The Ultimate Guide to Teaching Westward Expansion
If you’re a teacher, then you are probably familiar with this scenario: you look at your schedule and realize you’re supposed to teach about a topic you remember little to nothing about! Especially with U.S. history, you want to make sure to cover key concepts, but it can be difficult to know what needs to be covered. Researching and reading about large history topics like Westward Expansion can take a lot of time, which we all know is so precious to teachers.
In this blog post, I will give you the most important things you need to know to help you start teaching Westward Expansion in your classroom!
Westward Expansion Overview
What was Westward Expansion?
Westward Expansion refers to the 19th-century movement of settlers into the American West, lasting roughly from 1787-1860. During the 19th century, the United States gained a million square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. This land was acquired through purchases, treaties, and war. During this time, Americans moved West seeking land, adventure, riches, and new opportunities. This new frontier would become an important factor that shaped early American life.
Although the term “Westward Expansion” is common, not all settlers moved west during this time period. People migrated north from Mexico, east from China, and enslaved African Americans were forced to move from the Upper South to the Deep South.
In addition, this time period was not considered “expansion” by everyone. Indigenous people had been living in North America for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The movement of white settlers onto their land was seen as invasion and dispossession. Mexican Americans similarly saw the movement of settlers as an “invasion” rather than an “expansion.”
Sates and Territories of the USA before 1789, Link
Why did people move West?
Land and Technology
There were many forces that drove Westward Expansion. At this time the U.S. population was growing quickly. Between 1790 and 1860 the US population grew from about 4 million to 21 million! These people crowded the East, and many people began to look West for more space, land, and opportunity. Many people believed they could have a better life if they moved West. They hoped to make more money through new ventures like farming and mining.
The U.S. government incentivized people to settle the western territories by offering free land. The 1862 Homestead Act let U.S. citizens apply for 160 acres of free land called “homesteads”. This was a tremendous opportunity for many people, including immigrants and formerly enslaved people.
New technology and transportation advances also made Westward Expansion possible. The telegraph made it easier to communicate across long distances. Barbed wire made building fences faster and easier, allowing more people to set up their own land. Steamboats, canals, and railroads made long-distance travel faster and more accessible.
Westward Expansion in the United States can’t be taught without studying Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny was the 19th-century idea that Americans were chosen by God to settle all of the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Not only did Americans believe it was their destiny to settle this land, but many believed it was their destiny to spread their religion, language, culture, and government.
Many people believed that America was special and should be an example to all other countries. The idea that America has a special destiny dates back to America’s founding. During the Revolution, Thomas Paine wrote about America’s unique opportunity to “begin the world over again.” Later, in 1845, a journalist named John L. O’Sullivan officially coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in an article urging the U.S. to annex the Republic of Texas.
There were several issues with the idea of Manifest Destiny. Inherent in Manifest Destiny is the belief that American white culture is better than other cultures. It also assumes that America’s right to settle the West is more important than land claims by people already living there, like Native and Mexican Americans.
US Territorial Acquisitions
The United States began as the 13 colonies and grew by acquiring pieces of land. Some of the most notable acquisitions include:
- United States (Treaty of Paris) – 1783
- The Louisiana Purchase – 1803
- Texas Annexation – 1845
- Oregon Country – 1846
- Mexican Cession – 1848
- Gadsden Purchase – 1853
- Florida Cession – 1819-1821
The US also gained small parts of land that were ceded by Great Britain in 1818 and 1842. These acquisitions and others created the United States that we know today.
The Louisiana Purchase & Lewis and Clark
In 1803, the United States made a deal with France to purchase the large Louisiana Territory. The territory included over 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi. America bought the land for the bargain price of $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase almost doubled the size of the US!
After the Louisiana Purchase, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to pay for an expedition to explore this new territory. Lewis and Clark were two explorers that led this expedition, officially known as the Corps of Discovery. Their purpose was to explore and map the Louisiana territory and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson also asked the men to keep a detailed record of the land’s resources, establish trade with Indigenous Peoples, and “claim” the land in the West for the United States.
Lewis and Clark’s journey lasted two years and covered over 8,000 miles. Lewis and Clark encountered several Indigenous Peoples on their journey. Native Americans taught them how to survive, shared travel routes, and provided them with important goods. One of the most famous people they met was a Lemhi Shoshone woman named Sacagawea.
Lewis and Clark’s detailed records from their expedition were used by future traders and settlers.
