The Way Westward - Early Migrations 1618-1827
The rapid settlement of the continental United States is one of the most compelling and important themes in American history. An immense region was settled quickly by individuals, families, and small groups of settlers who operated independent from, and sometimes in violation of, official government policy. Usually considered that area where established settlements of civilization meet the untamed wilderness, the frontier continually moved west with the migration of American pioneers who kept pushing open the gateways to “The West."
American westward migration began when the first English colonists came to the New World seeking land and socio-religious freedom. The spread of settlement away from the Atlantic coast pushed the frontier sometimes up to two hundred miles inland by the mid-1700s in the pursuit of inexpensive, arable land.
From Virginia and Maryland, colonists began moving into the interior in pursuit of new land for tobacco cultivation. In 1618, the head right system offered fifty acres to new migrants who contracted to raise tobacco. Also wealthy sponsors paid for the passage of emigrants, fueling a westward flow of land hunters and future tobacco farmers. While vast tracts of land in the tidewater region fell to ownership by an elite class of planter aristocrats, lesser farmers and aspiring landowners migrated farther westward. Outbreaks of conflict with the native inhabitants and tribes interrupted migrations temporarily, but by 1750, Pennsylvanians, Virginians, and Marylanders had successfully established numerous settlements along the entire length of the Potomac River. They entered the Shenandoah Valley and were poised anxiously to cross the Appalachian Mountains into the unclaimed interior of the continent.
In the New England colonies, westward migration followed a similar trend although with different factors including the pursuit of religious moderation from the intolerance of the old established Anglican and Puritan traditions. Another reason for migration was that the rocky soil of tidewater New England was poorly suited for farming. Agricultural practices in New England centered upon the cultivation of subsistence food items, such as wheat and corn, rather than a marketable cash crop like tobacco, so the desire to open new lands to cultivation was no less influential there than in Virginia. Beginning in 1636, with the Reverend Thomas Hooker and his followers, New Englanders moved into the lush Connecticut River Valley spreading westward into more fertile regions of New England. While native resistance to colonial encroachment in New England was fierce, two major conflicts--the Pequot War (1636–1637) and King Philip's War (1675–1676)--destroyed the larger tribal affiliations opening the interior of New England to migrant farmers. By 1750 New Englanders had reached west to New Hampshire and Vermont and stretched settlements north as far as Maine and the Canadian border.
In the middle colonies of New York and Pennsylvania the desire for new land continued to grow although there the confederations of native tribes tried blunt much of the earlier westward flow of American colonists. The powerful Iroquois nations, who inhabited the rich lands from the Mohawk River in northeastern New York to the upper Allegheny watershed in northwestern Pennsylvania, checked colonial expansion into their territory by maintaining a system of satellite tribes, included the Delawares, Shawnees, and Susquehannocks. These occupied a border region between the Iroquois and the colonials. All land sales or political treaties between these dependent peoples and the Americans required Iroquois acquiescence, a consequence of the subservient status forced on these peoples after the Iroquois conquest of many northeastern woodland Indians during the Beaver Wars (c. 1640–1680). The Delawares, however, were a more pacific tribe, and William Penn’s continued efforts of land purchase for the Quaker “empire” provided colonists with new lands in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and the future state of Delaware. In the mid-eighteenth century increasing pressure for land in south-central Pennsylvania forced many Lenapes and Shawnees to cross the Appalachian Mountains into eastern Ohio and a flood of colonial migrants, led by fur traders and land speculators, followed on the heels of these retreating Native peoples.
The westward migration in the lower south, particularly in the Carolinas, developed more slowly until 1718, when a long series of violent Indian wars finally ended. Most migration after that point was driven by the restricted access to western lands in Pennsylvania and New York. During the 1740s and 1750s, migrants from the middle colonies traveled down the Shenandoah Valley and settled in the western portions of present North Carolina. These settlers, many of whom were Scotch-Irish and Germans only recently arrived in America, quickly filled the upland backcountry on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians and began looking for routes of access to the lands beyond the mountains.
