The Westward Expansion and American Pioneers—How It Affects Your Family History

July 20, 2018  - by 
How westward expansion and the Homestead Act of 1862 affected American pioneers

Until recently, my knowledge of the westward expansion, the Western frontier, and pioneers mainly came from the popular Little House on the Prairie books and the pioneer computer game Oregon Trail. (I naively thought all pioneers died from dysentery out on the plains!) Being familiar with United States history can actually help in your family history work if you have pioneer ancestors. By looking at when your ancestors were born, if they moved, and where they moved, you can easily see if your family had any pioneers involved in settling the great Western frontier.

Westward expansion picked up speed in 1803 with President Thomas Jefferson and the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France. With $15 million, Jefferson doubled the amount of land in the United States. He then commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to map the newly purchased land and find a way to the Pacific Ocean.

Extensive expansion into the Western frontier did not get far, however, until around the 1840s when the idea of Manifest Destiny took a strong hold on the American psyche. The Homestead Act also played a large role in later years.

Manifest Destiny

The term Manifest Destiny was first coined by newspaper editor John L. O’Sullivan, although the attitude had already been present in the American mind. Manifest Destiny is the idea that it was the destiny of the United States to spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. United States lawmakers, enamored with this idea, helped extend the railroad and created incentives to send people west.

Why did the pioneers move west? The belief in Manifest Destiny incentivized American pioneers.

In 1846, President James K. Polk, a supporter of Manifest Destiny, reached a compromise with Britain on the Oregon Territory, making the 49th parallel the boundary between Canada and the United States.

Shortly afterward, at the end of the Mexican–American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe, the States gained more than 525,000 square miles of land that would later become Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah.

Westward expansion would ultimately involve more than 7 million pioneers living in the Trans-Appalachian West and the addition of 22 new states. A timeline of the early history of the United States can help you understand what events your ancestors might have been part of in early and late westward expansion.

Why Did the Pioneers Move West?

Why did the American pioneers move west during the westward expasion of the United States?
The news of open land reached the ears of immigrants, freed slaves, farmers, single women, and others. For many, life in the eastern states had lost its appeal. Some had trouble finding a job, overcrowding started being an issue in certain areas, and farmers wanted more land to farm. Others just didn’t like living in what was becoming an industry-driven country with large cities. Still others moved west to escape persecution. Many people living in modern-day Utah and surrounding areas had pioneers in their family move west with Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers starting in 1846.

In 1848, the California Gold Rush began. The gold rush attracted opportunists, miners, and businessmen. It also brought much needed goods to the West and created small mining towns. Pioneers came on several routes, the most common being the California and Oregon Trails.

Texas ranches provided work for cowboys and ranchers. In later years, free-range cattle would be rounded up and fenced in. With less cattle roaming the open land, space was made for even more pioneers to settle on.

The government also provided incentives such as the Homestead Act for people to move west into the newly acquired territory.

The Homestead Act of 1862

In 1862, the Homestead Act was created. It allowed pioneers to claim 160 acres of free land. This offer went to anyone who was listed as head of the household or who was at least 21 years of age. This act provided a great opportunity for people who looked to build a new life. The main requirement for making a claim was that claimants stayed on the land for five years and made various improvements, such as building a house. The only money spent was an $18 filing fee.

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered free land to settlers, motivating farmers and businessmen alike to join the westward expansion.

To file for a claim, a homesteader would take the survey coordinates to the nearest land office. Checks would be made to ensure that the land was not already claimed, and the homesteader would agree to build a house and farm, which were required for ownership to be finalized. Later, two neighbors would sign statements saying the requirements had been met. The landowner would then get a patent for the land signed by the president of the United States.

Homestead records are a great way to find information about where your ancestors lived and when they lived there. FamilySearch has a large database for finding patents and deeds.

Finding Pioneers in Your Family

With the thousands of pioneers who settled the Western frontier, it is very likely that you had an ancestor involved. Pioneer record collections that are freely available on FamilySearch are a great place to begin exploring your pioneer heritage:

Pioneer records can be hard to track down, as there weren’t “pioneer registers” persay that existed during the western expansion. These wiki pages can point you to other significant pioneer record collections (though not all of them are freely accessible):

If you already have a FamilySearch Family Tree, finding relatives who went west is even easier. Discover your ancestors’ unique stories with this interactive FamilySearch pioneer tool.

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  1. Long ago I googled my last name Utah and got so many names it was unbelievable. I don’y know if it would still work.

  2. My great-grandfather, his brothers, his new wife, two of his uncles, and a bunch of cousins participated in the migration. Most of them went from Missouri, where the younger ones were born, though the older ones were born in North Carolina. From what I know, I’d say most of them fell in your category of “opportunists”. They weren’t looking so much for gold, as intent on selling stuff to the people who were hunting gold. But I’m pretty sure it was more, or less, than that. I say the family song is “The Bear Went Over the Mountain to See what He Could See.” Curiosity and possibility! Two of the guys went in 1844, well before the Gold Rush. They were young men, still single, and likely up for adventure as young guys tend to be. Some ended up in Oregon, the rest in California – where I was born some 100 years later!

    One of great-grandfather’s uncles, Thomas Harvey Owen, moved his entire family to California about 1850. They were not Mormons; in fact, he was a Primitive Baptist preacher. But they had lived, for many years, in Hancock County, Illinois. Thomas had been an Illinois state legislator, elected at the same time as Abraham Lincoln. When his Hancock County neighbors developed “severe antipathy” toward the LDS folks at Nauvoo, he tried to mediate the tensions. He and his son went into Carthage when they found out a mob was intent on attacking Joseph and Hyrum Smith in the jail. They had hoped to calm the rage and wrath. Alas, to no avail. Thomas and his son Leander saw “the prophet” fall dead from the jail window. During the trial of the presumed murderers, Thomas was chosen officially as an elisor, a person to keep the two sides as close to the truth as possible.

    As I’m sure you all know, the arrested parties were acquitted, went free, and several rose to higher offices. The LDS under Brigham Young decided to leave Nauvoo for Utah. Young wrote a letter asking “Judge” Owen to watch over the Temple and their properties in Nauvoo. Owen moved to Nauvoo, becoming its postmaster, in the hope of preventing further tragedy. After his Hancock County neighbors burned the little city, anyway, he packed up his family and belongings and headed west, never to return. Thus, at least one pioneer went west because he was heartbroken by the lack of civilized behavior among the people he had known and represented. He did not join the LDS; instead, he attempted to establish several Primitive Baptist churches in California. He was, as near as I can tell, a man of faith who respected other people of faith, though it was different from his own, and fought mightily against their persecution.

  3. This information is wonderful…thank you so much for all of the work you do on all of our behalf.

  4. I may not be connected to the west but I am 25 percent Indian Mohawk. My father was half Irish half Indian

  5. Another reason for the Westward migration was farming was primitive back in those early days. Land was farmed until it “gave out”….no one knew anything about rotating crops etc. People farmed a piece of land til the harvests dwindled, then looked for NEW LAND that wasn’t “played out”…..yet!

    1. it didn´t help i wanted to know what encouraged pioneers on the great plains, but th for your hard work 😛