Geographic Distribution of U.S. Population

In 2000 almost two-thirds of the U.S. population lived in states along the three major coasts—38 percent along the Atlantic Ocean, 16 percent along the Pacific Ocean, and 12 percent along the Gulf of Mexico. The smallest numbers lived in the area between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, particularly in the central and northern Great Plains. While the Rocky Mountain and plains states account for about half of the landmass of the United States, only 34 percent of the population resides in these areas.

Americans are highly mobile and move an average of 11 to 13 times in their lives, although in the 1980s and 1990s Americans moved less often than they did in the era immediately following World War II. At the beginning of the 21st century the fastest-growing areas were in the Southeast, especially Georgia, the Carolinas, and Florida; in the Rocky Mountains, including Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho; and along the West Coast. Washington State was the fastest growing of the West Coast states.

Since World War II, people have moved to the Southeast, Southwest, and West Coast for many reasons. The economies of these areas were growing. The South and California, in particular, received a disproportionate share of military and government spending during the Cold War. These expenditures created many jobs. A relatively cheap, nonunion labor force in many parts of the South also attracted industry from other parts of the country. In addition, the increasingly widespread ownership of automobiles made moving to rural areas easier. Air conditioning made the South more attractive, as did low housing costs and improved public health conditions, once malaria, hookworm, and other diseases associated with warm climates were reduced or eliminated.

Starting in the 1950s, the areas around the Great Lakes and in the Northeast, which had been major manufacturing centers, lost jobs as industries moved overseas or to other parts of the country. This trend accelerated in the 1970s. The area around the Great Lakes became known as the Rust Belt because of its closed, deteriorating factories. Some of the region’s major 19th-century industrial towns—Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; Akron, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Buffalo, New York—lost significant population. The cities that suffered the greatest declines were the ones most dependent on manufacturing. Other cities in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes—New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and Chicago—retained their importance as centers of finance, service, government, education, medicine, culture, and conventions, even though population growth slowed or stopped once the industrial base disappeared.

The older cities have a number of problems. Roads built decades ago cannot easily accommodate today’s commuter traffic and commercial trucking. School systems designed to train the next generation for industrial jobs, which are now disappearing, have struggled to meet the educational requirements of new technology-based occupations. Housing, commercial offices, and manufacturing facilities are outmoded, and the cost of land and building is relatively high. In spite of these problems, about one-third of all Americans at the beginning of the 21st century still lived around the Great Lakes and in Northeastern states, and the corridor stretching from Boston to Washington, D.C., remained the most densely settled part of the United States.

During the latter part of the 20th century, the largest streams of migrants within the United States were from New York to Florida, New Jersey, and California; from Texas to California; from California to Washington State, Arizona, Texas, and Oregon; and from New Jersey to Florida and Pennsylvania. These streams were not one-way: About 20 percent of these people later returned to their original states, so that many states are losing some people and gaining others. In the 1990s a third of Americans lived in a different state than the one in which they were born, up from a quarter of the population in the late 19th century. Others moved within states.

Migration and Diversity

Americans’ propensity to move helps break down ethnic affiliations and homogenize American society. Ethnic enclaves, with their own churches, social groups, newspapers, schools, and languages, are difficult to reproduce after a move. Intermarriage increases, mingling formerly distinct cultural traits. Over time, ethnic neighborhoods gradually shrink and are replaced by residential areas that are more mixed ethnically, although at the same time newer immigrants are creating their own ethnic enclaves. Migration generally tends to weaken the strong sense of community inherent in ethnic enclaves—neighbors may not know one another, extended family ties break down, and friendships are more transitory.

Racial differences between African Americans and European Americans, however, are so deeply rooted in the American psyche that they continue to be replicated, even in rapidly growing areas. Local laws no longer mandate segregation as they did before the 1950s, but it persists in residential patterns, in primary and secondary schools, and in religion, although it is disappearing in politics, entertainment, higher education, and in some employment sectors.

Although migration has caused some cultural differences to disappear as people blended, many ethnic identifiers have remained, spreading across the country as people migrated from one place to another. Today they have become part of America’s cultural heritage. Ethnic influences can be seen in music, food, sports, and holidays. Jazz, the blues, bluegrass, Cajun, and other forms of music have spread beyond their original locales because of migration. As these American forms of music spread, they are influenced by still other musical traditions. Foods that immigrants from around the globe introduced to this country are commonly found in many supermarkets. Such foods include pizza, tacos, salsa, bagels, dim sum, sushi, couscous, and spaghetti. As food traditions blend, they sometimes produce oddities, such as jalapeño bagels and pizza with snow peas. Many American sports, such as hockey, football, and lacrosse, have origins in other cultures and countries. Christmas holiday traditions stem from German and Dutch influences, and Jewish and African American groups maintain alternatives to Christmas celebrations. Even American architectural styles often have foreign origins—chalets from Switzerland, log cabins from northern Europe, and bungalows from India are just a few examples. The richness of American civilization comes from adopting and adapting different traditions.

