Migration Westward

The growing migration of settlers to the West was one of the major spurs to the American economy. At the time, Native American tribes were not considered Americans, but were viewed as foreign nations. This is shown by the fact that the United States entered into treaties with various Native American tribes, an action that was only allowed to take place between different nations. Thus, the economic activity of American Indians was not considered part of the American economy. When settlers moved into land that had once been Indian land, the economic activities in which they engaged became part of the economic activity of the nation. This caused the American gross national product (GNP) to grow.

In about 1783, a steady stream of soldiers, farmers, artisans and other individuals began moving westward to seek greater opportunities and to elude their debts. By 1790, about 200,000 people, not including Native Americans, were in the territory west of the Allegheny Mountains. The natural resources available in the West allowed many Americans from the East to contribute to the American economic productivity. Once settlers established relatively stable settlements out West, they generally worked as fur trappers and traders or as farmers. Jacob Astor, one of the richest people in the United States at his time, used the resources of the West to produce enormous profits when he founded the American Fur Company in 1808. In addition, ancillary businesses, created to serve the needs of the settlers, also gradually developed. Before long, entire towns had evolved.

The inclusion of more and more territory in the West, including the admittance of new states to the Union, almost automatically resulted in an increase in the amount of agricultural and other goods being produced by the United States. The nation's potential economic output increased even further with the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country with the stroke of a pen and the payment of $12,000,000. The Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as other expeditions by Capt. Roger Gray and Lt. Zebulon Pike, established the American claim to the land. Their reports encouraged many settlers to expand the frontier further west, past the Mississippi, and into the Louisiana Territory.

The idea of the West gave hope to many Americans who had not experienced good fortune in their previous endeavors. If things did not go well in the East, one could always pack up and head out to the vast world of opportunity and adventure which life on the frontier represented. The reality of the West was usually much harsher and mundane than the idea of it, but this did not deter many from forging successful lives in the wilderness. In a nation short on labor, the existence of economic opportunity in the West may have improved conditions for laborers in the East. Except for those held in slavery or indentured servitude, workers could always leave a job if the conditions were cruel or unfair. Employers were certainly aware of this, and may have been restrained from exploiting labor too extensively.