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   Chapter 6 SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF THE WEST (1820-1830)

Rise of the New West, 1819-1829 By Frederick Jackson Turner Characters: 16986

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:03


Arrived at the nearest point to his destination on the Ohio, the emigrant either cut out a road to his new home or pushed up some tributary of that river in a keel-boat. If he was one of the poorer classes, he became a squatter on the public lands, trusting to find in the profits of his farming the means of paying for his land. Not uncommonly, after clearing the land, he sold his improvements to the actual purchaser, under the customary usage or by pre-emption laws. [Footnote: Hall, Statistics of the West, 180; Kingdom, America, 56; Peck, New Guide for Emigrants to the West (1837), 119-132.] With the money thus secured he would purchase new land in a remoter area, and thus establish himself as an independent land-owner. Under the credit system [Footnote: Emerick, Credit and the Public Domain.] which existed at the opening of the period, the settler purchased his land in quantities of not less than one hundred and sixty acres at two dollars per acre, by a cash payment of fifty cents per acre and the rest in installments running over a period of four years; but by the new law of 1820 the settler was permitted to buy as small a tract as eighty acres from the government at a minimum price of a dollar and a quarter per acre, without credit. The price of labor in the towns along the Ohio, coupled with the low cost of provisions, made it possible for even a poor day-laborer from the East to accumulate the necessary amount to make his land-purchase. [Footnote: See, for example, Peck, New Guide for Emigrants to the West (1837), 107-134; Bradbury, Travels, 286.]

Having in this way settled down either as a squatter or as a land- owner, the pioneer proceeded to hew out a clearing in the midst of the forest. [Footnote: Kingdom, America, 10, 54, 63; Flint, Letters, 206; McMaster, United States, V., 152-155; Howells, Life in Ohio, 115.] Commonly he had selected his lands with reference to the value of the soil, as indicated by the character of the hardwoods, but this meant that the labor of clearing was the more severe in good soil. Under the sturdy strokes of his axe the light of day was let into the little circle of cleared ground. [Footnote: Hall, Statistics of the West, 98, 101, 145.] With the aid of his neighbors, called together under the social attractions of a "raising," with its inevitable accompaniment of whiskey and a "frolic," he erected his log-cabin. "America," wrote Birkbeck, "was bred in a cabin." [Footnote: Birkbeck, Notes on Journey, 94.]

Having secured a foothold, the settler next proceeded to "girdle" or "deaden" an additional forest area, preparatory to his farming operations. This consisted in cutting a ring through the bark around the lower portion of the trunk, to prevent the sap from rising. In a short time the withered branches were ready for burning, and in the midst of the stumps the first crop of corn and vegetables was planted. Often the settler did not even burn the girdled trees, but planted his crop under the dead foliage.

In regions nearer to the east, as in western New York, it was sometimes possible to repay a large portion of the cost of clearing by the sale of pot and pearl ashes extracted from the logs, which were brought together into huge piles for burning. [Footnote: Life of Thurlow Weed (Autobiography), I., ii.] This was accomplished by a "log-rolling," under the united efforts of the neighbors, as in the case of the "raising." More commonly in the west the logs were wasted by burning, except such as were split into rails, which, laid one above another, made the zig-zag "worm-fences" for the protection of the fields of the pioneer.

When a clearing was sold to a later comer, fifty or sixty dollars, in addition to the government price of land, was commonly charged for forty acres, enclosed and partly cleared. [Footnote: Kingdom, America, 10, 54.] It was estimated that the cost of a farm of three hundred and twenty acres at the edge of the prairie in Illinois, at this time, would be divided as follows: for one hundred and sixty acres of prairie, two hundred dollars; for fencing it into four forty-acre fields with rail-fences, one hundred and sixty dollars; for breaking it up with a plough, two dollars per acre, or three hundred and twenty dollars; eighty acres of timber land and eighty acres of pasture prairie, two hundred dollars. Thus, with cabins, stables, etc., it cost a little over a thousand dollars to secure an improved farm of three hundred and twenty acres. [Footnote: J.M. Peck, Guide for Emigrants (1831), 183-188; cf. Birkbeck (London, 1818), Letters, 45, 46, 69-73; S.H. Collins, Emigrant's Guide; Tanner (publisher), View of the Valley of the Miss. (1834), 232; J. Woods, Two Years' Residence, 146, 172.] But the mass of the early settlers were too poor to afford such an outlay, and were either squatters within a little clearing, or owners of eighty acres, which they hoped to increase by subsequent purchase. Since they worked with the labor of their own hands and that of their sons, the cash outlay was practically limited to the original cost of the lands and articles of husbandry. The cost of an Indiana farm of eighty acres of land, with two horses, two or three cows, a few hogs and sheep, and farming utensils, was estimated at about four hundred dollars.