America has its own homegrown traditions ranging from popular musical styles such as Tin Pan Alley, Broadway musicals, and rock and roll, which little resemble Old World models. Indigenous foods, including turkey, pumpkins, and cranberries, characterize the celebration of Thanksgiving, a day that, along with the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day, has meaning for Americans of many religions, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Major Migrations of the U.S. Population

The history of America includes three major population movements—one forced and two voluntary. The forced migration involved Native American peoples, most of whom were systematically moved westward and eventually settled onto reservations. The voluntary movements involved millions of people seeking economic advancement and greater freedom. The first of these movements included pioneers who trekked west from the mid-18th century to the turn of the 20th century. The next movement was the great migration of African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the Northeast and Midwest from World War I to the 1960s.

Americans are more restless people than residents of most other countries. They move from house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood, state to state, region to region. Most of the movement has been voluntary as individuals and families sought improved living conditions and economic opportunity. Yet substantial movements have been a result of fear, greed, and racism that denied minority groups the liberties enjoyed by the majority.

Major Migrations of the U.S. Population - Native American Relocation

Before contact with European settlers, Native Americans lived primarily on the East and West coasts and along the Mississippi River and its tributaries. The plains were rather sparsely settled until after the Spanish introduced the domestic horse to North America in the mid-17th century. Many tribal groups became horse breeders and horse traders, a new economic existence that sparked Native American migration to the plains in the 18th century.

Two centuries after Europeans arrived along the East Coast, Native American groups were forced to migrate west of the Appalachian Mountains, where they began settling among the indigenous people of the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes region in the 18th century. Eventually, only scattered remnants of eastern nations remained in their original homelands, most often in the far north or south, and native people generally lived in poverty.

During the 18th century, Native Americans were sought as allies in clashes between European colonial powers. The British sought to guarantee their Native American allies the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River as a refuge and buffer zone. This land was attractive to the settlers in the 13 colonies, however, and access to it was one cause of the American Revolution. Some settlers moved west even before the Revolution ended. The success of the colonies in the Revolution was a major defeat for Native Americans, who lost their British allies. The United States had no reason to seek alliances with native peoples after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 removed the French and Spanish as threats to the new country.

The new United States quickly moved to allow settlement of the West, despite earlier treaties with tribal groups. By the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government, the states, and pioneer pressure had forcibly removed entire groups to areas west of the Mississippi. The United States established a pattern of removing native peoples to land considered worthless, then forcibly uprooting these groups once again when white settlers sought to expand into the territory.

In the second half of the 19th century, the U.S. Army fought more than a thousand battles in an effort to place remaining Native American tribes on reservations throughout the West (see Indian Wars; Native American Reservations; Native American Policy). These reservations removed native peoples from land that white settlers desired. The federal government also attempted, with various policies during the 19th and 20th centuries, to weaken tribal loyalties and to turn natives into “Americans,” that is Christian, English-speaking farmers. An 1887 law sought to break up the reservations by allotting farms of up to 60 hectares (160 acres) to Native American households. This left Native Americans even less living space, as any leftover land was given to white settlers. The process was also rife with corruption. Economic failure, sickness, and despair were too often part of life on the reservations. During the 1930s the Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to improve conditions for Native Americans, but with little overall success.

Beginning in the 1950s, large numbers of Native Americans moved into the cities, partly to find work and partly because government programs encouraged this movement. In 1968 Native Americans in Minneapolis, Minnesota, founded the American Indian Movement (AIM), inaugurating a new period of activism and pride. Today many Native Americans travel back and forth between cities and reservations, and although many tribes remain impoverished, others are enjoying newfound wealth from economic ventures such as casino operations, oil drilling, and artistic and fine craftwork.

Major Migrations of the U.S. Population - Conquest of the West

Native Americans were forced onto reservations to make way for settlers moving west looking for more land. The Westward Movement began even before the Revolution. Colonial British America consisted mainly of settlements stretching along the East Coast from Massachusetts to Georgia. By 1760 colonists wanted more land. They moved north into what would become the states of Maine and Vermont and crossed the Appalachian Mountains to settle in western Pennsylvania, northwestern New York, and Kentucky. The Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes region also attracted thousands of settlers in the early 19th century.

Those who chose to move west were hardy. They coped with accidents, disease, and malnutrition on their journeys. They also faced occasional revenge attacks by Native Americans who had managed to survive the U.S. Army, disease, and hunger. Settlers sold their property and possessions to finance their trips and buy enough seed and food to last at least a year, and they hoped to have enough money left to acquire land. Those without sufficient money squatted on land; that is, they illegally lived on unoccupied land, constantly moving west to keep ahead of the speculators and banks that owned legal title to the land.

Migrating Americans tended to move straight west, rather than traveling northwest or southwest. New Englanders settled in the upper Midwest and northern plains, while New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians moved to the Ohio valley and lower Great Lakes, and then to Iowa, Nebraska, and beyond. People from Virginia and North Carolina headed for Kentucky and Tennessee and later to Arkansas and Missouri. Carolinians and Georgians moved further west in the Deep South, to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Texas attracted settlers from both the upper and lower South.

