It was one of the most widely quoted phrases of the 19th century. Horace Greeley’s statement in a July 13th, 1865 editorial in the New York Tribune, “Go west, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” defined an era that would forever change the United States of America. Over the next half century and more Greeley’s advice was followed by millions of intrepid souls that shaped the nation we live in now.
In my novel Our Little Secrets, both the hero and heroine have moved west looking for a better life. The novel is set in 1895 so their decision to pick up and move away from what they knew didn’t carry all that much risk with it. Thirty years before that, at the time of Greeley’s editorial, and earlier, the risks were much higher. But in a way they were much greater.
Okay, let’s back up a second. What is the deal with this whole westward expansion thing? How did it get started and why would anyone in their right mind want to drop everything and venture out into a wild frontier that was often hostile?
The idea of moving west is as old as the United States. From the time that settlers landed in the New World people knew that the land kept going, far beyond the reaches of what people had been able to settle until it reached the Pacific ocean. What people didn’t know was how vast the area between the thirteen rebellious British colonies and the Spanish settlements in California was or what was contained within those realms. But as soon as the Revolutionary War was over the brand new Americans wanted to find out.
The history of westward expansion between the Revolutionary and Civil wars is mostly that of the growth of the nation east of the Mississippi River. Sure, after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Lewis and Clark set out on their expedition (1804-1806) to explore and map the area. But it was still a wild land with few settlers. The Frontier, at that point, consisted of what we now think of as the Midwest and western half of the Deep South.
More changes were in the offing in the 1840s. In 1845 the formerly independent Republic of Texas was annexed by the United States. In 1846 Great Britain ceded the Oregon Territory to the United States in a treaty. And in 1848 almost all of the rest of the territory that would make up the modern day lower 48 states was ceded at the end of the Mexican-American War. By 1849, when gold was discovered in the California hills, the stage was set for the phenomenon that we know of as The Old West to explode.
Don’t get me wrong, people were moving west to settle in the newly acquired territories. The concept of Manifest Destiny, the idea that Americans were destined to expand west and settle the entire continent, grew more and more popular throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The first wagons of the Oregon Trail left Independence, Missouri in 1836. Over the next decade the wagon trail was cleared further and further west, setting up the great migrations of the late 1840s through the late 1860s. These were the people who risked everything to travel into a sometimes hostile wilderness with dreams of a better life.
Then, of course, the territories of the west became politicized leading up to the Civil War as people argued which newly settled areas would be admitted to the Union as slave states or free states. However, in a way it was this political BS that helped to excite the American imagination about the West and spark people to pick up and move.
Congress first tried to pass a Homestead Act in the 1850s, when the Union was still whole. But the Southern congressmen blocked it. Their fear was that if the West was opened up and land was given out to anyone who could settle it, then the whole area would be filled with individual farmers from the North, from the poorer classes of the South, immigrants looking to move into America, and by freed slaves. They wanted the land to be settled in a slave-run plantation style, closer to corporate farming. As long as they were around to keep the act from passing, nothing was done.
But after the outbreak of the Civil War, when the South seceded and wasn’t around to block it, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862. Thus began the heyday of the West.
So how did you claim your piece of the West? Well, according to the Homestead Act of 1862, there were a couple of requirements that you had to meet. The first requirement was that you had never taken up arms against the U.S. So former Confederate soldiers or foreign combatants were out. Next, you had to be the head of a household or at least 21 years old. This applied to immigrants, single women, and former slaves as well.
Then you had to get there. The Homestead Act entitled you to 160 acres of undeveloped land. To claim ownership of it for free you only had to do three things. 1) File an application for the land. 2) Live on the land for five years and make improvement to it. 3) File for a deed of title, which cost about $18, after those five years. Sounds easy, right? Free land for everyone! Except that only 40% of the people who went West as a homesteader ever fulfilled the legal obligations necessary to claim ownership of the land.
But the precedent had been set, the path for settlers of all sorts had been opened, and the era of the American West had begun.
I’ll be blogging more about this amazing time in United States history in the coming weeks and months to coincide with my Montana Romance series, the first of which, Our Little Secrets, is already available wherever eBooks are sold.