The Western United States—commonly referred to as the American West or simply the West—traditionally refers to the region comprising the westernmost states of the United States (see geographical terminology section for further discussion of these terms). Because the United States expanded westward after its founding, the meaning of the West has evolved over time. The Mississippi River is often referenced as the easternmost possible boundary of The West.
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, "The Western Rivers System consists of the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Cumberland, Arkansas and White Rivers and their tributaries, and certain other rivers that flow towards the Gulf of Mexico" not the Sacramento and Columbia.
In its most expansive definition, the western U.S. is the largest region, covering more than half the land area of the United States. It is also the most geographically diverse, incorporating geographic regions such as the Pacific Coast, the temperate rain forests of the Northwest, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, most of the tall-grass prairie eastward to Western Wisconsin,Illinois, 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, Sonoran, Great Basin, and Chihuahua deserts).
The region encompasses some of the Louisiana Purchase, most of the land ceded by Britain in 1818, some of the land acquired when the Republic of Texas joined the U.S., 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 West can be divided into the Pacific States; Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington, with the term West Coast usually restricted to just California, Oregon, and Washington, and the Mountain States, always Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Alaska and Hawaii, being detached from the other western states, have few similarities with them, but are usually also classified as part of the West. Western Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert is also traditionally considered part of the Western U.S.
Some western states are grouped into regions with eastern states. Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota are often included in the Midwest, which also includes states like Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana -- and to a lesser extent, Oklahoma -- are also considered part of the South.
It is rare for any state east of the Mississippi River to be considered part of the modern west. Historically, however, the Northwest Territory was an important early territory of the U.S., comprising the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesota.
However, the United States Census Bureau uses only one definition of the West in its reporting system, which may not coincide with what may be historically or culturally considered the West. For example, 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. However, it should be noted that the western half of Oklahoma and far West Texas, are neither culturally, geographically or socioeconomically identified with the South, as are the eastern portions of those states, and these areas are commonly understood to be part of the West or Southwest, sometimes interchangeably, by residents and visitors alike.
Statistics from the 2000 United States Census, adjusted to include the second tier of States west of the Mississippi, show that, under that definition, 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).
The entire Western region has also been strongly influenced by European, Native and Hispanics culture; it contains the largest number of minorities in the U.S. and encompasses the only four American states where all racial groups including Caucasians are a minority (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas). While most of the studies of racial dynamics in America such as riots in Los Angeles have been written about European and African Americans, in many cities in the West and California, European and African Americans together are less than half the population because of the preference for the region by Hispanics and Asians. African and European Americans, however, continue to wield a stronger political influence because of the lower rates of citizenship and voting among Asians and Hispanics.
Because the tide of development had not yet reached most of the West when conservation became a national issue, agencies of the federal government own and manage vast areas of land. (The most important among these are the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management within the Interior Department, and the U. S. Forest Service within the Agriculture Department.) National parks are reserved for recreational activities such as fishing, camping, hiking, and boating, but other government lands also allow commercial activities like ranching, logging and mining. In recent years, some local residents who earn their livelihoods on federal land have come into conflict with the land's managers, who are required to keep land use within environmentally acceptable limits.
The largest city in the region is Los Angeles, located on the West Coast. Other West Coast cities include San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Prominent cities in the Mountain States include Denver, Colorado Springs, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, and Salt Lake City.
Along the Pacific Ocean coast lie the Coast Ranges, which, while not approaching the scale of the Rockies, are formidable nevertheless. They collect a large part of the airborne moisture moving in from the ocean. Even in the relatively arid climate of central California, the Coast Ranges squeeze enough water out of the clouds to support the growth of coast redwoods. East of the Coast Ranges lie several cultivated fertile valleys, notably the San Joaquin Valley of California and the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Beyond the valleys lie the Sierra Nevada in the south and the Cascade Range in the north. These mountains are some of the highest in the United States. Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) the tallest peak in the contiguous 48 states, is in the Sierra Nevada. The Cascades are also volcanic. Mount Rainier, a volcano in Washington, is also well over 14,000 feet (4,250 meters approx.). Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascades erupted explosively in 1980. A major volcanic eruption at Mount Mazama around 4860 BCE, forming Crater Lake. These mountain ranges see heavy precipitation, capturing most of the moisture that remains after the Coast Ranges, and creating a rain shadow to the east forming vast stretches of arid land. These dry areas encompass much of Nevada, Utah and Arizona. The Mojave Desert and Sonoran Desert along with other deserts are found here.
Beyond the deserts lie the Rocky Mountains. In the north, they run immediately east of the Cascade Range, so that the desert region does not reach all the way to the Canadian border. The Rockies are hundreds of miles wide, and run uninterrupted from New Mexico to Alaska. The tallest peaks of the Rockies, some of which are over 14,000 feet (4,250 meters approx.), are found in central Colorado.
