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Free Land! US Westward Migration

The settling of the United States in the early 19th century is largely an account of Americans moving west to claim free land. Both the national and state governments offered land grants to prospective pioneers to entice settlement in the wilderness.


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The settling of the United States in the early 19th century is largely an account of Americans moving west to claim free land. Both the national and state governments offered land grants to prospective pioneers to entice settlement in the wilderness. Inevitably, the majority of genealogists tracing ancestors who tackled, what was then known as, the West followed an ancestral paper trail leading back to the east coast, where their immigrant progenitors arrived. In the United States, genealogically valuable sources are held principally at the county level. Therefore, it is very important to determine the specific counties where ancestors resided to successfully conduct research. For example, if your ancestor stated on the 1850 Federal Census of Iowa that he was 48 years old and a native of Virginia, you now must undertake the task of identifying where specifically in Virginia he originated. Although tracking ancestral movements from one location to another can be difficult, many sources exist to document migrations in the early 19th century.

In the early 1800s, masses of people left their east coast homes to cross the Appalachian Mountains and settle in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Deep South. Families often made the journey together with neighbors and relatives. Some groups, such as the Church of the Brethren and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, believed they could grow closer to God in the untamed wilderness by escaping the corruption of larger settlements in the east and moving west as congregations. However, the majority of these early settlers moved west to claim free land offered by the government.

The early comers traveled by land and water, following paths such as the Wilderness< Road through the Cumberland Gap. Many came down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania into the Mississippi River Valley. Two books that identify the locations of these old roads are: Everton's The Handybook for Genealogists and William Dollarhide's Map Guide to American Migration Routes, 1735-1815. These books are road atlases showing what roads looked like two centuries ago.

National and state governments offered free land in the wilderness in order to induce settlements. Some of the early states that fell under the national jurisdiction included: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Scanned images of the national government's transfer of land to individuals in these states are now available free to the public at the Bureau of Land Management General Land Office Records website. The website also provides a useful search engine.

States that had power to distributed their own land, principally the Original 13 Colonies, included: Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. Indexes have been made to the land grants of some of these states, such as: Willard R. Jillson's The Kentucky Land Grants: A Systematic Index to All of the Land Grants Recorded in the State Land Office at Frankfort, Kentucky.

Land and property records often identify former or future residences of individuals. When a person purchased his or her first home after migrating, the previous residence of the grantee is often stated in the deed. In wills, if children of a testator had relocated, their current residence might be mentioned. Tax lists can be used in certain states during the early 1800s, such as Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, to track residents year by year. At times, tax records state that a person is delinquent, which sometimes means that he or she has moved with the new residence identified. When a person moved, he or she stopped paying taxes in the former county of residence, and commenced paying in their new county of residence. For example, Azariah Doss paid taxes in Bedford County, Virginia on his personal property from 1783-1818. He does not appear after 1818, but in 1819, he began paying taxes in Hardin County, Kentucky. This technique for tracking migrations reveals the exact year of Azariah's migration. It also shows that when this man disappeared in Virginia, someone with the same name makes his first appearance in Kentucky. This approach works particularly well for ancestors with uncommon names and though lengthy research may be involved in this process, the results are tremendous.

Religious and military records can also contain significant migratory information. Many religions, including the Quakers, required members to carry membership certificates with them when they moved from one congregation to another in order to confirm their good standing to the new church. These records may be preserved in church archives and identify former residences of arriving members.

Revolutionary War and War of 1812 military pensions offer fantastic information on residences of soldiers. Government officials asked eligible veterans for their place of birth, and identification of every place they had lived since discharge. Many times, these records even state the years when pensioners and their families moved.

American genealogists frequently encounter difficulties in tracing ancestral migratory routes in the early 19th century. A historical understanding of US westward expansion, along with the records generated to document migrating individuals, can help to overcome many of these obstacles.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2004.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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