Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Next: Chapter 5: The whitening of the West

The governor of a border state warned about the dangers of “hordes” of unwelcome immigrants “whose progress we cannot arrest.” Although his nation had once encouraged immigration from its neighbor, recent history had taught the governor that they were a destabilizing presence. Rather than embracing the culture of their new country, these immigrants refused to assimilate, continuing to speak in their native tongue and maintaining their attachments to their former nation. Unless their incursions were halted, the foreigners would soon outnumber and overwhelm the citizens of this border state.

The governor’s fears may sound familiar, but in this case the year was 1845. The state was California, though it was then part of Mexico. The unsanctioned immigrants about whom Governor Pio Pico worried were from the United States. Pico had reason to be concerned, especially when he considered the contrasting fortunes of American and Mexican expansionism over the previous decades.

The United States had staked its claims to the country west of the Mississippi River in the first years of the nineteenth century, but initial explorations cast the region as “the Great American Desert.” That characterization dampened enthusiasm for American settlement beyond the eastern fringe of the Louisiana Purchase. Better to leave this inhospitable terrain as a reserve for fur traders and Indians, American leaders reasoned. The latter would include those ejected from the first American West, in a process then called “Indian removal,” a generous euphemism for what we would today classify as “ethnic cleansing.”

Yet by the time the last Indian removals from the First West were being carried out, the demands of Americans for lands farther west, within and beyond the borders of the Louisiana Purchase, were creating conflicts with existing occupants and rival claimants. Over time, these claims displaced prior arrangements between fur traders and Indians. They also led to war between the United States and Mexico and to a peace that turned what had been the Mexican North into the southwestern quadrant of the “Great West” of the United States. At the time, expansion-minded Americans justified the war and trumpeted the acquisition as the fulfillment of the nation’s “manifest destiny”; American opponents of the war and Mexicans, then and now, deemed it an unjust war and immoral conquest.

Almost at the same moment that the war with Mexico ended, the discovery of gold in California precipitated an unprecedented torrent of people heading to the western end of the continent. The Gold Rush brought men (and this was a migration that was overwhelmingly male) from across the nation and around the globe to California. Its reverberations reached just as far. But its consequences were most devastating for California’s native peoples. Probably no other episode in the history of the United States deserves the label “genocide” more than the extermination of California Indians.


Returning in 1806 from a two-and-a-half-year journey that had taken them from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast and back, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark reported that their Corps of Discovery had fulfilled the directions given by President Thomas Jefferson. The explorers insisted that they had found, as Jefferson requested, “the most practicable and navigable passage across the continent,” and they sent enthusiastic descriptions of the abundance of the countries in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Skeptics soon questioned the practicality of the passage that Lewis and Clark stumbled on, much of it mountainous and not navigable by water. Subsequent explorers also disputed the feasibility of the Great Plains as a place for yeoman farmers. Trained to assess the arability of land on the basis of the number and type of trees that it supported, Americans in the early nineteenth century did not believe grasslands made good farmlands. That explained why explorer Stephen Long’s 1819 description of the Plains as a “Great American Desert” stuck, and why American leaders reenvisioned the region as, instead of an empire for liberty and white settlement, a refuge for Indians (and for a small number of Euro-Americans who interacted with them as traders and missionaries).

The fur trade in the Louisiana Territory was already a well-established business at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It got a boost from the observations of Lewis and Clark and from the depletion of beavers in lands to the east. Heeding Jefferson’s instructions, Lewis and Clark catalogued the profusion of animals they encountered and alerted Indians to the “commercial dispositions” of the United States. Along the Missouri River, however, the Indians whom Lewis and Clark met had their own ideas about exchange and their own experience of intercourse (both sexual and economic) with French traders. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the Americans who succeeded in the trans-Mississippi region generally emulated their French predecessors, marrying Indian women and accepting native notions about the primacy of gifts. In pursuit of skins, hundreds of Americans pushed into the Rocky Mountains and to the “Oregon Country” beyond. Many of these so-called mountain men took to trapping for themselves, taking over a role previously left for Indians. But most mountain men recognized they worked lands that still belonged to Indians and understood as well the necessity of following the “customs of the country,” particularly in establishing relationships with Indian women.

