When the United States gained its independence from Britain in 1783, the country was not yet the continental nation we know today. On maps, it stretched from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River, with most of these territories actually remaining under Native control. By 1848, wars and diplomatic negotiations with European powers and Mexico extended the United States to the Pacific. Even then, however, Indigenous people remained the main inhabitants and sovereigns of the trans-Mississippi West (the territories west of the Mississippi River). It took a Civil War (1861-1865) between the North and the South, more US-Indigenous warfare, as well as US attacks on Plains nations’ way of life to turn the United States into a transcontinental power.
From canals to railroads to automobiles, new transportation technologies also played a major role in the westward expansion of the United States and the making of the transcontinental nation. Each new mode of transportation facilitated the westward movement of migrants. Many of them—settlers from the East coast, European immigrants, and tourists—traveled voluntarily in search of better economic opportunities or for leisure. Others, like enslaved people and displaced Native Americans, moved west against their will.
The maps and texts in this Collection Essay convey the complex and often violent history of US westward expansion, as well as the diversity of migration experiences and migrants. The collection offers four case studies of US westward expansion and migrations from the era of canals and steamboats in the trans-Appalachian west after the 1810s, to the development of the antebellum Cotton Kingdom in the lower Mississippi Valley, to the age of transcontinental railroads in the late nineteenth century, and the democratization of the automobile in the 1920s and 1930s.
Please consider the following questions as you review the documents:
- How did new transportation technologies transform the American landscape? What significance did this transformation have on land use and ownership over time?
- Who traveled these routes and for what purposes?
- How have class, race, and gender informed the history of transportation and travel?
Building the Erie Canal: Migration and the Forced Expulsion of Native Peoples in the North, 1810s-1840s
Natural waterways had long been the main transportation route in North America. Indigenous people had paddled lakes and rivers since times immemorial and located their villages and trading centers, like Chicago and Mackinac in the Great Lakes, along rivers and at the crossroads of waterways. When European settlers colonized North America starting in the sixteenth century, they followed in Indigenous footsteps. By contrast, the first half of the nineteenth century saw a series of innovations in transportation—the steamboat, canal, and railroad—which opened new land to non-Native settlement.
Connecting existing waterways, canals extended the possibilities for transporting settlers and goods. By 1837, 3,000 miles of canals linked the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and reduced the cost of transportation. Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal was a major technological feat. Stretching through upstate New York between Albany on the Hudson River in the east and Buffalo on Lake Erie in the west, it connected New York City on the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes and played a major role in the growth of New York into the largest US metropolis in the nineteenth century. It cut travel time from Albany to Buffalo from two weeks by stagecoach to five days by flatboat, a flat-bottomed boat able to navigate the shallow waters of rivers and canals. The canal’s completion also resulted in a large migration of Euro-Americans from New England and New York to the Upper Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan). The Sackett family, for instance, moved from Rhode Island to Illinois in 1841. Young Mary Sackett recounted her family’s migration in her journal, excerpted here.
But US westward expansion into the Ohio River and Mississippi River Valleys created tensions with the Native people upon whose lands White settlers encroached. In the early nineteenth century, the US government pressured Natives living east of the Mississippi River to cede their land in treaties and move west of the Mississippi River. In its dealings with Native Americans, the US government often exploited the disagreements between factions within Indigenous communities to buy Native lands in contentious treaties. Indeed, while certain factions refused to leave their homelands and sign treaties, others viewed resistance to the US settler expansion as futile and agreed to sign treaties and move farther west. The Thakawaki and Meskwaki (Sac and Fox), for instance, divided between those who refused to leave their homeland in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois and those who relocated to Iowa.
Tensions between White settlers and Natives sometimes erupted into warfare. Led by war leader Makataimeshekiàkiàk (Black Hawk), a group of 600 Sac warriors with their wives and children returned across the Mississippi River to plant corn in their Illinois homeland after wintering in Iowa. This resulted in the so-called Black Hawk War between the Illinois militia and US army and the Sac in the summer of 1832. The Sac evaded US forces for weeks but were caught and defeated at the Battle of Bad Axe, in which a US troop massacred 150 to 300 men, women, and children trying to escape across the Mississippi at gunpoint. Captured and imprisoned, Makataimeshekiàkiàk related his understanding of the conflict in his autobiography. For the US government, the so-called Sac “aggression” served as a pretext to accelerate the expulsion of most Natives from the upper Northwest Territory in the 1830s and 1840s.
Questions to Consider:
- Observe Vance’s map of the Erie Canal. Why did the construction of the canal facilitate and accelerate the westward transportation of people and merchandise from the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes, as compared to previous travel methods such as rivers and lakes? What technological innovations and work were necessary to build the canal? What items on the map indicate the Haudenosaunee (Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca) history and presence in the eastern Great Lakes?
- Using the passage from Mary Sackett’s Journal, trace the Sacketts’ westward journey from New York (route, modes of transportation, length, people they encountered). How do the family’s travel experiences compare to those of today?