The settlers in the West replicated the settlement and cultural patterns of their original homes along the seaboard. Those from the North developed small farms, growing food for home consumption and to sell at market. They generally relied on the family’s labor or hired seasonal labor, and they practiced craft-based trades. They quickly established towns and cities—centers of commerce, education, and production—and by the early 19th century these towns and cities were becoming industrialized, as were their eastern counterparts.

Southerners who moved west primarily planted single cash crops, at first tobacco and rice, but later cotton became the dominant crop. They preferred large-scale plantations, with a permanent labor force of slaves. Since they exported much of their crop to English textile mills in return for finished goods, they did not need many craftspeople. Towns were smaller and cities fewer, and industrialization lagged well behind the North. The different economies and societies of the westward-expanding North and South set the stage for a divided country, eventually culminating in the American Civil War of the 1860s. Early conflicts took place where North and South met in the West—particularly in Kansas and in California.

Settlers began to move west of the Mississippi River in large numbers after the annexation of Texas in 1845 and the discovery of gold and silver in the western mountains. The California gold rush of 1849 spurred California's population increase—from 14,000 in 1848 to 100,000 a year later. By 1860 its population was 380,000. After the Civil War thousands of newly freed African Americans moved to Texas and Oklahoma, and Mexican Americans migrated west along the southern border of the United States from Texas and New Mexico into Arizona and southern California. Large numbers of Canadians moved southwest into the western United States while Americans settled in western Canada, as people in both nations sought the most fertile lands.

Thousands of Europeans headed west as well during the 19th century, particularly after transcontinental railroads made travel easier. Germans and Scandinavians migrated to the upper Midwest, then to the plains and the Pacific Northwest. The British tended to settle in Utah and along the West Coast. Smaller groups of Russians, Ukrainians, and Italians also added to the diversity of the West. Not all movement was east to west. Thousands of Chinese and Japanese, lured by economic opportunity, headed east across the Pacific Ocean and settled in the American West, particularly in California. A gold rush in the Klondike that started in 1896 drew thousands to Alaska, some of whom stayed. By the turn of the 20th century the West was populated with people from the eastern United States, Europe, and Asia, while the native population was confined to reservations. Except on the reservations, the population of the West continued to grow through the 20th century, especially after the automobile made travel easier.

Although westward migration continued, growth was not uniform. Some areas of the northern plains, as well as some mining and logging districts, began losing population in the 20th century because of economic changes or resource depletion. Mining towns became ghost towns throughout the West as ore ran out or as overseas competition made mines unprofitable. The largest of these emigrations from former frontier areas occurred during the Dust Bowl period of the 1930s, when overuse of the land combined with drought to cause severe erosion of the Great Plains, and farmers from the plains moved to the West Coast. The loss of population in the plains continued through the end of the 20th century, as larger agribusinesses that required less labor replaced small farms.

Major Migrations of the U.S. Population - Black Migration

After the Civil War the majority of African Americans continued to live in the South, where most farmed as sharecroppers or tenants. A smaller number were ministers, teachers, doctors, and nurses. This way of life eventually broke down for several reasons. African Americans in the South were confronted daily with the many indignities of segregation, which the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled constitutional in 1896. Their opportunities for employment were restricted, their schools were second-rate, and their voting rights were trampled by policies such as literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and primary elections that were open to whites only. Then in the late 1890s, the boll weevil began to spread through the South, destroying the cotton crop that sustained most black families. African Americans began to leave the South. Entire communities moved to Northern cities, drawn by the possibility of industrial jobs, better schools, and fewer legal restrictions. The pace of black migration increased substantially during World War I, when employers in Northern cities experienced labor shortages. By 1920, 450,000 blacks had moved north. Three out of four of those could be found in Detroit; Cleveland; Chicago; Philadelphia; New York; Indianapolis, Indiana; Kansas City, Missouri; St. Louis, Missouri; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Southern employers opposed this great exodus of black Americans from the South and tried to keep their laborers by persuasion or force. African Americans who moved north also often met hostility. Race riots were triggered by whites who feared competition for jobs and residential integration, particularly in the years of labor unrest following World War I. Through fear and discriminatory rental and hiring policies these violent episodes served to confine blacks to segregated ghettos within cities. Still, the migration continued, aided by effects of the 1930s depression in the South and by the jobs and high wages that came with World War II and the early Cold War.

Young adults typically led the way to the North, and other family members would follow once the first venturer found work and housing. It often happened that small, rural communities would recreate themselves in the urban North, living in the same neighborhoods and worshiping at a single church. The migration ended in the 1960s when the successes of the civil rights movement reduced the differences between Northern and Southern racial attitudes. In the 1990s some Northern blacks left the Rust Belt cities behind and moved back to a revitalized South, with its newer cities and expanded job opportunities.