Westward Migration

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WESTWARD MIGRATION. The westward migration that resulted in the rapid settlement of the continental United States is perhaps the most compelling and important theme in American history. In no other place or time has such an immense region been settled so quickly by individuals and small groups of settlers who operated independent of, and at times in direct violation of, governmental policy. Of seminal importance in outlining westward migration in American history is the relationship of the frontier to the process of westward movement. Usually considered the area where the settled portions of civilization meet the untamed wilderness, the frontier moved west over time with the migrations of American settlers. The relocation and redefinition of the frontier thus in many ways came to define the process of westward migration, both as a delineating marker between settlement and wilderness and as a gateway to the "West."

Colonial Migrations

American westward migration actually began when the first English colonists came to the New World seeking land and socioreligious liberation. More generally, however, historians view the process of westward movement as having its genesis in the spread of settlement away from the Atlantic coast, a process that removed the frontier at places up to two hundred miles inland by the mid-eighteenth century. Despite significant variances in economics and political orientation within the American colonies, the first phase of westward migration exhibited the same trait that permeates American continental expansion as a whole—the individualistic pursuit of inexpensive, arable land.

In Virginia and Maryland, colonists initiated westward migration by moving into the interior in pursuit of new land for tobacco cultivation. Beginning in 1618, the head right system offered fifty acres of land to new migrants who promised to raise tobacco or to wealthy sponsors who paid for the passage of an emigrant, and fueled a westward flow of land hunters and tobacco farmers. The vast majority of desirable land in the tidewater region soon fell into the hands of an elite class of planter aristocrats, forcing lesser farmers and aspiring landowners to migrate farther west to obtain land. Conflicts with Indian inhabitants sporadically interrupted their migrations, but by 1750, Pennsylvanians, Virginians, and Marylanders had successfully established settlements along the entire length of the Potomac River, entered the Shenandoah Valley, and were poised to cross the Appalachian Mountains into the vast interior of the continent.

Westward migration from the New England colonies occurred in a similar fashion, although other factors besides securing land for export crops were at work. The strict religious orthodoxy imposed by the Puritan-led Congregational Church alienated many New England colonists, and spurred them to move west in pursuit of religious moderation. Environmental conditions were also an important consideration, as the rocky soil of tidewater New England was poorly suited for farming. Agricultural practices in New England centered upon the cultivation of subsistence food items, such as wheat and corn, rather than a marketable cash crop like tobacco, but the desire to open new lands to cultivation was no less influential than in Virginia. Beginning in 1636 with the Reverend Thomas Hooker and his followers, New Englanders moved into the lush Connecticut River Valley and spread out into other fertile regions of New England. Indian resistance to colonial encroachment in New England was fierce, but two significant conflicts—the Pequot War (1636–1637) and King Philip's War (1675–1676)—eliminated most native resistance and opened the interior of New England to migrant farmers. By 1750 New Englanders had reached west to New Hampshire and Vermont and stretched north as far as Maine.

Settlement and migration patterns differed in the middle colonies of New York and Pennsylvania. While the desire for land was no less fierce, powerful Indian groups managed to blunt much of the early westward flow of American colonists. The powerful Iroquois nations, who inhabited the rich lands from the Mohawk River in northeastern New York to the upper Allegheny watershed in northwestern Pennsylvania, checked colonial expansion into their territory by maintaining a system of satellite tribes, included the Lenapes (or Delawares), Shawnees, and Susquehannocks, who occupied the border region between the Iroquois and the colonials. All land sales or political treaties between these dependent peoples and the Americans required Iroquois acquiescence, a consequence of the subservient status forced on these peoples after the Iroquois conquest of many northeastern woodland Indians during the Beaver Wars (c. 1640–1680). This system worked remarkably well until the mid-eighteenth century, when increasing pressure for land in south-central Pennsylvania forced many Lenapes and Shawnees to migrate across the Appalachian Mountains into eastern Ohio. A flood of colonial migrants, led by fur traders and land speculators, followed on the heels of these retreating Native peoples.

