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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Case Studies in Migration: Part Seven: Westward Expansion

By C. C. A. Christensen - Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Public Domain,
Manifest destiny was a driving force during the entire 19th Century in the United States. It was widely believed that the expansion of the United States was both justified and inevitable. One phrase that expresses this sentiment is "pushing back the wild frontier." However, conditions in the eastern part of the United States were not always conducive to the settlement of the huge number of immigrants arriving in the United States. This flood of people into the United States culminated during the period from 1880 to 1920 when over 20 million people came from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe. Additionally, until around 1882 when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, there were no restrictions on the numbers of people who could enter the country.

The United States government facilitated the expansion with programs such as the Homestead Act and its successor legislation that gave land to anyone willing to pay a nominal price and build improvements. First, however, the land needed to be acquired by the United States. Here is a map showing the expansion and the time period of addition of each of the states.

By US gov - US gov, Public Domain,
The closing of the "frontier" is generally dated from the time of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. But the expansion of the population of the country into the West began in earnest in the early 1800s. There is no real way to accurately estimate the number of people who crossed the Plains by wagon or by walking or by pulling handcarts, but the number can be seen by the numbers estimated for two of the main trails: the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail.

The Oregon Trail is a 2,170-mile large-wheel wagon route from the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon. It is estimated that beginning in 1839, over 500,000 people emigrated along what became the trail. Another similar trail that followed the same general path came to be known as the Mormon Trail. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been driven from their homes by mobs in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois and fled to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake for protection. The numbers of Church emigrants is a little better documented and the Mormon Pioneer Emigration Facts website indicates that between 1847 when the exodus began and 1868 when the railroad reached Utah, about 60,000 to 70,000 people, usually referred to as pioneers, crossed the Plains in whole or in part in wagons, by walking, or by pulling handcarts.

These were not the only major routes for westward expansion. Here is a short list of the major routes and the dates when they were first established.

For genealogists, these trails and the fact of western expansion become a factor in locating and dating the movements of our ancestors. For example, in my own history, every one of my ancestral families traveled one of the trails to Utah and then some of them to Arizona before the railroads were established.

Of course, if your ancestors were already here in America when the Europeans arrived and had settled in the western part of the United States, you probably have an entirely different view of the idea of manifest destiny and westward expansion. This is a particularly important subject for me since I speak Spanish fluently, studied American Indian languages, and have worked extensively on Latin American and American Indian genealogy.

It is always a good idea for genealogical researchers to have a basic understanding of the movements of their ancestral families. Unfortunately, the subject of westward expansion became highly politicized during the later part of the 20th Century and much of the history has been discredited or rewritten from a political standpoint.

Here are some books for reference about the western expansion of the United States.

Behnke, Alison. A Timeline History of the Trail of Tears, 2015.

Billington, Ray Allen, and Martin Ridge. Westward Expansion a History of the American Frontier. New York; London: Macmillan ; Collier Macmillan, 1982.

Garavaglia, Louis A. To the Wide Missouri: Traveling in America during the First Decades of Westward Expansion. Yardley, Pa.: Westholme, 2011.

Harris, Irene. The Homestead Act and Westward Expansion: Settling the Western Frontier, 2017.

Hudson, John C. Making the Corn Belt: A Geographical History of Middle-Western Agriculture. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Morgan, Robert. Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, 2011.

Morgan, Robert, David Drummond, and Hoopla digital. Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion. United States: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books : Made available through hoopla, 2011.

Olson, Steven P. The Oregon Trail: A Primary Source History of the Route to the American West. New York: Rosen Central Primary Source, 2004.

Otfinoski, Steven. A Primary Source History of Westward Expansion, 2015.

Sandler, Martin W, and Robert Barrett. Who Were the American Pioneers?: And Other Questions about Westward Expansion, 2014.

Torr, James D. Westward Expansion. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 2003.

Wexler, Sanford. Westward Expansion: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1991.

Woodworth, Steven E. Manifest Destinies: America’s Westward Expansion and the Road to the Civil War. New York: Vintage Books, 2011.

Here are links to the previous Case Studies:

Case #1:
Case #2:
Case #3:
Case #4:

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