Back east, in the First West, the declining supply of beavers and the escalating demand for farmlands undermined the fur trade and traditions of cohabitation of Indians and Euro-Americans. Publicly, President Jefferson voiced support for incorporating Indians within American society, not removing them from it—though only after Indians gave up hunting and took up farming. While this prescription ignored the fact that woodland Indians already drew most of their subsistence from agriculture (albeit from crops cultivated by women, not men), it became a preferred formulation for American policy-makers and for missionaries engaged in teaching Indians the “arts of civilization.”

The first decades of the nineteenth century, however, saw the political tide turn away from assimilating Indians and toward expelling them. Advocates for removing Indians contended that Indians would not or could not make the transition to “civilization,” at least not speedily enough to remain within the settled boundaries of the United States. Others cited the opposition that some tribes had demonstrated during the War of 1812 as evidence of the treachery of all Indians and the need to push them west. Some maintained that these moves were for the Indians’ good; only by eviction could Indians be saved from the pernicious influences of frontier society and given the space and time to adapt to a new world. Often left unspoken was the driving force behind removal: the land hunger of a rapidly growing American population.

That tide threatened to sweep aside any Indians or government officials who stood in its way. Pressure built first in the Old Northwest Territory (the lands north of the Ohio River and south of the Great Lakes). As waves of settlers flooded Indian countries north of the Ohio River in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, federal officials negotiated (or largely dictated) treaties in which Indian ceded their lands. In exchange, the removed received annuity payments and permanent new territories to the west, primarily in present-day Kansas and Nebraska.

Around the same time, similar forces were at work in that portion of the Louisiana Territory along the west bank of the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis. Here, federal authorities tried to offer Indians some protection. In 1809 Meriwether Lewis, now governor of Louisiana, issued a proclamation ordering squatters off Indian holdings. Lewis’s suicide cost Indians a defender. Six years later, William Clark, as the appointed governor of the Missouri Territory, confronted the same situation. And Clark, like Lewis, declared that white trespassers must leave. But Clark had little power to enforce his edict and no means to thwart the power of voters. Almost immediately, the territorial assembly, which unlike Clark was elected by local citizens, countermanded the governor with a petition to Congress asking that Indians be relocated. When Missouri became eligible for statehood and the governorship became an elected position, Clark stood for the office. As the best known man in the territory with the most impressive resume of service, he assumed he would win. Opponents, though, ran a campaign that attacked Clark for being too accommodating to Indians. They also accused him of fathering a child by an Indian woman (which in fur-trading circles was the norm but in the new era of Missouri politics was cast as disreputable). On Election Day in 1820, Clark lost by a margin greater than two to one. Within a few years, most Indians had surrendered their lands within the state of Missouri. Ironically, it was William Clark, reassigned as a federal superintendent of Indian agencies, who negotiated many of the treaties and oversaw the removals.

The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 put in the White House a champion of white homesteaders—and of Indian removal. During President Jackson’s two terms, much of the focus turned to Indians in the Old Southwest (now the southeastern United States), a region where General Jackson had previously won battles against Indians. There, the profits to be made from growing cotton with slave labor made taking Indian landholdings ever more compelling. As Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton discerned, the removal of Indians “would make room for the spread of slaves.”

Yet despite Jackson’s fervent support for a general removal bill, his effort faced considerable opposition. In Congress, his political foes fought the Removal Act. He also contended with the Supreme Court, which issued a decision in favor of the rights of Cherokees. The Cherokees themselves resisted their removal in Congress, in courts, and in the court of public opinion. Appealing to Americans’ sense of justice, they touted how well they had mastered the arts of civilization. They pointed to their success as farmers and to their adoption of a written language and a republican form of governance. These points won Cherokees more sympathy, especially once the cause of antiremoval was attached to that of antislavery (though here opponents of slavery had to overlook the ways the Cherokees’ success as farmers was owing to their ownership of African-American slaves).

While the Cherokees and their white supporters delayed the tide, they could not stop it. Removal legislation narrowly won passage, leading to the forced exodus of Indians from the southeastern United States. The Cherokees delayed their eviction, but in 1838 they followed other eastern Indians into exile. Thousands perished on the “Trail of Tears,” which took the Cherokees from Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee to new homes in what is now Oklahoma. Bitter divisions over the treaty that led to removal split survivors, as they struggled, like other banished Indians, to adapt to the grasslands that were so different from the woodlands they had known.

More than a century and a half after the Trail of Tears, the United Nations defined “ethnic cleansing” as “a purposeful policy” by which one ethnic or religious group uses “force or intimidation to remove from a given area persons of another ethnic or religious group.” The definition was adopted to describe events in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s. It applies retrospectively to Indian removals in the first four decades of the nineteenth century. The many treaties that the United States reached with various Indian nations can hardly obscure the force and intimidation that purged the territory east of the Mississippi River of most of its native inhabitants.

