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How and Why Did They End Up in Podunk?


We are a nation of immigrants - people who left a homeland for various reasons. Our founding fathers left England primarily for religious freedom. They brought with them others who were servants and others who paid for their passage for their own personal reasons. The Spaniards had claimed Florida, Mexico and what is now Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California. Russia claimed Alaska and most of Washington and Oregon while the Native Americans were found throughout the continent. The Scots-Irish, Swedes, and Germans followed the English in establishing their own identities in parts of the new land in New England, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina. Englishman George Oglethorpe established his colony of debtors in Savannah, Georgia. So many people crowding into an area limited by natural boundries. The western frontier began to move while some moved on but many stayed in the safety of their burgeoning towns and cities. Thirteen hundred families left New England in 1697 and settled in an early subdivision called the Beekman Patent in Duchess County, New York. People in the mid-Atlantic area were hemmed in by the ocean and the Allegheny and Appalachian Mountains to the west, the Spanish Territories to the south and the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Things were getting crowded by the time the Revolutionary War occurred, but help was on the way


New Orleans in 1815 at the end of the War of 1812 was the 2nd greatest port in the country. It was multi-cultural with Spanish, French, Native Americans, blacks and whites. The port was very busy with goods from the West Indies and Europe but was limited for imports because travel up the Mississippi River with imported goods was difficult. It was a great port for exporting to other countries. It wasn’t until Robert Fulton brought his steamboat “New Orleans” in 1811 to Mississippi that the river could be used to deliver imports as far up as Natchez. Most trade centers in the new country were near navigable rivers and the oceans - primarily to trade with Europe, the West Indies and even around Cape Horn into the Pacific and on to China. The Great Lakes were used by the French and Indians to barter and sell furs.


In 1816, the United States Congress appropriated $100,000 to build a part of the National Road through what is now Wheeling, West Virginia to link Baltimore and St. Louis. Fulton launched a fleet of steamboats to go up the Mississippi River to the Ohio and Missouri Rivers.


The State of New York, in 1817, took on the building of the Erie Canal. Beginning in the middle at Rome, New York, and then working towards the Mohawk River in the East and Lake Erie in the west, it was completed in 1825.


This opened up the trade of goods between the established east and the Mississippi River and a way for people to go west in search of more land.


In 1819 the Transcontinental Treaty of Washington was signed, with Spain acknowledging the Louisiana Purchase and giving the United States all the territory north of the 42nd parallel as well as all of Florida after having to concede parts of Texas to Spain. It took 2 years to ratify the treaty but that didn’t stop the people from moving west.


In 1830 the Baltimore & Ohio Railway began operations. More and more railroads were planned until they would stretch from east to west. Building these routes required many men and the work was primarily done by our newer immigrants, the Irish and Chinese.


We now have the recipe for the expansion of the United States of America.


I’ll give three important reason for expansion and say that Manifest Destiny fed two of them and greed the other. We have the simplistic values of American agricultural farmers looking for better and fundamentally free land and the individualistic frontiersmen with their desire for more space. Both of these groups were of the mind that this land was theirs for the taking. Industrial/technological improvements such as the steel plow (1837) made farming more profitable and steamboats, canals and railroads created great pathways for moving men and goods. It was getting easier to push the frontier further and further west and the people couldn’t wait to get started. The country was quickly developing a vibrant new economy with a supporting infrastructure that would help support the expanding nation. People began to follow the trails of the mountain men and fur trappers such as Jedidiah Smith, who retraced the Lewis & Clark route in 1822-23. He laid out the route for the Oregon Trail over the South Pass in 1824 and explored the Salt Lake region. He explored California, the Mojave Desert and the Rocky Mountains for the easiest trade routes. He was quite the resourceful young man. Other traders opened up the Santa Fe trail that ran from St. Louis to New Mexico.


Westward migration began with a vengeance. Were your ancestors a part of it? Of course they were, even if they were some of the early ones that only moved about 20 miles to the “frontier”.


Internal migration was not new to this country. Second and third generations felt the need to have their own land, not the little pieces divided up among the many heirs of their fathers. It was usual for a group of like minded friends of their generation to plan and execute the move together, to set up a new town to their liking. These are the ones that pushed the frontier westward. The British government would grant a piece of land to a group of “proprietors” who would then divide and sell the land to farmers, millers, ministers, and others who would clear the land and build their homes. It was inevitable that once the National Road and the Erie Canal were completed the forth and fifth generations would advance into the mid section of the country east and eventually west of the Mississippi. As in the past, they moved in groups, New Englanders went across New York into Ohio, Illinois, and eventually into Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. It was not unusual for a family to move to 2 or 3 places before they reached their final destination, claiming, buying and selling land in order to move on. Mid-Atlantic families crossed the Appalachians into Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. Once across the Mississippi River they followed the old trails and created new ones.


Immigration from Europe became heavier as the years progressed. Each group brought its own particular personality with it.


Following our English founding fathers, other groups arrived on American soil. The dates I give here are “about” dates. Of course some came before these dates while others came much later.


The Dutch, of course, were in New York by 1624. They were specifically interested in the fur trade. They established themselves in present day New York City and Staten Island and sent exploring groups up the Hudson River. The majority of the people living in Holland were not interested in coming to the wild New World so the Dutch influence was mainly in the New York area with sojourns into New Jersey and Delaware.


Scandinavians were familiar with the new world and colonies from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland arrived looking for political and religious freedom. The Swedes arrived in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1670's but they were a small group who were overshadowed by the Dutch. Larger groups of Scandinavians arrived in the mid 19th century and they went directly to the new and developing areas of the mid-west.


In 1677, while visiting in Germany, William Penn encouraged Germans to come to America, the land of plenty. Wanting religious freedom, the Protestants, Quakers, Mennonites and Amish jumped at the chance to be free of persecution. After they arrived, some discovered that land was cheap and they soon settled new towns along the frontiers, moving into New York, Ohio and down to Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia.


Twenty families of Scots-Irish people who were unhappy in Ireland followed the advice of their minister, the Reverend James McGregor, and Cotton Mather of Boston, and sailed for New England in 1718. They were flax growers and linen makers who brought their Presbyterian religion with them. Subsequent similar groups followed and moved into Pennsylvania and the Carolinas.


The slave trade along the south and east coasts, the Spanish in Florida and the Gulf Coast, the Chinese, Russian and Native American added to this mix which certainly helped to create a kaleidoscope of talents and cultures to our expanding country.


Now we come to my challenge to you, our members. We would like to have more members participate in giving our programs and I am suggesting we use the expansion of this country as a theme. There are so many stories told in diaries, town histories, recreations like Williamsburg in Virginia . The National Park Service has great stories of the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails as do genealogical libraries in their manuscript areas. Much can be found on the internet. Tell us the stories of our ancestors, why they moved, how did they end up in Podunk? What were their lives like, their hardships, their joys? Follow a farmer, a laborer, a merchant or just someone looking for a new beginning and give us a story that will let them speak.