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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 ($).


Why Study Migration Patterns?


In a study of migration patterns, it is important first to clarify several terms. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the verb migrate as “to move from one country, place, or locality to another.” Note a difference in meaning between migration and immigration. Migration is simply the movement of people from one place to another. Only those persons who leave one country to take up residence in another are called immigrants. More precisely, the act of leaving one’s native country is called emigration, and the act of entering another country is called immigration. Clearly, each immigrant to the United States has emigrated from some other country.

In the period before the American colonies became independent, newcomers from Europe were called colonists or settlers. In America, the designation immigrant was introduced only after 1787. But the experience of those who had crossed the Atlantic in the 17th and 18th centuries was not unlike that of their 19th and 20th century successors: they all had to adjust to a society which was greatly different from the one they had left.

One wonders about the Indian natives who were present before the invasion of European explorers, traders, and colonists; but that is a subject for a different study. Likewise, a separate course would be necessary to learn the facts and sequence of the enforced movements of Indian tribes which occurred due to white Americans pushing forward into a series of frontiers. In this survey course, ethnic and religious factors can only be referenced briefly.

Frontier, as it has been viewed throughout American history, means something new and relatively unknown, yet promising. The Census Bureau since 1790 defined frontier as an area containing not less than two or more than six inhabitants to the square mile.

To the pioneers, the word frontier came to suggest the West, but beyond that it lacked a geographical designation because it was constantly changing. More than a hundred years ago, the subject was addressed in a scholarly way at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago by Frederick Jackson Turner, who explained frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” Some modern scholars have criticized Turner’s statements, suggesting that his viewpoint was too narrow. Turner saw the frontier largely in economic and political terms and from the agricultural point of view; he saw the frontier as the cradle of democracy, along with individualism and freedom of opportunity.

The subject migration patterns requires at least an introductory acquaintance with ethnic and religious groups. In order to identify migration patterns, one must also learn the most prominent routes used by persons moving from one location to another during a given time period. Identifying a family’s probable migration route often leads to a sequence of record sources which add detail to a family’s story.

The focus of this course is a survey of migration patterns within the United States. Clearly, colonists were already on the move by the time they set foot on to American soil. In search of more opportunity, many continued to journey from place to place within their new homeland, sometimes over several generations and often with great hardship. Before we attempt to identify genealogical migration patterns, we need to pause and consider why we should study these patterns and what motivations led to these movements.

Why Study Migration Patterns?

In order to extend a pedigree, one must learn where the family came from and the pathways where they might be dropping off and leaving records while migrating. In working backward from present to past, a general knowledge of migration patterns helps to identify previous residences which in turn leads to a search of records in public and private repositories along the route. Following migration paths is an excellent way to distinguish one family from another of the same surname. Often by analyzing migration patterns, one can leap over a brick wall in a heritage search.

Why Migrate?

In an online article titled “American Migration Sources,” Kip Sperry points out a number of possible reasons for migration: “opportunity to obtain land, crop failures, military bounty land, follow a religious leader, religious persecution, follow relatives or friends, economic reasons, change of climate, improve social and poverty conditions, political reasons, military transfer, wars, follow construction projects (such as canals and railroads), and other reasons.”

Columnist George C. Morgan suggests thirteen reasons as being the most common reasons for migrating to a new place:

  •  religious or ethnic persecution
  •  war
  •  natural disasters
  •  famine
  •  economic problems
  •  political strife/turmoil/oppression
  •  following family and friends
  •  adoption (example: orphan trains)
  •  slavery
  •  forced relocation of Native Americans
  •  criminal incarceration/deportment
  •  not a first son (eldest son inherited)
  •  great financial opportunity

To reduce the list down still further, most would agree that there were three main factors contributing to an individual’s decision to move to the frontier:

  • Ÿ conditions at home
  • Ÿ ease with which he could reach the destination
  • Ÿ attractiveness of the region lying ahead.
Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file—the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by. Stand at South Pass in the Rockies a century later and see the same procession with wider intervals between.
—Frederick Jackson Turner

The Frontier Process

Visualize two loosely defined groups challenging new frontiers in America’s history. First to go were the fur trappers, missionaries, herdsmen, miners, and other persons with an interest either in preserving or exploiting nature. Then came the farmers, speculators, town planters, merchants, millers, blacksmiths, and others seeking a profit from advancing civilization. The urban frontier was as significant as ranching and farming and mining. Towns were located strategically, sometimes at a crossroad or at the head of a waterway or at an advantageous spot along a canal or railroad.

Successful Migration

In considering the possible reasons for migration, one should also ponder why persons settled where they did. Some went to join persons who had gone before. Others traveled with a group with a certain location in mind. Many did not reach their chosen destination, but rather stopped along the way and stayed. Often, persons sought out a place reminiscent of what they had left behind. Still others reversed their journey upon finding the grass wasn’t as “green” at the new location as they had hoped.

A successful migration required three ingredients:

  •  Proximity
  •  Pioneering skills
  •  Capital to finance the trip and something left for a new start

The majority of the early pioneers were farmers with pioneer know-how. Most Eastern workingmen lacked both the capital and the necessary skills for a frontier life. Industrial opportunities were seldom available until after the Civil War. Of necessity, tradesmen ventured only into already settled areas. New frontier areas were generally settled by people coming in from adjacent civilized areas. Those who moved were rarely from distant points.


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 16 September 2014, at 22:00.
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