Westward Expansion in 19th century America mainly caused by low transportation costs, population growth
Applying quantitative analysis to historical explanations, a new study by economist Guillaume Vandenbroucke of the University of Southern California now finds that the price of land was significantly less important to Westward Expansion than population growth and technological innovation leading to a revolution in low cost transportation. This revolution allowed people and goods to be transported Westwards with ease.
Vandenbroucke's findings [*.pdf], appearing in the current issue of International Economic Review, have important implications for how to understand current population patterns (rural - urban migration to the emerging megacities) and international immigration to the United States. By extension, the data show the importance of land use changes, low cost transportation and (physical and social) mobility to the emergence of Modernity. It is tempting to read Vandenbroucke's findings through the spectrum of current record energy prices, international migration, population growth and land resources in the rapidly modernising developing world.
The economist describes the key aspects of America's great transformation as follows:
The United States of 1900 differed dramatically from the country created after the Revolutionary War. The first prominent difference was size. In 1800 the United States was less than one million square miles, whereas in 1900 it encompassed about three million square miles. A consequence of this territorial expansion was the significant growth in the stock of productive land. Between 1800 and 1900 the stock of land was multiplied by 14, that is an annual growth rate of 2.7%.To examine what forces were most directly responsible for the magnitude of this movement and land accumulation, Vandenbroucke takes into account such factors as the amount of land available in the Eastern United States, wage and productivity growth in the East, improvements in technologies to transform "wild land" into arable and habitable land (clearing of forests and grasslands, fencing, etc.), and the expansion and improvement of transportation infrastructures:
The second difference was the change in the geographic distribution of population. In 1800, less than 7% lived in the West. By 1900 this number increased to roughly 60%. The combination of these two facts [graph, click to enlarge] constitutes the Westward Expansion.
The geographical shift of economic activity also captures the Westward Expansion. In 1840, the West accounted for less than 30% of total personal income whereas in 1900 this share rose to 54% (and has remained stable at about 60% ever since).
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To account for the range of variables and possible factors, Vandenbroucke determined a model in which each factor was held at a constant level while the others shifted at historical rates.
The most important forces are population growth and the decrease in transportation costs. Population growth is mostly responsible for the investment in productive land - without it less than half of the land accumulated in 1900 would have been accumulated. - Guillaume VandenbrouckeSurprisingly, Vandenbroucke found that changes in productivity in the East had little effect on the Westward Expansion, relative to population growth and a decrease in transportation costs. Rising wages and productivity makes it easier to move, but it also makes it less pressing to move.
Instead, he finds that population growth and technological innovation worked in concert as the main driving factors of Western Expansion. Specifically, the decrease in transportation costs induced Western migration and the redistribution of the American population - without it only 30 percent of the population would have been in the West in 1900, compared to an actual historical figure of 60 percent.
Land improvement technologies such as the use of barbed wire to cut down on the time needed to build a fence, or improved techniques to clear forests and grasslands had a small effect on the accumulation of land in the West.
Picture: The First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the railway network of the Eastern United States with California on the Pacific coast. Ceremonially completed on May 10, 1869, at the famous "golden spike" event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nation-wide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West. Credit: Wikimedia.
Vandenbroucke, G. "The U.S. Westward Expansion", International Economic Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, February 2008.
Vandenbroucke, G. "The American Frontier: Technology versus Immigration", Review of Economic Dynamics, forthcoming.
Eurekalert: What caused westward expansion in the United States? - February 28, 2008.