What Drew Americans Westward in the Late 1700s & the Early 1800s?

Crossing Kentucky's Cumberland Gap, pioneers made their way west.
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There’s a very interesting statistic that historians call “persistence rates,” which reflect the number of people who remain in place from one census to the next. In early 19th-century America, over one-half of people in one location had moved 10 years later. Many of these people went to the West – 10 percent of Americas lived west of the Appalachians in 1800, 30 percent in 1824 – and they had varied reasons for doing so.

1 Moving Beyond the Appalachians

Americans began turning westward around the time of the Revolutionary War, when permanent white settlements began to be established in Kentucky, although hunters and fur traders had long traversed the wild lands beyond the Appalachians. After the war, a wave of eastern Americans flooded the Ohio River Valley. The very first reason these Americans went to the West was the promise of cheap and abundant land, compared to the worn-out and overpriced fields that could be found in the East. Especially in the South, there was a serious decline in soil fertility due to poor land management and agricultural techniques.

2 Land Speculation

Knowing this, land speculators who had bought land (illegally) from Indians and set up settlements in the wilderness, drew settlers west with promises of rich and fertile farmland. Many of the new settlers themselves bought up land in large lots in order to sell it to settlers who came later. For another reason people came west was that those who had come before them wrote to family and friends begging them to join them in the wilderness. .

3 Escaping the Crowds

Another reason for moving west was overcrowding. As the population increased, more and more people fought for space. Family-owned farms could only be divided in so many ways, which drove new generations west in what would become known as the "Great Migration" of the first two decades of the 19th century. Young couples tended to move west and raise large families to help them with the labor needed for agriculture. People also headed westward because the East was changing too rapidly for some – industrialization was replacing the traditional handicrafts with which generations had found economic security. In order to escape that, settlers moved west and set up the type of cottage industries to which they had been accustomed.

4 A Nation of Westward Expansion

Americans also moved west at this time because their government made it possible and desirable for them to do so. The British were severely weakened in the Ohio Valley after their defeat in the Revolutionary War, even though the Indians who had been their allies remained a dangerous foe of the settlers. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 signaled President Thomas Jefferson’s desire for westward settlement and expansion. Americans moving west understood this spirit of optimism and it helped drive them on.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.