Human migration could be the most important factor in understanding the development of North America. While it is true that the story of humankind is one of migration, our American story began when people decided to risk their lives on a journey that took them away from their homeland (particularly at a time when most people in the world never traveled more than twenty-five miles from their place of birth), and landed them in an inhospitable environment thousands of miles distant from everyone and everything they ever knew. And when the English settlements became overpopulated, they continued a western migration into other unsettled lands.
Beyond what we know from the written record, we cannot know what the pioneers were thinking. Did they, for example, realize that western migration was necessary for maintaining their culture? Or, was western migration simply a means to an end, that being the acquisition of land for their own benefit? Perhaps it doesn’t matter, since the result was the same. The American nation was founded through the westward orientation of its early pioneers and, in many ways, human movement has become a distinctive feature of the American people.
What we know by examining census records from the earliest days is that well over half the people at one location moved there from another location within the British colonies. It is a remarkable statistic. In the year 1800, only around ten percent of all Americans lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, principally in Tennessee, Kentucky, and the area of present-day West Virginia. By 1824, thirty percent of all Americans resided between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. Forty-five thousand people lived in Ohio in 1800; nearly a million lived in Ohio by 1830.
As I said, remarkable. But there was nothing orderly about the physical process of westward migration. Not everyone packed up their prairie wagon at the same time, and not everyone selected the same destination. They migrated and settled (even if only temporarily) where they believed they could maintain their social norms and traditions —and this helps to explain a migrating trend with others of their kind— religious groups, for example. Migration was a selective process. It was a personal decision that depended on a variety of factors, not the least of which was the age of the travelers, their economic status, and their own sense of the benefits of re-settlement.
Some percentage of migrating pioneers may have believed that they had no other choice because, upon their arrival in America, subsequent waves of immigrants discovered that select land along the eastern seaboard had already been taken. Unless the immigrant was already wealthy, they found the price of land too expensive. Remember that many of the early immigrants were pushed out of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland for political or economic reasons.
We seldom think about this today, but a decision to migrant away from one’s homeland was (and continues to be) traumatic, even when “push factors” were significant. Of course, push factors varied by location and individual affected, but they generally involved a lack of economic success or prospect, enclosure, mechanization, industrialization, over-population, harsh political or religious environments, and perhaps a rejection of urbanization.
Among the poorest immigrants, America was their only hope. They wanted economic success, of course, which to many suggested land acquisitions —the strongest of “pull factors.” Yes, they wanted to live free, in their own way, without government or religious interference, but if we are honest, then we must acknowledge that the entire story of America is woven around land speculation.
To obtain land, to be able to call it their own, to one day be able to profit from it, settlers were prepared to endure hardship. Whether their dream ever became reality depended on the settlers themselves, where they settled, and, of course, luck. Good fortune because in every pioneer, there was a thread the gambler.
The American pioneer was a special breed of human being. There was no risk and only a few rewards in remaining behind in Tidewater, Virginia, where it was safe, settled, and civilized —so it is not at all surprising to learn that, in the case of dirt-poor immigrants, they arrived in America and kept ongoing.
The process of western migration and settlement began almost immediately. Not everyone wanted to live along the seacoast and pursue their living from the ocean’s bounty. The farmers moved inland … toward the west, a trend that developed in the first 100 years of the establishment of the English colonies. By the early-to-mid 1700s, settlements approached the foothills of the first major obstacle: the Appalachian Mountains. It impeded because, on the other side of those mountains one would discover the settlements of a traditional enemy —the French.
Western migration, therefore, became a clash among European empires, each of whom had their own plan for the untamed, mostly unexplored North American continent. Spain made its start with the explorations of Christopher Columbus in 1492, joined by Ponce de Leon in 1493. The French began their explorations, establishing sparse settlements beginning in 1534. The British were late arrivals in 1585. By the early 1700s, all three of these European empires laid claim to a portion of the new world —vast territories far too large for any of them to possess or control. True to form, the competing empires carried their squabbles with them to the New World and they used their explorers and settlers, and native populations, as pawns in the “great game” of territorial domination.
When I mention a clash of European empires, I refer to the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), King George’s War (1744-1748), the War of Jenkin’s Ear (1739-1748), the First Carnatic War (India)(1746-1748), and the Silesian Wars (1740-1741) (1744-1745). In each of these conflicts, the warring nations confronted one another in the Americas. The governors of New France employed native Americans to block British westward expansion into their claimed territories; British colonial governors challenged the French by encouraging western migration into the disputed territories.
To help facilitate this western movement, Thomas Lee formed a land company with Lawrence and Augustine Washington in 1748 (The Ohio Land Company) —initially involving around 500,000 acres of land granted by Royal decree. The charter had one caveat: the company had to settle 100 families on this land within seven years. The effort was interrupted by conflict with France (1754-1763).
