Looking West (1834-1846). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

Looking West (1834-1846). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

 (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) * (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).


In this Chapter

Land: the great American asset.

McCormick’s reaper and Deere’s plow.

Independence for Texas.

Development of the western trails and the telegraph.

 White-Indian warfare continued as a seemingly chronic pastime, and the slavery issue was cracking the country’s foundation faster and more deeply than any number of flimsy compromises could patch. The United States during the first half of the 19th century seemed a violent place—especially when you add into the picture two major wars with foreign powers: the War of 1812 and the Mexican War.

Yet, as the old saw goes, everything’s relative. Between 1.800 and the 1850s, Europe was in an almost continual state of war, and despite their own problems, Americans, looking across the sea, counted themselves lucky. For America had one powerful peace-keeping asset Europe lacked: space. Seemingly endless space stretched beyond the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, across plains and desert, over more mountains, to the Pacific Ocean itself. Surely, America had room enough for everybody.

The Plow and the Reaper. Of course, land aplenty was one thing; actually living on it and using it could be quite another matter. In the Northeast, the American farm of the early 19th century was a family affair, providing enough food to feed the family, with something left over for market. Farm life wasn’t easy, but it was manageable. In the South, farms often expanded into vast plantations, which grew rice, indigo, tobacco, and cotton. These crops were all commercial, and slaves were the cheap source of labor to produce them profitably.

The West also offered the prospect of large-scale farming, but most of the western territories and states barred slavery. Plus, the “emigrants” who settled on the western lands were culturally and morally disinclined to keep slaves. A big piece of land wasn’t worth much if you couldn’t work it.

There was worse. Typically, prairie soil was hard and clumpy. It did not yield to the plow, but clogged it, making cultivation all but impossible. Was the nation destined to cling to its east coast, leaving vast western tracts desolate and empty? As would happen time and again in American history, technology changed everything.

Cyrus McCormick. Cyrus McCormick (1809-1884) was born and raised on a Rockbridge County, Virginia, farm where his father, Robert, gave him the run of his well-equipped workshop. There, Cyrus began to redesign a mechanical reaper the elder McCormick had been tinkering with. By the time he was 22, Cyrus McCormick had come up with a practical prototype of a horse-drawn reaper. It was equipped with a cutting bar, a reel, divider, guards over reciprocating knives, and a platform on which the grain was deposited after having been cut. Everything was driven and synchronized by a gear wheel. Perfected and patented in 1834, the device was an important step toward making large-scale farming possible with a minimal labor force.

John Deere. The reaper solved only half the problem of large-scale farming on the stubborn prairies of the Midwest and West. John Deere (1804-1886) was a young man who left his native Rutland, Vermont, for Grand Detour, Illinois, in 1837 to set up as a blacksmith. While McCormick was perfecting his reaper, Deere hammered out a new kind of plow. Made of stout steel, the plow was beautifully shaped, calling to mind the prow of a graceful clipper ship. And it was sturdy, much stronger than a conventional plow. The combination of shiplike design and stout strength made the plow ideal for breaking and turning the tough prairie soil.

The McCormick reaper and John Deere plow came in the nick of time to open the West to agriculture. Each year, more and more emigrants pushed the frontier farther west.

Martyrdom at the Alamo. As the prairie voids of the northern Midwest and West began to fill in, the Southwest, still the territory of the Republic of Mexico, was being settled by an increasing number of American colonists. In 1820, Moses Austin secured a grant from the Spanish government to establish an American colony in Texas, but fell ill and died in 1821 before he could begin the project of settlement. On his deathbed, Austin asked his son, Stephen F. Austin, to carry out his plans. Mexico, in the meantime, had won independence from Spain in the revolution of 1.821. Under terms established by a special act of the new Mexican government in 1.824 (as well as additional agreements negotiated in 1825, 1827, and 1828), Austin brought more than 1,200 American families to Texas. Colonization was so successful that by 1836 the American population of Texas was 50,000, while that of the Mexicans was a mere 3,500.

