The first was Vermont (1791), which was established out of the New Hampshire Grants, which were famously defended by Ethan Allen. Vermont was followed by Kentucky (1792) — the western portion of Virginia — and Tennessee (1796) — the western portion of North Carolina.

Ordinance of 1784

In an effort to control settlement in the Ohio Country and maintain peaceful relations with the Indian tribes, the Confederation Congress created the Ordinance of 1784. It was passed on April 23, 1784, and outlined a process for incorporating the new territory into the Union. The Ordinance designated the land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River to be divided into 10 states and provided a way for western territories to become states in the Union — with the same rights and privileges as the 13 Original States. However, the Ordinance failed to define how the land would be distributed, or how it would be settled.

Land Ordinance of 1785

The Land Ordinance of 1785 resolved the issues and established how territories would be divided and the land would be distributed. It identified specific sections of land to be set aside for veterans of the American Revolutionary War, and any remaining land was to be auctioned off by the government. With the passage of the Land Ordinance, the territory became known as the Northwest Territory.

The act mandated the establishment of the position of Geographer of the United States, who was given the responsibility of overseeing an orderly and uniform survey of lands north and west of the Ohio River. The first — and only — Geographer of the United States was Thomas Hutchins, a mapmaker from New Jersey.

Northwest Ordinance of 1787

As Americans moved into the Northwest Territory, they started to petition Congress for a plan of government. Congress responded with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which established a detailed process for statehood and created a Bill of Rights for the Northwest Territory.

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Further, the Northwest Ordinance included an important step forward as far as slavery in the United States was concerned. Article VI prohibited slavery in the Northwest Territory, however, it also provided a fugitive slave clause, requiring escaped slaves to be returned to their owners. The fact the Ordinance passed with Article VI was a surprise to many members of Congress.

The Northwest Ordinance included language that said Indians should be dealt with in “utmost good faith,” and their land “shall never be taken from them without their consent.” However, the provisions were generally ignored or circumvented as white settlers began pushing Indians from their lands as early as the 1790s.

On October 5, 1787, Congress appointed Arthur St. Clair as the first governor and filled the other offices for the Northwest Territory as designated in the Northwest Ordinance.

After ratification of the United States Constitution, the First Congress affirmed the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance — with minor changes — on August 7, 1789, by enacting a new bill entitled “An Act to provide for the Government of the Territory Northwest of the river Ohio.” The new bill created the pathway for the eventual creation of the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. 

In 1803, Ohio became the first state from the Northwest Territory to enter the Union.

1803 — Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase was a significant event in American history and westward expansion. In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, which more than doubled the size of the country and extended its western boundary to the Rocky Mountains. The Louisiana Purchase also established the United States as a major player in global politics, as it allowed the country to secure its western border and control access to the Mississippi River, a vital transportation and trade route.

The United States acquired about 827,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River for $15 million. Initially known as the “Lousiana Territory,” the area was subdivided into smaller territories over time. Some of the more prominent territories were:

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  • Territory of Orleans — Established in 1804, the Territory of Orleans originally included all of the Louisiana Purchase territories south of the 33rd parallel.
  • Missouri Territory — Established in 1812, it included all of the Louisiana Purchase territory west of the Mississippi River and north of the 33rd parallel. Controversy over slavery in the Missouri Territory led to the Missouri Compromise in 1820.
  • Arkansas Territory — Established in 1819, it originally included the portion of the Louisiana Purchase territory west of the Mississippi River and south of the Missouri Territory.
  • Iowa Territory — Established in 1838, the Iowa Territory included land that is now the state of Iowa and parts of present-day Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska
  • Indian Territory — Established in 1834, it originally included land in present-day Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and parts of Texas, and Arkansas. The Indian Territory played an important role in Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears during the 1830s.

1804–1806 — Lewis and Clark Expedition

While negotiations were underway with France, President Thomas Jefferson was planning to send a military expedition to explore the western territories and travel to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson had a vision where the United States spanned the continent, and supported a mission in 1783 that was eventually canceled. As Jefferson planned the expedition with its leader, Merriwether Lewis, he focused on creating an American presence, developing trade agreements with the Native American Indian tribes, and documenting natural resources. Initially, there were concerns about sending an American military force through French territory, but the Louisiana Purchase settled the issue. William Clark joined the expedition, which set out on May 14, 1804, and returned on September 23, 1806. Before reaching the Pacific Ocean, it crossed the Great Plains, the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains, and the Columbia River Plateau. It made contact with various Indian tribes, documented the plants and animals it found, and mapped the rivers and waterways. It was a major achievement that helped to open the American West to expansion. It inspired further exploration and settlement of the region.

