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Migration, Internal


MIGRATION, INTERNAL, is the habit of the American people, whom foreign observers have described as restless migrants for at least the past three centuries.

The Western Frontier, Seventeenth Century to Nineteenth Century

From the times of the earliest European settlements to 1890, when the U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed, a western-moving edge of newly available land triggered waves of migratory European-descended Americans in pursuit.

The people who participated in these successive migrations usually traveled in groups linked by kinship, business interests, or geographic proximity in their former communities. Most were motivated by opportunities for economic gain, while a minority, such as the Shakers and the Mormons, sought to live out their religious and social ideals in isolated communities of their own devising. Though they set out with widely varying assets, most came from the middle ranges of the economic spectrum. The most prosperous members of the populace "back home" would have had little reason to leave their comfortable circumstances, and the poorest members would not have had the means to purchase the supplies and equipment for the journey. At the same time European Americans were moving in, Indians migrated out. From pre–Revolutionary War (1775–1783) days, when "the west" lay just beyond the eastern seaboard, to the settlement of the Great Plains in the 1870s, European Americans first had to contend with the removal of Indians from their ancestral lands. Indians were considered little more than dangerous obstacles in the path of progress, and the story of their forced migrations is a shameful one.

Generally, settlers moved west from adjacent areas in the East. The fledgling U.S. government had offered veterans of the Revolutionary War land west of the Alleghenies in lieu of wages. With the resolution of the original states' conflicting land claims and the organization of the Northwest Territory in 1787, settlers poured into the Ohio River valley. Southerners chose lands closer to the Ohio River, while New Englanders headed almost due west for the northern sections of Ohio and, later, Indiana and Illinois. Many were farmers fleeing overworked soil and high land prices at home; plantation-style agriculture

also encroached on small land holders in the South, urging them north. At this time, the first settlers in an area were often squatters, who cleared some land, put up a simple shelter, and then sold it as "improved" to someone else—often a wealthy land speculator—before moving on to the next wilderness edge, where they would repeat the process.

Though the routes they took (the Wilderness Road and Zane's Trace, for example) into the Ohio country were called roads, they were little more than rough trails, prohibiting overland transport in anything other than small carts. As the decades from 1800 progressed, roads improved, but any part of the journey in which water-borne transport was unavailable must have been one of considerable hardship. The Louisiana Purchase (1803) incorporated French settlements along the Mississippi and Missouri watersheds into the United States at this time.

Transportation improvements made migration easier when an all-water route opened up from the East Coast to the Great Lakes states. The Erie Canal opened in 1825, making it possible to float from the Hudson River to Buffalo in western New York. From there, ships carried passengers on to Detroit.

Waves of non-English-speaking newcomers from Europe joined the national migration and, by 1850, the United States had been settled all the way to the Mississippi. Germans were the most plentiful; many established enclaves in burgeoning cities such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis, while others came with large extended families, even villages, to settle the rural Midwest. By midcentury, railroads had supplanted canals and the "frontier" lay along the Pacific coast, while the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains were still hostile territory inhabited by Indians. Though a mass overland migration (the Oregon Trail) to Oregon's Willamette Valley began in 1843, European Americans had already sailed around the tip of South America to settle in the Spanish-dominated area that now comprises California. Gold lured men to the Southwest, too, on the first of many gold rushes beginning in 1848. Irish and Chinese immigrants made a pool of potential laborers for the hard, dangerous, low-paying jobs on the new railroads surging west. The coming of the railroad (the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869) established a pattern that would be repeated, not just across the prairies of the Great Plains, but in cities as well. Typically, a company would obtain large quantities of land at reasonable rates for the railroad right-of-way. The railroad would then sell the surplus land at a higher price, while enticing farmers to settle along these ready-made routes to markets back east.

Migration to the Cities

While some nineteenth century Americans sought the wide open spaces of the frontier, others migrated to the growing urban centers. In America's largest eighteenth century cities—Charleston, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston—as in Europe, the most desirable place to live was the center of the city. Whatever amenities, such as sewers, a city had to offer were most likely to be centrally located, and most people walked to work. Nasty trades such as slaughterhouses and tanneries located on the fringes, as did the workers who toiled there. The elite lived in large townhouses in proximity to less affluent tradesmen and artisans. However, the majority of people lived in rural areas; in 1790 only 5.1 percent of the population lived in cities.

