U.S. Territorial Expansion (1783-1959)

Teacher Guide By Richard Cleggett

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our U.S History Category!

US Territorial Expansion Lesson Plans

Student Activities for US Territorial Expansion Include:

War, economics, culture, and innovation are prevalent and recurring themes surrounding territorial expansion. U.S. territorial expansion starts in the early days of the country and carries on into the 20th century. The history, events, and major effects of expansion play pivotal roles in not only our nation’s history, but the world’s history.

US Territorial Expansion Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

The Original 13 Colonies Lesson Plan | Frayer Model

The original 13 American colonies serve as the foundation to America and its future expansion across the North American continent. The causes, effects, purpose, and culture of the original thirteen colonies are the primary elements in understanding this first undertaking of land acquisition.

Using a Frayer Model storyboard, students will identify and explain the major causes and effects of British North American colonists fighting for - and winning - the rights to America’s original thirteen colonies. Students will examine how the colonies functioned, and also how and why the idea of expansion was further peaked.

The formation of the 13 colonies stems from the American Revolution. As colonists became fed up with British policy, they rebelled, aiming to control not only their own lives, but their own lands. It was the first step in America's eventual expansion across North America.

As a result of the American Revolution, colonists secured control over the original 13 colonies of the United States. The U.S. experienced a rocky start, as unifying and operating the vastly different colonies proved difficult. However, with ambition and determination, the young country eventually established itself.

Acquiring control of the 13 original colonies was imperative to the colonists who wanted stability for later generations. The land was plentiful, and provided much opportunity. Furthermore, the territory stretched all the way to the Mississippi, via the Ohio River, providing key trade routes.

Culture within the colonies differed greatly. Each colony had various religions, races, and customs. Each colony and region had distinct economic purposes as well: farming, lumber, fishing, or business. Each colony had an important function in the initial founding and maintenance of the new United States. Their culture would rally around the idea of further expansion and success.

Extended Activity

Have students examine and analyze one colony or region of colonies (New England, Mid-Atlantic, or Southern). Using the Frayer Model storyboard, have students explain the function of each colony or region and the major roles it played not only as an original land expansion, but for future expansions as well. Reference “The Development of the Colonies” in the Events and Causes of the American Revolution Teacher Guide for further ideas.

Start My Free Trial

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803

Using a spider map, students can detail and explain the 5 W’s of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. By identifying and explaining who, what, when, where, and why, students will be able to analyze the significance of what will be the largest land acquisition in American history. Doubling the size of the country, the Louisiana Purchase proved vital in the idea of expansion and manifest destiny. The land itself will be utilized and explored, and will provide major economic opportunity for generations, even to this day.

Example Louisiana Purchase 5 Ws

WHO was involved with the Louisiana Purchase?

The Louisiana Purchase was a deal between the United States and France. Napoleon Bonparte, Emperor of France, needed to sell the land for funds. President Thomas Jefferson sent John Jay to negotiate the deal.

WHAT was accomplished?

Napoleon Bonaparte of France needed to fund his army warring in Europe. Louisiana was of no value to him, so when Jefferson inquired about purchasing the city of New Orleans, Napoleon offered the whole territory. This doubled the size of the United States!

WHERE was the territory of the Louisiana Purchase?

The Louisiana Territory stretched from the mouth and along the eastern border of the Mississippi River, west as far as present day Montana, and north to present day Minnesota. The territory will go on to double the size of the United States for a price of $15 million.

WHY is this expansion important?

The Louisiana Purchase is the largest land acquisition in U.S. history. The land itself proved vital for future economic endeavors, including agriculture. With the new land, the young United States gained control of the Mississippi and key trade ports, including New Orleans.

WHEN did the Louisiana Purchase occur?

The Louisiana Territory was controlled by France in 1699, but eventually ceded to Spain in 1762. In 1800, under Napoleon Bonaparte, France regained control of the region. France and the U.S negotiated the purchase, giving all claims to America, in 1803.

Extended Activity

Have students create a spider map for one or more current day states that presently exist in what was once the unexplored Louisiana Territory. Students should identify factual information about the state like population, laws, economic functions, and history. This will allow students to make current event connections to one of the earliest land acquisitions in American history.

Start My Free Trial

Florida Acquisitions (1810-1819)

Less than twenty years after the Louisiana Purchase, the United States was able to acquire Florida from Spain. More territory meant more land for settling and economic ventures, as well as greater access to natural resources and trade. The U.S. began to assert itself as a power in North America.

Students will use a traditional storyboard to outline and define how the United States acquired various parts of Florida from the Spanish. Each box should refer to either a major figure, event, acquisition, treaty, etc. This activity can be either teacher or student led. Teachers can select pre-determined information that they want their students to research about America’s Florida acquisitions, or students can have autonomy on what they’d like to include in their board. Focus should remain on major events, legislation, and conflict with both Spain and the native population.