The peculiar skill required of the axeman who entered the hardwood forests, together with readiness to undergo the privations of the life, made the backwoodsman in a sense an expert engaged in a special calling. [Footnote: J. Hall, Statistics of the West, 101; cf. Chastellux, Travels in North America (London, 1787), I., 44.] Frequently he was the descendant of generations of pioneers, who, on successive frontiers, from the neighborhood of the Atlantic coast towards the interior, had cut and burned the forest, fought the Indians, and pushed forward the line of civilization. He bore the marks of the struggle in his face, made sallow by living in the shade of the forest, "shut from the common air," [Footnote: Birkbeck, Notes on Journey, 105-114.] and in a constitution often racked by malarial fever. Dirt and squalor were too frequently found in the squatter's cabin, and education and the refinements of life were denied to him. Often shiftless and indolent, in the intervals between his tasks of forest-felling he was fonder of hunting than of a settled agricultural life. With his rifle he eked out his sustenance, and the peltries furnished him a little ready cash. His few cattle grazed in the surrounding forest, and his hogs fed on its mast.

The backwoodsman of this type represented the outer edge of the advance of civilization. Where settlement was closer, co-operative activity possible, and little villages, with the mill and retail stores, existed, conditions of life were ameliorated, and a better type of pioneer was found. Into such regions circuit-riders and wandering preachers carried the beginnings of church organization, and schools were started. But the frontiersmen proper constituted a moving class, ever ready to sell out their clearings in [Footnote: Babcock, Forty Years of Pioneer Life ("Journals and Correspondence of J.M. Peck"), 101.] order to press on to a new frontier, where game more abounded, soil was reported to be better, and where the forest furnished a welcome retreat from the uncongenial encroachments of civilization. If, however, he was thrifty and forehanded, the backwoodsman remained on his clearing, improving his farm and sharing in the change from wilderness life.

Behind the type of the backwoodsman came the type of the pioneer farmer. Equipped with a little capital, he often, as we have seen, purchased the clearing, and thus avoided some of the initial hardships of pioneer life. In the course of a few years, as saw- mills were erected, frame-houses took the place of the log-cabins; the rough clearing, with its stumps, gave way to well-tilled fields; orchards were planted; live-stock roamed over the enlarged clearing; and an agricultural surplus was ready for export. Soon the adventurous speculator offered corner lots in a new town-site, and the rude beginnings of a city were seen.

Thus western occupation advanced in a series of waves: [Footnote: J.M. Peck, New Guide to the West (Cincinnati, 1848), chap. iv.; T. Flint, Geography and Hist. of the Western States, 350 et seq.; J. Flint, Letters from America, 206; cf. Turner, Significance of the Frontier in American History, in Am. Hist. Assoc., Report 189

3, p. 214; McMaster, United States, V., 152-160.] the Indian was sought by the fur-trader; the fur-trader was followed by the frontiersman, whose live-stock exploited the natural grasses and the acorns of the forest; next came the wave of primitive agriculture, followed by more intensive farming and city life. All the stages of social development went on under the eye of the traveler as he passed from the frontier towards the east. Such were the forces which were steadily pushing their way into the American wilderness, as they had pushed for generations.

While thus the frontier folk spread north of the Ohio and up the Missouri, a different movement was in progress in the Gulf region of the west. In the beginning precisely the same type of occupation was to be seen: the poorer classes of southern emigrants cut out their clearings along rivers that flowed to the Gulf and to the lower Mississippi, and, with the opening of this decade, went in increasing numbers into Texas, where enterprising Americans secured concessions from the Mexican government. [Footnote: Garrison, Texas, chaps, xiii., xiv.; Wooten (editor), Comprehensive Hist. of Texas, I., chaps. viii., ix.; Texas State Hist. Assoc., Quarterly, VII., 29, 289; Bugbee, "Texas Frontier," in Southern Hist. Assoc., Publications, IV., 106.]

Almost all of the most recently occupied area was but thinly settled. It represented the movement of the backwoodsman, with axe and rifle, advancing to the conquest of the forest. But closer to the old settlements a more highly developed agriculture was to be seen. Hodgson, in 1821, describes plantations in northern Alabama in lands ceded by the Indians in 1818. Though settled less than two years, there were within a few miles five schools and four places of worship. One plantation had one hundred acres in cotton and one hundred and ten in corn, although a year and a half before it was wilderness. [Footnote: Hodgson, Letters from North Am., I., 269; see Riley (editor), "Autobiography of Lincecum," in Miss. Hist. Soc., Publications, VIII., 443, for the wanderings of a southern pioneer in the recently opened Indian lands of Georgia and the southwest in these years.]

