Western Immigration

Author: David G. Vanderstel

"The condition of the people of America is so different from aught that we in Europe have an opportunity of observing... They are great travellers, and in general better acquainted with the vast expanse of country, spreading over their eighteen states... than the English with their little island. They are also a migrating people, and even when in prosperous circumstances, can contemplate a change of situation, which under our old establishments and fixed habits, none, but the enterprising, would venture upon, when urged by adversity."

(Morris Birkbeck, Notes on a Journey in America London; 1818, p. 34)

Migration has been an important force in the development of America. Ever since the English settled along the banks of the James River in 1607, subsequent generations have looked beyond the boundaries of their settlements to the unsettled regions of the west. These people realized that the advancement of their civilization was dependent upon a continuous supply of mobile humans who were willing to pack their belongings and their families, to relocate to another part of the continent, to transplant their culture, and to resume life in a new environment. Since the American nation was founded and developed on the basis of this westward orientation and on a belief that God had predestined the American people to fill the nation to its natural boundaries, one can easily conclude that migration has been, and continues to be to this day, a distinct characteristic of America and its people, so much so as to earn the population the title of a "People in motion."

In examining the geographical and residential status of early 19th-century Americans, historians have discovered "persistence rates" (or the percentage of those individuals who remain in one location from one census enumeration to the next) of approximately 30% to 50%. This meant that well over one-half of the population found in one location at a given time could not be found in that same location ten years later, thereby indicating a highly mobile population. A good example of this movement can be seen in the changing distribution of populations in the western regions:

1800 - 10% of all Americans resided west of the Appalachian Mountains, primarily in Tennessee, Kentucky, and the area of West Virginia.

1824 - 30% of all Americans resided in the region between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, with increased movement further west into unsettled territories.

Likewise, the rapid growth of state and territorial populations reveal the great movement of the American people into the opening Western lands:

Boone Cumberland






1.4 mil

The frontier in modern times can be defined as "a geographic region adjacent to the unsettled portions of the continent in which a low man-land ratio and unusually abundant, unexploited natural resources provide an opportunity for social and economic improvement to the non- or small-propertied individual."(Billington, America's Frontier Heritage, p.25). But to the pioneers of the early 19th century, the "frontier" was more commonly defined as the border between the settled and unsettled regions.

Frontier historian Ray Allen Billington claimed that the "frontier" moved at a rate of 10 to 40 miles per year, and that during the 1830s and 40s, land and other commercial agents could be found 1,000 miles ahead of the frontier towns of the Mississippi Valley, indicating the anticipated growth of the nation in the coming years.

When discussing the westward migration of people, one must consider three major points:

  1. Migration did not occur in orderly fashion. All people did not choose to move at the same time nor to the same location. Pioneers decided to migrate and to settle where they believed they would best continue their traditional ways of life and thought and still seek new opportunities and improvement of lifestyle. (Several immigrant and religious groups decided to migrate and resettle together in an effort to preserve and to perpetuate their culture and beliefs with which they were accustomed and to escape the force of Americanization that accompanied contact with the American population.
  2. Migration was a selective process: not everyone pulled up stakes in the East pushed into the open western lands. Migration was primarily a personal decision, dependent upon a variety of factors:age of the head of household; economic status; personal attitudes; and projected costs and benefits of the resettlement.
  3. Westward migration was not an easy proposition, despite the romanticization in literature and idyllic fashion removal to and settling in a new region posed numerous problems for the pioneers, as described by R.C. Buley in his work, The Old Northwest:
Homesteader 1866

"As the earlier settlers came into the region north of the Ohio, they were confronted with two sets of problems: the one concerned with shelter, food, health, and protection - things vital and immediate to the individual and his family; the other with ownership of land, transportation, and currency - things necessary for his economic advancement. Without the successful solution to the first, there was little need to worry about the second; with the beginning of progress on the second it became possible to think of schools, churches, cultural societies, humanitarian reform and the development of institutions which mark social accomplishment."

Incentive for Migration

The incentives for migration were many and varied since each person responded to factors which either repelled him from his old home or attracted him to a new location: transportation, both the means and the routes, seemed to be of minor concern to the pioneer. Both types of forces likely affected each migrating individual to a different extent, but it was ultimately left to the individual himself to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of migration and to decide whether to remain in his present location for the sake of security and stability or to move in order to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Expelling Forces

  1. Lack of economic success
  2. Changing means of making a living - increased mechanization affected hand/skilled crafts
  3. Overcrowding - Timothy Dwight noted in the late 18th century that New Englanders "having large families and small farms, are induced, for the sake of settling their children comfortably, to seek for new and cheaper lands." (Travels in New England and New York 1821-22, 2:458)
  4. Uncongenial social, political, cultural, and/or religious atmosphere
  5. Belief that processes of urbanization and industrialization were corrupting people and hindering the proper raising of children

