The Prospects of the West
A Promise and a Threat
The westward migration across the Appalachian range in the antebellum era was a phenomenon of singular importance to the development of the United States. Despite ebbs and flows in its rate of growth, the white population in the western territories increased inexorably from the onset of migration until the Civil War. At one time a frontier of minor consequence to the American Republic, the Middle West quickly became a region of central importance to the future of the United States. The white population of the Old Northwest, which was slightly more than a quarter of a million in 1810, had increased sixfold twenty years later to number about 1.5 million. 1 In the three decades prior to the Civil War, moreover, the five states in the Old Northwest expanded to nearly 7 million inhabitants, an increase, as William Petersen points out, that exceeded the white population growth in the two centuries between the founding of Jamestown and the Louisiana Purchase. 2 As new territories were opened up to white invasion, the journeys reached farther west. By 1860, Iowa and Minnesota contained nearly 1 million white inhabitants. The states in the region, the oldest of which was a mere fifty-seven years old, thus contained over one-quarter of the American population on the eve of the Civil War.
The bulk of this migration was predicated on the opportunities inherent in the western territories. As farmers moved west, they purchased parcels from a vast cache of land on which they planted crops or anticipated profits from speculation. During the frenzied buying between 1835 and 1837, 38 million acres of land -- nearly 60,000 square miles -- were alienated from government ownership. Twenty years later, amid the peak years of land acquisition, nearly twice as much land -- 65 million acres --