Discussion Guides
Manifest Destiny, the Closure of the Frontier, and the Price of Progress

Film clips on the American West:

John Gast's "American Progress" painting, 1872

Discussion Goals:
Manifest Destiny, the "Closure" of the Frontier, and the Price of Progress

1. To define Manifest Destiny and understand its relationship to American Exceptionalism.
2. To discuss the ideas, images, and the "closure" of the frontier and the American West.
3. To learn about the consequences of Manifest Destiny and the closure of the frontier on the Plains Indians.
4. To understand the high price all Americans have paid for the "progressive" federal policies related to Manifest Destiny throughout the 19th Century.

Manifest Destiny:  Obtaining the Land

To extend American land from “sea to shining sea,” four distinct avenues were taken after the Revolutionary War:Map of U.S. expansion during Manifest Destiny
2. Diplomacy.  Americans used diplomatic relations  to negotiate for land.
3. Appropriation.  Americans took the land  by force through the use of federal law.

4. War.  Americans declared war on foreign nations to gain land that could not be gained through purchase, diplomacy, or appropriation.
 Florida.  In December 1817, General Andrew Jackson asked President Monroe for permission to invade Spanish Florida to  quell runaway slave insurrections. Jackson was given permission only to lead a military expedition into southern Georgia to keep raiders from crossing into U.S.  Jackson, however, claimed secret permission from Monroe and invaded Florida.  The unofficial war resulted in the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819  in which Spain ceded Florida in exchange for the U.S. releasing Spain from $5 million in damage claims resulting from pirate and Indian raids.


How did these frontier myths become the basis for what we believe about the frontier?

Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis”

photo of frederick jackson turner

While “civilizing” the frontier - “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” - Anglo Americans developed unique cultural traits: "that coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism."

To Turner...


Over the past 30 years, historians have begun to ask. What was the price of progress?”

map of Indian Reservations

What has been the price of progress for the Plains Indians?

Public Efforts to Eliminate the “Indian Problem

1.  Early Federal laws facilitating land transfers from Indian hands to white hands.Map of Indian Land Transfers 1775-1890

These three laws set the foundation for what became known as Federal Indian Policy

2.  19th Century Federal Indian Policies


photo of tom torino before and after attending Carlisle Indian School

Manifest Destiny, the Closure of the Frontier, and the Price of Progress

  1. As we begin the story of modern American history, it is essential to remember that the U.S. emerged from both the Civil War and Reconstruction with a strong federal government in place.  Thereafter, many of America’s political struggles were directly related to federal versus states rights battles. Course Theme:  Federal versus states’ rights issues shape the American political landscape.
  2. When we understand the philosophy behind manifest destiny, it becomes clear that Anglo-Europeans did not settle the West – but rather conquered the West.
  3. By the latter part of the 19th Century, most Americans believed that in order for white settlers to progressively settle and farm western territory, they would have to destroy the cultural, economic, political, and spiritual foundations of American Indian people.  To that end, they entrusted the federal government to adopt a series of policies - policies that ultimately led to a cultural genocide of many American Indian nations and policies for which all Americans have paid a high price. Course Theme:  Manifest Destiny defines our approach to foreign policy.
  4. Federal Indian policies of the 19th Century were formulated by policymakers whose attitudes were shaped by naive and incorrect assumptions about American Indians and whose motivations were shaped by economic incentives.
  5. We paid a high price for such progress.  The consequences of federal policies were disastrous for Indian peoples.  By the end of the 19th Century, the surviving 250,000 American Indians - who had been sovereign and self-sufficient at the time the U.S. government was born - had become victims of federal policies that forcibly prohibited them from living in their traditional lands, speaking their languages, and practicing their political, economic, social, and spiritual traditions.  Thus, Indians had been forced onto reservations where they became largely dependent upon the federal government for their survival. Course Theme:  Progress is not always progressive.  Freedom  is never free.
  6. Although history most often portrays American Indians as victims, it must also portray them as survivors - heroic people who despite the genocidal policies of the US government, have survived, thrived, and revived their traditional cultures, languages, religions, and political structures, as well as created new strategies to bring economic success to many reservations.  Course Theme: Freedom is never free.
  7. In attempting to atone for the genocidal policies of past generations, it is important for Americans to see the first 300 years of U.S. history and 125 years of Federal Indian policy as a time of missed opportunities.  We had the opportunity to make a different world in which American Indians and Euro-Americans could share the bounty of the North American continent, but we missed it.  After experiencing the anger associated with learning the truth, the guilt associated with that truth, and the shock of the genocide it wrought, we face a contemporary challenge – embracing and learning to live in a multicultural world in which everyone's cultural, social, political, spiritual, and economic traditions are respected.  Course Theme:  Patriotism is a relative construct.