Modern history

Imperial Ambitions and Sectional Crises



John C. Fremont, a noted explorer and military leader and the first presidential nominee of the Republican Party, rose from humble beginnings. He was the illegitimate child of Anne Beverley Whiting Pryor of Savannah, Georgia, who abandoned her wealthy husband and ran off with a French immigrant, Jean Charles Fremon. As a young man, John changed his last name to Fremont, either reclaiming the original spelling or seeking to create a more aristocratic one. He attended the College of Charleston, where he excelled at mathematics, but was eventually expelled for neglecting his studies. Fremont was hired to teach aboard a navy ship in 1833 through the help of an influential South Carolina politician. He then obtained a surveying position to map new railroad lines and Cherokee lands in Georgia and was finally appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers.

In 1840 Lieutenant Fremont traveled to Washington, D.C., to assist in publishing maps and reports from an expedition along the upper Mississippi River. The following year, the twenty-eight-year-old explorer eloped with Jessie Benton, the seventeen-year-old daughter of Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. Despite the scandal, Senator Benton supported his son-in-law's selection for a federally funded expedition to the West. In 1842 Fremont and his guide, Kit Carson, led twenty-three men along the emerging Oregon Trail. Two years later, John returned to Washington, where he and his wife Jessie wrote a vivid report on the Oregon Territory and California. Congress published the report, which inspired a wave of hopeful migrants to head west.

John Fremont shared many Americans' imperial ambitions, but his success was tainted by a quest for personal glory. On a federal mapping expedition in 1845, he left his post and headed to California. Arriving in the Sacramento valley in the winter of 1846, he stirred support among U.S. settlers for war with Mexico. His brash behavior nearly provoked a battle that would have wiped out his small company. Fremont then fled to the Oregon Territory, where he and Kit Carson became involved in conflicts with Modoc Indians. Then, as the nation moved closer to war with Mexico, Fremont returned to California, where he supported Anglo-American settlers' efforts to declare the region an independent republic. Although Fremont was denied the republic's governorship, he worked tirelessly for California's admission to the Union and served as one of the state's first senators. With his wife's encouragement, he also embraced abolition and in 1856 was nominated for president by the new Republican Party.

Dred Scott also traveled the frontier in the 1830s and 1840s, but not of his own free will. Born a slave in Southampton, Virginia, around 1800, he and his master, Peter Blow, moved west to Alabama in 1818 and then relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1830. Three years later, short of funds, Blow sold Scott to Dr. John Emerson, an assistant surgeon in the U.S. army. In 1836 Emerson took Scott to Fort Snelling in the Wisconsin Territory, a free territory that offered glimpses of a different life. There Scott met Harriet Robinson, a young African American woman who was enslaved to the local Indian agent. Her master was also a justice of the peace and agreed to marry the couple in 1837 and transfer ownership of Harriet to Dr. Emerson. When Emerson was transferred back to St. Louis, the Scotts returned with him. After his death in 1843, the couple was hired out to local residents in St. Louis by Emerson's widow.

In April 1846, the Scotts initiated lawsuits in the Missouri courts seeking their freedom. The Missouri Supreme Court had ruled in earlier cases that slaves who resided for any time in free territory must be freed, and the Scotts had lived and married in Wisconsin. Dred Scott's former owners, the Blows, supported his suit, and in 1850 the Missouri Circuit Court ruled in the Scotts' favor. However, the Emerson family appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, with Harriet's case to follow the outcome of her husband's. Two years later, that court ruled against all precedent and overturned the lower court's decision. Dred Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it, too, ultimately ruled against the Scotts, leaving them enslaved.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of John Fremont and Dred Scott were shaped by the explosive combination of westward expansion and the growing regional division over the issue of slavery. Whereas Frémont joined expeditions to map and conquer the West, Scott followed the migrations of slave owners and soldiers. Both Frémont and Scott found strength through marriage. Jessie Fremont served as her husband’s confidante and coauthor, providing both practical and emotional support through nearly fifty years of marriage. Harriet Scott joined her husband in the prolonged litigation to win their freedom. Fremont also opposed slavery, but he focused on legislative means to end it. From their different positions, these two men reflected the dramatic changes that occurred as westward expansion pushed the issues of empire and slavery to the center of national debate.

