Why did people move west in the 1840s and the 1850s?

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The western expansion of the 1840s and 1850s is often discussed in the same breath as the Gold Rush, but, in fact, there were many other settlers who had already begun moving west before the Gold Rush began. In 1841, the first wagon trails began to move along the Oregon Trail into the West, the beginning of many similar journeys made by those who had heard tell of the cheap land and opportunities in the West for people to make something of themselves, free from the confinement and expense of the growing cities on the Eastern seaboard. While the Oregon Trail was long and dangerous, and many died of sickness and conflict with Native Americans along the way, stories continued to be told of the opportunities the unsettled West offered.

It was indeed the discovery of gold, however, which turned the steady trickle of westward settlers into a deluge. Gold was found in California in 1848; tens of thousands of would-be miners had arrived in California by the following year. These men were known as forty-niners, and many of them did make a fortune from gold. This sparked the root of the American Dream: any man, people came to think, could make his fortune if he would only put in the work. The miners soon sent for their wives and children, settled and intermarried, and the mining settlements became towns of some significance. By 1850, California had been set up with a governor as a state of the Union (it had to reach a population of 60,000 to do this, so a publicity campaign had helped encourage westward expansion until this point was reached).

Westward expansion continued well into the 1860s and 70s, after the Homestead Act was established to offer 160 acres of land in the West to anyone willing to work it for five years. Meanwhile, the establishment and spread of the railroads meant that the journey west was no longer the terrifying prospect it had once been when it had to be made by wagon trail. However, it was the Gold Rush which truly turned westward expansion into the dream of fortune and opportunity which continued to drive movement in that direction for decades afterwards.

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