As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 111 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

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

Photo of a buffalo hunt in 1870


For the next two days, we are going to examine the price we paid for this type of "progress." In so doing, we will begin the story that will unfold throughout the semester.

The powerpoint provides the primary discussion points for the next two days. As of August 2014, there is a new footnote to our discussion of Manifest Destiny - a footnote that tells us a great deal about our 21st Century mindset. The College Board released a revised "curriculum framework" to help high school teachers prepare students for the Advanced Placement test in US history. The framework mirrors the new demographic reality that beginning in fall 2014, whites are the minority of public school students in the nation. According to a September 1, 2014 editorial in the New York Times:

"It turns Poster of revisionist historyout that some Americans don’t like it. A member of the Texas State Board of Education has accused the College Board of 'promoting among our students a disdain for American principles and a lack of knowledge of major American achievements,' like those of the founding fathers and of the generals who fought in the Civil War and World War II. The Republican National Committee says the framework offers 'a radically revisionist view' that “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history.'

Two groups that belong to the Republican National Committee - American Principles in Action and Concerned Women for America - sent an open letter to the College Board asking that they delay the new framework and criticizing the course's negative view of American history. They wrote in part, "Instead of striving to build a 'City upon a Hill,' as generations of students have been taught, the colonists are portrayed as bigots who developed 'a rigid racial hierarchy' that was in turn derived from 'a strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority,'" the letter reads. "The new Framework continues its theme of oppression and conflict by reinterpreting Manifest Destiny from a belief that America had a mission to spread democracy and new technologies across the continent to something that 'was built on a belief in white racial superiority and a sense of American cultural superiority.'"

Indeed, the 21st Century mindset of many Americans indicates that are unhappy largely because a once comforting story has become, in the hands of historians, more complex, unsettling, provocative and compelling story. So what do we want - a soothing history that justifies all that has happened in the past, or a complex, difficult history that encourages us to understand the past in a way that will help us create a better future?


  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. Western expansion - based firmly on the idea of Manifest Destiny - is an excellent example of the newly-derived power of the federal government. Manifest Destiny provided the philosophical foundations for federal laws that encouraged Americans to move west, gave land and financial incentives to railroads to build west, and greatly weakened the political, social, economic, and spiritual foundations of hundreds of American Indian Nations. Course Theme: Manifest Destiny defines our approach to foreign policy.
  3. When we understand the philosophy behind Manifest Destiny, it becomes clear that Anglo-Europeans did not settle the West - but rather conquered the West.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Themes: Progress is not always progressive. Freedom is never free.
  7. 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.
  8. 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 the first 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.