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Immigration in the 1830s and 1840s - Dissertation Sample

07 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

How did immigration in the 1830s and 1840s change American politics?

The United States is a country built on migrants. Migration is the movement of people from one area to another, either city to city, or continent to continent. This process creates winners and losers. The principal losers were its indigenous inhabitants who were never made to feel at home in the new country, as they were ignored, killed and pushed into reservations.

The first colonists crossed the Atlantic Ocean and settled along the Eastern seaboard. Large indigenous Americans populations still fearful and uneasy with them blocked them from going westwards. But, demographic, economic and political pressures led to the 1763 Proclamation preventing colonists from going beyond the Appalachian Mountains. This decision created a lot of anger and was one of the reasons behind the American War of Independence, because being colonists, they did not like their movement being hindered and thought nothing of the indigenous populations. This impression was to be characteristic of later immigrations. 

By the 1830s, the United States had expanded to the Rocky Mountains thanks to the 1801 Louisiana Purchase. The Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River set up in 1830 gradually disappeared as more settlers were allowed to enter it with impunity. The remaining part of the continent to be integrated with the United States was the West and Texas. The 1830s and 1840s immigration is what brought these parts into the Union. 
 The political impact of this immigration wave is too complex and varied for this discussion, therefore only a few elements will be examined focusing firstly on the growth of the United States as a military power to take more land, and secondly on the shift of political influence in the country.

Part A) Growth of imperial tendencies.

Immigrants are a nuisance; politically, socially, and economically speaking. They create problems. Their appearance is not always welcome and they are simply different from you and I. Their act of movement is so strong that it demands attention. It creates images of fighting and overcoming unknown forces, both human and natural. They press their views vociferously as their situation is so precarious, because they live beyond the margins of their society. Migration is a constant of human society that is done for a myriad of reasons, such as wealth and adventure. The American continent offered both in plenty. The Great Plains of the Midwest and West hid vast mineral deposits that were quickly found by migrants. The indigenous peoples of the Midwest and West did not care for such wealth as it meant nothing to them culturally, but it did represent a lot to the migrants, their political backers and unscrupulous businessmen.

The idea of Manifest Destiny whereby many felt that it was the United States’ destiny to rule of all North America, including Canada, gave an impetus to the migration. Population growth and nationalist feelings lay behind it. It included spreading democracy, although the political world of 1830s and 1840s did not include women and institutionalized slavery; so one could argue that it was more of disguise for imperial tendencies. But, in its defence, the French Revolution wanted to spread itself and free others as well, something of a tyranny of the free and just. Such a vision leads to people moving, cultures clashing and wars erupting.

The principal ones were with Mexico in 1846-8 and the ones referred to as the Indian wars. In each of them, the United States immerged the victor and absorbed more territory. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war with Mexico gave what is now California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming to the United States. In one big act, the frontier reached the Pacific Ocean. This was followed by the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 that included the rest of Arizona and New Mexico. Since 1819, the land to be known Texas belonged to Mexico, but a small colony of American settlers began in the 1820s resulting in the usual tensions that led to a successful rebellion and independence in 1836, which lasted until 1845, when it became part of the United States.1

Each new piece of land added to the political and economic power of the country. To help solidify control of the Western part of the continent, the United States sought to resolve competing claims with the United Kingdom over Oregon 1846, which satisfactorily went the United States’ way, as the United Kingdom withdrew from all of its possessions in North America outside of Canada.

Wars in the 1810s and 1820s had weakened all the Indian nations in the East resulting in their forcible removal to the Indian Territory by the 1850s. The world of the Great Plains was ‘empty’ according to the settler. It remained for the American government to make it real. These plains were sparsely inhabited and used as hunting grounds. Some of the nations were the Sioux, Cheyenne and Comanche who were more or less left alone up to 1865 when the Civil War ended. At this time, the renewed Union sought to ‘pacify’ them and place them into reservations. Migrants had been moving unharmed through their lands during these migrations.

The last war between an Indian nation and the United States government was in 1890 when the Sioux lost at the Battle of Wounded Knee. A treaty forcing them to open their land to the settlers followed each loss on the battlefield.2 The removal of the Plains Nations opened up the land to development, specifically cattle ranching as it benefited from the great spaces. Each loss also represented the move of the Indian nations were moved to reservations that were poorly supported and prone to disease. The bureaucratic office called the Indian Bureau set up in 1824 to protect their interests often ignored them as they sold or leased land at unreasonable prices.

