Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?

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