Our Location

Cypress Hall at The Cypress                                                                                                       
20 Lady Slipper Lane
Hilton Head Plantation
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Location Information

Contact Us

843-290-0500 (cell)

Sunday Services

Sunday Services at 9:30 AM
Forum Discussion to follow

« II. The Early Stages of American Imperialism | Main

I. The Colonization of America

The American West, American Imperialism, and American Exceptionalism

John M. Miller 

Introductory Note: There shall be five lectures in this Lifelong Learning course. None of the lectures is intended to give a detailed account of any facet of American history since its founding. Instead what I hope to do is to give an overview of how the reality of an ever-expansive and expanding American West subconsciously affected how Americans have always thought, what we felt, and what we became. Since the beginning of the seventeenth century, which is when the first English colonists came to America, there is no other country in the world which has developed and evolved with the unique set of geographical circumstances which caused the United States of America to become what we are today. The very fact of “The West” may be the most profound explanation for why Americans feel and think and act the way we do, even though now, three centuries after the process started, we may be totally unaware of how influential the westward expansion of our nation was. We are who we are because we had an unexplored and unsettled West for most of our formative years as a nation. Our national psyche has been shaped by that unique factor. No other nation on earth, ancient or modern, has had anything like The American West to explain its national evolution. It is with anticipation, then, that we who are now gathered together less than a mile from the shore of the Atlantic Ocean shall begin peering over three thousand miles of distance toward the Pacific Ocean to observe how that vast expanse of land sculpted and shaped the American Mind.


* * * * * *


They first came by ship to these shores in 1607. Others came later in 1620. In the beginning the numbers were small, mere trickles, then rivulets, then torrents, and finally, floods. More and more kept coming, in their hundreds and then thousands and eventually millions.


When the colonists first arrived, they already knew that the land was large. Explorers had by then discovered that there was a North American continent, a South American continent, and an isthmus of Central America connecting the two. But none of the earliest American settlers knew, nor could they know, how truly large the North American continent was.


Furthermore, if they didn’t fully grasp it before, within days or weeks of their arrival, the English settlers discovered that the land was already inhabited. Native peoples had been living here for thousands of years, although Europeans had no way of knowing that until then.


Because Christopher Columbus initially may have assumed he had come ashore in India when he made his first landfall on a Caribbean island more than a century before the first American colonists arrived, he called the natives he encountered there “Indians.” For better or worse, the moniker stuck.


For most of the next five centuries the aboriginal natives of the Americas, which is to say North, Central, and South America, were called by Europeans and their American descendants, courtesy of  Columbus, Indians.  Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, however, “Native Americans” became the preferred nomenclature among many academics and others. Archaeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists have ascertained that there were no people at all in the Americas or in “America” (what became the USA) before fifteen to twenty thousand years ago. The two connected continents were populated only by animals and plants up until that time. Furthermore, by now a very sizeable majority of “Americans” have been born in “America” (which has come to mean “the United States of America” to virtually all Americans and to nearly everyone else in the world, including the rest of the Americas). Thus the term “native Americans” is somewhat of a chronological misnomer, as in fact is the term “Americans.” But never forget this, fellow citizens; it is largely because of the theme of these lectures that of all the peoples in the Americas, only citizens of the USA are called “Americans.”


This lexicographical background is presented because from now on I shall usually call the USA “America” and the first people who lived on this continent “Indians.” This has been common practice for most of our history as a nation. Neither word is technically correct, but I presume all of you know what I mean. You may not agree with this word choice, but I want you to know that I shall employ these two terms in their original usage and for verbal clarity in what I shall specifically be talking about.


A few of the Indians may not have been significantly displeased that white Europeans had moved onto what they, the Indians, considered to be “their land.” However, we may legitimately deduce that most of them were strongly and totally opposed to British colonization. In Central and South America, the Spanish had previously shown themselves to be insensitive and even brutal colonizers, although the eastern “American Indians” probably were not aware of that. In some respects the English were somewhat less heavy-handed than the Spanish, but there was no mistaking their ultimate goal: for economic purposes they intended to establish several geographical colonies in America, whatever that undertaking might entail.


From the initial landings in Jamestown and Plymouth, settlements were eventually established over the next century and a half from the coast of Maine to the coast of Georgia. But no Englishmen or any other Europeans who came here ever imagined that the British colonies in America would cling solely to the Atlantic coastline and a few miles inland. Back then there was no Horace Greeley urgently to declare, “Go west, young man, go west.” Young men didn’t need a 19th century New York newspaperman to urge them to do what they planned to do all along anyway. West is where many of them meant to go, and west is where they went. Perhaps in their minds they heard the faint echoes of a song, “O give me land, lots of land, with the starry skies above; don’t fence me in.”


