California History: A Topical Approach

By Gordon Morris Bakken | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Wagon Wheels West:
Trailblazers and Settlers in
Mexican California

Ronald C. Woolsey

In the twenty-five years before the war with Mexico, the patterns of overland migration to California gradually evolved in purpose and scope. During the 1820s and 1830s, the possibility of new hunting grounds lured trappers and traders to the Far West. What they found was a sprawling landscape of deserts, mountains, and valleys, sparsely populated and teeming with wildlife. By the 1840s, what began as a trickle of interlopers had increased to a steady stream of settlers—persons interested in making a fresh start in a new Eden. Land and settlement had replaced the transient goal of trade and exploration. During these years, some would perish in their attempt to reach California, but those who endured consituted the first wave of American settlement. In a few years hence, these Californians would become embroiled in a larger conflict with Mexico, which, in a more profound way, best characterizes the larger pattern of the westward movement.1

During the 1820s, Americans were on the move west toward the Great (Continental) Divide and beyond, committed to a belief in the nation's “manifest destiny,” the popular notion that the American people were destined, even ordained by God, to spread across the continent “from sea to shining sea.” The possibility of continental expansion was first entertained with the exploits of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804–1806.2 Within fifteen years of that monumental trek, sectional issues complicated the simple dream of westward expansion.

In 1819, Congress became embroiled in a bitterly contested argument over whether to admit Missouri into the Union as a free or a slave state. The next year, the debate over the admission of this western state (west, that is, of the Mississippi River) led to the 1820 congressional compromise over the expansion of slavery.2 Henceforth, the new state of Missouri would become a popular staging area for new arrivals interested in engaging in the river trade along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as well as a point of departure for those interested in migrating to the Far West.3

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