The West has several long rivers that empty into the Pacific Ocean, while the eastern rivers run into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi River forms the easternmost possible boundary for the West today. The Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi, flows from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains eastward across the Great Plains, a vast grassy plateau, before sloping gradually down to the forests and hence to the Mississippi. The Colorado River snakes through the Mountain states, at one point forming the Grand Canyon. The Colorado is a major source of water in the Southwest and many dams, such as the Hoover Dam, form reservoirs along it. So much water is drawn for drinking water throughout the West and irrigation in California that in some years, water from the Colorado no longer reaches the Gulf of California. The Columbia River, the largest river in volume flowing into the Pacific Ocean from North America, and its tributary, the Snake River, water the Pacific Northwest. The Platte runs through Nebraska and is a mile (2 km) wide but only a half-inch (1 cm) deep. The Rio Grande forms the border between, Texas and Mexico before turning due north and splitting New Mexico in half.
The seasonal temperatures vary greatly throughout the West. 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 much more common 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, with the most common and most destructive centered on Tornado Alley, which covers eastern portions of the West, (Texas to North Dakota), and all states in between and to the east.
Agriculture varies depending on rainfall, irrigation, 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 allows 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, as well as the nation's largest producer of cotton. Washington is famous for its apples, and Idaho for its potatoes. California and Arizona are major producers of citrus crops, although growing metropolitan sprawl is absorbing much of this land.
Local state and Government officials started to understand, after several surveys made during the latter part of the nineteenth century, that only action by the federal government could provide water resources needed to support the development of the West. Starting in 1902, Congress passed a series of acts authorizing the establishment of the United States Bureau of Reclamation to oversee water development projects in seventeen western states.
During the first half of the 20th century, dams and irrigation projects provided water for rapid agricultural growth throughout the West and brought prosperity for several states, where agriculture had previously only been subsistence level. Following World War II, the West's cities experienced an economic and population boom. The population growth, mostly in the Southwest, has strained water and power resources, with water diverted from agricultural uses to major population centers, such as Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
The southwestern border states – California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas – all have large Mexican American populations, and the many Spanish place names attest to their history as former Mexican territories.
The West also contains much of the Native American population in the U.S., particularly in the large reservations in the mountain and desert states.
Because of having once been a Southern slave state, Texas has a sizeable, non-migrant and rural, African-American population, particularly in the eastern half.
Alaska – the northernmost state in the Union – is a vast land of few, but hearty, people, many of them native; and of great stretches of wilderness, protected in national parks and wildlife refuges. Hawaii's location makes it a major gateway between the U.S. and Asia, as well as a center for tourism.
In the Pacific Coast states, the wide areas filled with small towns, farms, and forests are supplemented by a few big port cities which have evolved into world centers for the media and technology industries. Now the second largest city in the nation, Los Angeles is best known as the home of the Hollywood film industry; the area around Los Angeles also was a major center for the aerospace industry by World War II, though Boeing, located in Washington state would lead the aerospace industry. Fueled by the growth of Los Angeles – as well as the San Francisco Bay Area, including Silicon Valley – California has become the most populous of all the states. Oregon and Washington have also seen rapid growth with the rise of Boeing and Microsoft along with agriculture and resource based industries. The desert and mountain states have relatively low population densities, and developed as ranching and mining areas which are only recently becoming urbanized. Most of them have highly individualistic cultures, and have worked to balance the interests of urban development, recreation, and the environment.
Culturally distinctive points include the large Mormon population of Southeastern Idaho, Utah, Northern Arizona and Nevada; the extravagant casino resort towns of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada; and, of course, the many Native American tribal reservations.
The 1850s were marked by political controversies which were part of the national issues leading to the Civil War, though California had been established as a non-slave state in the Compromise of 1850; California played little role in the war itself due to its geographically distance from major campaigns. In the aftermath of the Civil War, many former Confederate partisans migrated to California during the end of the Reconstruction period.
The history of the American West in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century has acquired a cultural mythos in the literature and cinema of the United States. The image of the cowboy, the homesteader and westward expansion took real events and transmuted them into a myth of the west which has influenced American culture since at least the 1920s.
Writers as diverse as Bret Harte and Zane Grey celebrated or derided cowboy culture, while artists such as Frederic Remington created western art as a method of recording the expansion into the west. The American cinema, in particular, created the genre of the western movie, which, in many cases, use the West as a metaphor for the virtue of self-reliance and an American ethos. The contrast between the romanticism of culture about the West and the actuality of the history of the westward expansion has been a theme of late Twentieth and early Twenty-First century scholarship about the West. Cowboy culture has become embedded in the American experience as a common cultural touchstone, and modern forms as diverse as country and western music and the works of artist Georgia O'Keefe have celebrated the supposed sense of isolation and independence of spirit inspired by the unpopulated and relatively harsh climate of the region.