The Texas Revolution
The Texas Revolution was a rebellion by colonists living in Texas against Mexico. In the early 1800s, Texas was a part of Mexico’s northern providence. Not very many Mexicans, called Tejanos, lived in Texas. This made them vulnerable to attacks by hostile Native American groups.
In 1820, Spain decided that if more people settled Texas, it would be better protected. So, Spain gave a large land grant to an American colonist names Moses Austin. When Moses died, his son Stephen brought about 300 Americans to Texas. In the following years, thousands of Anglo-American settlers moved to Texas. They quickly outnumbered the Tejanos and Native Americans in the area. These white Americans brought their own identities and traditions with them, some of which caused conflict with Mexico.
For example, slavery was a great source of conflict. American settlers brought enslaved people to Texas even though Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829. Tensions between Texas settlers and Mexico grew. Colonists sent a list of demands to Mexican President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Mexico responded by abolishing all state governments in 1834.
This, along with other disagreements, caused the start of the Texas Revolution. Lasting from 1835-1836, the Texas Revolution resulted in Texas winning its independence from Mexico. Texas remained an independent nation until 1845 when it joined the United States after the Mexican-American War.
The Mexican-American War
The Mexican-American War was a conflict between Mexico and the United States. It lasted from 1846-1848. President James K. Polk wanted Texas and the Mexican lands of California and New Mexico for the United States. Under Polk’s presidency, Texas joined the United States in 1845. This angered Mexican leaders who did not recognize Texas’s independence. Furthermore, there was a disagreement about the location of the US-Mexico border. Polk sent a representative to Mexico to try to settle the debate and offer to buy California. Mexico rejected the offer. In response, Polk sent troops to the disputed Texas border region in 1846.
Fighting broke out and Polk used this as an excuse to declare war on May 13, 1846. The US Army invaded Mexico, seized New Mexico and California, and blockaded the Pacific coast. The war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In this treaty, Mexico ceded more than 500,000 square miles of land to the United States. Some Americans celebrated this addition, while others felt the U.S. had gained the land unfairly. Although the war was officially over, there continued to be conflict in this region., especially in regards to slavery.
California Gold Rush
The California Gold Rush was an important part of Westward Expansion. It lasted from 1848-1855. The gold rush began when James W. Marshall found flecks of gold in the American River near Sutter’s Mill. When the news spread, thousands of people rushed to California from all over the world. Prospectors panned for gold in rivers and extracted gold from rocks.
Although some prospectors made a lot of money, most miners made a modest living. Some found no success at all. By 1850, prospectors had found most of the easily accessible gold. As competition grew, anti-immigrant feelings spread. Some believed the gold should be for white Americans only. They tried to drive out non-white miners through violent racist attacks. California passed anti-foreigner laws and taxes that targeted Native Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Mexicans.
The Gold Rush had many important effects. It made California’s population boom, and California became a state in 1850. The money from the Gold Rush helped finance the Transcontinental Railroad and spread to other countries’ economies. This is also why California is known as the “Golden State.”
Unfortunately, the Gold Rush also had negative effects. During this time, thousands of Native Americans were attacked and killed by gold seekers. Many were forced from their land and food sources.
Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1861), Link
Westward Expansion Trails & the Oregon Trail
Most people from the East and Midwest traveled west via overland trails. This was cheaper than traveling by ship. These people were called emigrants or pioneers.
Famous emigrant trails are the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the California Trail. Each trail had it’s own challenges and advantages.
Perhaps the most famous trail was the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail was a 2,000 mile route connecting the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. It was first used by Native Americans, fur traders, and trappers traveling on foot or horseback. People traveled it for many reasons. Some hoped to find cheap land and new opportunities in the West. Some sought to escape religious persecution or hoped to find gold. Between 1839-1867, over 400,000 pioneers made the trek across the Oregon Trail.
Most emigrants used covered wagons pulled by oxen to carry their belongings and traveled in large groups called wagon trains. Emigrants packed only the basics needed to survive. For example, they brought food supplies, weapons, and farming tools.
Pioneer life had many challenges. Pioneers faced rough terrain and harsh weather. Many pioneers died from accidents and diseases like cholera and smallpox.
The Oregon Trail became the most popular route west. It provided a way for people to settle the West and allowed for future travel and growth. Use of the Oregon Trail faded after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.
Indian Removal Act
Although we often hear about Columbus “discovering” America, we know that millions of people lived in the Americas before European contact. These people made up many Indigenous nations.
When Europeans explored the New World, they brought with them Old-World diseases that killed millions of Native Americans. Disease, war, and slavery devestated the Indigenous population during the 16th century.
