Monday, September 5, 2016

Why did they go West?

Why did they migrate West? The third in my High Mountain Sheriff series, Founding Sheriff, tells the story of the man who apprenticed as a cooper in Bury, Lancashire, England.  He took his wife and five year-old son and moved West.  In the story, good fiction requires that the discovery of the reason be dramatized, not analyzed.  Here, in the first Monday blog, I invite you to work with me on the analysis to help me understand.  Why?

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.


Plymouth 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?


The 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.


The 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.


Land 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.

Almost the entirety of America’s immigrants arrived on these shores because they could not afford or were not allowed to own land.  Looking merely to the population numbers above, it follows logically that more than 10% of those immigrants kept going west in search of the promise of owning their own land.  The fulfillment of this promise, while euphoric, had its inhuman, even evil, underbelly: the treatment of the Native Americans from whom almost all of this land was taken away—even when purchased.


Gold 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.)


All 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 Summary

Once 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.


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post, Edward! You know, as a woman, I've often thought--what would I do if I was married to someone, and we had our happy little life back in Philadelphia and he came home one night and announced, "Sweetheart, I've decided we're going to pick up and move to Indian Territory. There's plenty of opportunity there." Women were so trained to "go along and get along" back then, I'm sure most of them had no say in going or not going--as divorce was out of the question in most cases. They just had to go along and endure whatever happened--deaths of their children, of their spouse, or even themselves; being taken hostage by any number of entities; and can you imagine trying to put meals together on that long trek for a family--especially if the woman was pregnant again?

    I would say, the best window of "opportunity" for a woman going west might be the mail-order brides, or others looking for a husband. Or maybe those looking for a good time--far from their staid relatives--as a saloon girl, etc. Of course there would be those who were seeking adventure of their own, or those who wanted to make a difference somehow with their religious beliefs.

    For the most part though, I can't imagine a wife/mother welcoming the news of traveling west with a wagon train and leaving everything familiar and civilized behind. Those were some strong women.

    You have me thinking, Edward!

    1. Cheryl,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I can certainly see the dramatic issues available to a woman's point of view on this issue. I had not thought enough about how the decision effected them and, more importantly, how often it was the woman's decision. Both strike me as important to the story.

  2. Edward, many of the laws in Texas were handed down from the Spaniards via Queen Isabella. They gave women much more freedom than they had elsewhere. There were quite a few unmarried women who came to Texas because they could acquire property.

    However, the state was also full of rascally lawyers and doctors evading malpractice suits in the East.

    Most of my ancestors came because of one thing, free land.


    1. Vicky,
      Very interesting. It is a culture I know little of, so it fascinates me that women had more property rights. In the French speaking/influence portions of our country, they had even fewer rights than in the English. Edward

  3. Having grown up close to the jumping off point for the Westward expansion from the Mississippi, your post does what you wanted, questioning.
    For myself and my research on Doctors, primarily women doctors, the West with its health benefits seemed to create a less rigid society. Some of these doctors came with husbands, others came alone. All seemed to go West for a combination of freedom and opportunity. I will point out, both LDS and Friends encouraged women to take up the health profession early on in that movement. Doris

    1. Doris,
      I am interested in your comments on the LDS and Friends. In general, it was the U.S. Government that tried to deprive women of rights and privileges and it was particularly the case in their long-running battle with the LDS. Edward

    2. Edward, here are some links that give a brief history of Friend and LDS women doctor history. Doris

  4. My great-great-grandfather came west with the Brigham Young party. He was working for the Council Bluffs Indian Agency and living on the Loup River in Nebraska as a farmer to the Pawnees. He had been brought up as a Presbyterian, but he joined the Mormons and was made Captain of a Hundred Wagons to assist them through Indian Territory. He came west for the opportunity available and he was ready to quit the Agency.

  5. Oscar,
    This is my perception exactly. It looks like he went West for religion (joining the Mormon church), but that decision was a vehicle for pursuing opportunity at the right moment. I think these kinds of complexities make great motivation in fiction.

  6. Therea re some additional sub-reasons. Many forget that there were virtually continuous wars in Europe, virtually non-stop and that includes from the 1860s through the 1880s. One of the few movies mentioning that was "The Salvation." The protag had been on the losing side the the Denmark-Germany War. My first ancestor immigrating to Missouri in 1847 was dodging the Prussian draft.

  7. Thanks, Gordo,
    That is a very valid addition to escape as a reason. I appreciate the contribution. Edward