Ohio History Journal

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Restless Americans: The Geographic

Mobility of Farm Laborers in the

Old Midwest, 1850-1870



Groups of people moving westward with their families and belongings

were a common sight for residents of the Midwest in the nineteenth

century. Observers and diarists commented on the westward movement

at the time, and it later became an important consideration in historians'

study of the frontier. There were many motives for people joining the

westward-moving stream: increased population and crowding in the

East; opportunity to acquire cheap land on the frontier; the discovery

of gold and silver in California, Nevada, and other areas-all spurred

the spirit of adventure that seemed to possess many men's minds. While

these general factors encouraged migration, other more personal condi-

tions almost certainly influenced the individual's decision. The purpose

of this work is to look closely at the lives of six groups of men in an

effort to determine what factors influenced their decisions to move or

to stay where they were.

The members of the groups considered here were farm laborers, each

group being made up of the entire farm laborer population of one of six se-

lected townships-one to the north and one to the south in each of the

states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The townships were selected because

of their geographic locations and their stages of development in 1850.

They are Harrison Township, Ross County, Ohio; Salem Township,

Wyandot County, Ohio; Van Buren Township, Monroe County, Indiana;

Scipio Township, La Porte County, Indiana; New Design Township,

Monroe County, Illinois; and Campton Township, Kane County, Illinois.

Harrison, Van Buren, and New Design Townships are in the hilly, south-

ern portions of their states, in regions where farms were smaller and less

fertile in 1850 than in Salem, Scipio, and Campton Townships, which lie in

the fertile, prairie-like regions of the northern parts of the three states.

The two major groups of geographic characteristics add still another

factor to consider in attempts to determine reasons for mobility.

Historians of the westward movement have presented a number of




Rebecca A. Shepherd is Assistant Professor of History at Indiana State University.