Monday, January 16, 2017

American Westward Migration

The end of the American Revolution unleased a rush to the frontier of staggering proportions. More so than even the migrations of the 1870s and 80s, Americans in the 1780s and 1790s were on the move. The population of Kentucky, for instance, rose from 12,000 in 1783 to 210,000 by 1800.[1]
Daniel Boone leading settlers into Kentucky.
As Joyce Appleby notes, Americans in the generation after independence pushed westward in nearly continuous chains of wagons, seeking new lands. They were mostly poor farmers, but were confident and aggressive; long before the term “manifest destiny” was coined, they were making it a reality, and justifying it with a moral imperative. “Westward migrating families viewed their taking up of land in the national domain as a movement to spread democratic institutions across the continent,” Appleby writes.[2]  As a traveling British naval officer and writer, Frederick Marryat would later say of these Americans that “wandering about seems engrafted in their nature…. They forever imagine that the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled.”[3]
The migrants to the frontier between the Revolution and the War of 1812 were a mix of Southerners and Pennsylvania residents, but they were drawn almost exclusively from the western portions of those states, and the distinction is important. As Frederick Jackson Turner notes in The Significance of the Frontier in American History, before the spread of cotton into the interior of the country, the distinction from Pennsylvania southwards was less North vs. South, but tidewater vs. interior.[4] The mostly poor Westerners chafed at continued political control from the coasts, where many of them had once been indentured servants or had been forced onto marginal land as wealthy landowners had monopolized the best. “The West was not conservative: buoyant, self-confidence and self-assertion were distinguishing traits in its composition,” wrote Turner. The western frontiersman, he added “had little patience with finely drawn distinctions or scruples of method.” He further wrote: “It followed from the lack of organized political life, from the atomic conditions of the backwoods society, that the individual was exalted and given free play. The West was another name for opportunity. Here were mines to be seized; fertile valleys to be pre-empted, all the natural resources open to the shrewdest and the boldest.”[5]
Although Turner’s overall thesis has been successfully challenged on a number of fronts since its appearance, he very correctly stated the frontier belief in opportunity that lay just over the horizon for most settlers. The political allegiance that this opportunity would flower under was, at least in early years, negotiable. As this westward push moved into Kentucky and Tennessee, it was spreading Americans and their traditions, but not inherently spreading American authority. Under the Articles of Confederation, and for some time after the new constitution was adopted, the American identity, like its government, was fragile, contentious, and uncertain. The same forces that unleashed the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791 were pushing migrants further away from their government in space and mind. Some, like Daniel Boone and Moses Austin, crossed into Spanish territory and took that nation’s citizenship. Others flirted with a variety of secessionist movements. Kentucky itself was born as a secession from coastal Virginia. To its restless citizens, who longed for the right to navigate the Mississippi River, if the United States could not provide them with it, they were willing to join any country – or create one if necessary – that could do so.[6]
The Mississippi Valley, showing the inherent unity of the river basin versus Eastern territories.
It was this geographic reality which led Westerners to see themselves as separate from the coastal regions and,
prior to the Louisiana Purchase, to flirt with separatism.
This was inherently dangerous for the young republic, and was brought home to Americans by the actions of French envoy/provocateur Edmond-Charles Genêt, who sought to dismember the United States from the outside and Senator William Blount, who sought to do so from the inside. Long before there was a plot among Americans to carve up Spanish territory, there was a “Spanish Conspiracy” to do the same to the young Republic. As Gordon Brown notes, “Separatism was in the air, encouraged by the British from Canada and the French and Spanish from Louisiana and Florida, all of whom wished – regardless of their own bitter rivalry – to limit the power of the new American Republic in the region west of the Appalachians.”[7]  
There was an alternative to separatism that naturally found more appeal: Western settlers who wanted access to the Mississippi could get it by attacking Spain directly. Spain was a convenient enemy for a number of reasons. Philosophically, Americans saw themselves as inheritors of all European dominions in North America, and for this reason, northern interests coveted Quebec for the same reason that western interests coveted Spanish territory. But Spain in particular was also hated. Americans were Protestant, but Westerners even more so. Americans in large numbers subscribed to a bias known as the “Black Legend” of Spain. “In the popular imagination,” explains Gordon Brown, “Spaniards generally came to be characterized as cruel, tyrannical, superstitious, intolerant or corrupt – or even all of these.”[8] Unlike Canada, moreover, Spain was extremely weak, with an over-extended empire stretching from the borders of Louisiana to Tierra del Fuego, and while its population was large, those provinces closest to America were mostly empty and weakly defended.
George Rogers Clark
In 1790, Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and James O’Fallon signed up thousands of men from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Kentucky for a filibuster into Spanish Louisiana. The operation was so open that advertisements were printed in Kentucky newspapers.[9] Three years later, Clark, working with Genêt, envisioned another scheme, which was suppressed by President George Washington. The 1794 Neutrality Act banned such expeditions, and to further halt them, Washington engaged in a policy of appointing influential Westerners to public jobs that tied them to the government.[10] In 1795, the Treaty of San Lorenzo opened the Mississippi to U.S. trade and briefly took away the major source of controversy. In 1798, however, Spain revoked the privilege, once again raising the specter of western settlers taking action on their own or doing so with the help of a foreign power. For Thomas Jefferson, elected to the presidency in 1800, the idea of separatism was not concerning, so long as it was multiple American republics living side-by-side in harmony.[11] Nonetheless, the prospect of a European power taking advantage of such discontent to create a colony or client state on American borders was very troubling, and became one of his prime motivations for the Louisiana Purchase, which he effected in 1803.[12]
The Louisiana Purchase, 1803
When news of the purchase arrived in the west, it was embraced enthusiastically, but even this did not sap enthusiasm for a Western action against Spain. The Spanish, who still controlled the territory– the French having not taken possession of it – were obstructing American takeover of the territory. In 1804, Aaron Burr conspired to attack Spain, but his plot was uncovered after his scheming partner, Gen. James Wilkinson, got cold feet. Furthermore, while settlers along the Mississippi River had secured their treasured goal of river access to the coast to ship their produce, other Americans in the Eastern Mississippi Territory were still blocked by Spanish possession of West Florida, which controlled the rivers that linked those American lands with the ocean. This situation led to a filibuster into Spanish territory east of Louisiana, which would ultimately have major implications for the later Gutiérrez-Magee incursion in the west.

[1] Laurie Winn Carlson, Seduced by the West: Jefferson’s America and the Lure of the Land Beyond the Mississippi (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 23.
[2] Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2001), 53.
[3] Appleby, 7.
[4] Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 28.
[5] Turner, 21.
[6] Stagg, 28.
[7] Brown, 19.
[8] Brown, 21.
[9] Carlson, 44.
[10] Ibid., 52.
[11] Carlson, 136.
[12] Brown, 11.

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