Update: “In Pursuit of a Better Life”

What struck me these last two weeks is both how localized emigration on the Overland Trail was, and how frequently these people moved. While migrants on the Overland Trail came from all over the eastern, southern, and central U.S., the highest numbers came from the more-recently settled Midwestern states, particularly Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Since these states were opened for settlement as part of the Northwest Ordinance and most migrants moved there between the 1810s and 1830s, I found it unusual that in only a few decades many of them were moving on to Oregon or California.

Furthermore, this was not the first time most of them had moved. In many cases, their parents or grandparents had migrated from New England to Appalachia. Then their parents or they themselves moved from the Appalachian states of the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky into the southern regions of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Within a decade or two, many of them then moved again, this time to the central or northern regions of those states. Then they would make the biggest move yet: from the Midwest all the way to the Pacific Coast. For many of these people, the Overland Trail was the second or third move of their lives.

By reading a number of sources that focus on the settlement and agriculture of the Midwest, particularly John Mack Faragher’s Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie, Susan Sessions Rugh’s Our Common Country: Family Farming, Culture, and Community in the Nineteenth-Century Midwest, and Paul Salstrom’s From Pioneering to Preserving: Family Farming in Indiana to 1880, I began to develop a picture of why these moves were so frequent. Issues such as rapidly increasing land prices, an economic slump leading to falling crop prices, families splitting land into parcels too small to provide a living for their children, and soil depletion and erosion all combined to push many migrants on to cheaper, more open parcels of land. First they found these to the northwest, in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, but these problems seemed to follow them to the Midwest, so within a few decades, many families chose to move on to Oregon or California.

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