Settling on the Great Plain Homesteading and Life on the Plain
Railroads Move West 170 million acres, worth half a billion dollars, was given to railroad companies by the government between 1850 and 1871. Union Pacific and Central Pacific were the two largest companies at the time, and they raced to create a transcontinental railroad. Civil War vets, Irish and Chinese immigrants, and African Americans helped construct the railroads. Through their hard work, eight miles of track was laid a day. By the 1880’s, there were five transcontinental railroads. The railroads began selling excess land to farmers for $2-10 acre and by 1880, 44% of settlers in Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Minnesota were immigrants.
Government Support for Settlement The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, offered 160 acres for free to anyone who intended on migrating west. By 1900, over 600,000 families took advantage of this offer. Exodusters were among this group, and these African Americans moved to Kansas following the Civil War. Due to infringement by railroad companies, speculators, cattlemen, miners, and woodsmen only about 10% of the land was settled by families. Why did Oklahoma become known as “The Sooner State”? A major land giveaway in Oklahoma in 1889 led to thousands of people rushing to get land, and many claimed land before the government officially opened it for claim. Thus they got there “Sooner, rather then later”
The Closing of the Frontier As land was grabbed by settlers and railroads, two explorers (Washburn and Langford) urged Congress to save some of the beautiful wilderness. They chose N.W. Wyoming and created Yellowstone National Park in 1872. By 1880, the nation no longer had a continuous frontier line. The prairie had been fenced off, claimed, and constructed upon.
Challenges on the Plain Droughts, floods, fires, blizzards, locust plagues, and Native American raids were some of the hardships faced by plains settlers. Homes were built into and with the land itself due to the scarcity of trees. Dugouts and soddies were the most common home on the range. There were no “cities” on the plain, and people had to be very independent. Women worked along side men to farm and manage the household. They also set up schools and churches to foster a community feel. Life on the plains was lonesome, tough, and full of hard work. These settlers opened up the door for later towns and cities in the American west.
Technical Support for Farmers Farming the prairie was an enormous task, and this led to the mass production of both the steel plow and mechanical reaper. Why? These, along with the spring toothed harrow, grain drill, and barbed wire, were in high demand by the western farmers who wished to tame the land. The Federal Government also sponsored Agricultural Education with the Morrill Act of 1862 and 1890, as well as the Hatch Act of 1887. These worked to finance Ag. Colleges and experimental stations which aided farmers in developing the arid western plains.
Farmers in Debt Due to the cost for elaborate and efficient machinery, and the rising and falling rates of wheat, many farmers found themselves in and out of debt. Bonanza Farms came out of the farmers needs to band together in order to yield the most profit from their crops. 15,000 to 50,000 acres would be farmed by several independent farmers. As farms expanded, debt increased. The five year drought from 1885-1890 eventually folded the bonanza farms since their size made them inflexible to change. Railroads also played a role in farmer debt, since many took advantage of the farmers needs and overcharged them for shipping prices. Debt, market prices, and shipping issues eventually drew farmers together to combat these problems and defend a common cause.
Reminders • HW: SpNotes 13.3 (p.425-429) • Hand in Final Drafts and email presentations. 10pm is the deadline, or you will begin losing points.