40 Life and Culture in the West

Western settlers usually migrated as families and settled along navigable and drinkable rivers. Settlements often coalesced around local traditions, especially religion, carried from eastern settlements. These shared understandings encouraged a strong sense of cooperation among western settlers that helped forge some of the early communities on the frontier.

Before the Mexican War, the West for most Americans still referred to the fertile area between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River with a slight amount of overspill beyond its banks. With soil exhaustion and land competition increasing in the East, most early western migrants sought a greater measure of stability and self-sufficiency by engaging in small scale farming. Boosters of these new agricultural areas along with the U.S. government encouraged perceptions of the west as a land of hard-built opportunity that promised personal and national bounty.

Women migrants bore the unique double burden of travel while conforming to restrictive gender norms. Societal standards such as “the cult of true womanhood,” which emphasized piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness as the key virtues of women, and the “separate spheres,” which focused on the role of the woman in the home, often accompanied men and women as they traveled west to begin their new life.

While many societal standards continued just as they had in the established communities people left behind, there often existed an openness of frontier society that resulted in more power for women. Husbands needed partners in setting up a homestead and working in the field to provide food for the family. Suitable wives were in short supply, enabling some to negotiate more power in their households, although typically on an informal level.

Economic busts constantly threatened western farmers. As the economy worsened after the panic of 1819, farmers were unable to pay their loans due to falling prices and overfarming. The dream of subsistence and stability abruptly ended as many migrants lost their land and moved farther west. The federal government consistently sought to increase access to land in the west, including by lowering the amount of land required for purchase. Smaller lots made it easier for more farmers to clear land and begin farming faster.

The availability of affordable loans fueled the growth of land speculation. The amount of money in circulation eclipsed more than $100 million dollars by 1817, much of it being lent by state banks. While the federal government, through the Second Bank of the United States (rechartered in 1816) took a more conservative approach to lending, state banks – particularly those of the frontier states – offered loans more freely to new migrants looking to buy land. Just as cash cropping gave western migrant communities hopes of quickly striking it rich, land speculation promised the same outcome for state bank investors.

Predictably, the booms in speculation and agriculture busted together in the Panic of 1819. Farmers failed in the cash crop market and could not repay their loans. The mortgages of these western farmers were supposed to have guaranteed the stability of the banks. However, as state banks grew in economic power, they printed far more notes than they had cash or gold to back the notes. The speculation in land fueled a speculation in banknotes, both of which fell together. These banks, in their last acts of desperation demanded immediate mortgage payment in specie from farmers, payments that farmers simply could not make. Making matters worse for farmers and exacerbating the effects of the panic was overproduction and foreign competition flooding the markets. Even though profitability and land purchases picked up by the mid-1820s, the rate of growth greatly slowed and land prices never returned to their pre-crash highs.

In response, Congress embraced higher tariffs in 1824 and 1828 that sought to protect American agriculture from foreign competition. Many Americans looked upon banking more skeptically, particularly the Bank of the United States. Andrew Jackson made destruction of the bank a key political issue and succeeded in taking government deposits out of the bank and circulating them to state banks. Unfortunately, this policy had a disastrous effect as state banks used this money to make more speculatory loans. This recreated the pre-1819 atmosphere and created the Crash of 1837. However, these deposits also helped state banks fuel transportation improvements that proved helpful for farmers and consumers.

More than anything else, new road and canals created economic growth in the 1820s and 1830s. Canal improvements expanded in the east, while road building prevailed in the west. Congress continued to allocate funds for internal improvements. Federal money pushed the National Road, begun in 1811, farther west every year. Laborters needs to construct these improvements increased employment opportunities and encouraged non-farmers to move the West. However, roads were expensive to build and maintain and some Americans strongly opposed spending money on these projects.

Steamboats first came into limited usage in the United States prior to 1810. However, their importance and number grew quickly throughout the 1810s and into the 1820s. Steam power augmented the already widespread use of slow moving human-rowed or mule-pulled flatboats and keelboats already parading down various waterways throughout the East. As water trade and travel grew in popularity, local and state governments along with the federal government all allocated funds for the improvement and connecting of rivers and streams.

Steamboats offered greater reliability, power, speed, and versatility. As a result of the steamboat’s popularity and profitability, hundreds of miles of new canals popped up throughout the eastern landscape, and to a lesser degree in the West (although in smaller numbers and length). The most notable of these early projects was the Erie Canal. That project, completed in 1825, linked the Great Lakes to New York City. The profitability of the canal helped New York outpace its east coast rivals to become the center for commercial import and export in the United States.

Steamboats and canals, with roads playing their part as well, undoubtedly revolutionized travel and economics in the early United States. Population grew in canal and river towns. Trade, fueled by a growing need for raw materials of construction and foodstuffs for growing towns, increased just as fast. The needs of families and communities, increasingly dependent on construction and commercial life for their livelihoods, turned to manufactured products and distantly-produced food sold in the marketplace in order to feed their consumptive needs.

Railroads, although hampered by some of the obstacles of road building, made the labor and investment costs worth the risk by reducing transportation time in a way roads could not. Early railroads like the Baltimore and Ohio line sought to tie those cities to lucrative western trades routes in the hopes of displacing New York as a central port of trade. Railroads encouraged the rapid growth of towns and cities all along the routes through the encouragement of boosterism in search of speculative profits. The West benefited greatly from the growth of railroads. Not only did rail lines promise to move commerce faster, but the rails also encouraged the spreading of towns farther away from their traditional locations along waterways. The filling in of lands previously left to tribal nations increased conflict throughout the West, but these conflicts were seen as acceptable to white settlers looking to expand farmlands and profits.

Eastern and western towns that lacked navigable waterway connections suddenly had new outlets to the markets that augured for greater profit, refining of culture, and a sharing of national impulses. Railroads and canals carried not only cargo but new settlers and new political issues along their paths. However, technological limitations, constant need for repairs, conflicts with native Americans, political disagreements over funding and routes, and the challenge of understanding and adapting to new technology all hampered railroading and kept canals and steamboats as integral parts of the transportation system. However, this early period of construction and use of railroads set the stage for their rapid expansion in the decades after the Civil War.


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