The Agricultural Frontier

Federal government policy and the transcontinental railroads both encouraged the agricultural development of the trans‐Mississippi West. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 effectively free acres to the head of a family who resided on the land for five years; the land could also be acquired after only six months for $1.25 an acre. Although the price was right, small farms were not efficient, given the semiarid conditions on the Great Plains. Under the Timber Culture Act (1873), homesteaders could increase their holdings and acquire an additional 160 acres if they agreed to plant and maintain trees on part of that land. The Desert Land Act (1877) gave farmers an additional 640 acres at $1.25 an acre if the land was irrigated within three years. Many settlers still preferred to buy land from the railroads, which had received millions of acres through federal land grants. There was no limit on the amount of land that could be purchased, and the proximity to the rail lines gave settlers ready access to the markets in the East.

Farming on the Great Plains. Settlers quickly realized that the Plains did not yield crops as readily as the land in the East. Necessary but expensive aspects of agriculture on the Great Plains included dry farming, which involved plowing deeply for moisture, then breaking up the soil surface to catch and hold any precipitation. Dry farming required a heavy reliance on agricultural machinery, such as improved steel plows (“sod busters”), threshing and haymaking machines, and seed drills and used windmills to pump water from deep underground. Another important innovation was barbed wire, patented in 1874, which allowed farmers to fence their fields in a region where timber was in short supply, thereby keeping cattle from trampling their crops.

The average farm in the West was larger than those in other regions of the country, sometimes twice the acreage. In the 1870s, so‐called bonanza farms were established in the wheat‐growing northern Plains. Ranging from 1,000 to over 10,000 acres, they were highly mechanized and relied on a large number of laborers to bring in a single crop. Although most disappeared by the 1890s, the bonanza farms were symbolic of the trend toward large‐scale agriculture that began in the West.

Farm production and declining prices. Bringing new lands under cultivation and the widespread use of machinery led to a tremendous increase in farm production. The wheat crop, which became an export staple, grew from 170 million bushels at the end of the Civil War to more than 700 million bushels by the close of the century. Overproduction in the United States and expanded crop production in Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Russia drove agricultural prices down during the same period. Unfortunately, American farmers did not seem to understand how the market operated. When prices fell, the inclination was to plant more, which added to the worldwide surplus and pushed prices still lower.

The promise of wealth through agriculture failed to materialize for most settlers in the West. They had borrowed heavily to buy their land and equipment and, as prices continued to fall, were unable to pay their debts. Foreclosures and the number of tenant farmers steadily increased in the late nineteenth century, particularly on the Great Plains. Farmers typically blamed their plight on others: the railroads for charging exorbitant shipping rates; the federal government for keeping the supply of money tight by adhering to the gold standard; and middlemen, such as grain elevator operators, for not paying the full value for their crops. Although organizations such as the Patrons of Husbandry or the Grange, (which was founded in 1867 and grew quickly to more than a million members) brought redress of some grievances, discontent among the farmers continued to grow at the end of the nineteenth century.