Attracting Forces

  1. Hope for economic improvement - "this is a land of plenty, but we are proceeding to a land of abundance." (M.Birbeck, Notes of a Journey in America, p.32)
  2. Adventure and lure of nature - the wilderness possessed a certain mystique which led many people to believe that America was the new "Garden of Eden." Thomas Jefferson believed that contact with nature led to a virtuous life and, therefore, he idealized the yeoman farmer and his sacred plow. (see Virgin Land by Henry Nash Smith)
  3. Correspondence with friends and families who had migrated before - It was very common for recent migrants to write to family and friends back home to report on their journeys and their successes (or lack thereof) in their new homes. In most cases, these letters included both subtle and outright requests for the recipient of the letter and his/her family to travel to the West in order to join the writer in his community:"I would not press anyone to come but I will say they cannot provide so comfortable for their families in England as they can here with any given capital... but my earnest wish is, to see all that I love and respect in this land of liberty where untythed...and almost untaxed they might enjoy the fruit of their labour..." (John Ingle, from Princeton, Indiana to England, Aug. 28, 1818)"...if any of my friends come out they will have a better chance than I had at first. A person in whom you can confide and who knows something of the country can be of infinite service." (John Ingle, from Princeton to England, Nov. 18, 1818)
    "For my own part I am well satisfied with my removal and so is my wife, and I assure you we have not the least wish to return to the land of our nativity. That we should be glad to see you is natural..." (Ingle, Saundersville, Indiana to England, Feb. 14, 1821)
  4. The abundance of and great availability of land was probably the strongest attracting factor. For example, with the signing of the Treaty of St Mary's in 1818, by which much of the native American population agreed to move from Central Indiana, nearly 8.5 million acres were opened to white settlement. One Connecticut farmer also noted:"Our lands being thus worn out, I suppose to be one reason why so many are inclined to remove to new places that they may raise wheat. As also that they may have more room, thinking that we live too thick."

While it was true that western lands were somewhat more fertile than the now-depleted lands of the East, many of the pioneers were attracted to the frontier in order to speculate in land, i.e. to purchase large quantities of cheap government land and to sell it at a profit to later comers. (Billington, America's Frontier Heritage, p. 44). So, the West truly embodied the promise of wealth and affluence for the pioneer.

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?

traveling west

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 Indiana 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."

500 Farmers Wanted

Foreigners also constituted a portion of the migrating population. English, Scotch, Irish, German, and other immigrant groups came to America to seek new opportunities in the vast western lands. However, the massive migration of these groups from Europe did not occur until the late 1840s, so these ethnic groups did not contribute to the initial settlement of central Indiana.

Primary Routes of Migration

Up to the early 1760s, westward migration was contained by the Appalachian Mountains and legal provisions which forbade movement beyond. In time, the Wilderness Road in Kentucky became the primary "highway" for early migrations to the west.

By 1800, the Ohio River had emerged as an important route, especially if the migrants lived within reach of its many tributaries. Consequently, migration could occur from the northeast by following the Allegheny River to Fort Pitt, the Ohio River to Cincinnati and the southeastern corner of the Indiana Territory (see travel accounts of the Mace family).

Completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Ohio Canal in 1832 also facilitated access to western lands. The Schramm family, immigrants from Germany, left New York for Indiana in 1835, arriving twenty days later. They traveled up the Hudson River to Albany by steamboat, to Buffalo by canalboat, to Cleveland by steamboat, to the Ohio River by canalboat, and then by river boat to Cincinnati, completing their trip to Indiana by rough wagon ride over Indiana roads.

Even though river traffic was in full swing, overland routes were not abandoned. The Federal Government wished to improve transportation with the National Road which would run from Baltimore to the Mississippi River. Other trails and roads were utilized in the westward migration, however, many of them were extremely primitive and treacherous, which prolonged the trip west. Numerous travel accounts describe the impassable roads, the dense forests and the "cleared" roads spotted with fifteen inch tree stumps.

wilderness road


It is quite clear that the American people have been a "people in motion" ever since the initial colonization of the continent. While statistics of state populations indicate the degree of growth, the best testimony on the extent of this mobility has come from the numerous travelers who visited the United States, most of whom concluded that mobility was a unique trait that distinguished Americans from Europeans. One Englishman wrote that "Americans are a travelling people."

Charles Dickens saw the West as peopled by a vast human army, consisting of people who had dedicated their lives to leaving home after home behind.

Oregon Trail

The westward-moving population ultimately could be explained by the quest for cheap land and natural resources, economic opportunities, more amenable living conditions for families and self-improvement.

"Old America seems to be breaking up and moving westward," wrote Morris Birkbeck in 1817. Likewise, Henry Fearon noted in his Sketches of America (1818) that "The American has always something better in his eye, further west; he therefore lives and deis on hope, a mere gypsy in this particular."

Finally, while pioneer life was one of movement and adaptation, pioneer life was also one of transplanting culture. Americans did not become totally new creatures in the western wilderness, as many have assumed. Rather, the pioneers relied on the familiar past, holding on to those things which they cherished and valued in an attempt to establish and develop a "community" in the newly opened lands of the American West.