American West

The American West

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Western states are in red.
The West
Seventeen Western States Arizona California Colorado Idaho Kansas Montana Nebraska Nevada New Mexico North Dakota Oklahoma Oregon South Dakota Texas Utah Washington Wyoming
Population: 91,457,662
Area: 1,832,214 sq/mi
4.745.434 km²
Sometimes included with the West
Mississippi River States Arkansas Iowa Louisiana Minnesota Missouri
Population: 18,839,605
Area: 311,671 sq/mi
807.228 km²
Seldom included with the West
Census Bureau Alaska Hawaii
Population: 1,658,272
Area: 592,824 sq/mi
1.535.414 km²

The American West (or The West), is an informal but well-recognized name for the region comprising the 17 most western states in the continental United States. They are, in order of their admittance into the Union, Texas (1845), California (1850), Oregon (1859), Kansas (1861), Nebraska (1867), Nevada (1864), Colorado (1876), Montana (1889), North Dakota (1889), South Dakota (1889), Washington (1889), Idaho (1890), Wyoming (1896), Utah (1896), Oklahoma (1907), New Mexico (1912), and Arizona (1912). Traditionally, the demarcation line separating "East" from "West" has been the Mississippi River. The region west of the river encompasses nearly all of the Louisiana Purchase, most of the land ceded by Britain in 1818, all of the land acquired when the Texas Republic joined the Union, all of the land ceded by Britain in 1846, all of the land ceded by Mexico in 1848, and all of the Gadsden Purchase. The column of states immediately west of the river from Minnesota south to Lousiana, however, though they have some claim to be considered western states, both by proximity and history, are today generally thought of as belonging more to the Midwest and the South than the West. Ironically, the West usually is not thought to include the two westernmost states in the union. Alaska and Hawaii, due to their isolation from the other 48 states, are generally viewed as unique regions. Presently, the U.S. Census Bureau calls its Region No. 4, "West", but that reference is almost always used only for statistical reporting.


The West defined

Geography, Western history, and Western culture define the states belonging to the region known as the West. From early in the 19th century, travelers, news reporters, and dime novelists recounted events on the far side of the continent—tales of mountain men, pioneers on the Oregon Trail, Indian raids, Mexican traders, Spanish senoritas, gold fields, outlaws and lawmen, vaqueros, cattle drives, homesteaders, vigilantes, railroads—all served to identify The West in the lexicon of America and the world.

By 1900, the frontier was gone. In the news, reports spoke of oil boom towns in Texas and Oklahoma rivaling the old mining camps for their lawlessness, of the Dust Bowl forcing children of the original homesteaders even further west, and of a myriad of incidents, both modest and dramatic, occurring out West. The movies replaced the dime novel as the chief entertainment source featuring western fiction. Roy Rogers chased truckloads of cattle driven by rustlers, and Gene Autry called law officers on his telephone and chased outlaws in his airplane. Television, coming on the heels of the movie industry, entertained America with several western series. From Death Valley Days to Dallas, television featured uniquely western fiction.

The advent of the automobile enabled the average American to tour the West. Western businessmen promoted Route 66 as a means to bring tourism and industry to the West. In the 1950s, representatives from all the western states built the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City to showcase western culture and greet travelers from the East. During the latter half of the 20th century, several transcontinental interstate highways crossed the West bringing more trade and tourists from the East.

The New West

Of the 10 largest cities in the United States, 6 are in the West: Los Angeles, Houston, Phoenix, San Diego, Dallas, and San Antonio. San Jose is 11th and San Francisco is 13th. Smog chokes Los Angeles. The skies over Phoenix are hazy. Along with the rest of the nation, most people no longer farm or ranch. Also, the great influx of residents from the East into the cities has somewhat eroded the independence and self-reliance so typical of the Western citizen.

The West, even more than in the previous two centuries, resembles the East more than any other region in the world. However, it still retains much of what made it unique. There are still plenty of cowboys working the ranches and rodeo circuits. Indians still hold pow-wows in most of the states and many are open to visitors. Mexican culture still dominates San Antonio and numerous areas throughout the Border States. The plains, although cut by roads and highways, still seem endless. The Rockies are still the highest in the nation. Away from the cities, the sky is still bluer and the stars still brighter than in the East. The Platte River running through Nebraska is still "a mile [2 km] wide and a half-inch [1 cm] deep".


The western states comprise slightly more than half the land area of the United States, some 1,832,214 square miles (4,745,412 km²). They include a number of the geographical regions in the U.S., including; the Pacific Coast, the temperate rain forests of the Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, all of the Great Plains, most of the tall-grass prairie, the western Ozark plateau, the western portions of the southern forests, the Gulf Coast, and all of the desert areas located in the United States (the Mojave, Sonara, Great Basin, and Chihuahua deserts). Of the western states, Texas is the largest at 267,339 square miles (692,405 km²) and Washington is the smallest at 68,192 square miles (176,616 km²). See also: Geography of the Western United States.


