European settlers first landed in the Americas along the Atlantic Coast. By the time the United States freed itself from British rule, White settlement stretched as far inland as the Appalachian Mountains. By the middle of the 1800s, most Native American tribes had been removed to the west side of the Mississippi River, and in 1890 the superintendent of the Census declared the frontier to be closed. That means that just over 100 years after the United States was founded, White Americans lived everywhere from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.

In 1845, John O’Sullivan, a New York newspaper editor, coined the phrase manifest destiny. The term described the very popular idea among White Americans that the United States had a special blessing from God and that it was the fate of the nation to rule over the entire continent. Like the Massachusetts Puritans who hoped to build a city upon a hill, many courageous pioneers believed that their culture and religion were superior to those of the Native Americans or Mexicans who stood in their way. They thought it was their duty to spread this superior way of life from sea to shining sea.

O’Sullivan’s term manifest destiny assumes two key ideas. First that the spread of White culture was clearly what God wanted, and second that it was inevitable. But was this really the case? Did the march of White culture toward the Pacific Ocean happen because of destiny, or was it planned – the result of thousands of purposeful decisions? It is easy to study history and see what did happen as what must have happened. What do you think? Was the spread of the United States across the continent destiny or design?


Thomas Jefferson purchased Louisiana from France in 1803. The land he bought was much larger than the current State of Louisiana. In effect, Jefferson doubled the size of the country. To explore the land he had just purchased, he sent Lewis and Clark on a multi-year journey to the Pacific Ocean and back. Their Corps of Discovery was meant to map the land, study the animals and plants, and make friendly connections to the Native Americans. They were helped by Sacagawea, a young mother who helped translate along the way.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition may have been peaceful, but most encounters between White Americans and Native Americans were not. Natives had been fighting for 60 years to try to preserve their lands, and they mostly were losing. They had fought in the Seven Years War, the Revolution and during the War of 1812.

Secondary Source: Painting

This painting was created based on drawings of Tecumseh from his lifetime. Interestingly he wears a mix of both traditional and European clothing, including a medal received as a sign of friendship.

Between the Revolution and the War of 1812, Tecumseh and his brother “The Prophet” Tenskwatawa had tried to unite the tribes along the Mississippi River to form a wall against White expansion. They ended up fighting American troops at the Battle of Tippecanoe led by William Henry Harrison and lost. Tecumseh left for Canada, Harrison became popular and won the presidency, and White expansion continued.


Texas was originally part of New Spain, and then Mexico after Mexico won independence. Mexico invited American settlers to move into Texas to increase the non-Native population. These were Tejanos, and they brought their slaves with them. When Mexico outlawed slavery, the Tejanos decided to fight for independence from Mexico. They did not want to give up slavery, they did not speak Spanish, and they were not Catholic.

The Texas Revolution was a success for the Tejanos. After the loss of the Alamo, they defeated Mexican dictator Santa Anna and forced him to recognize Texan independence. Sam Houston became the president of the new Republic of Texas. Almost immediately they asked Congress to annex the territory, but because of concerns about balancing slave and free states in the Senate, Texas remained independent for ten years.

Americans started to believe in the idea of manifest destiny. They thought that god wanted their nation to stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. They elected James K. Polk president in 1844. He was a strong believer in this idea and promised to annex Texas. He also promised to go to war with Great Britain over control of the Oregon Territory.

Secondary Source: Map

All the various territorial acquisitions that formed the final lower 48 states.

Polk annexed Texas and then instigated a war with Mexico by sending American troops across the Nueces River into land both the United States and Mexico claimed. Some Americans believed a war with Mexico was wrong, but many others wanted land in the West and supported the effort. The war went well. American troops invaded Mexico, defeated Santa Anna and forced him to give up the Mexican Cession, which makes up most or all of what is now the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

The Mexican-American War had some important impacts. Zachary Taylor who was the hero of the Mexican-American War was elected president. The young officers in the war later led the armies of the Civil War. Debate about expanding slavery into the new lands helped cause the Civil War.

Primary Source: Photograph

A homesteading family in Nebraska in 1866.


As White homesteaders moved into the Great Planes, they encountered the last of the free Native American tribes. Some groups moved peacefully. The government promised money and land in the First Treaty of Fort Laramie. In the late 1800s, the army fought a series of wars with the tribes that did not agree to move.

The Sioux were a large confederation of tribes living in what is now the Dakotas and Montana. Violent conflicts between Sioux and settlers led to the Sand Creek Massacre by the army. Treaties the Natives did sign were often broken. Eventually, the Sioux formed up into a massive fighting force under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. In 1876 they defeated General Custer’s cavalry at the Battle of Little Big Horn. In the end, however, the army was able to force all Native tribes onto reservations.

Central to the life of the plains tribes was the buffalo. They used it for its meat, fur, bone, and it was central to their religion as well. Whites understood this and began to slaughter the buffalo on a massive scale. They correctly believed that if there were no buffalo, the Native Americans would not be able to survive and would be forced to move to reservations.