Everywhere the colonists went they encountered Indians. In the very beginning, there were more Indians than colonists, but within a few decades, the colonists began to outnumber the Indians nearly everywhere the two very different cultural groups intermingled. Occasionally there was a relatively peaceful mixing of the two peoples, but usually the Indians understandably resisted the advances of the settlers, either by careful but persistent negotiations or by force of arms. However, the initial armaments of the Indians, mainly bows and arrows, tomahawks, and spears, could not withstand the firearms of the English. First the colonists had single-shot blunderbusses, then muskets, then rifles, and then, many years after the official establishment of the United States of America, repeating rifles and Gatling guns.


We need to understand that from the beginning, it was not just the military who were involved in fighting the Indians. Civilians opposed them as well. From the outset of the western migration of whites, settlers carried weapons with them to shoot the native peoples who had inhabited the land for millennia. Thus guns were part of American culture as soon as there were “Americans” to create that culture.


Nonetheless, the Europeans who came to America possessed far more effective weapons than mere firearms. In addition to their guns, they had diseases, diseases for which they had developed a natural immunity over the centuries and from which the Indians had almost no immunity whatsoever. Smallpox, measles, and cholera killed far more of the native people than did buckshot or bullets over the first two centuries of European-Indian mixing. The Second Amendment to the Constitution was of secondary historical importance to European diseases in creating the threat of the annihilation of the Indians. 


There are historical records which indicate that the settlers deliberately spread their diseases to the hapless peoples who had been inhabiting the land for scores or hundreds of generations. Had there never been any armed conflict at all between European settlers and the Indians, it is not inconceivable that the diseases of white people would have wreaked almost as much devastation on the native people as if there had always been peaceful co-existence, which tragically there was not.


There are two immense ethnic blots on American history that are far greater than the many other clashes we have fomented. The two are our treatment of black people during and after slavery, leading up to the present day, and our treatment of Indians from the first day white settlers set foot on American soil up to the present day. I shall in a subsequent lecture refer to slavery, but I shall concentrate now on what we did to the Indians as we moved inexorably from the Atlantic to the Pacific.


There is no point in anyone arguing that the Indians often fought among themselves before we got here. That is certainly true, but in that respect they are like every other nation or ethnic group which ever existed. People frequently don’t get along well with one another, so it is fruitless to suggest that if Europeans had never come to America, American Indians would still be fighting with one another. The point is that we did come here and we did deliberately pick fights with the Indians. Not only that, but we made promises to the Indians and treaties with the Indians which we broke time and time again. This first lecture focuses on one of the two sorriest and saddest chapters of American history. From the French and Indian War to Custer’s Last Stand to Wounded Knee to the latest recent mildly outbreaks over oil pipelines passing across Indian reservations, in general we have treated the Indians at best as third-class citizens and at worst as no citizens at all but as interlopers on land which we seemed to believe God intended to give white people from before the foundation of the universe.


Therein we can observe another facet of white-majority expansion into the Indian-minority West. We convinced ourselves that divine desire gave us not only the right but the religious duty to move west. “Manifest Destiny” we eventually called it. Through the centuries and millennia, religious people have managed to prove to themselves that God (or their concept of God) surely approves all kinds of cockamamie notions of which God surely radically if not wrathfully disapproves. When people say what God wants to do when they already want to do it anyway, it almost always leads to trouble, and usually very big trouble.


I have referred to Americans as “we” throughout this lecture, and I shall continue to do so in the other lectures. But of course “we” were not there when most of the things I am talking about were happening. But we are Americans, and it is our nation which did these things, so we did it, even if, technically, we didn’t do it. People who live in autocracies or totalitarian states might escape culpability for what their rulers do. In democracy, however, everyone is culpable to some degree for every wrong inflicted on others by the government. Government of the people, by the people, and for the people does that. It is what makes democracy democracy --- “rule by the people.” By dint of will we cannot disassociate ourselves from our democratic nation and its sometimes dark history. And even if some of our personal forebears were not in this country when many of these atrocities were occurring, that cannot excuse us either. If we are Americans at all, we are Americans through it all, through all of American history. Besides, if you’re feeling bad, in the last lectures, on American Exceptionalism, I shall say that in many respects we truly are exceptional in very positive ways, so quit going into a glum funk at this early stage.


As I was saying, the treatment of the Indians by the American colonists, the American pioneers, and the American government is essentially atrocious. Many of the Indian tribes now found in the Midwest or West were once located in the East and were driven west: the Shawnees, the Chippewas, the Seminoles, Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Creeks, the Cheyennes and Apaches. We lied to them and cheated them and snatched their land away from them time after time. We had no shame.