During Westward Expansion, some Americans wanted to settle in the South where the lands were fertile for farming and mining. The land they wanted was home to “The Five Civilized Tribes” – the Cherokee, Creek (Muscogee), Choctaw, Chickasaw, and the Seminole nations. Some felt that these tribes were “in the way” of white settlers gaining more land.
President Andrew Jackson was one of these people. He thought that Native Americans and white Americans should stay separated. He saw Native Americans as “savages” who were not “civilized”. In May of 1830, Congress and Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act. This law gave the president power to negotiate removal treaties with Native American tribes that lived East of the Mississippi River.
Removal Treaties & Forced Removal
A removable treaty meant that the tribes would exchange their ancestral lands for land in the West. Jackson hoped that the Native Americans would leave voluntarily and peacefully. However, many of the nations resisted. The U.S. spent years struggling to force them to relocate. Tens of thousands of Native Americans were forced to leave their homes and resettle in the West.
Throughout this period of “Indian Removal,” the United States government consistently broke promises made to Indigenous nations. For example, the U.S. failed to provide the suitable land they promised. In addition, the government did not protect Indigenous people from settlers who invaded their land.
Some Indigenous people sold their land and moved West. Some nations, like the Creeks, were forcibly removed even though they never signed a removal treaty. The US Army forced the Cherokee people to move West at gunpoint, without being allowed time to gather their belongings. This march is known as the Trail of Tears because 4,000 Cherokee people died of disease, cold, and hunger on their way West.
Within ten years, the US government had removed 46,000 Native American people. This opened up millions of acres of Southern land to white settlement and slavery.
Westward Expansion & Slavery
Since 1789, the United States struggled with the question: Will the nation be slave or free? Some states were slave states where slavery was legal. Others were free states, where slavery was not allowed. Slavery expanded dramatically between 1790 and 1860. This was partially due to the invention of the cotton gin. The cotton gin made growing cotton more profitable. This led to a greater demand for the labor of enslaved people. Explorers and settlers also increased slavery when they brought enslaved people with them to the West.
Every time the US acquired a new state or territory, the issue of slavery was revisited.
- Southerners who profited from slavery wanted it to expand to the West.
- Many Americans living in free states were fine with slavery existing in the South and did business with enslavers. However, many Northerners and Westerners did not want slavery to expand to the western territories.
- Some Americans believed that slavery was morally wrong. They were called abolitionists. Many abolitionists were people who had escaped slavery.
As new states joined the nation, sectionalism in the US increased. Southerners worried that adding free states would mean they would lose power in the Senate. On the other side, Northerners were alarmed at the idea of slavery spreading to the West.
Lawmakers didn’t want to make a definitive decision about slavery. Instead, they made a series of compromises to try and keep the country together.
These compromises were:
- The Missouri Compromise
- The Compromise of 1850
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act
These compromises only delayed the inevitable. The question of slavery in the United States would ultimately be settled by the American Civil War.
Westward Expansion Timeline
- 1803 – America acquires the Louisiana Territory from France
- 1804 – Lewis and Clark begin their expedition
- 1820 – Congress passes the Missouri Compromise
- 1830 – Congress passes the Indian Removal Act
- 1835 – The first battle of the Texas Revolution occurs at Gonzales, Texas
- 1838 – The US army forces the Cherokee Nation from their homes (Trail of Tears)
- 1841 – People begin to travel west on the Oregon Trail
- 1845 – John O’ Sullivan first uses the term “Manifest Destiny”
- 1845 – Texas becomes a US State
- 1846–1848 – The Mexican American War
- 1846 – England signs the Oregon Treaty, adding the Oregon Territory to the US
- 1848 – The California Gold Rush begins
- 1850 – Congress passes the Compromise of 1850
- 1854 – Congress passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act
- 1861 – The Civil War begins
- 1862 – Congress passes the Homestead Act
- 1869 – The Transcontinental Railroad is completed
I recommend displaying a timeline like this in your classroom. Even better, have students help you create the timeline as you go through the unit!
Teacher Resources for Learning about Westward Expansion
Now that you know the basics, here are a few excellent resources to help you learn more. These resources will help you better understand the Westward Expansion!
Westward Expansion: Crash Course US History – John Green’s fast-paced and informative video teaches about the realities of Western Expansion.
Free Online US History Textbook – Chapters 11 of this online textbook discusses key Westward Expansion topics.
