why didn't all the "poor whites" in the antebellum South move West?

I think the concept of “white trash” was somehow closely linked to the issue of poor soil. Along the lines of these people having bad land, or not enough land given the quality, and so they were poor. Well, ok, then why didn’t they all just move westward and get better land, whether in the northern or the southern sectors of the western areas? Did their government authorities try actively encourage them to do so?

On a related note, was there even such a thing as a poor farmer in the North, a counterpart to the Southern ones? Or were the northerners better at migrating and/or finding industrial employment?

You can ask this question more generally as “Why don’t poor people of region / country X move elsewhere, where there are better farming opportunities / employment?”

The answer generally is : a lot of people do, but not all. Some people don’t want to leave their home and extended family even if it’s bad living there, as long as it’s possible to survive there. Not all people are mobile enough to move (old grandparents, little children, handicapped).

Secondly, the journey costs a lot. Whether you have to pay a boat passage to Europe/ America, or a coyote to lead the way across the border, or, in the case of the Wild West, need a wagon and oxes, you need money to start with. (That’s why a lot of Europeans immigrating to the US in the 19th century were sold as indentured servants to pay for the debt their ship passage had incurred, or why Asians today are often in debt to the Mafia) Sometimes, one individual will borrow money from the whole extended family to get to a better country, try to earn money there and send it back (today with Africans or Asians to Europe). But not the whole family can move.

Third, you didn’t simply move to the Wild west, cut down some trees and presto, have a rich farm. You first had to survive the journey, and make do with a very hard life the firs years, because forest or praire soil is not best farm soil right away. Also, living in the wild required skills as a frontierman that not everybody poor white farmer in the more pacified south would have acquired - if you don’t know how to trap animals for the first couple of years, or build a house out of sod because there are no trees in the prairie, then you won’t survive long in the Wild West.
Also, just having a farm doesn’t make you rich, even if the farm is bigger. A bigger farm means more work, which means you have more people to transport and feed durign the start-up years. But then, you are stuck with hundred tons of grain or squash or whatever produce, right at harvest time, out in the middle of nowhere. So how can you get that produce to the next city and sell it for profit? You need again a wagon and ox or horses, but it will take days of journey, so the produce might spoil. Or you have an overabundance of the same produce at harvest time. The Wild West people made their money with furs, which could be sold for a lot more money than food.

So if the aim is to get rich, going west for farming won’t help. If the aim is to have a bigger farm, with the same hard work, but taking a lot of risk and needing starting money and skills and determination, then it’s easy to see why some individuals wanted to take the risk, but not everybody.

(There are also political barriers, of course, like the Mexicans trying to get into the US or Africans trying to get to Europe).

Is this the official linguistic explanation, or do you suppose this?

There is a big difference between “not enough land” and “poor soil quality” (the latter can be overcome today with proper agriculture methods because knowledge has increased).

My impression was always that white trash refers to a lack of education (together with a stubborn pride, in direction of redneck attitude, of wanting to stay that way). That’s different from normal poverty, where people try to move upward.

It was costly to move and most people didn’t think of farms but the cities as their saviour.

So if you were poor and living in West Virginia, you were more apt to look to Baltimore or Philadelphia than out west, even if you were a farmer. It cost much less to set yourself up in a city than buy land out West.

Farm people also had the advantage of food. In Catherine Reef’s book “Poverty in America,” she points out in the Great Depression, those on farms still ate, where those in the cities did not. It became common for city families to take to rural roads and work just to eat.

Crime and communicable disease were also much less an issue in rural areas

So if you think about it, back in 30s, there wasn’t a lot to leave the farm for, as long as you could get enough food.

Entertaiment was limited to movies and radio and books. Radio opened up rural areas to entertainment in the way nothing else could, 'cause it came to you and was free. Well after the inital cost of the receiver.