Plains make up most of the eastern half of the West, underlain with sedimentary rock from the Upper Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras. The Rocky Mountains expose igneous and metamorphic rock from both the Precambrian and the Post Precambrian periods. The Intermountain States and Pacific Northwest have huge expanses of volcanic rock from the Cenozoic period. Salt flats and salt lakes reveal a time when the great inland seas covered much of what is now the West. The Pacific states are the most geologically active areas in the United States. Earthquakes cause major damage every few years in California. While the Pacific states are the most volcanically active areas, extinct volcanoes and lava flows are found over most of the western half of the West.

Natural wonders

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Devil's Tower

Some of the natural wonders of the West compare with no others in the world:

Some, perhaps comparable elsewhere in the world, are, in the United States, found only in the West:

Archeological sites


The temperatures of the western states range from the bitter cold of the Dakotas, to the blistering heat of Sonoran Desert, to the temperate Southern California coast. Annual rainfall is greater in the eastern portions, gradually tapering off until reaching the Pacific Coast where it again increases. In fact, the greatest annual rainfall in the United States falls in the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest. The heaviest snows in the nation fall in the Rockies. Drought is commoner in the West than the rest of the United States. The driest place recorded in the U.S. is Death Valley, California. Violent thunderstorms occur east of the Rockies. Tornadoes occur every spring on the southern plains. The most common and most destructive are centered in Oklahoma; covering an area known as Tornado Alley from Texas through Kansas and Nebraska, into the East.


Agriculture varies greatly, depending on rainfall, soil, elevation, and temperature extremes. The arid regions generally support only livestock grazing, chiefly beef cattle. The wheat belt extends from Texas through the Dakotas, producing most of the wheat and soybeans in the U.S. and exporting more to the rest of the world. Irrigation in the Southwest and California allow the growing of great quantities of fruits, nuts, and vegetables as well as grain, hay, and flowers. Texas is a major cattle and sheep raising area. Washington is famous for its apples, and Idaho for its potatoes. California and Arizona remain major producers of citrus crops, although growing metropolitan sprawl is absorbing much of this land.


Some feel geographers that the demographics for the West are complicated because the United States Census Bureau uses only one of several possible definitions of the West in its reporting system. In the 2000 Census, the Census Bureau included the state with the second largest Hispanic population, Texas, in the South, included the state with the second largest American Indian population, Oklahoma, also in the South, and included the Dakotas, with their large populations of Plains Indians, in with the Midwest.

Statistics from the 2000 United States Census, adjusted to include the second tier of States west of the Mississippi, show that under that defintion the West would have a population of 91,457,662, including 1,611,447 Indians, or 1.8% of the total, and 22,377,288 Hispanics (the majority Mexican), or 24.5% of the total. Indians comprise 0.9% of all Americans, and Hispanics, 12.5%. Asians, important from the very beginning in the history of the West, totaled 5,161,446, or 5.6%, with most living in the Far West. African-Americans, totaled 5,929,968, or 6.5%--lower than the national proportion (12.8%). The highest concentration (12%) of black residents in the West is found in Texas--the only Western state in which slavery was established.

The West is still one of the most sparsely settled areas in the United States with 49.5 inhabitants per square mile (19/km²). Only Texas with 78.0 inhabitants/sq mi. (30/km²), Washington with 86.0 inhabitants/sq mi. (33/km²), and California with 213.4 inhabitants/sq mi. (82/km²) exceed the national average of 77.98 inhabitants/sq mi. (30/km²). Wyoming has the lowest population density in the West with only 5 inhabitants per square mile (2/km²).

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These maps from the 2000 US Census highlight differences from state to state of three minority groups. Note that most of the Native American, Hispanic, and Asian populaton is in the West.

Culture of the American West

The American west has long been depicted in American popular culture as a land of pioneers and outlaws.

Regions within the West

Pacific Northwest, West Coast of the United States, Southwest United States, Intermountain states, Plains States, Frontier Strip

Historic legislation affecting the West

Chinese Exclusion Act (United States), Dawes Act, Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, Homestead Act, Indian Intercourse Act, Indian Removal Act, Indian Reorganization Act, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Mining Act of 1872, Newlands Reclamation Act, Pacific Railway Acts.

International treaties affecting the West

Adams-Onís Treaty, Anglo-American Convention of 1818, Gadsden Purchase, Louisiana Purchase, Mexican Cession, Oregon Treaty, Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

See also

U.S. West, Wild West, American Old West, Trans-Appalachian West

Additional reading

  • Beck, Warren A., Haase, Ynez D.; Historical Atlas of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 1989. ISBN 0806121939
  • Lamar, Howard. The New Encyclopedia of the American West. Yale University Press, 1998. ISBN 0300070888
  • Milner II, Clyde A; O'Connor, Carol A.; Sandweiss, Martha A. The Oxford History of the American West. Oxford University Press; Reprint edition, 1996. ISBN 0195112121
  • Phillips, Charles; Axlerod, Alan; editor. The Encyclopedia of the American West. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996. ISBN 0028974952
  • White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A New History of the American West. University of Oklahoma Press; Reprint edition, 1993. ISBN 0806125675

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