A pioneer family on the frontier, amidst a vast prairie, setting up their homestead, gazes towards a hopeful horizon.
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Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Go West, Young Man (and Woman)


In 1848 the Mexican-American War ended with the United States a 3,000-mile-long boat, prow touching the Pacific and a loaded-down stern sitting on an Atlantic beach. New York City and other urban centers were crowded and year by year becoming more so, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants flowed in. Meanwhile, many from rural areas were moving to Manhattan factories, mills, shops, and social activities. Some crowded in, with complaints about high rents. Others slept in alleys.

Those who came to New York and couldn’t make it there did not need to conclude that they couldn’t make it anywhere. The head of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, Robert Hartley, told them, “Stay not here in idleness and want, when the wide and fertile country offers you employment and all that is needful for comfort and elevation. . . . Escape then from the city . . . for escape is your only recourse against the terrible ills of beggary; and the further you go, the better.” His AICP put money where his mouth was, augmenting “Go West” words with payment of some moving expenses.

The opportunity to work on a farm or ranch, in a shop, or as a domestic, remained for decades. The West at first was the five states of the old Northwest Territory that we call now Midwest. Later, the West meant west of the Mississippi, where small towns sprung up and new railroads, canals, and roads opened access. Reporters told how “improvements in the West require more laborers than can be obtained.” Women as well as men had opportunities: ”Thousands upon thousands of women and girls can find full and profitable employment in families in the cities and country. . . . Women who understand housework need not be out of employment a day in the West.”

Migration increased during and after the Civil War, when thousands homesteaded in Kansas and other states or territories. By 1875 Kansas had 500,000 residents. Its wheat harvest sextupled from 1870 to 1875 and its corn crop quadrupled. At the end of the century landowners in the state were pleading for 40,000 more hands to bring in the sheaves. Railroads including the Illinois Central, the Union Pacific, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe ran ads in eastern cities and even in Europe. The five major railroads that comprised the Western TrunkLine Association had cars set aside for settlers from points east, and for their belongings.

We often think westward migration was for males only, but the Woman’s Protective Emigration Society of New York saw a need and an opportunity. Society agent Vere Foster scouted Midwest opportunities for “women of good character” and advertised for seamstresses and maids. He found jobs for seventy women and told his New York backers to send eighty more. Placement organizations matched “helpless females . . . left without the means of support in New York City” and employers who could obtain “necessary assistance, and at the same time accomplish much good.”

Some women ventured further. In 1862 the Homestead Act allowed land claims from “any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years.” Women, including those widowed by the Civil War, made one third of all homestead claims. One article advised pioneer women, “You shall not be vain or dream of a fancy life, or let your dreams ruin you for daily life.”

Some men and women who made it to the Midwest and went no further became homeless. They turned to charitable organizations such as one in St. Louis that established rules for giving: “Give relief only after personal investigation of each case . . . give what is least susceptible of abuse. . . . Give only in small quantities in proportion to immediate need; and less than might be procured by labor, except in cases of sickness. . . . Give assistance at the right moment; not to prolong it beyond duration of the necessity which calls for it. . . . Require of each beneficiary abstinence from intoxicating liquors. . . . Discontinue relieving all who manifest a purpose to depend on alms rather than their own exertions for support.”

Life was hard. Some men and women failed to become independent and became successful supplicants, much to the chagrin of Charities Review: It criticized “the ‘gusher’ who desires to give every evening beggar 25 cents, [and practices] that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving.” Charities Review proposed that individuals and groups restrict “material relief to those cases in which such relief would be given by a true friend.”

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.