But while this population of log-cabin pioneers was entering the Gulf plains, caravans of slave-holding planters were advancing from the seaboard to the occupation of the cotton-lands of the same region. As the free farmers of the interior had been replaced in the upland country of the south by the slaveholding planters, so now the frontiersmen of the southwest were pushed back from the more fertile lands into the pine hills and barrens. Not only was the pioneer unable to refuse the higher price which was offered him for his clearing, but, in the competitive bidding of the public land sales, [Footnote: Northern Ala. (published by Smith & De Land), 249; Brown, Hist. of Ala., 129-131; Brown, Lower South, 24-26.] the wealthier planter secured the desirable soils. Social forces worked to the same end. When the pioneer invited his slave-holding neighbor to a "raising," it grated on his sense of the fitness of things to have the guest appear with gloves, directing the gang of slaves which he contributed to the function. [Footnote: Smedes, A Southern Planter, 67.] Little by little, therefore, the old pioneer life tended to retreat to the less desirable lands, leaving the slave-holder in possession of the rich "buck-shot" soils that spread over central Alabama and Mississippi and the fat alluvium that lined the eastern bank of the Mississippi. Even to-day the counties of dense Negro population reveal the results of this movement of segregation.

By the side of the picture of the advance of the pioneer farmer, bearing his household goods in his canvas-covered wagon to his new home across the Ohio, must therefore be placed the picture of the southern planter crossing through the forests of western Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, or passing over the free state of Illinois to the Missouri Valley, in his family carriage, with servants, packs of hunting-dogs, and a train of slaves, their nightly camp-fires lighting up the wilderness where so recently the Indian hunter had held possession. [Footnote: Hodgson, Letters from North Am., I., 138; Niles' Register, XLIV., 222; Smedes, A Southern Planter, 52-54; Flint, Geography and History of the Western States, II., 350, 379; Bernhard, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Travels, II., chaps. xvi., xvii.]

But this new society had a characteristic western flavor. The old patriarchal type of slavery along the seaboard was modified by the western conditions in the midst of which the slave-holding interest was now lodged. Planters, as well as pioneer farmers, were exploiting the wilderness and building a new society under characteristic western influences. Rude strength, a certain coarseness of life, and aggressiveness characterized this society, as it did the whole of the Mississippi Valley. [Footnote: Baldwin, Flush Times in Ala.; cf. Gilmer, Sketches of Georgia, etc.] Slavery furnished a new ingredient for western forces to act upon. The system took on a more commercial tinge: the plantation had to be cleared and made profitable as a purely business enterprise.

The slaves were purchased in considerable numbers from the older states instead of being inherited in the family. Slave-dealers passed to the southwest, with their coffles of Negroes brought from the outworn lands of the old south. It was estimated in 1832 that Virginia annually exported six thousand slaves for sale to other states. [Footnote: Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 50.] An English traveler reported in 1823 that every year from ten to fifteen thousand slaves were sold from the states of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, and sent to the south. [Footnote: Blane, Excursion through U.S., 226; Hodgson, Letters from North Am., I., 194.] At the same time, illicit importation of slaves through New Orleans reached an amount estimated at from ten to fifteen thousand a year. [Footnote: Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 44.] It was not until the next decade that this incoming tide of slaves reached its height, but by 1830 it was clearly marked and was already transforming the southwest. Mississippi doubled the number of her slaves in the decade, and Alabama nearly trebled hers. In the same period the number of slaves of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina increased but slightly.

As the discussion of the south has already made clear, the explanation of this transformation of the southwest into a region of slave-holding planters lies in the spread of cotton into the Gulf plains. In 1811 this region raised but five million pounds of cotton; ten years later its product was sixty million pounds; and in 1826 its fields were white with a crop of over one hundred and fifty million pounds. It soon outstripped the seaboard south. Alabama, which had practically no cotton crop in 1811, and only ten million pounds in 1821, had in 1834 eighty-five million pounds, [Footnote: See table of cotton crop, ante, p. 47.] a larger crop than either South Carolina or Georgia.

Soon after 1830 the differences between the northern and southern portions of the Mississippi Valley were still further accentuated. (1) From New York and New England came a tide of settlement, in the thirties, which followed the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, and began to occupy the prairie lands which had been avoided by the southern axemen. This region then became an extension of the greater New England already to be seen in New York. (2) The southern pioneers in the northwest formed a transitional zone between this northern area and the slave states south of the Ohio. (3) In the Gulf plains a greater south was in process of formation, but by no means completely established. As yet it was a mixture of pioneer and planter, slave and free, profoundly affected by its western traits. [Footnote: Curry, "A Settlement in East Ala.," in Am. Hist. Magazine, II., 203.]

The different states of the south were steadily sending in bands of colonists. In Alabama, for example, the Georgians settled, as a rule, in the east; the Tennesseeans, moving from the great bend of the Tennessee River, were attracted to the northern and middle section; and the Virginians and Carolinians went to the west and southwest, following the bottom-lands near the rivers. [Footnote: Brown, Hist. of Ala., 129, 130; Northern Ala. (published bv Smith & De Land), pt. iv., 243 et seq.]

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