John May land entry book, 1783-1786

The lure of the West to Anglo-American settlers began with the earliest European voyages across the Atlantic, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that a distinctively American West emerged. The American Revolution not only established political institutions in Philadelphia and New York, but also brought the new United States into an international struggle for control of the interior of North America. The imperial influence of the French, Spanish, and British were waning at the dawn of the 19th century, but the West remained an unstable and dangerous arena for competition for goods, transportation routes, military allegiance, and religious belief between a diverse and cosmopolitan array of European and Indigenous polities, faiths, and individuals. In this great expanse of territory stretching from the Appalachians to the Mississippi, circumstance and opportunity created complex struggles that prefigured later eras of colonial expansion in the American future.

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.

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