The Homesteaders How did the Homesteaders farm the Great Plains? How did the Homesteaders live on the Great Plains? Who were the Homesteaders? What was the role of the railroads? How did the Government help the Homesteaders?
Farming on the Great Plains What were the problems of farming the Great Plains? Go back to start
Living on the Great Plains What were the problems of living on the Great Plains? Go back to start
The role of the Railroads Why did the railroads have land to sell to Homesteaders? How did the railroads attract Homesteaders to the Plains? How did the railroads help the Homesteaders? Go back to start
The people American Homesteaders Black Homesteaders European Homesteaders Religious groups Go back to start
The US Government The Homestead Act 1862 Indian Treaties The Timber Culture Act 1873 The US Army The Desert Land Act 1877 Manifest Destiny Go back to start
The problems of farming on the Great Plains Ploughing the land Growing crops Fire Water Protecting crops Insects Size of landholding Extremes of weather Farming machinery Go back one slide
Ploughing the land Before it can grow crops land has to be ploughed. Until the arrival of the homesteaders in the 1860s however, the soil on the Plains had never been cut by a plough. The Prairie grass that covered the Plains had thick deep roots of up to 10cm. These roots grew in dense tangled clumps that were difficult to cut. The first homesteaders that arrived on the Plains brought their iron ploughs from the Eastern USA. These could cut through the previously ploughed soft soils there, but they broke when used on the Great Plains. Go back to problems What was the solution?
The lack of water Although Stephen Long’s 1827 description of the Great Plains as ‘The Great American Desert’ was an exaggeration of their climate, the Plains were not ideally suited to agriculture. The annual rainfall on the Plains averaged 38cms. Rain usually fell during the hot summer and the sun soon evaporated the standing water. Without water to irrigate their crops the homesteaders could not succeed. There were no lakes rivers to provide water for irrigation. Digging a well was impractical as the work was expensive and would often fail to find water anyway. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Homesteads were too small The Homestead Act of 1862 gave the homesteaders 160 acres of land each (a quarter square mile plot). Although this much land was enough for a family in the fertile lands of California and Oregon, it was insufficient on the Plains. Homesteaders were unable to support their families with only 160 acres. The lower yields of crop caused by the harsh climate and lack of water meant that many thousands of homesteaders simply gave up their plots. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Crops failed to grow The homesteaders planted the crops of maize and wheat that they brought with them from the Eastern states. These were suited to the mild and damp climate there. However these crops did not grow well on the dry hot Plains. If the homesteaders could not grow their crops, then their life on the Plains would be impossible to sustain. No crops meant no food for the homesteaders. Even if they could grow enough to eke out a living, they could not grow a surplus to sell. Without a surplus the homesteaders had no income, and could not pay for supplies or machinery for their farms. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Crops were trampled The homesteaders needed to mark out their claims to protect them from other homesteaders. A homesteader could not afford to lose any land because of a disputed boundary. Cattle and buffalo were also a problem. The homesteaders often farmed near to the vast cattle ranches, and the cows would stray off the ranches and trample the homesteaders’ crops. Buffalo were simply roaming wild, still in large herds until the 1870s. The lack of trees on the Plains meant that there was no material to build adequate fences. Some homesteaders tried to use the prickly Osage tree to make hedges, but this was only a short term solution. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Fires The dry Plains were provided the perfect conditions for fires to start. The long hot summers left the Prairie Grass and the homesteaders’ crops bone dry. Accidental fires started by a spark or a bit of broken glass lying on the ground and reflecting the sun were a disaster for the homesteaders. Unless the fire could be stopped quickly by beating, it soon spread. Without any water to put out the fire, the homesteaders were forced to hide in their sod houses until their crops were destroyed and the fire died. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Plagues of insects Plagues of grasshoppers visited the Plains in 1871, 1874 and 1875. The swarms contained millions of insects, and covered hundreds of miles of the Plains at a time. They devoured everything the homesteaders possessed. The grasshoppers could eat a homesteader family’s entire crop in a few hours, leaving them with nothing to eat or sell. The grasshoppers ate boots, tools, clothes, even the wooden door frame of the sod house. After a visit from grasshoppers, the a homesteader could be left penniless and without any means of survival. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Extremes of weather The Plains experienced massive variations in temperature as part of their normal temperature. Winters were long with freezing temperatures and snow. Summers were extremely hot. This made it difficult to grow most crops in a normal year. The Plains were also regularly struck by dust storms. The vast open spaces of the Plains encouraged high winds and tornadoes. All of these could do great damage to crops. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Lack of machinery To begin with the homesteaders had to do almost everything by hand. The work was physically hard and never ending. The homesteaders were too poor to afford the machinery that could help them farm. Even if they could afford new machinery, there was little technology in the 1860s and 1870s that could work on the Plains. Broken machines and implements were also a problem at first. Replacement parts were expensive and difficult to obtain from often distant towns or suppliers in the East. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Sodbuster To cut through the soil of the Plains the homesteaders needed a much stronger plough. In 1830 an Illinois blacksmith named John Deere had made a steel plough for one of his neighbours, in order to solve the same problem the homesteaders faced. This ‘Sodbuster’ plough was soon adopted by the homesteaders and provided them with the means to plough their land. Steel is a much stronger metal than iron, so the plough did not break. What was the problem?