Lewis and Clark Expedition, Encounter Chinooks, Painting
This painting by Charles Marion Russel depicts members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountering Chinooks on the Lower Columbia River. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Some of the prominent explorers who followed Lewis and Clark were:

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  • Zebulon Pike — He led an expedition in 1805–1806 to find the source of the Mississippi River in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory. Afterward, he led a second expedition — the Pike Expedition — to find the headwaters of the Arkansas River and Red River and to explore the southwestern part of the Louisiana Territory. Pike’s Peak in Colorado is named after him. Pike served as a General in the War of 1812 and was killed at the Battle of York in 1813.
  • Stephen H. Long — In 1819–1820, Long led an expedition that explored the central portion of the Louisiana Purchase, including parts of present-day Minnesota, Iowa, and the Great Plains.
  • Jedediah Smith — He was a mountain man, explorer, and trader who led several expeditions in the American West and Southwest from 1825–1831, including the first American expedition to California by land.
  • Jim Bridger — Bridger was a mountain man, trapper, Army scout, and wilderness guide. He operated in the Western United States in the first half of the 19th century. He helped build the first trading post on the Yellowstone River. He is the first documented American to see the Great Salt Lake in Utah.
  • Davy Crockett — He was born in Tennessee, and grew up in the backwoods of the Appalachian Mountains. Crockett was known for his skills as a hunter and woodsman, and he became a legendary figure in American folklore. He served in the Tennessee Militia during the Creek War and the War of 1812, and he later represented Tennessee in the United States Congress. He supported the Texas Revolution and was killed at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.
  • John C. Frémont — He was responsible for several expeditions in the 1840s and 1850s that explored the American West, including parts of present-day California, Oregon, Nevada, and Wyoming. Frémont served as a Union Officer in the Civil War and was the first Republican candidate for President in 1856.
  • Kit Carson —  Carson is one of the most renowned explorers of the American West. He gained experience after he traveled to Mexico on the Santa Fe Trail. It was there he met Jim Bridger and Old Bill Williams, well-known “Mountain Men,” and Ewing Young. Carson accompanied Ewing on expeditions, including one to the Rocky Mountains. Afterward, he worked with Frémont during his expeditions, serving as a guide and scout. Carson’s exploits were sensationalized in a series of “Dime Novels,” which contributed to his legendary status. During the Civil War, Carson helped defend the New Mexico Territory against Confederate forces and participated in campaigns against the western Indians. In his later years, he was a rancher and served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He died in 1868.
Kit Carson, Portrait, American Explorer
Kit Carson. Image Source: Library of Congress.

1819 — Annexation of Florida

The Adams-Onís Treaty — also known as the Transcontinental Treaty — was a treaty signed on February 22, 1819, between the United States and Spain. The treaty established the boundary between U.S. and Spanish territories in North America as running along the Sabine, Red, and Arkansas rivers to the Continental Divide, and then west along the 42nd parallel to the Pacific Ocean. The treaty also provided for the cession of Spanish territory in Florida to the United States. As part of the agreement, the United States also renounced claims to any territory in Texas and paid $5 million to Spain. John Quincy Adams, the Secretary of State for President James Monroe, negotiated the treaty on behalf of the United States.

1830 — Indian Removal Act

The Indian Removal Act of 1830 was a bill passed by the United States Congress and then signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on May 28, 1830. The act gave the President the legal authority to grant unsettled lands west of the Mississippi to Native American Indian tribes in exchange for their lands within existing states or territories of the United States. 

As the tribes agreed to treaties, they were expected to migrate to the “Indian Territory,” which was officially established in 1834. Indian Removal Act was seen as a necessary step in the process of westward expansion, as it opened up more land for white settlers in the American Southeast. However, the Indian Removal Act led to thousands of Native Americans being forced to relocate by the United States government, under the supervision of the United States Army.

