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 17
Westward Expansion Since the Homestead Act

Westward Expansion and the Frontier

THE WESTWARD MARCH of American civilization since the War Between the States has provided one of the most dramatic chapters in our national history. Who from his school days has not heard and been thrilled by the tales of the covered wagon, the Plains Indian, the transcontinental railroad, the Texas Ranger, and the cowboy? And, in the latter years of machines and national planning, who has not been impressed by Coast-bound streamliners and stratoliners, the power combine, Boulder Dam, and the miracles of dry farming and reclamation? The winning of the West in reality and in legend is the proud and unique possession of every American.

The location, volume, and speed of our westward expansion since 1860 can be measured most simply by comparing the population density map for that year with that, for example, of 1890 (see pages 343-345). Except for a sizable projection into eastern Texas and a smaller extension into Kansas and Nebraska, the frontier line of 1860--beyond which the population was less than two persons to the square mile--followed the 95th meridian almost exactly from the Gulf of Mexico to central Minnesota. From there it ran slightly south of east to Lake Huron, leaving the northern parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan beyond the fringe of settlement; northern Maine and southern Florida were likewise beyond the two-per-square-mile line. Thus, except for the settlements on the Pacific Coast, the people of the United States in 1860 lived in a compact diamond-shaped mass with its sharpest points in Maine and Texas and its greatest density in its northeastern quarter.

Within the short span of one generation the frontier as a distinguishable unbroken line had disappeared, a fact cited by the director of the 1890 census and subsequently brought into prominence by F. J. Turner. when, in 1893, he compellingly drew attention to the significance of the frontier in American history.1 Since that time, unfortunately, the loose notion has often prevailed that because the traditional continuous line gave way about 1890 to a series of internal borders, the frontier itself had passed and the westward movement of which it was the accepted

____________________
1
See Chapter 5, above.

-342-

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