The last settler’s syndrome

Log cabin

In my mind, my hometown will always be a city of 24,000 people. It’ll also be supported by three major manufacturing companies. And it’ll always have a certain, intangible something. Of course, today West Bend has 5,000 more residents despite the demise of all three manufacturers. And every time I return, that certain something isn’t quite the same either. It’s like waking from a dream I can’t entirely reconstruct.

Geographer Gilbert F. White would say I’ve got “last settler’s syndrome”. To me, the ideal West Bend is the city I remember from my childhood—really, from my middle school days when my friends and I explored every street in the city by bike. White would also say I’m not alone: “Each wants his particular town and country landscape to remain just as it was when he or she arrived. The most recent settler wants to be the last settler.”

One could argue that the settlement of the United States was driven in part by last settler’s syndrome, that the pioneer spirit is just a euphemism for the malady. Pioneers who saw their wilderness fill up with other settlers may have become disillusioned. The Ohio River Valley, for example, wasn’t the same after the first trees were felled. So people picked up and moved on. It instilled a distinctly American habit—moving west for new opportunities.¹ My own ancestors followed that well-worn path, moving from Ohio to Wisconsin in the late 1800s.

Seemingly everything in our lives is touched by the last settler’s syndrome, from our childhood homes to our neighborhoods to our favorite haunts. It can be a powerful, positive force—if John Muir hadn’t been afflicted by last settler’s syndrome, there probably wouldn’t be a Yosemite National Park. But last settler’s syndrome also can be problematic. Neighborhood quarrels can result when new transplants push for change. And while obstinacy can be good in some cases—Muir and Yosemite—it also can be a barrier.

Understanding the last settler’s syndrome—how it affects people, and more importantly, how it affects ourselves—can help us better understand where we live, whether that be cities, farms, or forests. It also can help explain why change is so accelerated these days: We’re a population that moves a lot. As of 2010, less than 60 percent of Americans lived in the state in which they were born, almost 30 percent were born in another state, and almost 13 percent were born in another country. How people defined “the way things were” used to evolve over generations. Today it’s on the order of years.

In an era of constant upheaval—where cities look nothing like they did a few years ago, let alone a few decades ago—we need to consciously disassemble our relationship with places and analyze them in parts. What should we keep? What should we change? What needs to change? It’s difficult to abandon the past, but the future will be nothing like we imagine. Things are going to change whether we like it or not.

  1. Why else is California so populous? I kid, I kid. Or do I?


Nielsen, J. M., Shelby, B., & Haas, J. E. (1977). Sociological carrying capacity and the last settler syndrome Pacific Sociological Review, 20 (4), 568-581

U.S. Census. 2011. Lifetime Mobility in the United States: 2010.

White, Gilbert F. 1986. The Last Settler’s Syndrome. in Geography, Resources, and Environment: Volume 1. Robert W. Kates and Ian Burton, eds. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Photo by anoldent.

Related posts:

Interview: Jon Christensen on California’s cities

Wilderness housing boom challenges conservation

The woods that were

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