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Westward Expansion and the American Dream

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The experiences a nation undergoes often shape its national identity and define who they are as a country. Throughout the course of its history, America has developed a national identity which is the American Dream. The American Dream is defined as the qualities that make up America and most of its people they include; opportunity, success, determination, and ingenuity. Many events in American’s history highlight the idea of the American dream between the period of its creation and the 1900’s, but few have succeeded to exhibit all the qualities that make up this idea. One specific event in America’s history has succeeded in demonstrating the four qualities included in the American dream; this event is America’s period of Westward Expansion. The events that occurred during America’s Westward Expansion, although small, played a large role in exploiting and highlighting the qualities that make up the American Dream.

The American Dream encompasses the qualities that make up America and most of its people. They include opportunity, determination, success, and American ingenuity. Opportunity best describes America and its identity rather than the identity of its people. America is often described as the land of opportunity and many people use this to live the American Dream. During the Period of Westward Expansion people from all over the United States came to settle in its new un-trodden lands to search for riches, and to take advantage of the opportunity it offered. Opportunity in the Western territories was known and present even before the creation of the nation. The west gave people the chance to mine for gold or to start anew in its growing cities.

The ultimate goal for people emigrating to the west was to be successful and obtaining a better life. Many of the people achieved success by raising families, creating profitable farms, or becoming rich. Success is another large part of the American Dream and was only achieved through the determination of the expansionists. Determination is a characteristic that defines the work ethic of the American people and describes how they carry out the American Dream. American ingenuity is also a part of the American Dream and contributes to the identity of the Americans. The creativity and the ingenuity of the American people help define them as free thinkers and innovators of the modern world. These qualities of the American Dream can be clearly shown through America’s period of westward expansion.

The journey west to America’s newly gained territory of Oregon is an important event during Westward Expansion that highlights the American Dream. The expansion into the Oregon territory during the period highlights the characteristics of the American Dream; opportunity, success, and determination. The people who traveled the Oregon Trail had to face many dangers and obstacles to arrive at the opportunity that laid in the west. Those dangers included fierce animals, hostile Indians, storms, rivers, diseases, and robbers. Pioneers also lost many livestock to coyotes and other predators and because of this, they had to stay up all night to guard them. In addition, almost all rivers were considered huge obstacles to the pioneers considering the difficulty of getting entire wagons and oxen across safely. Water was also very scarce on the trail and the pioneers were constantly in danger of running out between watering holes. Possibly the worst danger that could occur would be breaking a wagon wheel or an axle. Despite the dangers on the trail, the expansionists went forward to secure a better life for themselves and their families.

The fact that these people were willing to weather these dangers highlights the power of American determination, a factor which is so prevalent in the American Dream. As a result, many of the people who traveled and completed the trail were successful in achieving their goal of incurring a better life by settling down, raising a family, and setting up farms. During America’s westward expansion more than 80,000 people ventured to California in search of gold. This event soon came to be known as the California Gold Rush. The 49ers of the California Gold Rush can be known as major exercisers of the American Dream by highlighting success and determination. The event itself best displays the quality of opportunity. Many of the people were taking an enormous risk by selling their farms and houses and leaving in search of something that they could never obtain. These people all had the common goal of seizing the opportunity to become rich and lead a better life. According to Ronald James writer for the Nevada Encyclopedia, “For most, the idea of striking it rich by discovering a valuable claim yielded to the ambition of earning a good wage and, if the opportunity presented itself, of raising a family in a wholesome community. Many still dreamt of sudden wealth, and gambling with stocks became the most common outlet for this hope.”

James demonstrates how the 49ers seized the opportunity to strike it rich in hopes of leading a healthy and opulent life. The 49ers mused on the small chance they had to strike it rich that served as a major component that piloted their determination. This highlights the American Dream because the 49ers of the California gold rush used determination to obtain the opportunity they had sought out for. Those who came to the new land were willing to live off of almost nothing on a day to day basis. Much of these people were willing to do back breaking work in order to acquire gold and as a result, a strong work ethic developed.

The outcome of the determination and wholesome effort put out by the gold miners was both positive and negative by which some succeeded, while others did not. Businesses that came in search of gold highlight the American Dream because they used the west’s potential to become successful in mining and in the American market. Those who engaged in hydraulic mining were the first to make a profitable business out of it. These people created America’s first original industry that gained precedence over all others. These businesses developed a concept that paved the way for the creation of America’s first forms of industry. This best highlights the American Dream by explicitly showing the utilization of opportunity to achieve a successful and lucrative business which in effect, benefited the national economy.

America and its people had their eyes on the Texas territory ever since the idea of manifest destiny and soon enough it became a site of American expansionism. Like the California gold rush and the Oregon territory, the expansion into the territory of Texas exhibits the qualities opportunity and success. During the 1800’s an influx of people journeyed to the western territory of Texas in search of the opportunity it offered. Texas offered large amounts of fertile land which were virtually unused by the small population of native Tejanos. The result of the Anglo-Texans movement into Texas was a flourishing Texan economy that based itself mainly on the cotton industry set up by the emigrants. Many people who led successful farms quickly became wealthy, thus carrying out the American dream of success.

