Economic History of the United States

By Chester W. Wright | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XXIX
POPULATION, ITS MOVEMENTS, AND THE PUBLIC LANDS

Introduction. War weary, the whole nation welcomed the end of the fratricidal struggle and returned to peacetime activities with their problems of readjustment. The population continued to grow at a rapid, though somewhat diminished, rate; immigrants poured in in steadily increasing volume; the vast areas of the West, still unsettled, continued to provide economic opportunity for the growing numbers; the task of opening up and developing the nation's rich resources was again resumed.

Vast as was the expanse of fertile land it was not unlimited. With the great growth in population this land was taken up more rapidly than ever before until the time came, about the close of the century, when it could be said that the supply of free, fertile land suitable for ordinary methods of cultivation had practically come to an end. The frontier had disappeared; the preliminary task of settling the land and opening up its resources was finished. This marked the end of one great epoch in the nation's economic history and the twentieth century ushered in another with new problems. It was an event of the greatest significance an event the widespreading reactions of which can be understood only as the full record of the period is unfolded.

The Growth of Population. The outstanding fact in the history of population growth during the period to which we now turn is the decline in the rate of growth, though it still remained relatively high till the first World War. Previous to 1860 the rate of increase had been more than a third every decade; in the three decades ending with 1890 it averaged little more than a quarter for each decade; in the two succeeding decades it fell to about one-fifth; during each of the next two decades, though made somewhat abnormal by the war, it was only about 15 per cent. In short the rate of increase had fallen to less than half that which prevailed before 1860. After 1930, moreover, another decided drop occurred, the rate of increase during the decade ending in 1940 being only 7.4 per cent. A consideration of the factors entering into this result may be postponed for the moment; here it must suffice to note that through this increase the total population of continental United States rose to 50 million in 1880 and to over 131 million in 1940. The chart on page 551 shows the growth by decades; that on page 509, the growth in certain

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