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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 ($).

Coming Of Age, 1866-1919

Despite truly heroic effort and sacrifice, the South was destitute at the end of the Civil War. The entire country was broken, sad, and devastated physically. But gradually the nation came back together. The South’s agricultural economic lifeblood had been almost hopelessly crippled by the war. The planter aristocrats were reduced to proud poverty. Thousands of them departed to the Far West and even to Mexico and Brazil. But most stayed, attempting to restore what they could, to the glory of the Old South. When huge Southern plantations were sold off, poor whites were sometimes able to acquire small farms and improve their opportunities. Newly freed blacks had a difficult adjustment to working as wage laborers.

Returns from the 1870 census showed that the nation’s urban population was growing more rapidly than its rural population. Whereas in 1860 about 80 percent of all Americans lived in rural areas, by 1870 only about 75 percent lived on farms or in villages and small towns. Even so, the United States was still predominantly a farm country. This would change in subsequent years.

In the North, industrial growth had accelerated due to wartime demands, with Northern factories increasing from fewer than 140,000 in 1860 to over 250,000 in 1870. After the war ended, the war-inflated industries had to be retooled for civilian needs. Railroad mileage doubled in this same decade. Wartime currency inflation, federal subsidies to railroads, and protective tariffs for industry resulted in enormous inflation. Industries ranged from wool production to mining, iron manufacturing to petroleum. And because of the increased demand for every staple crop, farmers also prospered in the North. Due to a shortage of manpower on Northern farms and in factories, immigration from Europe was encouraged. In 1865 alone, 180,000 new immigrants arrived, and in 1866 and 1867 the number grew to 300,000 a year.

In the South, violence against blacks was often carried out by white secret societies, the most infamous of which was the Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1866. Reconstructionist efforts to ensure black civil and political rights were undercut economically by the practice of sharecropping. Freedmen didn’t have the resources to buy their own land or to migrate. So they began to work on the farms of landowners who, short on cash themselves, paid them for their labor with a “share” of the crop. Sharecroppers often became tied down by debt, owing their landowners for rent, supplies, and tools.

Public attention strayed away from the South’s political problems, especially after 1873 when a major depression swept the country. With hundreds of thousands out of work, political attention shifted from postwar Reconstruction to solving the problem of economic recovery.

Problems in both the North and the South served as a prelude to change. In the last third of the 19th century, American became a modern industrial nation. The period between the Civil War up through World War I saw the United States emerge as a world power. America’s participation in World War I ended an era with the nation coming to age and becoming truly “modern.” Following the Civil War, the United States experienced three great migrations. One went from the East to the Great Plains and the Far West. A second was from Europe to America. And the third was from the country to the city, this being the most extensive.

In one generation, from 1870 to 1910, the population of America doubled, from about 40 million to more than 90 million. Of these, many had moved into the Great Plains and the Rockies, bringing about the final collapse of the Indians in the West. New Mexico and Arizona in 1912 became the 47th and 48th states; we were a nation of states, united, from sea to sea. Back in 1861, on the brink of Civil War, Kansas had become the 34th state. In the interval, people were on the move, establishing themselves in new environments, and “the West was won.”

Conquest of the Indians in the Great Plains

The West was won at a price—the conquest of the Indians. During the Indian Wars from 1865 to 1886, the Plains Indians were conquered. One of the saddest stories is that of the Nez Perce. In 1877 Chief Joseph, leader of the Nez Perce, faced his conquerors on the last frontier of the West, the Great Plains. This vast area, stretching from the Canadian border to Texas, had belonged to the Indians from early times. Now it was being claimed by people from the North, the South, and distant Europe. The Nez Perce Indians had dwelt in peace for half a century in the Oregon country. But after the Civil War, pioneers looked upon this land with greedy eyes, and soon a federal order arrived for the Indians to be removed to a reservation. As the tribe prepared to leave, white settlers stole several hundred of their horses, and young Indian warriors demanded revenge. Federal troops were called out. Chief Joseph tried to lead his people to safety in Canada, traveling more than 1,300 miles in two months, fighting off pursuing troops along the way. Within sight of the Canadian border, Chief Joseph and his people were forced to surrender.

A significant location of population gains by 1900 was in the cities all across the land. By 1900 a third of the nation lived in 400 sizable cities, those with a population of over 8,000. A hundred years before, there were only six cities of that size, and only three Americans out of 100 lived in those towns.

The amount of land under cultivation doubled between the Civil War and 1900, resulting in an abundance of food. Mechanization permitted a tiny minority of Americans to feed the large majority. Those who left the farms turned to work on the railroads, the iron mines and oil fields, and factories and offices. By 1900 the United States was the leading manufacturing nation in the world. In 1870 the average factory employed no more than eight workers. By 1914 the average plant had 28 employees, but a median plant—halfway in size between the largest and smallest—had 170. In 1870 no factory employed over 1,000 workers, whereas by 1914 several had as many as 10,000.


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 00:33.
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