From Mexican North to American Southwest

The events that particularly alarmed Mexican officials like Pio Pico had occurred in Texas, when the Mexican government had encouraged immigration there from the United States. Beginning in the 1820s and continuing into the 1830s, Americans, primarily from the southern United States, poured into Texas. By the mid-1830s, they outnumbered Tejanos (Texans with Mexican roots) by almost ten to one. Demanding provincial autonomy, the Americans clashed with Mexican authorities. In 1836, a rebellion commenced, and Texans won their war of secession. Nine years later, the United States annexed Texas, all of which gave Pico good reason to warn about the insurrectionary potential of immigrants from the United States and about that nation’s expansionist capacities.

In retrospect, the policy of promoting American immigration into northern Mexico looks as dangerous as Pico deemed it and as counterintuitive as it has seemed to subsequent generations. Why invite Americans in if a chief goal was to keep the United States out? At the time, the policy did not appear so paradoxical. There were, in fact, encouraging precedents. Spain had attempted something similar in Louisiana in the 1790s, though that territory’s transfer back to France and then to the United States had aborted that experiment. More enduring was what the British had done in Upper Canada. Americans who crossed that border proved themselves amenable to a shift in loyalties, which showed how tenuous national attachments remained in these years. From this, others could draw lessons: the keys to gaining and holding the affection of American transplants was to protect them from Indians, provide them with land on generous terms, require little from them in the way of taxes, and interfere minimally in their private pursuits.

For a variety of reasons, Mexico had trouble abiding by these guidelines. Like the United States four decades earlier, Mexico emerged in 1821 from its war of independence with its economy battered by the prolonged struggle to escape colonial rule and with its leadership divided on fundamental questions of governance and political economy. Also like the United States, the new nation’s government confronted the problem of consolidating control over a vast territory much of which was Mexican in name only. The difference was that the challenges facing Mexico were greater in almost every respect. Its postwar economy was more badly damaged, and its early national political splits between “conservatives” and “liberals” ran even deeper than those between the American “Federalists” and “Democratic-Republicans.” Mexico’s Indians, particularly in the north, were also far more formidable. While the confederation of Ohio Indians won significant battles with American armies, its manpower was much less than that of the United States, its British backer was unreliable, and the cornfields that fed its people were readily burned. By contrast, the equestrian Indians in northern Mexico, especially the Comanches, retained advantages in numbers, remained invulnerable to attacks on their mobile food supply, and continued to launch devastating raids against sparsely populated Mexican ranches and villages.

Mexico succeeded in attracting Americans to Texas and thus added to its northern frontier population, but the government failed to win the hearts and minds of the newcomers. The inability of Mexican forces to pacify Indians stirred widespread unrest across the Mexican north (and not just among American immigrants). Mexico’s economic difficulties also hampered efforts at consolidation. In addition to people, more and more goods moved from the United States into northern Mexico. Political instability further frayed the linkages between Mexico City and its more distant provinces. Unlike the United States, Mexico did not establish a clear and consistent process by which territories graduated to statehood, and more offices were subject to local elections. To the contrary, when centralizing conservatives came into power in Mexico City, they endeavored to impose greater national control, which impinged on the local liberties that Americans expected. Perhaps most upsetting to white Americans in Texas was the interference of Mexican authorities in the right to own slaves.

Texans won their freedom from Mexico and kept their slaves. Mexico did not recognize Texas’s independence but did not try to reoccupy it either. Mexico’s government did protest vigorously, however, when the United States annexed Texas in 1845. The quarrel became even hotter when the United States claimed that the Rio Grande formed the boundary between Texas and Mexico (as opposed to the previously recognized line at the Nueces River). When American troops entered the disputed area in 1846, Mexican forces fired on them. After what he called the shedding of “American blood on the American soil,” President James K. Polk asked Congress to declare war on Mexico.

