The poor whites came with their "betters" in the main westward migration, just as some had gone before and more were to follow afterwards. "The poor classes traveled on foot, sometimes carrying their entire effects in a cart drawn by themselves." 31 "Some traveled by stagecoach or wagon, others on horseback, and not a few on foot," says Carman, and he quotes Birbeck's description, written in 1817, which included the statement that "often the back of the poor pilgrim bears all his effects, and his wife follows, naked-footed, bending under the hopes of the family." 32* * *
The extent of the poverty of these frontiersmen, the very persons who were within striking distance of, but without access to, the riches of large virgin tracts, and their inability because of lack of experience and training to act the part of the economic man, is shown in the following: 33
It was estimated that the cost of a farm of three hundred and twenty acres at the edge of the prairie in Illinois, at this time, would be divided as follows: for one hundred and sixty acres of prairie, two hundred dollars; for fencing it into four forty-acre fields, with rail-fences, one hundred and sixty dollars . . . . But the mass of the early settlers were to poor to afford such an outlay, and were either squatters within a little clearing, or owners of eighty acres . . . .
. . . Dirt and squalor were too frequently found in the squatter's cabin, and education and the refinements of life were denied to him. Often shirtless and indolent . . . With his rifle he eked out his sustenance . . .
Whichever group one studies -- whether the original squatters or those who followed alongside the caravans "afootback" -- the impression is always the same. Often barefoot, always lacking in education, this part of the population lived in such a situation that even the resources of giant oaks, clear streams, tall grass, gentle rains, and rich earth could not extricate them, especially that part which had been born and raised to the third and fourth generations under these conditions of poverty and isolation.
Roosevelt, in writing of this portion of the population in Kentucky, first points to the sharp contrasts on the frontier (in contrast to those writers who see in the frontier a place of social and economic uniformity), and then says: 34
. . . there was also a large influx of people of people drawn from the worst immigrants that perhaps ever were brought to America -- the mass of convict servants, redemptioners, and the like, who formed such an excessively undesirable substratum to the otherwise excellent population of the tide-water regions of Virginia and the Carolinas. Many of the southern crackers or poor whites spring from this class, which also in the backwoods gave birth to generations of violent and hardened criminals, and to an even greater number of shiftless, lazy, cowardly cumberers of the earth's surface.
The great Bull-Mooser was in a fever heat, perhaps, when he wrote the foregoing, because the objective truth is that there are brave and cowardly men in every class. But the fact that the poor whites of Virginia also moved into Kentucky and took their ways of life with them stands out clearly to those, like Roosevelt, who have delved deeply into the realities of the westward movement.
From the beginnings of the seaboard settlements to the latest census, in the hamlets and cities of this land, there have always been large numbers of poorly housed, poorly clothed, and poorly fed Americans. This was true at the time of the settlement of the West. The poor whites of the Virginia highlands, with their "shallow complexions, ragged clothing . . . " 35 pushed on as far as Texas 36
with furniture of the simplest kind, generally made on the spot out of materials at hand. A few boards with the supports roughly put together, constituted the household tables . . . . The female part of the community performed nearly all the household duties; and refined as were the wives of many immigrants, they were not exempt from severe toil unless they held slaves.
In the public mind, based on sketchy information, the westward migration has usually been conceived of as a one-way movement. No mention is made to the counter-flow. Except for the return of sourdoughs from Alaska, one does not usually think of the frontier as being so exacting and painful, so lacking in opportunity, as to have caused many persons to resettle in the east.
31. Turner, op. cit. (22), p. 80.
32. Carman, op. cit., p. 512.
33. Turner, op. cit. (22), pp. 86 and 88.
34. Quoted from Theodore Roosevelt in Franklin Henry Giddings, The Principles of Sociology (New York, 1903) pp. 128 - 129.
35. Philip Alexander Bruce, The Rise of the New South (Philadelphia, 1905) p. 427.
36. Bancroft, op. cit., p. 392.