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Westward Movement And How It Shaped America’s Cultural Spirit – Analysis

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By Chan Kung*

The Westward Movement refers to a mass movement in which the settlers of the eastern United States migrated to and developed the western part. It began in the late 18th century after the independence of the United States and ended in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Information online often noted that the movement promoted the development of the U.S. military and economy in territorial expansion and land annexation. Due to limited land and resources in the eastern part of the country, Americans embarked on a century-long westward journey to continue their expansion, often at the expense of the Native Americans and indigenous species.

In reality, the Westward Movement is a whole lot more than just expanding. Two animals bear huge significance to the United States and the Americas. The first being the North American bison, and the second being the beaver. North America was once a place of deserts and forests. The Native Americans were the first group of people to study and observe the bison’s migration routes, before being adopted by the then-settlers too, which formed into parts of the U.S. nationwide highway network that we know of today. Beaver pelt was the main commodity traded between the United States and Europe. In fact, its high value earned it the nickname of “soft gold” in its time.

At the beginning, settlers traveled through the Appalachian Mountains and into the west in search for beaver pelts. Later, they established settlements and built houses and villages in the area. This incited conflicts with the Native Americans, which led the British Crown to decree the Proclamation of 1763, which stated settlers are not to cross over the Appalachian Mountains. This affected many settlers, and caused them to abandon their homes and ranches in the west. This eventually gave way to the American Revolutionary War involving the 13 colonies.

Although the Westward Movement’s main objective was to expand its foothold, at that time, a severe economic crisis broke out in the late 19th century. Tragic reports of suicides and families who threw their children into wells plagued the reports daily. The incident drove settlers to relocate Midwest in hopes of attaining dreams of a better life. Meanwhile, the U.S. government had also adopted policies of active encouragement. Since then, many presidential bodies, including Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead Act, adopted measures to support the Westward Movement. This was to oppose France, who owned a much larger territory on the North American continent than the United States. At that time, the so-called “United States” only had thirteen states in the east, which was actually just a narrow strip of land along the Atlantic coast. In 1803, the United States bought more than 2 million square kilometers of French Louisiana from Napoleon Bonaparte. Yet the Americans knew almost nothing about the land they bought. U.S. President Thomas Jefferson eventually carried out a large number of expeditions under the guidance of the Native Americans, and therein was the Oregon Trail born, which kickstarted the Westward Movement.

The Westward Movement had a significant impact on the country’s political and economic life of the United States. The integration of the vast western land into the United States turned it into a truly vast country with rich natural resources; the development in western parts of the region led to the construction of large-scale railways and the influx of large numbers of emigrants as well, shaping the huge domestic market in the United States by supplying huge amount of resources to it. In a way, without the Westward Movement, there would be no United States as we know today.

Western is a movie genre familiar to many, yet most Westerns movies are actually produced through Eurocentric lenses and colonial perspective, or what most would call “looking towards the west from the east” approach. These are just a glimpse into the Western society, selective ones at that. Like the Freudian screen memories, some memories of the West are omitted, while others were made up. However, some elements in Western movies are indeed the embodiment of the American spirit, for instance sang-froid heroes who kill to stop killing. 

An entire book is needed to fully explain the American spirit, but if we had to pick a word to sum the whole thing up, perhaps the word “boldness” best describes it. Russia is considerably “bold” too, as it annexed most of the vast Siberia. Still, it cannot be compared to the United States. This is because Russia’s conquest of Siberia was purely military in nature, while the U.S. Westward Movement was a large-scale immigration and colonization of men and women, young and old, facing many obstacles and challenges, and finally creating townships, economy, and cultural outcomes. This makes it utterly different from Russia’s Siberian conquest. 

It is this “boldness” that can objectively describe the causes and consequences of the Westward Movement. The act of heroism, as depicted in Western movies typically reflects such attitude. It is also through such mannerisms that we see military-civilian integration in the U.S. One time, I visited a small miner’s museum and found that the tool bags used by the miners to be the same as the bullet bags used by the U.S. military in the past. The ubiquitous ATVs in American tourist attractions today have also become the standard equipment in U.S. military. In fact, I believe most Americans hardly need a crash course in driving one as they grew up with one as a child. Then, you have paratroopers who are considered advanced armies in various countries around the world, but if you have ever been to Colorado, you might notice the cables miners use to cross canyons between tall wooden platforms, transporting people, goods, and ore. All of the behaviors above are relatively innate to the Americans. 

Western U.S. is different from the east, in that easterners favor a European lifestyle. Furthermore, they are more liberal and urbanized, hence the Eurocentrism. The wild west is a somewhat of a no man’s land, and people there have fought tooth and nail against nature to survive. Many tragedies had occurred during the Westward Movement, though most survived through sheer will and determination. For example, the team of emigrants led by George Donner who hailed from North Carolina in the east who ventured to the west by following the Oregon Trail. At some point in their journey, they wanted to take a cutoff, but did not expect the roads to be brutally treacherous in winter. They were blocked by the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains, trapped in a winter storm, and ran out of food. When spring finally arrived, the rescue team deployed to locate them came face to face with a tragic scene – The survivors survived off their dead companions. Donner himself ate his wife’s corpse. The remaining members eventually discovered gold beneath Donner’s feet, which set off the gold rush in California later. The optimistic American changed the name of the place to Donner Pass to commemorate the pioneers who sacrificed themselves. It is such “boldness”, as in the willingness to sacrifice that makes for the true American spirit. Optimism and humor too, are also part of the western spirit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as Mormonism, which remains influential in the west, believes that death is only but a transition for the deceased, and it does not spell the end of life.

Things from the Midwest like jeans, T-shirts, jackets and boots are the real icons of the American culture and style. Meanwhile, suits, leather shoes, high heels and long skirts are European, foreign, and non-American. This makes the eastern society hardly representative of the country nor the American spirit. Plus, well known western American entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have preferred a Midwest fashion style, not because they like it or are trying to pretentious, but because the western influences is deeply ingrained in them. It is the western spirit that shapes their image and culture. This is what sets western and eastern U.S. apart, but western U.S. is quintessentially the real America. California in the west has become the mecca of high-tech entrepreneurship in the world. This is by no means accidental. Entrepreneurship also requires courage and perseverance. It requires a self-motivational spirit to work.

It is worth noting that the Midwestern culture in the United States is still deeply anchored to its roots. There are very few blacks in the Midwest. Save for California and some other key cities, it is almost impossible to find other ethnic groups in the area. One time, I went to a village to attend a chuckwagon show. It was an auditorium crowded with hundreds of people. Men and women, young and old; all of them were whites and I was the only Asian present. The Hudson River Painting School was originally a group of cultural people in New York who later followed the Westward Movement. They migrated to the Midwest and created a large number of cultural and artistic works. It was through them that the works of art were born from the vast land of the Midwest. It was also there that the widely held cultural belief Manifest Destiny began to take root.

Cultural spirit is a spatial symbolic feature, and the one from western America still profoundly affects the United States today. As long as the influence continues to persist, and the Midwest continues to extend and expand. The Midwest, as the homeland and core of the American spirit, will trigger deeper social changes, which in turn deeply affects American politics, consumption styles, and social tendency. This will last until the western cultural spirit has cemented itself as the heart of the American society. 

*Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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Anbound

Anbound Consulting (Anbound) is an independent Think Tank with the headquarter based in Beijing. Established in 1993, Anbound specializes in public policy research, and enjoys a professional reputation in the areas of strategic forecasting, policy solutions and risk analysis. Anbound's research findings are widely recognized and create a deep interest within public media, academics and experts who are also providing consulting service to the State Council of China.

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