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The West
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Mapping Conquest Key Events Maps Transcript Webography

What can we learn about the processes of conquest from looking at maps?

The United States used a variety of devices to conquer the West. Aside from military might, the nation employed transportation systems and technologies, the power of government to bound territory and bestow land, and the promise of expanded freedom to bring more and more settlers into the land it claimed.

Indian and Soldier Battles, 1864 - 1912

When the United States military moved into the West, Native Americans fought to defend their homelands. Sometimes, as at Sand Creek, they fought settler militias. Other times, as at the Little Bighorn and Canyon de Chelly, they battled the regular forces of the United States Army.

Map of Battles between Native Americans and American Soldiers and Settlers.

Indian Lands

By the twentieth century, what had once been Indian country was indisputably part of the United States. Indians had been reduced to occupying fragments of their former territory, concentrated on reservations throughout the West. But within those enclaves, Indian nations did have limited political sovereignty, which continues to this day.

Map of Native American Lands

Great Trails to the West by 1860

First there were trails. The Santa Fe Trail to the Southwest was opened up in 1821 by Missourian and Mexican traders, looking for new markets. The Oregon and California Trails saw hundreds of thousands of settlers migrate west between 1836 and the Civil War.

Map of Great Trails to the West by 1860

Railroads Built by 1900

Then came the transcontinental railroads. In 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines met in Promontory Point, Utah, connecting the first transcontinental railroad. Within thirty years, the Northern Pacific; the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; the Southern Pacific; the Great Northern, and the Denver and Rio Grande lines had followed suit. Where the rails reached, settlement could follow.

Map of Railroads built by 1900

Statehood by 1912

The United States government extended its rule over the West by establishing territories and creating states. Territorial governments were outposts of the nation, rather than undisputed political authorities. But by the time the settler population reached 60,000, and the territories petitioned for statehood, those governments had achieved a measure of control over their domains. In some cases, however, the transition from territory to state took decades.

Map of Statehood by 1912

Railway Grants by 1890

Even as the United States was establishing territories and states, the federal government was using its own power over land to foster national expansion. Between 1850 and 1890, the government surveyed the West and gave much of it away, for example, to the corporations that built the transcontinental railroads.

Map of Railway Grants by 1890

Population in 1890

The West remained sparsely settled, even as late as 1890. But by this time, the presence of as few as six inhabitants per square mile was enough to reinforce the connection of far-flung Western places to a nation that had spread itself from the faraway East.

Map of Population in 1890

Women's Suffrage in 1919

Remarkably, the least populous part of the country proved most "civilized" in the matter of extending political rights to women. Before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, only two states east of the Mississippi River offered women full suffrage. By contrast, thirteen western states fully enfranchised women, beginning with Wyoming, which had led the way as a territory, giving women the vote in 1869.

Map of Women's Suffrage in 1919

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