When the first Europeans arrived on the eastern shores of North America, they could scarcely comprehend the vast wilderness that stretched for thousands of miles to the Pacific Ocean far to the west.
The new Americans, however, were not content to stay in one place, as census records show us.
Packing up one’s family and heading off into the unknown must have been a frightening endeavor. We know that the westward migration was fraught with danger: accidents and injuries were common, as were illnesses.
The pioneers encountered Native Americans, many of whom were hostile. The terrain was treacherous, and the weather was unpredictable. In all, the journey could be brutal and deadly. Yet, as much as 40% of the U.S. population participated in the migration, to some degree.
The answer to that question is quite simple.
They felt pulled to the West by some factor or another, or they felt pushed to leave their current home in the East for various reasons. The lure of the West beckoned many pioneers with the promise of untapped resources, fertile land, adventure, freedom, and open spaces. Others migrated to the West to escape poverty, crowded cities, or political or religious persecution.
One of the biggest factors that contributed to the western migration, however, was the idea of Manifest Destiny. The prevailing national attitude of the 1800s, Manifest Destiny, was the belief that the American way of life was destined by God to spread across the North American continent.
To understand why people risked everything to move west in the 1800s, we need to understand Manifest Destiny, as well as the factors that pulled and pushed settlers to join the migration.
Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, H.W. Brands
“A most excellent summation and chronology of our nation’s westward expansion. My favorite history author may have just ‘topped’ himself. Reads like a novel, yet informative, interesting, and captivating.”
– Dr. Stanley Toompas, Amazon review
Start of the Western Migrations
Under President Thomas Jefferson, the United States more than doubled in size after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Jefferson envisioned a healthy American society, growing and expanding westward into the uncharted wilderness.
The American public seemed to agree.
According to census records, less than 10% of American citizens lived west of the Appalachian Mountains in 1800. Two dozen years later, that number increased to 30% of the country’s population.
Throughout the early and mid-1800s, census records show that roughly half of all American citizens moved to new locations from census to census, proving that westward mobility was in full swing.
Manifest Destiny and the Western Migration
In 1845, newspaper publisher John O’Sullivan used a new term — manifest destiny — to describe the prevailing attitude of the day. According to Manifest Destiny, God bestowed special virtues on the American people.
It was the belief that America was destined by God to spread across the entire North American continent. The American people were preordained to settle the western frontier with vast farms and ranches. Manifest Destiny was meant to be, the concept held. It would be wrong to not join the Western Migration, according to the precepts of Manifest Destiny.
Manifest Destiny was used to justify the various wars and conflicts that the United States fought in the early to mid-1800s. These wars, including battles against Native America, as well as the Mexican-American War, were fought to oust non-Americans from lands in the western wilderness.
The American people felt justified in removing the Native Americans from their ancestral lands because they strongly believed that they were acting according to God’s plans.
Related read: 7 Tantalizing Stories of Lost Treasure in Oregon
A Dangerous Journey West
The Western frontier was a dangerous place. There were Native American tribes, many of which were hostile to white settlers. There were swift-moving rivers, dense forests, vast grasslands, brutal deserts, and unforgiving mountains.
Pioneers died crossing rivers or succumbed to deadly thirst in the deserts. Others were killed by bears, rattlesnakes, or wolves. There were no doctors or hospitals in the western wilderness. If someone was injured or fell ill, they could not get medical help.
People died from fevers, infections, and in childbirth.
Related read: 10 Wild West Facts of Everyday Life on the Frontier
The Pull and Push of Western Migration
The dangers of traveling into the west were well known, yet thousands of families and individuals took the risk. They uprooted their families and sold their properties so they could head west into the dangerous unknown.
Why? Certainly, the belief in Manifest Destiny could account for many of the pioneers, but it was only one of the reasons for Western Migration. The other reasons can be divided into two categories: reasons that pulled, or attracted, people to the West, and reasons that pushed them out of the East.
The Pull of the West
America was the land of opportunity, and, for many pioneers, the West held endless possibilities. Looking for a better life, these pioneers envisioned a life of freedom and prosperity in the homesteads they would carve out of the wilderness.
Many of them wanted to raise their children away from the crowded and dirty cities of the east. They also wanted more control over their lives and their futures. As westward pioneers, their success would be tied to their own hard work, determination, and ingenuity — not the whims of their factory bosses.
Following Families West
A good many settlers moved West to join family or friends who had made the journey ahead of them. They probably received letters back from their loved ones detailing the rich resources and fertile land of the West and inviting them to join them on the frontier.
Starting a new life in the unknown land of the west would be easier for a larger group than an individual family, so it was not uncommon for families to travel west to rejoin their loved ones.
