Migrants Moving West (1830’s)

From New England to the West: Why Did They Move?
by Patricia Osborn Olmstead

[The author presented the information in this article at the third biennial meeting of the Ware Family Association on August 13, 2005. Pat is a descendant of the Ware, Osborn, and Kendrick families who were early settlers in Montgomery County, Illinois.]

Migration has always been an important factor in the development of America. Examination of the geographical and residential status of early Nineteenth Century Americans reveals that the “persistence rates” (the percentage of those who remained in one location from one census to the next) were approximately 30-50%. Those rates meant that over one-half of the population would have relocated within ten years. My ancestor, Thomas Kendrick, was an example of one who changed residences often, between Lyme and other New Hampshire towns, and several Vermont towns (Vershire, Norwich, and Thetford). He made at least six moves in the 54 years of his adulthood.

In 1816 an English traveler noted: “The Atlantic states seem to have had their day. Old America seems to be breaking up and moving westward.” But not everyone pulled up stakes and pushed into the open western lands. Migration west was not easy, as both the means of transportation and major routes to the west were difficult. For many these difficulties were not a deterrent. When and where to migrate depended on where the pioneers believed they could best continue their traditional ways.

By 1810, ten percent of Americans resided west of the Appalachian Mountains, primarily in Tennessee, Kentucky, and the area of Virginia which is now West Virginia. By 1824, thirty percent of Americans resided between the Appalachians and the Mississippi River. The frontier continued to move at a rate of 10 to 40 miles per year during the 1830’s and 1840’s. We know that the Wares from New England and the Osborns from Virginia, via Kentucky, were establishing themselves in central Illinois during this time period. A factor which made migration more possible for many from the eastern states was construction of the National Road, also known as the Cumberland Road, which began in 1815. The road started at the western end of the Baltimore Turnpike and was intended to eventually reach the Mississippi River.

Causes of Migration

Migrating Americans had social, political and cultural reasons for making such dramatic changes in their lives. Often the determining factors were lack of economic success, available land, and ways to make a living. For many, overcrowding in towns and cities forced them to move. In addition, soldiers in the War of 1812, which ended in 1815, brought back news of other parts of the continent that were opening up to settlement.1 Scarcity of farm land and lack of economic success were certainly factors motivating our Ware ancestors to leave southern New Hampshire in the early 1800’s. Their grandparents who moved from the eastern coastal settlements to the virgin forests of New Hampshire in the late 1700’s had cleared the land, using the lumber for homes and buildings, and cultivating the rocky slopes to grow crops. Their farming efforts made them the “bread-basket” for the troops during the Revolutionary War. But the soil on the deforested hills2 was rocky, thin and not conducive to long-term farming. In addition, the small farms were not sufficient to support the settlers’ large families. As the sons married, they needed to move to a place where they could prosper, or at least make a living for their growing families. By 1810, the influx into southern New Hampshire had peaked. The village of Alstead, just a few miles north of the village of Gilsum, reached a population peak in 1810, fell gradually over the next few decades and then experienced an even sharper decline before 1850.

An Extraordinary Factor—The Year of No Summer

Between 1816 and 1825, a dramatic shift in climate was a major cause in the migration from New England. Although temperatures in the months of March and April, 1816, were below normal, the year had begun with no indication of what was to follow. The winter of 1815/16 in New Hampshire had been unusually mild with less snow and rainfall than normal. The combination of cold and drought prompted one Connecticut resident to note in his diary, “The vegetation does not seem to advance at all.” In the spring, pasture did not develop and the winter’s supply of hay was exhausted, making it necessary for livestock to be fed with corn reserves set aside for human consumption. The cold and dry weather continued through early May, delaying planting. By May 15, frost had penetrated into Pennsylvania and Virginia. Snow and frost continued in New England until May 18. Some crops which had been planted were just above the ground and had a promising appearance – wild fruit trees began to blossom and forests to leaf out. The May cold was so pervasive that one diarist wrote: “The whole of the month has been so cold and wet that wheat could not be sown ‘til late and then the ground could not be well prepared.”

Milder air returned at the beginning of June, but lasted only until June 5. Winter weather returned on June 6, bringing another cold wave of unusual severity with high wind, piercing cold, snow, and ice pellets. On June 6, ten inches of snow fell in many parts of New England. By June 7, Vermont had five to six inches of snow with drifts to over a foot. Snow and freezing temperatures continued until June 8. Banks of snow reached the axles of carriages. It was an intense cold with sweeping blasts from the north. Birds fell dead and newly shorn sheep perished. Throughout the area, as far as southern Pennsylvania and Ohio, the growth of spring had been entirely destroyed. There would be no fruit.

By June 22 and 23, normal temperatures returned and optimism re-emerged as replanted vegetable gardens grew quickly. It was a brief respite. The cold and rain returned and a half inch of ice spread over Vermont and New Hampshire in July and August. On August 20, a violent thunderstorm with strong winds hit New England. The continuing bad weather brought fears of famine. During the night of August 21, a frost in the Keene and Chester areas of New Hampshire killed a large part of the corn, potatoes, beans, and squash vines, and injured many other crops throughout New England. On August 23 and 24, another cold wave killed more of the corn, putting an end to hopes of many farmers. Many farmers tried to put up whole stalks of corn for fodder, but because the stalks were still green, referred to as “in the milk,” the stalks fermented and spoiled. The final blow for the farmers growing corn in the Keene area was the severe frost of August 28. On the morning of August 29, the temperature was 37.5 degrees at seven a.m. In September, favorable temperatures returned, but the drought continued. Then, in mid-month, the frost returned. The cold lasted on into 1817. The Finger Lakes area of New York endured 16 consecutive months of freezing temperatures and frosts. Crops were sown, then killed by frost, until finally the farmers had depleted their reserves of seed. Throughout New England many farmers feared the climate change was permanent.

