As a new country, the United States boasted freedom and opportunity, particularly in the West, where there were vast expanses of land and, later, rumors of gold. Many pioneers moved west hoping to own land and start fresh.
Were your ancestors among the farmers seeking land, miners hunting for gold, or religious people seeking refuge?
Why did the pioneers travel west? Politics and economics both played a part.
Do you remember The Oregon Trail computer game? There’s more to the story!
Where did pioneers come from, how did they travel, and what did they do for fun?
Western ExpansionEarly pioneers extended American settlements to the Mississippi Valley. Later pioneers settled the Great Plains and the West Coast. The Oregon Trail was one of the most traveled trails heading west. What was the Oregon Trail? It started in Independence, Missouri, and passed through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Approximately 500,000 people made the journey on foot, in covered wagon trains, or on horseback on the Oregon Trail and two other famous trails: the California Trail and the Mormon Trail.
Along their way west, American pioneers passed famous landmarks and forts, including Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, and Fort Bridger. Traces of the paths they took can still be seen today, with wheel tracks and names carved into stone.
Other Sides of the Story
Life for the American pioneers was not always easy. Most left family and friends behind with the possibility of never seeing them again. Along the way, many pioneers faced very real dangers such as disease, drowning, runaway covered wagons on steep hillsides, accidental discharge of weapons, and hostile encounters.
For many Native Americans, the western expansion meant risks and changes to their way of life. Some peaceful encounters occurred between pioneers and Native Americans, such as Native Americans teaching pioneers how to handle bears or the two groups cohabitating. However, many tribes were displaced, or experienced loss due to conflict or diseases as a result of the western expansion.
Major political and social events inspired many people to make the move west. Rumors of rich farming lands in Oregon, gold in California, and refuge across the country convinced many to take the risks of pioneer travel and pursue a better life. However, rumors weren’t the only force at work. Some major events helped accelerate the movement.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was one of the first events that encouraged people to move west. In this purchase, the United States acquired the Louisiana Territory and opened 828,000 square miles of land for settlers. It cost the government over $15 million (the equivalent of over $570 billion1 in today’s market).
Later, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 inspired hundreds of thousands to move west and mine the lands, despite the efforts of discoverers James Wilson Marshall and John Sutter to keep it quiet. By the end of the California Gold Rush, miners extracted a total of 750,000 pounds of gold, worth roughly $2 billion.2
Other events, such as the Homestead Act of 1862—which offered settlers the opportunity to homestead 160 acres of free land, the migration of Mormon pioneers seeking refuge, and the decision of the Mexican government to allow United States citizens to settle the Texas territory were all forces behind the expansion of the American West.
Where Do Your Ancestors Fit Into All This?
By the end of the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people made the journey. If your ancestors lived in the United States, chances are at least one of them was a pioneer. With so many fascinating stories surrounding the American pioneers and their journeys west, your ancestors’ stories might be among them. Search FamilySearch records to learn more:
There are many other helpful pioneer collections available. These wiki pages can point you to significant pioneer record collections (though not all of them are freely available):
- Oregon Trail Settlers and Records
- California Trail Settlers and Records
- Mormon Trail Settlers and Records