Chinese workers on a railroad hand car
constructing the Union Pacific Rail Road,
c. 1867.

Opportunity in the Western territories was an American ideal even before the founding of the republic. With the Homestead Act of 1862 anyone who settled Western land for five years was promised 160 acres. In just the period between 1867 and 1874, some 27,000,000 acres of farm land were staked out for the expected influx of European immigrants.


Shooting Star, a Dakota Indian,
and her sister dressed in white
woman’s clothing. Indian
reformers pursued
assimilation policies
that sought to “kill the
Indian and save the man.”

The lure of land was only one incentive to move west; many Americans went to work on railroads, to mine metals and minerals or to settle in the West’s growing cities. Among the new arrivals were Chinese immigrants, tempted by prospects for work on the transcontinental railroad or by newly discovered gold. They were met with intense hostility from white settlers, whose prejudice was fanned by fears that the Chinese immigrants would take their jobs. States passed laws to discourage Chinese immigration and, for the first time, the federal government banned immigration from a specific country with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which also blocked Chinese immigrants from ever becoming citizens.

The belief that the West was a vast empty space ripe for settlement came at the expense of Native Americans, who were pushed off the land they had inhabited for millennia, and of Mexicans, who were in the U.S. after the Mexican government ceded the territories of California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The Lakota Sioux leader, Sitting Bull, declared, “The life my people want is a life of freedom.” Westward expansion gave greater freedom to settlers, but meant the loss of freedom for many others.

A broadside by the Burlington & Missouri River Rail Road advertising the sale of lands in Iowa and Nebraska (railroads were given large grants of land to sell by the U.S. government), 1872.

Tatanka Iyotaka (a k a Sitting Bull), a Hunkpapa Sioux Leader and Medicine Man. He united the Lakota Indians to defeat General George Armstrong Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn in 1876. In 1893 Sitting Bull was killed by police at the Standing Rock Reservation who were trying to apprehend him. Authorities had feared that he would join the Ghost Dance ceremony that promised to rid the land of white people and restore the Indians’ way of life.

Americans believed it was their Manifest Destiny to conquer the West and bring “civilization.” Written on the train is “Through Line New York – San Francisco,” (the Transcontinental Railroad opened the following year), c. 1868.