Western United States

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Western United States
Missing image

Location in the U.S.

Population: 58,025,381
Total Area: 4,834,333 kmē
Largest City: Los Angeles, California 3,694,820
Highest Elevation: Mount McKinley 6,194 m
Lowest Elevation: Death Valley -86 m
Largest State: Alaska 1,717,854 kmē
Smallest State: Hawaii 28,337 kmē
Census Bureau Divisions

The Western United States, also referred to as the American West or simply The West, traditionally refers to the region constituting the westernmost states of the United States (see geographical terminology section for further discussion of these terms). Since the United States has historically expanded westward the definition the West has evolved over time, and is open to interpretation.

As defined by the Census Bureau, the Western region of the United States includes 13 states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This includes all those states through which the Continental Divide passes (Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico), as well as all other states further west. Alternately, any state west, of the Mississippi River may or may not be considered part of the West today.



Main article: Geography of the Western United States.

The  also know as the "Gateway to the West" commemorates the westward expansion of the United States
The Gateway Arch also know as the "Gateway to the West" commemorates the westward expansion of the United States

The West is the most geographically diverse region of the country and its largest region, and can comprise more than half the land area of the United States, depeding on how it is defined. This diversity includes a number of the geographic regions, 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).

The region encompasses much 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.

Variation and regionalism

As the largest region in the United States there is varation to such an extent in the west that it is often broken down into regions. Arizona, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas, and Utah or regions of those states are sometimes considered part of the Southwest, while all or part of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming can be considered part of the Northwest, more narrowly part or all of those same states, with the exception of Wyoming and the eastern protions of Montana and Idaho, and the addition of Northern California, and the Candadian province of British Columbia comprise the Pacific Northwest. Alternately the west can be divided into the 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. Not all states that can be considered part of the west are: Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota are often included in the Midwest, while Oklahoma and Texas are often in the South or Southeast. In truth they have ties to both regions, as do the first tier of states west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana to Minnesota).

Natural Geography

Missing image
Devil's Tower in Wyoming

Along the Pacific Ocean coast lie the Coast Ranges, which do not approachthe scale of the Rockies. They collect a large part of the airborne moisture moving in from the ocean. Even in 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 4,421 metres (14,505 feet) 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 4,392 metres (14,000 feett aprox). Mount St. Helens, a volcano in the Cascades erupted explosively in 1980 and a, major volcanic eruption at Mount Mazama around 4860 BC, 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 desserts 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 4,250 metres (14,000 feet aprox.), are found in central Colorado.

The West has several long most of the in west they empty into the Pacific Ocean while in the eastern rivers tun into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi, forms the westernmost 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 his to the Mississippi. The Colorado River snakes through the Mountain states forming the Grand Canyon. The Colorado is a major source of water in the Southwest and many dams, such as the Hoover Dam for reservoirs along it. So much water is drawn of off the Colorado that it no longer reached 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 spliting New Mexico in half.

Climate and agriculture

The seasonal temperatures very 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 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, 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, 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 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 are major producers of citrus crops, although growing metropolitan sprawl is absorbing much of this land.

 The Geography of the Western United States is split into three :  (areas 16-19 on map), (20-22), and  (23-25).
The Geography of the Western United States is split into three major physiographic divisions: the Rocky Mountain System (areas 16-19 on map),the Intermontane Plateaus (20-22), and the Pacific Mountain System (23-25).


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.

Human geography

Most of these states are growing rapidly. The coastal strip includes several major cities, but the areas between the Rocky Mountains in the east and the Sierra Nevada are still thinly populated. In 2000, Wyoming was the least populous state, with population of 493,782 while California was the most populous, with 33,871,648.

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, Oregon. Prominent cities in the Mountain States include Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City.

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, lumbering 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.

Geographical terminology

The term Western United States is not strictly interchangeable with American West or the West. The latter terms almost never refer to Alaska or Hawaii, and often exclude the western portions of the Pacific Coast states, meaning, in particular, the exclusion of all of the West Coast cities.

History and Culture

Facing both the Pacific Ocean and the Mexican border, the West has been shaped by a variety of ethnic groups. Hawaii is the only state in the union in which Asian Americans outnumber residents of European stock, and Asians from many countries have settled in California and other coastal states in several waves of immigration since the 1800s. The southwestern border states – California, Arizona, and New Mexico – all have large Mexican-American populations, and the many Spanish placenames attest to their history as former Mexican territories. The West also contains much of the Native American population in the USA, particularly in the large reservations in the mountain and desert states.

Alaska – the northernmost state in the Union – is a vast land of few, but hardy, 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 US and Asia and a center for tourism. Some members of its substantial Native Hawaiian population are resentful of American sovereignty over the island chain.

 is a well-known area of Los Angeles, and as the historic center of the American film industry, home to many aspiring actors and actresses.
Hollywood is a well-known area of Los Angeles, and as the historic center of the American film industry, home to many aspiring actors and actresses.

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 became a major center for the aerospace industry beginning with World War II. 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.

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.

Major settlement of the western territories by migrants from the states in the east developed rapidly in the 1840s, largely through the Oregon Trail and the California gold rush of 1849; California experienced such a rapid growth in a few short months that it was admitted to statehood in 1850 without the normal transitory phase of becoming an official territory. 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 through the end of the Reconstruction period.

American cowboy circa
American cowboy circa 1887

The history of the American West in the late 19th Century and early 20th 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 Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Zane Grey celebrated or derided cowboy culture, while artists such as Charles Remington created western art as a method of recordation of the expansion into the west. The American cinema in particular created the genre of the western movie, which films 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.

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. The movies replaced the dime novel as the chief entertainment source featuring 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.

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 an 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.

Politically, the West is far from unified. Major urban centers, particularly along the Pacific Coast, lean towards the Democratic Party, although their suburban areas tend toward a bipartisan makeup. The interior states of the Rocky Mountains and the deserts are more heavily Republican. As the fastest-growing demographic group, Latinos are hotly contested for both parties, but currently lean Democratic; the subject of illegal immigration remains a major issue in the political importance of this segment of the populace. In terms of the electoral college, California and Hawaii are typically strong blue states (Democratic), and Washington leans Democratic. Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Alaska are generally red states (Republican), and Colorado and Arizona lean Republican. Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico are hotly contested swing states.

Parts of the Mainland West has been exaggerated as the Wild West.


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).

Missing image
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.

Related topics

See also

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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