March To The West And Policies Of The 1820s
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Between 1803 and 1853, the United States extended its physical boundaries from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and the American people settled the Ohio, Mississippi, and lower Missouri Valleys. The lure of cheap land coupled with a transportation revolution provided the incentive for resettling and made vast migrations possible. And as the Western population grew, it subtly disoriented American politics, for it shifted the locus of political power from the eastern seaboard to the states which were emerging in the vast interior. Of primary significance was the development of turnpikes, of steamboats, and of canals. The goal of establishing a national transportation network was approaching fruition in 1820, and provided adequate communications between East and West.
The Early Transportation Revolution
The Patterns of Settlement. The great historian Frederick Jackson Turner, seeking an analogy with which to explain American westward expansion, compared it to the flow of water, which follows the path of least resistance. This image enabled him to explain why vast stretches of land remained unsettled while land further west possessed flourishing communities. The path west usually followed the river bottoms of valleys, especially those that provided gaps through the mountain ranges separating the eastern coast from the great river valleys of the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri, and those with gaps through the Rocky Mountains that barred the way to the Pacific coast. As early as the mid-eighteenth century, a traveler noted that there existed "the Great Wagon Road . . . through Virginia to Philadelphia distant 435 Miles." It followed old Indian trails through the Susquehanna and Shenandoah Valleys, terminating in the Piedmont of South Carolina. Until the American Revolution the flow of westward settlement had been largely southwestward.
The Turnpike Movement. At the time America achieved her independence, a network of roads bound the states together. Most were country roads that led from farms to nearby villages, usually conveniently located on a navigable stream. These roads were frequently mere ruts, supplemented in swampy places by "corduroy roads" that consisted of logs laid side by side. Bridges were uncommon, most river crossings being ferries or fords. Though these primitive roads provided a national means of communication, there was considerable agitation for the construction of state supported through roads. As a result of this agitation, a system of turnpikes, roads subsidized by tolls and chartered by the state to private stock companies, was developed. Some, like the Lancaster Turnpike in Pennsylvania, had been built upon already existing roads - in this case, the old Philadelphia-Lancaster-Pittsburgh road, first constructed during the French and Indian War. Farther south, running from Baltimore and by way of Washington up the Potomac Valley to Cumberland, Maryland, ran the Cumberland Road. In 1815 Congress, prompted by James Madison, who urged "the great importance of establishing throughout our country . . . roads and canals . . . executed under national authority," authorized the construction of the National Road, which was to run from Cumberland to Wheeling along the Ohio River.
The States and Turnpikes. In the final decade of the eighteenth century, New England launched a turnpike construction program that soon crisscrossed the region with good roads. After the War of 1812, New York extended its turnpike system from the border of Massachusetts to Buffalo, supplementing the Hudson and Mohawk route to the West. No less than 2,400 miles of turnpike were constructed by 1832 under Pennsylvania charter. Some 550 miles of similar road crossed New Jersey, providing speedy transit between New York and Philadelphia. In the South, though considerable agitation for roadbuilding existed, construction lagged. Westward migrants from the South passed either through the Cumberland Gap along the Wilderness Road into Kentucky, or farther south through the Saluda Gap into Tennessee. Under the Turnpike Act of 1817, Virginia after some delay completed in the 1840s the Staunton and Parkersburg Road and Northwestern Turnpike. South Carolina, less venturesome, constructed a number of causeways across the swampy coastal plain, and a road linking Columbia and Charleston.
Financing Turnpikes. In New England, New York, and New Jersey, turnpikes were financed with private funds; but in Pennsylvania, nearly one-third of the $6,000,000 expended by 1822 came from state funds. South Carolina and Indiana subsidized and owned their turnpikes; Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, though chartering private firms, invested state funds in turnpike stock. Most Southern and Western states agreed to match private funds with state appropriations. The exact amount of public funds appropriated for turnpikes is unknown, since counties and municipalities, whose records are no longer available, assisted their construction with local funds. The unwillingness of the public to pay tolls, however, dealt a deathblow to turnpike construction, and by the 1830s much of the turnpike system had been abandoned, or incorporated into the state-operated road system.
The Erie Canal. Canals were small in dimension and had had little success up to the end of the War of 1812. Then, in an act of foresight, the New York legislature in 1817 authorized the construction of the Erie Canal. This project called for the building of a 364-mile canal, running through the still unsettled wilderness between Albany and Buffalo. Under the guidance of DeWitt Clinton, engineering difficulties were overcome, and in 1825 the canal was completed. As each section of the canal was opened, it attracted phenomenal traffic; and in the first year of full operation, the canal earned tolls of more than half a million dollars. Traffic on the canal continued to increase until 1880.
Canals Elsewhere. New York's success with the Erie Canal triggered nationwide canal construction. Three types of canals were constructed: those designed to provide water routes between the Tidewater and upcountry in states along the Atlantic Ocean; those which linked Eastern waterways with the Ohio Valley or the Great Lakes; and those which connected the Mississippi-Ohio Valleys with the Great Lakes. Construction was particularly heavy in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, but the high costs - not only of building but of operation - in addition to inadequate traffic prevented most of these canals from making profits. And in the West, the coming of the railroad provided devastating competition. Public funds had been used to subsidize much of the heavy cost of canal construction, but New York's experience with the Erie Canal proved that a state could raise large sums for public works through the sale of state bonds. The states were joined in their effort by the federal government, which prior to 1860 made grants of 4,000,000 acres of public lands to canal companies, and invested $3,000,000, largely in the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. By 1840, a public and private expenditure of $125,000,000 had been made to build 3,326 miles of canal.
The Steamboat Era. The difficulty of transportation determined that early settlement in America be near water. Oceangoing craft were frequent sights in tidal streams, but adverse currents restricted much of the traffic to downstream movement. Crude rafts and flatboats were also commonplace, transporting interior produce to the ocean ports. In the Mississippi-Ohio system, vast quantities of goods were moved by these primitive methods to New Orleans. But such trips were time-consuming; a 1,950 mile trip from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, for example, usually took four months. The obvious dependence of the nation on water transportation at the beginning of the nineteenth century provided a strong incentive to develop craft that could move against the current and attain greater speed than that provided by the current.
Robert Fulton and John Stevens. In the last decade of the eighteenth century, experiments by John Fitch and William Henry demonstrated that the application of steam power to river craft was technically feasible. It was not until 1807, however, that Robert Fulton proved the commercial feasibility of steamboats on the Hudson River, and in 1809, John Stevens proved as much on the Delaware River. Fulton organized with Robert Livingston, under a New York charter, a company which obtained exclusive rights to navigate New York waters with steamboats. Stevens settled for plying the waters in and around Philadelphia.
Western Steamboats. In 1811, a successful steamboat journey from Pittsburgh to New Orleans inaugurated the era of Western steamboats. From a total of seventeen steamboats in 1817, the number had increased by 1855 to 727, providing service not only on the Mississippi and the Ohio, but also on their tributaries, and by 1860 steamboats were plying some 2,200 miles up the Missouri to Fort Benton, Montana. The frequent fluctuations of the river water levels, the often shallow flats, and the existence of numerous sandbars made the development of a peculiarly Western craft necessary. The inventive genius of Henry Shreve, Oliver Evans, Daniel French, and Stephen H. Long ultimately produced such a vehicle: a stately, but light, wooden steamboat that could navigate in as little as thirty inches of water. Until the eve of the Civil War these craft transported much of the bulky freight and many of the passengers in the West and South, but railroads during the '50s were making heavy inroads, and the heyday of the steamboat was passing.