West Point in the Making of America

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Sketch of rock formations and trees between Niobrara and White rivers



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Typographical engineer’s uniform

Topographical engineer’s uniform

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1842 rifled musket

1842 musket


The Antebellum Army

Not all those who went to West Point before the Civil War remained in the army, but those who did played key roles in the eastern Indian wars and the War with Mexico (1846–1848). They also helped explore the new lands west of the Mississippi and build the nation’s roads.



West Pointers led many of the expeditions westward, explorations part military reconnaissance, part scientific exploration, part treasure hunt. They surveyed and mapped the land, gathered information, identified potentially valuable resources, collected specimens, and wrote reports. The military posts they established often became the nucleus of towns and cities.

Whether as army officers or civilian engineers, West Pointers built America’s roads and canals, bridges and railroads. They also transplanted major features of military organization to the new railroad corporations and pioneered mass production.

In these activities and others, West Pointers helped lay the groundwork for America’s economic development, intellectual growth, and territorial expansion—engineering, exploration, and war.


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The Western Reconnaissance




Exploration Map

Interactive Map

West Point graduates expanded the boundaries of the United States. Follow their routes as they surveyed for railroads, explored new territories, and mapped the growing country.




View Explorations



Smithsonian National Museum of American History


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West Point in History Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue Introduction 1802–1860 1861–1870 1866–1914 1914–1918 Epilogue The Western Reconnaissance Engineering for a New Nation Wars of Expansion