Westward expansion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Except during the colonial period, foreign immigrants did not constitute a majority of those settling the western fringes of the expanding United States. Still, many did arrive during the nineteenth century, bringing unique traditions and aiding in the economic development of the regions they pioneered.

In settling western lands, immigrants added their numbers and energies to the cause of American nation building, but they also sought their own dreams and interests in the American hinterlands. More often than not, their goals were economic–whether desire for wealth or, more commonly, sufficient land or income to ensure a family competency and economic security for children. Others sought an escape from religious, ethnic, and political oppression, and a few saw the “virgin” West as the perfect place for building the world anew and realizing lofty social and spiritual visions. These sundry goals were not necessarily mutually exclusive.Westward expansionFrontier;and westward expansion[westward expansion]Westward expansionFrontier;and westward expansion[westward expansion][cat]AGRICULTURAL WORKERS;Westward expansion[cat]PUSH-PULL FACTORS;Westward expansion[cat]LAND;Westward expansion[cat]MEXICANIMMIGRANTS;Westward expansion[cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;Westward expansion[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;Westward expansion

Colonial Origins

Appropriately, the history of American westward expansion and American immigration begin together. The westward expansion of Europe across the Atlantic necessarily involved immigration, for all who came were strangers to the New World.

By the mid-sixteenth century, several countries had established claims as well as a physical presence in North America. The colonial populations of the non-English colonies were never large, but some of them were surprisingly diverse. That of New SwedenNew Sweden numbered only about three hundred men, women, and children when it was absorbed by the Dutch in 1655, and many of these “new Swedes” were the very Finnish immigrants;architecture ofFinnish Architecture;Finnishfarmers whom some scholars credit with introducing log architecture to North America. New NetherlandNew Netherland had a population of about five thousand in 1660, and thanks to Dutch religious tolerance, it was even more diverse. French Huguenots, English Puritans, Flemings, Walloons, Scandinavians, Germans, and Jews (altogether, about half the population) rubbed elbows with Dutch settlers and African slaves.

The British North American colonies and their peoples proved numerically superior and ultimately prevailed over their competitors. The majority of their inhabitants were English. About 60.9 percent of those living in the future United States on the eve of the American Revolution were of English origin. They came for different reasons. During the seventeenth century, the average English immigrant to this “New West” was poor, single, and male. They responded more to the push factors at home than to the pull factors of an uncertain existence in the United States.

Economic woes and a growing population in England meant that many desperately poor men preferred to risk the life of an Indentured servitudeindentured servant in North America (where they might one day acquire land) rather than live as a beggar at home. Those who came to New England during the same century–especially during the Great Migration of the 1630’s–were a very different set. Usually from an economically independent middle-class background, these English immigrants came in family groups. While profit was not unimportant to them, economics was not their sole purpose for immigrating. They were religious dissenters who, despairing of purifying the English Church of extrabiblical corruptions, wished to build an exemplary Christian commonwealth in the wilderness.

As economic conditions in England improved during the eighteenth century, fewer English people thought the journey to the colonies worthwhile. Their place was mostly taken by large numbers of Scottish immigrantsScots, Scotch-Irish immigrants[Scotch Irish immigrants]Scotch-Irish, Germans, and others. Germans, who began entering Pennsylvania (where they would become the Pennsylvania Dutch“Pennsylvania Dutch”) during the 1680’s and who continued migrating there well into the eighteenth century, would come to constitute about 8.7 percent of the colonial population. Most came from the Rhineland, from whose demographic pressures, economic woes, wars, and authoritarian princes they fled. They were also encouraged by colonial promoters. The Scotch-Irish, so often identified with the frontier in American history, were mostly the descendants of Protestant Lowland Scots and northwestern English border folk who had been transplanted to Ulster as tenants in seventeenth century. In response to push factors such as rising rents and pull factors such as promotional literature, many moved to the Pennsylvania frontier during the eighteenth century. From there they pushedsouthward into the Great Valley of the Appalachians, from which they and their descendants would later move into the trans-Appalachian West. In this great and piecemeal migration, they were joined by Germans, English, and others.

