Amazing articles on just about every subject...

America - The Call Of The Land

( Originally Published 1921 )

FOR over a century after the Revolution the great fact in American life was the unoccupied land, that vast stretch of expectant acreage lying fallow in the West. It kept the American buoyant, for it was an insurance policy against want. When his crops failed or his business grew dull, there was the West. When panic and disaster overtook him, there remained the West. When the family grew too large for the old homestead, the sons went west. And land, unlimited and virtually free, was the magnet that drew the foreign home seeker to the American shores.

The first public domain after the formation of the Union extended from the Alleghanies to the Mississippi. This area was enlarged and pushed to the Rockies by the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and was again enlarged and extended to the Pacific by the acquisition of Oregon (1846) and the Mexican cession (1848). The total area of the United States from coast to coast then comprised 3,025,000 square miles, of which over two-thirds were at one time or another public domain. Before the close of the Civil War the Government had disposed of nearly four hundred million acres but still retained in its possession an area three times as great as the whole of the territory which had been won from Great Britain in the Revolution.

The public domain was at first looked upon as a source of revenue, and a minimum price was fixed by law at $2 an acre, though this rate was subsequently (1820) lowered to $1.25 an acre. The West always wanted liberal land laws, but the South before the Civil War, fearing that the growth of the West would give the North superior strength, opposed any such generosity. When the North dominated Congress, the Homestead Law of 1862, providing that any person, twenty-one years of age, who was a citizen of the United States or who had declared his intention of becoming one, could obtain title to 160 acres of land by living upon it five years, making certain improvements, and paying the entry fee of ten dollars.

The Government laid out its vast estate in townships six miles square, which it subdivided into sections of 640 acres and quarter sections of 160 acres. The quarter section was regarded as the public land unit and was the largest amount permitted for individual preŽmption and later for a homestead. Thus was the whole world invited to go west. Under the new law, 1,160,000 acres were taken up in 1865. I The settler no longer had to suffer the wearisome, heart-breaking tasks that confronted the pioneer of earlier years, for the railway and steamboat had for some time taken the place of the Conestoga wagon and the fitful sailboat.

But the movement by railway and by steamboat was merely a continuation on a greater scale of what had been going on ever since the Revolution. The westward movement was begun, as we have seen, not by foreigners but by American farmers and settlers from seaboard and back country, thousands of whom, before the dawn of the nineteenth century, packed their household goods and families into covered wagons and followed the sunset trail.

The vanguard of this westward march was American, but foreign immigrants soon began to mingle with the caravans. At first these newcomers who heard the far call of the West were nearly all from the British Isles. Indeed so great was the exodus of these farmers that in 1816 the British journals in alarm asked Parliament to check the "ruinous drain of the most useful part of the population of the United Kingdom." Public meetings were held in Great Britain to discuss the average man's prospect in the new country. Agents of land companies found eager crowds gathered to learn particulars. Whole neighborhoods departed for America. In order to stop the exodus, the newspapers dwelt upon the hardship of the voyage and the excesses of the Americans. But, until Australia, New Zealand, and Canada began to deflect migration, the stream to the United States from England, Scotland, and Wales was constant and copious. Between 1820 and 1910 the number coming from Ireland was 4,212,169, from England 2,212,071, from Scotland 488,749, and from Wales 59,540.

What proportion of this host found their way to the farms is not known. In the earlier years, the majority of the English and Scotch sought the land. In western New York, in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and contiguous States there were many Scotch and English neighborhoods established before the Civil War. Since 1870, however, the incoming British have provided large numbers of skilled mechanics and miners, and the Welsh, also, have been drawn largely to the coal mines.

The French Revolution drove many notables to exile in the United States, and several attempts were made at colonization. The names Gallipolis and Gallia County, Ohio, bear witness to their French origin. Gallipolis was settled in 1790 by adventurers from Havre, Bordeaux, Nantes, La Rochelle, and other French cities. The colony was promoted in France by Joel Barlow, an Ananias even among land sharks, representing the Scioto Land Company, or Companie du Scioto, one of the numerous speculative concerns that early sought to capitalize credulity and European ignorance of the West. The Company had, in fact, no title to the lands, and the wretched colonists found themselves stranded in a wilderness for whose conquest they were unsuited. Of the colonists McMaster says: "Some could build coaches, some could make perukes, some could carve, others could gild with such exquisite carving that their work had been thought not unworthy of the King."' Congress came to the relief of these unfortunate people in 1795 and granted them twenty-four thousand acres in Ohio. The town they founded never fully realized their early dreams, but, after a bitter struggle, it survived the log cabin days and was later honored by a visit from Louis Philippe and from Lafayette. Very few descendants of the French colonists share in its present-day prosperity.