After the French and Indian Wars, western settlements began receiving mixed messages from their colonial governors. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the French and Indian Wars, did grant to Great Britain thousands of square miles of territory, called the Ohio Valley, but it also gave rise to many problems. Lacking the resources needed to administer these “won” territories, British governors discouraged westward migration. Moreover, while the French may have ceded the Ohio Valley to Great Britain, this did not mean that its French inhabitants would leave quietly in the night. Well-established trade relationships and routes were an important source of income to French settlers in the Ohio valley. Last, but not least, the resident Indian population did not appear willing to ceding additional land to the British.
The Pioneer Struggle
From around 1750, British migrants arrived in the new land possessing few resources. They could not afford land in the already-settled regions, and the British colonies officially prohibited them from moving beyond the Appalachian range. With few options, immigrants from the English border-region, and the Scots-Irish, simply ignored colonial prohibitions and went west anyway. Any decision taken about where to settle depended on the traveler’s understanding of conditions at the new location. They must have had an idea about what to expect, but they may not have known the difficulties that lay ahead. In any case, these recent immigrants had few options.
Westward migration was never an easy proposition because the lives of the frontiersmen were beset with life-altering struggles. Settler’s challenges began with an arduous journey involving hundreds of miles, often on foot, which took them over rough terrain, swampy bogs, and swollen rivers. They passed over rock-strewn mountains, descended into wide valleys, and suffered the effects of seasonal climates and violent storms. They encountered hostile Indians and stood up to dangerous animals. Circumstances forced the pioneers to deal with virulent sickness, loss of personal possessions and farming stock, and broken wagons. They buried their wives, husbands, and children along a very weary trail.
The only way to describe this westward journey is that it was a never-ending sequence of challenges that tested the endurance and fortitude of the migrants. In the beginning, westward-bound settlers only knew what they were told about what they should expect. They may never have had to cross a torrential river, for example. Without practical experience, they were forced to learn while doing, and the learning curve was often sharp and unforgiving. It was a rough existence for everyone in the family, but the women faced enormous responsibilities and hardships.
What they did
Pioneer women selected, packed, and loaded the belongings needed for a long journey. This was a difficult task that demanded creativity in deciding what to take (and what to discard), in what quantities, and how to pack it —there was so little room. With wagons packed from stem to stern, the family walked alongside the wagon. The number of miles between the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and Independence, Missouri is around 1,100 miles. The number of miles between Independence, Missouri, and Sutter’s Fort in California is close to 1,800 miles. Few people today could make such a journey in 8-10 months.
Pioneer families divided responsibility along the trail, but they were never clear or rigid divisions. A husband looked after the mechanical aspects of the movement —wagon, wheels, axle, bow struts, canvass bonnet, brake box, tongue, and leather accouterments. The husband would mend or make shoes. He (and his sons, if they were old enough) provided security, hunted for fresh meat, and wrangled the livestock. His wife (and daughters) foraged for berries, cooked and cleaned cookware, sewed worn clothing, managed food stores and freshwater, and made the campfire using wood or other substances. The pioneer ladies attended to sick family members using whatever medicines she had remembered to bring.
The pioneer trail was beset with tragedies, but one migrant party was particularly catastrophic: The Donner-Reed Party. The 1840s experienced dramatic increases in westward migration. Many of these pioneer families decided on California or the Oregon Territory as their destination. They had two options for getting there: they could travel by sea or take the overland route. The Oregon Trail was noteworthy for its popularity, its starting point at Independence, Missouri. The pioneers traveled on average between 11 to 15 miles per day; it took most pioneers five to seven months to complete their journey. For those heading into California, the most difficult leg of the journey was the last 150 miles, which took the pioneer families over the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. This range offers five-hundred mountain peaks and an elevation of 12,000 feet. It’s location, elevation, and proximity to the Pacific Ocean subjects the Sierra Nevada to deep snowfall.
In total, the Donner-Reed included 87 people. Typically, wagon train populations increased and decreased along the route as families joined or departed from the train’s main body. The Donner-Reed train departed Independence on 12 May. At the time, George Donner was 60 years old; his wife aged 44 years. They had three daughters of their own, and George had two daughters from a previous marriage. The party included George’s younger brother, Jacob, aged 56, and his wife, aged 45 years and seven children. The base party also included six teamsters, men whose task it was to drive the ox-pulled wagons.
Weather delays plagued the Donner-Reed party almost from the beginning of their journey. This was important because the window for crossing the Sierra Nevada range closed around the first of November. By 11 July, Donner was 12 days behind schedule. In August, they found the terrain far more difficult than they were told it would be, and progress slowed even more. They entered the Great Salt Lake short of forage for their animals or water for either stock or themselves. The temperature was unbearable. The train began to fall apart as families started bickering among themselves.