Trans-Appalachian West

Most late colonial and early national migration into the lands beyond the Appalachians was international in character. The descendants of colonial America’s first immigrants–and these included many slaves of African descent–were the rank and file of American westering. There were exceptions to this rule. Some exceptions were relatively small, such as those French immigrants who chose homes in KentuckyKentucky and elsewhere in the West during the turbulence of the French RevolutionFrench Revolution and Napoleonic WarsNapoleonic Wars. Other exceptions were unusual: planned communities, for example, such as that founded by a communal sect of German pietists at Indiana;New HarmonyNew HarmonyNew Harmony, Indiana, in 1814. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, there were mass movements of immigrants into trans-Appalachia. These were largely restricted to the Midwest.

During the 1840’s, Europeans began flooding into the Old Northwest. Norwegians, Irish, and others came, but Germans were the most numerous. Wisconsin;German immigrantsWisconsin and especially Milwaukee–whose culture and beer still owe something to this mass migration–was a favored destination for Germans arriving in New York during this period. By 1850, foreign-born residents in Wisconsin actually outnumbered native-born Americans by 107,000 to 63,000. Settlement continued during the 1850’s and after the U.S. Civil War, bringing Belgian immigrantsBelgians and new Scandinavian settlers in addition to preexisting streams of immigration. Poles, Czechs, and other Slavs came as well, but they mostly gravitated toward Chicago. Nearly all immigrants to the South during this period were city-bound–principally to New Orleans. Excluding these urban populations, by 1860 around 10 to 15 percent of the population of trans-Appalachia was foreign-born.

Push-pull Push-pull factors[push pull factors]factors worked in tandem to bring this flood of foreigners into the trans-Appalachian West. Guidebooks and other literature were freely available in Europe during the nineteenth century. These touted America–and especially its extensive, newly opened lands–as a place of unlimited opportunity. Positive letters from friends and family members already living in the United States also fanned the ardent desire of many Europeans to emigrate. If they required a bit of push, they had only to look at the world of uncertainty and flux around them. In 1845, the population of Europe had increased about 80 percent since 1750. Arable lands were at a premium–and this was especially true of Norway, where only 3 to 4 percent of the land was tillable. Industrialization had displaced many, including skilled artisans–and this process was nowhere more sharply felt than in Germany. Political upheavals drove many away. The failed Revolutions of 1848;Germanyrevolutions of 1848, for example, were an especially potent factor in driving Germans across the Atlantic. The potato famine that stalked Ireland and fueled emigration from its shores also affected many on the Continent.

Trans-Mississippi West

Postwar migration beyond the Mississippi RiverMississippi River displayed similar patterns. Germans, for example, continued to be a dominant immigrant group. Large numbers of them settled the plains–especially Texas and the upper Midwest. They were joined by Scandinavians, the greatest number of whom were Norwegians, but they were accompanied by many Swedes and Danes as well. By 1914, some 2 million Scandinavians had come to the United States, mostly to the North DakotaSouth DakotaDakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin;Scandinavian immigrantsWisconsin, and NebraskaNebraska. Slavs, especially Czechs, immigrated in great numbers, too. Many settled in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, but a number of them also chose the rural frontier. Nebraska especially was a popular destination. These immigrants were joined on the plains by German MennonitesMennonites from Russia, Irish ex-laborers, and European Jews. The latter founded more than forty farming colonies in the trans-Mississippi West between 1881 and 1915.Beginning in the 1880’s, new agricultural frontiers were reached when the push of transcontinental railroads opened the fecund valleys of the Pacific Northwest to both native-born American and foreign migration. A number of specialist Agricultureagriculturalists, including Italian and French Wine industryvintners and Armenian immigrantsArmenian fig and date farmers, were drawn to the valleys of California.

Not all newcomers to the West were tillers of the soil. After the U.S. Civil War, Basque immigrantsBasque immigrants took up sheepherding beyond the Rockies, and by the last decades of the century, men from many nations were engaged in the logging industry of the Pacific Northwest. San Francisco itself was a great locus of immigration. By 1880, 50 percent of its people had been born abroad. Western mines invited foreign laborers, too. Cornish immigrantsCornish men, for example, toiled in Utah;minesUtah’s lead mines, while Croats, Slovenian immigrantsSlovenes, and Serbs dug for Coal industrycoal in Montana;coal industryMontana. British, Italians, Mexicans, Greeks, Irish, and many others also chased livelihoods by various means in the trans-Mississippi West.