Westward migration in the lower south, especially the Carolinas, developed slowly until 1718, when a long series of violent Indian wars finally ended. Most migration after that point was driven by the restricted access to western lands in Pennsylvania and New York. During the 1740s and 1750s, migrants from the middle colonies traveled down the Shenandoah Valley and settled in the western portions of present North Carolina. These settlers, many of whom were Scotch-Irish and Germans only recently

arrived in America, quickly filled the upland backcountry on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians and began looking for routes of access to the lands beyond the mountains.

The Appalachian Frontier

The Appalachian Mountains, an older and smaller range than the Rockies that stretch nearly 1,500 miles from northeastern Alabama to northern Vermont and through which there are few natural passes, considerably hindered early migration into the interior of North America. By 1750, however, colonial fur traders, explorers, and land speculators had begun to cross over the Appalachians and return to eastern communities with tales of vast and rich lands to the west.

The first migrants to cross the Appalachians soon discovered that the mountains were not the only obstacles to westward settlement. The migrations of British colonists beyond the mountains was a principal cause of the North American phase of the Seven Years' War, also known as the French and Indian War (1754–1761). In the early 1740s, migrants from Pennsylvania and Virginia aggressively advanced claims to the Ohio River valley, a territory the French in Canada considered their own. In 1753 the French launched an initiative to block further American expansion by erecting a line of forts along the upper Ohio River corridor. American colonial efforts to stop the French from building Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (present Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) precipitated the final contest between France and Great Britain for control of North America. The war's effect on the westward movement of American colonists was profound, as nearly all westward migration during the conflict came to abrupt halt when the Indian peoples living in the vicinity of present-day Ohio allied with the French and attacked the western fringes of colonial settlement in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. In some places the frontier of settlement was driven eastward for several hundred miles as Indian warriors chased settlers towards the Atlantic. Only the capture of Fort Duquesne in 1758 and the subsequent defeat of a pan-Indian coalition in 1763–1764 reopened the trans-Appalachian region to American settlement.

After the war, migrants crossed the mountains in increasing numbers despite the British government's 1763 proclamation prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachians. The British knew if the colonials continued their unrestrained encroachment upon Indian territory another Indian war would ensue, a situation they hoped to avoid. However, neither government prohibitions nor army blockades could stop the deluge of settlers that poured west after 1765. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of miles from the center of political authority in the East, migrants followed their own designs and ignored government policies that they deemed to be inconsistent with their interests. Their migrations were greatly assisted by two military roads left over from the war: the Braddock Road, which carried migrants from the headwaters of the Potomac River in western Maryland to Pittsburgh; and the Forbes Road, which ran from eastern Pennsylvania to also arrive at Pittsburgh. Not surprisingly, Pittsburgh became the launching point from which thousands of settlers migrated farther west down the Ohio River to settle portions of what are now West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Other routes through the Appalachians were also discovered during this time, including the Cumberland Gap, which afforded migrants access to eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

By 1775 the frontier had been pushed beyond the Appalachian Mountains, but renewed war with Indian tribes living in the Old Northwest and the western Carolinas, this time as part of the American Revolutionary War, slowed the westward push. However, the war did not completely curb westward migration. Migrants continued to come west during the war—some to escape the ravages of war along the east coast, but most still seeking land and opportunity—and settled in the western Carolinas and Kentucky. At wars end in 1783, these migrants became the forerunners of American expansion into the Old Northwest.

Managed Expansion in the Midwest

In 1790 the population of the trans-Appalachian region was estimated at more than 120,000. The large number of Americans living west of the Appalachians made the management of westward migration a top priority for the new federal government, which hoped to peaceably maintain political authority over its western citizens and allow the settlers to extend the political boundaries of the young nation with their movements. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 offered a solution by creating a model for managed expansion. The legislation provided for the organization of the Northwest Territory into new states by creating a defined set of conditions that assured the creation of civilian government in the newly settled regions and prepared the new territories for statehood. The system successfully managed the steady migration of settlers into the Old Northwest Territory, which eventually became the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

While migrants settled the Old Northwest, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. The immense new territory, a portion of which was explored and mapped by the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806, encompassed much of the interior land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest. Part of his planned program of expansion, Jefferson believed the Louisiana Territory provided the key to the future prosperity of the then-agrarian nation by

bringing a seemingly endless supply of potential farmland within American territorial borders.