The industrial revolution reversed that trend. New jobs in industries spawned by steam power brought migrants into the cities from played-out farms and accommodated the flood of foreign immigrants too poor to travel far from their port of arrival. By 1890, one-third of all Americans lived in cities, but two-thirds of all immigrants did. African Americans, too, poured into northern cities from the rural South. In the years since 1920, the black population has changed from being almost entirely rural to more than 90 percent urban.

From Urban to Suburban

The same technological advances that built the great cities also created an escape route. By the 1870s cities offered street lighting, municipal water, and police and fire services, but many white Protestants increasingly viewed cities as centers of crime, immorality, and disease as non-English-speaking immigrants crowded into dangerously run-down housing, and factories spread noise and pollution.

Property outside the central city became more attractive as transportation to and from work became more reliable. At midcentury a few suburbs, such as Lewellyn Park, New Jersey, and Riverside, Illinois, designed specifically for rich businessmen and their families, appeared outside New York, Chicago, and other major cities. These imitated the Romantic ideal of an uncorrupted retreat in the country with winding, irregular roads and large lots that followed the contours of the land.

In the years following the Civil War (1861–1865), commuter railroads were built across the nation, allowing workers to live miles away from their jobs in the central cities. Philadelphia's "Main Line" suburbs such as Swarthmore, Villanova, Radnor, and Stratford date from this era. In the 1860s and 1870s the Pennsylvania Railroad decided it would be easier to improve its line to Pittsburgh by purchasing outright the farms in its way. Like the rail companies out west, the railroad kept the rights-of-way and sold the rest of the land to developers, who found ready customers for private homes located with in walking distance of the new commuter lines. At first, only the affluent could afford the daily round-trip fares, but soon satellite neighborhoods and even whole suburbs sprang up to accommodate the low-wage labor pool that served richer suburbanites.

Suburbanization accelerated in the twentieth century, propelled by the advances of the trolley system and later the automobile. Some of the migration to the suburbs resulted from racial and cultural insecurities; "white flight," the exodus of white families from cities in the wake of school desegregation, began in the mid-1950s. As of 2002, many suburbanites no longer commuted into the city at all, as corporate headquarters have followed them beyond the city's edge. In 1950, 23 percent of the population lived in suburbs; in 1998, 50 percent lived there.

The suburban ideal—owning a private dwelling and surrounding land—taps into a long standing American idea that land ownership means wealth. Whether they came as victims of the Scottish land clearances of the eighteenth century or as refugees from the turmoil of central Europe in the twentieth, few European American immigrants owned land in their homelands. For three centuries Americans have migrated to the locations where that ideal could become a reality. Home ownership still equals security in American culture.

Sun Belt Migration

Since 1960 Americans have migrated south and west to the band of states known as the Sun Belt, following jobs, a warmer climate, and sometimes a lower cost of living. Hundreds of thousands of retirees have settled there as well. Florida has always had a large retired population, but from 1990 to 1998, Nevada's over-65 population jumped 55 percent, while Arizona's gained 29 percent, Utah's grew by 22 percent, and the elderly in Colorado and New Mexico increased by 21 percent.

Migrant Workers

The United States also hosts a population of migrant agricultural workers who follow the harvest. Nine out of ten of these workers are foreign born; it is estimated that about half do not have authorization to work in the United States.


Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 5thed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Flanders, Stephen A. The Atlas of American Migration. New York: Facts On File, 1998.

Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed. The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations in North America from the Ice Age to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1995.


See alsoSuburbanization ; Sun Belt ; Wagon Trains ; Westward Migration .

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"Migration, Internal." Dictionary of American History. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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internal migration

internal migration Population shifts which occur within nation-states as labour migrates towards growth poles in the economy. Since the 1950s these shifts of population have often been of significant proportions—especially in developing countries. They have accompanied the processes of urbanization and industrialization and have involved large-scale movements of people from rural to urban areas. Debate has centred on whether ‘push’ or ‘pull’ factors are more important in explaining internal migration, and on the processes of proletarianization and depeasantization, which are seen to be a consequence. See also MIGRATION, SOCIOLOGICAL STUDIES OF.

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migration, internal

migration, internal See INTERNAL MIGRATION.

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