Migration and Population Movement

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By 1754, most of the choice lands between the Atlantic Coast and the Appalachian Mountains had been settled by European colonists who, looking westward, pressed colonial governments to acquire and provide new lands. As early as 1747, Virginia planters interested in land speculation and the fur trade organized the Ohio Company to explore and open the Ohio River valley to settlement and economic exploitation. The French viewed the company's activities as a challenge to their imperial claims, which in part led to the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). When the war ended, however, rather than open the Ohio River valley to colonists, the British—hoping to avoid further conflict with the Indians—barred settlement in trans-Appalachia in the Proclamation of 1763.

Throughout the 1760s and early 1770s, pressures for new lands escalated. Over 125,000 emigrants arrived in the colonies from the British Isles. Many found jobs in urban areas along the coast, but most sought land and, unable to acquire large farms along the seaboard, began looking to the backcountries. By the outbreak of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), settlers (large numbers of whom were German, Scots, and Scots-Irish) streamed into New York's Mohawk River valley and the Pennsylvania mountains and along the Great Wagon Road into the Virginia and North Carolina backcountries.

Yet Europeans were only the most conspicuous populations on the move. The migrations of slaveowning colonists created a forced migration of African Americans, particularly in the southern colonies. As whites and blacks moved into new areas, they displaced Native Americans who consequently relocated into other regions and uprooted other peoples. This pattern of peoples bumping into each other characterized American migrations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The pattern pertained as well to Europeans, who—as Bernard Bailyn in The Peopling of British North America (1986), David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly in Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement (2000), and others had demonstrated—were of such vast cultural, if not ethnic, diversity that their migrations often challenged the cultural ways of previous settlers.

The Revolutionary War accelerated these patterns by eliminating imperial impediments to migration and by giving rise to a sense of providential destiny. Migration had been among the causes of revolution; British western land and Indian policies were among the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence. Under the Treaty of Paris (1783), the Confederation of American states gained all the territory east of the Mississippi River between Canada and Florida. And among the most significant acts of the Confederation Congress of the 1780s was a series of ordinances organizing the Old Northwest that opened territories north of the Ohio River to settlement.

the trans-appalachian west

Dr. Thomas Walker was the first American to discover the Cumberland Gap in 1750, but it was not until the impediments to migration disintegrated with the Revolutionary War that the gap became a primary gateway to the West. Throughout the late 1770s and 1780s, increasing numbers of backcounty peoples from the Carolinas and Virginia flowed through it, moving southward into the Holston settlements of Tennessee or following the Wilderness Road into central Kentucky. The other major route into the West was along the Ohio River, which remained under the watch of Native Americans well into the 1790s. Migrants from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Northeast arrived in Pittsburgh and chartered flatboats down the Ohio to landings at Maysville, Fort Washington (Cincinnati), and Louisville.

The majority of white migrants, whether German or Scots-Irish or traveling along the Wilderness Road or the Ohio River, journeyed either alone or in small family groups. The cost and burden of travel made the transport of households difficult for the wealthiest of travelers, so many migrants left extended kin networks behind, along with most of their belongings. Still, the draw of the West was for many more powerful than attachments to family and possessions. By 1790 Kentucky had some seventy-three thousand occupants, and Tennessee's population grew tenfold between 1790 and 1796, when it had sixty thousand residents.

In comparison to furniture and elderly parents, slaves were less of a problem to transport, and the postwar migrations evidenced large-scale displacement of black Americans. First, the Shenandoah Valley, western North Carolina, and the South Carolina and Georgia up-countries became new slave societies. Then, slaves were forced into Tennessee and Kentucky. The uprooting of slaves disrupted the fragile kin networks that provided stability to black life on the plantations, and the Appalachian Mountains created a barrier that made escape and reconciliation nearly impossible.

the old northwest and old southwest

The opening of Tennessee and Kentucky encouraged leaders of the new nation to expand westward, evidenced in two of the Confederation Congress's most impressive accomplishments: the Ordinances of 1785 and 1787. The earlier law provided for the survey and sale of lands in the Old Northwest (later the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota). The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery and outlined the process for statehood.