Dry Farming & Wind Pumps The homesteaders needed a way to trap the rainfall in the soil before it was lost. They used a method known as ‘Dry Farming’. Every time it rained or snowed, the homesteaders ploughed their land. This left a thin layer of soil on top of the newly fallen rain which was trapped underneath. The water was then available for use when the new crop was planted in the spring. In 1874 Daniel Halliday perfected wind pump technology suitable for the Plains. A well was dug with a high powered drill to reach the water. This could be anything from 30 to 120 feet. A windmill was then built above the well to pump a constant supply of water for the homesteader. Although too expensive at first, the price fell to $25 by 1890. What was the problem?
Government Acts The government eventually recognised the problem. In 1873 it passed the Timber Culture Act. This gave homesteaders another 160 acres of land. To get this extra land the homesteaders had to plant 40 acres of trees. In 1877 the homesteaders were offered more land in the Desert Land Act. This allowed them to claim 640 acres of marginal land where it was available. They had to irrigate it and after three years could buy it for $1 an acre. So by 1877 homesteaders could own up to 960 acres of land. This was enough for most to survive on the Plains. What was the problem?
Turkey Red Wheat The homesteaders needed to recognise that they could not grow crops that were unsuited to the climate of the Plains. They needed crops that could cope with the extremes of temperature and the lack of rainfall.In 1874, Russians started to move onto the Plains. They brought their crops such as Turkey Red Wheat with them. This wheat grew in the harsh conditions of Russia, a very similar climate to that of the Plains. Although the hard Turkey Red Wheat could not be ground by American mills at first, by the 1880s mills were built that could cope with it. The homesteaders at last had a crop that would grow successfully in the climate of the Plains. What was the problem?
Barbed Wire In 1874 Joseph Glidden invented Barbed Wire. This was a cheap and simple method for the homesteaders to fence their land. Barbed wire allowed homesteaders to overcome the shortage of trees on the Plains. They were able to clearly mark the boundary of their claim, and to keep stray cattle and buffalo off. Barbed wire did cause conflict with the ranch owners however as it often cut off precious water supplies from their cows. What was the problem?
Care! The only solution to the problem of fires was to be careful. Some homesteaders tried to stop fires from spreading by leaving gaps in their crops. However the shortage of land made this a measure that was impossible for most to contemplate. Even if a break was left, the high winds of the Plains spread the fire quickly, even across gaps. Until the development of major towns with a road network and an infrastructure including a fire service in the 20th century, this remained a major problem. What was the problem?
Pesticides There was no solution to the problems of grasshoppers and other insects until the early years of the 1900s. After 1900, chemical companies started to mass produce effective pesticides to kill the flies that lived on the Plains. Homesteaders could pick the insect larvae off their crops, but this was ineffective against a plague swarm. Until these were available however, the homesteaders lived in fear of a plague of grasshoppers, as they knew the effect it would have and knew they were powerless to protect their crops. What was the problem?