Throughout the 1830s, the American majority chafed under Mexican rule—especially Mexican laws forbidding slavery. Violent conflicts between settlers and military garrisons became frequent. Feeling that his colony was not ready for a full-scale war of independence, Austin repeatedly negotiated peace with the tumultuous Mexican government. He drew up a proposed constitution to make Texas a Mexican state, and in 1833, traveled to Mexico City to seek an audience with Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the country’s new president. For five months, Austin tried in vain to see the president; at last, he gained an audience, only to have Santa Anna reject the statehood demand—although Santa Anna did agree to address a list of Texas grievances. However, as Austin was riding back to Texas, he was arrested, returned to Mexico City, and imprisoned there on a flimsy pretext for the next two years.

When Austin was finally released in 1835, he returned to Texas embittered and broken in health. He urged Texans to support a Mexican revolt against Santa Anna, and this effort triggered the Texas Revolution. Santa Anna led troops into Texas during January 1836 and reached San Antonio in February. There, against the advice of independence leader Sam Houston (1793-1863), a force of 187 Texans under militia colonel William B. Travis took a defensive stand behind the walls of a decayed Spanish mission formally called San Antonio de Valero but nicknamed “the Alamo” because it was close to a grove of cottonwoods (alamos in Spanish).

The tiny Texas band, which included such renowned frontier figures as Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett, held off 5,000 of Santa Anna’s troops for 10 days. The band hoped desperately that the American nation somehow would rally and rush to its aid. But that didn’t happen. On March 6, the Mexican troops breached the mission’s wall and slaughtered everyone inside.

This Mexican “victory” turned out to be a disaster for Santa Anna. Sam Houston united Texans under the battle cry “Remember the Alamo! “ and brilliantly led his ragtag army against Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21. The result was decisive, and Texas became an independent republic.

Trails West. During the 1830s and well into the 1840s, before the McCormick reaper and the Deere plow had worked their act of transformation, the western plains were known as the Great Desert, and they remained largely unsettled. Instead, settlers first set their sights on the Far West. By the early 1830s, Americans were beginning to settle in California, many of them “mountain men”—fur trappers—who turned from that profession to ranching and mercantile pursuits.

These pioneers made their way into the territory by way of the southwestern deserts until 1, 833, when Joe Walker, a mountain man from Tennessee, marched due west from Missouri. Walker took the so-called South Pass through the Great Divide, went east to west across the Great Basin, climbed the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and entered California. This path became the California fork of what would be called the Overland Trail. Walker had opened California to the rest of the nation. By 1840, 117 mountain men were settled in Mexican California, bringing the American population to about 400.

Overland Trail. The mountain men and other explorers carried back to the East tales of the wondrous and potentially bountiful lands that lay toward the sunset. Through the decade of the 1830s, America’s westering dreams simmered. At last, on February 1, 1841, 58 men—settlers living in Jackson County, Missouri—met at the town of Independence to plan the first fully organized emigrant wagon train to California. Assembling across the Missouri River, at Sapling Grove, the party had grown to 69—including more than 20 women and children—under the leadership of John Bartleson. The prominent Catholic missionary Father Pierre-Jean deSmet and the mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick also joined the train of 15 wagons and four carts.

The trek consumed five months, three weeks, and four days. It was marked by a single death, a single birth, and a single marriage. The following year, some 20 wagons carrying well over 100 persons made the trip. Other journeys followed each year thereafter until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made the Overland Trail and the other trans-West routes obsolete.

Surviving the three-to seven-month journey across an often brutal and always unforgiving landscape took discipline, strength, and luck, Yet most who undertook the trek survived—albeit transformed by the ordeal: haggard, even reduced to skin and bones. Such hardship was sufficient to convince many emigrants to make an expensive and often stormy journey by sea—either all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America or to the Isthmus of Panama. No such thing as a Panama Canal existed in the 19th century (the canal would not be completed and opened to traffic until 1914). Therefore, travelers bound for the West Coast had to disembark on the Atlantic side, make a disease-ridden overland journey across the steaming jungles of the Isthmus, then board a California-bound ship on the Pacific side.

