This article will feature in Issue 36: Ideology & Faith (May 2020)
The 1783 Treaty of Paris concluded the American Revolutionary War between the British Empire and the United States of America. Stretching from colonial settlements along the Atlantic Coast in the east, to the banks of the Mississippi river in the West, the borders of the new republic extended across a vast expanse of land. The boundaries, however, did not remain static for long; over the course of the next century the expansion of the American frontier followed a pattern of migration, settlement, and displacement. These changing borders forced people from their ancestral lands, and re-determined national identities. By the 1820s the boundaries had extended far beyond their original limits, as the US amassed territory across the continent. This expansionist yearning became a principal feature of American foreign policy, and was articulated in the popular 19th century concept of ‘Manifest Destiny’ – the belief that Providence preordained and justified the expansion of the USA across the North American continent. The extension of American borders throughout the century was not merely the adjustment of lines on a map: it had an indelible impact on cultures, identities, and experiences for entire populations.
Throughout the 19th century, sprawling communities of European settlers flooded into the lower south, as arable land in Georgia, Alabama, and other southern states became increasingly coveted for the production of cotton. Pressure on the government to facilitate the acquisition of this land led to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 – the authorisation of the forced relocation of Native American tribes from their ancestral lands to a designated ‘Indian territory’ west of the Mississippi river. Though at the beginning of the 1830s the south-eastern states were home to nearly 125,000 Native Americans, by the end of the decade all but a few had been forced to relocate outside of the US border. 19th century political opinion justified this relocation as a regrettable, yet necessary, measure to allow for white expansion into desirable territory – or alternatively as a ‘sincere’ attempt to preserve Native American cultures by preventing the assimilation of indigenous tribes into European settlements. Native American attitudes towards the earth, which revolve around the collective ownership of land and appreciation of seasonal produce, were swept aside in favour of western monocultures and land privatisation as indigenous people were forced further west. The trek of the Cherokee, who were forced to relocate from present-day Oklahoma, became known as the infamous ‘Trail of Tears’, because of the loss of life on this devastating journey, and the relinquishment of a home that would never be reclaimed. The expansion of white US settlers into Native American land, and the subsequent forced relocation of these groups across the US border, irrevocably altered indigenous communities and their ties to the land. The Mississippi river wasn’t just the westerly border, it was a reminder of incredible loss.
In 1848, along the southern border of the US, the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the American-Mexican war, abruptly changing the geography of North America once again. Mexico relinquished all claims to Texas, which had been annexed by the United States in 1845 after a rebellion of American colonists had succeeded in breaking the state away from Mexico. The treaty gave the US the Rio Grande as a new border for Texas, and 525,000 square miles of land that had previously belonged to Mexico – which now makes up considerable portions of California, Arizona, and Colorado, amongst other western states. This changing border displaced almost 100,000 indigenous people on the Mexican side of the border, who were now swept up into the expanding territory of the United States. Entire communities became immigrants on the soil upon which they had always lived. These displaced people were given a year to decide whether to retreat to the new border of Mexico, and retain their Mexican citizenship, or stay on their land, and assume American citizenship. Over 90% chose to stay where they were: where the community and culture was known to them. Though the treaty promised that the property rights of Mexicans living in these transferred territories would be respected, they were often not honoured as the land became assimilated into US settlements. Identities and cultures were transformed as the land moved into the ownership of the United States, and the residents became Americans. Though communities remained on their ancestral homelands, the border change profoundly affected their lives; as the popular slogan maintains: ‘We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us’. Further efforts towards the expansion of the US continued until 1848 when the dream of ‘Manifest Destiny’ had finally been realised and the territory of the United States stretched from the east coast to the west, from the 49th parallel to the Rio Grande. The borders of the country had been solidified, but the people remained divided in their experiences and perceptions of this expansionism. Within the land that the United States had assumed, discord was rife. The innumerable experiences, cultures, and languages that had been shaped by the United States’ expansionist policies correspondingly created a country with infinite ‘American’ identities. As contemporary America attempts to understand its own national identity, it is important to reflect upon the experiences of the people affected by its expansionist policies, and the persistence of these memories today.