The unusual weather phenomena was not confined to the northeastern United States. In Switzerland, people were reported to be eating moss and cats. There were food riots in France. Famine was widespread in most of Europe. In some areas, nonstop rain led to crop failure, famine and an epidemic of typhus. The monsoon season in India was interrupted, possibly leading to a deadly outbreak of cholera that spread across the globe. By 1817 the shortage of food was so dire that some farmers dug up newly planted potatoes to feed their families.

During this period of weather disruption and lack of normal growing conditions, great religious revivals took place, possibly reflecting the fear of starving people. Scholars at that time had no way of determining the actual cause of the extended winter, but many tried to lay blame. In the United States, some people thought Benjamin Franklin was to blame because of his newly invented lightning rods. Those doing the blaming argued that the heat of the earth’s interior released heat into the atmosphere, but the lightning rods interrupted the flow, resulting in cooling of the air. Others proposed that the lightning rods had taken the heat from the air – hence no summer! Ironically, much earlier Franklin himself shrewdly (and correctly) speculated that dust from volcanic eruptions could affect climates by blocking out sunlight. Franklin had made this connection during the unusually cold winter of 1783-84, during which time the constant “dry fog” in the atmosphere (which was actually airborne dust from volcanic eruptions) had occurred in conjunction with an unusually cold winter.

The Cause of “No Summer” in 1816

Decades later scientists learned that the catastrophic worldwide disruption in weather in 1816 was caused by the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, the largest eruption in recorded history. The eruption of this 13,000 foot peak was so violent that the pyroclastic flow killed all of the 10,000 inhabitants on the island. The explosion was heard 1,000 miles away. Great tsunamis resulted, killing 30,000 people in Java. The eruption ejected 25 cubic miles of debris into the atmosphere, a huge amount compared to some other well-known eruptions. In 1883, Krakatoa, which destroyed Rakata Island in Indonesia and killed 30,000 people, ejected 4.5 cubic miles of debris. In 1980, Mount St. Helens in the state of Washington ejected one cubic mile of debris. After the 1815 eruption, dust and sulphate aerosols reached the stratosphere and took months to settle back to the troposphere where weather systems could wash them back to the ground.

Although weather returned to normal by late 1817, farmers had already started the trek west to the fertile soils of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. The effects of the migration are still evident today in New England, where towns have smaller populations than 1816. We can surmise how this event impacted the large family of Captain Benjamin Ware of Gilsum, New Hampshire. In 1817, the year after the “year of no summer,” Benjamin Ware, Jr., left New Hampshire and went to New York where he remained for three years. In 1820, he moved to Indiana. In 1821, his brother Obadiah and wife Electa left New Hampshire and traveled to the land office in St. Louis, where they could make claims for public domain land in Illinois, which had been admitted as the 21st state in 1818. Benjamin joined his brother and he and Obadiah first settled near St. Louis in Greene County, Illinois. During this time the two brothers explored central Illinois on horseback, and looked for desirable land. They were granted land patents in newly created Montgomery County in 1824.

Perhaps descriptions of life in Illinois written by Obadiah and Benjamin impressed friends and relatives still in New Hampshire; many followed them to Montgomery County, Illinois. The deep fertile soil of Montgomery County was easier to till than the steep, shallow, rocky and depleted topsoil of New Hampshire. The prairie was interspersed with trees. There was little need to clear timber for farming. The loamy soil provided better growth of crops, and with good husbandry, the soil would continue to be productive. Also, with the much milder winter climate at that latitude, the growing season was substantially longer. Obadiah Ware obtained patents for over 2000 acres in Montgomery County. He and his brother Benjamin chose to build their homes on a high ridge of land running north and south through Butler Grove Township. The ridge was forested, providing protection from wind, and also provided them with a magnificent view of the fields on either side.

Obadiah and Benjamin Ware lived to see the area they had selected grow from undisturbed prairie land, with no roads and no settlements, into thriving farms of varying sizes, served by thriving towns, such as Hillsboro and Litchfield. They joined with other farmers to build schools and churches, and to seek the services of teachers and ministers. In 1836 the road west, sometimes known as the Cumberland Road and later as “The National Road,” reached the town of Vandalia, only 26 miles southeast of Hillsboro. By 1830 the frontier encompassed southern Illinois, and had pushed on as far west as Kansas City.

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  1. This phenomenon occurred again in the 1840’s after the Mexican War; soldiers returned to tell tales of land in the Texas and Oklahoma territories.
  2. As farmers cleared the New Hampshire land they piled up rocks to mark the boundaries of their property. Because of the deforestation, Vessel Rock, a gigantic boulder deposited in the town of Gilsum in an early glacial period, could be seen for several miles in 1800. The rock was named because of it’s resemblance to the hull of a large ship. Vessel Rock Cemetery, where several of our ancestors lie, is named for this landmark. Today the trees have returned and it is again obscured from distant view. Walking through the back areas of the hills one can still see the rock walls that divided the small farms.