Town Plans and Promotion

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Town and city populations grew even more rapidly than rural populations in the new American nation, particularly in the areas settled west of the Appalachian Mountains after the end of the War of Independence in 1783. New towns in this region were often the products of enthusiastic marketing campaigns designed to sell building lots and to attract businesses and residents. These promotional activities, often called boosterism, helped to define America's westward migration.

Town promotion also owed much to speculators and developers exploiting lands acquired by treaty and conquest from American Indians. Sir William Johnson set this pattern in western New York in late colonial times; subsequent promoters such as William Cooper followed his example. Huge land gains after the War of 1812 encouraged even more aggressive commercial ventures, often advertised by beautifully drawn imaginative maps and views.

A successful town needed a solid economic base. In an era when most bulk goods moved by water, whether river, lake, or canal, boosters planned their towns accordingly around their waterfronts and constantly lobbied for government subsidies to attract steamboats, or to construct levees, wharves, and docks. Artificial waterways followed. The Erie Canal, built from Albany to Buffalo, New York, after the War of 1812, was a particularly successful internal improvement, contributing to the growth of towns along its route.

Successful cities were often identified with the product they shipped. Cincinnati became known as "porkopolis" for its processing of hogs. Pittsburgh became an iron center, Memphis a cotton center, Louisville a tobacco port, and Galena, Illinois, the center of a lead-mining region. Preexisting French and Spanish towns shared in the growth after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. St. Louis became the center for the western fur trade; New Orleans became the South's largest city as most of the commerce of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys passed though it on the way to the Gulf of Mexico. In a few years railroads would help other cities, such as Chicago, to grow and prosper as well.

As much as city leaders did not want their ventures to fail, they did not want their communities to remain mere dots on a post office map. Economic development often rested on borrowed money, and the desire for credit spurred the western banking industry. Cautious banking practices often yielded to pressure for riskier "wildcat" ventures. In times of rapid expansion loans might be repaid; but in times of commercial contraction, such as the Panic of 1819, many banks and businesses failed, taking their towns down with them, and many grandiose plans were thus never realized.

This threat of failure was a spur to even more intense promotional activity. Boosterism was evident in the carefully surveyed town street plan, or plat, which permitted lots to be sold with a clear legal title. Planners could choose from several popular designs. Those with roots in New England often created their sites around town commons, with important buildings such as churches facing a central grassy square. Many examples of such towns can still be found along the shores of Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan. Planners who hailed from the middle states often preferred to copy Philadelphia, with its rectangular grid centered on a market street. Examples of these towns are found on or near the National Road in central Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Developers from the southern states showed a preference for towns built around central courthouse squares. These are common in the Ohio Valley and throughout the Southwest. A few developers emulated Pierre L'Enfant's more complex 1791 plan of Washington, D. C., with its diagonal avenues and dramatic public parks. Indianapolis is a good example.

Everywhere, town boosters sought to embellish their towns with impressive buildings. Architects worked in new high styles, designing copies of ancient Greek and Roman structures. False fronts on commercial buildings, tall steeples on churches, and elaborately carved or lathed wooden decorations were all designed to attract attention and convey a sense of importance. Town leaders gave particular attention to encouraging elegant hotels, large county courthouses and schools, and fine private homes; they welcomed colleges not only for the educational distinction they might confer but also for their imposing buildings. Town cemeteries, with elaborately sculpted monuments and tombstones, often doubled as elegant public parks. Boosters described their communities not as they were but as they might be, exaggerating possibilities to convey hope and confidence. In their anticipatory fervor and ambitious plans, the present and the future of the new Republic came together.

See alsoCity Growth and Development; City Planning; Erie Canal; Expansion; Louisiana Purchase; Migration and Population Movement; Monuments and Memorials; Panic of 1819; Railroads .


Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow. Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Sandweiss, Eric. St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.

Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790–1830. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996.

George W. Geib