A SCATTERED PEOPLE. An American Family Moves West. By Gerald McFarland Pantheon. 280 pp. $17.95.

IN 1810 A WIDOW named Huldah Root wrote a letter from her residence in Massachusetts to her son, Jeremiah, who had moved to Ohio three years earlier. "What feelings does it give me," she told him, "to think that my dear children are scattered to the remotest parts of the earth never, perhaps nevermore to set eyes on them. When I think of it my heart swells with grief."

She was scarcely alone in that grief. Throughout the young nation families were constantly dividing and forming new allegiances as the great move westward continued its inexorable progress. It was a movement that had many causes, chief among them the hunger for land, and that had an incalculable influence upon the American character. It aso formed new families from the old ones that had begun the westward trek many hundreds of miles apart, as Gerald McFarland carefully documents in A Scattered People, a book that happens to be a history of his own family but that has implications and resonance for all of us.

The people in this book are of Scotch, Irish and English ancestry, with names like Brown, Root, Greenfield, Adair, Ward and Remington. In the colonial period and then in the early years of the new nation they were to be found in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Maryland and Virginia, but even before the revolution many of them had begun the migration -- to Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Arizona, Colorado -- that would culminate, for the purposes of this narrative, in the birth of McFarland's mother, Marguerite Ward, in California in 1900. One of them, Benjamin Adair, began his journey at Timber Ridge, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, in 1805:

"Pause for a moment on a warm summer day and lean against the cool rock face of Old Providence Church. Let your eye follow the curve of the paved mourner's path as it crosses the green meadow to the church's original burying ground. There stand the old grave markers, some of stone and others of wood, nearly all of them badly weathered and settled into odd angles. Surrounded by these sights, you can easily imagine that you are in Scotland or Ireland rather than in Virginia. Still, appearances can deceive, for American society was not merely a transplantation of Old World forms to the new. Indeed, immigrants like Benjamin Adair left Europe in search of something different and better, and it was aspirations not unlike those that caused them to cross the Atlantic before 1800 that led many, Benjamin Adair included, to cross the Appalachian Mountains in the early nineteenth century."

Traversing the mountains was not precisely a venture into the unknown, as others had gone before them, but it was a considerable undertaking in itself and at the end of it lay only uncertainty and risk. Though rough roadways had been hacked through the mountains, and though threats from Indians had been reduced either by treaty or by the bloodshed for which early settlers had such an appetite, there were no guarantees that in Ohio or Kansas they would find the fulfillment of their dreams. In fact, one of McFarland's central themes is that most migrants to the West were frustrated and disappointed; the promise of America "was larger than the vast majority of Americans had the power to accomplish," and any improvements in their lives over those of their Eastern ancestors were more likely to be the result of developments over which they had no control -- "the advent of the industrial era and such conveniences as railroads, electricity, gas lighting, central heating and telephones" -- than of their decision to go West.

But that, as McFarland is quick to point out, is the judgment of hindsight. When these doughty people loaded their covered wagons and headed West, they knew only that land was plentiful there and that they could put behind them whatever personal failures or religious controversies had made life difficult in the East. Hardship and loss were certainties, as Samuel and Florella Adair discovered when they reached Kansas in 1854: "Illness, especially chills and fevers, regularly swept the district. There were deaths due to diseases, drowning and childbirth. Disputes over land claims, the struggle to find decent shelter, and even problems with lack of food were endemic in the early years." In Kansas these problems were made worse by the warfare between the Abolitionists, among whom the Adairs were numbered, and those who favored its establishment as a slave state -- warfare that was exacerbated by the violent activities of McFarland's notorious ancestor, John Brown, whose raiders in May of 1856 "dragged five proslavery men from their cabins and hacked them to death with broadswords."

In this way and others the Adairs, Browns, Wards and Remingtons were touched by great events, but for the most part their lives proceeded far from the scrutiny of history. What was most likely to affect them from afar was the boom-and-bust cyclical pattern of the American economy: "If one caught the cycle right, as Benjamin Remington did in Erie Canal country in the 1820s and early '30s, all went well. But Addison Ward's story illustrates the misery that could result if one entered the cycle in a different time and place, Indiana, just before the boom collapsed in the late 1830s." Even those who caught the boom exactly right were successful primarily by contrast with their previous circumstances; no one in this narrative becomes wealthy, because such good fortune came only to the fortunate few and usually to those "who started the race for wealth with significant advantages," none of which McFarland's forebears enjoyed.

But though McFarland himself has the modesty and good taste to refrain from saying so, it would seem that the story of all these ancestors has a happy ending: in his own successful career and in the very existence of this fine book. McFarland is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst -- the irony that he had to go East to achieve this position, though not remarked upon, is delicious -- where for a time he was chairman of his department, he has been a Guggenheim fellow, and he has previously published two other books, all of which seems rather close to fulfillment of the dreams so dearly held by those who went before him. As for A Scattered People, it gives to those dreamers a certain immortality, however small, and in telling their stories it pays affecting tribute to all the unknown others who went West in search of the dream.