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Territorial Expansion in the 1800s

It was obvious that America would move west as the land appeared to go on forever and the population of the East coast was increasing by leaps and bounds. The Appalachian Mountains proved to be a bit of an obstacle that was overcome as Americans began to use their geniuses to create improvements that would allow easier access to the West. Expansion was unavoidable. Expansion was the only way for the nation to grow and to settle many of the country’s issues in the process.

Roads, railroads, and canals would change how westward expansion occurred. Suddenly, the obstacles to the West were no longer so intimidating. American technology was changing all that. Travel time was decreased dramatically as the new open land also opened the door for manufactured items. Just opening the Erie Canal opened “markets where none existed before and showering the fruits of commerce on everyone within its reach.” Westward expansion was a big boom to the American economy.

As the settlers moved forward into the frontier, it became evident that the ‘Indian problem’ would have to be faced. The government began to take an active role in measures to “overawe the tribes” and help hasten the expansion effort. This was no longer just an issue of transportation and settlers. There were others now involved which meant conflict and more issues for the government to contend with.

As the Americans moved westward, they also found that the expansion brought in more foreign relations. The British as well as the Spanish were in the way and had to be dealt with. Expansionism was getting to more and more complicated. President Monroe did not approach the Indians or the British lightly as he took measures in a more aggressive manner than most would have. The British still claimed land west of the former colonies, and it would take diplomacy and stubbornness to push America’s claim west.

Westward expansion would also bring the slave issue more the forefront than ever before. As the people of the New World spread out, they began to form communities that would eventually look to officially become states with all the legal rights the other states east of the mountain range had. This issue would become huge as Missouri petitioned to become a state. It was a slave-holding state that would tip the balance of slave versus free states. After much discussion and some compromise, Missouri was allowed into the Union as a slave state as long as Maine came in as a free state to balance the act and that all future states west and north of Missouri would be brought in only as free states. Westward expansion now became a game in the slavery issue.

In order to rid the nation of the institution of slavery, more and more territories had to be developed and brought in as free states. This meant that the North could “shape the emerging West toward freedom” and create the nation they longed for. By going that route, the nation could then gradually eliminate slavery in the slave states and create a free nation all the way around. The West was becoming more important every day.


Feller, Daniel. The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815-1840. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1995.
Sellers, Charles. The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815-1846. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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