Western Expansion, Manifest Destiny, and the Mexican-American War

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Why did people move to the West in the 1800s?

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When looking at the reasons for people moving out West, we also need to bear in mind the conditions of the major cities back East. The United States experienced a rapid period of urbanization during the nineteenth century. With this unprecedented change came the myriad problems associated with life in a growing city. Eastern cities such as Boston and New York experienced massive overcrowding, grinding poverty, crime, and high mortality levels. The quality of life for far too many people was exceptionally poor, prompting growing numbers to seek a better life for themselves elsewhere.

The West seemed like the natural place to relocate for those worn down by the horrors of urban life back East. With its plentiful land and wide-open spaces, the West provided a chance for people to start again, to take the myriad opportunities for prosperity and advancement opened up by the new frontier. Large numbers of immigrants had settled in the Eastern cities in search of opportunity. Yet many had become thoroughly disillusioned amidst all the squalor and rampant exploitation. For these people, the expansion of the West revived the original promise of America, the enduring self-image of the United States as a place of opportunity.

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People moved west for a number of reasons in the nineteenth century, but by far the most prevalent motive was the availability of land. Beginning with the Northwest Territory after the American Revolution and ending with the closure of the frontier on the Great Plains in 1890, Americans sought the cheap land that would afford them (so they hoped) economic independence. The federal government did much to encourage these hopes, most notably with the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, which parceled out 160 acre homesteads to people who would settle and farm there. This sparked a large wave of settlers on the Great Plains, formerly inhabited by Native Americans, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Other motives were primarily economic in nature as well. Many Americans moved west to work for the mining companies that formed to exploit the vast mineral resources of the West. Others became loggers, ranchers, or especially railroad workers. Still others came west to take advantage of the business opportunities afforded by this large-scale migration. A minority of people--most notably the Mormons--came west seeking religious freedom, and some others came as missionaries and teachers who worked with Native Americans. But the vast majority of Americans who came west were seeking land to farm. 

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