• J.J. Wheeling

Wrapping One's Head Around 1849 Geography and European-American Impact

One of the reasons I was excited to start this blog was to help give context for the time and place of my story to my readers. Prologues, epilogues, afterwards – none of them, I feel, can handle the scope of my story without blowing up the word count to unpublishable levels.

One of the first things I was reminded of (7thgrade geography was a longtime ago) as I started my research was that mid-19thcentury documents referencing the northwestern states were referring to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. I realized I had to understand the whole scope of the country as it was known in 1849. Here’s my own quick refresher course, I hope you find it helpful.


Smith, Charles, Active Approximately. Map of North America. [S.l, 1849] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2002628196/>

In 1849, geographically speaking:

  • West of Wisconsin was still known as Minnesota Territory

  • Oregon Territory went to the Canadian Border; Britain and the US narrowly avoided another war after agreeing to divide the territory equally in 1846, Britain taking the northern half

  • Between Minnesota Territory and Oregon Territory was referred to as Unorganized Territory or Unorganized Indian Territory

  • The state of Texas reached up to the corner of present-day Idaho, Wyoming and Utah borders and took well over half of the present-day state of New Mexico

  • The area of present-day California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and far western New Mexico was called Mexican Cession or Unorganized Territory

  • Mexico still held a small sliver of present-day Arizona and New Mexico

  • Alaska was held by the Russian Empire

  • Hawaii was a kingdom unto itself and referred to commonly as the Sandwich Islands

  • There was no West Virginia yet, it was still considered Virginia

  • All other states were as we know them today


From the exploratory and migratory perspective, keep in mind that prior to the 1840s relatively few white Europeans and Americans had seen the western territories.


The 1500s had the Spaniards poking around the southwest, into the Midwest and up the Pacific Coast and bringing the native cultures their first wave of impact with Europeans. It was this first contact that began the end of the native cultures as they were exposed to the diseases which eventually led to massive death tolls. By 1849, over 300 years later, many cultures had either disappeared or were down to a minimal few, struggling to keep their traditions alive.


The 1600’s had the fur trappers of the English-chartered Hudson’s Bay Company(1670), and their French, English and American investors were determined to dominate the European fur trade. They sent ships and trappers into the Hudson Bay’s interior and as the beaver were trapped out, the men moved south and west into Oregon Territory via the Columbia River and the upper the Mississippi and Missouri river systems smack into the territory of John J. Astor’s American Fur Company(1808).


With the Louisiana Purchase(1803) and the Lewis and Clark expedition, the American government learned the vast bounty of the western acquisition as well as those who inhabited it. They also found that the fur company’s trappers, through their integration into the Native people’s cultures, had gained enough prestige to be included in negotiations between tribes. The Europeans who understood the Natives’ diverse languages were trusted during the more impactive negotiations between the Native cultures and the emerging United States.


As freedom and expansion lured Americans to the Western frontier, including the Oregon Territory, the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis to Santa Fe to Chihuahua, Mexico and into Texas, many emigrants had contact with regional Natives. But there were few whites in comparison to Natives and the Natives were tolerant. By the time the Mormons began their forced migration into the western, unorganized territories in 1847, the Native cultures had begun to form opinions about the influence of white people’s arrival. It was only when the flush of emigrants going to Oregon and California, along the Mormons’ route, invaded their lands, stole their property and ignorantly killed their people that the Native cultures truly understood the white man’s impact on their world.


When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo(officially titled the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic) ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848, it officially added a great western chunk of our nation’s puzzle. The area became California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, and was purchased from Mexico for $15 million, plus $5 million to pay off claims against Mexico by American citizens in Texas.


I found the exploration of European and American western expansion very interesting, but not without feeling the ominous weight of knowing what happened to the Indigenous People in the aftermath of the invasion. Throughout the research for my story, I learned of individuals with political and economic agendas who whipped up the emigrant’s fears and emotions by feeding them stories portraying the Native People as sub-human and incapable of respectful negotiations or civil interactions. I believe we now understand the blatant falsity of those claims.


It was commonplace for emigrants to believe, whole-heartedly, that their domination and seizure of Native land was ordained by God through the American-manufactured concept of Manifest Destiny. Not only did the emigrants have their motivations but the American government had its own national and political ambitions, giving its blessing to the emigrant’s invasion into distant territories.


But, there were plenty of emigrants who didn’t feel that way. I’ve gleaned from emigrants’ diaries and journals that many were torn about their true right to travel across the Natives’ land before claiming it as their own. They recognized they were invading the world of another culture, but fear and survival can make even the most empathetic man’s character shift.


I have tried hard to not be anachronistic in creating my stories. The question of right and wrong is easy to answer 130 years after the fact. When my daughter referenced L.P. Harley’s quote, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” I realized the truth of the statement. So much of our current cultural and social divide’s focus is the fact that we have become more aware of our forefathers’ misdeeds, intentional or not. I want my stories to find a reasonable balance, showing the truths and recognizing the facts on all sides.

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© 2020 by J.J. Wheeling

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