As a result of the various periods of rapid growth, many new residents were migrants who were seeking to make a new start after previous histories of either personal failure or hostilities developed in their previous communities. With these and other migrants who harbored more commercial goals in the opening country, the area developed a strong ethos of self-determinism and individual freedom, as communities were created whose residents shared no prior connection or common set of ideals and allegiances. The open land of the region allowed residents to live at a much greater distance from neighbors than had been possible in eastern cities, and an ethic of tolerance for the different values and goals of other residents developed. California's state constitutions (in both 1849 and 1879) were largely drafted by groups which sought a strong emphasis on individual property rights and personal freedom, arguably at the expense of ideals tending toward civic community.
In recent decades, Western cities' reputation for diversity and tolerance has been marred by segregation, along with accusations of racial profiling and police brutality towards minorities, sometimes leading to racially based riots. Nevertheless, perhaps because so many westerners have moved there from other regions to make a new start, as a rule interpersonal relations remain marked by a tolerant and individualistic "live and let live" attitude. The western economy is varied. California, for example, features both agriculture and high-technology manufacturing as major sectors in its economy.
|2||Los Angeles–Long Beach–Riverside||California||17.6|
|6|| San Jose–San Francisco–Oakland|
(San Francisco Bay Area)
(Puget Sound Region)
|34||Salt Lake City-Ogden-Clearfield||Utah||1.6|
|1||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana||12,875,587||California|
|8||Las Vegas-Henderson-N. Las Vegas-Paradise||2,040,258||Nevada|
|10||San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara||1,734,721||California|
|12||Salt Lake City||1,005,232||Utah|
|30||Santa Barbara-Santa Maria-Goleta||403,134||California|
The region's distance from historical centers of power in the East, and the celebrated "frontier spirit" of its settlers offer two clichés for explaining the region's independent, heterogeneous politics. Historically, the West was the first region to see widespread women's suffrage. It birthed both the property rights and conservation movements, and spawned such phenomena as the Taxpayer Revolt and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. It has also produced two U.S. presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
The prevalence of libertarian political thought, even if not labeled as such, can be widely observed. For example, the majority of Western states have legalized medicinal marijuana (all but New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) and some forms of gambling (except Utah); Oregon has legalized euthanasia; Utah has a long history of former polygamous territorial leaders; and most counties in Nevada have legalized prostitution. There is less resistance to the legal recognition of same-sex unions: California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington recognize them, and only 28% of all western residents are against legal recognition (compared to the 48% in southern states). California and Washington have moved to limit affirmative action.
Most major urban centers on the Pacific Coast lean toward the Democratic Party. San Francisco's two main political parties are the Green Party and the Democratic Party. Seattle has historically been a center of radical left-wing politics; the union Industrial Workers of the World is particularly active, and it is one of the few American cities with a monument to the Communist leader Lenin. The mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, supports same-sex marriage , and Denver's residents have voted to decriminalize marijuana completely. Hawaii has come closest to adopting single payer healthcare financing in the U.S. Both the Democratic leaders of the U.S. Congress are from the region: Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Interior areas, especially in the Rocky Mountains, lean toward the Republican Party. Broadly speaking, the western GOP is less-influenced by conservative evangelical Christians than elsewhere in the country, notably the South, although Colorado Springs is a center for religious conservative activity. U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, arguably the Western Republicans best-known across the country, have reputations as mavericks within their party.
As the fastest-growing demographic group, Latinos are hotly contested by both parties; immigration remains an important political issue for this group. Backlash against illegal immigration led to the passage of California Proposition 187 in 1994, a ballot initiative which would have denied many public services to undocumented residents. Association of this proposal with the California Republicans, especially incumbent governor Pete Wilson, is credited with driving many Hispanic voters to the Democrats.
In presidential elections since 1992, starting with electoral college importance, California with its 55 electoral votes generally favors Democratic Party candidates by a margin of 11%, Washington with its 11 votes favors Democrats by 8%, Arizona with its 10 votes favors Republican Party candidates by 5%, Colorado with its 9 votes favors Republicans by 5%, Oregon with its 7 votes favors Democrats by 4%, New Mexico with its 5 votes favors Democrats by .3%, Utah with its 5 votes favors Republicans by 36%, Hawaii with its 4 votes favors Democrats by 17%, Idaho with its 4 votes favors Republicans by 33%, Nevada with its 5 votes favors Democrats by .6%, Alaska with its 3 votes favors Republicans by 24%, Montana with its 3 votes favors Republicans by 16%, and Wyoming with its 3 votes favors Republicans by 31%.
This region has several swing states. There are five states in the region with recent presidential election margins of 5% or less: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon.