by Anna Kathryn Lanier
In 1845 a magazine reporter wrote “Our manifest destiny is to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” He was, in other words, giving a moral excuse to the greed and imperial ambition of the American people to expand westward. God had predestined the United States of America to stretch from sea to shining sea and it was, therefore, the duty of the American people to spread Christianity and democracy across the continent.
The idea of Manifest Destiny did not originate with this reporter. Since 1803, when President Thomas Jefferson instigated the Louisiana Purchase, Manifest Destiny was in the works. It continued on with the acquisition of Florida and parts of Alabama and Mississippi in 1819 from Spain. In 1845 Texas, its own republic since winning independence from Mexico ten years earlier was annexed into the United States. In 1846 the long disputed border with Canada in the Northwest was finally settled to be 49 degrees latitude. In 1848 the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican War, gave the U.S. New Mexico and California. And finally, in 1853, the Gadsden Purchase acquired Arizona from Mexico. This completed the contiguous states.
It was not Manifest Destiny alone, however, that spurred on the millions of the people to take the harsh, dangerous journey west. It was economic depressions in 1837 and 1841. It was word of the rich, fertile soil in Oregon. It was the gold discovered in 1848. It was greed.
As AMERICA: A Narrative History says, “Trappers and farmers, miners and merchants, hunters, ranchers, teachers, domestics, and prostitutes, among others, headed west seeking their fortunes.” THE UNITED STATES: A Brief Narrative History says, “The desire for land of their own, the search for economic opportunity, and the promise of starting over in a new region ranked high among the many and complex reasons that people decided to endure the hardships....”
The pioneers of the mid-1800's did overcome vast hardships to settle the land and fulfill Manifest Destiny. The trail alone offered up “difficulties in finding adequate food and water, hostile Indians, and the danger of being trapped by snow in the mountains.” (THE UNITED STATES) Once they reached their destination, they often had those difficulties as well as others to contend with, including death. However, the westward movement “constitutes a colorful drama of determined pioneers and cowboys overcoming all obstacles to secure their visions of freedom and opportunity amid the regions awesome vastness.” (AMERICA)
Yet, Manifest Destiny did not come without a long-lasting price to America. In addition to the hardship the pioneers suffered, “...the colonization of the Far West involved short-sighted greed and irresponsible behavior, a story of reckless exploitation that scarred the land, decimated its wildlife, and nearly exterminated the culture of Native Americans.” (AMERICA)
It is hoped that if given a chance to do it all over again, the American government and people would have done it differently. But it is doubtful it would have it would have happened any other way. The desire of the government and the desire of the people would not have changed. As one gold seeker proclaimed, “The whole emigration is wild and frantic with a desire to be pressing forward.” A desire to own land, find economic freedom, to find freedom itself in a new life. Millions of Americans and new emigrants were willing to endure the hardships and carve a place in history in the name of Manifest Destiny. And the government was glad they were.
Now, to put a writing lesson curve on this....how does your story emulate the idea of Manifest Destiny? How are your characters predestined to change their lives, their ideas, their souls? What are they willing to give up to find the brass ring across the dangerous frontier?
Leave a comment for a chance to win not one, but two prizes! I'll away pocket size Bath and Body Works Country Chic shower gel and lotion (drawing to be held Tuesday, June 21st after 6:00 p.m.). AND the Seduced by History blog is giving away a free Hearts Through History Campus Workshop to one lucky June commenter. So, double the reason to say hi! Be sure and leave a comment.
**I'll be teaching PIONEERING WOMEN OF THE WEST at HHRW's Online Campus August 1-31, 2011. $10 for HHRW members, $20 for non-members. Click HERE for more information.
Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats
This article first appeared on Chatting with Anna Kathryn September 3, 2009.