VII. The Farmers’ Frontier
of 1862 allowed folks to get as much as 160 acres of land in return for living
on it for five years, improving it, and paying a nominal fee of about $30.00. Or, it allowed folks to get land
after only six month’s residence for $1.25 an acre.
Before, the U.S. government had sold land for revenue, but now, it was giving it away.
This act led half a million families to buy land and settle out West, but it often turned out to be a
cruel hoax because in the dry Great Plains, 160 acres was rarely enough for a family to earn a living
and survive. And often, families were forced to give up their homesteads before the five years were up,
since droughts, bad land, and lack of necessities forced them out.
However, fraud was spawned by the Homestead Act, since almost ten times as much land ended
up in the hands of land-grabbing promoters than in the hands of real farmers. Sometimes these cheats
would not even live on the land, but say that they’d erected a “twelve by fourteen” dwelling—which later
turned out to be twelve by fourteen inches!
Taming Western Deserts
Railroads such as the
helped develop the agricultural West, a place where,
after the tough, horse-trodden lands had been plowed and watered, proved to be surprisingly fertile.
Due to higher wheat prices resulting from crop failures around the world, more people rashly
pushed further westward, past the
(which is also the magic 20-inch per year rainfall
line), where it was difficult to grow crops.
Here, as warned by geologist
John Wesley Powell
, so little rain fell that successful
farming could only be attained by massive irrigation.
To counteract the lack of water (and a six year drought in the 1880s), farmers
developed the technique of “
,” or using shallow cultivation methods to plant and farm,
but over time, this method created a finely pulverized surface soil that contributed to the notorious
“Dust Bowl” several decades later.
A Russian species of wheat—tough and resistant to drought—was brought in and grew all over
the Great Plains, while other plants were chosen in favor of corn.
Huge federally financed irrigation projects soon caused the “
Great American Desert
” to bloom,
and dams that tamed the Missouri and Columbia Rivers helped water the land.
VIII. The Far West Comes of Age
The Great West experienced a population surge, as many people moved onto the frontier.
New states like Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and
Wyoming were admitted into the Union.
Not until 1896 was Utah allowed into the Union, and by the 20th century, only Oklahoma, New
Mexico, and Arizona remained as territories.