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1835–1836 — Texas Revolution

The Texas Revolution was a rebellion of American colonists in the Mexican province of Texas against the Mexican government. The revolution officially started on October 2, 1835, with the Battle of Gonzales, when Mexican troops tried to take a cannon from the town of Gonzales that was used to protect against Indian attacks. The move served as a rallying point for Texas settlers, who responded by organizing a formal rebellion. The rebels were led by Stephen F. Austin, William B. Travis, and Sam Houston, and defeated the Mexican army at the Battle of San Jacinto in April 1836, securing independence for Texas. For nearly a decade, the Republic of Texas then functioned as an independent nation until it was annexed by the United States in 1845. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 was seen as a step toward fulfillment of Manifest Destiny, as it expanded the United States to the Rio Grande and further established American control over the western frontier.

Sam Houston, Portrait, Governor of Texas
Sam Houston. Image Source: Library of Congress.

1846–1848 — Mexican-American War

The Mexican-American War was fought between the United States and Mexico from 1846 to 1848. It was sparked by a dispute over the border between Texas, recently annexed by the United States, and Mexico. The United States won the war, and acquired a significant amount of territory from Mexico, including present-day California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming.

1848–1855 — California Gold Rush

The California Gold Rush was a significant event in the history of the United States that led to thousands of Americans moving to the West. In 1848, gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada Range in California. President James K. Polk informed Congress of the discovery in December 1848. The next spring, an estimated 25,000 Americans started the journey west to join the search for gold. As the “Forty-Niners” migrated across the country, Indians were affected by the competition for food, land, and water.

The Gold Rush led to the rapid growth of cities and the expansion of infrastructure, especially railroads. The Gold Rush also played a role in the settlement and development of other western states, as many of the people who came to California in search of gold eventually moved on to other states.

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California Gold Rush, Gold Miners, El Dorado
Gold miners at El Dorado, California, sometime between 1848 and 1853. Image Source: Library of Congress.

1846–1848 — Oregon Territory 

The Oregon Territory was a region in the Pacific Northwest that was claimed by both the United States and Great Britain. In 1846, the two nations signed the Oregon Treaty, which established the border between the United States and British North America west of the Rocky Mountains. 

The border ran along the 49th parallel to the Pacific Ocean and down the middle of the channel that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. With the signing of the treaty, the United States officially stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in the North.

On August 14, 1848, Congress officially organized the region as the Oregon Territory, and it included all of present-day Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming. 

1853–1854 — Gadsden Purchase

The Gadsden Purchase — also known as the Treaty of La Mesilla — allowed the United States to purchase land in present-day southern Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico for $10 million. The first draft of the treaty was signed on December 30, 1853, and it went into effect on June 30, 1854. The primary purpose of the land purchase was to secure a route for the proposed Southern Pacific Railroad, which was part of the effort to build the  Transcontinental Railroad. The Gadsden Purchase helped solidify U.S. territory in the Southwest and helped aid in the development of the region, and essentially completed the formation of the continental United States, fulfilling Manifest Destiny.

Closing of the Frontier

The closing of the frontier was a term used to describe the end of the period of westward expansion in the United States. By 1890, most of the land in the western United States had been claimed, leading to an increase in settlement and development. This marked the end of an era of exploration and discovery, and it had a major impact on American culture and society.

Important Roads and Trails to the West

The only way for Americans to move west after 1783, until the invention of automobiles, was by foot, wagon, or train.

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National Road

In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress authorized the construction of the National Road — also known as the Cumberland Road. The National Road was the first road built by the Federal Government in the United States.

Construction on the road started in Cumberland, Maryland in 1806. From there it moved westward, through Pennsylvania, present-day West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. From Maryland to Wheeling, it followed the route General Edward Braddock followed on his ill-fated expedition during the French and Indian War. 

In the 1830s, construction on the road stopped at Vandalia, Illinois, due in part to a lack of funds, but also because of a political feud between President Andrew Jackson and Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Although construction stopped, the National Road opened the Ohio River Valley and the Midwest to settlement and commerce, and thousands of Americans moved into the region.

Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail connected the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest and ran from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley. In 1810, the trail was established by Robert Stuart, a fur trader who traveled from Fort Astoria on the Columbia River in western Oregon to St. Louis, Missouri. It took him 10 months to cover the 2,000 miles, but the trail was less difficult than the one Lewis and Clark traveled. The first wagons were used on the trail in 1836 but were unable to make it to Oregon. However, in 1843, a wagon train with around 1,000 settlers took to the trail. They set out from Independence, Missouri, crossed through a small pass in the Rocky Mountains, and made their way to Oregon. Their expedition is known as the “Great Migration.” By 1846, enough Americans were traveling to the Oregon Territory that Britain and the United States negotiated the Oregon Treaty. The Oregon Trail was the longest of the overland routes used during westward expansion.

