The nation was at peace after 1783. The states gave Congress control of the western lands and an effective system for population expansion was developed. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 abolished slavery in the area north of the Ohio River and promised statehood when a territory reached a threshold population, as Ohio did in 1803.
The first major movement west of the Appalachian mountains originated in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina as soon as the Revolutionary War ended in 1781. Pioneers housed themselves in a rough lean-to or at most a one-room log cabin. The main food supply at first came from hunting deer, turkeys, and other abundant game.
Clad in typical frontier garb, leather breeches, moccasins, fur cap, and hunting shirt, and girded by a belt from which hung a hunting knife and a shot pouch—all homemade—the pioneer presented a unique appearance. In a short time he opened in the woods a patch, or clearing, on which he grew corn, wheat, flax, tobacco, and other products, even fruit.
In a few years, the pioneer added hogs, sheep, and cattle, and perhaps acquired a horse. Homespun clothing replaced the animal skins. The more restless pioneers grew dissatisfied with over civilized life and uprooted themselves again to move 50 or hundred miles further west.
The land policy of the new nation was conservative, paying special attention to the needs of the settled East. The goals sought by both parties in the 1790–1820 era were to grow the economy, avoid draining away the skilled workers needed in the East, distribute the land wisely, sell it at prices that were reasonable to settlers yet high enough to pay off the national debt, clear legal titles, and create a diversified Western economy that would be closely interconnected with the settled areas with minimal risk of a breakaway movement. By the 1830s, however, the West was filling up with squatters who had no legal deed, although they may have paid money to previous settlers. The Jacksonian Democrats favoured the squatters by promising rapid access to cheap land. By contrast, Henry Clay was alarmed at the “lawless rabble” heading west who were undermining the utopian concept of a law-abiding, stable middle-class republican community. Rich southerners, meanwhile, looked for opportunities to buy high-quality land to set up slave plantations. The Free Soil movement of the 1840s called for low-cost land for free white farmers, a position enacted into law by the new Republican Party in 1862, offering free 160 acres homesteads to all adults, male and female, black and white, native-born or immigrant.
After winning the Revolutionary War (1783), American settlers in large numbers poured into the west. In 1788, American pioneers to the Northwest Territory established Marietta, Ohio, as the first permanent American settlement in the Northwest Territory.
In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed a trail for the Transylvania Company from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap into central Kentucky. It was later lengthened to reach the falls of the Ohio at Louisville. The Wilderness Road was steep and rough, and it could only be traversed on foot or horseback, but it was the best route for thousands of settlers moving into Kentucky. In some areas they had to face Indian attacks. In 1784 alone, Indians killed over 100 travellers on the Wilderness Road. Kentucky at this time had been depopulated—it was “empty of Indian villages.” However raiding parties sometimes came through. One of those intercepted was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, who was scalped in 1784 near Louisville.
The War of 1812 marked the final confrontation involving major British and Indian forces fighting to stop American expansion. The British war goal included the creation of an independent Indian state in the Midwest. American frontier militiamen under General Andrew Jackson defeated the Creeks and opened the Southwest, while militia under Governor William Henry Harrison defeated the Indian-British alliance at the Battle of the Thames in Canada in 1813. The death in battle of the Indian leader Tecumseh dissolved the coalition of hostile Indian tribes. Meanwhile, General Andrew Jackson ended the Indian military threat in the Southeast at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 in Alabama. In general, the frontiersmen battled the Indians with little help from the U.S. Army or the federal government.
To end the War of 1812 American diplomats negotiated the Treaty of Ghent, signed towards the end of 1814, with Britain. They rejected the British plan to set up an Indian state in U.S. territory south of the Great Lakes. They explained the American policy toward the acquisition of Indian lands:
The United States, while intending never to acquire lands from the Indians otherwise than peaceably, and with their free consent, are fully determined, in that manner, progressively, and in proportion as their growing population may require, to reclaim from the state of nature, and to bring into cultivation every portion of the territory contained within their acknowledged boundaries. In thus providing for the support of millions of civilized beings, they will not violate any dictate of justice or humanity; for they will not only give to the few thousand savages scattered over that territory an ample equivalent for any right they may surrender, but will always leave them the possession of lands more than they can cultivate, and more than adequate to their subsistence, comfort, and enjoyment, by cultivation. If this is a spirit of aggrandizement, the undersigned are prepared to admit, in that sense, its existence; but they must deny that it affords the slightest proof of an intention not to respect the boundaries between them and European nations, or of a desire to encroach upon the territories of Great Britain. They will not suppose that that Government will avow, as the basis of their policy towards the United States a system of arresting their natural growth within their territories, for the sake of preserving a perpetual desert for savages.
As settlers poured in, the frontier districts first became territories, with an elected legislature and a governor appointed by the president. Then when the population reached 100,000 the territory applied for statehood. Frontiersmen typically dropped the legalistic formalities and restrictive franchise favoured by eastern upper classes and adopting more democracy and more egalitarianism.
In 1810 the western frontier had reached the Mississippi River. St. Louis, Missouri, was the largest town on the frontier, the gateway for travel westward, and a principal trading centre for Mississippi River traffic and inland commerce but remained under Spanish control until 1803.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803
Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a man of the frontier and was keenly interested in expanding and exploring the West. Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the size of the nation at the cost of $15 million, or about $0.04 per acre ($256 million in 2019 dollars, less than 42 cents per acre). Federalists opposed the expansion, but Jeffersonians hailed the opportunity to create millions of new farms to expand the domain of land-owning yeomen; the ownership would strengthen the ideal republican society, based on agriculture, governed lightly, and promoting self-reliance and virtue, as well as form the political base for Jeffersonian Democracy.
France was paid for its sovereignty over the territory in terms of international law. Between 1803 and the 1870s, the federal government purchased the actual land from the Indian tribes then in possession of it. 20th-century accountants and courts have calculated the value of the payments made to the Indians, which included future payments of cash, food, horses, cattle, supplies, buildings, schooling, and medical care. In cash terms, the total paid to the tribes in the area of the Louisiana Purchase amounted to about $2.6 billion, or nearly $9 billion in 2016 dollars. Additional sums were paid to the Indians living east of the Mississippi for their lands, as well as payments to Indians living in parts of the west outside the Louisiana Purchase.
Even before the purchase, Jefferson was planning expeditions to explore and map the lands. He charged Lewis and Clark to “explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean; whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river may offer the most direct and practicable communication across the continent for commerce”. Jefferson also instructed the expedition to study the region’s native tribes (including their morals, language, and culture), weather, soil, rivers, commercial trading, and animal and plant life.
Entrepreneurs, most notably John Jacob Astor quickly seized the opportunity and expanded fur trading operations into the Pacific Northwest. Astor’s “Fort Astoria” (later Fort George), at the mouth of the Columbia River, became the first permanent white settlement in that area, although it was not profitable for Astor. He set up the American Fur Company in an attempt to break the hold that the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly had over the region. By 1820, Astor had taken over independent traders to create a profitable monopoly; he left the business as a multi-millionaire in 1834.