Manifest Destiny and Life on the Frontier

The European settlers believed that they had god’s blessing to expand westward.
Frontiersmen at the edge of the American wilderness.
Metal pan used for gold panning.
A giant pile of buffalo skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.

The European immigrants in North America, who over time came to see themselves as Americans, believed that the new continent was theirs for the taking. Their assumed right to American land could be summed up in two words: Manifest Destiny. This simple expression stood for the white Americans’ God-given right, and duty, to cultivate all of North America’s wild land and tame the supposedly savage native people who lived on it. As could be expected, the popular Manifest Destiny doctrine fueled westward expansion, and by pointing out Native Americans as barbarian, offered moral justification for violent suppression of the indigenous population.

Adventure and exploration

For American settlers who, in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, moved west to territories still populated by Indians, westward expansion meant opportunities and exploration. Here, in the west, there was still land in abundance, which settlers could cultivate, and lucky adventurers could make a fortune from panning gold in some of the areas where it had been discovered. The millions of bison roaming free on the plains here, furthermore, were a good source of food, and due to their respectful size, were also considered fun to shoot for pleasure. The Indians, who lived or hunted on land that the settlers wanted, could not show title deeds for any property, nor had they fenced in any land. This, in the eyes of the American settlers, meant that the entire west should be up for grabs.

A tough life

Going after the land they thought was up for grabs, the fortune-seeking families and groups of men who ventured westward obviously also ran into problems, since life on the frontier was tough. The journey from east to west, for example, was long and arduous, and Indian attacks anywhere outside of already established settlements could be deadly. Finding fertile land, moreover, could not be taken for granted, and few gold diggers came over significant quantities of gold. What was certain, though, throughout the 19th century, was that the bison were hunted almost to extinction, and that so much new land was discovered and appropriated that, by the late 1800s, there really wasn’t much land left on the continent to claim.