It is highly unlikely that Jefferson realized just how quickly his vision would be put to the test. During the War of 1812 Indian resistance slowed migration into the fertile region lying between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River; yet, after the war thousands of Americans penetrated into the Old Southwest. The system of managed expansion that had proved so successful in the Old Northwest Territory was replicated in the South, and by 1836, several new states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, entered the union.

Technological advances in transportation made a more organized, manageable westward advance possible, and contributed to the rapid settlement of the Midwest. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided convenient access for thousands of New England migrants who eventually settled in Michigan, northern Illinois, and Wisconsin. In the south, steamboats assisted countless migrants moving up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers into Arkansas and Missouri, where a staging ground for future migration into the trans-Mississippi West was established at Independence, Missouri, in 1827.

The Westward Expansion of Slavery

Westward migration also brought intense conflict over the place of slavery in the new territories. Western migrants brought with them two opposing socioeconomic systems: the free labor system that prevailed in the northern states and the South's slave-based plantation economy. Slavery had been abolished in most northern states during the early years of the republic and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance forbid the extension of slavery into any state created from the territory. However, the creation of the cotton gin, which invigorated cotton production by greatly simplifying the refinement process, and the profitability of sugar ensured that migrants from the South would seek to spread the institution of slavery into the West in an effort to replicate the plantation system of the Old South.

Initially the battle over the westward expansion of slavery centered upon the maintenance of political equality among the new states carved out of western territories. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise temporarily stabilized the issue by creating a system by which one free and one slave state would be created from the western territories in order to maintain a balance of voting power in the Senate. This system functioned with a reasonable measure of success until the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), the conclusion of which brought the southwestern portion of the United States under American control. Migration into the arid region was slow, with the notable exception of California, which attracted thousands of American migrants. In 1850, California's application for admission as a free state refueled the controversy over the expansion of slavery, triggering a decade of compromise and contention that saw widespread violence between migrants on either side of the debate, especially in Kansas. The violence escalated into the Civil War, a conflict that would settle the vexed slavery question for good.

The Trans-Mississippi West

During the Civil War, the frontier of American settlement generally followed the western limits of the states bordering the Mississippi River, along with a slight western tilt that included the eastern halves of Kansas and Nebraska. Beyond the edge of settlement lay expansive prairies that eventually gave way to the massive Rocky Mountains. Migrations into the trans-Mississippi West before the Civil War bypassed this vast interior—often referred to as the "Great American Desert" because of its comparative lack of water—and settled along the Pacific Coast, or in the case of the Mormons, in the mountain basin of present Utah. Even after the conclusion of the famous gold rush era, when hundreds of thousands of fortune seekers came west, most American migrants still followed the overland trails to their terminus along the Pacific Coast. California and Oregon had climates and environments more conducive to farming than the Great Plains and were rapidly populated, while the vast interior lay mostly vacant of American settlements.

In the 1860s, however, an increasing number of migrants turned their attention to the trans-Mississippi interior, where they came into conflict with the Indian tribes of the Great Plains and the Southwest. Most of these tribes, including the Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche,

and Apache, allowed migrants to cross their territory but would not tolerate permanent settlements. When migrants began to push into the Dakotas, Colorado, and New Mexico in violation of native sovereignty, the Indians waged a determined resistance. Gradually, however, the United States Army subdued the Plains Indians and the Great Plains lay open to settlement.

Westward migration in the trans-Mississippi West took three forms, often classified as "frontiers." The first, the mining frontier, opened with the great rush of migrants to the mountainous regions following the discovery of gold in California. From 1848 to 1853, more than 250,000 prospectors flooded California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. The rush diminished significantly after the most workable deposits were exhausted and many mining communities disappeared. Yet the mining frontier helped lay the foundation for such major communities as Denver and San Francisco, communities that would become important political and social centers for continued migrations into the west.

