Western Expansion

Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858)

Ferdinand Thomas Lee Boyle (1820-1906)
Oil on canvas, circa 1861, NPG.66.1
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Hart Benton was the U.S. Congress's chief advocate of western settlement for more than thirty years, beginning in 1821. He was well known for his grandiloquent oratory and explosive temper, although he surprised people with conciliatory stands regarding slavery and territorial disputes. Benton favored gaining territory through occupation rather than military conflict. His ideas presaged the Homestead Act of 1862, which granted land to settlers after they had lived on it and improved it for a period of five years. Benton did all in his power to assist homesteaders, advocating cheap land, the development of transportation routes such as the Santa Fe and Oregon trails, and, later, stagecoach and railroad service. He strongly encouraged the development of overland transportation, both to connect isolated settlers with friends and family and to provide the "skeleton of the future railroad." As chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, Benton facilitated the removal of Native American tribes to clear the way for white settlement. Following in his footsteps, Benton's son-in-law, John C. Frèmont (also the first Republican presidential candidate, in 1856) extensively explored the western territories and played a major role in the conquest of California during the Mexican War.

Brigham Young (1801-1877)

Hartwig Bornemann (dates unknown)
Lithograph, circa 1870, NPG.67.57
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Gift of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

Most early frontier settlers traveled west in search of opportunity. For the Mormons, opportunity meant religious freedom. Their organization, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. In 1844, when Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob, Young became the leader of the church. By that time, the Mormons had been forced out of New York and Missouri, and were facing persecution in Illinois. Afraid of the group's unorthodox Christian doctrine and belief in the practice of polygamy, violent mobs sought to quell the Mormons' growing political influence. Young determined to lead an exodus of Mormons to the far west, where church members could gather without hindrance. In 1846, the first parties left Illinois, and the next year, Young chose the valley of the Great Salt Lake as their destination. In the following years, thousands of emigrants traveled over the Mormon Trail, pulling their possessions in wagons or even handcarts. Although there were many casualties, Young orchestrated a successful mass migration against tremendous odds. He later served as the first governor of Utah. Aside from Salt Lake City, the Mormons founded more than 350 communities, from Idaho to Mexico and west to California.


William Frederick ("Buffalo Bill") Cody (1846-1917)

Courier Lithography Company (circa 1882-1905)
Chromolithographic Poster, 1900, NPG.87.55
National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Few people have had as big an influence on the myth of the American West as Buffalo Bill. As a young man, he rode for the Pony Express, and after the Civil War he earned a reputation as an expert marksman, buffalo hunter, and army scout. He also supplied railroad construction workers with buffalo meat--hence his nickname. While working as a hunting guide, Cody met Edward Judson, a popular novelist. Judson was so impressed that he made Cody the star of one of his novels in 1869. Three years later, Judson convinced Cody to star in a dramatized version of the book in Chicago, where his love of the spotlight and his fame both skyrocketed. Cody's most successful venture, "Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show," began in 1883 and toured the United States and Europe for more than thirty years. "Wild West" combined melodramatic reenactments, vaudeville spectacle, and rodeo demonstrations. Elements of the show--the Pony Express, cowboys and Indians, Sitting Bull, and "Little Sure Shot" Annie Oakley, to name a few--became staple items in America's store of romantic Western images.



New Perspectives on the West, PBS documentary
Manifest Destiny: American Expansion in The West
Information, documents, learning tools, and more about Manifest Destiny from digital history.edu
WildWest articles, from HistoryNet
Across the Plains in '64, by Anna Dell Clinkinbeard
Photographs of the American West 1861-1912.

Thomas Hart Benton

Benton biography, from USGenWeb
The Oregon Trail: The Trail West
Oregon California Trails Association
Santa Fe Trail
Interactive Santa Fe Trail

Brigham Young

Young biography, from Virtual Vermont
Pioneer Story: the Mormon Pioneer Trail
Mormon pioneer bibliography

William Frederick ("Buffalo Bill") Cody

Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park
Buffalo Bill as Reported in the Newspapers
Autobiography of Buffalo Bill, by PBS
Cody biography, from Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Pony Express National Historic Trail
Pony Express History
Sitting Bull biography from PBS