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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 ($).

Waves of American Migration

By comparison to 20th century rural-to-urban movement, the early migrations were largely rural-to-rural. Just prior to the American Revolution, about 95 percent farmed; by 1850 only 60 percent did. Moreover, the primary direction of migration was unquestionably west, to lands of lesser population and greater promise. The significance of America’s open land is highlighted by Robert E. Riegel and Robert G. Athearn, in their volume, America Moves West (5th edition, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), 1-2.

For approximately three hundred years after the first English settlement at Jamestown the irresistible attraction of land somewhere “beyond” pulled Americans westward. As they conquered the frontier, plowed their fields, and built their cities, they wrote the American story... The American frontier movement was part of a much larger development, one that was launched from western Europe and fanned out across the entire western hemisphere. Just as the European impact influenced hemispheric development and was in turn affected by the flood of resources discovered in the new lands, so the vast and seemingly illimitable domain that lay before the colonists along the Atlantic seaboard molded the kind of nation that was to grow in the latitudes between the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel.

Chronologically, we should note that there were several periods of heavy migration within continental America. In a lecture entitled, “Migration Patterns to the Midwest,” (8 October 1983) Gary Boyd Roberts outlined six distinct migration waves prior to the twentieth century.

1. New England: filling up of western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

2. Quakers in the 18th century: Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia, Virginia, North Carolina, later on to Ohio and California.

3. Pre- and Post-Revolutionary War: trek North to Vermont, inland New Hampshire, Maine, and Nova Scotia before crossing the mountains.

4. Great 19th century western trek: began shortly after Revolutionary War, and especially in the period 1795-1820, then continued dramatically.

5. By way of Connecticut to New York: tycoons on Wall Street.

6. Post Civil War: to Texas and the Southwest to make money or to Charleston and Savannah for health reasons.

Initially, the desire for land was what spurred a move to new frontiers. But as the importance of agriculture began to die out, people moved to booming cities where they could find jobs in industry. With this transition from a rural way of life to the more urbanized form came a change in timing of migration within the life and family cycle. As families became smaller, migration rates declined. Another characteristic was that decisions made early in the history of a family influenced the life-styles and fortunes of descendants, even in a society as mobile and as much in need of labor as America.

In the 1920s many blacks from the South took advantage of job opportunities in Northern factories; this was brought about by the National Origins Acts which effectively reduced the number of foreign immigrants, causing a labor shortage.

Since the 1960s there have been significant migrations to the South and to the West. Retirees have flocked to the South, seeking a lower cost of living and preferring the more temperate climates. People went West for the climate and quality of life.

During the last decade, a contrasting population shift has begun to take place—rural counties are attracting families from urban areas. Whereas in most of the 20th century, families in rural America were larger than those in cities, today fewer rural counties are raising large families. (Brad Edmondson and Matthew Klein,“A New Era for Rural America,” Encyclopedia Britannica, read online 3 December 2001.) Previously published in hard copy (September 1997).

A second article from American Demographics suggests that economics was the driving force that caused young rural adults to flee to the cities. Today’s motivation for leaving the cities seems to be based on a desire to be surrounded by natural beauty and the wish for a good and peaceful life, although hopefully within the bounds of economic safety. This trend now crosses age lines with its appeal. It is also interesting to note that virtually all of the growing rural counties are located in western states. (Glenn Thrush, “Something in the Way We Move,” American Demographics, read 3 December 2001. Previously published in hard copy (November 1999).

Roots & Routes ― An Overview

“Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” This statement, attributed to Charles Kuralt, causes us to pause and consider paths previously taken! The roads of yesteryear left so much to be desired; they were either muddy, swampy, or dusty, narrow with stumps reaching up to hinder the way. But over those roads and up and down the rivers, came our ancestors either singly or as a family or in groups. Always, as we find them settling in their final homes, we wonder from whence they came!

The earliest European settlements in America were concentrated on the Eastern shore. As the population grew, people migrated westward in pursuit of available land. The transportation routes they took were determined by a combination of geography and historical events.

The process of white expansion followed an almost stereotypical historic process—whites entering Indian country, racial friction, war, Indian land cessions, and finally white land acquisition under federal land laws.

Originally, travel was by boat along the ocean shore or on the rivers and lakes. Trails made first by buffalo and Indians evolved into well-traveled primitive roads, usually suitable only for pedestrian traffic or pack animals. Over time, roads were constructed, often for either postal or military use, then improved for wagon traffic for commerce and the transport of migrating pioneers. Road and river travel improved throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

In colonial days, the Boston Post Road was the lifeline of the colonies. It extended from the New England states to New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and then into the South. Additional north-south roads came into being plus a few east-west connecting links.

The Indian threat west of the Appalachian Mountains posed a major barrier to pioneers leaving the original thirteen colonies. After the French and Indian War, the British attempted to restrict settlement west of the mountains with the Proclamation of 1763. It set a line beyond which colonists were not to move, but in reality, the Indians and the British occupied the west side of the line along with many premature settlers who, desirous of new land and opportunity, crossed over at several locations. Two passes led directly into this desirable interior—at the northern Mohawk River valley and at the Cumberland Pass into Kentucky in the South.

After the American Revolution, new settlers in the Ohio/Mississippi Valleys sought improved transportation to enable them to ship their goods to market. In the early 1800s, the federal government launched the building of a National Road which eventually spanned the distance from the East almost to the Mississippi River.

By 1825 the entire area east of the Mississippi River had been carved into states except for the territories of Wisconsin and Michigan.

Due to improvements in transportation, travel time was cut in half between 1800 and 1830. One of the most significant early routes to the Old Northwest was New York’s Erie Canal. It opened in 1825, extended from Albany to Buffalo, New York, linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Its success set off a canal building era in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and to a lesser extent some other states. The arrival of the railroads in the period 1860 to 1880 brought an end to the canal era.

Meanwhile, in the early South, desire for large plantations moved persons into what is now Alabama and Mississippi. War with Mexico led to a surge into the Southwest from several directions. Then came the Overland Trails to the Far West, spurred on by the California Gold Rush and other events. Sailing ships became alternate routes to California at the height of the Gold Rush.

Throughout this course, we will note specific trails, roads, rivers, canals, and railroads. We’ll also given attention to the composition of distinctive groups who traveled those transportation routes.

Persons who want a marvelous in-depth historical study of America’s Westward expansion are directed to a classic volume on the subject, available in many libraries. This account covers frontiers in America from early settlement through the 19th century. It includes an extensive bibliography. Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge,Westward Expansion, A History of the American Frontier, 5th edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.,) 1982.

Was There a ‘Typical’ Migrant?

Today, people often leave home before marriage or move when their children are young. Early New England families who moved were most often in middle and old age. The rural middle class rate of migration was three times that of the rich, and poor persons rarely traveled more than 100 miles. Among farm families, migration didn’t destroy the nuclear family; rather, long-distance moves seemed frequently to come after the grandfather’s death. What often happened then was that a middle-aged farmer would put his share of his father’s estate together with proceeds from the sale of his first farm and then seek cheaper frontier land that he and his sons could then develop as a source of future financial gain. This pattern changed somewhat as families began to rely less on the sale of land at home and more on the ability to make a living based on education or an apprenticeship to a trade.

Pioneers moving to the West were of all ages and both sexes, but in the opinion of Riegel and Athearn, (America Moves West, 110), the greatest single element was young men, traveling alone or in small groups.

Such a man might be sufficiently lucky to be able to buy a farm immediately, after no more than a brief exploratory trip. More likely he possessed only a few dollars and planned to do farm work, storekeeping, boating, trapping, surveying, schoolteaching, or some other work until he acquired needed capital. Although he might squat on unsurveyed land, he still needed capital to purchase supplies, animals, implements, and seed. Before setting up as an independent farmer, he might well return to the East to marry his boyhood sweetheart. A frontier farmer’s wife was a person to love and cherish, but also a needed companion and co-worker on the farm.

John W. Adams and Alice Bee Kasakoff reported in one of their studies, “The hopes and energy of youth provide the impetus to move early in life; wealth is the motivator in middle age. But in all cases, the likeliest moments to move seem to come at those times in the life cycle when the dependency relationships change in a person’s family. If there is a destiny in history, it takes shape at these moments.” “Anthropology, Genealogy, and History: A Research Log,” in Generations and Change: Genealogical Perspectives in Social History, Robert M. Taylor, Jr. and Ralph J. Crandall, editors. (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press), 1986.

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.