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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Opening of the West, 1840-1865
A Rapidly Growing Nation
By the mid 19th century, America’s population was still doubling approximately every 23 years, as it had done in colonial days. By 1860, the original thirteen states had more than doubled in number, and the number of states had increased to 33. The United States was the fourth most populous white nation in the world, exceeded only by Russia, France, and Austria.
Urban growth continued explosively. In 1790 only Philadelphia and New York exceeded a population of 20,000. By 1860 there were 43 cities of that size, and about 300 towns claimed over 5000 inhabitants. The largest city was New York. New Orleans was the “Queen of the South.” Cincinnati which excelled in meat packing was dubbed the “porkopolis of the West,” while frontier Chicago was emerging quickly as a center of commerce.
A continuing high birth rate accounted for most of the population increase. But by the 1840s the tide of immigration was adding hundreds of thousands more. From 1840-1860, over a million and a half Irish came, and nearly as many Germans.
By 1860 most of the Great American West was explored. Trails or roads connected all its sections with each other and with the eastern part of the nation as well.
Then migration stalled, interrupted by the American Civil War, 1861-1865.
The Santa Fe Trail
The Santa Fe Trail wasn’t a significant migration trail. Rather, it was an ancient land route of communication and commerce between the desert Southwest of what is now the United States and the prairies and plains of central North America. Its stories are legion; its importance significant. It must not be overlooked, but this isn’t the place to fully develop its story.
The 800-mile Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to Santa Fe was the oldest and the first over which wagons were used in the westward expansion beyond the Mississippi River. It carried a stream of merchants’ wagons until it was replaced by the coming of the railroad in 1880.
In 1821 a mule pack train had left from Franklin, Missouri, to travel to Santa Fe on what later became known as the Mountain Route. The following year’s expedition avoided the mountains, leaving the Arkansas River and heading across the arid plains for the Cimarron River; this route became known as the Cimarron cutoff. Troubles with Mexico in the 1840s contributed to diminished trade, but the trail being established, parts of it were used by pioneers headed for California.
Beginning in the early 1820s, traders left Independence, Missouri, each spring in caravans of 50 to 100 Conestoga wagons. Each wagon could hold 3000 pounds of goods. The trains organized at Council Grove for a few days, then turned south, crossing the bend of the Arkansas River near Dodge City, Kansas. After that they either continued west, then south, crossing the mountains at the Raton Pass, or took the 60-mile Cimarron cutoff through the desert.
During the early years of commerce, much of the route was within Mexican territory. Not until 1848 when the Mexican War ended was the entire trail officially within American territory.
In the mid-1840s population expansion and an active desire for more territory went together. With the conclusion of the Mexican War in 1848 came still more increased boundaries. “Manifest Destiny” contributed to increased migration into new regions, particularly into the Southwest. It became the American view that the United States would inevitably own and occupy the entire region from the Mississippi to the Pacific Coast, north through Oregon, and south including the entire area from Texas to the Pacific. By 1861 all of the West, with the exception of present-day Oklahoma, had been divided into organized states and territories.
The main migration to the West during the 1840s and 1850s was to or near the fringe of the frontier. Although part of the migration to the Northwest from about 1840 until the outbreak of civil war was to the older states of Illinois and Michigan, the bulk was to the newer regions of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. White population moved into Iowa after the Black Hawk War, settling first in towns along the Mississippi River, but it didn’t take long for farmers to push on west to the open plains. The peak period of migration corresponded to the prosperous period which preceded the Panic of 1857. New arrivals included a large percentage of foreign-born from Germany, Holland, and Scandinavia.
Minnesota was Indian country until accession of the Sioux Treaty of 1861. Nevertheless, whites rushed there in the 1850s. Many who went were foreign-born, particularly Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians. Several Minnesota trails were improved by the U.S. Army Engineers between 1850 and 1861. The St. Croix route connected Lake Superior with the Mississippi River. St. Paul was connected by the Forts route with Fort Snelling and Fort Riley on the Mississippi River and with Fort Ridgely on the Minnesota River.
A circular trail connected the head of navigation of the Mississippi River with Pembina, North Carolina. From 1850 to 1870, it delivered supplies and furs on two-wheeled carts between St. Paul, Minnesota and the frontier.
In the South, although there were migrations to Mississippi and Louisiana, many more people went to Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. Increase in the Old Southwest was less than that of the Northwest; this lag was accentuated during the 1860s, undoubtedly because of slavery and the Civil War.
Early Kansas settlers came largely from the nearby frontier, including swarms of land speculators. Many of these early arrivals were from pro-slavery Missouri. This triggered the zealous abolitionists of New England to organize an Emigrant Aid Society to subsidize abolitionist settlers. In Nebraska, population growth was slow. At first there were only a few settlements along the Missouri River and fewer still by the Platte River.
The first attraction to much of the Far West frontier was mining riches. Gold, and later silver and copper, drew thousands to the Western states, many of whom remained and encouraged others to follow. And the miners had needs that could be met by businessmen who arrived on their heels, as storekeepers, bankers, and artisans. Some returned East, but others stayed and established families.
Military needs of the nation spread further West, bringing soldiers and families. Fertile farmland, cheap labor, and expanding opportunities attracted thousands. The Gadsen Purchase of 1853 supplied additional territory, resulting in a contiguous nation, and migrations West increased.
The Homestead Act of 1862 provided an impetus for families to migrate into recently opened areas. And the Railroad Act passed the same year contributed significantly to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Emigrant Aid Companies
As described by Arlene Eakle in lectures at the Kansas City 1995 Conference of the American Family Records Association, there were several kinds of emigrant aid companies, all of which led to large group migrations into the West.
1) those companies who provided aid for prospective settlers, protecting them against exorbitant costs and potential dangers. These were usually sponsored and underwritten by government departments and religious organizations.
2) speculative groups which were organized and sponsored by land companies and speculators and some government promotions. The purpose was to induce development of areas and purchase of lands.
3) promotional groups sponsored by railroads, canals or waterways, and by some government agencies to generate funds for internal improvements or to compensate stockholders.
4) miscellaneous groups, including military groups like the Hessian soldiers, brides imported from Europe for single men, job opportunities such as the Harvey girls recruited in eastern cities to work in railroad
5) cafes in the Midwest.
Groups of people were recruited from the same general area, and tended when moving on to another area to move together. Examples of these sponsored mass migrations are that of the Mormons underwritten by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and also that of various groups of gold-seekers who headed to San Francisco to go to the gold fields.
The Far West
Carrie Eldridge offers this summary statement about the Far West, in one of her atlases: “The Far West was a land of immense distance and vast opportunity. Fortunes were made in furs, minerals, cattle, trade, transportation and shipping. Equal-sized fortunes were lost in the same field through exploitation, over extension and outright fraud. The sheer size of the West and its seemingly unlimited resources drew many a gullible investor into an ill-advised project.” Carrie Eldridge, An Atlas of Trails West of the Mississippi River (Huntington, WV: CDM Printing Inc., 2001), 37.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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