Why Did Americans Move West?

There were lots of different factors that influenced the beginnings of westward expansion, from ideological to practical reasons. Americans believed that it was their right to conquer land in the West.

Other influences came from financial reasons and slave trading. The main reason Americans moved West was because they believed it would give them economic prosperity, which encouraged them to migrate in search of lands to farm and mineral deposits to send to Europe and the East.

Why did Americans move West (1)

The factors influencing westward expansion are outlined in this guide. 

Why Did Americans Move West?

There were lots of different influences which led to westward expansion. From changes in the economy, to a need for more land, Americans moved West in the hope of creating better lives for themselves and their families, and because they believed it was their right to expand their land occupancy across the entire country.

The Homestead Act, 1862

The 1862 Homestead Act meant that homesteaders could claim areas of land for free if they lived and worked on the land for five years. Many people who couldn’t have afforded land at home were attracted to this prospect.


The President, Abraham Lincoln, signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, which gave support from the government to build the first link between the U.S.A east and west coasts.

To encourage railroad companies to create the railways, they were given big areas of land and large government bonds. The companies made profit by selling their land, by offering attractive settlement packages to customers.


The phrase “manifest destiny” was coined by John L O’Sullivan, and was used to express the right of Americans to expand and dominate its territory without interference.

This phrase became an ideology and encouraged Americans to further expand their territory by taking land from the Native Americans.

Also, a painting called “American Progress” by John Gast in 1872 further propagated the ideology of western expansion and manifest destiny, and politicians felt it was part of God’s plan for Americans to expand across the entire country. Writer Horace Greeley continued to popularize this idea with his phrase “Go West, young man.”

Why did Americans move West (1)

Formation of States

Local governments reaped the advantages from encouraging settlers to move onto their land, because once an area reached a certain population, it could become a full state.

They therefore advertised attractive qualities about their land in public campaigns, such as claiming they could grow huge crops. Lots of people therefore moved in the hope that they would make a lot of money.

The Gold Rush

When gold was discovered in California, many people travelled there in the hope of becoming rich. The Gold Rush occurred between 1849 and 1856, when thousands of miners settled.

As more miners gathered, their families followed suit, and so did shopkeepers and other businesses looking to make money from the large number of new settlers. Not many miners actually became rich from the gold they discovered, however, they spent the money they had saved to mine and started the beginning of a booming California economy.

When the Gold Rush was over, the settlers remained on the land and lived there as farmers. In 1850, California became a state, and mining camps became towns. 

Religion: The Mormons

The Mormons wanted to get away from the Gentiles, who they saw as disgraces to religion. The Gentiles persecuted the Mormons, who made the decision to leave the country to keep the peace.

The government also persecuted them, by creating an exterminating order. Because Salt Lake was outside of the jurisdiction of the U.S at the time, the Mormons believed it was “the promised land” and elected to move there.

The Great Plains

In the years preceding 1860, not many people chose to settle on the Great Plains due to the poor quality of soil, difficult climate conditions, and because the Great Plains were Indian territory at the time.

The land was costly, and the journey there was long and hazardous. Past 1865, a huge number of people settled on the Great Plains for various reasons.

  • Immigrants settled to seek either religious or political freedom.
  • People settled to escape the poverty in their home country.
  • Slaves moved to start their new lives as free men.
  • Young men from the East moved for the chance to own their own land.
  • Other Americans followed settlers in the hope of making a living.

Why Did Americans Move West? – Summary

There were lots of different factors that affected the Western expansion, with the most fundamental reason being economic prosperity. As land became more expensive in European countries and the Far East, the ideology produced by politicians became more attractive.

The prospect of owning land or making more money, religious, political or personal freedom, and the occupation of new land leading to the formation of new states influenced thousands upon thousands of settlers to move West and create the entirety of the United States as we know it today.