As the candidate of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party, Polk (whose nickname, “Young Hickory,” paid homage to Jackson’s “Old Hickory”) had campaigned for the presidency in 1844 on an ardent expansionist platform. His slogan “54-40 or fight” referred to the latitude that he insisted had to be the northwestern border between the United States and British Canada. Polk and his backers professed themselves ready to go to war with Britain to take all of the contested Oregon country. The United States, intoned the editor of a Democratic Party–aligned newspaper in 1845, had a “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

Once in office, Polk compromised about the northern boundary, but his administration provoked a war about the southern one. American diplomats reached an agreement with Britain to divide the Oregon country at the 49th parallel. Polk’s agents took a much harder line with Mexico, first pushing the border of Texas southward and then, after war broke out, demanding that Mexico cede a considerable portion of its domain to the United States. Although the assertion of manifest destiny that was often invoked by Polk and fellow expansionists was coined only in 1845, its claim of providential sponsorship for the expansion of the United States and the spread of American people and ideals was much older. Rationales about the right of the higher civilization to displace the lower and about bringing the blessings of Protestantism and liberty to savage heathens had been used to validate the removal of Indians. Now, under the banner of manifest destiny, many of the same rationales were deployed against Catholic Mexicans, whose religion and mixed-race heritage supposedly made them a degenerate people.

Once the American armies had conquered New Mexico and California and occupied Mexico City, talks commenced to end the war and set a new border. The most fervent American expansionists entertained the idea of incorporating all of Mexico into the United States. Mexican resistance to land cessions, domestic opposition to the absorption of millions of “mongrel” Mexicans, and the misgivings of Polk’s chief negotiator ultimately resulted in a treaty that transferred “only” the northern third of Mexico to the United States. When Polk first heard this outcome, he was furious with his diplomat, Nicholas Trist. Publicly, Trist maintained that he had not been able to get more from his Mexican counterparts, whose national constitution prohibited any territorial surrender. Privately, Trist acknowledged how troubled he was by the war and his assignment: “could those Mexicans have seen into my heart at that moment, they would have known that my feeling of shame as an American was far stronger than theirs could be as Mexicans.” Angry as Polk was with Trist, he recognized that reopening negotiations and reaching a new agreement would take time. That might prove costly, for sentiment against the war and against any territorial aggrandizement was growing in the United States. Like Trist, opponents alleged that the war had been started under a false pretext and that any spoils from it stained national destiny by extending not the blessings of liberty but the realm of slavery.

So Polk settled for the gains stipulated in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. For approximately the same amount it had paid France for the Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired a vast territory from Mexico. Its boundaries now stretched to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

But the treaty did not bring peace to the United States, for whether that farther West would be opened or closed to slavery became the principal division between the nation’s North and South. That sectional conflict escalated through the 1850s and culminated in the secession of eleven southern states, including Texas, in 1861. Four years of bloody Civil War followed before the American union was restored and the lands that had once been northern Mexico, along with the rest of the farther West, were secured for free labor.

The gold rush

On January 24, 1848, nine days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gold was discovered on the property of John Sutter along the American River in California. Swarms of gold seekers overran Sutter’s holdings and spread their search for nuggets to adjacent lands and rivers. Over the following months, new strikes in new streams extended the range of prospecting. As the news circulated, it propelled people from the eastern United States, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Australia to California. Never before in world history had so many people from so many parts assembled in one place. Conflicts often ensued from this unparalleled convergence.

Migration to the Pacific coast of North America, albeit on a much more limited scope and scale, began in the early 1840s. By 1848, a few thousand Americans, mostly from states along the Mississippi River, had trekked to the Pacific slope. Rather than repeat the route of Lewis and Clark, these overland travelers generally followed the Platte River across the Plains and then traversed the Rockies via South Pass, which was definitely more practical for wagons than the torturous path taken by Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Still, the new trail presented plenty of challenges. Unlike earlier westward migrations that typically involved moves to contiguous territories, those headed to the West Coast of North America eschewed settlement on the intervening Plains, which they viewed as inhospitable to agriculture. So instead of a short move involving a few days or weeks of travel, their journeys involved five or six months over fifteen hundred or more miles of country that Americans saw as an unfamiliar and unforgiving desert.

Although Governor Pico complained in 1845 about the influx of Americans, the vast majority of overland migrants prior to the discovery of gold did not go to California. Beginning in 1846, the first half of the trail to California filled with thousands of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). By moving west, they sought to protect themselves from the persecution they had suffered in Missouri and then Illinois. Stopping well short of the Pacific coast, Mormon migrants established what they hoped would be a safe refuge near the Great Salt Lake. Isolated from other Americans, they began the work of building a realm extending across the Great Basin in a territory they designated Deseret.

