Much of the history of North America is about how Europeans moved westward from the Atlantic coast towards the Pacific. The first settlements began around 1600, and it was a long time before the Europeans settled the interior. By the late eighteenth century, however, good farmland along the east coast was becoming scarce. As the population increased, people began thinking about all the native Indian lands further inland. Families were quite large in pioneer days, and the oldest son usually inherited the family farm. This meant that the other sons and daughters would have to move away when their parents died. Often the sons would want to begin their own farm, and start their own family. But, if there was no farmland available, or if it was too expensive to buy, they were out of luck.
One option was to move west where land was free or very cheap. Sometimes the whole family might move if their old farm was no longer productive. Sometimes the old farm was on poor soil, or too much farming had exhausted the soil. Perhaps better land could be had further west. There were other reasons for moving west. Pioneer settlers depended on wild birds, fish and wild animals for food, furs and skins for clothing and trading, and trees for building materials. These things became scarce in old settled areas. Out west there were lots of animals to hunt for food, and animal skins could be traded for supplies. It seemed that it was easier to make a living on the frontier. Of course, there were some problems regarding moving west.
Various American Indian tribes who might fight to defend their land occupied the land. Then the land needed to be cleared of trees and stumps before it could be planted. A log cabin and other buildings had to be built. A well had to be dug, or a spring of water found. Settlers might also suffer because there were no doctors, or teachers, or stores available. These things, though, often did follow closely behind the first settlers. A series of “Little House” books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder tells the story of her pioneer family. The Ingalls family moved many times while Laura was a little girl. She was born in Wisconsin in 1867; her family moved next year to Missouri; then they moved to Kansas in 1869; the Ingalls moved back to Wisconsin in 1871; they moved to Minnesota in 1874; her family went to Iowa in 1876; then back to Minnesota in 1877. Finally, they moved to De Smet, South Dakota in 1879, and there the family remained. All these moves were typical for a pioneer family – always on the lookout for better land and other opportunities. But all these moves involved very hard work, all of which seemed all lost when the family had to move again. For example, when Laura’s parents moved to the Kansas prairie in 1869, they had many hardships. The family put all their belongings in a covered wagon, which measured four feet by ten feet. Two horses pulled it, and the family dog followed along. Laura and her sister Mary were very little girls. The family and their wagon were nearly washed away trying to cross a small river. They travelled through wild tall grass where there were no roads.
Laura’s father built a house on the open prairie with logs he hauled from the creek bottoms. One of the nearby settlers helped him. They also built a log stable for the horses. That was a good thing, because the next night their little house was surrounded by a pack of fifty large wolves. They formed a large circle around the house and howled all night. One day while Laura’s father was away, two Indians visited the house. They wanted Laura’s mother to feed them and stood silent while the food was cooking. The Indians wore only fresh skunk skins as clothing. After the Indians had eaten all the food, they left. The following spring, there was a large gathering of Indian tribes. Most of them wanted to fight the settlers. For many nights, the sounds of Indian drums frightened the settlers. One tribe opposed the plan, and finally the gathering broke up and the Indians went away. Many other problems faced the Ingalls family. These included bad weather, prairie grass fires, and malaria. The worst part was having to leave their new homes. The government decided that Laura’s family was living on Indian land and would have to move. So the covered wagon was packed again, and the family travelled north. Such experiences were not unusual for pioneers in the nineteenth century.