Manifest Destiny, Westward Expansion and the Death of a People

Written by Nathaniel Robinson. Edited by Catherine Anderson.

The phrase ‘wild west’ conjures images of cowboy shootouts, covered wagons and tumbleweeds. It has become a phrase which encapsulates the ideology of a period, western expansion into the unknown in search of wealth, adventure and a better future. This ideology was manifest destiny – the belief, as John O’Sullivan declared, “to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty.” The term manifest destiny expressed the belief that it was Americans’ providential mission to expand their civilization and institutions across the breadth of North America. It was believed that this expansion would spread liberty and individual economic opportunity. But there is a darker and often overlooked side to this period – the fate of the indigenous population. Whilst it may be true of those Americans who settled the West, liberty and prosperity were certainly not the case for the indigenous population. Over the course of this expansion, vast numbers of Native Americans would be killed by violence or disease and those who survived would see their homelands taken, rights undermined and a future which consisted of eking out a miserable existence on a reservation. Whilst cowboy shootouts did occur, so too did ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Manifest Destiny and the belief that western expansion was God’s work provided a convenient rationalisation for the conquest of perceived lesser breeds like Native Americans and Mexicans by land-hungry pioneers. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 authorized the president to negotiate with Indian tribes in the Southern United States for their removal to federal territory west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their ancestral homelands. The act enjoyed strong support from the South which was eager to gain access to lands inhabited by Native tribes. It is, however, important to note the divisive nature of the Indian Removal Act as many people, such as Christian missionaries, opposed its passage. The passage of the act now meant that ethnic cleansing was government policy.

Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, the American government began forcibly relocating East Coast tribes such as the Cherokee across the Mississippi to Indian Territory in eastern sections of present-day Oklahoma. About 2,500–6,000 died along what has become known as the ‘trail of tears’. Many Native Americans suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation while relocating. Historians have noted that the army deliberately routed the march of the Cherokee to pass through areas of known cholera epidemic and it is estimated that during the forced removal from their homelands, 8000 Cherokee died.

War, as well as disease, claimed the lives of many Native Americans and the American Indian Wars is the collective name for the multiple conflicts between American settlers or the United States government and the native peoples of North America. During the American Indian Wars, the American army carried out a number of massacres and forced relocations of indigenous peoples. One infamous of example of this is the Sand Creek Massacre. The Sand Creek massacre was an atrocity in the American Indian Wars which occurred when the Colorado Territory militia attacked and destroyed a Native American village, killing between 70–163 natives, about two-thirds of whom were women and children. General John Chivington led the militia in the massacre and he and his men took scalps and other body parts as trophies. In defense of his actions Chivington stated, “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honourable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all.” This was the reality of manifest destiny: racist genocide. Statistics regarding deaths due to armed conflict between Native Americans and Americans are sparse, as in many cases there were no records kept. Despite this, most historians agree on the devastating effect these conflicts had on the Native population.

We must confront the past in order to learn from it and prevent mistakes being repeated. Many Americans, however, either deny or are unaware of the ethnic cleansing which was committed by their nation during the nineteenth century. The Westward expansion of the United States is a romanticised period and portrayed in American film and culture as one of adventure with settlers portrayed as ‘goodies’ and Native Americans as uncivilised, barbaric ‘baddies’ trying to prevent the expansion of civilisation and ‘American’ ideals. Figures such as Clint Eastwood and John Wayne are seen as the heroes of the American West and the embodiment of American ideals. In reality they symbolise the racist, arrogant and jingoistic settlers whose self-centeredness and ambivalence to the indigenous population who inhabited the western plains led to genocide and ethnic cleansing.