The Journey West

The desire to move west was an incredibly important feature of being an American in the 19th century.

Packing the wagon for the journey west

Can you imagine how difficult and dangerous it would be to uproot your whole family and travel into an unknown wilderness? Why would people even risk it? Naturally, different people had different motivations for traveling west, but the common thread was simple and clear: opportunity. The chance for a fresh start, a better life, and the chance to make your own fortune motivated even the most reserved. Forging new territory and expanding our young nation took courage, perseverance and a thirst for prosperity.

A Family Adventure

Westward movement was largely a family enterprise. Only on rare occasions did settlers venture alone into the wilderness. It was not uncommon for many young couples to head west soon after their marriage ceremonies in search of land and opportunity. As a result, many of the first frontier families were large and youthful. However, travelling as a big group – including several young children – posed many obstacles for families. Without airplanes, cars or even railroads (they were few and far between in the 1830s), most families walked, carrying all their possessions in wagons pulled by strong, slow oxen over bumpy, dirt trails.

So, how would families prepare to move west? It was hard for them to know what to expect because the deep forests of the West were very foreign to them. Many travelers wrote home to their families regarding the hardships they faced as they embarked on their quest. They complained most about the harsh, unpredictable weather, terrible road conditions, wild animals and flooding. They were certainly at the mercy of Mother Nature!

Men played very visible roles in settling the West, but women were just as important to pioneer life. Women planted gardens, sewed their family’s wardrobes, and most importantly, kept their families healthy. Most women would learn cures and effective medicinal techniques from their mothers, who learned them from their mothers and so on. Local communities would have been dependent on talented female healers because professional doctors were expensive and often ineffective.

Pioneer families relied on each other and their neighbors to survive in an unknown land. Successful communities popped up quickly throughout the state. As a result, Hoosiers developed a strong sense of optimism and the notion that progress was natural. They fostered bustling vitality and explosive growth on all levels of American Society. It was definitely an exciting time!


Would You Have Moved West?

Would you have wanted to move west if you lived in 1836? How successful do you think you would have been? Ponder the questions below, see if you know the answers. Next time you visit Conner Prairie, be sure to test your own skills in 1836 Prairietown to get a sense of how you would have fared!

1)    Why did Americans begin moving west?
2)    What responsibilities would you have if you were traveling west with your family?
3)    What were some of the obstacles the American settlers faced?
4)    Did settlers moving west generally travel alone or with their families? Why?
5)    What role did women play in everyday pioneer life?
6)    What responsibilities did men have once settled in the west?