One of the biggest problems with settling the continent was just how large it is. We have to consider the size from the point of those who might be moving around on its surface. Southern North America has three major mountain zones, one running roughly north and south along the east coast and another running north and south roughly two-thirds of the way westward across the continent and a third running, again, north and south along the west coast. These all made east-west travel difficult, except in the northeast where the Great Lakes/ St. Lawrence waterway penetrates deeply into the continent. From a 19th Century American point of view, the outlet and a good part of the Lakes were held by a foreign power, complicating their use.
A second complication was the existence of the Isthmus of Panama, which meant that access to the west coast of the continent was made difficult by the long voyage around South America and consequently little was known of this territory. It was possible to cross the Isthmus, but many of the emigrants to California after 1848 who tried it found their early demise, afflicted with one of its numerous tropical diseases. The route was much shorter, but riskier.
The term ‘overland’ came to signify the challenge of getting from the eastern part of the new country to almost anywhere else. The Revolutionary War created a border to the northwest, while the Spanish and French held the mouth of the major river system that drained the large intermountain plains of the interior. All this changed in the first two decades of the 19th Century, with the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812. The first opened up the Mississippi River system to internal American trade and the second stabilized the northern border roughly along the Great Lakes and the 49th parallel from Lake Superior to the Pacific Ocean.
With these additions, the word ‘overland’ changed its meaning again. In the 1820s, steamboats on the Mississippi River system allowed emigrants from the East to access the much of the prairies and plains by water. The Erie Canal did likewise; emigrants from New England could travel by Canal and Lake steamer as far inland as Chicago. Now, ‘overland’ became a word to describe the way people had to go if they were going westward from the Mississippi River.
By the 1840s, the railway system was beginning to develop, and ‘overland’ became a word to primarily to describe travel made from where the railroads stopped, which in itself was a fluid set of points as the system expanded. Canals declined in importance, and even the steamship traffic on the Great Lakes and Mississippi River began to feel threatened. Chicago was reached by rail from the East toward the end of the decade and the Mississippi River was bridged for rail in the 1850s.
The discovery of gold in the newly-acquired territory of California changed the definition of ‘overland once again. The rush of hundreds of thousands of people to the West Coast, which had only become American territory a year previously, saw a multitude of wagons, walkers and riders leaving railheads in Iowa and Missouri for the goldfields. Most followed the general path developed in the 1840s by the Mormon emigration from the Mississippi River to the Great Salt Lake, before plunging into the Nevada desert and over the Sierras. Some others broke off and headed northwest to the fertile lands near the Oregon coast. Now, the word ‘overland’ primarily meant wagon travel west from the riverheads across dry and mostly uninhabitable land.
After the end of the Civil War railroads pushed west, tying the great, dry expanse to the rest of the country. One after another, the railroads extended to the West Coast from near the Mexican border to near the Canadian border. The idea of the ‘overland’ shrank its meaning to those places far from one of these trunk lines.
Then, in the early 1900s, the word began to take on another new meaning as travel by automobile led to the redevelopment of the American road system, which had been left to seriously deteriorate as the railroad system grew. ‘Overland’ meant the freedom to explore the country in an individual manner and not just along the railroad lines. The automobile was the ultimate ‘overland’ machine. Air travel, later overlaying the other modes of movement, was to fly above the land, not to go ‘overland’.