The story of the United States is one of western expansion, beginning along the East coast and continuing -- sometimes slowly, other times by leaps and bounds -- across the continent. Even before the American colonies won their independence from the Great Britain, settlers began migrating westward to the territories encompassing modern Kentucky and Tennessee. The western expansion of the nation was considerably aided by the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the largest territorial land gain in U.S. history. Following the War of 1812, the population of the western territories began to expand as Americans traveled into the frontier for gold, land and the lure of Manifest Destiny.

War of 1812

Although the War of 1812 is one of the nation’s lesser-known conflicts, its outcome helped establish the credibility of the United States as a nation in the world community. While the 32-month conflict between the U.S. and Great Britain had a number of complicated causes, including Britain's support of Native American tribes against U.S. expansion in the Northwest Territory, its outcome resolved Revolutionary War-era disputes significantly and resulted in no boundary losses for the U.S. The success of the United States in the war, along with the nation’s enormous land gain resulting from the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, boosted American self-confidence and encouraged the spirit of westward expansionism that would come to define the 19th century.

Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny is the term for the popular 19th century American attitude that the expansion of the United States was destined to expand from coast-to-coast of the North American continent. The phrase was first used by John L. Sullivan in an 1845 article about the annexation of Texas. Sullivan wrote that it was the nation’s “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence,” a term that was soon adopted by politicians lobbying for the acquisition of Oregon Territory, California and Mexican-owned land in the Southwest.

Gold Rush

The 1848 discovery of gold nuggets in California’s Sacramento Valley kicked off a gold rush that drove tens of thousands of prospective miners west. Throughout 1849, men across the United States scrimped, saved, borrowed money and even spent their life savings to make the difficult trip to California, all in the hopes of striking it rich in the gold mines. Between 1848 and 1850, California’s non-native population quadrupled from about 20,000 to about 90,000. The economic and population boom resulting from the gold rush accelerated California’s admission as the 31st state in the Union in 1850. By the end of the 1850s, even after surface gold became difficult to acquire, the state’s population soared to 380,000.

Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862, which granted land west of the Mississippi River to American citizens for agricultural development, encouraged people to leave the overcrowded East Coast and travel west. The law permitted any U.S. citizen over the age of 21 to apply to receive up to 160 acres of land to live on and farm over a five-year period. After that time, the homesteader could file a deed of title by submitting proof of residency and the of the required land improvements to a local land office. The Railroad Act was signed soon after the Homestead Act, resulting in the construction of a transcontinental railway by the end of 1869. By 1934 more than 1.6 million homestead applications were processed, and more than 270 million acres, about 10 percent of all U.S. lands, had been transferred to individual citizens.

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