The question is an onion. Keep peeling it and layers fall away but core questions remain. “They” is anyone who went West. “When” for our Western Fictioneers concern covers the fifty years from 1840 to 1890, but the fact is emigrating West started in 1620 (or maybe earlier, if you do not date your consciousness of American settling to Plymouth Rock). Ohio, Midwest, illustrates this migration: 1800: 45,000; 1820: 580,000; 1840: 1,400,000.
Some research and a lot more time spent with my chin in my hand (Rodin, forgive me) lead me to four reasons, with a couple of sub- elements thrown in. Please join me in my brief discussion by adding your comments: more reasons, better explanations, lively examples.
First, a short digression into an understanding of the notion of emigrating. It starts with the verb migrate. 1. to go from one country, region, or place to another. Synonyms: move, resettle, relocate. Antonyms: remain. There are other definitions less pertinent to our concern (to pass periodically from one region to another or to shift from one system to another) because our question is Why did they migrate? As in the title of the blog, Why did they go?
It remains to note that emigrate is to leave one country or region to settle in another and immigrate is to come to a country of which one is not a native. So everyone who went West migrated by emigrating and when they arrived they were immigrants. Doesn’t it make you wonder how the word “immigrants” was/is turned into a slur in some places and for some classes of people. But that is not today’s blog.
ReligionPlymouth Rock may serve as the first major and visible symbol of wholesale emigration for the primary reason of seeking an amenable locale to practice the religion of choice. Forgive me for not using the phrase, religious freedom. Neither that religion, nor the one that sought out Salt Lake City, nor the one that is seeking refuge in the U.S. today tolerates anything like religious freedom while they ask for the freedom to believe in the religion that organizes the people who are emigrating.
A few other groups went West to find a better place to practice their religion, some Friends, some Lutherans, and if you count Virginia as once West to someone, the Huguenots. In our Old West, however, one force consistently strove to convert a desert with one tree and three trappers in 1846 into a state of 260,000 population admitted in 1896. Beginning with its early flight from persecution to a place beyond the borders of the United States and through its missionary program that first created converts then preached the Gathering of Zion, the LDS Church had on its mind the creation of a Western Empire.
Indeed, the founding sheriff accepted his submersion in the local river and then removed his family to the arduous task of an overland trek. But could belief alone create such motivation?
EscapeThe motivation to escape provides no end of action-event sequences for our fiction. Oppression, poverty, and trouble cover most of the reasons for escape I can think of. Escape from oppression may often be the other side of the religious freedom coin, but it would appear two million Jews who escaped from oppression in Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, during our Old West years landed on U.S. shores. One study identifies 154,000 who settled in the West.
Escape from poverty is the mirror of opportunity, so the most interesting escape reasons lie in escape from trouble. Here all sorts of mayhem may be found. I wrote a blog earlier this year complaining about random violence in Western Fiction, and I underscore the complaint was about random not violence. Some young boys get in trouble because they breathe, some young girls, too; and, of course, the true creator of our Wild West was the Civil War. Its conduct bespoke unfathomable violence, to some, its aftermath justified more. The treatment of women may be overlooked, but should not be forgotten. Even in inexplicable violence, reason is the cause, not randomness.
Escape as one of the reasons for going West strikes me as a big reason for a small number. This is, of course, why we write fiction and why escape stories are so engrossing. Very few people need to escape the trouble they got into, but those who do travel uncertain and tortured paths.
OpportunityThe vast motivating opportunity was the chance to leave their status. Except for 13,000 Chinese in 1862 and a lot more in 1866, the majority of Americans who went West were of European origin and most of them were working class. That translated into three rigidly constricting facts of life: they were not rich, they were socially jailed, and they had no land. Land and wealth represent what could be achieved, but the simple opportunity, the prospect of social mobility, the notion of not living inside rigid boundaries, all of those added up to the feeling and the pursuit of freedom.
Opportunity was certainly the major force behind the grand migration. An organized religion moved only 260,000; a world-wide oppression may have moved only 150,000, and all the trouble in the nation probably moved fewer than a thousand (my guess, so yours is as good as mine). Yet from 1840 to 1890, while the entire country was growing from 17 million to 63 million, the West (not including Kansas or Nebraska as a result of the Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854) grew from 450 thousand to 7.8 million.
In short, some seven million people probably emigrated West for the opportunity it afforded. The concept of opportunity may often be very difficult to bring to life in fiction – how many store keepers have been conceived of as the leader in their community? Remember the one in High Noon? Fortunately, social mobility is also opportunity and it exudes human feeling.
LandLand and, its nourisher, water are symbolic and tangible and given to great dramatic tension. Some of this owes to the reality that it created wealth, and also, that it established empire, even if it was the family empire. The ownership of land held a symbolic importance almost as important as the right to practice a religion.
WealthGold provides the symbol. Second, perhaps, comes cattle. But the list is very long: railroads, banks, mineral rights, mines, oil, and you can add to the list. Perhaps nothing more than another example of the 1%, but the prospect drove and motivated many more than the 78,000 who made it. (I exaggerate by using that number. In fact, ample evidence suggests that income distribution in the West provided wealth for more than the 1% and a good life for disproportionately more than the rest of the U.S.)
AdventureAll of the above are a form of adventure and any character thinking about his motivation to go west cannot help but see and feel the adventure in the immediate reason that drives him. Still, my bet is there were some, mostly men, but even a woman or two, who went west simply for the hell of it. Because it was there.
A Very Short SummaryOnce examined, the reasons for migrating west all merge into that big one, opportunity. Somehow the symbolism strikes me as apt: The West is as big as it is because it is one big opportunity.
E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.