The Growth of the American Economy: An Introduction to the Economic History of the United States

By Robert G. Albion; Harold F. Williamson | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Westward Expansion Before the Homestead Act

The Importance of the Westward Movement

THE MOVEMENT OF THE PEOPLE from the Eastern Seaboard to the Pacific Coast is of tremendous significance to the student of American economic history and provides one of the keys for an adequate understanding of why American institutions resemble and yet are different from the European institutions whence they originated. This great movement, involving millions of persons and spanning nearly three centuries of time ( 1607-1890), contains all the drama, comedy, and tragedy, that one would expect in a play so sweeping in scope and with a theme of such grandeur. But more important than this, it provides answers to some of the perplexing questions as to how and why adjustments were made, and finally, how Americans conquered the wilderness and set in motion those forces that are dominant in our economic life today.

Imagine an observer perched high above the center of the Mississippi Valley and possessed of telescopic eyes watching this scene, of such great interest and importance, unfold itself before his gaze. Against a background of green, inhabited only by the Indians, wild animals, and other denizens of the forest, a thin trickle of hunters, traders, and pioneers wend their way westward. Soon they are followed by missionaries; then a fringe of settlement appears, followed by the farmer, the introduction of capital, manufacturing and industry, banking, and the other orderly institutions of our own day and age. The scene is repeated again and again, beginning in the Tidewater area of Virginia and extending ever westward until the Mississippi is crossed, until the area of the Great Plains is traversed, and until the Pacific Coast is peopled. It is not always orderly: sometimes civil war intervenes; sometimes the red man makes a vain attempt to halt the inexorable progress of the westward march; and sometimes the marchers literally run in their search for land or gold. But the continual recurrence of the drama is one of the most American things in all American history.


Types of Frontiers

The frontier, or the area where the actual pioneering process took place, may be defined in a number of ways: as a point behind which were cities, culture, and civilization and ahead of which were forests,

-82-

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