Expanding the National Domain

As Americans spread out to claim a continent, they found that roughly one-fifth of their territory was arable land, a sprawling area larger than the combined areas of France and the United Kingdom, with rangeland or pastureland making up roughly one-fourth of the total land area and forests another third. Americans considered the vast storehouse theirs by birthright and were willing to battle anyone who disagreed. The U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48) that closed out the preceding era represented just another triumph against a continental rival.

During the years 1850-75, the United States continued to expand its domain although not at the same frantic pace as in earlier decades. The only two significant additions to the national domain were the Gadsden Purchase in 1853 and the Alaska Territory in 1867. The former was a strip of barren, inhospitable land on the Rio Grande border, acquired solely as a potential southern route for the future transcontinental railroad. Alaska was the first noncontiguous territory added to the United States, setting a precedent for later politically motivated acquisitions. It was purchased from Russia for no practical purpose except to remove the last vestige of the Russian empire from the Western Hemisphere. These two new additions made the total land area of the United States some 3.5 million square miles after 1867.

Meanwhile, the population per square mile, which had been inching up for decades, took a major leap after 1850, reflecting the flood of European immigrants pouring into the country in recent years. Even with the addition of the huge Alaskan territory, population was for the first time growing at a faster rate than land area. The population would continue to grow in leaps and bounds for the rest of the century and into the next, a prospect greeted with mixed feelings. No one was yet ready to hang out a sign announcing "maximum occupancy," but the possibility had to be considered that the United States would eventually fill up its empty spaces and there would be an end to the days of free or very cheap public land for the taking. Then the country would face the same overcrowding conditions that had originally driven European colonists to its shores.

TABLE 1.3 MAJOR TERRITORIAL ADDITIONS TO THE UNITED STATES, 1850-1875

Territory

Date

Area in Square Miles

Cost

Texas Cession

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