- Britannica Online – Britannica’s American Frontier article has great information, photos, and maps about Westward Expansion
Westward Expansion Pacing Guide
Westward Expansion Simulation and Game
Have you ever considered bringing Western Expansion to life with a simulation? Here’s an idea:
Assign each student to a group. As a group, they must make decisions about the Oregon Trail. Students make choices about when to leave, what items to take, and how to respond to challenges on the trail. Students earn points based on their choices. This creates some fun competition and gets your students engaged in learning about pioneer life.
I also created a game about the California Gold Rush. Students decide how they’ll get to California, what their job will be, and how they will spend their gold. The goal is to earn more gold than your partner. This is such a fun way to get students engaged wih history!
If you are interested in doing something similar, here is the pacing guide I used:
3-Week Pacing Guide
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5|
|Manifest Destiny||Lewis and Clark Expedition||Forces Driving Westward Expansion||U.S. Territorial Acquisitions||Westward Expansion Trails|
|Day 6||Day 7||Day 8||Day 9||Day 10|
|All About the Oregon Trail||Oregon Trail Simulation||Indian Removal Part 1||Indian Removal Part 2||Texas Revolution|
|Day 11||Day 12||Day 13||Day 14||Day 15|
|Mexican-American War||California Gold Rush||California Gold Rush Game||Westward Expansion and Slavery||Westward Expansion's Effects|
Note: Each lesson is around 45 minutes long.
If creating your own Westward Expansion activites sounds overwhelming to you, check out my Westward Expansion Unit.
This unit includes helpful PowerPoints, engaging simulations, ready-to-print student worksheets, and an editable study guide and assessment to check student knowledge.
I know lots of teachers are teaching remotely, so I’ve added Google slides to all the lessons. I want to make teaching the Westward Expansion enjoyable for you and your students no matter how you’re teaching!
Free Westward Expansion Map Lesson
To get you started, check out my free Westward Expansion lesson.
In this lesson, students discover how the U.S. expanded westward. Students map and compare U.S. territorial acquisitions from 1783 to 1853. This lesson can be printed or assigned via Google Classroom!
Enter your email below to grab your free Westward Expansion Maps Lesson.
Westward Expansion Primary Sources
Primary sources are one of history teachers’ most valuable tools. Primary sources show multiple points of view and spark curiosity about the past. However, I’ve found that many teachers don’t know where to find good primary sources. There are a lot of primary sources available, so it can be difficult to find age-appropriate ones for your students and create a plan to use them.
To help you use primary sources in your classroom, I’ve compiled a list of Westward Expansion Primary Sources.
One of my favorite Westward Expansion primary source’s is this painting:
American Progress Painting (1872)
Description of Primary Source:
This painting was popular in the 19th century. In fact, copies were printed in travel guides for settlers going west. The painting is an allegory, or symbolic story, for Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the 19th-century idea that it was America’s God-given right to settle North America.
In Gast’s painting, the flying woman represents America. In her hands, she holds a book and telegraph wires. These items symbolize education and new technology. The woman appears to be moving settlers to the West. As she does so, the sky changes from dark to light. Gast painted Native Americans and animals running away from the settlers.
The ideas in this painting represent the way many settlers felt about their destiny to settle the American West, regardless of who was already living there.
Class Discussion Questions:
- What is the first thing you notice in this painting?
- What smaller things do you notice in this painting?
- When do you think this painting was created?
- Why do you think this painting was created?
- What do you think the woman in the center of the painting represents?
- How do you think the creator of this painting feels about Westward Expansion?
Resources for this Primary Source:
- Download a print of the painting (Library of Congress)
- Worksheet for analyzing artwork (National Archives)
Westward Expansion Videos
Another great way to engage students is through high-quality history videos. Videos can teach a lot of information in a short period of time. They are also engaging and fun!
However, most teachers know that not all history videos are created equal. It’s hard to find accurate, appropriate videos from reliable sources. To help provide you with awesome, informative videos, I’ve created this list of 5 Westward Expansion Videos for Kids.
Here is an extremely powerful video from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian about how white settlers viewed Indigenous Peoples as a “problem” to overcome:
The “Indian Problem” (Smithsonian NMAI)
- The National Museum of the American Indian’s overview of Indian Removal
- 12 minutes
- My Rating: Ages 10+
- Notes: This video is filled with historical photos and interviews with Native American leaders and historians. The video has powerful and heartbreaking quotes from Native Americans who were forcibly removed from their lands. I recommend turning on the captions.
