Why did people move west in the 1840s and the 1850s?
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...
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The short answer: The Manifest Destiny. Americans believe that they had the God given right to expand and conquer the land from sea to shining sea, from coast to coast.
This idea of the Manifest Destiny was fueled by the Gold Rush in California in the 1940s. But there were also settlement trails, like the famous (via game playing) Oregon Trail. People are eager to explore and settle new land. Promise of riches and gold enticed people to risk the dangerous journey. This is where we see boomtowns in the West, towns they grow at a rapid rate due to a high influx of people. They are often correlated with finding minerals in the land, such as silver, copper, and lead.
This desire for land was also fueled by the sectionalism debate regarding slavery. The Missouri Compromise (1920) established where slavery could and couldn't be in the United States. Slave states were south of the 36 compromise line, and Free states were north. See the attached map for more detail. As the demand for cotton grew, so did the demand for slavery. Before the Civil War, cotton accounted for over 50% of the nation's exports. Slavery was moving west below the line, but we were running out of land. Land west of Louisiana belonged to Mexico. This demand for land was one of the causes of the Mexican-American War (1946-9148). As a result of this war, the United States acquired land including New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas (which is also a very interesting story).
Westward expansion continued after the time period in question. Contributing factors include the Homestead Act of 1962, the devastation of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, the impact of Black Codes and the resulting Exoduster, and the continued influence of the Manifest Destiny.