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. At the end of Andrew Jackson’s two terms in office 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. Just over 100 years after the nation’s birth, White Americans lived everywhere.
In 1845, John O’Sullivan, a New York newspaper editor, coined the phrase manifest destiny. The term described the very popular idea of the special role of the United States in overtaking the continent. As the two words imply, O’Sullivan and most White Americans believed it was their God-given duty to seize and settle the continent and spread Protestant, democratic values from sea to shining sea.
Expansion westward seemed perfectly natural to many Americans in the mid-1800s. Like the Massachusetts Puritans who hoped to build a city upon a hill, courageous pioneers believed that America had a divine obligation to stretch the boundaries of their noble republic to the Pacific Ocean. Independence had been won in the Revolution and reaffirmed in the War of 1812. The spirit of nationalism that swept the nation in the next two decades demanded more territory. The every man is equal mentality of the Jacksonian Era fueled this optimism. With territory up to the Mississippi River claimed and settled and the Louisiana Purchase explored, Americans headed west in droves.
The religious fervor spawned by the Second Great Awakening created another incentive for the drive west. Indeed, many settlers believed that God himself blessed the growth of the American nation. The Native Americans were considered heathens. By Christianizing the tribes, American missionaries believed they could save souls and they became among the first to cross the Mississippi River.
Economic motives were paramount for others. The fur trade had been dominated by European trading companies since colonial times. German immigrant John Jacob Astor was one of the first American entrepreneurs to challenge the Europeans. He became a millionaire in the process. The desire for more land brought aspiring homesteaders to the frontier. When gold was discovered in California in 1848, the number of migrants increased even more.
Herein lies an interesting question. 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?