“What made people head west in rising numbers, even before the days of gold? One important factor was disease. Midwestern farmers, especially those in the swampy bottomlands along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, regularly endured outbreaks of malaria, smallpox, flu, and cholera during the 1830s and 1840s. Western promoters described Oregon and California as disease-free paradises.
Another push was the financial panic of 1837, whose effects spilled forward into the 1840s. By the 1830s, midwestern farmers were producing huge amounts of food—far more than the economy could absorb once it entered the 1837 depression. Prices for farm goods plummeted. Wheat sold for far less than the cost of raising it; prices of bacon and lard fell so low that river steamboats burned it for fuel. Meanwhile the U.S. population was surging, with farms pushing out to the Missouri River. By the 1840s, the combination of economic pressure and land hunger was pulling more and more people overland to Oregon or California.
And the land was there for the taking–as long as one ignored Indian claims to it. The Preemption Act of 1841 held that anyone who squatted on public land for fourteen months had first right, once the land was surveyed, to buy up to 160 acres at a set minimum price. The Preemption Act presaged the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act of I85’0 and the famous Homestead Act of 18 62. These laws granted free land, up to certain limits, to anyone who demonstrated commitment to living on the land and improving it. Even during the gold rush years, many emigrants headed west for land, not gold. California promoters stoked the emigration fires with hyperbolic descriptions of the mild climates, fertile soils, and the beauty of the Sacramento Valley. Lansford Hastings, for instance, claimed that compared to California, “the deep, rich, alluvial soil of the Nile, in Egypt, does not afford a parallel.”
Beyond these concrete motives for emigration, there was the simple allure of new beginnings in an expansionist age-an age of Manifest Destiny. It is “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence,” journalist John O’Sullivan wrote in 1845, thus coining the famous phrase. Many saw westward expansion as America’s God-given right, and to hell with those who claimed otherwise—like Mexico. ”