By the time Donner-Reed entered the Sierra Nevada range, they were already out of time, out of food, out of water, and their animals barely able to stand much less pull heavy wagons. They decided to push ahead. They still had time—or so they thought. Wagons broke down, causing some members to abandon their worthless wagons and proceed with whatever they could carry on their backs.
Snowfall arrived early that year —on 20 October— and within a short time, snowdrifts were five to ten feet deep. Every effort to move ahead failed. The only hope Donner-Reed had at that point was to go into winter camp. That is what they did … without food. The animals were dropping like flies; they were consumed as soon as they fell and within a short time, there were no more animals.
The situation was far worse than malnourishment and illness. Many within Donner-Reed began to exhibit signs of mental instability. Out of necessity, they began to consume their own dead. Some members may have even expedited the death of their loved ones to have something to eat. Of the 87 members of Donner-Reed, 48 died. Understandably, no one who cannibalized their traveling companions exhibited normal behavior in later years. The immediate effect of this disaster, when publicized, was a sharp decline in westward migrations. It took the California Gold Rush to re-ignite interest in westward migration.
Most of the pioneers reached their destinations, but few accomplished this feat intact. Not many of the pioneer travelers survived attacks by hostile Indians, particularly on the plains where the Comanche, Sioux, Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne had the advantage of mounted, lightning-quick strikes. Men and boys were killed outright; occasionally, young boys were spared and taken as hostages. Some women were killed, but they were more often taken as slaves, particularly the young girls. Once taken, even if they escaped or traded back to white settlements, or rescued, pioneer women survivors were shunned by white society —they lived the remainder of their days in isolation.
Once pioneer families reached their destinations, they encountered new challenges. Building a home was no simple task. They were crude structures, assembled from available materials, and not every pioneer man was an accomplished carpenter. They did their best, but not every idea was a good one. Sod roofs leaked during periods of intense rain and thatched roofs became homes for biting insects. Strong winds could topple a shoddily made structure as easily as a bear could break down the doorway. Given the size of some families, their new home was often inadequate in size. Cabins had dirt floors, were uncomfortable and cramped. No one had any privacy. Cooking was usually performed out of doors. Freshwater had to be carried up from a nearby stream or river, which explains the proximity of cabins to sources of water. The water could easily become an enemy as streams and rivers flooded seasonally. Worse, the water was polluted by human and animal feces, the ingestion of which became a deadly killer: Cholera. Toilets were pits dug into the ground some distance from the cabin, but often too close to creeks, streams, and riverbanks.
In terms of westward migration, women had no real choice in the matter. Married women were obliged to accompany their husbands. Unmarried women remained under the supervision of their fathers until married. So, what happened to women who suddenly found themselves without their husband or their father? Their choices were limited. They either took the place of their men, remarried, found their way to a western brothel, or they perished. In the mid-1800s, women could not own property, or if permitted to own it, they always fell under the supervisory authority of court-appointed men. In 1850, California and Wisconsin granted property rights for married women; Oregon permitted unmarried women to own land, but they could not control it. It wasn’t until 1872 that women in California were “granted” the right of a separate economy.
America’s pioneer spirit isn’t confined to one gender, one race, or any one age group. It certainly didn’t cease to exist once the west was fully settled. Our pioneer citizens found their way into medical science and research, they pushed open doors to access the legal field, and they demanded and received an acknowledgment of their civil rights. We saw them again as migrants during the devastating depression years of the 1930s, as world-class aeronauts, and we find them still as pioneers in space. Americans of every race are full partners in a grand endeavor —as God always intended.
It’s something to think about.
- Gray, D. Women in the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998
- Holmes, K. L. Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from Western Trails, 1840-49. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
- Noy, G. Distant Horizon: Documents from the 19th Century American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
- Sigerman, H. Land of Many Hands: Women in the American West. London: Oxford University Press, 1997
- Woodworth-Ney, L. E. Women in the American West. ABC-Clio, 2008
 Colonel Thomas Lee (1690-1750) was a leading political figure who established a dynasty that included notable Americans into the twentieth century, including Light Horse Harry Lee and his son, Robert E. Lee. Thomas Lee served as governor of Virginia 1749-1750.
 Lawrence Washington (1718-1752) was a soldier, planter, politician, landowner, and founder of Alexandria, Virginia. He was also the older-half-brother of George Washington.
 Augustine Washington (1720-1762) was a soldier, planter, politician, and the second youngest son of Augustine Washington and Jane Butler, and George Washington’s half-brother.