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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 ($).

Homestead Acts Brought Settlers to the Great Plains

Homestead acts governed the disposal of land in the Great Plains. Early pioneers faced unexpected difficulties which made it hard to succeed as a small farmer. There was little water; there were no belts of trees to shelter them; there was no lumber for homes, barns or fences. They turned to technology to solve some of these problems, the windmill being an outstanding example. In this dry area a family needed a larger farm than the 80 acres usually farmed in the East. The need to acquire more land opened the door to speculators. The average small farmer was forced to accept an inferior farm far from good transportation or pay the inflated rates of the speculators.

The Homestead Act of 1862 played a significant role in advertising the trans-Mississippi West, showing the area as one rich in opportunity. By granting 160 acres of free land to claimants, it offered any man or woman a chance to live the American dream. But of those who accepted the free land, nearly 60 percent of the homesteaders failed to “prove up on the land” by fulfilling the expectations of property improvement. The land left behind would then be sold to the next owners to add to their small acreages.

Under the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862, large portions of the public domain lands went to railroads. Each state was to receive 30,000 acres of western land for each of its senators and representatives in Congress. Because of their greater population, the older states benefited most. Proceeds from the sale of this land went to endow colleges where young men could be trained in scientific farming.

The 1866 Southern Homestead Act, intended to provide free 160-acre plots to former slaves in five states of the Southwest, wasn’t the success expected. Most farmers couldn’t afford the $10 filing fee to claim 160 acres of public domain land.

Most pioneers who migrated to the interior grasslands of the Great Plains came from adjacent states, drafted from the ranks of men already skilled in agriculture.

Starting in 1886, a ten-year series of droughts on the Great Plains turned farm lands into arid desert, making life there especially hard. This accounts for still more migration farther West or occasionally a reverse migration “back home.”

Immigrant Migrations

The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, its construction accomplished by bringing in Irish, Chinese, and other laborers. The years 1865-1924 saw migrations into urbanized localities although land for farming was still a big draw. German-Russians concentrated in larger cities—New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis. From 1880-1924 the nation experienced an influx of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

In the 1890s Mexicans began immigrating into the American Southwest, seeking jobs. Some were escaping from the troubled political and economic conditions in Mexico. About half a million new Mexican immigrants arrived in the 1920s. White resentment grew because these Mexican immigrants did not form a dependable labor supply because they would cross back and forth across the Mexican border as economic conditions improved or worsened in Mexico. Then in the Depression Years, white Americans wanted the jobs themselves.

Mining Destinations and Roads

The movement of large numbers of miners into Indian country hastened the coming of white settlers and forced the native Indians into reservations. The miners weren’t the only persons to arrive. Each mining boom resulted in new towns with commercial opportunities attractive to bankers, storekeepers, artisans, and railroad men. Soon some of these areas were served by railroads which attracted stockmen and farmers.

The Bozeman Trail, also called the Powder River Road, was proposed by the Federal Government in 1865 to connect eastern roads with Montana mining communities and deliver miners’ supplies. The road angered the Sioux Indians to the point of fierce war causing the government to discontinue work on the road and abandon three forts in 1867.

The military built the Mullan Road in 1869, one of the main routes into the gold fields of western Montana. This road connected Walla Walla, Washington on the Columbia River with Fort Benton, Montana on the Missouri River, and miners entered the regions from both directions.

Silver was the attraction at Virginia City and Carson City in Nevada. The original discoveries were exhausted by the late 1860s, but before long came newer and bigger finds. Silver finds in Arizona originated at Tombstone, in 1877. Copper mining was more important in Arizona.

Prospectors found gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1874. This was Indian territory, the Sioux Reservation. The government made only half-hearted efforts to keep prospectors out of the region and finally abandoned that effort. In 1877 the government opened the entire area to white settlers. Miners from all over the West headed for Deadwood, South Dakota, first for gold and then for quartz. The Deadwood Stage Trail connected the Oregon Trail with Deadwood, South Dakota and Bismarck and Fort Mandan in North Dakota on the Missouri River. It had opened into the mining region in about 1876.

A late but important gold boom hit in 1890-1891 at Cripple Creek in Colorado.

The rush to Alaska came with the news in 1897 of rich findings near Dawson in the Yukon. The last of the American gold booms came in Death Valley and to the north and east in Nevada, about the turn of the century.

Utah’s mineral development was slow and is associated with corporate mining. Copper became its leading mineral.


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

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 18 September 2014, at 23:41.
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