The ranching, or cattle frontier, supplanted the miners after the Civil War. At first, cattle-ranchers settled in Texas to pursue range ranching, an activity requiring ranchers to drive huge herds of cattle hundreds of miles over open grasslands to designated slaughter depots. As railroads and refrigeration opened more eastern markets to beef, more sedentary forms of ranching took hold throughout the trans-Mississippi West, until cattle herds dominated the landscapes of Texas, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory. Some western migrants, no longer able to make a living as ranchers, returned to the Midwest and found employment in support industries in cities like Chicago, which became the leading center for meat processing and packaging in the United States.

On the heels of the ranchers came the farmer's frontier. Hundreds of thousands of migrants pushed into the trans-Mississippi West after the passage of the 1862 Homestead Act awarded free grants of 160 acres to anyone who would improve the land. By 1900 more than 80 million acres of homestead land had been handed out to nearly 600,000 applicants. During the 1880s and 1890s, these migrants-turned-farmers clashed with ranchers over land usage and water rights until a new invention—barbed wire—helped farmers oust ranchers from the open range and claim preemptive rights to the land. A significant percentage of these migrants were newly arrived foreign immigrants, who preferred to take their chances with western farming rather than endure life in the rapidly industrializing eastern cities, or former slaves who sought refuge from the racially exclusive environment of the American South. Yet, ethnic minorities seldom found increased opportunity or equality along the route west. African American migrants were often excluded from prime agricultural lands, leading many to settle in the growing cities where they formed ethnic neighborhoods along with similarly marginalized Mexican or Chinese immigrants.

Westward Migration as History: From Turner to the New Western School

The symbolic closing of the frontier, noted in historical terms by the pronouncement of the 1890 census that the continental United States had been completely settled and the frontier had become a thing of the past, marked the end of the most dynamic phase of westward migration in the nation's history. Yet, many Americans still migrate to the western portions of the country in pursuit of opportunity and advancement, a trend that has led generations of historians to ask "What makes the West so special?" Frederick Jackson Turner, a Wisconsin history professor, was the first to offer an answer. Turner's "Significance of the Frontier in American History," delivered in Chicago at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, argued that the experience of westward migration was directly responsible for creating the independence and resourcefulness that lay at the heart of American character. Turner believed that the "westering" experience was the root of American exceptionalism and that the process of frontier settlement had imbued Americans with a greater resourcefulness and fiercer love of democracy than any other people in the world. The Turner Thesis, as his theory became known, dominated the historical study of westward migration for nearly a century.

However, recent generations of scholars, collectively known as "New West Historians," have sharply criticized Turner's grand synthesis for its racial exclusiveness and triumphant paradigm. Among the New West School, the work of historians Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick has proven particularly influential. Their work has demonstrated that westward migration was much more complex than the inevitable Anglo-American conquest of the wilderness implied by Turner. In their estimation, all the peoples of the frontier, including American Indians, African Americans, Mexicans, Asians, and women, played important roles in westward migration, and that the active interaction of ethnic minorities in the migration process helped define the parameters that guided westward movement. In the process, they have brought the topic of race relations from the periphery to the center in modern studies of westward migration. Moreover, these historians have classified the study of westward migration as "a legacy of conquest," a label that asserts the settlement process was a bitter struggle which ended in heartbreak and despair at least as often as success, a sobering realization that is noticeably absent from the Turnerian interpretation.


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. 5th Ed. New York: Macmillan, 1982.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Peter S. Onuf. The Midwest and the Nation: Rethinking the History of an American Region. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

Limerick, Patricia Nelson. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: Norton, 1987.

Mitchell, Robert D., ed. Appalachian Frontiers: Settlement, Society, and Development in the Preindustrial Era. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Nobles, Gregory H. American Frontiers: Cultural Encounters and Continental Conquest. New York: Hill and Wang, 1997.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own:" A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

White, Richard, and Findlay, John M., eds. Power and Place in the North American West. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.

Daniel P.Barr

See alsoDuquesne, Fort ; Frontier ; Frontier Thesis, Turner's ; Fur Trade and Trapping ; Land Grants ; Land Speculation ; Migration, Internal ; Ordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787 ; Trans-Appalachian West andvol. 9:Americans in Their Moral, Social, and Political Relations ; Across the Plains to California in 1852 ; The Oregon Trail ; A Pioneer Woman's Letter Home, c. 1856 .

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Westward Migration

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Westward Migration