Congress passed the Dawes Act, which sought to make Native Americans live more like White Americans. It divided tribal lands into small portions so that individuals owned property instead of collective ownership by tribes. In most cases, the land set aside for reservations was not good for farming, and these nomads-turned-farmers struggled to survive. They became dependent on the government for supplies of food. Depression and alcoholism developed. The government succeeded in destroying Native cultural practices.

The final violent conflict of the Indian Wars happened at Wounded Knee. A new religious movement had swept through Native American societies in the West promising that if they engaged in a Ghost Dance, the Whites would disappear, and the buffalo would return. A group of mostly women, children and old men who engaged in this dance were slaughtered by the army in 1890.

In the following decades, boarding schools were opened where Native Children were taught English and White culture. The Carlisle Indian School was the most famous of these. It was not until the 1940s that this process of forced Americanization ended.


White culture spread out from the Atlantic to the Pacific, slowly at first, and then in a great rush in the second half of the 1800s. Everywhere White settlers went, Native Americans resisted the loss of their territory, but to use a sports metaphor, there were never any successful goal line stands. Certainly, there were moments of successful resistance, Little Big Horn being the most notable. But they never made a difference in the final outcome.

Was this destiny? Was it a foregone conclusion that once Europeans had established themselves at Plymouth and Jamestown that these tiny settlements would eventually lead to a nation that would overrun an entire continent worth of Native cultures?

Or, alternatively, was it design? Was the westward expansion of White culture a series of many conscious decisions to be conquerors, some big like the Louisiana Purchase or the declaration of war against Mexico, and many small, such as the decision of a single family to cross the plains on a wagon train.

What do you think? Was the spread of the United States from sea to shining sea fated to happen, or a choice that could have been made differently?



BIG IDEA: Since the first English settlements along the Atlantic Coast, White Americans spread westward and were involved in conflicts with both Native Americans and Mexicans who blocked the spread of the United States across the continent.

Native Americans had been fighting White expansion for many years. Their primary goal was preserving their land which was the principal factor in their decisions about who to side with the Seven Years War, American Revolution, War of 1812, and in their own conflicts with White Americans.

Americans who moved to Texas initiated a war for independence from Mexico, and later President Polk launched a war against Mexico that resulted in Mexico giving half of its land to the United States.

Hispanics who found themselves in the United States after the Mexican-American War often lost their land to Whites. Some fought back, but they generally lost out as Whites pushed west.

There were many groups of people who defined the character of the West. Mountain men, miners were some of the first Whites to move into the West. Later ranchers and eventually pioneer farmers moved west. As Whites settled in new territories, railroads were built to connect them.

The last violent conflicts between Whites and independent Native Americans were in the late 1800s on the Great Plains. Ultimately the army defeated the last of the tribes and forced them to move to reservations where official government policy attempted to destroy Native culture.



Lewis and Clark: Explores who were sent by President Jefferson into the new Louisiana Purchase all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They tried to establish peaceful relationships with Native Americans, created maps, and recorded the plants and animals they found.

Tecumseh: Native American political leader who organized a campaign to unite the tribes up and down the Mississippi River against White expansion during the early 1800s. His army was defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Homesteaders: White American families who moved into the Great Plains of the West, built farms, and settled the last of the frontier.

Sioux: Group of related Native American tribes who lived in and around the area that is now North and South Dakota. They mounted some of the last and most fierce resistance to White expansion and the reservation system.


Manifest Destiny: Belief held by many Americans, especially in the 1800s that it was clear that the nation would spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. This belief fueled expansion, including migration of pioneers, war with Mexico and Native Americans, and a belief in the superiority of White, Christian culture.


Louisiana Purchase: 1803 purchase of land from France by President Jefferson which doubled the size of the nation. It was an example of a loose interpretation of the Constitution despite Jefferson’s preference for strict interpretation.

Texas Revolution: War between American-born Texans and the Mexican government under the command of Santa Anna in 1835 and 1836 that resulted in independence for Texas. It was fought largely due to disagreements about culture, language, religion and especially slavery.

Mexican-American War: War between the United States and Mexico between 1846 and 1848. It was a major victory for the United States and the subsequent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo resulted in the Mexican Cession, the land that became the modern states of New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and part of Utah.

Battle of Little Bighorn: 1876 battle between the Sioux nations under the command of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse and the 7th Cavalry under the command of George Custer. It was a rare victory for the Native Americans.

Massacre at Wounded Knee: Last of the violent conflicts between government troops and Native Americans at the end of the 1800s. In December 1890, the army massacred between 150 and 300 Lakota Sioux who had participated in the Ghost Dance.


Bison/Buffalo: Large land animal that roamed the Great Plains in massive herds and provided the basis for the nomadic lifestyle of the tribes of the plains. They were nearly driven to extinction by Whites who saw their destruction as synonymous with destruction of Native American culture.

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