<Standard 5.33.................................................................................................................................Standard 5.35>

Explain the reasons that pioneers moved west from the beginning to the middle of the 19th century, and describe their lives on the frontier.


Photograph of a wagon train.  Mid-19th Century
Photograph of a wagon train. Mid-19th Century


Focus Question: What motivated westward expansion by the pioneers and what were their lives on the frontier?



external image Agregateur_Poietique.gif


map_icon.jpegClick here for a virtual tour of the Oregon Trail, 1843.

Push and Pull reasons why the pioneers moved West


Historians discuss push/pull factors in why people moved from the east (places like Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and New York) to the west.
  • Pioneer settlers were sometimes pushed west because they couldn't find good jobs that paid enough. Others had trouble finding land to farm. With more and more people from Europe moving into the eastern states, crowding was sometimes a problem. Still others wanted to move from their homes in the east because they didn't like the new industries and the developing cities.
Chinese man mining along a river
Chinese man mining along a river

  • Pioneer settlers were sometimes pulled west because they wanted to make a better living. Others received letters from friends or family members who had moved west. These letters often told about a good life on the frontier. The biggest factor that pulled pioneers west was the opportunity to buy land. Pioneers could purchase land for a small price compared to what it cost in states to the east.

With the much newly acquired land from the Louisiana Purchase and the Annexation of Texas, President Thomas Jefferson chose William Clark and Meriwether Lewis to explore these newly purchased lands since little was known about them.

Rotating_globe-small.gifNot everyone came to the West from the eastern part of the United States. Chinese and Japanese immigrants came from Asia to the western frontier.

Lives on the Frontier

Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Alan Hale (Sr.), Ronald Reagan & Errol Flynn in Santa Fe Trail (1940)
Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Alan Hale (Sr.), Ronald Reagan & Errol Flynn in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

The travels of the Pioneers varied among their travels. They commonly used trails such as the Oregon Trail and the Natchez Trail on their journey.

The Pioneers traveled in a wagon called a covered wagon. The wagon was usually a wooden wagon made of hickory, oak, or maple. A wooden piece made from hickory stuck out from the front of the wagon. This piece called a tongue was connected to the yoke of the oxen, mules, or horses.
  • The wagon could not carry more than 2,000 pounds.
  • It had big wooden hoops, called bows that were bent from side to side.
  • There would be 4 to 7 wooden hoops on one wagon.
  • There was a canvas pulled across the hoops that would keep out the rain, wind, and the hot sunshine.
  • Pioneers would rub oil on the canvas to make it waterproof. Inside the wagon there were many hooks that hung from the wooden hoops. They could hang weapons, clothes, milk cans, and anything there was room for.
  • The front wheels of the wagon were smaller than the back wheels. This helped the wagon turn. Underneath the back wheels there was a bucket full of grease hanging from the axle. This was used to make the wheels run smoothly.
  • The Conestoga wagons were called prairie schooners because from a distance the conestoga wagon looked like a ship sailing slowly across the green prairie.

Traveling in a wagon was not an easy trip. There were many things that could go wrong. Some wagon wheels would break or there would be no water. If they ran out of food they would need to hunt. When they were on the trail it was very noisy because all the pots and pans hanging off the wagons were clanging against each other.

They would take as many supplies as they could with them. Some of the the food they would take included: yeast for baking, crackers, cornmeal, bacon, eggs, dried meat, potatoes, rice, beans, and a big barrel of water. The pioneers might even take some chocolate for special occasions. They would also take a cow if they had one. They would use it for milk and meat. Pioneers made their own clothing so they brought cloth to sew, needles, thread, pins, scissors, and leather to fix worn-out shoes. They had to make their own repairs so they brought saws, hammers, axes, nails, string and knives.