No solution! Until they could grow trees of a significant size, the homesteaders had no defence against the weather on the Plains. The storms just had to be ridden out in the sod house, hoping that the crops would not be destroyed. The homesteaders were initially fooled by a series of unusually wet and mild years in the 1860s on the Plains. Many claimed that the climate had been changed by their presence. However the extreme weather returned in the 1870s and remained a problem from then on. What was the problem?
New inventions and the railroads The railroads spread across the Plains during the 1870s and 1880s. They acted as cheap and fast transport from the Eastern states to the Plains. This enabled suppliers of tools, spare parts and machinery to send their goods to the homesteaders for relatively low prices. The spread of towns encouraged by the railroads allowed the homesteaders to get hold of the parts and machines they wanted. New machines such as reapers, binders and threshers made farming the Plains much easier. Homesteaders could farm more land and harvest more crops. The price of this new machinery was relatively low and affordable for the homesteaders. What was the problem?
The problems of living on the Great Plains Building a house Staying healthy Extreme weather Fuel Indian attacks Isolation Keeping clean Water Pests Go back one slide
A shortage of materials The homesteaders arrived on their land needing to build a house. However the traditional building material of wood was not available to them. The Plains are vast open space with very few trees. The homesteaders would have to find something else to build their houses from. The homesteaders could not get supplies of wood from the East as it would be too expensive, and a lack of money was one of the homesteaders’ major problems. Go back to problems What was the solution?
A lack of fuel The homesteaders required fuel to burn in large quantities. They needed to heat their houses against the cold Plains nights and freezing winters. They also needed fuel for their ovens. The lack of tress on the Plains meant that wood was not available to them. The homesteaders had to find an alternative material. The soil was not boggy peat, so the peat stoves used in countries such as Ireland in the 19th century were not an option. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Dirt was everywhere The Sod Houses that the homesteaders built were continually dirty. The sods of earth cracked and flaked in the heat of the Plains’ summers, leaving dirt in the house. During the rains and winter, the sod houses leaked dirty water into the living accommodation. The floors were dirt. The wind on the Plains stirred up dust, often in great storms and this got into the sod houses. Farming was a dirty job, so the homesteaders returned home after a day’s work dirty to a house that was potentially just as dirty. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Life was unhealthy The Homesteaders lived hard and tiring lives. With constant struggles to keep clean, warm and fed, the toll of their health was often great. Their diets were often poor in years of low harvests. Disease was common for those living in sod houses, especially amongst children. With no opportunity to visit a doctor, the Homesteaders found it difficult to stay fit and healthy. Go back to problems What was the solution?
The Indians were still undefeated When the Homesteaders moved on to the Great Plains from the early 1860s, they faced the risk of Indian attacks. Although many tribes had moved on to reservations following the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty and later agreements, the reservations did not provide them with enough food or supplies. They could not hunt Buffalo or follow their traditional migration patterns. There were periodic outbreaks of violence in the Plains Wars in the 1860s and 1870s, including Little Crow’s War, Red Cloud’s War and the Great Sioux War. During Little Crow’s War, over 700 Homesteaders were massacred by Santee Sioux warriors. Go back to problems What was the solution?
The supply of water was limited Homesteaders were very lucky if they lived a short distance from a river or lake on the Plains. Most lived a long walk from the nearest water source. This made water a precious resource. Water for washing clothes and the homesteaders’ bodies had to be used sparingly as it replacing it was hard work. The problem was not easily solved by the digging of a well as might have been done elsewhere. Water could be anything from 30 feet to 120 feet deep, too deep for the homesteaders to dig by hand. Go back to problems What was the solution?