Florida Acquisitions

Major Figures

Many figures were involved in the acquisition of both East and West Florida. President James Monroe led the charge, along with Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. General Andrew Jackson headed the military invasion and policing of the territory. For Spain, Don Louis de Onis met with American leaders in Washington to discuss the Florida territory.


To acquire Florida, the United States and Spain agreed to terms in what became known as the Adams-Onis Treaty, signed in 1819. It was ratified in 1821 as the Transcontinental Treaty. For the U.S., the treaty gave them control over both East and West Florida. Spain lost all control of the Florida territories, but did receive $5 million in damages, as well as sovereignty over Texas.

Nations Involved

The ceding of Florida took place between the United States and Spain. Spain was reluctant to give up control of Florida, as they were severely weakened by war with France and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.


Several conflicts existed around the acquisition of Florida. American settlers were rebelling against Spanish government in Western Florida, declaring independence and allegiance to the U.S. Furthermore, General Andrew Jackson made controversial raids and attacks against the Seminoles and escaped slaves, blaming Spain for not controlling the native populations.

American Gains

America gained both East and West Florida from Spain through the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819. By gaining Florida, the U.S. controlled the entirety of the Atlantic coast and connected their territories between Louisiana and Florida throughout the Gulf of Mexico.


The Florida acquisitions signified America's ability to resolve foreign issues as well as take a strong stance to achieve their territorial aims. The acquisition would also set the stage for strained relations with the native population for years to come, in particular during the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Extended Activity

Have students research the history of Florida before America’s acquisition of it and beyond. Focus on conflict and fighting with the Native American population, in particular the Seminoles. Students should research and organize, in a traditional storyboard, the major events, figures, and legislation regarding Florida and its territorial, cultural, and social history. Reference “Jackson and the Indian Policy” in the Jacksonian Democracy Teacher Guide.

Start My Free Trial

Texan Independence and Annexation

The Annexation of Texas was a great victory for the United States. Both the acquisition of territory and military successes benefited the economy and standing of the United States.

Utilizing a grid storyboard, students will detail both Texas’ fight for independence, as well as its eventual annexation into America as a state. One row will be used to explain Texan Independence and the other will focus on the Mexican-American War, in which Texas is fought for and won. The column categories will detail territorial expansion, including major figures, major events, significance, and effects in regards to Texas as a territorial acquisition. Students will then analyze and connect Texas’ own fight for independence, and their eventual path to statehood, with America’s overall history of expansion.

Break this activity into smaller pieces among groups if necessary. One group could focus on Texan Independence and another group on the Annexation of Texas, or assign one column to a group or student.

Texas Independence and Annexation

Texan Independence Annexation of Texas
Major Figures Sam Houston and Stephen Austin led the charge for independence, helping defeat Mexican dictator and general Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Folk hero Davey Crockett also participated, and died, in the fight for Texan independence. Presidents Martin van Buren and John Tyler offered support and diplomatic ties to the independent republic. The annexation of Texas involved many major figures, both politically and militarily. President James K. Polk, a major supporter of Manifest Destiny, initiated war with Mexico. The war was led by Zachary Taylor, as well as many future Civil War generals, including Winfield Scott, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant. Mexico continued to be led by General Santa Anna.
Major Events A major event of Texas' fight for independence was the iconic Battle of the Alamo. Suffering major defeat, Texans used the slogan "Remember the Alamo!" as a rallying cry to eventually defeat Mexican forces at the Battle of San Jacinto. Texas existed as the Republic of Texas from 1836 until their annexation into the U.S. in 1845. The Mexican-American War was defined by many major battles. America emerged as a formidable military force, dominating Mexico in every facet of war. War was declared on May 13, 1846 after failed "negotiations" between Mexico and U.S. emissary John Slidell. Battles occurred throughout California, Texas, and eventually the war ended with the U.S.'s capture of Mexico City and the eventual signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848.
Significance Texas' fight for independence is a significant part of America's quest for Manifest Destiny. By defeating Mexico, Texans soon identified strongly with America. Their desire to increase and maintain slavery would play a pivotal role in the slave question for years to come. Texans' fight for independence would eventually lead to the Mexican-American War in 1845. The Annexation of Texas proved extremely pivotal. It further extended slave territory and complicated the slave question. It also signified America's dominance over North America, as Mexico ceded 55% of its pre-war lands to the U.S. The war, and Texas' annexation, strained relations with Mexico for years to come, as territorial debates and transactions occurred until the 1970s.
Major Effects The effects of Texas' independence were tremendous. Even while Texas existed as a sovereign republic, slavery continued to be an important issue. The Mexican-American War, initiated by Texas' annexation into the U.S. compounded this concern. Lastly, Texas' fight for independence demonstrated that Americans would further Manifest Destiny with territorial acquisitions. The effects of Texas' annexation permeated for decades. Texas became a major proponent of the extension of slavery, eventually leading to the Civil War in 1861. In addition, America took on its present territorial boundaries, obtaining states such as Arizona, New Mexico, California, and, of course, Texas.

