By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
There were many factors that eased the process of farming in the Great Plains. In the early 19th century, the whole area had been referred to as “the Great American Desert”, because it was deserted—only Indians lived there, and in very low population density. It was primarily the invention of railroads and other industrial technologies that made settlement of the Great Plains possible.
Trains Bringing in Wood
The railroads made large-scale settlement and farming of the Plains possible. Without them, distances were just too great, and besides, the area lacked wood, which was vital for fuel and building materials.
Trains could now bring in massive quantities of wood from Michigan and Wisconsin, while shipping out the surplus grain that the farmers were very soon able to produce.
Rapid improvements in farm machinery manufacture made plains farming possible. Just as the late 19th century was a great period of inventiveness and creativity in many areas, so it was in farm technology.
For example, the hard steel blade of the John Deere plow enabled farmers to cut through the dense prairie grasses. This was land that had never previously been plowed over tens of thousands of years, and the ecology of dense prairie grasses had grown there. Witnesses said that the plow would sing and make a kind of ringing note as it cut through.
The McCormick reaper was another very important invention for the mid century, because it reduced the number of men needed for the harvest. The McCormick reaper is the ancestor of the combine harvester, the machine that replaces dozens of men with scythes cutting the grain by hand.
While inventions like the John Deere plow enabled pioneers to plow up the dense prairie sod, the Homestead Act, passed during the Civil War, encouraged ordinary farmers to acquire land at almost no cost, and those who could overcome the loneliness, the prairie fires, the insect infestations, the extremes of climate, and the incessant winds were able to build a prosperous life, at least in some cases.
Many families moving out onto the Plains as homesteaders began with subsistence farming, just growing enough to keep themselves alive, but they switched as soon as they could to commercial farming; that is, to grow one big crop, usually grain crops, and send it back East by rail, and then import the things they couldn’t get locally—particularly wood, coal, and other manufactured necessities.
The best of them were so successful that by 1890 they were growing massive annual crop surpluses, which had the effect of driving down the cost of food throughout America and the whole Western world, and eliminating the danger of famine in America once and for all.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Lack of Tree Stumps
The lack of trees to fell and stumps to pull made the rapid development of Plains farms much easier than it had been back East. Right from the first European settlements of America, every generation of settlers had had to wrestle with the tree stumps. It’s still very difficult today to get out a tree stump.
So normally what settlers in each place would do, east of the Mississippi, was to first cut the trees down, and then plant around the stumps, and then gradually, over the next few years, as the stumps rotted, eventually they’d reach a condition where, with the help of an ox team, you could sometimes pull the stumps out, but sometimes a generation would pass between the first farming of a piece of land and its arrival to the condition of what we’d regard as a farm field that could be plowed.
By contrast, these prairie fields and Plains fields could be plowed and planted straightaway, so in some respects, it got much easier to farm.
Invention of Barbed Wire
Another technological development of absolutely central importance in this history is the invention of barbed wire, which was patented in 1874 by Joseph Glidden. The great thing about barbed wire was that it was very light and could easily be transported, but it was also strong enough and sharp enough to stop cattle and horses. An ordinary wire fence could be trampled down very easily by cattle or horses, but they wouldn’t trample a barbed-wire fence once they’d encountered the sharp barbs.
You could fence a homestead farm with barbed wire using relatively little wood, and because wood was such a scarce commodity, that was very important. Just by using a handful of wooden posts and stretching the wire between them, you could fence off an entire area.
That meant that you could separate the animals from the crops and reduce the risk of trampling, and it also meant that you could start to undertake selective breeding of the animals by fencing off different groups of animals in different areas without them intermingling promiscuously.
Now, fences eventually spelled the end of the open range, although it did persist in the 1860s right through the late 1880s, particularly in mountain areas like Wyoming and Montana. Ranchers eventually understood the need to switch from use of the open range to more intensive ranching inside fenced perimeters.
Common Questions about the Great Plains
The railroads made large-scale settlement and farming of the Plains possible. Without them, distances were just too great, and besides, the area lacked wood, which was vital for fuel and building materials. Trains could now bring in massive quantities of wood from Michigan and Wisconsin, while shipping out the surplus grain that the farmers were very soon able to produce.
Many families moving out onto the Plains, after the Homestead Act was passed, began with subsistence farming, just growing enough to keep themselves alive, but they switched as soon as they could to commercial farming; that is, to grow one big crop, usually grain crops, and send it back East by rail, and then import the things they couldn’t get locally—particularly wood, coal, and other manufactured necessities.
The invention of farm machineries such as John Deere plow enabled farmers to cut through the dense prairie grasses. Similarly, the McCormick reaper was another very important invention because it reduced the number of men needed for the harvest.