But it was for a good cause, don’t you see; we had to do it! They were in the west, and we were going west, west of Boston and New York and Philadelphia and Baltimore, and then west of Lake Champlain and Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and then west of Cleveland and Cincinnati and Nashville and St. Louis, and then, and then, and then. And they were in the way, don’t you see, and we had to be going west, because The West was the ultimate fulfillment of the American Dream! Until we stretched from sea to shining sea, we couldn’t fully be us; we couldn’t be what America was always supposed to be!


From the first time the first settler shot the first bullet into the first Indian, the Indians were faced with a continuing and terrible dilemma: If it became necessary to engage in combat with these invaders from across the Atlantic, who would be the best allies in such a fight? Other Indians? If so, which ones? The Indians did have alliances with one another. The Iroquois were the leaders of several tribes in and around the New York Colony, which later became New York State. The Shawnees united several tribes in and around Ohio, and the Cherokees were the primary tribe in the Five Nations from North Carolina and Tennessee south to Florida.


Sometimes there was treachery in the Indian alliances, just as there are treacheries in the alliances of other nations or ethnic groups. Then what should the Indians do? Side with the British? Side with the French? Side with the Americans? If so, which British, which French, which Americans? The French and Indian War was an Abbott and Costello version of Who’s on First, except that it was never very funny to anyone. The Indian Wars following the Civil War were a bloody mess on both sides, but the primary losers, as in nearly all instances over the long haul, were the Indians.


But we had to go west! The West was ours! We were meant to go west! In former times when our great-great grandparents or great-grandparents or grandparents or parents or when we came to this country, we intended to go west.  That was where the land was; that was where the minerals were. The West was the end of the rainbow, and at the end of the rainbow there was a pot of gold! The whole country had to be settled, not just part of the country, but the whole country, the entire southern half of the continent, east to west!


In retrospect, it is may possibly have been better that Americans settled the American West rather than the Spanish or the Mexicans --- or the English, French, or Russians, for that matter. The political and cultural excesses and weaknesses of sixteenth and seventeenth European monarchists likely would have led to even greater injustices in the settlement of the American West than was the case when citizens of a newly-formed American democracy led the western conquest. Presumably the government and citizens of a democracy act somewhat more acceptably toward other people than do the governments or citizens of autocracies.


Back at the time of the American Revolution, what constituted “the whole country,” as far as the eventual Revolutionary winners were concerned? To ask that was to make a complicated matter even more complicated. Before the American Revolution, the Thirteen Colonies were all that many colonists envisioned what would permanently become the new nation. British loyalists, however, never envisioned a “new nation” at all. They were quite satisfied with thirteen individual and separate British colonies; there was to be no new nation as far as they were concerned.


  Nevertheless, on some of those early maps, the new state borders stretched quite far west, beyond the Appalachians. For example, Connecticut supposedly owned a lot of land in what is now northern Ohio. Connecticut then called it their Western Reserve. In order to raise money to build new schools, Connecticut sold that land to Ohio settlers, and that helped to get Ohio chartered as a new state. Some of the original thirteen states’ borders theoretically ran all the way to the Mississippi River. That tells us two things; first, they thought big, and second, they knew where the Mississippi was, more or less. The states east of the Mississippi all became states by the 1830s or so, but before that everything east of the “west” and north of the “south” became known as the Northwest Territories. Congress passed an ordinance directing how that land was to be settled and when the territories were to become states. As usual, however, it was the Indians who got the short end of the stick.


New Orleans and St. Louis had by then existed for some time, and the question arose: What about all the land west of the Mississippi? What we now call the American Southwest had belonged to Spain, and then to Mexico. Much of the rest of the West belonged to France, or at least the French laid claim to it. At the turn of the nineteenth century, France was engaged in the Napoleonic Wars with several other European nations. By 1803 Napoleon needed some cash to finance his military exploits. The irreproachable Thomas Jefferson was President. Jefferson believed that that government governs best which governs least. Nevertheless he thought it a good idea to offer the French emperor eleven and a quarter million dollars for everything France owned west of the Mississippi, which was about half of everything that became America that was west of the Mississippi. Napoleon happily accepted the offer. So now America had as much land west of the Father of Waters than all the land it owned east of the Father of Waters. And that happened only twenty years after we officially became an independent nation. Incidentally, wasn’t it convenient that the Mississippi ran from north to south exactly where it does run? It so thoughtfully divides the nation into East and West. At least it did after 1850 or so.