The majority of the French who came to America after 1820 were factory workers and professional people who remained in the cities. There are great numbers of French Canadians in the factory towns of New England. There are, too, French colonies in America whose inhabitants cannot be rated as foreigners, for their ancestors were veritable pioneers. Throughout the Mississippi Valley, such French settlements as Kaskaskia, Prairie du Rocher, Cahokia, and others have left much more than a geographical designation and have preserved an old world aroma of quaintness and contentment.

Swiss immigrants, to the number of about 250,000 and over 175,000 Dutch have found homes in America. The majority of the Swiss came from the German cantons of Switzerland. They have large settlements in Ohio, Wisconsin, and California, where they are very successful in dairying and stock raising. The Hollanders have taken root chiefly in western Michigan, between the Kalamazoo and Grand rivers, on the deep black bottom lands suitable for celery and market gardening. The town of Holland there, with its college and churches, is the center of Dutch influence in the United States. Six of the eleven Dutch periodicals printed in America are issued from Michigan, and the majority of newcomers (over 80,000 have arrived since 1900) have made their way to that State. These sturdy and industrious people from Holland and Switzerland readily adapt themselves to American life.

No people have answered the call of the land in recent years as eagerly as have the Scandinavians. These modern vikings have within one generation peopled a large part of the great American Northwest. In 1850 there were only eighteen thousand Scandinavians in the United States. The tide rose rapidly in the sixties and reached its height in the eighties, until over two million Scandinavian immigrants have made America their home. They and their descendants form a very substantial part of the rural population. There are nearly half as many Norwegians in America as in Norway, which has emptied a larger proportion of its population into the American lap than any other country save Ire-land. About one-fourth of the world's Swedes and over one-tenth of the world's Danes dwell in America.

The term Scandinavian is here used in the loose sense to embrace the peoples of the two peninsulas where dwell the Danes, the Norwegians, and the Swedes. These three branches of the same family have much in common, though for many years they objected to being thus rudely shaken together into one ethnic measure. The Swede is the aristocrat, the Norwegian the democrat, the Dane the conservative. The Swede, polite, vivacious, fond of music and literature, is "the Frenchman of the North," the Norwegian is a serious viking in modern dress; the Dane remains a landsman, devoted to his fields, and he is more amenable than his northern kinsmen to the cultural influence of the South.

The Norwegian, true to viking traditions, led the modern exodus. In 1825 the sloop Restoration, the Mayflower of the Norse, landed a band of fifty-three Norwegian Quakers on Manhattan. These peasants settled at first in western New York. But within a few years most of them removed to Fox River, Illinois, whither were drawn most of the Norwegians who migrated before 1850. After the Civil War, the stream rapidly rose, until nearly seven hundred thousand persons of Norwegian birth have settled in America.

The Swedish migration started in 1841, when Gustavus Unonius, a former student of the University of Upsala, founded the colony of Pine Lake, near Milwaukee. His followers have been described as a strange assortment of "noblemen, ex-army officers, merchants, and adventurers," whose experiences and talents were not of the sort that make pioneering successful. Frederika Bremer, the noted Swedish traveler, has left a description of the little cluster of log huts and the handful of people who "had taken with them the Swedish inclination for hospitality and a merry life, without sufficiently considering how long it could last." Their experiences form a romantic prelude to the great Swedish migration, which reached its height in the eighties. Today the Swedes form the largest element in the Scandinavian influx, for well over one million have migrated to the United States.

Nearly three hundred thousand persons of Danish blood have come into the country since the Civil War. A large number migrated from Schleswig-Holstein, after the forcible annexation of that province by Prussia in 1866, preferring the freedom of America to the tyranny of Berlin.

