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3000 - 200 BC
2nd century BC - 5th century AD
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The spread of Islam
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19th century America
     The Great Removal
     Trails west
     Land of liberty

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The Great Removal: 1838-1839

In the early 19th century the descendants of British settlers in America impose on their neighbours a series of brutally enforced migrations. In the colonial period the British and the American Indians have often fought and made treaties in the difficult process of coexistence. But the two groups have not often been directly competing for space.

This changes during the 1820s, most noticeably in the western parts of Georgia where the Cherokees have developed a prosperous settled existence round their capital city of New Echota. Land-hungry Georgians want these rich acres. The state of Georgia is eager to help in acquiring them, in exchange for new Indian territory west of the Mississippi.


During the 1830s the situation worsens. In 1833 the state of Georgia raises funds by holding a lottery of seized Cherokee property, including even the government buildings of New Echota. Eventually one faction of the Cherokee leadership signs a treaty selling the Cherokee lands to Georgia and agreeing to move west by 1838. The Cherokee council unanimously rejects the treaty, but the senate in Washington ratifies it.

By 1838 the Cherokees have not moved. In that year federal troops are sent to Georgia to enforce the removal of the Indians. The Cherokees are rounded up into camps and are then despatched under guard on a long march to the west.


Of 18,000 Cherokees displaced from their traditional lands in this way, it is calculated that as many as 4000 fail to survive what becomes known as the Trail of Tears to the area now designated as Indian Territory.

Neighbours of the Cherokee are moved at the same time. The chief victims are four other southeastern tribes (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole and Creek) who have also adopted many of the white man's customs. They are described by American settlers, together with the Cherokee, as the Five Civilized Tribes. Their enforced migration in the late 1830s becomes known as the Great Removal. It is calculated that about 100,000 are driven from their land, and that more than 20,000 die on the journey west.


The broad plains of the new Indian Territory are promised to the tribes as their own land 'as long as the grass grows and the rivers run'. But within a few decades the pressure of white settlement sends this agreement the way of earlier treaties. As it turns out, the grass grows and the rivers run only until 1907. By that time so many homesteads have encroached on the Indian Territory that the region is admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the 46th state.

In the slave trade and the Great Removal, the story of America contains two of the three main instances of large ethnic groups being forcibly resettled thousands of miles from home. (Stalin, in the USSR in the 1930s, provides the third.)


The trail to Oregon, California and Utah: 1841-1850

The term Great Migration has been applied to two separate movements of people during the 1840s. One is the stream of immigrants drawn across the Atlantic to the land of liberty, headed by the Irish from 1845. The other is the move westwards by American pioneer families to settle the regions bordering the Pacific. This begins a little earlier. The Great Migration of 1843 establishes the fame of the Oregon Trail.

In the 1840s the most westerly region which can be considered a settled part of the United States is Missouri. It is here, in the aptly-named town of Independence, that brave and optimistic families assemble to prepare for the dangerous journey west.


In the early years Oregon is the destination. American missionaries, working there among the Indians from 1834, send home word of the region's rich potential. The first small group of families attempts the trail in 1841. Thirty-two people complete the journey safely, increasing Oregon's American population by 20%. They join missionaries and trappers who together number only about 150.

The Great Migration of 1843 is more ambitious. As many as 1000 people set off west guided by a Presbyterian missionary, Marcus Whitman. Their wagon wheels begin to mark out the route across the plains which becomes known as the Oregon Trail.


The Conestoga wagons on the open plains provide a romantic image, as the prairie schooners much loved by film directors in the 20th century. Soon there are a great many of them. The trail is about 2000 miles long and in places as much as ten miles wide, with the wagon drivers spreading out to avoid the dust and to find grazing for their horses, mules and cattle. In one summer, that of 1850, as many as 50,000 people make the journey, which lasts from four to six months.

The route goes northwest through the prairie to the Platte river. The wagons then follow the Northern Platte tributary (past Fort Laramie) before making their way to the Sweetwater river. Moving up this towards its source brings them to the South Pass through the Rockies.


Beyond the South Pass there are several alternative routes, but from 1847 only a minority of the wagons coming through the pass are headed for Oregon.

