The Start Of The Move West - The Mercantilist Tradition
land fertile indian north free westward western virginia
Free Land. The colonial labor problem was made even more difficult by the availability of free land. Workers who were dissatisfied with their jobs felt that a solution to their problems was to be had by moving west. By siphoning off these discontented colonials, the free land served as a safety valve; but few industries could really afford to lose large numbers of workers, no matter how discontented they might be. Many colonists who took advantage of the free land in the west, of course, were not motivated by negative influences, but by positive ones: they hoped to find fertile tracts along the frontier on which they could achieve independent status as farmers and landholders.
The desire to "strike out on one's own" - a natural tendency for the colonists - was encouraged and stimulated by land speculators who painted glowing pictures of the marvelous opportunities inherent in westward migration. Syndicates of speculators often withdrew large tracts of the most desirable land from immediate settlement; but though we might consider such speculation somewhat unethical, the practices were, on the whole, far from disreputable, and men as illustrious and upright as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin engaged in land speculation. The interest of such men, and the vast holdings of many of the colonies' finest families - such as the twenty-two million acres owned by the Penn family - whetted many an appetite and attracted the great no less than the small.
During the eighteenth century the aggressive westward movement of settlers in the British colonies precipitated Indian wars and was a major cause of the three great wars fought between the French and English on the North American continent. This steady influx of immigrants into the virgin wilderness gave the English a hold upon the western lands that insured ultimate Anglo-Saxon dominance.
The "Back-Country" Settlements. In the South immigrants in search of land settled in the "Back Country." This hilly, fertile, heavily forested region extended from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia southward through the piedmont of the Carolinas to the banks of the Savannah River. In 1730, only a handful of Indians dwelt in the area; by 1776, more than 250,000 settlers had poured into the region. In the colony of South Carolina, seventy-nine per cent of the white population lived in the back country. From the North, Pennsylvania Germans and the vigorous Scots-Irish penetrated the Great Valley of Virginia and traveled southwestward into the fertile river valleys of western Virginia. The settlements, which grew up wherever fertile soil existed, were often remote and isolated, connected only by old Indian trails, and it was possible to journey thirty or forty miles without coming upon human habitation.
The same phenomenon occurred farther north. The Scots-Irish poured into the twisted valleys of the Alleghenies, disregarding the rights of the Indian, and blaming the Quakers and other eastern Pennsylvanians for not protecting them from Indian disturbances which they themselves provoked. In spite of such problems, however, the lure of cheap land continued to guarantee a flow of immigrants. The vision of independence and security offered by tracts of fertile land was not to be easily dispelled by the attendant dangers.
Regional Rivalry. The frontiersman who migrated westward frequently encountered discrimination in his attempt to receive treatment similar to that given the resident of the older settlement in the east. As the move west continued, regional rivalry flared up more and more frequently. The interior counties of Virginia, though more heavily populated than the tidewater counties, were given fewer representatives in the House of Burgesses. A similar dispute divided the interior regions of Pennsylvania from the more highly developed area adjacent to Philadelphia. Complicating this dispute was the western Pennsylvanian's insistence that he was not given proper protection from the danger of Indian attacks. In North Carolina, the conviction of frontiersmen that they were being overtaxed culminated in a small scale civil war known as the Regulator Movement. From 1765 until 1771, when Governor Tryon's troops finally defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance, the North Carolinian frontiersmen were in continual rebellion against eastern authority. The complaint of the westerner that he was being exploited had firm roots in the colonial experience.
The Weakening of Royal Ties. Western expansion tended to dissolve traditional ties and allegiances. The squatter, absorbed in the all-consuming task of maintaining his way of life in the face of difficulty and danger, would not concern himself with the letter of a distant law. As he moved into the interior, the influence upon him of provincial as well as royal authority diminished until it scarcely existed. Indeed, it was upon this very point of frontier disobedience that the English scheme for achieving an orderly New World empire was destined, in part, to founder.
Westward migration had a leveling effect on society as men from a variety of cultures, backgrounds, and communities repudiated their restrictive pasts and merged with one another into a more homogeneous society. In addition, the doctrines of mercantilism, which had been so basic to the easterner's philosophy, were no longer acceptable to the frontiersman. Preoccupied with personal acquisition, forced into self-sufficiency, he was no longer able to concede those economic points which his eastern brothers verbalized so glibly, namely, that a sound economy was dependent upon reciprocal give and take. The frontier spirit emerged from the premise that nothing of value is easily received, and that nothing of value should be willingly relinquished. Before the end of the eighteenth century the British would learn that an enormous number of their colonials had become frontiersmen in spirit, if not in fact.