America's Westward Expansion: A Brief Introduction

Posted by The Home School in the Woods Team on

One of the most exciting things about history is the magic that happens when you figure out that two events took place around the same time. 

Take, for instance, Daffy Duck and Bilbo Baggins. While a cartoon duck and a Hobbit have very little in common, the two characters both made their debut in 1937, within months of each other.

Discovering that seemingly unrelated things took place at the same time brings everything in history just a little bit closer together. There’s one period of U.S. history, in particular, where the unity of the country was set against the backdrop of one of the most intensely disunified periods in its history. We’re talking about early American expansionism and the Civil War.


Civil War Parallels

While we usually think of the 1860s as “Civil War country,” an awful lot of other important events took place in American history during that time, too. 

Take, for instance, the Transcontinental Railroad.

The iconic railroad would ultimately stretch 1,776 miles across the continent and was a symbol of a united America. It represented a nation set on expansionism, manifest destiny, and the adventurous, independent cowboy spirit that led so many people to “go west young man!” 

But did you know that construction began on the Transcontinental Railroad during the Civil War? 

Yep! The groundbreaking ceremony for the project took place on January 8, 1863, in the dead center of the Civil War years. And it wasn’t even the only westward project at the time, either.


Westward Expansion: Settling the West

In the year before the railroad was begun, President Lincoln also signed off on the Homestead Act. Whereas the railroads were working hard to move people to the west, this particular piece of legislation was designed to help populate it. 

The act was a culmination of half a century of ideas and pressure about how the government should handle westward expansion. It offered large parcels of land at a tiny cover fee to the thousands of adventurous pioneers who wanted to start a new life out west. 

But like any other government handout, it came with strings attached. If you took the offer, you had five years to prove that you had improved the land through building and agriculture. Many of the “homesteaders” that took the offer naturally ended up falling through on these conditions — life out west was tough — but quite a few others prospered under the contract.


Land Rushes

Some of the most famous events that the Homestead Act triggered were the land rushes that occurred during the last decade of the century. 

American Westward Expansion Picks up Steam

The first of these events took place on April 22, 1889, and it’s known as the Oklahoma Land Rush.

At noon on that day, President Benjamin Harrison opened up a swath of roughly two million acres of land in what was known at the time as “Indian Territory.” A number of Native American tribes had been resettled there after land-seeking American settlers had occupied their original homelands. This new territory had been promised to them for a long time ...but there was a little hiccup to the whole deal. 

See, the tribes had joined the Confederates during the Civil War. So, by the time the fighting settled down, the government considered the contract moot. 

In typical westward-expansion behavior, they coldly began to partition off sections of the land to give away without a thought to the inhabitants that they, themselves, had put there.

The main rule of the land free-for-all was that no one was allowed to enter the territory until noon on that fateful April day. 

So what did everyone do while they waited? Why, they gathered along the entire border, hanging out on the edge of the soon-to-be-free land, ready to pounce, of course. As noon approached, thousands of people waited expectantly, counting down the seconds. 

At noon a gun sounded, and the crowd surged forward. 

Men on horseback shot ahead, while others followed on foot or in wagons and trains. By nightfall, the land grab was mostly over, and literal tent cities had formed in many popular areas. The city of Guthrie, for example, had gone from a population of zero to ten thousand in a matter of hours!

More Land Rushes

Over the following years, similar events took place as the Indian Territory was systematically divvied up and distributed to new American settlers. 

One of the largest land runs in history took place when six million acres of Cherokee land was tragically given away on September 16, 1893. Of the hundred thousand homesteaders that poured into the area, only half got a plot. 

The Indian Territory became known as the Oklahoma Territory, and by the turn of the century, the area had simply become another extension of the United States. In 1907, it was granted statehood, and the land rushes in the area were officially done.


Westward Expansion: A Part of Our History

Creating lessons about America’s westward expansion for kids can be a difficult subject these days, and yet, it’s a crucial subject that our students and children should all be exposed to. 

Just remember, history shouldn’t be taught in order to create animosity and hatred; it should be taught to increase understanding, demonstrate the consequences of actions, and learn about humanity vicariously through the lives of those that have come before us.

If you’re interested in learning more about this era of American history, you can find more information in our The Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression Time Traveler

In addition, if you’re looking for a westward expansion timeline, you can get one that covers this era and the decades that followed in our America’s Progress into the 20th Century Timeline project, one of our many projects that can be found on our À La Carte Projects page.

Happy teaching!

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