Nonwhite immigration to America occurred for the first time on a large scale during the settlement of the Far West. About 300,000 Chinese came to the United States between 1848 and 1882, where they labored in western cities, mined for western minerals, and built western railroads. By the mid-1890’s, Japanese immigrants were entering the western United States in significant numbers. Most worked as agricultural laborers–especially in California–but some also worked on the railroads and in other occupations. Because of their race and their perceived threat to free, white labor, both Chinese and Japanese immigrants faced bitter nativist opposition and, finally, official federal policies of discrimination.

Pioneer family working their way west during the mid-1880’s.

(Getty Images)

As was the case with the colonial and trans-Appalachian frontiers, most people came to the trans-Mississippi West in the name of socioeconomic betterment. Promotional literature–sometimes distributed by purely speculative government or private concerns, and at other times by companies of immigrants eager to draw their countrymen to the New World–circulated widely and praised the manifold opportunities in the United States. Agents sometimes recruited abroad, and news from friends and family already in the United States continued to be a potent factor. Some immigrants–including many Chinese–did not come to stay, but to work toward “nest eggs” and eventually return home. Others wished to construct ideal religious or social communities. In one such (failed) experiment in 1870’s KansasKansas, a group of aristocratic English immigrants endeavored to create a community that would embody the ideal lifestyle of their nation’s landed gentry. Some immigrants readily mixed nonmaterial and material motives. That twenty-thousand Danish immigrants;MormonsDanish Mormons migrated to Utah;Mormon immigrantsUtah in the second half ofthe nineteenth century might have been due in part to the exemplary efforts of MissionariesAmerican missionaries, but it is also notable that most of the convert-immigrants were families of modest means and that the Mormon Church funded their emigration.

In the far western United States, immigrants eventually made up only about 5.6 percent of the white population. As was the case with the trans-Appalachian West, the foreign-born (with certain exceptions, as in the above-mentioned cases of WisconsinWisconsin and San Francisco) remained a minority within the westering population. The importance of their presence, however, should not be underestimated. Of those groups who stayed in the United States, most have long since acculturated and entered the mainstream of American life. There remain, however, distinctive cultural markers in the places they pioneered–be they architectural styles or religious denominations. Moreover, these immigrants, to the benefit of their new nation (if often to the detriment of the Amerindians they frequently helped displace), built infrastructure and assisted at all levels of western economic development. They built railroads, harvested crops, tended stock, felled trees, mined minerals, and helped carve farms, ranches, and towns from the raw stuff of expanding American empire. In this way, they shared many of the same basic activities and essential goals with those seventeenth century pioneers of westward expansion, all of whom were immigrants.WestwardexpansionFrontier;and westward expansion[westward expansion]

Further Reading
  • Billington, Ray Allen. Land of Savagery, Land of Promise: The European Image of the American Frontier in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Offers insights into what immigrants expected to find on the American frontier.
  • Griffin, Patrick. The People with No Name: Ireland’s Ulster Scots, America’s Scots Irish, and the Creation of a British Atlantic World, 1689-1764. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001. Thorough examination of an important eighteenth century immigrant-pioneer group, examining their history on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • Korytova-Magstadt, Stepanka. To Reap a Bountiful Harvest: Czech Immigration Beyond the Mississippi, 1850-1900. Iowa City, Iowa: Rudi, 1993. Standard account of one of the largest Slavic ethnicities to settle the American West.
  • Milner, Clyde A. II, Carol A. O’Connor, and Martha A. Sandweiss, eds. The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Standard survey covering immigration and much more.
  • Noble, Allen G., ed. To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Covers westering immigrants’ cultural impact upon the American landscape.
  • Stellingwerff, Johan. Iowa Letters: Dutch Immigrants on the American Frontier. Translated by Walter Lagerwey. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004. This large collection of primary documents allows a fascinating glimpse into immigrant life on the nineteenth century midwestern frontier.

British immigrants


California gold rush

Chinese immigrants

Homestead Act of 1862


New Harmony


Scandinavian immigrants


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