How Much Do You Know About the Settling of the American West?

John Miller

Image: John Trumbull

About This Quiz

In the early 18th century, European-Americans knew almost nothing about the lands of western Northern America. In our westward-bound quiz, we’ll explore the politics and culture of the people who uprooted their lives in the East for the potential fortunes in the frontier. Do you think you have the wits and sense of adventure to understand the lives of homesteaders and adventurers?

In the East, opportunities for land development were dwindling. Commoners were stuck in a familiar situation – dealing with the whims of the powerful landowners who dominated politics and business. As the West gradually opened, so too did the possibilities for people of the lower class. So, they left behind their families or packed them into wagons and rolled toward the sunset. Do you know what policies encouraged their westward sprawl?

From land rushes to golden dreams, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the West in hopes of better lives. Do you know the challenges they faced as they made their perilous treks? Not only did they deal with Indians and awful weather, but sometimes they conflicted with each other, too. In many cases, only the most daring survived, while the unlucky were sent packing for the East … or left to die in the elements.

In our Old West quiz, we’ll see if think you really understand the complexities and challenges of the frontier. Maybe you would have become a wealthy rancher or saloon owner or feared gunfighter – or maybe your untimely death would be marked by nothing but rattlesnake skins and dust. Take our frontier quiz now!

In 1803, which famous land purchase did the United States complete?

In 1803, the still-young United States government completed the Louisiana Purchase with France. In one fell swoop, the Purchase doubled the size of the country.

How much did the United States pay France for the Louisiana Purchase?

For a measly $15 million, the U.S. doubled its territory, which then extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains from from New Orleans to Canada. Now … what to do with all of that land?

To what does "Manifest Destiny" refer?

In the mid-1800s, the concept of Manifest Destiny held sway in the minds of Americans. It was simply the concept that Americans were destined to expand westward, populating the frontier and making the country their own.

What purpose did the Lewis and Clark Expedition serve?

Following the Louisiana Purchase, the president wanted to explore America's new holdings. So he sent the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which set out to map the West and find the best routes through these new lands.

Which American president was responsible for masterminding the Lewis and Clark Expedition ?

Thomas Jefferson, the man of insatiable curiosity, gathered the resources for the Lewis and Clark Expedition in spite of political opposition. The expedition left in 1804, soon after the Louisiana Purchase had been completed.

Thomas Jefferson believed that _____ ownership was imperative to the survival of the American republic.

Jefferson wanted his citizens to explore and claim the lands of the West as their own, because he felt that it was important to the country's survival. He wrote, "“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God.”

In the 1840s, many Americans associated westward expansion with _____.

The romance of the West was inescapable even back in the 1840s. Citizens of the East believed that the West held the promise of better lives … and freedom.

Why was land ownership such a powerful draw for Americans?

European-Americans were descended from people who escaped the oppressiveness of Europe -- a place where only the immensely wealthy could own land. But in the West, anyone with gumption could claim land and mold his or her own destiny.

When the settling of the West began, the "West" was which area?

The Mississippi River wasn't just a geographical dividing line on a map. It was a mental barrier, too. East of the river was civilization -- to the West, the frontier, the place where only the bold would venture.

In 1849, which phenomenon suddenly drew countless people to California?

In the late 1840s, lodes of gold were discovered in California, and gold fever descended on the populace. The gold rush brought untold numbers of people dreaming of big fortunes … but most of them wound up broke.

How did gold-obsessed settlers get to California?

During the gold rush, there were two primary routes to California -- by ship or by trail. The ship route around South America took half a year. The overland trail took about the same amount of time.

What was the name of the famous trail that hundreds of thousands of settlers traveled to the West?

In the annals of American history, few routes are as iconic as the Oregon Trail. Yes, it's a computer game -- it's also the route that many settlers followed on the way to their fortunes … or untimely deaths.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was meant to open up the West to common people, who could then claim how much land?