Wagon Train, 1860 This early photograph, taken in 1860, shows a train of covered wagons, oxen, and men on horseback setting out from Manhattan, Kansas. State Historical Society

Claiming the West

During the 1830s and 1840s, national debates over slavery intensified. The most important battles now centered on western territories gained through victory in the war with Mexico. Before 1848, government-sponsored expeditions had opened up vast new lands for American pioneers seeking opportunity. Eastern migrants, along with immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, moved west in growing numbers. Then, following the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California, tens of thousands of men rushed to the Pacific coast seeking riches. But the West was already home to a diverse population that included Indians, Mexicans, Mormons, and missionaries. Eager pioneers converged, and often clashed, with these groups.

Traveling the Overland Trail

In the 1830s, a few white families had ventured to the western frontier. Some traveled around the southern tip of South America by ship or across the Isthmus of Panama by boat and mule train. But a growing number followed overland trails to the far West. In 1836 Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spaulding joined a group traveling to the Oregon Territory, the first white women to make the trip. They accompanied their husbands, both Presbyterian ministers, who hoped to convert the region’s Indians. Their letters to friends and associates back east described the rich lands and needy souls in the Walla Walla valley and encouraged further migration.

The panic of 1837 also prompted Americans to head west as thousands of U.S. migrants and European immigrants sought new opportunities in the 1840s. They were drawn to Oregon, the Rocky Mountain region, and the eastern plains. The Utah Territory, not yet officially part of the United States, attracted large numbers of Mormons. Some pioneers opened trading posts in the West where Indians exchanged goods with Anglo- American settlers or with merchants back east. Small settlements developed around these posts and near the expanding system of forts that dotted the region.

For many pioneers, the journey on the Oregon Trail began at St. Louis. From there, they traveled by wagon train across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific coast. By I860 some 350,000 Americans had made the journey, claimed land from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and transformed the United States into an expanding empire.

Because the trip to the West required funds for wagons and supplies, most pioneers were of middling status. The three- to six-month journey was also physically demanding, and most pioneers traveled with family members to help share the labor and provide support, though men outnumbered women and children, comprising some 60 percent of western migrants.

Early in the journey, women and men generally followed their customary roles: Men hunted, fished, and drove the wagons, while women cooked, washed, and watched the children. But traditional roles often broke down on the trail, and even conventional domestic tasks posed novel problems. Women had to cook unfamiliar food over open fires in all kinds of weather and with only a handful of pots and utensils. They washed laundry in rivers or streams, and on the plains they had to haul water for cooking or cleaning from great distances. Wood, too, was scarce on the plains, and women and children gathered buffalo dung (called “chips”) for fuel. Men frequently had to gather food rather than hunt and fish, or they had to learn to catch strange (and sometimes dangerous) animals, such as jack rabbits and rattlesnakes. Few men were prepared for the arduous work of pulling wagons out of ditches or floating them across rivers with powerful currents. Nor were many of them expert in shoeing horses or fixing wagon wheels, tasks that were performed by skilled artisans at home.

Expectations changed dramatically when men took ill or died on the journey. Then wives drove the wagon, gathered or hunted for food, and learned to repair axles and other wagon parts. When large numbers of men were injured or ill, women might serve as scouts and guides or pick up guns to defend wagons under attack by Indians or wild animals. Yet despite the growing burdens on pioneer women, they gained little power over decision making. Moreover, the addition of men’s jobs to women’s responsibilities was rarely reciprocated. Few men cooked, did laundry, or cared for children on the trail. Single men generally paid women on the trail to perform such chores for them, and a husband who lost his wife on the journey generally relied on “neighbor” women as he would at home.

In one area, however, relative equality reigned. Men and women were equally susceptible to disease, injury, and death on the trail. Accidents, gunshot wounds, drowning, broken bones, and infections affected individuals on every wagon train. Some groups were struck as well by influenza, cholera, measles, mumps, or scarlet fever—all deadly in the early nineteenth century. In addition, about 20 percent of women on the overland trail became pregnant, which posed even greater dangers than at home given rough roads, a lack of water, the abundance of dirt, and the frequent absence of midwives and doctors. Some 20 percent of women lost children or spouses on the trip west, though most had little time to mourn. Wagon trains usually stopped only briefly to bury the dead, leaving a cross or a pile of stones to mark the grave, and then moved on. Overall, about one in ten to fifteen migrants died on the western journey, leaving some 65,000 graves along the trails west.

The Gold Rush

Despite the hazards, more and more Americans traveled the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, and other paths to the Pacific coast. Initially only a few thousand Americans settled in California. Some were agents sent by New England merchants to purchase fine leather made from the hides of Spanish cattle raised in the area. Several of these agents married into families of elite Mexican ranchers, known as Californios, and adopted their culture, even converting to Catholicism.

However, the Anglo-American presence in California changed dramatically after 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in northeastern California. News of the discovery brought tens of thousands of new settlers from the eastern United States, South America, Europe, and Asia. In the gold rush, “forty-niners” raced to claim riches in the California mountains, and men vastly outnumbered women. Single men came with brothers, neighbors, or friends. Married men left wives and children behind, promising to send for them once they struck gold. Some 80,000 arrived in 1849 alone.

The rapid influx of gold seekers heightened tensions between newly arrived whites, local Indians, and Californios. Forty-niners confiscated land owned by Californios, shattered the fragile ecosystem in the California mountains, and forced Mexican and Indian men to labor for low wages or a promised share in uncertain profits. New conflicts erupted when foreign-born migrants joined the search for wealth. Forty-niners from the United States regularly stole from and assaulted foreign-born competitors—whether Asian, European, or South American. With the limited number of sheriffs and judges in the region, most criminals knew they were unlikely to be arrested, much less tried and convicted.

The gold rush also led to conflicts over gender roles as thousands of male migrants demanded food, shelter, laundry, and medical care. Some women in the region earned a good living by renting rooms, cooking meals, washing clothes, or working as prostitutes. But many faced heightened forms of exploitation. Indian and Mexican women were especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and rape, while Chinese women were imported specifically to provide sexual services for male miners.

Chinese men were also victims of abuse by whites, as evidenced by Chinese workers who were hired by a British mining company and then run off their claim by Anglo- American gold seekers. Yet some Chinese men used the skills traditionally assigned them in their homeland—cooking and washing clothes—to earn a far steadier income than prospecting for gold could provide. Other men also took advantage of the demand for goods and services. Levi Strauss, a twenty-four-year-old German Jewish immigrant, moved from New York to San Francisco to open a dry goods store in 1853. He was soon producing canvas and then denim pants that could withstand harsh weather and long wear. These blue jeans made Strauss far richer than any forty-niner seeking gold.

A Crowded Land

While U.S. promoters of migration continued to depict the West as an open territory waiting to be tamed and cultivated, it was in fact the site of competing imperial ambitions in the late 1840s. Despite granting statehood to Texas in 1845 and winning the war against Mexico in 1848, the United States had to compete with Comanche, Sioux, and other powerful Indian nations for control of the Great Plains (see chapter 10). As the U.S. government sought to secure land for railroads and forts and as American migrants and European immigrants carved out farms and villages, they had to contend with a range of Indian nations that refused to relinquish control (Map 12.1).

