HomeFirst American WestEncountering the First American West - Digital Exhibit

Encountering the First American West - Digital Exhibit

As late as Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the majority of the population was still hunkered down close to the original settlements along the Eastern seaboard. With so many men opting for the security of familiar surroundings, what prompted the frontiersmen to move into uncharted and dangerous territories? What type of land did they hope to find? How would they lay claim to it and establish political, cultural, and financial institutions? In over two hundred years of national history, our fascination with the first pioneers has never diminished.

Encountering the West has become a mode of examining America itself, a way of understanding the possibility and loss embodied in the national experience.

The lure of the West began with the earliest European voyages across the Atlantic, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that a distinctively American West emerged. In the great expanse of territory stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, circumstance and opportunity created an arena of complex struggles that prefigured other western eras that followed.

The promise of this first American West drew soldiers, adventurers, speculators, and common folk into the rich lands of the Ohio River Valley and the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Its potential also provoked international rivalries, struggles for political power, appropriation of Native-American lands, and the expansion of enslavement beyond the eastern seaboard.

The themes presented here explore the trans-Appalachian West from the beginning of European-American settlement to the end of the frontier period, focusing particularly on the Ohio River Valley and Kentucky. These themes examine how those who came to the West encountered its possibilities and challenges, and also how they understood and interpreted their encounters with other western peoples and cultures.

Encountering the First American West


Map of the Falls of the Ohio, 1816 As late as Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the majority of the United States’ population...