The Homestead Act of 1862 was an incredible legislative act. It allowed normal people to claim 160 acres of land for free. For many people, it was a way out of the lower class and into a better way of life.

What was a requirement for people to claim 160 acres through the Homestead Act of 1862?

The requirements for claiming 160 acres were minimal. All you really had to do was improve the land and settle it for at least 5 years. The deal sent countless people scurrying to claim land for themselves.

After a war with _____, America seized power over much of the Southwest.

In 1846, the U.S. went to war with Mexico. America triumphed in 1848, giving the U.S. power over much of the Southwest, including Texas.

Which religious group became famous for its settling of the West, particularly in Utah?

Mormons were often persecuted in the East, so many of them headed West, where they established themselves on large swaths of territory. These days, the entire state of Utah is heavily influenced by Mormon interests.

The frontier areas were often lawless and filled with criminal activity. What was a nickname for the frontier?

Whether you call it the frontier, the Old West, or the Wild West, it's all the same thing, the place where freedom-loving settlers found their fortunes, and where criminals often ran their scams unopposed.

Which social issue complicated westward expansion and also fueled the Civil War?

As the West opened to settling, Southern types wanted slavery to follow … but Northerners did not. The issue fanned the flames of discord that resulted in the Civil War.

What happened on the first day of the Land Rush of 1889?

As part of the Land Rush of 1889, at exactly noon on April 22, thousands of people on horseback raced each other across the Oklahoma Territory. Those who arrived at the best locations first got to claim the area as their own.

During the Land Rush of 1889, what was a "sooner"?

During the Land Rush, settlers raced each other to claim the best land. But many "sooners" arrived early and hid on the land, later pretending to arrive first. Their cheating resulted in many contested land claims.

Thanks to the Land Rush of 1889, the population of Guthrie, OK went from zero to _____ in a single day.

So eager were homesteaders to claim land that they literally swarmed what's now known as Oklahoma. In just one day, Guthrie went from empty land to a city of 10,000 people.

On a good day, how far could a settler's covered wagon travel in the West?

On a day with perfect weather and navigable terrain, a covered wagon could make about 20 miles per day, a distance that now takes about 20 minutes by car. On bad day, covered wagons didn't go anywhere at all.

What was the purpose of the Pony Express?

On the frontier, the Pony Express was the only reliable way to deliver mail, as frantic riders galloped their horses from station to station. Provided there were no interruptions, letters could travel from the Midwest to California in about nine days.

Why did the Pony Express go out of business less than two years after it began?

In the early 1860s, telegraph systems were quickly spreading across America. They provided almost instantaneous communications for a fraction of the effort of the Pony Express and its daring riders.

Which transportation technology accelerated the settling of the West?

In the 1860s, construction of the Transcontinental Railroad began. When it was completed, settlers and businessmen flooded the West more quickly than ever before.

The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo ended which conflict?

The Treaty of Guadelupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. Just as important, it added a huge swath of land to the United States, a tract of territory even bigger than the Louisiana Purchase.

Settlers used "straddlebugs" to mark their land claims. What in the world is a straddlebug?

How did you keep other people from grabbing your land claim? You erected a straddlebug, a flimsy pyramid of wooden planks. As you can imagine, this system was anything but flawless.

Before they became states, the areas of the West were called _____.

Before they were states, they were territories. Governance of the territories was often loose and wild, meaning that power was in the hands of men who had wiles and weapons.

How did farming in the West compare to the East?

Farming in the West was harder work than back East. Water was often difficult to find, the weather was wild, and ultimately many settlers gave up their lands and returned East, defeated.

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner hypothesized that the frontier culture helped shape the American value of ______.

Turner's "Frontier Thesis" explored the impact of the frontier yearnings of Americans, calling it a defining trait of the country's citizens. In their westward expansion, he wrote, Americans came to value self-reliance and individualism, traits that still define the country's politics and culture.

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