Historical Context: Go West ... and Grow Up with the Country
by Steven Mintz
In 1854 Horace Greeley, a New York newspaper editor, gave Josiah B. Grinnell a famous piece of advice. "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country," said Greeley. Grinnell took Greeley's advice, moved west, and later founded Grinnell, Iowa.
Before 1830 Iowa was Indian land, occupied by the Sauk, Fox, Missouri, Pottowatomi, and other Indian tribes. The defeat of the Sauk and Fox Indians in the Black Hawk War in 1832 opened the first strip of Iowa to settlement. By 1840 Iowa's population of settlers had risen to 40,000.
Because no government land office was established in Iowa until 1838, many early settlers were squatters who set up farms on land that they did not own. Because they had cleared the land and built houses, they believed that the federal government would give them the right to purchase the land at minimum prices when it came up for sale. Unfortunately, later settlers, known as "claim-jumpers," tried to take the squatters land away by outbidding them at public auctions or taking over their land when a family went to town for supplies. Squatters formed more than 100 land-claims associations - extra-legal associations of local settlers - to eliminate competitive bidding and protect their holdings when the lands were offered for sale.
In 1841 Congress passed the recognized squatter's rights. The Preemption Bill provided that squatters who lived on and made improvements on surveyed government land could have the first option to buy up to 160 acres for $1.25 an acre.
At the same time that settlers poured into Iowa, other pioneers migrated to Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Lumberjacks and miners were the first to arrive. Soon they were followed by farmers and traders. Even before this northern tier of states was filled, people in the Mississippi Valley leapfrogged treeless prairies, deserts, and mountains for the west coast.
It was not until the 1870s and 1880s that pioneers settled on the prairies of Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, because these areas were much drier and settlers preferred well-watered regions near rivers and streams. Only when this land was no longer available did pioneers edge onto the more difficult prairies, using windmills to pump water and unplowed land or sod for their houses. Most of this settlement would occur after the Civil War.