Whatever distinctions in language and customs may have characterized these Northern peoples, they had one ambition in common -- the desire to own tillable land. So they made of the Northwest a new Scandinavia, larger and far more prosperous than that which Gustavus Adolphus had planned in colonial days for his colony in Delaware. One can travel today three hundred miles at a stretch across the prairies of the Dakotas or the fields of Minnesota without leaving land that is owned by Scandinavians. They abound also in Wisconsin, Northern Illinois, Eastern Nebraska, and Kansas, and Northern Michigan. Latterly the lands of Oregon and Washington are luring them by the thou-sands, while throughout the remaining West there are scattered many prosperous farms cultivated by representatives of this hardy race. Latterly this stream of Scandinavians has thinned to about one-half its former size. In 1910, 48,000 came; in 1911, 42,000; in 1912, 27,000; in 1913, 33,000. The later immigrant is absorbed by the cities, or sails upon the Great Lakes or in the coastwise trade, or works in lumber camps or mines. Wherever you find a Scandinavian, however, he is working close to nature, even though he is responding to the call of the new industry.

It is the consensus of opinion among competent observers that these northern peoples have been the most useful of the recent great additions to the American race. They were particularly fitted by nature for the conquest of the great area which they have brought under subjugation, not merely because of their indomitable industry, perseverance, honesty, and aptitude for agriculture, but because they share with the Englishman and the Scotch-man the instinct for self-government. Above all, the Scandinavian has never looked upon himself as an exile. From the first he has considered himself an American. In Minnesota and Dakota, the Norse pioneer often preceded local government. "Whenever a township became populous enough to have a name as well as a number on the surveyor's map, that question was likely to be determined by the people on the ground, and such names as Christiana, Swede Plain, Numedal, Throndhjem, and Vasa leave no doubt that Scandinavians officiated at the christening. " These people proceeded with the organizing of the local government and, "except for the peculiar names, no one would suspect that the town-makers were born elsewhere than in Massachusetts or New York. " I This, too, in spite of the fact that they continued the use of their mother tongue, for not infrequently election notices and even civic ordinances and orders were issued in Norwegian or Swedish. In 1893 there were 146 Scandinavian newspapers, and their number has since greatly increased.

In politics the Norseman learned his lesson quickly. Governors, senators, and representatives in Congress give evidence to a racial clannishness that has more than once proven stronger than party allegiance. Yet with all their influence in the Northwest, they have not insisted on unreasonable race recognition, as have the Germans in Wisconsin and other localities. Minnesota and Dakota have established classes in "the Scandinavian language" in their state universities, evidently leaving it to be decided as an academic question which is the Scandinavian language. Without brilliance, producing few leaders, the Norseman represents the rugged common-place of American life, avoiding the catastrophes of a soaring ambition on the one hand and the pit-falls of a jaded temperamentalism on the other. Bent on self-improvement, he scrupulously patronizes farmers' institutes, high schools; and extension courses, and listens with intelligent patience to lectures that would put an American audience to sleep. This son of the North has greatly but-tressed every worthy American institution with the stern traditional virtues of the tiller of the soil. Strength he gives, if not grace, and that at a time when all social institutions are being shaken to their foundations.

Among the early homesteaders in the upper Mississippi Valley there were a substantial number of Bohemians. In Nebraska they comprise nine per cent of the foreign born population, in Oklahoma seven per cent, and in Texas over six per cent. They began migrating in the turbulent forties. They were nearly all of the peasant class, neat, industrious and intelligent, and they usually settled in colonies where they retained their native tongue and customs. They were opposed to slavery and many enlisted in the Union cause.

Among the Polish immigrants who came to America before 1870, many settled on farms in Illinois, Wisconsin, Texas, and other States. They proved much more clannish than the Bohemians and more reluctant to conform to American customs.

Many farms in the Northwest are occupied by Finns, of whom there were in 1910 over two hundred thousand in the United States. They are a Tatar race, with a copious sprinkling of Swedish blood. Illiteracy is rare among them. They are eager patrons of night schools and libraries and have a flourishing college near Duluth. They are eager for citizenship and are independent in politics. The glittering generalities of Marxian social-ism seem peculiarly alluring to them; and not a few have joined the I. W. W. Drink has been their curse, but a strong temperance movement has recently made rapid headway among them. They are natural woodmen and wield the axe with the skill of our own frontiersmen. Their peculiar houses, made of neatly squared logs, are features of every Finnish settlement. All of the North European races and a few from Southern and East-ern Europe have contributed to the American rural population; yet the Census of 1910 disclosed the fact that of the 6,361,502 white farm operators in the United States, 75 per cent were native American and only 10.5 per cent were foreign born.

Home | More Articles | Email: