New Perspectives on THE WEST
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Events of the West (1840 - 1850)

1840 The last rendezvous on the Green River marks the end of the mountain trapping era, as fashion changes in Europe and steady declines in the beaver population make the fur trade barely profitable.
1840 In its continuing hostilities with Mexico, Texas allies itself with Mexican rebels in the southern state of Yucatan, sending a small navy to blockade Mexican ports. Texans also lend support to anti-government forces in Mexico's northern states, providing a target for Mexican nationalists who hope to unify their strife-torn country by stirring up hatred of a common enemy.
1841 John SutterJohn Sutter buys Fort Ross north of San Francisco, ending Russia's thirty-year presence in California. Sutter dismantles the settlement and carries it to his newly established Fort Sutter at the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers.
1841 John Bidwell organizes the Western Emigration Society and leads the first wagon train of pioneers across the Rockies, a party of 69 adults and children who divide into two groups after crossing South Pass. One group heads north into Oregon, while the other, led by Bidwell, continues west to California, suffering desperate hardship and near starvation before arriving in Sacramento, where Bidwell finds work with John Sutter.
1842 Lieutenant John C. Fremont of the Army Topographical Corps leads a scientific expedition into the Rocky Mountains, guided by the mountain man Kit Carson. Crossing into the mountains at South Pass, Fremont explores the Wind River Mountain region, pausing to plant a specially prepared flag on a high peak which he names for himself. On his return, Fremont's account of the expedition and expert maps are ordered published by Congress.
1842 Francisco Lopez discovers gold dust in the roots of an onion he dug up for lunch, touching off a local gold rush to San Feliciano Canyon near Los Angeles, but news of the discovery is largely ignored elsewhere.
1842 Responding to years of harassment along the Texas border, Mexican troops strike San Antonio, killing many of the town's defenders and carrying off many others as prisoners. This action, called "Dawson's Massacre," leads to the removal of the Texas capital from Austin to Washington-on-the-Brazos, and to a retaliatory attack on Santa Fe.

Seasoned mountain men Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez establish Fort Bridger on the Green River to re-supply migrants traveling the Oregon Trail. Theirs is perhaps the first mountain outpost not designed as a trading post for trappers.

The Oregon Trail todayThe Great Migration, a party of one thousand pioneers, heads west from Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail, guided by Dr. Marcus Whitman, who is returning to his mission on the Columbia River. Forming a train of more than one hundred wagons, and trailing a herd of 5,000 cattle, the pioneers travel along the south bank of the Platte, then cross north to Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Here they follow the North Platte to the Sweetwater, which leads up into South Pass. Once through the pass, they cross the Green River Valley to newly established Fort Bridger, then turn north to Fort Hall on the Snake River, which leads them to Whitman's Mission. Once in Oregon, they strike out along the Columbia for the fertile lands of the Willamette Valley, the endpoint to a journey of 2,000 miles. After the mass exodus of 1843, the migration to Oregon becomes an annual event, with thousands more making the trek every year.

1843 Joseph Smith records his revelation that plural marriage should be a practice of the Mormon church.
1843 Restored to power in Mexico, President Santa Anna warns that American annexation of Texas will be considered an act of war.
1843 Guided by Kit Carson, John C. Fremont launches a more ambitious expedition into the West, traveling from the Great Salt Lake north into Oregon, then across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California, and finally eastward across what Fremont calls the "Great Basin" and over the Wasatch Mountains to the Arkansas River in Colorado. Fremont's report, published in 1844, again by Congressional order, becomes a best-seller, and his map of the West becomes a travel guide to pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
1844 John C. Calhoun negotiates an annexation treaty between Texas and the United States, but abolitionists block its ratification by the Senate.

Mormon leader Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, are killed by a mob at Carthage, Illinois. Brigham Young becomes the new head of the church.

James K. PolkJames K. Polk is elected President with the slogan "54-40 or Fight" -- a promise to set the disputed northern border of the Oregon Territory at 54 degrees, 40 minutes by diplomacy or war, and an implicit promise to expand American territories in every direction.

1845 John L. Sullivan, editor of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, criticizes American temerity toward Mexico and argues that it is "our Manifest overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions."

Outgoing President John Tyler signs a congressional joint resolution to annex Texas and make it part of the union. In response, Mexico severs diplomatic relations with the United States. When Texas accepts annexation, newly-elected President James K. Polk sends a force under General Zachary Taylor to the Mexican border.

At the same time, Polk sends a representative to Mexico City to offer financial compensation for the loss of Texas and to explore whether Mexico will sell the territories of California and New Mexico for a combined $40 million. Insulted, the Mexicans reject the American proposals and prepare for war. Texas enters the Union at year's end.


In March, American forces under Zachary Taylor cross the Nueces River, which Mexico regards as the Texas border, and take up positions along the Rio Grande, which is the border Texans claim. In response to this provocation, a brigade of 1,600 Mexicans crosses the river in late April, where they overwhelm an American cavalry patrol and then wait for the main body of the Mexican army to press the attack. When word of this encounter reaches Washington, President Polk takes the opportunity to declare war on Mexico.