Extended Activity

Have students research the history of Mexico and their path to becoming an independent nation. This will give a more global perspective on Texas as a territory, and a more expansive history of the land, culture, and people of South Central North America. Use the grid storyboard layout detailing both French and Spanish control of the region, and Mexico’s path to independence.

Start My Free Trial

Oregon Territory 1846

Rallying around the idea of an American border at 54°40’ North latitude, Americans were willing to fight Great Britain over the swampy, wooded area. With war raging in Mexico, however, many were relieved when conflict was avoided. The idea of manifest destiny was soon realized, as American territory officially stretched to the Pacific Ocean.

The spider map layout will be used to illustrate the 5 Ws of America acquiring the Oregon Territory. By detailing the major points of conflict with Great Britain, and the United States being on the brink of war, students will analyze and explain how America peacefully acquired what is now the Northwest continental United States.

Example Oregon Territory 5 Ws

WHO was involved with the acquisition of the Oregon Territories?

Several major figures were involved in the negotiations concerning the Oregon Territory. The dispute lay between the United States and Great Britain. By 1846, President James K. Polk, British Minister to Washington Richard Pakenham, Secretary of State James C. Buchanan, British Lord Aberdeen, and Senator John C. Calhoun agreed on a compromise.

What happened between the British and American settlers?

The Oregon Territory acquisition was rather uneventful. Both American and British citizens settled the region, laying claim to it. As tensions rose, Americans adopted the slogan "54' 40' or Fight!", relating to their desired boundary. However, through peaceful compromise, Great Britain and the U.S. settled on the 49th parallel as their border.

Where did the dispute occur?

The dispute of the Oregon Territory occurred in what is presently the Northwest United States, including Washington and Oregon. Debate raged over where the boundary lay between British Canada and the U.S., whether it should exist at 54 degrees, 40 minutes or the 49th parallel. The border was eventually compromised at the 49th parallel.

When was the dispute?

The Oregon Territory had been disputed for years, going as far back as 1818. By 1843, American settlers were pouring into the region, and with ideas of manifest destiny, felt that they were entitled to the region. British subjects felt likewise. In 1846, the United States and Great Britain compromised on the 49th parallel as their border.

Why is the acquisition of the Oregon Territory important?

Settling of dispute over the Oregon Territory holds much historical significance. It quelled a possible war with Great Britain over the area. Furthermore, the U.S. was already in the midst of war in Mexico, and war in the Northwest would have proved costly. The region provided America with profitable fur trades, fisheries, and access to the Pacific Ocean.

Extended Activity

Have students use a spider map storyboard to further detail a present state in the Northwest territory. Students should focus on economics, functions, populations, commerce, etc. to expand on what the area means to present day America. Utilize the 5 W’s activity to allow students to compare and contrast the path from territorial acquisition to statehood.

Start My Free Trial

Westward Expansion Timeline of the United States (1803-1959)

Using a timeline storyboard, have students chronologically organize each territorial expansion in American history. Beginning with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, have students note and explain major acquisitions such as Florida, Texas, the Mexican Cession, Oregon, and for connective purposes, include the modern acquisitions of Hawaii and Alaska (both of which became states in 1959). Students will be able to analyze and explain major concepts such as manifest destiny, war, foreign relations, and culture. The timeline storyboard will also provide a visual narrative of westward expansion.

Westward Expansion Timeline


Louisiana Purchase

As a young, ambitious country, the United States aimed to continue expansion. In 1803, with Thomas Jefferson as president, the U.S. brokers a deal with France for the Louisiana Purchase. The acquisition doubles the size of the United States.


Florida Acquisitions

Under President James Monroe, the U.S. fiercely contests Spain for control of both East and West Florida. Spain, weakened from war with France, cedes Florida to the U.S., even despite controversial military moves by General Andrew Jackson.


Texas Achieves Independence

As American settlers poured into Northern Mexico, so did their ideas of independence and autonomy. After warring with Mexico for over three years, Texans finally achieve independence, remaining their own republic for nine years.


Oregon Territory

While at war with Mexico, the U.S. also found themselves contesting Great Britain over the Oregon Territory. Tensions rose, as did the cry for war. However, the territory was peacefully divided at the 49th parallel, and war averted.


