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

«·THE MIDDLE BORDER AND THE GREAT WEST · On to the Pacific—Texas and the Mexican War·»

The Advance of the Middle Border

Missouri.—When the middle of the nineteenth century had been reached, the Mississippi River, which Daniel Boone, the intrepid hunter, had crossed during Washington’s administration “to escape from civilization” in Kentucky, had become the waterway for a vast empire. The center of population of the United States had passed to the Ohio Valley. Missouri, with its wide reaches of rich lands, low-lying, level, and fertile, well adapted to hemp raising, had drawn to its borders thousands of planters from the old Southern states—from Virginia and the Carolinas as well as from Kentucky and Tennessee. When the great compromise of 1820-21 admitted her to the union, wearing “every jewel of sovereignty,” as a florid orator announced, migratory slave owners were assured that their property would be safe in Missouri. Along the western shore of the Mississippi and on both banks of the Missouri to the uttermost limits of the state, plantations tilled by bondmen spread out in broad expanses. In the neighborhood of Jefferson City the slaves numbered more than a fourth of the population.

Into this stream of migration from the planting South flowed another current of land-tilling farmers; some from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, driven out by the onrush of the planters buying and consolidating small farms into vast estates; and still more from the East and the Old World. To the northwest over against Iowa and to the southwest against Arkansas, these yeomen laid out farms to be tilled by their own labor. In those regions the number of slaves seldom rose above five or six per cent of the population. The old French post, St. Louis, enriched by the fur trade of the Far West and the steamboat traffic of the river, grew into a thriving commercial city, including among its seventy-five thousand inhabitants in 1850 nearly forty thousand foreigners, German immigrants from Pennsylvania and Europe being the largest single element.

Arkansas.—Below Missouri lay the territory of Arkansas, which had long been the paradise of the swarthy hunter and the restless frontiersman fleeing from the advancing borders of farm and town. In search of the life, wild and free, where the rifle supplied the game and a few acres of ground the corn and potatoes, they had filtered into the territory in an unending drift, “squatting” on the land. Without so much as asking the leave of any government, territorial or national, they claimed as their own the soil on which they first planted their feet. Like the Cherokee Indians, whom they had as neighbors, whose very customs and dress they sometimes adopted, the squatters spent their days in the midst of rough plenty, beset by chills, fevers, and the ills of the flesh, but for many years unvexed by political troubles or the restrictions of civilized life.

Unfortunately for them, however, the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and Arkansas were well adapted to the cultivation of cotton and tobacco and their sylvan peace was soon broken by an invasion of planters. The newcomers, with their servile workers, spread upward in the valley toward Missouri and along the southern border westward to the Red River. In time the slaves in the tier of counties against Louisiana ranged from thirty to seventy per cent of the population. This marked the doom of the small farmer, swept Arkansas into the main current of planting politics, and led to a powerful lobby at Washington in favor of admission to the union, a boon granted in 1836.

Michigan.—In accordance with a well-established custom, a free state was admitted to the union to balance a slave state. In 1833, the people of Michigan, a territory ten times the size of Connecticut, announced that the time had come for them to enjoy the privileges of a commonwealth. All along the southern border the land had been occupied largely by pioneers from New England, who built prim farmhouses and adopted the town-meeting plan of self-government after the fashion of the old home. The famous post of Detroit was growing into a flourishing city as the boats plying on the Great Lakes carried travelers, settlers, and freight through the narrows. In all, according to the census, there were more than ninety thousand inhabitants in the territory; so it was not without warrant that they clamored for statehood. Congress, busy as ever with politics, delayed; and the inhabitants of Michigan, unable to restrain their impatience, called a convention, drew up a constitution, and started a lively quarrel with Ohio over the southern boundary. The hand of Congress was now forced. Objections were made to the new constitution on the ground that it gave the ballot to all free white males, including aliens not yet naturalized; but the protests were overborne in a long debate. The boundary was fixed, and Michigan, though shorn of some of the land she claimed, came into the union in 1837.

Wisconsin.—Across Lake Michigan to the west lay the territory of Wisconsin, which shared with Michigan the interesting history of the Northwest, running back into the heroic days when French hunters and missionaries were planning a French empire for the great monarch, Louis XIV. It will not be forgotten that the French rangers of the woods, the black-robed priests, prepared for sacrifice, even to death, the trappers of the French agencies, and the French explorers—Marquette, Joliet, and Menard—were the first white men to paddle their frail barks through the northern waters. They first blazed their trails into the black forests and left traces of their work in the names of portages and little villages. It was from these forests that Red Men in full war paint journeyed far to fight under the fleur-de-lis of France when the soldiers of King Louis made their last stand at Quebec and Montreal against the imperial arms of Britain. It was here that the British flag was planted in 1761 and that the great Pontiac conspiracy was formed two years later to overthrow British dominion.

When, a generation afterward, the Stars and Stripes supplanted the Union Jack, the French were still almost the only white men in the region. They were soon joined by hustling Yankee fur traders who did battle royal against British interlopers. The traders cut their way through forest trails and laid out the routes through lake and stream and over portages for the settlers and their families from the states “back East.” It was the forest ranger who discovered the water power later used to turn the busy mills grinding the grain from the spreading farm lands. In the wake of the fur hunters, forest men, and farmers came miners from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri crowding in to exploit the lead ores of the northwest, some of them bringing slaves to work their claims. Had it not been for the gold fever of 1849 that drew the wielders of pick and shovel to the Far West, Wisconsin would early have taken high rank among the mining regions of the country.

From a favorable point of vantage on Lake Michigan, the village of Milwaukee, a center for lumber and grain transport and a place of entry for Eastern goods, grew into a thriving city. It claimed twenty thousand inhabitants, when in 1848 Congress admitted Wisconsin to the union. Already the Germans, Irish, and Scandinavians had found their way into the territory. They joined Americans from the older states in clearing forests, building roads, transforming trails into highways, erecting mills, and connecting streams with canals to make a network of routes for the traffic that poured to and from the Great Lakes.

Iowa and Minnesota.—To the southwest of Wisconsin beyond the Mississippi, where the tall grass of the prairies waved like the sea, farmers from New England, New York, and Ohio had prepared Iowa for statehood. A tide of immigration that might have flowed into Missouri went northward; for freemen, unaccustomed to slavery and slave markets, preferred the open country above the compromise line. With incredible swiftness, they spread farms westward from the Mississippi. With Yankee ingenuity they turned to trading on the river, building before 1836 three prosperous centers of traffic: Dubuque, Davenport, and Burlington. True to their old traditions, they founded colleges and academies that religion and learning might be cherished on the frontier as in the states from which they came. Prepared for self-government, the Iowans laid siege to the door of Congress and were admitted to the union in 1846.

Above Iowa, on the Mississippi, lay the territory of Minnesota—the home of the Dakotas, the Ojibways, and the Sioux. Like Michigan and Wisconsin, it had been explored early by the French scouts, and the first white settlement was the little French village of Mendota. To the people of the United States, the resources of the country were first revealed by the historic journey of Zebulon Pike in 1805 and by American fur traders who were quick to take advantage of the opportunity to ply their arts of hunting and bartering in fresh fields. In 1839 an American settlement was planted at Marina on the St. Croix, the outpost of advancing civilization. Within twenty years, the territory, boasting a population of 150,000, asked for admission to the union. In 1858 the plea was granted and Minnesota showed her gratitude three years later by being first among the states to offer troops to Lincoln in the hour of peril.

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