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Oregon Trail, Wagon Train Breaking Camp, Painting, Miller
This painting by Alfred Jacob Miller depicts a wagon train on the Oregon Trail, breaking camp at sunrise. Image Source: The Walters Art Museum.

Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail connected the Midwest to the Southwest and ran from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe. In 1821 William Becknell, a trader from Missouri, was the first person to successfully travel the trail. Near Dodge City, Kansas, the trail split into two routes, each of which had its own dangers. It was used by traders, settlers, and other travelers to move goods and people throughout the region. Usage of the trail was interrupted by the Mexican-American War and was used by the U.S. Army of the West to invade Mexico. After the way, the Santa Fe Trail became a primary road until the railroad reached Sante Fe in 1880.

California Trail

The California Trail was a network of trails that connected the Oregon Trail to the Sierra Nevada region of Mid-Eastern California. The trail was initially established in 1832 when an expedition funded by John Jacob Astor was exploring Wyoming. The leader of the expedition, Benjamin Bonneville, sent a contingent of men out to find an overland route from the Great Salt Lake to California. Once the first trail was established, it branched out into various routes. In 1846, the ill-fated Donner Party took the California Trail west but became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although 48 of the 87 members survived, some of them may have resorted to cannibalism. Usage of the California Trail reached its height after gold was discovered in California. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 people used it to emigrate to California.

Mormon Trail

The Mormon Trail connected Nauvoo, Illinois to the present-day Great Salt Lake, Utah. The 1,300-mile long trail was used by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — Mormons — to travel westward in 1846 in search of a new home. The Mormons left Illinois due to religious persecution and were searching for a place where they could safely practice their religion. Using a map made by John C. Frémont, the Mormons crossed the country to the Salt Lake River Valley, where they established what eventually became Salt Lake City. From 1846 to 1868, roughly 70,000 members of the church traveled to the area.

Southern Emigrant Trail

The Southern Emigrant Trail — also known as the Gila Trail — connected Santa Fe to the Southwest of present-day New Mexico. It allowed Americans to migrate from the East Coast to Southern California and was popular during the California Gold Rush.

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The Transcontinental Railroad Links East and West

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s connected the eastern and western parts of the country, making it easier for settlers to move westward. It also played a key role in the development of the western states and territories, as it facilitated the transportation of natural resources and other goods. The railroad was a massive engineering project that required the labor of thousands of workers and the financing of many investors. It was a major achievement that helped to fulfill the destiny of the United States to stretch from coast to coast.

Completion of the Pacific Railroad, Illustration, Harpers Weekly
This illustration depicts the locomotive engineers shaking hands at the completion of the Pacific Railroad where the Union and Central Pacific lines met. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Negative Effects of Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion

Despite the advancements westward expansion brought the United States, the idea of Manifest Destiny led many Americans to use it as an excuse to abuse African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese and Irish.

Expansion of Slavery in the United States

The expansion of slavery in the United States was closely related to Manifest Destiny and the belief in America’s divine mission to spread its values and way of life. As Americans moved west, the demand for slave labor increased, and the Southern States wanted to see slavery expand throughout the new territories and states. The expansion of slavery became a key factor in the development of the abolitionist movement and the eventual outbreak of the Civil War.

Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears

Indian Removal was a policy implemented by the United States government after the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830. Although many small tribes negotiated treaties with the government and agreed to relocate to Indian Territory, roughly 60,000 members of five nations —  Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw — were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by the Federal Government. Although the removal of all the nations is collectively referred to as the “Trail of Tears,” the removal of the Cherokee to Indian Country in 1838 was especially brutal. 

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That winter, General Winfield Scott and 7,000 men, under orders from President Martin Van Buren, started moving roughly 13,000-16,000 Cherokee from Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma — a march of 1,000 miles. The Cherokee were ill-prepared. A good number of them were without shoes, and those who did were wearing moccasins. Along the way, they suffered from malnutrition and disease, which were made worse by exposure to cold weather. It is estimated that 4,000-8,000 Cherokee died on the Trail of Tears.

