Factors encouraging people to go West

The Homestead Act, 1862

This allowed homesteaders to claim 160 acres of land free if they lived and worked on it for five years. The prospect of free land was very attractive to people who could never have afforded a farm back home.


The Pacific Railway Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It provided government support for the building of first railroad to link the east and west coasts of the U.S.A.

In order to encourage the railroad companies to build the transcontinental railways, the government gave them 6400 acres of land (10 square miles) and $16,000 in government bonds for each mile of track laid. Part of the companies' profit came from selling this land. Therefore they launched a massive sales campaign, offering a settlement package, which included:

  1. a safe, cheap and speedy journey west
  2. temporary accommodation in 'hotels' until the families had built their own home
  3. other attractions such as schools, churches and no taxes for five years

Manifest destiny

The term manifest destiny is thought to have been originally used by John L O'Sullivan, the editor of both the Democratic Review and the Morning News at the time. He first used it to invoke the right of America to annex Texas and expand its territory without the interference of European coutries, such as Britain and France:

other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves ... for the avowed object of ... checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.John L O'Sullivan, 1845

Expanding territory had been an ongoing part of the colonisation of North America. But the O'Sullivan's phrase was taken by some to mean that it was America's manifest destiny to expand and encourage the American way of life on the Great Plains.

Politicians felt that it was part of God’s plan to take over the whole country. This belief they felt gave them the right to take land from the Native Americans. The writer Horace Greeley, who popularised this idea, advised Americans:

Go West, young man.
American Progress. Painting by John Gast c1873
The painting American Progress by John Gast (1872) symbolises the idea of western expansion and manifest destiny.

Tall tales

Once the population of an area reached 60,000, it could apply to become a state of the USA. Local governments therefore could benefit from encouraging more settlers to move to their areas.

They attracted people using publicity campaigns which claimed, for example, that farmers in the west could grow pumpkins as big as barns and maize as tall as telegraph poles. Many people moved west thinking they would make a fortune.