The Westward Movement’s Effect on Indians


The history of America is a history of westward migration from the Colonial Era to Manifest Destiny resulting in the populating of the Great Plains after the Civil War.

The “Westward Movement” in American history may have begun during the early colonial period as the lure of land, game, and resources tempted adventurous settlers to leave the east behind. By the mid-19th century Horace Greeley supposedly said, “Go West young man and grow up with the country.” Ralph Waldo Emerson had advised readers to “Hitch your wagon to a star.” The Frontier fulfilled both challenges and in the 1890s Frederick Jackson Turner evaluated everything that was good in the American character and national mentality as relating to the frontier. The Westward Movement brought significant changes to the vast continent but in many cases these changes spelled doom for the indigenous inhabitants.

The Beginning of Western Settlement in the 19th Century

Even before the 1849 Gold Rush brought tens of thousands to California, Americans had migrated west in large numbers. Texas independence was attributed, in part, to eastern farmers enticed by cheap and fertile land. The Mormons, led by Brigham Young, trekked across the Plains by the thousands to establish their own community in Utah, out of the reach of discrimination and persecution. The Westward Movement was not slowed by the Civil War even as a Republican dominated Congress finally passed a Homestead Act in 1862.

Role of the Railroad in Westward Settlement

In 1869 the two branches of the new built Transcontinental Railroad met at Promontory, Utah, signaling the end of a stupendous undertaking linking the two American coasts. The railroad also took local Native Americans a step closer to the reservation system and the perpetual loss of tribal land. Railroad hubs funneled goods via trunk lines to growing cities like Chicago with beef cattle driven across the Plains from Texas. At the same time, railroad agents actively recruited farmers to settle on company-owned lands. Their farming would produce railroad profits through freighting fees.

Effect on Native Populations

Plains Indians were driven from traditional lands by a variety of factors but the most important one was the sheer number of pioneers and adventurers crossing the continent. 223,000 Plains Indians, including the Five Friendly tribes in Oklahoma, lived in this region. In the Northern Plains, some 30,000 Sioux vigorously fought for their lands and it was these Indians that obliterated General Custer’s command at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

Native Americans hunted buffalo, using every portion of the animal to live. White men determined to subdue native cultures began a concerted effort to rid the Plains of buffalo, driving the species into near extinction. While such actions may have been premeditated, in other cases they involved adventurers that hunted the animals purely for sporting pleasure. By 1893, fewer than 200 buffalo existed in the West.

Solving the Indian Problem

The independence of native cultures was interrupted by cattle drives, farmer’s fences, an ever expanding railroad system, and the elimination of a chief source of food. Indians as a group were viewed as vile and insolent. In an era when white society applied Charles Darwin’s principles to social models, the Indians were inferior and unfit. During his command of American forces in the Trans-Missouri West, General William T. Sherman observed that the only solution would be extermination.

By 1887 Congress passed the Dawes Severalty Act, depriving Indians of traditional tribal lands and settling them on farm allotments. The legislation, though well intentioned, failed. As more territories entered the community of states, Native Americans became more marginalized. The culmination of the Westward Movement’s effect on native cultures came in 1890 at Wounded Knee in South Dakota with the wanton massacre of Teton Sioux.


  1. Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (Holt, 2001)
  2. Federick Merk, History of the Westward Movement (Alfred A. Knopf, 1978)
  3. Page Smith, The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post Reconstruction Era (Penguin Books, 1990)
  4. Albert K. Weinberg, Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History (Gloucester, MA, Peter Smith, 1958)