Again I feel compelled to ask: What about all the people already living in what Americans call the Louisiana Purchase? They knew almost nothing about France, but they did know about French fur traders who bought the pelts of many of what the Indians had always considered to be “their” animals. They knew of British and American fur traders who also braved the wilderness in search of animals whose skins would elicit a high price back East or in the capitals of Europe.


The settlement of America west of the Mississippi was not like the settlement east of the Mississippi. In the east, it was mainly families who first entered the land. In the west, it was mainly single adult men or married men who had deserted their families who moved west in search of fame and/or fortune. Did you ever wonder why there are so many gunslingers, sheriffs, marshals, and Really Bad Hombres in western movies? That’s why. The west initially was settled largely by belligerent males in whom testosterone and alcohol may have flowed in equal measure.     


It was very difficult if not impossible to get a divorce in the nineteenth century. Therefore countless thousands of husbands simply walked away from their wives and children and headed west. You could easily get lost or intentionally lose yourself in the West. It was a magnet for a certain type of disaffected male. Because that was so, the West evolved with more rough edges than the East. At the risk of provoking a political brouhaha, I would note that with the exception of the long-blue states of California, Oregon, and Washington, the three states on the Pacific Ocean in what Alaskans call the Lower Forty-Eight, most of the states west of the Mississippi are and have been red for many years. It is politically instructive to ponder such realities from time to time. Thinking about How the West Was Won speaks volumes about how the political map of the West is now colored in the twenty-first century.


Up until the Civil War, there was not really a huge migration into the West. But after the war, millions of men, and then later women and families, started to go west. There was still plenty of land available, although the farther west they went, in general the more marginal the land was for agriculture.


I have always preferred sitting in a window seat whenever I go on a commercial airplane flight. I remember one time flying from New York to Los Angeles on a clear day all the way across the continent. It was an unforgettable lesson in American Geography 101. Farms in the East, especially those in Appalachia, are fairly hardscrabble operations. But when you get to Ohio, Indiana, southern Michigan, Illinois, and southern Wisconsin, farms are large and luxuriant. That was “the West” in the early days. “Hail to the victors valiant/ hail to the conquering heroes/ Hail, hail to Michigan/ The Queen of all the West:” That is the fight song of the University of Michigan. I am a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, and our alma mater, Varsity, is preceded by an opening verse which is seldom sung but which ends with the words, “Queen of all the West/ College we love best.” Between 1825 and 1850, the Queen of all the West shifted from Ann Arbor to Madison. That trend is worth thinking about, because it was happening at varying levels of rapidity for over two centuries.


In 1893 the Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. It was the first world’s fair ever to be held in our country.


At the Columbian Exposition a young history professor from the University of Wisconsin gave a lecture. He was one of the brightest stars in a constellation of great historians at Wisconsin, which has long had one of the finest history departments in the country. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and his lecture was entitled The Significance of the Frontier in American History. It was one of the most influential academic explanations ever delivered on American soil about America.


Prof. Turner noted that the 1890 American census declared that by that year there was no longer an American frontier. The West had largely been settled. As anyone who has been throughout the West knows, there are still large areas of uninhabited desert or wilderness out west. Nevertheless, in the main, the West has essentially been settled for well over a century wherever it is going to be settled.


Frederick Jackson Turner said in his pivotal essay, “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream, it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”


On a clear day, when you can see forever, you can observe that phenomenon from 39,000 feet in an airplane. The land changes, the topography shifts, the soil is visibly altered. You can see for yourself why many so people became farmers in certain places and others became ranchers in other places and others were miners in still other places. But it is there, down there, etched into the frontier that was and is the American West! Once you get to western Oklahoma and New Mexico, the land is far more arid, as it is in Arizona and the eastern part of southern California. But without water, much of the West is an uninhabitable sand and rock pile. Water shall become a major source of contention in the West, but that is the topic of another lecture, although not in this series.


The steady migration of native-born Americans and immigrants to the West was the primary impetus in the establishment of what can be called The American Character. Prof. Turner noted in his famous essay that compared to easterners, westerners were more violent, they were more skeptical of authority of any kind, they were less positively disposed to laws of any kind, and they were less artistic and scientific than easterners. Think about how many political conservatives view the East or the Northeast. They perceive the people in that section of the country to be weak, effete snobs.


We might also note that westerners tended to be less “cultured” than what easterners considered “cultured” to mean. But, as we learned in Sociology 101, culture consists of all the folkways, mores, customs, and common activities of any people in any time or place, and sociologists are less inclined to become entwined in debates over “high” or “low” culture. Culture is culture, say the social scientists.


