Pioneer life in America
Pioneer life in America, way of life characteristic of the people who first settled the western reaches of the continental United States. Pioneer life in America has two aspects. It is the story of migration and settlement. It is also an important part of American identity, one of the fundamental images Americans have of themselves, and an important part of the development of the country's values and customs.
In one sense, the pioneering life was characteristic of America from the beginning. The country's original settlers faced the same challenges, risks, and opportunities the pioneers later faced. But there are at least two important differences. America's original settlers were colonists and, to one degree or another, most came to America seeking refuge from Europe. By contrast, the pioneers were Americans or inspired by the optimism of a new nation. They were taking possession of a continent driven by the desire to own their own land, to make real the American promises of individual liberty and unlimited opportunity.
Pioneer life developed in two great migrations between 1760 and 1850. The first extended American settlement to the Mississippi Valley. It lasted from the late 1700s to the early 1800s and took in areas of what are now the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, and Illinois. The second migration, which continued into the 1850s, settled California, the Northwest, the Southwest and, eventually, the Great Plains. These migrations coincided with and were often triggered by political events, among them, the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War, and the acquisition of Oregon. The Gold Rush of 1848 was a powerful motivating force in the settlement of California. Settlement was also encouraged by generous federal land grant programs.
The focus of the first migration was the land beyond the Appalachian Mountains. The Appalachian barrier was breached by settlers using the Cumberland Gap and by trappers and frontiersmen who opened the Wilderness Road. In New York State, settlers followed the Mohawk Trail west and, as settlement progressed, steamboats carried settlers on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers beginning in 1811. The Erie Canal, opened in 1825, also made it easier for settlers to get to new lands.
The usual patterns of these migrations began with the trailblazing of frontiersmen, fur trappers, or explorers, men like Daniel Boone or Lewis and Clark. They were followed by the first wave of settlers, principally small farmers, who cleared the land. These settlers would often move on to virgin land and their places were taken by a second wave of settlers who established more permanent communities and, eventually, towns. The process was completed when towns were connected by roads, the post, and, above all, by the railroads. Upon arrival in a particular area, settlers might take possession of the land by purchase from a private company or from a federal land agent, or else by squatting.
The second great migration was undertaken by wagon trains called prairie schooners, larger versions of the older Conestoga wagons. A wagon train heading west would start in the spring in time to pass the Rocky Mountains before winter set in. Several known trails were followed, among them the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains, the South Pass across the Rockies to California, the Santa Fe Trail to the Southwest, and the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, hard on animals and people alike. Indians were a constant threat, especially as settlers began to clear and farm the Great Plains. Both migrations were marked by frequent bloody episodes between settlers and Native Americans and by warfare that eventually decimated the latter. Blacks also participated in the settlement of the west. Freed or escaped slaves helped settle the Northwest Territories comprising the states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, parts of Minnesota, and later Oregon. Slavery was forbidden in the Northwest Territory and black pioneers had an opportunity to begin new lives in those frontier regions.
The pioneers lived a rough, dangerous, and demanding life. The men had to be farmers, hunters, trappers, skilled carpenters, and skillful with weapons, especially the rifle. The women did much heavy farm work, raised and cared for the children, cooked, spun yarn, and wove cloth. There were no doctors and medical care had to be improvised. A serious illness or injury often meant death and epidemics were devastating. The pioneer diet was simple, consisting primarily of corn and game. Corn was preferred because it could be easily preserved and salt was used to preserve meat. Eventually, as conditions improved, so did diet, clothing, and the availability of other essentials. Pioneers built their own homes (often helping one another in the hard work), grew and hunted their own food, made their own yarn and cloth, bullets, candles, medicines, shoes, and other necessities. Their way of life fostered values of independence and self-reliance that were reinforced by religion and a strong sense of community. The struggles, hardships, and experiences of the first settlers continued to influence the later community. Values and attitudes were transmitted through stories that have become an essential part of American self awareness from the Leatherstocking novels of James Fennimore Cooper to the movies of John Ford.