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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 ($).

Beyond the Eastern Shores

1784-1839

The new nation faced many challenges. Its citizens were restless, eager to improve their economic opportunities, and for many this meant moving. There were choices to be made. Land was available due to eastern state cessions of western territory as well as acquisition of vast new territorial areas through the Louisiana Purchase. Some of this land was transferred from the government to veterans as bounty land. These new regions were attractive to adventurous families and individuals.

By 1820 the balance of North-South states began to worry Congressional leaders; for a time Western and southern expansion provided an outlet. By the 1830s, overland wagon trains were carrying families into Texas, Arkansas, and new territories.

Post-Revolution Migrations

After the Revolutionary War, over 25 percent of the eastern population left older settled regions. Established families could no longer make a living on their eroded lands. Merchants and businessmen had lost their import-export business with England. They were eager to find better living conditions. This began a generations long trek westward as families sought greener pastures and new homes on the ever-expanding American Frontier.

From Massachusetts, many went into eastern New York where old claims were now in the hands of speculators. They joined New Yorkers and families from Rhode Island and Connecticut in occupying the New York Military Lands in the fertile Genesee Valley and lands along Lake Erie. Others went into western Pennsylvania when those lands were opened by speculators. Still others moved north into the Vermont territory or on into English Canada.

Between 1785 and 1800, there were migrations south into the wilderness of western Georgia and the Mississippi Valley. People from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia went southward along the east side of the Appalachian Mountains over the Great Valley Road. Some turned west through the Holston and French Broad Valleys into Tennessee. Many went through the Cumberland Gap into the rich lands of Kentucky, while others kept going to the south and ended up in North and South Carolina. From the Carolinas, the road was open to Georgia, to Middle Tennessee, and to all points West.

The first really large flow of settlers across the Appalachians came in the twenty years right after the Revolution. New settlements weren’t evenly spread; areas were most attractive if they had better transportation and fertile land. During this period, the majority of those migrating were native-born, seeking economic opportunity either in eastern cities or in the farms and towns of the West. Characteristic of all population movements, people were both “pushed and pulled.” They migrated only if they found their home conditions in the East less desirable than their prospects in the West.

People moving to the farming frontier went as directly West as possible. The importance of this fact cannot be understated as one ponders American migration patterns. Time after time the culture of a particular section of the East was reproduced. The bulk of the Virginia and Carolina migration went to Kentucky and Tennessee; Pennsylvanians migrated to Ohio; and New Englanders migrated to central New York and the region of the Great Lakes.

During the war years, most of the migrants into the trans-mountain region had come from the South, either through the Cumberland Gap or sometimes up the Potomac and overland to the area around Pittsburgh. This population overflowed into the region just north of the Ohio River in what was to become southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Next came the occupation of Missouri and Iowa. Migrants from the Middle Atlantic states went west by way of Pittsburgh and mixed in the Ohio Valley with the southern group. New Englanders usually went into the same areas by way of Pittsburgh although some went through southern New York State. In 1788, for example, it was a group of New Englanders who crossed New York and northern Pennsylvania, then floated down the Ohio River to the mouth of the Muskingum River. There they founded the town of Marietta near the earlier-established Fort Harmar.

By 1795 the choice frontier lands had already been appropriated by the early pioneers—eastern Tennessee’s valleys, the Nashville Basin, Kentucky’s limestone areas, and the lowlands of the Ohio River. What remained was the hilly areas of the Appalachian Plateau. Yet even these less than ideal land conditions appealed to discontented persons in all three regions of early America (New England, the Middle States, and the South). New England was overcrowded, and the cost of land escalated. In the Middle States and South, they faced some of the same problems, and still more. Many who left New York and Pennsylvania were those who had previously moved to the western fringe of civilization, and now simply kept moving. Thousands in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina abandoned their soil-exhausted farms. When plantation agriculture expanded into the Piedmont and Great Valley, some of the small farmers went West to escape the developing class system or to avoid contact with slavery. Improved roads connecting East and West contributed greatly to the mass exodus of the post-Revolutionary years.

Increased migration to the West followed the War of 1812 and came to a peak in the years 1818-1819 but ending with the panic of 1819. Over 1 million acres of land were sold in 1814, more than in any one previous year. In 1818 and 1819 yearly sales reached 3.5 million acres, but then the figures decreased. During this period, the greatest flow of settlers followed the central route through either Pittsburgh or Wheeling and then down the Ohio River.

Veterans of the War of 1812 led the first real beginnings of settlement in the Detroit area. It was another decade before large-scale immigration occurred in the large Minnesota area. Both Minnesota and Wisconsin attracted persons from New England and New York and an ever-increasing flow of Scandinavians, first to Wisconsin and then to Minnesota and Dakota.

Traders were present in the Far West for many years prior to pioneer settlement by farmers who came into the area primarily from the tier of states which bordered the Mississippi River. Like preceding generations, they were restless, always looking for better lands and opportunity. They brought with them the determination, courage, and willingness to work which had already caused them to play a leading role in American expansion.

The southern portion of the Louisiana Purchase, opened as the Territory of Orleans in 1804, filled first due to the nucleus of French settlement around New Orleans which held promise for economic opportunity. Within two years, 10,000 immigrants arrived, followed by 4,000 more between 1807 and 1809, many of whom in this latter group were French refugees from the West Indies.

Louisiana maintained a heavy French population, but in addition, it attracted southerners as would Texas. Louisiana’s population in 1820 was 150,000. The dominant western city of the 1820s and 1830s was New Orleans. It controlled business of two/thirds of the nation, that part drained by the Mississippi and its tributaries. By 1840 Louisiana had a population of approximately 100,000.

West of the Mississippi the great population center north of Louisiana was the region set aside in 1812 as the Territory of Missouri. Settlers came from both north and south of the Ohio River between 1820 and 1840 and were joined by foreign immigrants, particularly from Germany. Of course the older towns retained large numbers of French Catholics. Missouri and much of the trans-Mississippi West was dominated by the city of St. Louis, even though its population in 1840 was just over 16,000.

Between Missouri and Louisiana was the territory of Arkansas, sparsely populated at first. A military road between Memphis and Little Rock increased development. As states to the East filled, population overflowed into Arkansas.

By 1820 thousands of southerners from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas had settled in what would become Alabama and Mississippi. Mississippi was settled almost exclusively in the southern part. Vicksburg at the mouth of the Yazoo River, and Natchez on the Mississippi River, were centers of population. In Alabama, a sprinkling of farms covered most of the western half, with the greatest concentration in the region of the great bend of the Alabama River. With movement into western Georgia, that state almost doubled in population between 1820 to 1840, but the newer ones, Alabama and Mississippi, increased fivefold. Meanwhile, the Territory of Florida made slow growth, almost entirely in the northern parts of the territory.

By the close of the 1830s, with the paralyzing economic collapse of 1837, farmers of Missouri, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana were ready to seek new homes in the Far West. The Old Southwest area faced an especially difficult economic period. Because of half-finished projects such as railroads and other internal improvements, people were left with staggering debts and heavy taxes. They moved on eagerly, they would face entirely different circumstances and challenges in the desert areas to their west.

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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 wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.