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America Grows Westward

The young United States was a restless rascal. And like most kids, it was growing so fast, you couldn’t keep it in shoes. The census of 1800 reported a population of 5.3 million (including about 900,000 slaves), a whopping 35 percent increase over 1790. About eight in ten Americans lived and worked on farms.

The largest states were still Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. More significantly, the fastest-growing were Tennessee and Kentucky, which had nearly tripled in population since 1790. Americans were moving west.

One of the reasons for this move was that in some areas, they had literally worn out their welcome. Tobacco can be as tough on soil as it is on lungs, and the crop had depleted a lot of land in the South. In the North, the growing population helped drive up the price of land to $14 to $50 an acre.

But in the West — which in 1800 was what was or would become Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, and Illinois — federal government land could be bought for less than $2 an acre. Of course, Native Americans occupied some of it, but in the first few years of the 19th century, government officials such as Indiana Territory Gov. William Henry Harrison were more willing to buy the land than steal it.

So thousands of Americans began to do something they would do for most of the rest of the century — move west. “Out west” was more an idea than a location, the latter of which changed as the country’s borders changed. And the borders changed big time, in large part because of a slave revolt in Haiti.

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