Riches & Opportunities of the West
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sparked a mass migration of American settlers. For them, the lure of easy wealth outweighed the perils of the journey itself. Gold was not the only valuable resource.
Silver, copper, and other valuable metals were discovered in the West. Stories of prospectors striking it rich were published in the newspapers back East, making it seem as though immense wealth awaited anyone who traveled west.
In reality, very few people struck it rich during the Gold Rush, but that didn’t stop the waves of people from rushing to California to try their luck.
For many Americans living in the eastern cities in the 1800s, life was boring and tedious. Thomas Jefferson, among others, called the American West a new “Garden of Eden,” full of promise.
Stories and news articles painted life in the West as exciting and adventurous. The West beckoned adventure-seekers. People who wanted the challenge of pioneer life and the opportunity to commune with nature were drawn to the western wilderness.
Aside from the California Gold Rush, perhaps the biggest reason why people migrated to the West in the 1800s was to get free land.
Under the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, any adult could receive a grant for 160-acre homestead parcels west of the Mississippi River, providing they had never taken up arms against the U.S. in the past.
A homesteader only needed to live on the land and improve it for five years and then the government would transfer ownership of the land to the homesteader.
Even women, immigrants, and freed slaves could apply for land.
For African Americans and other oppressed groups, this was the only opportunity for land ownership. According to historical records, about one-fourth of all black farmers owned their own land by the end of the 1800s, thanks largely to the Homestead Act. Nearly ten percent of the United States, more than 1.6 million acres, was given away for free via the Homestead Act.
The Push of the East
For many Americans in the 1800s, the West offered an escape from the drudgery of their lives in the East. They did not necessarily feel drawn to the western frontier so much as they felt pushed out of their current homes for various reasons. They did not want to stay in their present location, and the best option available to them was to head west.
Economic factors were one of the biggest contributing factors.
In the cities of the East, Americans had to compete for jobs and housing with newly arrived immigrants, as well as their neighbors. Good-paying, steady jobs were hard to come by. With no government regulations over the workplace, factory workers toiled in unsafe and horrific conditions, clocking in long hours with no breaks and no days off.
Wages were low, keeping most factory workers living on the edge of poverty. The workers could see that there was little hope for an improvement to their economic situation if they stayed in the East. Their best hope for a brighter future was to move west.
The cities in the East grew rapidly. They were crowded and dirty and, in many cases, riddled with crime. Youngsters were often recruited to work in the factories alongside their parents or were left to roam the streets unsupervised. Families didn’t want to raise their children in such a place. They could not sufficiently improve their surroundings, but they could leave the cities and head west.
Leaving the Troubles of the East
Diseases spread quickly in the crowded cities, especially among factory workers. Doctors often prescribed fresh air and sunshine as cures for various ailments. It was not uncommon for folks to make the move to the West for health reasons and to leave the disease-filled cities behind.
Even though the United States was founded on the principle of religious and political tolerance, discrimination was rampant in the eastern cities of the 1800s. Many pioneers moved to the West to escape religious, political, and social persecution and harassment.
One notable group that fled to the West were the Latter-Day Saints, but they were certainly not the only ones. Catholics and Jews also ventured to the western frontier. Individuals, as well as groups, left the East for these reasons.
People in the West were more tolerant of mixed marriages, spinster women, and ex-cons — those who would not have fit easily into society in the East.
Last, there was an emerging anti-modernization movement growing in the country at the time. As factories grew larger and more machines were brought in, many people blamed the new technology for corrupting the traditional American way of life.
They sought to flee from the evils of modern times and live more simply, and westward expansion offered an escape.
Westward Expansion: Fulfilling Manifest Destiny
With so many Americans moving to the western frontier during the 1800s, the United States realized its goal of spreading the American ideology from sea to shining sea.
For better or worse, Manifest Destiny had been fulfilled.
The Western Migration can be compared to European colonialism, however, as the spread of white settlers came at the expense of many native populations. The end result was a nation that extends from one side of the continent to the other, that has grown wealthy and prosperous thanks to the abundant natural resources of the West.
Read more about life in the Old West:
- Westward Ho: Daily Life on the Oregon Trail
- Register Cliff: Where Pioneer Graffiti Becomes an Historic Time Capsule
- Hope Deferred: 16 Iconic Landmarks on the Oregon Trail
- Prairie Pioneers: True & Inspiring Oregon Trail Stories
- Hell on Wheels History: Rowdy Railroad Towns Across the Plains
- Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West, H.W. Brands
- The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream, H.W. Brands
- Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West, Stephen E. Ambrose
- Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and the Fight for America’s First Frontier, Bob Drury & Tom Clavin
- The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West, Peter Cozzens
by Karen Harris
Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University. A wannabe world traveler, Karen spends her days writing and her nights researching cheap flights to far-off places.