Yet the Old Northwest was occupied by numerous Indian nations, all assured by the government that their rights and interests would be protected. White and black migrants into Kentucky and Tennessee, however, had already bumped into these Native Americans, inciting an Indian war north and south of the Ohio River. Despite several military victories, the Indians' defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 forced them to concede much of what later became Ohio in the Treaty of Greenville (1795) and to migrate collectively farther northwestward. The trickle of American settlers that characterized migration into the Old Northwest in the 1780s and early 1790s became a flood as migrants from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New England flowed into Ohio. By 1800, over forty-five thousand Americans had migrated into the territory.

Between the 1770s and 1790s, therefore, the patterns of white migration, forced black migration, and Native American displacement and migration that had formed in the colonial era became more evident and ingrained in American western development. As the Old Southwest opened in the late 1790s, these patterns and their consequences became even more dramatic.

Most whites who migrated into the Old Southwest (later western Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and the Florida panhandle) came from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia in search of rich soils and agricultural opportunity. They were small, nonslaveholding farmers, just as in the Old Northwest. But a planter elite also migrated westward, expanding the institution of slavery as well. Determined to open up the territory for cotton agriculture, they pushed for federal intervention with the Native Americans and with the Spanish who still controlled Florida. In 1818 Andrew Jackson occupied West Florida and virtually conquered East Florida, forcing the Spanish to cede the territory to the United States through the Adams-Onís Treaty (1819). By 1840, Florida's population had reached fifty-four thousand, half of whom were slaves.

More than one million African American slaves went from the slave states to the Old Southwest, which soon became the largest cotton-producing region in the world. Especially after the War of 1812 (1812–1815), when commercial ties were reestablished with Great Britain, the cotton boom lured settlers rapidly toward the Mississippi River and beyond.

While rapid expansion into both the Old Southwest and the Old Northwest strained relations with Native Americans, the War of 1812 ended Native American military resistance to white settlement in both regions. The Shawnees under Tecumseh, who had formed an alliance with Britain against the United States, were defeated at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. Meanwhile, in 1814 Andrew Jackson conquered Red Stick Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama and forced all the Creeks to cede lands to the United States. Again, Native Americans were on the move, migrating westward and joining with other Indian groups for survival. This set the stage for the final removal of Native Americans from the Old Southwest in the 1830s, when the Cherokees, Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles would be taken, most by force, into the Indian Territory of what subsequently became Oklahoma.

The War of 1812 also opened up the northwesternmost reaches of the Old Northwest to American settlement. Migration into Michigan boomed following the war, as did the movement of miners into the lead deposit regions of Wisconsin.

across the mississippi river

By the turn of the nineteenth century, American migrants were moving into most of the lands east of the Mississippi River, and both the federal government and the citizenry began to look even farther westward. Interest in expansion into the trans-Mississippi West had begun simultaneously with the first migrations into the Old Northwest. In 1792, for example, Robert Gray explored the mouth of the Columbia River by sea, mapping much of the Pacific Coast and strengthening the claim of the United States to the far Northwest. Eleven years later, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on their expedition into the northern reaches of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and then on to the Pacific Ocean, gathering a vast amount of geographic and scientific information, establishing diplomatic and trade relations with Native American tribes, and further establishing an American claim to the West. They were followed by other government-sponsored expeditions: Zebulon M. Pike in 1805 and Stephen H. Long in 1820 explored the central Great Plains and eastern hills of the Rocky Mountains.

On the heels of these explorers came American migrants. The cotton boom of the Old Southwest spread into Louisiana and swelled its population to seventy-eight thousand by 1810. The confluence of the Mississippi River, the Oregon Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail at St. Louis drew migrants into Missouri, the population of which reached over sixty thousand by 1820. Missourian Moses Austin organized and his son Stephen F. Austin led three hundred families to eastern Texas, opening the way for further migration into the region in the 1830s. As American migrants traversed the Mississippi River, they took with them the patterns that had characterized American migration for over one hundred years: the bumping-in-to-each-other process, forced black migration, and Native American displacement.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Removal; Exploration and Explorers; Northwest; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Pioneering; Trails to the West; West .


Bailyn, Bernard. The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Cashin, Joan E. A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Finger, John R. Tennessee Frontiers: Three Regions in Transition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Fischer, David Hackett, and James C. Kelly. Bound Away: Virginia and the Westward Movement. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720–1830. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Mitchell, Robert D. Commercialism and Frontier: Perspectives on the Early Shenandoah Valley. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

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

Craig Thompson Friend

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