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The story of the westward movement of population in the United States is, in the main, the story of the expansion of American agriculture-of the development of new areas for the raising of livestock and the cultivation of wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton. After 1815 improved transportation enabled more and more western farmers to escape a self-sufficient way of life and enter a national market economy. During periods when commodity prices were high, the rate of westward migration increased spectacularly. "Old America seemed to be breaking up and moving westward," observed an English visitor in 1817, during the first great wave of migration. Emigration to the West reached a peak in the 1830's. Whereas in 1810 only a seventh of the American people lived west of the Appalachian Mountains, by 1840 more than a third lived there.
Why were these hundreds of thousands of settlers-most of them farmers, some of them artisans-drawn away from the cleared fields and established cities and villages of the East? Certain characteristics of American society help to explain this remarkable migration. The European ancestors of some Americans had for centuries lived rooted to the same village or piece of land until some religious, political, or economic crisis uprooted them and drove them across the Atlantic. Many of those who experienced this sharp break thereafter lacked the ties that had bound them and their ancestors to a single place. Moreover, European society was relatively stratified; occupation and social status were inherited. In American society, however, the class structure was less rigid; some people changed occupations easily and believed it was their duty to improve their social and economic position. As a result, many Americans were an inveterately restless, rootless, and ambitious people. Therefore, these social traits helped to produce the nomadic and daring settlers who kept pushing westward beyond the fringes of settlement. In addition, there were other immigrants who migrated west in search of new homes, material success, and better lives.
The West had plenty of attractions: the alluvial river bottoms, the fecund soils of the rolling forest lands, the black loams of the prairies were tempting to New England farmers working their rocky, sterile land and to southeastern farmers plagued with soil depletion and erosion. In 1820 under a new land law, a farm could be bought for $100. The continued proliferation of banks made it easier for those without cash to negotiate loans in paper money. Western farmers borrowed with the confident expectation that the expanding economy would keep farm prices high, thus making it easy to repay loans when they fell due.
Transportation was becoming less of a problem for those who wished to move west and for those who had farm surpluses to send to market. Prior to 1815, western farmers who did not live on navigable waterways were connected to them only by dirt roads and mountain trails. Livestock could be driven across the mountains, but the cost of transporting bulky grains in this fashion was several times greater than their value in eastern markets. The first step toward an improvement of western transportation was the construction of turnpikes. These roads made possible a reduction in transportation costs and thus stimulated the commercialization of agriculture along their routes.
Two other developments presaged the end of the era of turnpikes and started a transportation revolution that resulted in increased regional specialization and the growth of a national market economy. First came the steamboat; although flatboats and keelboats continued to be important until the 1850's, steamboats eventually superseded all other craft in the carrying of passengers and freight. Steamboats were not only faster but also transported upriver freight for about one tenth of what it had previously cost on hand-propelled keelboats. Next came the Erie Canal, an enormous project in its day, spanning about 350 miles. After the canal went into operation, the cost per mile of transporting a ton of freight from Buffalo to New York City declined from nearly 20 cents to less than 1 cent. Eventually, the western states diverted much of their produce from the rivers to the Erie Canal, a shorter route to eastern markets.