Billington provides a succinct summary of the incentives for westward migration:
"Whether men went west in search of adventure or wealth, they were driven by impulses that failed to motivate their neighbors who stayed behind. In every pioneer there was a touch of the gambler. Those who did not respond to the lure of the frontier were the contented, the cautious, and the secure. Wealth and poverty were not the deciding factors; the cost of migrating kept the very poor at home, while many with fortunes responded to the lure of the setting sun." (America's Frontier Heritage, p. 28).
When Did Migrations Occur?
It is commonly believed that the frontier was a safety valve of the East, which allowed the dispossessed, the unfortunate, the unsuccessful and the unemployed to escape the bad times, to move westward where cheap land was available, and to start farms on their own. This belief is totally ill-founded. Studies of migration show that throughout the 19th century, "the westward moving population tide swelled during good times and diminished in depressed periods when the safety valve should have been operating."
Spiraling prices in the boom eras preceding panics usually wiped out such savings as workers had accumulated, depriving them of the resources needed to move... no rush of artisans to the West occurred in bad times. Nor did philanthropic societies formed to finance the movement of workers to the frontier during depressions play a significant roll... There seems little doubt that very few actual wage earners left Eastern cities to become frontier farmers; the rural frontier was settled largely by experienced farmers or younger sons of farmers, most them from adjacent or nearby areas. (America's Frontier Heritage, p. 33).
Even though, in retrospect, the safety valve theory has been disproved, 19th century pioneers firmly believed in its existence. Many built colonization schemes on the premise that the poor could escape to the frontier to attain great wealth. Likewise, both foreign and Eastern travelers filled their accounts of life in America with stories and words of praise for a "frontier that stabilized society by equalizing economic opportunity as nowhere else in the world." (America's Frontier Heritage, p. 30-31) In any case, there was great optimism and idealism associated with the westward movement, as seen in the words of early travelers and settlers:
Elias P. Fordham, 1817-18 – "Indiana is a vast forest, larger than England, just penetrated in places but the backwoods settlers who are half hunters, half farmers... They are the fields of enterprise, the cradle of freedom, the land of rest to the weary, the place of refuge to the oppressed." (Buley, The Old Northwest, 1:24-25)
Rufus Easton, 1816 – "...there neither is, nor in the nature of things can there ever be, anything like poverty there. All is ease, tranquility and comfort. Every person, however poor, may with moderate industry become in a very short time a land holder; his substanance increases from year to year, his barns are filled with abundant harvests... Truly may it be said of that fortunate and highly favored country, a paradise of pleasure is opened in the wilds." (Buley, The Old Northwest, 1:12)
Origins of the Settlers of Indiana
Settlement of Indiana began initially with trading, commercial, and military outposts. With the gradual removal of tribes of Native Americans, new lands throughout the present boundaries of Indiana were opened to white settlement, beginning with the southern and eastern extremities of the state. As a result, the main lines of migration came from the East and South through states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina; the latter three constituting the region known as the upland south. In Hamilton County, there was a strong Southern influence in the population, as most residents originated in Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, or Tennessee. Most individuals and families, however, had not come directly to Central Indiana, but had resided in southwestern Ohio and southern Indiana before moving to the central Indian region. Thus, in many cases, direct migration to a desired location did not always occur; people took time in migrating to the West, pausing for a year or more in several places before reaching their final destination. While the population of central Indian had strong ties to the South and to Ohio and Pennsylvania, it did not possess strong ties to New England. As stated by Lois Mathews in her book Expansion of New England (1909), "Indiana was never a favorite stopping place for New Englanders, for the Southern element was strong here."