Westward Expansion Picture Books
The last resource I want to share with you is picture books about Westward Expansion. Picture books are a great way to get students engaged in history. In addition, picture books help students see historical events from multiple perspectives.
One great book to use while you’re teaching Westward Expansion is Dandelions by Eve Bunting:
This beautifully illustrated book tells the story of Zoey and her family who move West for a new life. This move is difficult and strange for the family, especially for Zoey’s mother who misses home. Zoey’s father feels more optimistic and tries to make the best of things.
Zoey’s family must make a new home and experience the challenges of starting over. Through their eyes we see the struggles and hopes of many pioneers moving West.
This book is appropriate for ages 8 and up.
Ideas for Using this Book:
It can sometimes be difficult for students to connect with the past, but this book is a great opportunity to discuss what pioneer life was like on a more personal level. Here are some questions you can ask your students: What challenges did Zoey’s family face? How did each family member feel about their new home? How would you feel if you were in their shoes?
You could also have students write a letter from the perspective of one of the characters. What would they say to friends and family back home about their new life?
Westward Expansion Unit
I hope that these resources help you teach Westward Expansion. If you need more help, consider checking out my 3-week Westward Expansion Unit.
Westward Expansion Interactive Lesson Plans
How would you like to have your Westward Expansion Unit completely planned for the next 3 weeks? I’m talking 15 lessons, worksheets, answer keys, and activities completely ready to go.
I’m a former 5th grade teacher myself. I’ve been in your shoes! With the ever-increasing demands placed upon teachers, it can be hard to keep up. For me, that often meant letting my social studies lessons fall through the cracks.
Now, I work full-time creating U.S. History curriculum to help busy teachers like you. I want to help you fall in love with teaching history.
My history units have been loved by thousands of 5th-8th grade teachers! Keep reading to find out why you will love my newest interactive unit all about Westward Expansion.
What’s included in the Westward Expansion Unit?
- 15 detailed lesson plans
- 3 weeks of activities
- Pacing guide
- Answer keys
- Google Slides for each lesson (Google Classroom compatible)
- 175+ pages with a variety of activities (PowerPoint presentations, task cards, maps, a simulation, an original game, a Reader’s Theatre, and so much more)
- Editable end-of-unit test and study guide
Westward Expansion Unit Table of Contents
Manifest Destiny— define Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny and evaluate beliefs about America’s mission in the world (PowerPoint presentation, student note worksheets, 4 corners posters)
Lewis and Clark Expedition—analyze journals from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (informative article, excerpts from Lewis and Clark journals, student analysis worksheets)
Forces Driving Westward Expansion—use primary and secondary sources to discover which forces drove Westward Expansion (artifact cards, student recording sheets)
U.S. Territorial Acquisitions—map and compare U.S. territorial acquisitions from 1783 to 1853 (blank map, acquisitions task cards, student reflection page)
Westward Expansion Trails—map and analyze Westward Expansion overland trails (blank map, trail task cards, student reflection pages)
All About the Oregon Trail—explain what life was like for emigrants on the Oregon Trail and prepare for an Oregon Trail simulation (informative article, student worksheets)
Oregon Trail Simulation—participate in a simulation about the Oregon Trail and explain the challenges faced by emigrants on the Oregon Trail (PowerPoint presentation, student worksheets, reflection)
Indian Removal Part 1—sequence and analyze events relating to Indian Removal in the Southeastern United States (timeline cards, reflection page)
Indian Removal Part 2—respond silently in writing to prompts about Indian Removal and discuss insights (informative article, silent conversation prompts)
Texas Revolution—explain the main events of the Texas Revolution and participate in a readers theatre about the Battle of Gonzales (informative article, readers theater)
Mexican-American War—describe the causes and effects of the Mexican-American War and explain various perspectives on the war (informative article, cause & effect sorting cards, student worksheets)
California Gold Rush—answer questions about the California Gold Rush (anticipation guide, task cards, student booklet)
California Gold Rush Game—play a California Gold Rush game acting as a prospector or merchant (game preparation worksheet, gameboard and game elements)
Westward Expansion and Slavery—explain how Westward Expansion led to the growth of slavery in the United States and explain how three compromises (The Missouri Compromise, The Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act) inflamed sectional rivalries in the United States (PowerPoint presentation, student note worksheets, reflection page)
Westward Expansion Effects—explain how Westward Expansion resulted in opportunities for some and losses for others (group cards, student worksheets, journal prompt)
For an engaging, time-saving solution, check out my 3-week Westward Expansion Unit.