Why did American “Westward Expansion” skip the middle and go right for California?

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I’m not American so not savvy on American history, I just pick up bits and pieces from TV, pop culture and such, so maybe I’ve just got the wrong impression. But even after reading some Wikipedia pages and other sites I’m still confused.

So you have the American Colonial period starting from way back, until you get the 13 Colonies in the late 1700’s.

Then there’s some expansion along the east coast until you get the “southern” states.

Then it seems like all of a sudden people are trying to get all the way across what is now the Middle and Midwest (?) states to California. Like, even before the Gold Rush (which I know was in the mid 1800’s) people were dead keen to get over there and not stop along the way.

I guess basically I’m wondering why people travelling the Oregon Trail and equivalent paths were crossing over so much “undeveloped” (*!!) land to get to the West Coast, rather than steadily developing towns and cities that would slowly craw across what is now the Continental United States.

California became a state in 1850 but Oklahoma didn’t until 1907, and it just doesn’t make sense to me!

*VERY IMPORTANT FOOTNOTE: I want to be sensitive and respectful and acknowledge that ALL of the land I’m talking about was inhabited and “civilised” by the indigenous people LONG before “Americans” began “developing” it. In fact I’m even aware that not all “Native Americans” were nomadic like some of the “plains Indians” we so often see depicted, that there were whole cities established by indigenous people. I discounted them – perhaps in ignorant error – because they are almost never referred to in the historical documentaries or fictions I’ve been exposed. I would be very happy to learn more about settler/Native relations in the course of responses to this post!

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5 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

Well, the Spaniards were there before the “Americans”. They sailed around the south tip of South America, and were settling/conquering all that territory up the Pacific Coast. Several of the Spanish missions were built before the colonies had their little revolution in 1776. And meanwhile Russia was expanding southward down from what is now Alaska. So all of this region was “known”. And then with the discovery of gold, there was a rush to it. Thus the land in-between became “fly-over” from the very beginning.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The gold rush, fueled by the concept of ‘manifest destiny” drove people westward. Basically, many thought it was in God’s plan for America to expand and colonize the west. There just wasn’t much in the way of natural resources to exploit until you reached the Rocky Mountains.

Anonymous 0 Comments

California is a bit of an oddity when it comes to US history. It was colonized/‘taken from Native Americans’ by the Spanish (not the English or French like the rest of the US), and eventually became part of Mexico when it gained its independence in the early 1800’s. It’s a place that’s very rich in natural resources; bay access, rivers, mining, lumber, fertile ground, and great weather. Those all hold fairly true today, which is part of the reason it has about 1/6 of the population of the US. Anyway, back to history.

The US gained control of it as the result of a war with Mexico that ended in 1848. Simultaneously, bulk gold was discovered in the mountains, creating the Gold Rush. Many of the people on the Oregon Trail were there to participate in that rush (poor souls, the Gold Rush was terrible for workers). Once they got there, they were too poor to go home, so California became their home. Instead of keeping it as a territory, the US gave it statehood after only 2 years in the union. Because it was previously colonized, and growing from the Rush, it had a large enough population that it could be a state. And with the amount of resources, it became rather obvious that it needed to be well integrated at the federal level. So it got a fast track that the desert-filled or less-fertile states didn’t enjoy.

It’s also worth noting that the US is massive. It took so long to populate the later states simply because there was no reason for people to move there. There wasn’t enough people. Existing states still had tons of land. Take a look at Tennessee, not a particularly big state compared to others, but it’s almost 700km long. Even now, some of those states are sparsely populated, as there’s no particular reason to set up industry there when you need a city’s shipping and utilities infrastructure.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The reason everyone beelined for Cali is quite straightforward. Gold. Simple as. First one to go and get it cashes out.

The reason why the stuff in the middle was ignored for so long (and even today, why it remains so sparsely populated) is because there’s not really much of value out there. Or at least, that’s what they thought at the time. Maps dating back to at least 1820 had the area labeled as the “[Great American Desert](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_Desert)”, where in this context “desert” is meaning something less like the sandy dunes you’re probably picturing and moreso “bad for farming”. There aren’t a lot of trees in the Great Plains, and the common knowledge of the era was that treeless land was terrible farming land. I mean, if it can’t support trees, why would it support crops? Clearly, there must be something wrong with all this land, right?

Nowadays we know that to be false; the Great Plains of North America contain some of the most arable land in the world. Settlers didn’t really figure that out until some of the more desperate ones who landed there started phoning home and reporting bumper crops. This attracted bonanza farms, massive scale operations that drew in hundreds of able-bodied men and their families. At the same-ish time, the newly constructed transcontinental railroads more or less went bankrupt the moment they were operational. To get some quick cash flow, they chunked up the enormous tracts of land granted to them by US Congress and started selling the parcels at ludicrously cheap prices to anyone who would move out there to take them, which created a lot of small family homesteads.

Anonymous 0 Comments

All of that area between existing states and California had been settled, but because of political battles over slavery making settled areas, called territories, into states was constantly problematic and it was politically easier just to keep them as territories rather than full fledged states.