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View series: The United States: a territorial history

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The Westward Trails

This map is part of a series of 20 animated maps showing the history of The United States: a territorial history.

To fulfil the concept of Manifest Destiny, which encouraged the expansion of US territory to the Pacific Ocean, several transcontinental trails enabled settlers to move westward from the Missouri.

The itinerary for crossing the Rockies taken by Lewis and Clark could not be used by wagons, forcing settlers to take a more southerly route to Oregon. After going up the Missouri Valley, this followed the Platte River and crossed the Continental Divide at the “South Pass”. It then continued down to the Pacific via the Snake River and Columbia valleys. Settlers took six months to cover the 3,500 kilometres of dangerous trails between the Mississippi and the Pacific.

The south-western trail linking the Missouri River to Santa Fe was used by traders in the early 1820s. Despite a very hostile environment with scarce water, violent storms and attacks by Indians, this route opened up new opportunities for trading with Mexico and linked up to the Camina Real.

From Santa Fe, trappers and adventurers scattered throughout the region and then moved into California via the old Spanish trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles or via the Gila valley.

In the early 1840s, the first wagons reached the Great Basin and continued down the Humboldt River, heading for the San Francisco region. The discovery of gold in 1848 led to a rush of prospectors and settlers along the California trail, which split in many routes across the Sierra Nevada.

At the same time (1847), the Mormons led by Brigham Young arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake, travelling in covered wagons or on foot pulling handcarts.

Nearly 500,000 pioneers moved westwards along these trails in search of the “American Dream” during the quarter-century prior to the construction of the transcontinental railroads.

Many died en route from cholera or the harsh weather conditions and the survivors soon came to symbolize the rugged optimism in the hearts of the American people.