Pioneer History—Westward Expansion Timeline

July 20, 2018  - by 
American pioneers and the journey west

As a new country, the United States boasted freedom and opportunity, particularly in the West, where there were vast expanses of land and, later, rumors of gold. Many pioneers moved west hoping to own land and start fresh. Read a pioneer history below and check out our Westward expansion timeline.

Westward Expansion

Infographic showing how many American pioneers moved during Western Expansion.

Early pioneers extended American settlements to the Mississippi Valley. Later pioneers settled the Great Plains and the West Coast. The Oregon Trail was one of the most traveled trails heading west. What was the Oregon Trail? It started in Independence, Missouri, and passed through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Approximately 500,000 people made the journey on foot, in covered wagon trains, or on horseback on the Oregon Trail and two other famous trails: the California Trail and the Mormon Trail.

Along their way west, American pioneers passed famous landmarks and forts, including Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, and Fort Bridger. Traces of the paths they took can still be seen today, with wheel tracks and names carved into stone.

Westward Expansion Timeline

Major political and social events inspired many people to make the move west. Rumors of rich farming lands in Oregon, gold in California, and refuge across the country convinced many to take the risks of pioneer travel and pursue a better life. However, rumors weren’t the only force at work. Some major events helped accelerate the movement.

The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was one of the first events that encouraged people to move west. In this purchase, the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory and opened 828,000 square miles of land for settlers. It cost the government over $15 million (the equivalent of over $570 billion1 in today’s market).

Later, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 inspired hundreds of thousands to move west and mine the lands, despite the efforts of discoverers James Wilson Marshall and John Sutter to keep it quiet. By the end of the California Gold Rush, miners extracted a total of 750,000 pounds of gold, worth roughly $2 billion.2

Other events, such as the Homestead Act of 1862—which offered settlers the opportunity to homestead 160 acres of free land, the migration of Mormon pioneers seeking refuge, and the decision of the Mexican government to allow United States citizens to settle the Texas territory were all forces behind the expansion of the American West.

Were your ancestors among the farmers seeking land, miners hunting for gold, or religious people seeking refuge?

American Pioneers and Traveling West

Why did the pioneers travel west? Politics and economics both played a part.

What The Oregon Trail Game Didn’t Teach You

Do you remember The Oregon Trail computer game? There’s more to the story!

Who Were the Pioneers?

Where did pioneers come from, how did they travel, and what did they do for fun?

Why did the American pioneers travel west during the westward expansion?
The real facts behind the Oregon Trail computer game
Get to know the pioneers, and maybe your ancestors too

Other Sides of the Story

Life for the American pioneers was not always easy. Most left family and friends behind with the possibility of never seeing them again. Along the way, many pioneers faced very real dangers such as disease, drowning, runaway covered wagons on steep hillsides, accidental discharge of weapons, and hostile encounters.

Pioneers and Native Americans both faced trials and changes during the American Westward Expansion.

For many Native Americans, the western expansion meant risks and changes to their way of life. Some peaceful encounters occurred between pioneers and Native Americans, such as Native Americans teaching pioneers how to handle bears or the two groups cohabitating. However, many tribes were displaced, or experienced loss due to conflict or diseases as a result of the western expansion.

Where Do Your Ancestors Fit Into All This?

By the end of the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people made the journey. If your ancestors lived in the United States, chances are at least one of them was a pioneer. With so many fascinating stories surrounding the American pioneers and their journeys west, your ancestors’ stories might be among them. Search FamilySearch records to learn more:

Already have a FamilySearch family tree? Discover your pioneer ancestors.

There are many other helpful pioneer collections available. These wiki pages can point you to significant pioneer record collections (though not all of them are freely available):



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  1. Elizabeth Swinehart iis not my relative. Elizabeth Braunbill or Brickbill from Braun Switzerland came over in 1868 with daughther Emma married Samuel Mueller (2 Samuel Mueller’s) 1st one was killed in Athens Ohiio. they lived in Hardin Co Ohio and Albert Miller and Henry Miller was born to the 2nd Sam Miller. Please change my family tree to record this info. census 1900 Columbus ohio She lived with Emma on Richards Ave later Hartford Ave at 53, Albert at 55. She is buried in Greenlawn Cem. Cols Ohio. please let me know how I can get this changed so it will show the correct information. Mir Cas

    1. Hello Miriam! I’m sorry you’re encountering this issue! FamilySearch does not change family trees; however, you can work with other users to make changes. If you click on your ancestor on your family tree, you can look at a page that details their life. On the right-hand side of this page, there is a box that chronicles recent changes. Here you can see which FamilySearch user made that change. If you click on the user’s name, you will be given an option to contact them directly and discuss any corrections. I hope this helps you!

  2. I found a book online that mentions my 2xgreat grandmother Purdy, from Michigan. It says her father was a wagon master on the Oregon Trail, but no first name. If he was traveling so much, how do I find him?

  3. You sent me some information about some of my Pioneer relatives a week or so ago. I did get some of the info but my son deleted the info by mistake when I was on a weekend trip. Could you please resend me this info again. I really enjoyed reading the stories.It was about the Millers like Elmira Pond Miller and her family and some other relatives like Ira. I would be so grateful. The information was memories of the people and their trips by wagon train to Salt Lake. Thank you, I am going to do my tree with your church. Also help with some geneology info you do not have in your files.

  4. I am a member LDS in northern California near Sacramento, I am the only member in my family which is disappointingly a fact ..

  5. The westward migration started way before the Utah and Oregon journeys. My North Carolina and Virginia ancestors migrated to Tennessee and Kentucky early 1800s then south to Mississippi and Alabama as the US bought land from Cherokee and Choctaw tribes. Many cousins moved on to Texas around 1850-1870, including a lot of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers who had lost their land in Mississippi and Alabama and wanted to make a fresh start in Texas.