Westward American Migration Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The early migration of American settlers to west of the Appalachian Mountains advanced American industrialization, increased a growing trend toward sectionalism, and ultimately devastated Native American populations.

Summary of Event

One of the great developments in the decade that followed the end of the War of 1812 was the mass migration of tens of thousands of Euro-Americans into the country west of the Appalachian Mountains. However, the West was not created overnight. Even before the American Revolution (1775-1783), American colonists had moved into the middle and upper Ohio River Valley. Ohio River In 1775, Daniel Boone Boone, Daniel and thirty axmen blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap Cumberland Gap and founded the Kentucky settlement of Boonesborough. New settlers followed the Great Valley Road down the Shenandoah Valley Shenandoah Valley to a connection with Boone’s route and from there, continued into Kentucky. To the north, routes such as Braddock’s Road and Forbes’s Road led to the forks of the Ohio River. Ohio River By 1790, the settler population west of the mountains already totaled more than 200,000 people, but the movement had only begun. Westward migration (North America) Frontier, American;and westward migration[Westward migration] [kw]Westward American Migration Begins (c. 1815-1830) [kw]American Migration Begins, Westward (c. 1815-1830) [kw]Migration Begins, Westward American (c. 1815-1830) [kw]Begins, Westward American Migration (c. 1815-1830) Westward migration (North America) Frontier, American;and westward migration[Westward migration] [g]United States;c. 1815-1830: Westward American Migration Begins[0750] [c]Immigration;c. 1815-1830: Westward American Migration Begins[0750] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;c. 1815-1830: Westward American Migration Begins[0750] [c]Transportation;c. 1815-1830: Westward American Migration Begins[0750] Lewis, Meriwether Clark, William

Several forces stimulated men and women to undertake the arduous journey westward. Not the least of these were policies and programs pursued by the federal government. For example, the Harrison Land Act of 1800 Harrison Land Act of 1800 , including subsequent amendments in 1804, reduced the minimum amount of land that one settler could purchase to one-quarter section (160 acres) and the minimum price to $1.64 an acre, thus allowing for more individual purchases. The act also granted credit for four years. Under this act, millions of acres of land were disposed of by the United States.

As important as a liberal land policy in encouraging westward migration in the late eighteenth century was the establishment of security along the frontier. This was effected through both diplomatic and military measures. Jay’s Treaty Jay’s Treaty of 1794[Jays Treaty of 1794] was concluded with Great Britain in 1794, and Pinckney’s Treaty Pinckney’s Treaty (1795)[Pinckneys Treaty] was concluded with Spain in 1795. Through these treaties, the borders Borders, U.S.;with Canada[Canada] with Canada and Florida were settled.

Around the same time, U.S. military campaigns against Native Americans both north and south of the Ohio River led to a temporary lessening of tensions between Indian communities and Euro-Americans. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Adams-Onís Treaty Adams-Onís Treaty (1819)[Adams Onis Treaty (1819)] of 1819 gave the United States title to the Gulf Coast west of the Sabine River, while the campaigns of the War of 1812 War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Native Americans[Native Americans] crushed American Indian military power in the eastern Great Lakes Great Lakes region;Indian tribes region. The exploratory expedition of Meriwether Lewis Lewis, Meriwether Clark, William and William Clark in 1804-1806 was one of the first steps in opening the new lands to settlement and commercial development. With reasonable security thus obtained, the land proved more attractive to potential settlers.

Changes in technology were crucial to the movement westward. One technological development that stimulated western migration was the invention Inventions;cotton gin Cotton gin of the cotton gin in 1793. This device opened up most of the land in the South to the production of upland cotton, which found its major market in the enormous textile Textile industry;and cotton[Cotton] industry that began developing in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Cheap, fertile land to the west and depleted land to the east caused a great shift of cotton production into the trans-Appalachian area between 1815 and 1835.

Shifting U.S. Population Centers, 1790-1890





Another major factor in westward migration was the improvement in transportation methods. The construction of the Erie Canal, which was completed in 1825, reduced the cost of travel, particularly affecting the North. Another development that affected all sections was the invention Inventions;steamboat and rapid exploitation of the steamboat Steamboats;and migration[Migration] . The steamboat enabled the rapid movement of people and goods, which significantly advanced westward expansion. The covered wagon made the movement of families easier, because household goods and farm tools could be transported more efficiently.

All these developments and others gave rise to a new concept of the West. In 1790, about 95 percent of the total American population resided east of the Appalachian Mountains and considered those mountains as their nation’s western frontier. By 1820, the number of Americans living west of the Appalachians had risen to about 20 percent of the national population.