The fact of the matter is that on the basis of the frontier experience in American history, the United States of America developed a national “personality” and psyche unlike that of any other country in the world. The American Character which evolved out of the settlement of the American West could have happened only in what universally came to be called “America.” Only the USA had a land mass large enough and a population large enough recently enough to become what we became. No other nation on earth had the capacity to do what we did and to become what we became. It simply was not in their geographic hand of cards.


The reality of the American West certainly does not explain everything about the United States of America. Nevertheless, it does help to explain, in an undeniable if also somewhat indefinable way, the essence of the unique character of America.


You might suppose that, in retrospect, Brazil or Australia might have become very much like America. Both of them had a land area about the size of the continental USA, minus Alaska and Hawaii. But Australia has never had nearly enough people to become what America is, although the Australian Character is probably closer to the American Character than that of any other nation, including England, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, France, or Italy --- or Brazil. Furthermore, almost all of Australia is desert, which is why its population never grew large; the land cannot sustain a larger population. As for Brazil, it has a roughly similar population to America, but the Amazon Basin is still and perhaps will always be an impenetrable impediment for Brazil to become anything like America.


But how about Canada? Couldn’t Canada also have become a “great nation?” It could not in the terms by which “national greatness” is usually measured. For many decades Canada has had a population which hovers at about ten per cent of the American population. In general, Canada treated its native population more equitably and with better results than what Americans did to our Indians. And while Canada has a much larger land mass than America, second only to Russia in world geography, ninety per cent of its citizens live within a hundred miles of the American border. The rest of Canada is too cold or rocky or wooded or treeless for large-scale settlement or agriculture. If climate change advances more quickly than most climatologists calculate, Canada could for a short time be the New Frontier for Farming, except that it won’t last long, because the world probably won’t last long.


Geography is an absolutely crucial factor in the evolution of nations great and small in any understanding of either of those terms. America was blessed by being almost entirely in a temperate zone, having huge stretches of fertile land, many extraordinary natural resources, and people who, from the birth of the nation, were willing to move west in the conquest of the land package made possible by good fortune, shrewd political decisions, a string of unmatched military successes, a people devoted to hard work, and many inexplicable serendipitous events. Some would conclude that God smiled on America, while others would insist it simply was fate that did the smiling. Whatever was the ultimate cause, the result was the evolution of the strongest nation in the history of the human race by almost every measure.


The Battle of the Little Big Horn was fought in 1868. (America lost.) The Battle of Wounded Knee was fought in 1890. (The Indians lost.) By the time Frederick Jackson Turner delivered his speech at the Chicago Exposition in 1893, the West most definitely had been conquered, and the United States of America had almost all the land area it could ever legitimately or illegitimately claim.


As mentioned earlier, the rush to the West picked up its greatest momentum after the end of the Civil War. It continued from the 1860s and 70s throughout the Dust-Belt Years of the 1930s, with people from Oklahoma and elsewhere moving to California, the Golden State. Migrants from the Rust Belt still move to the western Sunbelt. Idaho is the fastest growing northern state. Oregon, Washington, and Arizona are still increasing in population, but California has about reached its limit. Anyone moving to the Golden State now is taking a much bigger gamble than those who moved there in previous decades or centuries. That is not because of any potential ruptures in the San Andreas Fault. It is because there are 39,000,000 people packed into far too small segments of a far-larger-than-average state. And there shall always be that water issue.


In eastern Oregon and Washington, much of Idaho, and western Montana and Wyoming, there is a large section of the American eastern Northwest that calls itself “The American Redoubt.” In certain respects the American Redoubt represents the last holdout of the Old West. Scattered throughout it are a collection of many thousands of anti-government, libertarian, gun-toting individualists who live where they live because they believe it is the most easily defended piece of land in the whole country. Although it gets very cold in the winter there, it has lots of water, and Redoubters have figured that water will be the next Really Big Issue in the West. That supposition is probably correct. Large parcels of land are selling like hotcakes in the Redoubt.


Redoubters have no interest in seceding from America. They know what happened when the Confederacy tried that, and they are a lot smaller in geographical size and population than the Confederacy was when Confederate guns fired at Fort Sumter.


But Redoubters have almost exactly the same mentality as millions of people who settled the American West over a three-and-a-half century period. They are tough, tough-minded, independent, anti-institutional, you-leave-me-alone-and-I’ll-leave-you-alone folks. If they voted in the 2016 election, which probably many of them did not, you can easily guess how they did vote.


There is a major part of the story of the American West which was not covered in this lecture, and we will begin with it in the next lecture. It will be entitled The Early Stages of American Imperialism.


Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>