“American Progress” an 1872 painting by John Gast. Wikimedia Commons, 12 October 2005, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0f/American_Progress_%281872%29_by_John_Gast.jpg

The term manifest destiny was coined in 1845 but the idea the United States was destined by divine favor to spread across the continent existed long before the romanticized name. European Christians had long justified their right to claim lands occupied by others in order to spread Christian beliefs. “If an explorer proclaims to have discovered the land in the name of a Christian European monarch, plants a flag in its soil, and reports his “discovery” to the European rulers and returns to occupy it, the land is now his, even if someone else was there first. Should the original occupants insist on claiming that the land is theirs, the “discoverer” can label the occupants’ way of being on the land inadequate according to European standards.”1 The natives of North America were seen as culturally inferior by the white, Christian Europeans. In order to accomplish the dream of an American nation, stretching the continent, the natives would need to be dealt with in some form. The American sense of cultural superiority and Christian rights combined with Native American cultural differences not only caused misunderstandings but gave the two very different views of the American manifest destiny.

Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny – LOA 2020 https://www.legendsofamerica.com/westward-expansion/

In the early 19th century, the U.S. expansion westward was sped up by numerous social, political, and economic factors. “By 1815 the population in the east was becoming dense and land became scarce. In the southern states, there was also rapid soil erosion due to excessive cultivation and big planters expanded their slave plantations by removing tenant farmers who were forced to move out to the westward region. The region was attracting migrants from the east as well new migrants from Europe.”2 The region offered the chance of rapid upward mobility that led to material self-improvement and acquisition of land for economic independence. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Lewis and Clark expedition that closely followed would be the catalyst of the United States westward expansion and the idea of manifest destiny. President Thomas Jefferson detailed in a special message to congress on Indian policy the goal of encouraging the native tribes to give up their ways of life in favor of agriculture and raising stock animals.3 This was seen as the most efficient use of the land by the United States government. These cultural differences between the Christian European descended peoples of the United States and the indigenous Americans would shape their dealings. The leaders of the United States saw their culture as superior to that of the natives and sought to civilize them in their own image. Various tribal leaders were invited to meet the President and hear the proposals of peace and prosperity that could be achieved by signing agreements with the United States. “Our seventeen States compose a great and growing nation. Their children are as the leaves of the trees, which the winds are spreading over the forest. But we are just also. We take from no nation what belongs to it. Our growing numbers make us always willing to buy lands from our red brethren, when they are willing to sell. But be assured we never mean to disturb them in their possessions.”4 Whether some of these promises were made in earnest or not, several promises made would be broken as Americans continued to move west in search of opportunities beyond U.S. boundaries. Those Native American tribes that refused to integrate with Western society would need to moved by one way or another.

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way“ Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze 1860. Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/72/Westward.jpg

The American nation continued it’s rapid spread westward through annexation of Texas, the Oregon Treaty, and the Mexican-American war. The United States government would seek to encourage it’s citizens to move west and settle these new territories. “Trappers, settlers, and miners headed West from the eastern United States prior to the Civil War. The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of land for free. Another important factor was completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869; the railroad led to much more rapid western migration and also facilitated economic development.”5 As the land was snatched up, the United States government’s handling of the Native American population and their responses increased in animosity. President James Monroe did not believe the Native Americans could be integrated into American society. “President James Monroe expanded on Jefferson’s ideas and beliefs on Indian removal in an 1825 address to Congress. He abandoned the idea that the Indians could be assimilated into white culture, and he argued that, therefore, it would be to the benefit of the tribes to be removed from their lands for their well-being.”6 President Andrew Jackson personally felt as if the United States had honored their promises and the Native American tribes were failing to uphold their end of the bargain as dictated his 1831 message regarding Indian relations.7 This spurred his intentions of forcefully removing the tribes from their native homelands and moving them west into less desirable tracts of land through removal.

“A New Map of Texas, Oregon, and California, with the Regions Adjoining
” Samuel Augustus Mitchell 1846. Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d2/Mitchell_A_New_Map_of_Texas%2C_Oregon%2C_and_California_1846_UTA.jpg

The Native American perspective of the United States westward progression was obviously very different. Tribes were often divided in how they chose to respond to the American advancement. Often only certain tribal leaders would negotiate deals with the United States government, while others of the same group would choose not to make deals. In their culture, often grouped into lose confederations, no one man could speak for the entire group. The United States either did not understand this notion or disregarded it entirely. A deal with one leader often was taken as treaty for the entire tribe and if a member of the tribe broke that trust, whether he had agreed to it or not, then the entire tribe was subject to punishment. Many times the United States government actually paid members of various tribes in order to acquire desired lands. Unfortunately, the native peoples did not understand exactly what they were getting into as they did not believe anyone could own the actual land. Therefore they would often “trespass” onto United States territories without permission. In other instances the government of the United States simply broke the promises they made and took the land they wanted by force.

Oregon Trail“ Albert Bierstadt 1869. Wikimedia Commons. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9e/Albert_Bierstadt_Oregon_Trail.jpg

Manifest destiny was an idea that the United States was destined to be a nation spanning the entire North American continent that grew as the 19th century progressed. The term and idea of manifest destiny has long been painted as a beautiful, divinely inspired American movement. That depiction depends from which perspective it is viewed. More attention has been paid recently to the view of the Native Americans and their perspective of the United States westward expansion. The cultural differences between the two and American sense of superiority led to many disputes and atrocities. The vision of manifest destiny of the United States came to fruition but viewing it from the other side is necessary to understand the costs with which it came to be.

Further Reading:

How to cite this article:

Aaron Padillo, “Manifest Destiny: The American Division” Digital History at USC Aiken, 2021. https://wordpress.com/post/digitalhistoryusca.com/869


[1] “Doctrine of Destiny.”, Accessed April 24, 2021. https://upstanderproject.org/firstlight/doctrine

[2] Ojha, Archana. “POWER, INEQUALITY AND DISCRIMINATION: CHAINS OF SUBORDINATION IN INDIGENOUS HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES (C.1600 TO 1890S).” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 78 (2017): 926-34. Accessed April 25, 2021. https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.usca.edu/stable/26906169.

[3] Jefferson, Thomas. “January 18, 1803: Special Message to Congress on Indian Policy.” Accessed April 24, 2021.  https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-18-1803-special-message-congress-indian-policy

[4]Jefferson, Thomas. “December 17, 1803: Address to the Brothers of Choctaw Nation.” Accessed April 24, 2021. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-18-1803-special-message-congress-indian-policy

[5] “Westward Expansion: Encounters at a Cultural Crossroads.” Accessed April 24, 2021. https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/westward-expansion-encounters-at-a-cultural-crossroads/

[6] “Manifest Destiny and Indian Removal.” Accessed April 24, 2021. https://americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Manifest-Destiny-and-Indian-Removal.pdf

[7] Jackson, Andrew. “February 22, 1831: Message Regarding Indian Relations.” Accessed April 24, 2021. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/february-22-1831-message-regarding-indian-relations

One thought on “Manifest Destiny: The American Division

  1. Great job Aaron. You did a great job of detailing how America developed through the Manifest Destiny. I also liked how you took the Native Americans perspective on this piece. Very well done!


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