The climate was difficult The Plains experienced massive variations in temperature as part of their normal cycle. Winters were long with freezing temperatures and snow. Summers were very hot. This made the Plains an extremely unpleasant and dangerous location in which to live. It was difficult to keep warm in winter and impossible to keep cool in the summer. The Plains were also regularly struck by dust storms. The vast open spaces of the Plains encouraged high winds and tornadoes. Such storms did severe damage to the homes and equipment of the homesteaders. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Homesteads were far apart Homesteaders lived on their 160 acre plots, often isolated from other people. Each plot covered a quarter of a square mile, so homesteaders were not even close to their nearest neighbours. Homesteaders were usually miles from the nearest town. As a result they lacked other people for company and social activities. Homesteaders were cut off from their families back in the East or in Europe, so felt even more isolated due the their situation on the Plains. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Insects came in plagues Plagues of grasshoppers visited the Plains in 1871, 1874 and 1875. The swarms contained millions of insects, and covered hundreds of miles of the Plains at a time. They devoured everything the homesteaders possessed. The grasshoppers could eat a homesteader family’s entire crop in a few hours, leaving them with nothing to eat or sell. The grasshoppers ate boots, tools, clothes, even the wooden door frame of the sod house. After a visit from grasshoppers, the a homesteader could be left penniless and without any means of survival. Go back to problems What was the solution?
Sodhouses To overcome the lack of timber to build their houses the Homesteaders used sods of earth cut from the Plains as bricks. They built their houses out of this earth and called them sod houses. Many sod houses were huge affairs, with many rooms, but they all suffered from the same problems. They were dirty, drafty and leaked whenever it rained. The walls and floor were infested with lice, which crawled over the Homesteaders as they slept. Mud fell off the ceiling into the Homesteaders’ cooking pots, and germs were rife. Despite this, many Homesteaders were proud of their first ‘soddy’ and often lived in them for decades. What was the problem?
Buffalo dung Before the arrival of the Homesteaders, the Plains Indians had used Buffalo dung as chips for their fires. The Homesteaders simply copied this idea. The collection of the Buffalo chips was the job of women on the Plains. The chips had to be collected from the open Plains, and brought back to the Homestead in a wheelbarrow or a cart. The Buffalo dung was a relatively inefficient fuel, and had to be collected on a continual basis. Until the trees the Homesteaders planted following the Timber Culture Act of 1877 grew to maturity there was no other source of fuel. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Homesteaders were able to buy coal from the railroad. What was the problem?
Constant hard work The only effective solution to the dirt problem for Homesteaders was to constantly work at keeping clean. Regular sweeping out of the sod house, as well as the removal of fallen lumps of mud. This was a tiring and dispiriting process that was the responsibility of women Homesteaders. Some Homesteaders whitewashed their walls, but this was only ever a temporary solution and although it looked smarter than the mud, the sod house still leaked. What was the problem?
Home cures The Homesteaders had to rely on their own medicine when they were sick. Women were responsible for this. Popular cures included applying warm manure to an arm for a snakebite. Other cures used were eating a roasted mouse for Measles and pouring warm urine into the ear for an Ear Ache. Women worked together in a community when sickness was present to ensure that people were cared for. Expertise was shared and passed down from mother to daughter. What was the problem?
Hope and the US Army! The Homesteaders could simply hope that they would not suffer attacks in their homes, but this was not the most effective defense! The US Army proved to be their saviour in the long run. In the series of conflicts known as the ‘Plains Wars’ during the 1860s and 1870s, the US Army, led by Generals Sheridan and Sherman, defeated all of the tribes of the Plains. This involved massacres such as Sand Creek and the River Washita, as well as forcing the Indians to sign treaties giving up their rights to tribal lands. Once the Indians had been defeated in the 1870s and 1880s, the Homesteaders were safe from attack. What was the problem?
Long journeys or Wind pumps Without water the Homesteaders could not survive. Some were lucky enough to have a stream, but most did not. In the early days of a Homestead, the Homesteaders had to travel to a local water hole or stream and collect water in a bucket by hand. This process was a daily occurrence. The journey could be many miles. By the 1870s, wind driven pumps were available to the Homesteaders for only $25 each. These could drill down the up to 120ft needed to reach water, and use the ample supplies of wind power to pump a continuous supply of water for the Homesteaders. What was the problem?
No quick solution! In the first two decades of Homesteading on the Great Plains (1860s and 1870s), the climate was especially wet and mild, and the Homesteaders thrived. However this was a false impression, and led to more problems later. When the normal weather patterns returned in the 1870s and 1880s, the Homesteaders found themselves unable to cope in the worst areas such as Montana. Even with the use of dry farming techniques and Turkey Red Wheat, some areas of the Great Plains could never be farmed by Homesteaders. What was the problem?