Between 1790 and 1812, four western states were admitted to the union: Kentucky Kentucky;admission to Union in 1792, Tennessee Tennessee;admission to Union in 1796, Ohio Ohio;admission to Union in 1803, and Louisiana Louisiana;admission to Union in 1812. Afterward, new admissions increased more rapidly—Indiana Indiana;admission to Union in 1816, Mississippi Mississippi;admission to Union in 1817, Illinois Illinois;admission to Union in 1818, Alabama Alabama;admission to Union in 1819, and Missouri Missouri;admission to Union in 1821. Michigan and Arkansas were organized into territories in 1805 and 1819.

Contemporary print of a pioneer wagon train passing through a mountain range.

(Library of Congress)

By 1820, the population of the United States was distributed in a vast triangle with its base along the Atlantic Ocean and its apex roughly at the confluences of the Ohio and Missouri Rivers with the Mississippi River. Along both legs of the triangle, people were spilling over—north to the upper Great Lakes and south to the Gulf of Mexico.


Westward migration had momentous social, political, and economic consequences for the nation as a whole. In terms of social disruption, both Native American and African American societies were changed dramatically by the westward movement. By 1812, white settlers were encroaching upon much unceded Indian land. Eventually, several Native American tribes were relocated to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River, thus changing the political and economic history of a large segment of the U.S. population. Many African American families were split when slaveholding white families moved west, taking their slaves with them.

The political consequences included a geographically changed U.S. Congress and a growing sectionalism. For example, by 1820 eighteen new senators in Congress were from the West. No longer could the older regions operate in tandem or in opposition to one another without regarding western interests. The West had become a political force, and westerners were not long in taking advantage of the fact that they were being courted by both the North and South. Politics in the United States assumed an increasingly sectional tone after 1815. This sectionalism made political parties even more important than earlier, because they were the sole vehicles through which national interests could contest with sectional interests. Between 1815 and 1830, there was little apparent difference between the objectives and needs of the Northwest and the Southwest. With the assimilation of the Southwest into a greater and solid South by about 1830, the Old Northwest became even more politically significant.

Economically, the early westward migration was of vast import. New land was brought into production, towns were developed, new market patterns were established, and new industries were created. The opening of the West to Euro-American settlement was an incentive to further movement westward, and wave after wave of migrants passed on, bringing with them newer needs and wants and establishing churches, schools, theaters, and prisons. Whatever was happening politically, the flow into the West of Euro-American and foreign immigrants created that mass consumer demand upon which industry could thrive and out of which the beginnings of a national economy would develop.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billington, Ray A. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: Macmillan, 1967. A classic overview of the migration westward, which includes a section on the early nineteenth century process. Focuses on Euro-American men as the most significant group in the westward migration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hurt, Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1726-1830. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Comprehensive study of the early days of settlement in Ohio.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Limerick, Patricia N. The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. A revisionist view of the migration west that includes the experience of minority groups and women in the migratory process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Riley, Glenda. The Female Frontier: A Comparative View of Women on the Prairie and the Plains. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1988. Analyzes the role of women in the westward movement by looking at several areas of frontier settlement, including the farm areas of the early westward migration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanford, William R., and Carl R. Green. Zebulon Pike: Explorer of the Southwest. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1996. Popular biography of one of the earliest and most important explorers of the American Southwest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Slaughter, Thomas P. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness. New York: Random House, 2003. One of many studies of the Lewis and Clark expedition published in time for the centenary of the expedition. This book offers a revisionist view of the expedition and tries to correct the many myths and legends that surround it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turner, Frederick Jackson. Rise of the New West, 1819-1829. 1906. Reprint. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Remains the basis for study and discussion of the westward migration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wade, Richard C. The Urban Frontier: The Rise of Western Cities, 1790-1830. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959. One of the earliest and most widely read accounts of the significance of urbanization in the westward movement.

Louisiana Purchase

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Pike Explores the American Southwest

Maiden Voyage of the Clermont

American Fur Company Is Chartered

Construction of the National Road

Adams-Onís Treaty Gives the United States Florida

Erie Canal Opens

Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Opens

Mormons Begin Migration to Utah

Lincoln Signs the Homestead Act

Lincoln Signs the Morrill Land Grant Act

U.S. Census Bureau Announces Closing of the Frontier

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Johnny Appleseed; Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; Zebulon Pike; Jedediah Smith. Westward migration (North America) Frontier, American;and westward migration[Westward migration]

Categories: History