Westward Movement

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Time Line


1849 California Gold Rush
1851 Fort Laramie Treaty
1859 Comstock Lode discovered

Santee Sioux uprising

Government Land Acts

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

1864 Sand Creek Massacre

Treaty of Medicine Lodge

Purchase of Alaska from Russia

1868 Second Fort Laramie Treaty
1869 Transcontinental railroad is completed
1870-1890 Cattle boom in Southwest
1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn

Ghost Dance movement

Wounded Knee Massacre

Westward Movement

The mid-nineteenth century was a period of great change and development west of the Mississippi River. For the American Indians, these years brought disaster. For most other Americans, the West offered opportunity and freedom.

The United States continued to push the tribes farther and farther from their ancestral lands. The American Indians had always been willing to negotiate, but the U.S. government did not honor the treaties it made with them. When negotiation failed, the tribes resisted with force of arms, but they lacked the strength and the numbers of the federal troops. By the end of the nineteenth century, they were settled on reservations and facing the end of their former dominance over the North American continent.

The U.S. government and big business between them worked hard to settle the West. The government offered free land to any homesteader who would claim it and farm it for five years. It also offered tremendous land grants to companies that were willing to build railroads. Companies jumped at the offer, and the railroads became the largest employers of the day, hiring millions of people to work on every aspect of developing and building the national transportation system. Big companies also purchased tracts of land where gold and silver had been discovered, and hired miners to get the precious metals from the ground. The government made prairie land free for ranchers’ cattle to range on, making ranching an attractive and profitable venture for many entrepreneurs, large and small.

In the last half of the nineteenth century, the West provided every opportunity for prosperity—land for the taking, a variety of well-paid jobs, and, for most groups, relative freedom from the oppression and discrimination that prevailed against blacks in the Reconstruction South and recent immigrants in northeastern port cities.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Westward Movement Practice Test

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