Community involvment & letters Living on their isolated Homesteads the Homesteaders had to find their own ways of entertaining themselves and overcoming their boredom. Cut off from their families in the East and in Europe the Homesteaders wrote regular letters home, and waited anxiously for news from their families and friends. This allowed them to keep in contact with their old lives. On the Plains, the Homesteaders kept in close contact with their neighbours, helping each other in times of crisis. Women worked as midwives and teachers, and church or community groups organised social functions. What was the problem?
Insectisides Homesteaders had no way of fighting the swarms of insects that attacked their crops in the 1870s. Many were left penniless and forced to appeal to the State Governments for help. In the early years of the 20th century chemical companies began to mass produce effective and cheap pesticides to kill off the insects that attacked the Homesteaders’ crops. However until this time the Homesteaders just had to hope that insects did not come. What was the problem?
The government gave it to them One of the terms of the 1861 Pacific Railways Act that led to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was that the government gave the railroad companies 6 400 acres of land on the Great Plains for every mile of track built. This was part of the payment deal for building the railroad. The land cost the government nothing. The government continued to grant land on the Plains to the railroad companies as they built more transcontinental railroads in the 1870s. In total the US Government gave the railroad companies 155 million acres on the Great Plains. This was valuable land - that was why the railroad companies took it. Go back one slide
Advertising To sell their land the railroad companies launched huge campaigns across American and Europe. They sent agents to encourage people to buy their lands. Posters and newspaper adverts referred to the Plains with such phrases as ‘The Golden Belt of Kansas’ and ‘The Best Prairie Lands’ (Iowa and Nebraska. The land was sold relatively cheaply with the railroad companies offering loans over up to ten years. Many of the adverts were gross exaggerations of the quality of the land, with one company claiming that winter in Nebraska lasted less than one month, and that the growing season was over nine months long. Despite this the railroad companies’ adverts succeeded in bringing hundreds of thousands of homesteaders to the Plains. Go back one slide
Transporting their goods The railroads spread across the Plains during the 1870s and 1880s. They acted as cheap and fast transport from the Eastern states to the Plains. This enabled suppliers of tools, spare parts and machinery to send their goods to the homesteaders for relatively low prices. The spread of towns encouraged by the railroads allowed the homesteaders to get hold of the parts and machines they wanted. New machines such as reapers, binders and threshers made farming the Plains much easier. Homesteaders could farm more land and harvest more crops. The price of this new machinery was relatively low and affordable for the homesteaders. Go back one slide
White Americans from the East The majority of the homesteaders were white Americans who saw the Plains as offering the opportunities that were unavailable to them in the Eastern USA. There were two main factors that made them leave the East. The first was the shortage of farmland. The Eastern states had been overcrowded in the 1840s when many left to go to California and Oregon. By the 1860s, the situation was worse still, Young people seeking land for their families were unable to afford it in the East, the Plains offered them lots of land very cheaply. The end of the Civil War left hundreds of thousands of ex-soldiers looking for a new challenge. They could find little opportunity to get on in the East or South and moved to the Plains for a new start. The Plains were a new region of settlement, and Americans believed they could make something of themselves that they would never be able to in the East. Go back one slide
Former black slaves from the South One of the results of the defeat of the Confederate South in the American Civil War was the abolition of slavery. Black Americans found themselves no better off economically as free people, and often faced persecution from whites. The Plains offered a chance to get land as American citizens, and to escape the prejudice and persecution of the Southern states. Tens of thousands of ex-slaves went to the Plains for a new start in life. In 1879 40 000 black ex-slaves went to Kansas, the main destination for black Americans. A famous example of a black community of homesteaders is the town of Nicodemus in Kansas. Go back one slide
European immigrants to America The railroad companies concentrated their efforts to sell the land they had been given by the government on Europe. Settlers arrived from Europe in their hundreds of thousands after 1870. They came to escape the poverty and inability to gain more land in their native lands. Emigrants were attracted by the inflated promises of the railroad land agents. Settlers came from Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Holland, France and Russia. In 1875 half of the population of Nebraska was made up of European homesteaders and their families. In the 1870s the Santa Fe Railroad Company brought 60 000 German homesteaders to the Plains. Go back one slide