What we know of as “westward expansion” has been occurring since the late eighteenth century. After the Revolutionary War, people began to move inland, seeking new opportunities and new lands. As the frontier moved further west, people began to move past it, exploring and settling what was to them unknown territory. With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the land that belonged to the United States became even larger, and the frontier moved past the Mississippi River into the Western United States.
In the nineteenth century, the United States government began to push for more westward expansion, which developed the concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were meant to settle the West. As people began to explore and settle these vast areas, they encountered Native Americans who were uneasy with the new settlers, and the West became a no man’s land of crime, gunfights, and outlaws. With the California Gold Rush of the late 1840s and early 1850s, settlement of the West rose exponentially with people who were eager to make their fortunes. As settlement increased, a romantic notion of what the west was supposed to be developed, a time period we call the Wild West. It exaggerated the potential of the West as the land of opportunity, a place where you could go and make your fortunes, whether it was becoming rich or just having a space of land to call your own.
The field of photography was also developing in the nineteenth century. Many photographers were hired to travel west and photograph what was there to entice Americans to move there, including picturesque landscapes and photographs of famous personalities of the age. While many photographs were used to exaggerate the myth of the Wild West, much photographic evidence also depicts the harsh life of the West. They show the exploration of the territory, the journey west, and the hard work that people who lived there had to go through every day, and the treatment of Native Americans. Photographers documented life on the frontier, in all its forms. By looking at these photographs, we can see a glimpse of what life was like during the westward expansion.