The Okies went West because there were fewer options and greater rewards. Texas cities weren’t as developed as they were today and without air conditioning unbearbly hot to most. So an Okie would go to St Louis or Chicago (perhaps Kansas City) but if they were going to make the trip, their standards in the city would go up only marginally. During the depression California was still advertised as the “land of milk and honey.” So many Okies went that way simply because they believed the hype. They figured instead of going all the way to Chicago and change lifestyles, I’ll go a bit farther and go to California.

yes, “white trash” was a widespread term back then, see here White trash - Wikipedia

Why all the talk of Depression, coyotes, rednecks and Africans? I am talking about a very specific period of time - the antebellum America. At this time the people from the north-east were busily colonizing areas like Ohio and Illinois. I don’t think they were doing any trapping there or negotiating “political boundaries”, LOL. They sold farms in one place, moved to the other and set up there on cheaper, more abundant soil. So why didn’t the poor white southerners do the same thing instead of working the “sand hills” or whatever it was called there.

Your question is flat-out ignorant in regards to human psychology and the way things work. I have no idea why you phrased it the way you did. Poor whites in the antebellum South could be replaced an immeasurable groups in history and today. The answer is because where they live is ‘home’ and most people resist strongly to leaving their homeland even when it is faced by adversity.

Why do Palestinians still fight to live in Israel and are willing to die for the right to do so? Why are the states with the highest black populations still in the South where slavery was ended last?

Please explain where this question is coming from because it makes little sense especially because it is so vague but specific.

I wasn’t wondering whether it was around at that time (though I was surprised following your wiki link) but whether it actually comes from poor soil, or from some other reason.

Because as Shagnasty says, and we others have tried to, this question has to do with human psychology, and thus the answer can be derived from looking at other groups in history past and present, where we have answers.

Well, you talked about the Wild West. I assumed you meant prairie land, or the forest regions where the homestead act applied. The whole idea of going west was that you grabbed a piece of land without paying for it, because you were too poor to buy a farm. This meant that this land wasn’t prepared at all for agriculture. There was no house either. So in the praire, you had to build a house out of sods; in the woods, chop down trees and build a log cabin. Both time consuming and needed skill. Moreover, ask any knowledgeable farmer, and he will explain to you how you can’t simply till over a piece of gras area or forest floor, drop some seeds and have food to eat. You need to improve the soil where gras or trees grew for centuries if you are going to plant certain type of stuff. You also can’t simply plant what you are used to from back home, if the rain or temp. or soil quality is different (what doomed the pilgrims in New England before the Indians helped them out).
Even if you hit the right plant type, you would have to wait weeks or months before they ripened, and during that time, you would need to hunt to eat. I doubt that poor whites had the chance to learn that.

Huh? I didn’t say about negotiating boundaries. I gave boundaries as an addional barrier today, and also partly in the past, noting that it didn’t apply in your instance.

There was, however, the matter of the Indians being pissed off that their land was stolen, and attacking the settlers.

I don’t have the data to back this up, but my impression is that you are wrong. First, people in the north who had farms and sold them were already well-off, otherwise they couldn’t have afforded the trek.
Second, not all northerns, just as not all southerns, moved west. Some had the adventourus spirit that the prospect of a big farm outside the narrow village life appealed to them, despite the dangers of the trek and the start-up.

I think you are starting from a general misconception from lack of data. You sound as if you believe that all northerns went west, but no poor southerns. You need to show data how many percentage of northerns vs. southerns went, and from what income group. My guess - without having that data, either, but based on general patterns in all time - is that a certain percentage went, and the rest didn’t want to leave home or didn’t want to risk it.*

After all, enough southerns went that the question of whether the new western states should allow slavery or not was a huge problem before the civil war.

And while a significant number of cowboys and settlers in the West were black - partly after the civil war, though - most blacks tried to go north or to Canada. not west. Probably because a frontiers life isn’t for everybody - not everybody is cut out for it.

  • Given that people died during the trek from diseases, hunger and raids, and during the start-up from raids and hunger, people back home would have noticed that no mail at all came back, or that so-and-so’s neighbor had died. They would know that it was risky.

Generally, long-term (with the one exception of Depression - and even then, the farmers were hit by the duststorms), wealth and prosperity is generated by city-regions. This ties in with education and job opportunies.

