The American West


Join Active Minds for an exploration of how the West was opened and won. We'll tell the story from a variety of perspectives--from the early explorers who ventured into the unknown to the fortune seekers who raced to the Gold Rush. We'll also include the often brutal elements of what was known at the time as "Manifest Destiny” including conflicts with Native Americans as well as Spanish Mexico, all of which added significant territory to the United States.

Key Lecture Points

  • Over 130 years after the official closing of the frontier, the concept of the West remains an enduring part of the American experience.
  • The expansion of the sovereignty of the United States of America into the western reaches of North America represented the culmination of the growth from 13 British Colonies to a continent-bestriding country.  This expansion, however, was achieved and consolidated at the expense of Native American peoples.  Additionally, the US acquired much of the western lands via the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
  • Exploration and colonizing of the West created some of the most recognizable figures and episodes in United States history, including Louis and Clark, the California Gold Rush, and the Transcontinental Railroad.   At the same time, those who chose to settle in the west faced the extreme challenge of settling a predominantly arid land.
  • At the center of the consolidation of control of the American West was the Homestead Act, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.  It created the structure that would incentivize the settlement and eventual private ownership of millions of acres of land.
  • Today, the American West faces the challenges intensified by Climate Change, including drought, flooding and wildfires.  Additionally, perhaps fed by the legacy of the perception of an inexhaustibility of its resources, the west faces the challenges of a growing population.

Exploration Questions

  • What do you think of when you think of “the West”?
  • What similarities and differences are there between the historical challenges in the West and present challenges? What is the biggest challenge facing the West today?

Reflective Questions

  • What do you think of Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” and how it has influenced popular conception of the West?
  • If you could go back in time, where would you choose to Homestead?  Explain.

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Jones, Mary Ellen, The Daily Life on the 19th-Century American Frontier. Greenwood Press, 1998. 275 pages. This study examines the daily lives of ordinary men and women who flooded into the Trans-Mississippi West in search of land, fortune, a fresh start, and a new identity.
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  • Uschan, Michael V., Westward Expansion. Lucent Books, 2001.  112 pages.  A succinct summary of the events leading up to and including the Homestead Act.
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