Part B) Shift of regional political influence

The election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828 and again in 1832 was in part due to his cultivation of the western support and desire for some of sense of regional equality by moving power out of the East and to the rest of the country. His background as a general in the war of 1812 and against some Indian nations made him look favourably upon westward migration. The 1830s and 1840s waves of immigration only gathered steam after he left, but his policies, which had the ‘common man’ at the centre, were their ideological father. He wanted people to move and settle.3 The Wisconsin and Iowa Territories of 1836 and 1838 were created towards the end of his presidency and opened up new land for settlement and development. His arrival ushered in a new way of managing the system of appointments to official positions called the ‘spoils system’ as he wanted to end a monopoly on positions by wealthy Easterners. 

Stories and legends of wealth in the west led to a shift in power, firstly economic then political, to the west. Gold was discovered in 1848, and upon the news, people ran to the region to make their fortune. There were rushes in other neighbouring states. In each instance, a city developed around the area, so cities were founded quickly and indiscriminately. The level of urbanization in the country grew rapidly, and led to the development of new industries that come with mining, such as transportation and tourism. The railway followed the migrants and helped solidify their gains.4

The population of the principal city, San Francisco, quickly grew to rival those of the East. Its climate and good agricultural land made it a great goal for migrants wanting to escape poverty in the East or searching for a new start. The principal loser appeared to be the South as it refused to surrender the use of slaves as labourers, which was increasingly perceived as an archaic and costly means of labour. 

The rise of the West meant the fall of the East in comparison. Western ideals were quite different. There was a greater sense of freedom and movement, as people did not want to be held back by old divisions, such as slavery, because they had tried to escape them. Eastern domination of the boardrooms of power was on the wane. This was a breath of fresh air to an otherwise staid political atmosphere. There are similarities with the first American colonists as both had to build a life out of nothing and each had a clear idea of what they did not want to be, although in the case of the Western migrants, it was the world of the East and South.

This new way appeared in the growth of groups to protest inequalities, such as that led by John Brown, the slavery abolitionist, who would commits acts of murder and violence to destroy slavery.5 One of their principal characteristics was a lack of compromise, as they knew what they wanted and would not accept anything but it. This forceful nature enabled quick prosperity and a willingness to experiment. The migrants of the 1830s and 1840s were Americans as opposed to those that will follow in the next decade, which meant that they shared the general ideals, but these were changed by the journey. 

The issue of slavery also played a part, because there was a debate about the presence or not of slavery in any new state added to the Union. Most new states were incorporated without slavery, although the Missouri Compromise of 1820 proposed a balance of slave and free states to satisfy the South. Texas was the only one to join the Confederacy during the Civil War. The Oregon Territory Bill of 1848 prohibited slavery in Oregon. The Compromise of 1850 appeared to silence the debates by permitting each new state in the West to decide for itself, but the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 reignited those debates as it violated the 1820 Compromise by allowing the possibility of slavery in any new state in the area of the Louisiana Purchase other than Missouri.

Fortunately, it was rare for any new state to allow slavery, which only helped increase the feeling of isolation the South. The debates accelerated the arrival of the Civil War, because any political compromise could only hold for so long and the number of new states was increasing rapidly. The acrimony over the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the founding of the Republican Party opposed to slavery. This was the party that Abraham Lincoln was to lead to victory as President. His victory was unacceptable to the South and led to states seceding just before he took office.


The migrations of the 1830s and 1840s brought a new world to the United States, namely the realization of Jefferson’s 1801 dream that the country would stretch from ocean to ocean. Such vastness helped propel the industrialization of the country. The discovery of massive mineral wealth in the West, such as gold, created regional growth spurts that dislocated the current concentration of power, money and influence located in the East. The result of which was the making or unmaking of fortunes and reputations. The human and structural destruction created during the Civil War would avoid these new regions, thus enabling them to surpass the South in terms of development. 

One of the major characteristics of the new towns in the West was a sense of lawlessness, because many migrants wanted to carve out their existence on their own and did not want any state interference. The next two waves of migration to affect the United States were the Germans between the 1840s and 1880s and the Irish between the 1840s and 1850s. These two groups settled mostly in the East. They would have a different effect, as there were no new lands to occupy, but they would still alter the cultural landscape of the East. 


  • Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States 1492 to Present. 3rd ed. Pearson Education Ltd. 2003.
  • Cole, Donald B. The Presidency of Andrew Jackson. University Press of Kansas, 1993.

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