See a very good essay over at zompist about an interesting book

I’m not sure where to start. When I was a little kid on vacation, my father would point out things like the Abeline Trail and tell stories about how people on the Trail would be found dead just a mile or so from where they could get water. Many head-smacking moments ensued when I asked him why they didn’t just go the next mile and get the water.

First off, there were a lot of poor farmers in the North. They used the term “farming rocks” to describe the soil. You’ll also note the term “hardscrabble” used a lot in Lewis and Clark’s diaries.

Secondly, asking why poor people didn’t just move is naive. Why hasn’t every poor person left Mississippi, or the Ozarks, or Appalachia already? Tales of the Okies notwithstanding, you don’t just pick up and move, you have to move TO somewhere.

And finally, it wasn’t until the Preemption Act of 1841 that settlers had some assurance that they could actually gain rights to the land they settled on. That was pretty late in the the antebellum period, and didn’t really have a lot of effect until Kansas and Nebraska were opened to settlement in 1954.

White and poor in the settled verdant south verses poor with deadly hardships in unsettled wild areas and bonus of the Indian wars. I’d take staying put around the people and places that I knew or maybe going east.

Poor whites in the South were always moving westward in the antebellum years, in large numbers.

Define “West” as you are using it (bearing in mind that Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was considered a “Westerner” in his day). Frontiersmen Daniel Boone operated in Kentucky, and Davy Crockett in Tennessee.

You have to bear in mind that many of the southern states really only opened up for settlement after Indian defeats and removals from the 1810s to the 1830s. Georgia, then Alabama and Mississippi were western frontiers in their turn.

Texas was settled mostly by Southerners migrating westward as well.

Really much of the South wasn’t too far removed from frontier status during the Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln’s family migrated from Virginia westward to Kentucky, then westward to Illinois. They were going with the flow.

Bear in mind that until a plow was invented that could break the tough sod of the plains, and a railroad to ship their produce to market (both after the Civil War), there wasn’t much beyond the Mississippi that was desirable to family farmers. Until you got to the western part of Oregon, everthing else was suitable only for bachelor miners, drovers and loggers.

A lot of poor white southerners did move to the west. Look at a map. Places like Alabama. Mississippi, and Tennessee used to be the unsettled west. They were settled by people from Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

Postwar emotional trauma accounts for much of it. PTSD.

People from the south-east were every bit as active in settling southern Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Abe Lincoln’s family moved from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois, and they were far from atypical. Illinois had such a majority of Southern settlers that there was a movement to legalize slavery in the 1820’s. During the Civil War the southern part of all three states was “Butternut country”, rife with Southern transplants with pro-Southern sympathies. Even today southern accents are common south of Interstate 70.

Move west? Yeah, easy…except, before the rairoads were built, how would you ship your grain, beef, etc. to markets? There was literally NOTHING in most of the Far West, till you got to San Francisco (and not much there).
On a separate note, Mark Twain wrote an essay about the poor southern white people-and puzzled about why these poor people took up arms to defend a system-which kept them in poverty, and little better off than the slaves.Anybody know where to find this?

Poor white southerners took up arms for the same reason most people do so - their homeland had gone to war.

Hey, I’d love to pack up a couple suitcases and move, myself. The fact that I’m unemployed, middle-aged and not cute any more, have a chronic health problem, own a 12 year old car on its last leg, have $200 in the bank, have a family, animals and elderly relatives to look after, own a house that needs a LOT of work, and don’t know where to go or what to do to make a living after I get there seem to be sticking points. (If I was younger, had more money, was free and single, adventurous, and knew people living somewhere who assured me I would be welcome to stay with them till I got on my feet (and jobs were plentiful there) - heck, I’d go in a heartbeat.) So I imagine the infinitely worse off poor people in the past would feel stuck, as I do now. When I was about 10 my father lost his job and I actually said, why don’t we just move to Florida and dad can get a job there? My stressed out mom said, “you are an idiot” and so my brilliant idea was shot down, though now I understand.