- What was Mary Sackett’s preconception of Wisconsin? Do you find it surprising? Why or why not? (See page 12.)
- Read the passage from Black Hawk’s Autobiography. Compare and contrast General Gaines’s and White settlers’ views of Illinois and Wisconsin with Black Hawk’s view of the same land. How do they differ? How does Black Hawk describe White settlers, and why? How does his narrative compare to your previous understanding of Native life and White-Native encounters?
Traveling Up and Down the Mississippi River: New Orleans as a Port of Slavery, 1803-1860
In the South, westward expansion in the early nineteenth century led to the rise of the “Cotton Kingdom,” a region that relied on enslaved labor to grow cotton. Producing cotton used to be a long and laborious task. But in 1793, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, a machine that quickly separated the seed from the cotton, revolutionized production. To turn southern states like Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana into cotton-producing regions, White settlers and the US government expelled Cherokee, Creek, and other Indigenous communities from their homelands. The most infamous forced displacement was that of the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears from Georgia and Tennessee to Oklahoma in 1838.
Between 1800 and 1860, planters also imported about one million enslaved people from the “Old South” (Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina) to the Cotton Kingdom. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many White Americans had expected Black slavery to die out due to land exhaustion in the Old South and the 1808 ban of the international slave trade. But the development of the Cotton Kingdom revitalized slavery, causing devastating family separations and numerous dehumanizing experiences for enslaved people.
Between 1830 and 1860, 70,000 to 100,000 enslaved people fled the Cotton Kingdom and other parts of the South to freedom, north of the Ohio River, in Canada, and in Mexico. By the early 1840s, this flight from enslavement became known as the Underground Railroad, a metaphor inspired by the growth of the railroad. While a system of safe houses and “conductors” (White and Black people assisting freedom seekers) existed, the Underground Railroad was primarily made of the individual choices, paths, and experiences of enslaved individuals willing to risk death to escape slavery.
William Wells Brown was one such freedom seeker. Born into slavery in Kentucky around 1814, Brown spent most of his enslaved life in St. Louis, Missouri. There, his enslaver hired him out to a slave trader, a position that entailed regular travels on steamships along the Mississippi River to assemble slave caravans for sale in Natchez and New Orleans. After failing twice to escape, Brown successfully self-emancipated in 1834, at the age of nineteen, while accompanying his new enslaver on a trip up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. He later narrated his difficult journey to freedom in his 1847 autobiography. Once a free man, Brown became a conductor of the Underground Railroad in Cleveland, working on steamboats and ferrying dozens of freedom seekers across Lake Erie to Canada.
William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, title page and frontispiece, 90-97 (1847)
Questions to Consider:
- Analyze the 1858 map of the lower Mississippi River. What were the main crops produced on the region’s plantations? How were the plantations laid out, and how did this organization facilitate trade?
- What information is included in this map? For an illustrated map of plantations, why do you think the mapmaker did not represent enslaved people? Given the information included in and left out from the map, who might have been the map’s users and owners? What can you infer from this map about what and who its maker and users valued (or did not value)?
- What are the challenges that William Wells Brown faced as he contemplated escaping slavery and during his escape? How were they specific to the experience of a Black enslaved person?
 Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 436.
Transcontinental Railroads and Native Peoples in the Great Plains, 1860s-1890s
At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the map of the continental United States looked similar to the one we know today. But in reality, Native Americans remained in control of the trans-Mississippi West and the frontier of continuous White settlement stopped at the Mississippi River. Later in the nineteenth century, the settlement of the West and its integration with the US economy dispossessed Indigenous people of their lands on a massive scale. The newly constructed transcontinental railroads played a major part in this transformation.
The transcontinental railroads were, in effect, products of the Civil War and the increasingly powerful federal government. During the war, Congress passed a series of acts providing for the construction of transcontinental railroads on the grounds of military necessity. The federal government subsidized the construction of these costly new lines, which stretched between cities on the Missouri River and the Pacific Coast, granting railroad companies a section of land (and the coal and iron it contained) for each mile of tracks built. While in US mythology the West remains the land of individualism, its development and White settlement owed much to the federal government and to large railroad corporations. Indeed, the construction of transcontinental railroads often preceded White settlement. Railroads aggressively promoted the trans-Mississippi West to potential settlers on the East Coast and abroad to profit by selling the large tracts of land granted to them by the federal government and, in the process, by gaining new customers. In Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, the population rose from 300,000 in 1860 to 5 million in 1900. Most settlers—German and Scandinavian immigrants, White East-Coast transplants, and Black people—worked there as farmers, transforming Indian Country into a wheat and corn belt, producing grain for national and international markets on land that had recently been dispossessed from Native nations.
The advent of the transcontinental railroads and the influx of settlers threatened Native Americans and their way of life. As settlers encroached on Indigenous lands, warfare between the US Army and Plains nations started in the 1850s. To weaken Native power, the US Army intentionally destroyed the basis of the Indigenous economy, especially the buffalo. Native nations resisted as the United States sought to confine them to reservations that occupied only a fraction of their homelands. For example, the Lakota and Cheyenne, led by Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake (Sitting Bull) and Tȟašúŋke Witkó (Crazy Horse), fought for their lands and the sacred Black Hills in Dakota Territory. They famously defeated General Custer and his men at the Little Bighorn in the summer of 1876. But such victories only delayed the westward expansion of settlers, soldiers, and railroads.
