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America's History in the Making

Contested Territories

Unit Overview

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The settling of what some call the “western frontier” is a well-known part of U.S. history, but the term obscures some important processes and developments. Anglo American explorers, fur traders, and settlers of the nineteenth century did not find the vacant wilderness they expected in the West; instead, they found other peoples and lands that had been already inhabited and modified by Native Americans and Spaniards. However, many of the newcomers to these lands were coming north and east, not west. People from northern Mexico continued to move into what would become the Southwestern United States and, in the early 1850s, thousands of Chinese came to California. African Americans (enslaved and free) and immigrants from European nations also joined white Americans in these new lands. What seemed like a “frontier” to some was in reality a constantly changing borderland, where people from many backgrounds intersected.

Powerful political, economic, social, and biological forces shaped these interactions, though. Indian wars—and the dispossession that went with them—continued across the extensive land west of the Appalachian Mountains between 1800 and 1860. The Southwest was gained by force-of-arms in the Mexican-American War (1846–48), and the Anglo Americans who settled there often viewed Native Americans and Hispanics as inferior. Southern plantation agriculture, driven by the labor of millions of African American slaves, became more profitable during the early nineteenth century, causing planters to push into land traditionally held by Native American tribes. Indeed, questions over whether new U.S. territories and states would allow slavery or not played a major role in the debates, eventually leading to the Civil War. What some would label “expansion,” then, was to Native Americans and Mexicans “invasion” and “dispossession,” and a factor in expanding the institution of slavery.

The majority of newcomers to the contested West came voluntarily, drawn by the possibilities of trading, other forms of commerce, mining, ranching, and farming. For Anglo Americans, the American West symbolized boundless economic opportunity—though only a small minority of these arrivals ever became wealthy.

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