The American West was settled and developed by newcomers to America in the years between 1840 and 1895. The first people who moved out from the eastern seaboard to strike out westwards are extremely interesting - and all the different exam syllabi focus on them. The first 'mountain men' were soon followed by early settlers, then by gold miners, traders, more farmers and women.
The early settlers
The first Europeans who moved from the east to the western coast of America are extremely important to the history of that country.
Why - and how - did the first settlers move westwards?
- The first white Americans to move west were the mountain men, who went to the Rockies to hunt beaver, bear and elk in the 1820s and 1830s.
- Then, in 1841, a wagon train pioneered the 3,200km-long Oregon Trail to the woodland areas of the north-west coast of America.
- In 1844, 1,500 settlers made the dangerous journey westwards.
- That same year, a few farmers managed to cross the Rockies to California.
The mountain men were not settlers, and all these trailblazers were moving acrossthe Great Plains, rather than onto them. However, they were vital in the process of settling the West, because they discovered the different trails west across the Plains, which were later followed by genuine settlers.
This was the start of the gold rush, which lasted from 1849 to 1856.In 1848 gold was discovered in California, and soon thousands of prospectors (the '49ers') rushed there, hoping to make their fortune. By spring 1849 there were 40,000 miners in California.
At first almost all the miners were men, and they lived in makeshift tent-settlements, hoping to make a quick fortune. They were soon followed by shopkeepers and traders. Eventually women arrived, at first as cooks and prostitutes, but later as wives and girlfriends.
Few miners made their fortune from gold. But they spent the savings they had used to go mining with, and this kick-started the California economy. When the men finally gave up their hopes for gold, they moved onto the land and settled there as farmers.
In 1850 California set itself up as a state of the USA, with a governor.
In time, mining camps such as Virginia City became large towns.
The Donner Party
The journey westward was highly dangerous for the early pioneers - conditions were harsh, and the distance was great. The story of the Donner Party highlights the plight and severeness of such a journey.
About 80 people, led by George Donner, set out from Missouri in May 1846, following the famous 'trailblazer' Lansford W Hastings.
The party left Fort Bridger, at the foot of the Rockies, on 31 July, which was late in the season.
They made the tragic decision to take the Hastings Cut-off - a shortcut which they were told would save them 400 miles.
The route was too hard. They had…