That isolation was short-lived, however, as thousands and then tens of thousands of overland travelers crossed the Mormons’ would-be refuge on their way farther west. Old enmities often strained relations between Mormons and those headed to the Pacific slope. Blood was shed in September 1857, when a local Mormon militia along with a group of Paiute Indians massacred 120 members of a California-bound emigrant train at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah.

Before the discovery of gold in California, by far the larger number of migrants made Oregon their destination. Except for the extraordinary distances they traveled, the Oregon-bound resembled previous generations of westering pioneers. They came as families, and they came for land—to own and to farm, sufficient to support large families and to pass on to sons, who would then be able to enjoy the same “independence” as their fathers. Hopes of securing good lands ran high among men en route to the Oregon country. In their journals, they conveyed excitement about their prospects and about “seeing the elephant,” the phrase that became attached to the trek that many men described as the great adventure of their lives. Women on the trail were far less exuberant. While men waxed enthusiastic with one another about hunting bison and encountering “wild Indians,” women, at least in the company of other women, complained about the long days of walking and the unending toil that marked their passage across the continent. In their diaries, they also confided their reluctance about leaving homes and friends behind and questioned the decisions made for them by husbands and fathers.

The rush for gold multiplied the number of migrants and altered their destination, their composition, and their ambition. In 1849 and during the next decade, the vast majority of overland travelers went to California. The trail became much more crowded, as the hundreds or maybe thousands each year through 1848 grew to tens of thousands in 1849 and succeeding years. Women were almost entirely absent from the caravans to this new El Dorado. “Argonauts,” unlike Oregon-bound men, left families behind and dreamed not of mere independence but of riches.

Those who came by land to California were joined there by those who came by sea. From ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, gold-seekers embarked on voyages that circled the tip of South America or the shorter trip to the isthmus of Central America, which required a short overland journey and then a second ship to take them on the Pacific to the port of San Francisco. At San Francisco, which mushroomed from a provincial village into a cosmopolitan metropolis, prospectors arrived from across the Atlantic and from around the Pacific. Mexicans, Chileans, French, Chinese, and Australians were especially prominent in the international cast.

Frictions arose from the start, and conflicts and discriminations intensified as competition heated. Although the earliest prospectors needed minimal tools and knowledge, this phase of California’s Gold Rush was short-lived. Those who came later than 1849 often found the most easily tapped sources of gold already claimed or already exhausted. The realization that timing and luck, not labor and persistence, determined who got rich and who did not challenged traditional American ideals and added to frustrations. With more and more men digging for more elusive riches, the situation in mining areas grew more combustible. Through intimidation and violence, native-born, white Americans attempted to monopolize the gold fields for themselves. They received support from the government of the new state of California. Having bypassed the usual territorial process, California entered the union in 1850, and the American majority exerted their legislative will by enacting taxes on foreign miners. Particularly virulent animosities were directed at Chinese in California, whose antagonists pushed to close the country to additional immigration from China.

While foreigners dealt with legal and extralegal efforts aimed at their exclusion and expulsion, California’s natives faced pronouncements and policies designed to bring about their extermination. California’s Indian population had been declining for some time prior to the Gold Rush, falling from an estimated 300,000 in 1769 (when the Spanish had planted their first mission in California) to approximately 150,000 at the time of the American takeover. The reductions traced to the usual sources: diseases, combat, and colonial interference with traditional means of subsistence. But these losses paled next to those that occurred after 1848, when American settlers and officials openly proclaimed their intention to eliminate Indians in California. Mass killings by vigilantes, volunteer military companies, state militias, and federal troops, all with generous financial support from state and national governments, took a terrible toll. So did the destruction of villages and food stores, and the resulting exposure, starvation, and disease. By the 1860s, entire groups had been wiped out and fewer than thirty thousand Indians remained alive in the state.


3. Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, in a family portrait. Pico, who warned of the dangers of American immigration into California, adjusted to life under U.S. rule. But many Mexicans who shared Pico’s dark skin had difficulties protecting their lands and their rights under a regime that sought to deprive mixed-race individuals of the privileges of whiteness.

In general, historians of colonial North America and the Great West have avoided labeling the destruction of Indians as genocide, holding that most of the deaths owed not to deliberate exterminations but to germs that were inadvertently spread. But the first decades of American rule in California present a case that meets the standards established by the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention. During the Gold Rush, American authorities condoned and abetted the decimation of California Indians. Their words, their deeds, and their dollars allowed a genocide to proceed—and nearly to succeed.

Previous: Chapter 3: Making the first American West
Next: Chapter 5: The whitening of the West