By early May, nearly 4,000 Mexican soldiers have converged on Palo Alto, where they surprise Taylor's 3,000 troops on an open field. Bringing his light field artillery to the front, Taylor turns back the Mexican charge, forcing a retreat. The battle is an early example of the carnage to come when industrial age weaponry confronts traditional battlefield tactics. Over the next two years, more than 13,000 Americans die in the Mexican War, which prepares a generation of military leaders for the Civil War.

1846 Britain and the United States reach a compromise in the Pacific Northwest, setting the Oregon Territory's northern border at the 49th parallel.

In March, John C. Fremont, on his third expedition through the West, raises the American flag over California at an improvised fort near Monterey, but he soon abandons his impetuous efforts and turns toward Oregon. On the way, however, he receives word of the impending Mexican War and returns to California to play a part in its conquest.

Mariano VallejoIn June, Fremont joins forces with a group of Americans who capture Mariano Vallejo, the amicable commandante of the Sonora region, and proclaim California an independent republic. But their "Bear Flag Revolt," named for its distinctive banner, comes to an end in July, when American naval forces arrive in Monterey and take control of the port without firing a shot.

Over the following months, American troops under Commodore Robert F. Stockton, aided by Fremont's so-called California Battalion, capture San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles without bloodshed. In Los Angeles, however, the American occupation force stirs up violent resentment, and by October they are driven out by a guerrila force led by Anrés Pico, brother of the departed California governor.

Stockton's first attempt to regain control of Los Angeles is repulsed, and while he regroups, an American force arrives from New Mexico, commanded by General Stephen Kearny. Attacked by Pico's insurgents at San Pascual, Kearny's troops suffer heavy losses, but with Stockton's aid they reach safety in San Diego. Early the next year, Stockton, Kearny and Fremont combine forces to recapture Los Angeles, with Fremont accepting the insurgents' surrender in the Capitulation of Cahuenga on January 13.

1846 Brigham YoungDriven from Nauvoo by violent mobs, the Mormons head west under the leadership of Brigham Young, travelling with the organization of a military campaign. They establish Winter Quarters near present-day Omaha, Nebraska, but despite their preparations, suffer near starvation and a cholera epidemic that claims 600 lives. At Winter Quarters Brigham Young assembles a "Mormon Battalion" of 500 volunteers to fight in the Mexican War, though by the time they reach California early in 1847, the conquest there is complete.
1846 The Donner Party, trapped by heavy snows when it attempts to follow the "Hastings Cutoff" through the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California, is driven to cannibalism as it attempts to survive the winter.
1847 John C. Fremont is appointed governor of California by Commodore Stockton, but he is soon arrested by General Kearny, who is under orders to act as governor of the province himself. Kearny ships Fremont back to Washington, where he is convicted of disobeying orders and dismissed from the Army.
1847 Brigham Young leads an advance party along the Mormon Trail into the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, where they arrive on July 23 to begin creating a secure refuge for their church. Before the day is over, these first settlers begin digging irrigation ditches and planting crops. And even before the thousands following behind them arrive, Brigham Young begins laying out the streets of Salt Lake City.
1847 Cayuse warriors massacre Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife, Narcissa, and twelve others at Waiilatpu, their mission on the Columbia River in reprisal for deaths caused by a measles epidemic among their tribe.

Headline reporting the discovery of gold in California
On January 24, James Marshall, a veteran of the Bear Flag Revolt, discovers gold on the American River at Coloma while building a lumber mill for John Sutter. A brief report of the discovery appears in a San Francisco newspaper in mid-March, where it goes mostly unnoticed.

In May, Sam Brannan, a Mormon elder who owns a store near Sutter's Fort, arrives in San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust and a plan to draw potential customers for his supplies. Walking through the streets with the gold dust in his hand, he shouts, "Gold! Gold from the American River!" Brannan's publicity stunt sets off a gold rush that will draw fortune-hunters from around the world.

1848 The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ends the Mexican War, giving the United States Texas, California, New Mexico and other territories in the southwest.
1848 A huge flock of sea gulls arrives providentially in the Salt Lake Valley to devour a swarm of crickets that had threatened to destroy the Mormons' crops.
1848 In December, PresidentJames K. Polk confirms the discovery of gold in California, sparking a nationwide stampede to the West.
1849 Forty-niners heading for California's gold fields expand the network of trails across the continent, as wagon trains stretch across the plains and struggle through the mountains as far as the eye can see. Forty-niners also come west by ship, sailing around Cape Horn or crossing by canoe and donkey train through the jungles of Panama.
1849 Forty-niners pioneer the boomtown life that will follow miners throughout the West, a life of desperately hard work hardened by gambling, drinking, violence and vigilante justice. "Pretty Juanita," convicted of murder after stabbing a man who had tried to rape her, becomes the first person hanged in the California mining camps. She gives a laugh and a salute as the rope pulls tight.
1849 By year's end, more than 80,000 fortune-seekers have made their way to California from every corner of the world, nearly tripling the territory's population.
1849 Alarmed at the sudden incursion of "Gentiles" drawn west in search of gold, Brigham Young organizes the Perpetual Emigrating Company to help Mormon converts in England and Europe make the trip to Utah and so increase the Mormon population there.

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