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Major Migrations of the U.S. Population, Conquest of the West

transcontinental railroads, freed African Americans, annexation of Texas, Westward Movement, westward migration

Native Americans were forced onto reservations to make way for settlers moving west looking for more land. The Westward Movement began even before the Revolution. Colonial British America consisted mainly of settlements stretching along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Georgia. By 1760 colonists wanted more land. They moved north into what would become the states of Maine and Vermont and crossed the Appalachian Mountains to settle in western Pennsylvania, northwestern New York, and Kentucky. The Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes region also attracted thousands of settlers in the early 19th century.

Those who chose to move west were hardy. They coped with accidents, disease, and malnutrition on their journeys. They also faced occasional revenge attacks by Native Americans who had managed to survive the U.S. Army, disease, and hunger. Settlers sold their property and possessions to finance their trips and buy enough seed and food to last at least a year, and they hoped to have enough money left to acquire land. Those without sufficient money squatted on land; that is, they illegally lived on unoccupied land, constantly moving west to keep ahead of the speculators and banks that owned legal title to the land.

Migrating Americans tended to move straight west, rather than traveling northwest or southwest. New Englanders settled in the upper Midwest and northern plains, while New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians moved to the Ohio valley and lower Great Lakes, and then to Iowa, Nebraska, and beyond. People from Virginia and North Carolina headed for Kentucky and Tennessee and later to Arkansas and Missouri. Carolinians and Georgians moved further west in the Deep South, to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Texas attracted settlers from both the upper and lower South.

The settlers in the West replicated the settlement and cultural patterns of their original homes along the seaboard. Those from the North developed small farms, growing food for home consumption and to sell at market. They generally relied on the family’s labor or hired seasonal labor, and they practiced craft-based trades. They quickly established towns and cities—centers of commerce, education, and production—and by the early 19th century these towns and cities were becoming industrialized, as were their eastern counterparts.

Southerners who moved west primarily planted single cash crops, at first tobacco and rice, but later cotton became the dominant crop. They preferred large-scale plantations, with a permanent labor force of slaves. Since they exported much of their crop to English textile mills in return for finished goods, they did not need many craftspeople. Towns were smaller and cities fewer, and industrialization lagged well behind the North. The different economies and societies of the westward-expanding North and South set the stage for a divided country, eventually culminating in the American Civil War of the 1860s. Early conflicts took place where North and South met in the West—particularly in Kansas and in California.

Settlers began to move west of the Mississippi River in large numbers after the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the discovery of gold and silver in the western mountains. The California gold rush of 1849 spurred California's population increase—from 14,000 in 1848 to 100,000 a year later. By 1860 its population was 380,000. After the Civil War thousands of newly freed African Americans moved to Texas and Oklahoma, and Mexican Americans migrated west along the southern border of the United States from Texas and New Mexico into Arizona and southern California. Large numbers of Canadians moved southwest into the western United States while Americans settled in western Canada, as people in both nations sought the most fertile lands.

Thousands of Europeans headed west as well during the 19th century, particularly after transcontinental railroads made travel easier. Germans and Scandinavians migrated to the upper Midwest, then to the plains and the Pacific Northwest. The British tended to settle in Utah and along the West Coast. Smaller groups of Russians, Ukrainians, and Italians also added to the diversity of the West. Not all movement was east to west. Thousands of Chinese and Japanese, lured by economic opportunity, headed east across the Pacific Ocean and settled in the American West, particularly in California. A gold rush in the Klondike that started in 1896 drew thousands to Alaska, some of whom stayed. By the turn of the 20th century the West was populated with people from the eastern United States, Europe, and Asia, while the native population was confined to reservations. Except on the reservations, the population of the West continued to grow through the 20th century, especially after the automobile made travel easier.

Although westward migration continued, growth was not uniform. Some areas of the northern plains, as well as some mining and logging districts, began losing population in the 20th century because of economic changes or resource depletion. Mining towns became ghost towns throughout the West as ore ran out or as overseas competition made mines unprofitable. The largest of these emigrations from former frontier areas occurred during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, when overuse of the land combined with drought to cause severe erosion of the Great Plains, and farmers from the plains moved to the West Coast. The loss of population in the plains continued through the end of the 20th century, as larger agribusinesses that required less labor replaced small farms.



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