A Continental Nation
started moving west for all these individual, personal reasons: land,
converting Indians, furs. But everywhere they went, the end result was
they wanted to make it into the United States. It didn't matter why they
went, once they got there they decided, 'This place should be part of
the United States.' And in doing so, they brought the nation with them.
The nation didn't send them out. They brought the United States with them."
On July 4th, 1848, in Washington, D.C., thousands turned out to see President Polk lay the cornerstone of a new monument -- a giant stone shaft modeled after the obelisks of ancient Egypt to honor the nation's first president.
GeorgeWashington's America had ended at the Mississippi. But now, as Polk spoke to the crowd, the American flag flew over the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas; above the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe; over a growing Mormon settlement in the Great Salt Lake valley; at Spanish ranches in Sonoma, California; and near the ruins of the Whitman mission in the Pacific Northwest.
Polk's nation was a continental United States that stretched from sea to sea and now encompassed the West. In only a generation -- by enterprise and intimidation, by sacrifice and by outright conquest -- Americans had seized it all.
Back in the nation's capital, standing next to the president at the ceremony was the old mountain man Joe Meek. His fondest wish had come true. Born in Washington County, Virginia, he was now the sheriff of a brand-new Washington County -- in Oregon Territory.
A month later, even more good news arrived from this newest section of the country. In California -- on a stream named the American River -- gold had been discovered.
Nothing in the West would ever be the same again.
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA