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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Spirit of the Frontier · CHAPTER X·»

The West and the East Meet

The East Alarmed.—A people so independent as the Westerners and so attached to local self-government gave the conservative East many a rude shock, setting gentlemen in powdered wigs and knee breeches agog with the idea that terrible things might happen in the Mississippi Valley. Not without good grounds did Washington fear that “a touch of a feather would turn” the Western settlers away from the seaboard to the Spaniards; and seriously did he urge the East not to neglect them, lest they be “drawn into the arms of, or be dependent upon foreigners.” Taking advantage of the restless spirit in the Southwest, Aaron Burr, having disgraced himself by killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, laid wild plans, if not to bring about a secession in that region, at least to build a state of some kind out of the Spanish dominions adjoining Louisiana. Frightened at such enterprises and fearing the dominance of the West, the Federalists, with a few conspicuous exceptions, opposed equality between the sections. Had their narrow views prevailed, the West, with its new democracy, would have been held in perpetual tutelage to the seaboard or perhaps been driven into independence as the thirteen colonies had been not long before.

Eastern Friends of the West.—Fortunately for the nation, there were many Eastern leaders, particularly from the South, who understood the West, approved its spirit, and sought to bring the two sections together by common bonds. Washington kept alive and keen the zeal for Western advancement which he acquired in his youth as a surveyor. He never grew tired of urging upon his Eastern friends the importance of the lands beyond the mountains. He pressed upon the governor of Virginia a project for a wagon road connecting the seaboard with the Ohio country and was active in a movement to improve the navigation of the Potomac. He advocated strengthening the ties of commerce. “Smooth the roads,” he said, “and make easy the way for them, and then see what an influx of articles will be poured upon us; how amazingly our exports will be increased by them; and how amply we shall be compensated for any trouble and expense we may encounter to effect it.” Jefferson, too, was interested in every phase of Western development—the survey of lands, the exploration of waterways, the opening of trade, and even the discovery of the bones of prehistoric animals. Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, was another man of vision who for many years pressed upon his countrymen the necessity of uniting East and West by a canal which would cement the union, raise the value of the public lands, and extend the principles of confederate and republican government.

The Difficulties of Early Transportation.—Means of communication played an important part in the strategy of all those who sought to bring together the seaboard and the frontier. The produce of the West—wheat, corn, bacon, hemp, cattle, and tobacco—was bulky and the cost of overland transportation was prohibitive. In the Eastern market, “a cow and her calf were given for a bushel of salt, while a suit of ’store clothes’ cost as much as a farm.” In such circumstances, the inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley were forced to ship their produce over a long route by way of New Orleans and to pay high freight rates for everything that was brought across the mountains. Scows of from five to fifty tons were built at the towns along the rivers and piloted down the stream to the Crescent City. In a few cases small ocean-going vessels were built to transport goods to the West Indies or to the Eastern coast towns. Salt, iron, guns, powder, and the absolute essentials which the pioneers had to buy mainly in Eastern markets were carried over narrow wagon trails that were almost impassable in the rainy season.

The National Road.—To far-sighted men, like Albert Gallatin, “the father of internal improvements,” the solution of this problem was the construction of roads and canals. Early in Jefferson’s administration, Congress dedicated a part of the proceeds from the sale of lands to building highways from the headwaters of the navigable waters emptying into the Atlantic to the Ohio River and beyond into the Northwest territory. In 1806, after many misgivings, it authorized a great national highway binding the East and the West. The Cumberland Road, as it was called, began in northwestern Maryland, wound through southern Pennsylvania, crossed the narrow neck of Virginia at Wheeling, and then shot almost straight across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, into Missouri. By 1817, stagecoaches were running between Washington and Wheeling; by 1833 contractors had carried their work to Columbus, Ohio, and by 1852, to Vandalia, Illinois. Over this ballasted road mail and passenger coaches could go at high speed, and heavy freight wagons proceed in safety at a steady pace.

The Cumberland Road

Canals and Steamboats.—A second epoch in the economic union of the East and West was reached with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, offering an all-water route from New York City to the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. Pennsylvania, alarmed by the advantages conferred on New York by this enterprise, began her system of canals and portages from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, completing the last link in 1834. In the South, the Chesapeake and Ohio Company, chartered in 1825, was busy with a project to connect Georgetown and Cumberland when railways broke in upon the undertaking before it was half finished. About the same time, Ohio built a canal across the state, affording water communication between Lake Erie and the Ohio River through a rich wheat belt. Passengers could now travel by canal boat into the West with comparative ease and comfort, if not at a rapid speed, and the bulkiest of freight could be easily handled. Moreover, the rate charged for carrying goods was cut by the Erie Canal from $32 a ton per hundred miles to $1. New Orleans was destined to lose her primacy in the Mississippi Valley.

The diversion of traffic to Eastern markets was also stimulated by steamboats which appeared on the Ohio about 1810, three years after Fulton had made his famous trip on the Hudson. It took twenty men to sail and row a five-ton scow up the river at a speed of from ten to twenty miles a day. In 1825, Timothy Flint traveled a hundred miles a day on the new steamer Grecian “against the whole weight of the Mississippi current.” Three years later the round trip from Louisville to New Orleans was cut to eight days. Heavy produce that once had to float down to New Orleans could be carried upstream and sent to the East by way of the canal systems.

An Early Mississippi Steamboat
From an old print
An Early Mississippi Steamboat

Thus the far country was brought near. The timid no longer hesitated at the thought of the perilous journey. All routes were crowded with Western immigrants. The forests fell before the ax like grain before the sickle. Clearings scattered through the woods spread out into a great mosaic of farms stretching from the Southern Appalachians to Lake Michigan. The national census of 1830 gave 937,000 inhabitants to Ohio; 343,000 to Indiana; 157,000 to Illinois; 687,000 to Kentucky; and 681,000 to Tennessee.

Distribution of Population, 1830

With the increase in population and the growth of agriculture came political influence. People who had once petitioned Congress now sent their own representatives. Men who had hitherto accepted without protests Presidents from the seaboard expressed a new spirit of dissent in 1824 by giving only three electoral votes for John Quincy Adams; and four years later they sent a son of the soil from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, to take Washington’s chair as chief executive of the nation—the first of a long line of Presidents from the Mississippi basin.


W.G. Brown, The Lower South in American History.

B.A. Hinsdale, The Old North West (2 vols.).

A.B. Hulbert, Great American Canals and The Cumberland Road.

T. Roosevelt, Thomas H. Benton.

P.J. Treat, The National Land System (1785-1820).

F.J. Turner, Rise of the New West (American Nation Series).

J. Winsor, The Westward Movement.


1. How did the West come to play a rôle in the Revolution?

2. What preparations were necessary to settlement?

3. Give the principal provisions of the Northwest Ordinance.

4. Explain how freehold land tenure happened to predominate in the West.

5. Who were the early settlers in the West? What routes did they take? How did they travel?

6. Explain the Eastern opposition to the admission of new Western states. Show how it was overcome.

7. Trace a connection between the economic system of the West and the spirit of the people.

8. Who were among the early friends of Western development?

9. Describe the difficulties of trade between the East and the West.

10. Show how trade was promoted.

Research Topics

Northwest Ordinance.—Analysis of text in Macdonald, Documentary Source Book. Roosevelt, Winning of the West, Vol. V, pp. 5-57.

The West before the Revolution.—Roosevelt, Vol. I.

The West during the Revolution.—Roosevelt, Vols. II and III.

Tennessee.—Roosevelt, Vol. V, pp. 95-119 and Vol. VI, pp. 9-87.

The Cumberland Road.—A.B. Hulbert, The Cumberland Road.

Early Life in the Middle West.—Callender, Economic History of the United States, pp. 617-633; 636-641.

Slavery in the Southwest.—Callender, pp. 641-652.

Early Land Policy.—Callender, pp. 668-680.

Westward Movement of Peoples.—Roosevelt, Vol. IV, pp. 7-39.

Lists of books dealing with the early history of Western states are given in Hart, Channing, and Turner, Guide to the Study and Reading of American History (rev. ed.), pp. 62-89.

Kentucky.—Roosevelt, Vol. IV, pp. 176-263.

«·The Spirit of the Frontier · CHAPTER X·»