DURING THE course of gathering data while writing about the everyday life of the frontiersman in the different sections of the United States, I became convinced that land, before it was separated from the United States government and during the process of its actual change in ownership from the nation to the individual, was the most important single social factor in frontier history. The process of transfer to private ownership of government land or government-supervised Indian land was the woof thread on the loom of the frontier. This thread was continually interlaced with hard experiences in the struggle for existence, thus weaving the fabric of the social and economic history of the American frontier. My aim in this book is to trace this thread from government ownership of the land into private hands.
From the period of the starving time in the first colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts, which compelled the colonizing agencies to grant plots of land to individuals during the struggle for survival, land became the lure that enticed immigrants to America and settlers farther westward. The dream of many Europeans was to become landowners, but European society was so rigidly stratified that it was impossible for the landless to realize this wish. Only nobility or royalty could own land; thus, for the landless, the prospect of landownership was worth the dangerous ocean voyage and other hardships.
European immigrants wrote glowing reports of the rich land in America, so easy to possess and so abundantly productive; in the 1840's, for example, Scandinavians wrote that the orchards bore in such a bountiful manner that often the crop was not even gathered, and swine were allowed to feast upon the fallen fruit. A hog, they implied, lived better in America than a commoner in Europe. The man who farmed the rocky New England hills or the Piedmont southerner who tilled the depleted lands east of the mountains was likewise lured by the deep black soil of the Mississippi Valley.