The Great Migrations
by Bob Brooke
Throughout the last half of the 19th Century and well into the 20th, a great
migration took place in the United States. First, the residents of the colonies who
had become disenchanted with economic conditions, spent land, or the closing in of
space, headed westward in search of new opportunities. After settling the Ohio Valley
and onward into what's now Illinois and Indiana, these same folks felt the pinch of
civilization and headed west again. The great migrations to Oregon and California by
way of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails, distributed homesteaders across this great
The Civil War had its effects on migration, too. When soldiers from both sides,
especially those from the South, returned home, they found their farms in ruins. In
the unindustrialized South, work was hard to come by, so many headed west. Later, in
the beginning of the 20th century, Afro-Americans, out of work due to new technology
on cotton farms, headed north in one of the greatest migrations in American history.
What's this all have to do with genealogy? Before all these migrations began,
generations of most families stayed in one place--many even lived out their lives in
the same home as their ancestors. As people began to move, families scattered.
The 19th century brought with it the expansion of a young United States as people in
both the North and South began moving west in search of new land and opportunity. As
the Industrial Revolution began in the North in 1820, many people left their farms to
go to the cities. Disenchanted with living and working in the factories, they headed
west. "Westering," the lure of western unsettled lands, took hold. New Englanders
first migrated into Vermont and New Hampshire and across upper New York State, then
into the mid-West.
The Pittsburgh Pike, an early road winding through Pennsylvania forests from
Harrisburg, took migrating families to the Ohio River, which by the early 1800s has
become the fastest way to get to the newly opened territories. A flatboat ride down
the Ohio to Louisville cost $40 and migrants had to share accommodations with
Meanwhile, Eli Whitney's cotton gin made cotton "king" in the South. Farms along the
Atlantic Coast soon became deserted as continuous planting of tobacco and cotton
leached the nutrients out of the soil. Soon farms and plantations began sprouting up
in Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, as well as the western Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, Lousiana, Texas and Arkansas.
As the 19th century progressed, expansion, people headed for the Pacific, as they
proclaimed "manifest destiny."
The discovery of gold in California created another great migration, as fortune
hunters from the East headed west in droves. Some traveled across the country in
wagons, while others sailed around the tip of South America. Both were long and
dangerous journeys from which many didn't survive.
The first wagon train for Oregon left Independence, Missiouri, in 1843. The following
year, a train left for California. But crossing 2,000 miles of plains in a cramped
4-by-10-foot wagon filled with belongings was no picnic. Most of the trains traveled
along the south side of the Platte River to western Wyoming, then turned northwest to
Oregon or southwest over the High Sierras to California. The Santa Fe Trail took
families south over the Old Spanish Trail through the desert to southern California.
Many migrants were too poor to own a horse or wagon and walked all the way pushing a
handcart. Such was the case with the Mormons, who in another great trek west, moved
into Utah, bringing with them their passion for record keeping and genealogy.
Development of the transcontinental railroads in the late 1860s and early 1870s
spurred the nation's continuing expansion. As these railroads opened up travel in
both directions across the country, they also carried some of the first Chinese
settlers from the West Coast to New York City's Chinatown. Some came to work on the
railroads. Others were born there to immigrant parents.
The type and survival of records differ from North to South and East to West. As the
migrating settlers carried their religious beliefs and customs with them, they also
Upstate New York towns, for example, have vital and church records dating from 1830.
In Michigan, good records only date from the 1860s. In Missouri, early records are
During the final years of the 19th century, the American economy grew rapidly because
of the burgeoning oil, steel, and mechanical industries, and waves of immigrants
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