Oregon Fever. Until gold was discovered in California in 1848-49, Oregon was the strongest of the magnets drawing emigrants westward. In 1843, a zealous missionary named Marcus Whitman led 120 wagons with 200 families in what was called the Great Migration to Oregon. Soon, stories of a lush agricultural paradise touched off “Oregon fever,” which brought many more settlers into the Northwest.

Oregon was a hard “paradise.” The elements could be brutal, and disease ranged from endemic to epidemic. Whitman worked tirelessly as a missionary and physician to the Cayuse Indians in the vicinity of Walla Walla (in present-day Washington state). An overbearing man who insisted that the Indians accept none other but the Christian God (and his version of that God), Whitman fell afoul of the Cayuse during a measles epidemic that killed half their number. Blamed for the epidemic, he and his pretty blonde wife, Narcissa, were massacred on November 29, 1847.

“What Hath God Wrought?” Historians often refer to the emigrant trails as “avenues” of civilization—as if they were neatly constructed highways. In fact, the trails were often nothing more than a pair of wheel ruts worn by one wagon after another. Yet, even as ox hooves and iron-rimmed wheels crunched through the dust of rudimentary trails, a very different, very modern means of linking the continent emerged.

In 1819, the Danish scientist Hans C. Oersted (1777-1851) discovered the principle of “induction” when he noticed that a wire carrying an electric current deflected a magnetic needle. After this discovery, a number of scientists and inventors began experimenting with deflecting needle telegraphs. Two scientists, William F. Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, installed a practical deflecting needle telegraph along a railway line in England in 1837. In 1825, William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet, and the experiments of Michael Faraday and Joseph Henry on electromagnetic phenomena in 1831 excited an American painter, Samuel F. B. Morse, to begin working on a telegraph receiver.

Morse developed a device in which an electromagnet, when energized by a pulse of current from the line—that is, when the remote operator pressed a switch (“telegraph key”)—attracted a soft iron armature. The armature was designed to inscribe, on a piece of moving paper, dot and dash symbols, depending on the duration of the impulse. Morse developed “Morse Code” to translate the alphabet into combinations of dots and dashes. On March 4, 1844, Morse demonstrated his magnetic telegraph by sending the message “What hath God wrought?” from Baltimore to Washington.

Morse’s receiver, as well as his code system, were widely adopted—although the cumbersome graphic device was soon abandoned. The difference between the dot and dash signals was quite audible, and a well-trained operator could translate them more quickly and reliably than any mechanical printing device. Within the span of only ten years, the single line from Baltimore to Washington had multiplied into 23,000 miles of line connecting the far-flung corners of the nation. In a burst of keystrokes, Morse compressed vast distance and gave the nation a technology that would help bind East to West.

The Least You Need to Know

Vast spaces were always America’s greatest resource as well as heaviest burden; a large nation was difficult to unify and govern.

 Technology played a key role in westward expansion. The McCormick reaper and Deere plow made farming the plains practical, and Morse’s telegraph made the vastness of the West less daunting.

Word for the Day. The dictionary will tell you that an emigrant is one who emigrates—that is, leaves one place to settle in another whereas an immigrant immigrates: he or she comes into a place. The emphasis is on arrival rather than departure. Be that as it may, those who made the westward trek were almost always called emigrants by their contemporaries.

Stats. Before the advent of the reaper, it took 20 hours to harvest an acre of wheat. By the time the McCormick device was fully perfected, about 1895, the same task consumed less than an hour.


Word for the Day. Telegraph literally means “distant writing,” or writing over distance. Morse’s earliest telegraph receiver actually traced out—wrote—the dots and dashes of Morse Code.


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