Questions to Consider:
- Who produced the Guide to the Lands of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Minnesota, and who was its intended audience?
- What sections of the Northern Pacific Railroad were completed in 1872, and what remained to be built? What traces of a non-Indigenous presence can you identify beyond Minnesota? Based on your previous answers, what can you infer about the White settlement of the trans-Mississippi West in 1872?
- What does this map suggest about US territorial ambitions and the way the United States projected its power over the trans-Mississippi West?
 Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History, Seagull 4th edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014), 604.
Automobile Travel in California and Lake Superior: Tourists, “Okies,” and Native Encounters in the 1930s
The popularization of automobiles together with the building of the first national highways in the 1920s encouraged a new form of mobility in the United States. Until World War I, automobiles were a luxury good for urban elites. Automobiles became more affordable after Henry Ford perfected the moving assembly line of manufacturing, and the numbers of cars registered in the United States rose from 500,000 in 1910 to 23 million in 1930. With the automobile’s rapid growth, advocates of improved roads, including the National Highways Association, formed the Good Roads movement. One of their main achievements was the passing of the Federal Highway Act in 1921, which called for the construction of a system of interconnected interstate highways.
The most iconic route in the national highway system was US 66, which reached across more than 2,400 miles and eight states (Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California) between Chicago and Los Angeles. Advertisements, novels, and songs like Bobby Troup’s “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” made Route 66 famous throughout the United States and beyond.
In the 1930s, travelers headed to California along Route 66 for various reasons. As John Steinbeck dramatized in his best-selling novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), desperate farming families fleeing the Dust Bowl were lured by the prospect of work and better living conditions in California. The Dust Bowl (1930-1940) was a decade of drought in the southern Great Plains (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and New Mexico). The drought caused overexploited, eroding lands to blow away in dust clouds that darkened the sky for days. Left without their livelihood, 250,000 migrants, nicknamed “Okies,” sold the things they could not load in their cars and sought refuge in California. The Grapes of Wrath is a work of fiction following the adventures of the imaginary Joad family of Oklahoma, but was inspired by Steinbeck’s direct observation and interviews of Dust Bowl migrants in California between 1936 and 1938.
The advent of the automobile also shaped another kind of travel: tourism. After 1880, advocates increasingly presented tourism as a ritual of American citizenship, encouraging Americans, mostly middle- and upper-class White Americans, to see the nation firsthand and follow in the footsteps of American “pioneers” and history—or rather of selected events and narratives. The promotion of the Good Roads movement went hand-in-hand with the promotion of automobile tourism, especially transcontinental and out-of-state travel. By the 1930s, California (via Route 66) became a major tourist destination. Minnesota, with its 10,000 lakes and favorable summer climate, turned into one of the country’s premier summer vacation destinations in the early twentieth century. For an increasingly industrial and urban nation, the automobile presented an opportunity for city dwellers to get ‘back to nature’ in areas like the Minnesota lakes that they perceived as idyllic, pristine wilderness. But these territories had long been (and often continue to be) peopled, traveled, and transformed by Indigenous people.
Minnesota Arrowhead Association, Map of the Arrowhead Country and Adjacent Canadian Cities, cover, interior map, reverse of map (1938)
Questions to Consider:
- Analyze the pictorial map of California and the map of the Minnesota Arrowhead. Who commissioned each map, when, and for what purposes? Who is the intended audience of each map? What evidence helps you determine the audience’s assumed class, race, and gender?
- What are the main kinds of tourist attractions promoted on these two maps? What narratives of the United States, California, and Lake Superior do these tourist attractions promote? What and/or who are left out of the narrative, or stereotyped? How do the views of California and Upper Minnesota conveyed in these two maps compare to your own ideas or experiences of these areas?
- How does Thomas Hart Benton, the illustrator of The Grapes of Wrath, convey the idea of Oklahoma as a place deserted by migrants fleeing the Dust Bowl?
- Analyze the dialogue about California in the Grapes of Wrath (p. 147-148). How are California and its migration policy in the 1930s depicted in the dialogue? How does it compare to the message for migrants conveyed in Owen’s pictorial map of California?
- How does Steinbeck’s description of travel along Route 66 relate to your own experience and/or ideas of Route 66?
 John Rae, The Road and the Car in American Life (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 50.
About the Author
Gabrielle Guillerm, PhD, is a historian of the United States and the West. She is the assistant curator of the Newberry exhibition, Crossings: Mapping American Journeys (February-June 2022).
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxane. An Indigenous People’s History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2015.
Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Meinig, Donald. The Shaping of America: A 500 Year-Perspective on 500 Years of History. Volumes 2 and 3. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993-1998.
Shaffer, Maguerite S. See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880-1940. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.