Life on the American Frontier 1800-1869

The Westward Movement

The life on the American frontier defines the last phase of settlement in the US. What led up to this life was the westward movement. It was the expansion in the early 1800's west, past the Appalachian Mountains (Westward). To understand this movement, one must know the conditions of the colonies during the time. Thomas Jefferson was president and sought the creation of an “empire of liberty” through new land (What). These ideas of enterprising aided towards the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Jefferson bought the Louisiana Territory from France, most land west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana). This was followed by the Lewis and Clark expedition, sent by President Jefferson from 1804 lasting to 1806, in attempt to map and make a known presence in this territory reaching to the Pacific Coast.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Through pressing economic tensions, the War of 1812 then arose between the US and Britain, jump starting the Great Migration. The people of the colonies had formed ideology of Manifest Destiny, the thoughts that the expansion of the US throughout the continent was not only desired, but inevitable. Families and individuals hoped to find something better over the western horizon. New England families were tired of farming the harsh rocky terrain, while southern farmers were tired of bad luck and bad management. Promises of fertile land west attracted these northern farmers, as well as the southern ones who sought more equality (Pioneer). There was political freedom and economic opportunity that the European immigrants sought as well, where you could own your own land (Western). Through this migration, most traveled with simply the clothes on their backs, arriving at the land empty handed. This lack of preparation meant not all migrants were successful, but those who were, were the start of a new era.

War of 1812

Great Migration

Map of the Great Migration

Upon their descent to the west, the pioneers grouped together by wagon trains to start their trek. The journey was very difficult and dangerous, with Native American threats a constant. Even through these bloody episodes, pioneers still managed to claim land. On every new frontier, the pioneers made homes for themselves using the resources their surroundings provided. In the beginning, those who settled in Ohio and Mississippi had the advantage of the great forests. Families would choose their land and begin chopping down timber. They would always start by building a “half-faced camp” in which the front faced south to avoid wind and rain. As they smoldered logs to complete the cabins, they would begin farming their first crop (Pioneer). They would need to quickly prepare crops since their new life would heavily rely on agriculture. It was especially crucial with winter approaching. Families hoped to have a small clearing and enclosed cabin by winter’s start.

Half -faced cabin

Migration continued into the 1840's and 1850's with hundreds more pioneers aiming further west towards Oregon and California. This longer trek had the pioneers in covered wagons traveling days on end. A good day could cover approximately 20 miles, while rains could decrease their distance by half (Pioneer). The journey was very demanding. Both men and women played equally important parts. The men had to be farmers, hunters, and trappers, especially good with weapons. Women did much of the heavy farm work while raising children, cooking, and weaving. Their diet was very simple, consisting of corn and the meat of what had been hunted. The groups often lacked doctors and medical care. Significant illnesses or injuries could therefore not be treated, resulting in death. Their way of life was most supported by their religion and strong community, making it possible to travel such a distance. The pioneers kept to a routine every day. They would rise early, eat breakfast, and start traveling. At noon, they would settle to eat lunch, and in the evening they would set up camp for the night. Sunday was a day of rest in which they did not travel, but there was still work throughout camp to get done. This included washing clothes and baking, as well as conducting any repairs. To conclude the day, a chapter from the bible was read (Pioneer).

The Pioneers

Great Plains

Most settling on the Great Plains was done in the 1860s. The government helped this happen through their passed Homestead Act in 1862. It sold adults 160 acres of land for a small amount of money. They would be able to own it if they could farm the land for five years. Many families took the offer coming from the east coast of the colonies where farmland was expensive (Pioneer). They came out through the wagon trails to settle before reaching the west coast. Families would claim their land out on the plains, lacking the advantage of many resources. There were no forests, so they plowed up building material to create a small structure made from sod. Sod was the soil held together by the grassroots. Settlers thus had to learn how to farm under such circumstances. They would have to break through the sod to plant their crops (Great). This made the first crop sod corn, but wind and weather would soon soften the fields for cultivation. Sod was their main resource for many tasks, though water was easily found from streams.

Sod House

The seasons on the Great Plains were harsh. Summers dragged out dry and hot. This caused grass fires as well as many droughts. With the streams constantly drying out, farmers had to find crops that did not need much water. Winters were much similar in the sense that they were long, but cold (Great). On the plains where hide hunters had been, settlers could find leftover buffalo bones. These could be traded in the nearest town for doors, windows, and stovepipes, essential items in the cruel season of winter. The efficient sod structure aided in cool summers and warm winters, being essentially windproof and fireproof. Though, spring showers were an exception. Rain seeped through the sod and remained soaked much longer after. Spring also held the risks of tornadoes and insects, threatening the settlements (Pioneer). Through it all, the settlers were still very resourceful and persistently stuck with their new lives.

Weather on the Great Plains

Schools, Churches, & Government

Self-reliance was one of the top frontier requirements. They provided themselves with crops and hunted meats, while gathering berries and nuts as well. They learned ways to supply themselves with tools and household necessities, even learning herbs for healing (Pioneer). As people settled further west, there tended to be more settlements closer together, creating small towns. This led to the establishment of schools, churches, and government. Among these pioneers, education was not of great importance as compared to taking care of the family. But as the towns grew, parents seemed keener on the education factor. They built school houses, which were small buildings where a teacher could teach about twenty students of various ages. Some students had to walk as far as five miles to get to school every day. The settlers were much more fervent over religion. Without a church, they brought on their journey a preacher on horseback to keep their beliefs alive. He would preach around settlements, sometimes visiting families in their own home. Once the towns grew, churches were established, not only for religious practices, but social gatherings too. A territorial government was first established with officials appointed by the president. If a population reached 60,000, a region could gain statehood, as stated by the Northwest Ordinance. In the first few years, each frontier only had its own unwritten laws. Among them were those along the lines of, “it is not illegal to kill a man in self-defense.” There were many self-appointed vigilantes who used assertion of community government. The pioneer districts still actually had no trained officials (Pioneer).

Schoolhouse and Preaching


Gold Miners

As many settlers stayed stationary in the Great Plains, there were still quite a few that traveled as far as the west coast. Oregon and California were the most populous of the settlements (Western). The Gold Rush of 1848 was a main contributor to California’s sudden population increase. Gold had been discovered in the Sacramento Valley and news spread quickly of the discovery. Thousands of gold miners traveled to the area of San Francisco in hopes of striking lucky. $200 billion of gold had been extracted (History). Due to events such as the gold rush as well as the ideas and promises of a fresh start, colonists sought to find a way west. This migration set forth for the settlements of the Great Plains and many other areas of the country. The life on the American frontier guided pioneers to be self sufficient and define their role in their country. This allowed the people the opportunities they were waiting for to live a successful life in a country that strives for freedom and independence.

Work Cited

@HistoryNet. "Louisiana Purchase | HistoryNet." HistoryNet. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

@HistoryNet. "Westward Expansion | HistoryNet." HistoryNet. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

"The Great Plains." Prairie Schooner 38.1, GREAT PLAINS ISSUE (1964): 1. Web. Staff. "The Gold Rush of 1849." A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

"Pioneer Life." Facts for Now. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

"Western Frontier Life in America." Western Frontier Life. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.

"What Was the Cause and Effect of Westward Expansion?" Reference. Web. 28 Nov. 2016.


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