Myths of Manifest Destiny

We were taught a lot of misleading and straight up incorrect ideas about how America came to be

Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States was destined by God to expand into the vast “empty” land out West. Justified by beliefs that pioneers could use the land more productively then Native Americans could. Capitalism, Religion and Racism were driving factors.

It seemed as if God handed the American people an entire continent.  

Capitalist ideology believes things are useful only if they create a profit. Americans saw no monetary profit coming from the land and no “civilized” people occupying it. Settlers believed unused land should be turned into farms and homesteads. 

This belief is a myth. There were millions of people once living here. North America only seemed empty because pioneers were not encountering people at their cultural zenith as they thought, but post apocalyptic bands of survivors. 

As the Colonies expanded and became the United States, untold numbers of people were displaced to the West while being ravaged by diseases. Some migrations were forced by colonists encroaching on land that was not theirs, a sticking point between American colonists and their British government. Some migrations were done at the behest of a rifle barrel. The end result was the death of 90% or more of the people and the loss of an equivalent amount of languages, philosophies and ways of life. This wasn’t a war over land that the heroic Americans won. It was colonists killing the surviving members of a disease-stricken collapsed world. This reinforced the Manifest Destiny belief that Americans were better, exceptional people.

But this is a myth, Americans did not expand throughout the continent because we are better people. It is because the New World lacked herd animals, had better sanitation, and didn’t live in dense populations. The Americas are laid out on a North-South axis whereas Europe and Asia are on a East-West continuum. Climate and geography, crops and animals are all much more similar when travelling laterally across the globe then they are going up and down longitudinally.

Europe, North Africa, West Asia and the Middle East offer more common space for interaction and exchange, think Silk Road, that led to more domesticated animals and higher population densities. Domesticated animals in close contact with people plus more people living in cities meant more opportunity for diseases like smallpox, plague and cholera to arise. Over time, these pandemic waves gave most Eurasians some immunity and exposure to the myriad diseases they carried with them whereas Native Americans has no defense against so many brand new germs flooding their lands. 

Geography has a massive impact on history. It influences but does not determine things. There are possibilities where history could have played out differently and this geographic difference would not have made such an impact. The Viking explorations of “Vineland” likely in Canada are a great example of interactions that ended in European retreat from the New World rather than conquest via disease.

Geography has a massive impact on history. It influences but does not determine things.

Plus the land was never empty or unused anyway. Native farms just looked different and colonizers could not recognize them. Land was also used to physically store memories. Taking a walk through a sacred space could remind the people of their stories and ancestors. Land was and is conceived of entirely differently than under a capitalist economy. 

Explorers in the 1500s reported large settlements and impressive peoples across the Americas, but by the 1800’s hundreds of years of decimation and marginalization had taken its toll. Huge swaths of land had been maintained and cleared for generations by fire, encouraging new growth, opening spaces for hunting and shaping the forests.  

Europeans did not recognize this. Populations were much higher, Cities much larger. Trade was extensive. There are long lists of kings and queens, monarchs and democracy, heroes and villains that existed here long before America.

White settlers on the Oregon Trail encountered wandering remnants of collapsed civilization that had been forced to combine tribes to survive on unfamiliar and undesirable land. Their culture and language forcibly removed, incredibly they still preserve much of it .

Why does it matter what myths we believe? When myths turn into reality, and reality into horror, and we use our myths as cover for our horrifying reality

For the Germans Eastern Europe represented their Manifest Destiny. Hitler and other Nazi thinkers drew direct comparisons to American expansion in the West. During one of his famous table talks Hitler decreed that ‘there’s only one duty: to Germanize this country [Russia] by the immigration of Germans and look upon the Native as Redskins’  

– United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

This legacy of ethnic cleansing masquerading as a God-given gift has never been addressed in the United States. The myth of Manifest Destiny  has not only never been addressed  but is still believed and actively taught in schools today. America was never empty, Americans are not inherently better or exceptional. We need to tell our true story alongside these myths. 

We need to tell our true story

alongside these myths


1491 by Charles C. Mann

One Vast Winter Count by Colin G. Calloway

The Chumash World at European Contact by Dr. Lynn Gamble

1493 by Charles C. Mann

More of my History Writing can be found Right Here

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