Native American Indian and Western Expansion of the United States

People have lived in North America for around 15,000 years ago. Permanent settlement by Europeans, in contrast, is barely 500 years old, following Columbus’s renowned 1492 voyage. Columbus was seeking a short sea route to the Orient, or “Indies,” when he made land in the New World. Thinking he had reached his original destination, he coined the term “Indians” (in English translation) for the people he encountered.

While Europeans were intrigued with the origins and histories of Native Americans, they also feared them. Misunderstanding and conflict between Europeans and native populations put their stamp on American history long before the first permanent English settlement in North America and continued until the United States spanned the entire continent.

Tensions between Native Americans and the comparatively populous European settlers reached new heights during the Revolutionary War. In 1778, the newly formed United States entered into the first of its approximately 400 treaties with Native American tribes. A tribe would typically agree to keep peace with settlers and to recognize the jurisdiction of the United States government over its lands in exchange for cash, goods, and medicine–as well as federal military protection. Under the United States Constitution, treaties with Indian tribes were as legally binding as agreements with other nations, a policy that continued until 1871–though many treaties were entered into under false pretenses or were broken.

By 1790, the United States government had claimed all Indian territory east of the Mississippi River, establishing tribal reservations and selling land to settlers.

By 1790, the United States government had claimed all Indian territory east of the Mississippi River, establishing tribal reservations and selling land to settlers. Federally appointed Indian Superintendents governed reservation lands and granted licenses for trade with and residence among native people. Eventually all Indian affairs were placed under the War Department.

The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 – 1806 began charting the Louisiana Purchase, which was the most important event of Thomas Jefferson’s first administration. Jefferson believed that a land-and-water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would aid the United States in trade. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were commissioned to explore the new territory. They traveled about 8,000 miles, in the process conducting the first government survey of what is now the northwestern United States. Beginning near St. Louis, they journeyed up the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains, and along the Columbia and other rivers to the Pacific coast. They returned to St. Louis with maps of their route and the surrounding regions; specimens and descriptions of plant, animal, and mineral resources; and information about the cultures and languages, as well as goods and artifacts, of native peoples of the West. Lewis and Clark established peaceful contact with most of the tribes they encountered. By 1810, the Northwest, American Fur, and Hudson’s Bay companies had established thriving fur-trading posts along the frontier. When Lewis and Clark’s expedition journals were first published in an edited version in 1814, the American public got its first reliable view of life beyond the Mississippi River.

The young nation faced further conflict with native tribes during the War of 1812, when tensions between the United States and Great Britain erupted. Many Native Americans sided with the British, hoping to expel American settlers. Although neither the United States nor Great Britain could claim victory in the war, Native Americans were left without an ally in the fight to save their lands. The conflict also led the United States to aspire to build a more unified nation, to seek an “American Identity.” After the War of 1812, art and culture in the United States began to reflect American experiences. Native Americans became the subject of idealized and romanticized visions of life in a pristine society. Modern scholars have noted this discrepancy between this popular depiction and destructive government policy: “While they were fascinated with Indians and often aspired to live like them, Americans also rejected them as too primitive to live alongside, banishing them to reservations and killing them with diseases and bullets.” (Moore, p. 46)

Waterways were the true highways of America in 1830. Direct trade between Native Americans and whites was common throughout the West, though relations tended to be uncertain. When George Catlin reached St. Louis in 1830, it was the Gateway to the West: a busy river town of nearly 8,000 people, headquarters for fur companies, traders, trappers, hunters, adventurers, and for the Army of the West and Northwest. (Sufrin, p. 22)

The 1830 Indian Relocation Act–championed by President Andrew Jackson and enacted just prior to George Catlin’s travels along the frontier–compelled southeastern tribes to move west of the Mississippi River. The Act was essentially designed to free more land for white settlement. Relocation was either voluntary or forced. Army and militia patrols supervised the tribes’ westward journey. It is estimated that between 1830 and 1840 the government relocated more than 70,000 Native Americans, thousands of whom died along what came to be known as the Trail of Tears.

Burgeoning western expansion a generation after the Louisiana Purchase found Americans w pushing beyond the territorial boundaries into lands claimed by Mexico and Great Britain. “Squatters” simply moved past privately owned land and set up homesteads on unsurveyed federal territory. Manifest Destiny, phrase coined in 1845 in an article on the annexation of Texas, came to encompass the belief in the inevitable territorial expansion of the United States: the right to rule North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific according to the will of God. Droves of wagon trains heading west along the westbeginning with the Great Migration of 1843 embodied this theory. Native Americans were expected either to assimilate or be forever marginalized.


Learn more about artist George Catlin and his works.

  1. George Catlin: Native American Indian and Western Expansion of the United States
  2. George Catlin: Who Was George Catlin?
  3. Catlin’s Creed
  4. Bibliography and Suggested Reading
  5. George Catlin: Mythology of the American West
  6. George Catlin: Artist Timeline
  7. George Catlin: Weblinks and Resources