The Appalachian Mountains that stretch nearly 1,500 miles from northeastern Alabama to northern Vermont and through which there are few natural passes, hindered early migration into the interior of North America. By 1750, however, colonial fur traders, explorers, and land speculators had begun to cross over the Appalachians and return to eastern communities with tales of vast and rich unclaimed lands to the west.
The first migrants to cross the Appalachians soon discovered that the mountains were not the only obstacles to westward settlement. The migrations of British colonists beyond the mountains was a principal cause of the French and Indian War (1754–1761). In the early 1740s, migrants from Pennsylvania and Virginia advanced claims to the Ohio River valley, a territory the French in Canada considered their own. In 1753 the French launched an initiative to block further American expansion by erecting a line of forts along the upper Ohio River corridor. American colonial efforts to stop the French from building Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River (present Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) began thate final conflict between France and Great Britain for control of North America. The war's effect on the westward movement of American colonists was compelling and most westward migration during the war came to abrupt halt when the Native inhabitants living in the vicinity of present-day Ohio allied themselves with the French and attacked the western fringes of colonial settlement in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland. In some places the frontier of settlement was driven eastward for several hundred miles. Only the capture of Fort Duquesne in 1758 and the subsequent defeat of a coalition in 1763–1764 reopened the trans-Appalachian region to westward settlement.
After the war, migrants crossed the mountains in increasing numbers despite a British 1763 proclamation prohibiting settlement beyond the Appalachians but neither government prohibitions nor army blockades could stop the onrush of settlers pouring west after 1765. Separated by mountain ranges and hundreds of miles from the center of political authority in the East, migrants followed their own designs and ignored government policies which they felt was inconsistent with their interests. The migrations were greatly assisted by two military roads left over from the war: the Braddock Road, which carried migrants from the headwaters of the Potomac River in western Maryland to Pittsburgh; and the Forbes Road, which ran from eastern Pennsylvania to arrive at Pittsburgh. Thus Pittsburgh became a launching point from which thousands of settlers migrated farther west down the Ohio River to settle portions of what are now West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Other routes through the Appalachians were also discovered including the Cumberland Gap, which brought migrants to eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.
By 1775 the frontier had pushed beyond the Appalachian Mountains, but renewed war with Native tribes living in the Old Northwest and the western Carolinas as part of the American Revolutionary War, slowed the strong westward push. However, despite the war, migrants continued to move west -- some to escape the ravages of war along the east coast, but more simply seeking land and opportunity. They settled in the western Carolinas and Kentucky. By the end of the war in 1783, migrants had established settlements and farms in the Old Northwest.
In 1790, the population of the trans-Appalachian region was estimated at over 120,000. The large number of Americans living west of the Appalachians made the management of westward migration a top priority for the new federal government, which hoped to peaceably maintain political authority over its western citizens and allow the settlers to extend the political boundaries of the young nation with their movements. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 offered a solution by providing for the organization of the Northwest Territory and preparing the new territories for statehood. The system successfully managed the steady migration of settlers into the Old Northwest Territory, which eventually became the states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
To further the westaward expansion, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. This immense new territory, a portion of which was explored and mapped by the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806, encompassed much of the interior land between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Northwest. Jefferson believed the Louisiana Territory would provide a key to the future prosperity of the then-agrarian nation by bringing a seemingly endless supply of potential farmland within American territorial borders.
During the War of 1812, Native resistance again slowed migration into the fertile region lying between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River but after the war. thousands of settlers forged westward into the Old Southwest. The system of managed expansion that had proved so successful in the Old Northwest Territory was replicated in the South, and by 1836, several new states, including Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, entered the union.
Technological advances in transportation made a more organized, manageable westward advance possible, and contributed to the rapid settlement of the Midwest. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 provided convenient access for thousands of New England migrants who eventually settled in Michigan, northern Illinois, and Wisconsin. In the south, steamboats assisted countless migrants moving up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers into Arkansas and Missouri, where a staging ground for future migration into the trans-Mississippi West was established at Independence, Missouri, in 1827.