Settling the Plains and the West

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Settling the Plains and the West

The federal government was eager to settle the West as quickly as possible. The acquisition of territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the discovery of gold in California provided easterners with great incentives to move to the West. Even during the dark days of the Civil War, the federal government continued its efforts to move people westward. This table shows three of the most important laws the government passed.

US History Westward Movement Government Land Acts of 1862

The Pacific Railway Act had many effects beyond facilitating the development of a transportation system. The railroads became the biggest employers of the day, hiring thousands of people to survey the land, to level the grade over which the trains would pass, to lay the ties and the track, to manufacture the cars and seats, to build and staff the depots and stations, and to drive the trains. The railroads also sold off surplus land to homesteaders, further encouraging western settlement. Chinese immigrants proved to be experts at this kind of work, particularly because of their knowledge of explosives; the promise of jobs on the Central Pacific Railroad brought thousands of Chinese to the United States during the 1860s.

The Central Pacific Railroad Company began laying track at San Francisco and built toward the east, across the Sierra Nevada. The Union Pacific began at Omaha and built westward. The Union Pacific met the Central Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah, in May 1869, near the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. The railroad was largely built with immigrant labor: Chinese laid the track for the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific workers were overwhelmingly Irish, supplemented by young Civil War veterans and freedmen.

US History Westward Movement Transcontinental Railroad

Families in search of farmland had gone westward with the first wagon trains. Then, in the years before the Civil War, a flood of young single men had traveled westward in search of gold, opportunity, freedom, and adventure. In 1865, the end of the war changed the pattern of westward migration once again. Most migrants of this era fell into one of three groups: immigrants, freedmen (and women), and middle-class whites.


So many immigrants had flooded into northeastern port cities that conditions had become overcrowded, unsanitary, and in many cases desperate. Many immigrants had been farmers in their native countries, and they knew that they would have to travel westward beyond the cities to find land. In the cities, many were little better than industrial slave labor; on the Great Plains, they might prosper as independent property owners. The Homestead Act made it possible for millions of poor immigrants to start fresh in the American West. Immigrants from Scandinavian countries and central and eastern European nations like Poland, Austria, and Sweden settled on the Great Plains in large numbers.


The Emancipation Proclamation had freed African Americans in the South, but it had also thrown them out to fend for themselves. As slaves, they had been guaranteed jobs, shelter, and regular meals, however unpaid and inadequate; now that they were homeless in an area devastated by war, they would be lucky to find work and survive. Reconstruction programs had given African Americans high hopes for the future, but all too soon the southern Democrats prevailed over the Reconstructionists and reinstated much of the old system of segregation and oppression. African Americans traveled west to find good jobs on the railroad, to mine gold and silver, to claim homesteads, to work on the cattle ranches, and to escape the subjugation under which the old guard was determined to make them live. In 1879 alone, more than 20,000 African Americans left the South.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Westward Movement Practice Test

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