Over time the cotton industry in Texas grew rapidly, so much that according to Karen Gerhardt Britton, Fred C. Elliott, and E. A. Mille of the Texas State Historical Association, “In 1849 a census of the cotton production of the state reported 58,073 bales (500 pounds each). In 1852 Texas was in eighth place among the top ten cotton-producing states of the nation. […] In 1879 some 2,178,435 acres produced 805,284 bales. The 1889 census reported 3,934,525 acres producing 1.5 million bales. The cotton crop in 1900 was more than 3.5 million bales from 7,178,915 acres. Beginning in 1872, thousands of immigrants from the Deep South and from Europe poured into the Blackland Prairie of Central Texas and began growing cotton.” The people of Texas lived the American Dream by turning a once un-populated and un-profitable land into one of the largest producers of cotton in all of America. The Anglo-Texans also, like the 49ers, helped America carry out its American Dream by increasing the success of its fairly new economy.

Much of the success, opportunity, and determination during the period of Westward Expansion were only possible through the power of American technology. Technology during that time highlights ingenuity, another characteristic of the American Dream. Technological advancements included the transcontinental railroad, advancements in covered wagon travel, and advancements in mining technology. The advancements in traveling to the west included the wagon train and the colossal Transcontinental Railroad. Due to the inherent dangers comprised in the journey west, people fabricated ways to make traveling by covered wagons easier and safer. The most evident advancement in wagon travel was the wagon train. Wagon trains served both as enclosures for livestock and protection against possible attacks from the combative Native Americans. In fact in March, 1857, Alexander Fancher led a wagon trail that included 50 men, 40 women and 50 children. On 7th September, the party was attacked by the hostile Native Americans. They survived because of the train’s ability to form a barrier between the Native Americans and the party members.

This technological advancement proves to highlight American ingenuity because the people who created this concept identified a major issue with westward travel and fixed it with a new innovative approach. Another advancement in westward travel was the creation of the unprecedented Transcontinental Railroad. To encourage movement into the west, Abraham Lincoln proposed the building of the Transcontinental Railroad that would simplify westward travel. This innovative structure encouraged the growth of American business, promoted the nation’s public discourse, and advanced intellectual life. This advancement made it easy for people to travel across the continent in a period of a couple days allowing them to gaze upon the nation’s beauty. In addition, the railroad carried more than passengers and goods; they provided a conductress for ideas, and pathways for discourse. Despite the lack of precedence, the engineers went forward with their plan proving the ambition and ingenuity of the American mind. They also show that the innovation and the ingenuity of the American mind is never settled by things that are “average”, and as a result Americans strive to create the best and be the best.

During the California Gold Rush the demand for gold continued to grow and the traditional method of “dry washing” quickly became obsolete. The need for better mining methods became increasingly more evident as the gold rush progressed, and soon new mining techniques were being used by the miners. The inventors of the new mining techniques made mining easier thus increasing the mining industry, and improving America’s economy. The advancements in mining technology included hydraulic mining and tunnel mining. In hydraulic mining, jets of water were shot at gravel banks washing out large quantities of gravel without hand labor. In tunnel mining, miners dug long tunnels into the sides of mountains cutting into gold veins and then extracting large quantities of gold. These innovative methods favored mass production without large amounts of labor making some people extremely prosperous. The people who invented these techniques demonstrated American ingenuity at its fullest by making mining easier while at the same time, increasing production.

America has developed a national identity that has been shown in events throughout the course of its history. The American Dream can be considered America’s identity and can be characterized by determination, opportunity, success, and ingenuity. Other qualities of the American dream do exist such as equality, but are primitive to the ones exhibited during Westward Expansion. These qualities fail to be current because they represent a young America and ideals that are only relevant to periods earlier in its history. The qualities of the American Dream shown during Westward Expansion more accurately and currently describe America and its people. Western Expansion is the best event in America’s history that exploits the usage of all four of these qualities by describing the American people and the opportunity existent within her boarders.


“Let Freedom Ring: Westward Expansion.” City University of New York. Accessed 7 April 2012.http://www1.cuny.edu/portal_ur/content/letfreedomring/westward.php. “Dangers on the Trail.” Oracle ThinkQuest Education Foundation. Accessed 8 April 2012.http://library.thinkquest.org/6400/Dangers%20on%20the%20Trail.htm. James, Ronald. “The California Gold Rush”, Online Nevada Encyclopedia. Last modified 14 July 2011.http://www.onlinenevada.org/california_gold_rush. “Gold Mining Turns into a Big Business”, Nevada Outback-Gems. Accessed 8 April 2012. http://nevada-outback-gems.com/gold_rush_tales/california_gold_rush-tale20.htm. Britton, Karen; Elliott, Fred, Miller, E. “Cotton Culture.” Texas State Historical Association. Accessed 9 April 2012.http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/afc03. “Wagon Trains.” Spartacus Educational. Accessed 9 April 2012.http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/WWwagontrain.htm. “General Article: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad.” PBS. Accessed 9 April 2012.http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/. “Summary of Gold Mining Techniques in Western United States.” Tuolumne County Historical Society California. Accessed 9 April 2012.http://tchistory.org/TCHISTORY/more_gold.htm. Malcolm J. Rohrbough, Days of gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation. California:University of California Press, October 1998.

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