Mexican Cession

Desiring Texas, and fueled by the idea of manifest destiny, the U.S. initiates war with Mexico. After nearly three years of fighting, the U.S. defeats Mexico, and is awarded nearly 55% of Mexico's territory. The region constitutes the entire Southwest U.S.


Alaska and Hawaii Become States

The last two states to enter the Union were Hawaii and Alaska, both in 1959. Hawaii was previously imperialized and made a territory in 1893. Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million dollars.

Extended Activity

Have students create a timeline storyboard on post 1850s land acquisitions to exemplify America’s imperialist period. Students should include acquisitions of territories, protectorates, and wherever else America has held influence. Places that could be included: Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines.Hawaii and Alaska could also be re-introduced and explained.

Start My Free Trial

Colonial America

Within the confines of American history, the acquisition of land has been a crucial motivating factor in expanding our country’s power. War, death, discovery, and success have all been byproducts of such expansion. The United States’ history is molded by the ambition and drive to increase our holdings and opportunities. From our initial war with Great Britain for the original thirteen colonies, to our purchase of the Louisiana Territories from France, and even our imperialist ambitions against weaker countries, the United States has aimed to grow in power through land even at our humble beginnings. Over the course of 170 years, America has grown to include 50 states and a multitude of lands around the world.

The impact expansion has had on our geography, history, society, and culture is immense. By using Storyboard That to explain and analyze the various expansions America has experienced, students and teachers alike can better grasp how we came to be where we are today. With a variety of storyboard graphic organizers available, students will be able to contextualize America’s expansions.

Essential Questions for U.S. Territorial Expansion (1783-1959)

  1. Why did Americans desire westward expansion?
  2. Why do people move?
  3. What were the economic, political, and social forces driving people westward?
  4. How did the spirit of improvement, along with a rise in industry and new technologies, affect the nation’s development and expansion?
  5. How do major themes such as war, culture, religion, technology, economics, race, and geography permeate the various expansions of American territory?
  6. How did territorial expansion cause conflict with other nations and cultures?
  7. How has territorial expansion shaped the world’s current day perception and idea of what America stands for?

Help Share Storyboard That!

Looking for More?

Check out the rest of our Teacher Guides and Lesson Plans!

All Teacher Guides and Lesson Plans Ed Tech BlogElementary SchoolMiddle School ELAHigh School ELAForeign LanguageSpecial EdUS History and Social StudiesWorld History

Our Posters on ZazzleOur Lessons on Teachers Pay Teachers
© 2018 - Clever Prototypes, LLC - All rights reserved.
Start My Free Trial
Explore Our Articles and Examples

Try Our Other Websites!

Photos for Class – Search for School-Safe, Creative Commons Photos (It Even Cites for You!)
Quick Rubric – Easily Make and Share Great-Looking Rubrics
abcBABYart – Create Custom Nursery Art
Prefer a different language?

•   (English) U.S. Territorial Expansion 1783-1959   •   (Español) Expansión Territorial de los Estados Unidos 1783-1959   •   (Français) Extension territoriale des États-Unis 1783-1959   •   (Deutsch) US Territorialer Ausbau 1783-1959   •   (Italiana) US espansione territoriale 1783-1959   •   (Nederlands) Amerikaanse territoriale expansie 1783-1959   •   (Português) US Territorial Expansion 1783-1959   •   (עברית) ארה"ב טריטוריאלית הרחבת 1783-1959   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) التوسع الإقليمي الولايات المتحدة 1783-1959   •   (हिन्दी) अमेरिका क्षेत्रीय विस्तार 1783-1959   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Территориальная экспансия США 1783-1959   •   (Dansk) US territoriale Expansion 1783-1959   •   (Svenska) US territoriell expansion 1783-1959   •   (Suomi) Yhdysvaltain aluelaajennuksena 1783-1959   •   (Norsk) USA Territorial Expansion 1783-1959   •   (Türkçe) ABD Bölgesel Genişleme 1783-1959   •   (Polski) Rozszerzenie terytorialne Stanów Zjednoczonych 1783-1959   •   (Româna) SUA expansiune teritorială 1783-1959   •   (Ceština) US územní expanze 1783-1959   •   (Slovenský) Americká územná expanzia 1783-1959   •   (Magyar) US területi terjeszkedés 1783-1959   •   (Hrvatski) Teritorijalno proširenje SAD-a 1783-1959   •   (български) Териториално разширяване на САЩ 1783-1959   •   (Lietuvos) JAV teritorinio išplėtimo 1783-1959   •   (Slovenščina) ZDA Teritorialna Širitev 1783-1959   •   (Latvijas) ASV Teritoriālais paplašināšana 1783-1959   •   (eesti) USA Territoriaalne Expansion 1783-1959