In 1846, President James K. Polk struck a bargain with the British to set the boundary between Canada and Oregon at the 49th parallel. Britain would get the land north; the United States would get the land south, soon known as the Oregon Territory.
Shortly afterward, the U.S. struck another bargain, the Treaty of Guadalupe, to end the Mexican–American War.
Thanks to those two sweetheart deals, the United States gained more than 525,000 square miles of land that would become Colorado, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah.
The news of those wide-open spaces quickly perked the ears of the restless back East — the immigrants, freed slaves, frustrated farmers, single women, gold seekers, would-be cowboys and wild-eyed entrepreneurs.
Some of those folks felt like the Eastern states were just getting a little too crowded, the cities too darn civilized for their tastes. Some New England farmers wanted bigger farms. Miners were drawn west by the prospect of instant riches. Still others, like the Mormons, were seeking a promised land free of persecution. And a whole lot of folks were drawn west by the Homestead Act’s gift of free land and a fresh start.
The two deals triggered a westering of America that would ultimately involve more than 7 million pioneers — 40% of the country’s population — and the addition of 22 states.
And now it appears, a westering is happening all over again.
From coast to coast, Americans are migrating West and South, according to preliminary census figures released this week. Americans are moving toward the less-dense, more-affordable precincts of the country as they seek space and sun and cheaper housing. Many are also migrating west as the internet frees them from their physical offices to live anywhere they want. And if you can live anywhere you want, why not choose to Zoom with a view?
Eight of the top 15 fastest-growing states are now in the West, with Utah, Idaho and Nevada in the top five. Utah’s growth was the highest in the country, at 18%.
Colorado, Montana and Oregon each gained a congressional seat thanks to the growth.
The lakeside city of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, is the hottest emerging housing market in the country, according to a ranking by The Wall Street Journal and Realtor.com
Hundreds of thousands of residents fled big cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Boston during the pandemic. The suburbs of large metropolitan areas captured much of the outflow, but many of the escapees headed farther than that, to the surging Mountain West.
Smaller metro areas, including Colorado Springs, and Boise, Idaho, experienced sharp net increases in newcomers, according to the ranking. So did vacation destinations like the red-rock mountains of southwestern Utah.
I’m starting to wonder if the pandemic won’t unleash an even bigger wave of digital nomads heading West. Untethered to physical workplaces, the Zoomigrants are finding a new form of liberation out here, I think, that echoes some of the very things that drove the original westward migration. Cheaper places to live, wide-open spaces, mountains to scale, opportunities to be had.
In a word, freedom.
I think many of the original Western pioneers associated westward migration, land ownership and big skies with freedom, with what was best about America. The Western frontier offered the possibility of independence and upward mobility for anyone willing to move.
In 1845, a journalist named John O’Sullivan invented the idea of “Manifest Destiny” to argue that westward migration was an American right, necessary to carry the “great experiment of liberty” across the full breadth of the continent.
To Thomas Jefferson, the westward migration of yeoman farmers was vital to the health of the republic and the future of freedom. Expanding the “empire of liberty” across the West was the first step in expanding liberty around the globe.
Of course, that westward expansion also forced Native Americans onto reservations, nearly wiped out the buffalo, spread and inflamed the fight over slavery and, according to some historians, nearly destroyed the Union.
But the United States wouldn’t have become a bicoastal superpower without it, and none of us Coloradans would be where we are right now probably.
So as we contemplate this brand new westering, let’s remember the mistakes of the old, and try to ensure the good outweighs the bad this time around.
If we’re smart we can welcome new Westerners the way we were once welcomed here ourselves and still preserve that mysterious thing that keeps bringing waves of migrants to the West. That thing Wallace Stegner once called “the geography of hope.”