Andrew Jackson, Portrait, Painting
Andrew Jackson. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Anti-Catholic Abuse of the Irish

In 1845, European potato crops were devastated by a virus. Ireland was hurt the most because so the nation was dependent on potatoes as a food source. Starting in 1847, the “Irish Potato Famine” forced thousands of Irish to leave their homeland in order to survive. Those that emigrated to the United States landed in Canada and then walked south, across the border, to New England. They were poor, had little or no education, and settled in the large cities along the East Coast. The Irish were treated poorly, and the fact they were Catholic only made things worse. In the 1850s, the “Know-Nothing Party” was founded in part to protest further Irish immigration. Many Irish served in the Civil War, and the Irish Brigade was made up of Irish soldiers from New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. After the war, many Irish migrated west, hoping to escape persecution and poor treatment.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and American Citizenship

The Mexican-American War ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico ceded a significant amount of territory to the United States, however, there were still thousands of Mexicans living in the territory. Under the treaty, those people were given a year to decide if they wanted to stay in the United States and become citizens. Around 115,000 people agreed to become “citizens by conquest.” The Mexican Americans living in the territory suffered discrimination from Americans, and in some cases, their citizenship was not recognized. Americans used legal loopholes to keep Mexican Americans from being able to take full advantage of the benefits of American citizenship.

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Chinese Labor and the Transcontinental Railroad

Chinese immigrants performed most of the manual labor during the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. When the Central Pacific Railroad needed workers to builts its portion of the railroad, Charles Crocker suggested hiring Chinese to do the work, which everyone involved with the railroad would be physically demanding and dangerous. Although the Chinese did an exceptional job working on the railroad, which was finished ahead of time, they were overworked, subjected to abuse by railroad bosses, and received lower pay than other workers. In places where tunnels had to be blasted through mountains, many Chinese workers were killed in explosions. Distrust and bigotry toward Chinese immigrants eventually led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882. The law prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers but allowed merchants, teachers, students, travelers, and diplomats. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed until 1943.

Chinese Worker, Central Pacific Railroad
Photograph of a Chinese worker on the Central Pacific Railroad. Image Source: Stanford Libraries.

Manifest Destiny Significance

Manifest Destiny is important to United States history because it is closely linked to the idea of American Exceptionalism and was used to inspire westward expansion.

For the United States westward expansion led to the acquisition of vast amounts of territory, including the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession, which greatly expanded the size of the country. In the early years, the Americans who gained the most benefit from Manifest Destiny and westward expansion were Anglo-American Protestants. In 1862, the Homestead Act opened the West up to immigrants and people who applied for citizenship — regardless of race or gender.

Unfortunately, the westward expansion also played a role in the spread of slavery to the western territories, leading to regional tensions and eventually the Civil War. In 1879, the Exoduster Movement — the first organized westward migration effort for African Americans — led thousands of former slaves and their families to escape racial discrimination in the South, including Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan.

For Native Americans, Hispanics, and Chinese, Manifest Destiny also has a negative impact. The expansion of the United States into their lands often led to displacement, conflict, and efforts to “civilize” and assimilate these groups into American society. The belief in American superiority also played a role in the widespread discrimination and oppression of these groups throughout American history.

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Manifest Destiny Frequently Asked Questions

What was the unintended consequence of the territory gained by the United States in the Mexican-American War that fulfilled Manifest Destiny?

Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico ceded Upper California and New Mexico. This was known as the Mexican Cession and included present-day Arizona and New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado. The new territory helped the United States increase its territory in the west.

How does the Northwest Ordinance relate to “Manifest Destiny” and moving west?

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 set up the process for western territories to become states in the Union, on equal footing with the Original 13 States. The Northwest Ordinance also prohibited slavery in the territory, making it the only law passed by the United States Government to do so prior to the Civil War.

Manifest Destiny was the idea that America had a certain “right” to what?

Manifest Destiny was the idea that America had the “divine right” to expand westward, all the way to the Pacific Ocean, regardless of how it affected Native American Indians, Mexicans, and other groups that already claimed the land. Manifest Destiny was often claimed as justification for the poor treatment of people who lost their ancestral lands.

Manifest Destiny APUSH Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion for the AP US History Exam.

Manifest Destiny APUSH Definition

The definition of Manifest Destiny for the AP US History exam is the belief held by Americans in the 19th Century that the United States had a God-given right to spread across the continent, from the east coast to the west coast, regardless of the impact it had on minorities, especially Native American Indians. The term was invented by newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845.

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APUSH Review of Manifest Destiny

This video from Heimler’s History covers the topic of Manifest Destiny for APUSH.