The Confidence Man in the Family: Male Ambition and Domestic Conflict over Westward Migration in Antebellum America

Friday, January 6, 2017: 8:50 AM
Governor's Square 14 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
William Wagner, University of Colorado Denver
In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, ministers, reformers, editors, and politicians in the East voiced growing concerns about the affects of accelerating westward migration on the family.  Although critics blamed land speculators, town boosters, and confidence men for encouraging the exodus from the Atlantic States, they reserved their most biting criticism for husbands, fathers, and sons who abandoned comfortable homes and exposed their families to financial, physical, and emotional hardships in order to pursue fantasies of rapid gain in the West.  As cautionary tales about “western fever” proliferated in the Northeast, they emboldened parents, wives, siblings, or children to challenge their male relations who sought to relocate, either individually or as a family unit, to new communities in the trans-Appalachian West.

This paper examines the strategies that men used to address concerns about their motives and priorities as they negotiated plans for westward migration.  When faced with skepticism or opposition from family members, prospective migrants took a variety of steps to bolster their case for relocation.  Some used emigrant’s guides, maps, and other printed texts to lend authority to their views on the West.  Others embarked on prospecting tours, investigating conditions in different communities or regions before deciding where to settle.  Still others used correspondence or travel diaries to document each step in their search for a new home.  These practices served not only to persuade their relations of the advantages of migration, but also to demonstrate their sober judgment, commitment to permanent settlement, and concern for the wellbeing of their family.  Although some men succeeded in convincing skeptical family members to support or acquiesce in their plans for migration, their diligent reconnaissance did little to mitigate the considerable risks associated with relocation to the trans-Appalachian West.