Westward Movement, the settlement of the North American continent, which in a very general way proceeded from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific. In detail the movement was irregular, with many cross currents, rather than a uniform advance in a single direction. The westward movement proceeded at a similar pace in the United States and Canada and, to some degree, in Mexico. This article deals mainly with the movement in what became the United States.Westward movement had reached well beyond the Mississippi by 1840.
The discovery of America opened a vast, rich region that had only a tiny population. A half million or so Indiansin all, fewer people than now live in any one of many citieswandered over an area that was to become 48 states. Many were nomadic, living mainly by hunting or fishing and having little or no attachment to specific areas of land. While nearly all practiced some agriculture, it was generally haphazard; they sowed and they harvested, with little attention to cultivation.
Generally white people acquired land from the Indians by purchase or through the formality of treaties. The Indians had no concept of land ownership and thought little of the land they gave up until their food supply in game or fish was threatened. Then frequent Indian wars resulted. As the Indian tribes were continuously at war among themselves, however, there was rarely united action by any large number of tribes. Despite their considerable ability as fighters, the Indians proved only periodic obstacles in the westward movement.
For more than a century after the discovery of America, there was little settlement within what is now the United States. The Spanish, spurred by their wealth-yielding conquests of Mexico and Peru, ranged over much of the continent in a vain search for cities of gold. They established missions for the Indians in Florida, New Mexico, Arizona, and, later, California.