Pioneers: The American Spirit and Traditions

When we mention “Pioneers” we instantly think of the brave American settlers who moved westward after the European immigrants established settlements, villages and colonies in lands east of the Mississippi River. But the Pilgrims, an ignored part of American history today, were also pioneers – moving across a vast Atlantic Ocean to settle in the New World in a place they hoped to find freedom and a new life. The word pilgrim is from the Latin peregrinus, which means “traveler” – one who has come from afar, who were on a journey to a holy place. The concept nor the meaning was nothing new, there were pilgrims in ancient Egypt, Persia, India, China and Japan.
Pilgrimages were made, in Greek and Roman customs, to travel to an oracle at Dodona or Delphi in order to consult the gods through the oracle. In this respect, the pilgrims
were not seeking a new way of life, but instead just making a holy journey not searching for a new homeland. The pilgrimage could either be a personal endeavor or sponsored by the state.

Before the American colonies became states separated from England and united under one constitution, becoming a nation, there weren’t many pioneer settlers who moved very far westward. Those that did usually did so to escape British tyranny during the colonial period.

The first adventurous souls who moved westward were explorers, trappers, mountain men and the like; followed by those who wanted to seek new lands to build farms and ranches.

The first pioneers began traveling west of the Appalachian Mountains and, for the most part and at first, learned to live with the indigenous people already there. But as time went on and the young government of the United States encouraged Americans to expand the territory of the new nation, more settlers began to intrude upon those who had lived there for many thousands of years. As towns and villages became cities and important trade centers, the expansion westward began to escalate and soon there were guides available and wagon train outfitters that could be hired to lead the settlers from St. Louis as the starting point to the prairie states and mountainous regions west of the Mississippi River.

Trappers followed the explorers, who were either solitary Mountain Men or men who made a living trapping animals for their fur to trade at the various wilderness outposts. The first Europeans learned the trapping trade from the native Americans who used pits, dead falls, and snares to capture animals for their meat, hide, or fur for clothing and occasionally trade at the outposts like the Canadian Fur Brigade and Hudson Bay Company. These hardy Mountain Men and Trappers were the first Europeans to cross the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains searching for fur. The furs were traded for useful commodities, rather than cash – rifles, pistols, knives, food, frying pans, pots, and blankets. In the spring and
summer, there would be an annual event called theRendezvous, a word initiated by the first trappers of North America who were French. It was not only a time to bring their furs for trade, but a time for recreational activities from
purchasing and drinking whiskey to event contests like axe and knife
throwing and marksmanship with pistol and rifle. The Rendezvous traditions lives on today and annual reenactment events still exist today in scattered locations in the United States. Handcrafted items can be purchased (or traded) at these events. 


Ranch settler – pioneers called for the breed of men called cowboys, who became prominent in the late 19th century stemming from the vaquero traditions of northern Mexico introduced when the horse was brought from Spain. While cowboys still existed on into the 20th century, the days of the Wild West waned from the introduction of the Industrial Age

Less conspicuous was the cowgirl, seen more today than in the 19th century; but the Wild West of America has its famous western women legends, like Annie Oakley.

Annie Oakley

As the passing days of the traditional cowboy was disappearing Wild West Shows became popular – visitors from Europe, to include Queen Victoria, to see the reenactment of the Wild West. Rodeo circuits were developed and still exist today.

Cowboys helped blaze new trails into the wilderness in order to get their cattle to rail-heads or cattle towns to sell their cattle for market, which was then sent to large processing centers for beef, like the Chicago Union Stockyards. But what comes to folks mind when the word “pioneer” is mentioned is the wagon trains on beaten trails, across prairies, streams, and mountains to reach a place they could homestead and make a new life with new opportunities for their families.

Prospectors and miners were also pioneers and if they struck a “mother lode” – it soon brought others to the area and formed towns; however, unlike the pioneer settler, the mining towns sometimes turned into ghost towns when the mining operation no longer produced.

The westward movement of pioneer settlers after the end of the Civil War brought about events like the Northwest
(1787), Louisiana Purchase, Oregon Country, and Mexican Cession. After the American Civil War, westward expansion increased, notably when the
Homestead Act was passed in 1862, as well as other factors like railroad expansion through land grants.

Mormon pioneers moved westward for religious reasons, searching for a land they could settle in and escape religious persecution by mainstream Christianity. They migrated from the Midwest until they reached Salt Lake Valley that
became the state of Utah and established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or known in short term as the Latter-Day Saints. The Mormons were no small group of pioneers at an estimate of 70,000 original pioneer settlers that began with advanced parties sent out by church fathers in March of 1846 after the assassination of Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, in the founding town of Nauvoo, Illinois.

The state of Oregon has a rich pioneer history between 1806 and 1890. Most arrived over the Rocky Mountains and emigrated from northern California; while others arrived by crossing the Pacific Ocean. Oregon, as a territory, was
not organized until Congress enacted legislation to declare the region the Oregon Territory in 1848. By 1853, the state boundaries
became legal and the northern portion of the Oregon Territory became the Washington Territory and by 1859, the Oregon state became part of the Union, and portions of the original Oregon Territory became part of the Idaho Territory in 1863.

An excellent source of information about westward expansion and the pioneer movement can be found at KidInfo, designed for children, but interesting to all.

Much has been written about pioneer life, some of which has survived even today in the 21st century. Today it is called HomesteadLiving that gets people away from the hustle-bustle of urban living and back to the basics with a modern twist, often utilizing alternate energy produced through solar or wind-turbine equipment; no longer called pioneering or homesteading, but off-grid living. Water sources can include a well, stream, or lake; and rainwater collected for crops and gardens.

Some pioneering or off-grid living developed into self-sufficient communities, called communes in the 1970s. One such group were called the Acadians in Nova Scotia (Evangeline) by Longfellow; today a coastal community at the Bay of Fundy where tides can be as high as 40-feet and the home of the historic Chapel of Grand Pe.

When pioneers settled in forested areas, log homes were generally what was built; however, some rocky areas pioneers would build the bottom half of the home with local stones and top it off with logs cut from the forest nearby or from trees cut in order to clear land for agricultural endeavors. 

The western expansion pioneers died away before the dawn of the 20th century, but the pioneer spirit lived on, inspiring poets and writers, like Ella Whaler Wilcox:

So many gods, so many creeds,

So many paths that wind and wind;

When just the art of being kind,

Is all this sad world needs.

Clarence Hawkes wrote in The Pioneer Spirit (1847):

The Pioneer Spirit that mastered

And broke the virgin sod,

That conquered savages and kings,

And only bowed to God

The strength of mind and strength
of soul –

The will to do or die,

That sets it’s heart upon a goal,

And made it far or high.