Although attacks on wagon trains were rare, Indians did threaten frontier settlements throughout the 1840s and 1850s. Settlers often retaliated, and U.S. army troops joined them in efforts to push Indians back from areas newly claimed by whites. Yet in many parts of the West, Indians were as powerful as whites, and they did not cede territory without a fight. For example, the Reverend Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa became victims of their success in promoting western settlement. In 1843 Marcus returned east and led one thousand Christian emigrants on a “Great Migration” to the Oregon Territory. The settlers were enthusiastic about their new homes, but the arrival of more whites proved disastrous for local Indians. The pioneers brought a deadly measles epidemic to the region, killing thousands of Cayuse and Nez Percé Indians. In 1847, convinced that whites brought disease but no useful medicine, a group of Cayuse Indians killed the Whitmans and ten other white settlers.

Yet violence against whites could not stop the flood of migrants into the Oregon Territory. Indeed, attacks by one Indian tribe were often used to justify assaults on any Indian tribe. For example, John Frémont and Kit Carson, whose party had been attacked by a group of Modoc Indians in Oregon in 1846, took their revenge by destroying a Klamath Indian village and killing men, women, and children there. The defeat of Mexico and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 only intensified these conflicts.

Although Indians and white Americans were the main players in many battles, Indian nations also competed with each other. In the southern plains, drought and disease exacerbated those conflicts in the late 1840s and dramatically changed the balance of power in the region. In 1845 the southern plains were struck by a dry spell, which lasted on and off until the mid-1860s. Three years later, smallpox ravaged Comanche villages, and then forty-niners heading to California introduced a virulent strain of cholera that killed prominent Comanche leaders as well as hundreds of their followers. In the late 1840s, the Comanches were the largest Indian nation, with about twenty thousand members; by the mid-1850s, less than half that number remained.

Yet the collapse of the Comanche empire was not simply the result of outside forces. As the Comanches expanded their trade networks and incorporated smaller Indian nations into their orbit, they overextended their reach. Most important, they allowed too many bison to be killed in order to meet the needs of their Indian allies and the demand for bison robes by Anglo-American and European traders. The Comanches also herded growing numbers of horses, which required expansive grazing lands and winter havens in the river valleys and pushed the bison onto more marginal lands. Opening up the Santa Fe Trail to commerce multiplied the problems by destroying vegetation, polluting springs, and thus damaging some of the last refuges for bison. The prolonged drought then completed the depopulation of the bison on the southern plains. Without bison, the Comanches lost one of their most critical trade items; by the late 1850s, they were left without the goods or leverage to sustain their commercial and political networks. As the Comanche empire collapsed, former Indian allies sought to advance their own interests. These two developments reignited Indian wars on the southern plains as tens of thousands of Anglo-Americans and European immigrants poured through the region.

MAP 12.1

Western Trails and Indian Nations, c. 1850 As wagon trains and traders journeyed west in rapidly growing numbers during the 1830s and 1840s, the United States established forts along the most well-traveled routes. At the same time, Indians claimed or were forced into new areas through the pressure of Indian removals, white settlement, and the demands of hunting, trade, and agriculture.

African Americans also participated in these western struggles. Many were held as slaves by southeastern tribes forced into Indian Territory, while others were freed and married Seminole or Cherokee spouses. The Creeks proved harsh masters, prompting some slaves to escape north to free states or south to Mexican or Comanche territory. Yet as southern officers in the U.S. army moved to frontier outposts to secure American dominance, they carried more slaves into the region. Many, including Dr. Emerson, changed posts frequently, taking slaves like Dred Scott into western territories that were alternately slave and free. Still, it was white planters who brought the greatest numbers of African Americans into Texas, Missouri, and Kansas, pushing the frontier of slavery ever westward. At the same time, some free blacks joined the migration voluntarily in hopes of finding better economic opportunities and less overt racism on the frontier.


• Why did Americans go west in the 1830s and 1840s, and what was the journey like?

• What groups competed for land and resources in the West? How did competition lead to violence?

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