An increasing number of travellers are now Mormons, on their way to a safe haven near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. And from 1849 the trail is used by an unprecedented horde of wagons, moving now in feverish haste. Gold has been found in California. The new immigrants are the famous forty-niners. Of the 50,000 who swarm through the South Pass during 1850, as many as 40,000 are prospectors desperate to find their fortune.


The Mormons and Salt Lake City: 1846-1896

The Mormons' great trek to the west could hardly have started in worse circumstances. In February 1846 the first groups begin to cross the Mississippi, which is about a mile wide at Nauvoo. The river is freezing but not yet frozen. Several craft capsize, drowning their passengers. A few days later the river is covered in ice and wagons and animals can be driven across.

At last the entire expedition is over the river (they are travelling heavy with all their possessions, including 30,000 head of cattle) but progress is slow through marshy regions even after snow and torrential rain have given way to summer heat. It becomes evident to their leader, Brigham Young, that they must sit out the next winter beside the Missouri.


The place which they call Winter Quarters, on the west bank of the Missouri, becomes an established staging post. Here Mormon parties in later years prepare for the last stretch of the journey. After this first winter, of 1846-7, Brigham Young sets off again. His pioneers join the Oregon Trail at the Platte river, but they keep to the north bank - safely separate from the other 'gentile' immigrants moving along south of the stream.

By July 1847 the vanguard is through the South Pass and into Salt Lake valley. Within a few months the rest of the group follow safely, some 1600 people. By 1869, when the railway arrives, about 80,000 have made the arduous journey in wagons or on foot from Winter Quarters.


Land of liberty: 19th century

In the 18th century the movement of Europeans to Australia has been associated very specifically with lack of liberty. By contrast the United States of America seems essentially the land of liberty (at any rate for those who are not slaves or American Indians). From the mid-19th century this is a beacon which signals strongly to many in Europe.

The accelerating migration of Europeans to north America from the 1840s is unique in the story of the movement of peoples. When great tribes migrate, whether they be Celts or Goths or Huns, there is of course an economic element; they are moving into regions where food or wealth is more easily available. But for the most part they move as a group rather than on individual impulse.


The difference in the 19th century is that the migration is an economic decision made separately by thousands of young men or married couples, seeking a better life for themselves or their families in another place. (A founding father in this tradition is surely the Viking who sets off with his family in874 to settle in Iceland.)

The Irish are the first in this new stream of people across the Atlantic, escaping the devastation of the Great Famine of 1845-7. They are soon followed by large numbers of migrants from Germany, where reactionary regimes threatened by revolution (as seen in the turmoil of 1848) give the ambitious and the prudent a double motive to leave.


Once the first wave of immigrant families is established, their success encourages others to follow them. So the Irish and the Germans soon become a significant proportion of the American population. The figures are striking. In 1860 approximately 4 million residents in the United States have been born elsewhere - some 1.6 million in Ireland and 1.3 million in Germany (compared to about half a million in England, Scotland and Wales).

When combined with their children born in the States, these figures suggest that the new Irish and German communities are each already about 3 million strong - perhaps as much as 10% of the population (31 million in 1860). And these figures are in addition to older Irish and German groups already present in colonial times.


These statistics are from the period just before the Civil War which finally frees America's slaves. The beacon of liberty encouraging the immigrants is thereafter untarnished, and it soon stands as a physical symbol to greet the shiploads arriving from Europe.

Victory for the north in the Civil War prompts a French historian, Edouard de Laboulaye, to propose that France (much associated with Liberté) should present an appropriate statue to the American nation. Paid for by the contributions of the French people, and sculpted by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the gigantic copper-sheathed lady with a lamp is first assembled in Paris in 1885.


The statue, just over 150 feet high, is then dismantled and is shipped across the Atlantic (like so many other immigrants). Reassembled on Bedloe's Island, in the channel approaching New York harbour, the statue is ready to be dedicated by President Grover Cleveland in 1886. Its official title is Liberty Enlightening the World, but it soon becomes known simply as the Statue of Liberty.

Close to Bedloe's Island is Ellis Island, used from 1892 to 1943 as the immigration station for ships arriving from Europe. So Liberty herself becomes the first glimpse of a new life for the swelling stream of immigrants. In a census of 1900 as many as 1.7 million Americans have been born in Ireland, and 2.7 million in Germany.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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