the West, but there the accuracy of Turner’s interpretation ended. Migrants to the West moved in groups, usually families, not as individuals; the West was not an empty space but rather was inhabited by Indians, who had to be dispossessed by whites for the frontier to be settled; and the West was not a paradise of small farms, but an area with industrial mining and 27
agriculture, landlords, railroads, Chinese contract laborers, and, until the Civil War, African- American slaves. The West was also not a single area but rather was incredibly diverse, ranging from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, the desert Southwest, the Sierra Nevada, and the verdant coasts and valleys of California and the Pacific Northwest. Its incorporation into the United States required the federal government’s intervention. The government acquired Indian land by purchase or force, regulated territories, and gave land and money to farmers, railroads, and mining companies. Despite the myth of the West’s rugged individualism, the area became part of the nation only by massive government activity. 28
More land came into cultivation in the thirty years after the Civil War than in the previous two and a half centuries of American history. Settlers acquired farmlands through the Homestead Act, and more bought land from speculators and railroad companies that had been given public lands by the federal government. A vast agricultural belt growing wheat and corn for national and international markets emerged in the Middle Border (Minnesota, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas), with a diverse population of farmers who migrated from the East, South, and Europe. Farming in this region was difficult, and much of the burden fell on women, who faced severe isolation. The Middle Border’s arid land required irrigation and thus made family farming difficult, but despite the emergence of a few large “bonanza farms” with thousands of acres and many agricultural wage workers, family farms prevailed. These farms increasingly grew for national and international markets and specialized in one crop. Railroads brought factory goods to rural farmers, who became more dependent on banks for loans, machinery, and products and subject to the ups and downs of international agricultural prices. American farms thus became part of a world market, in which farmers across the globe faced ongoing crises as competition increased and prices declined. Western farming’s future was bound up with agricultural enterprises using irrigation, chemicals, and machines, all of which required capital investments beyond the means of most family farmers. This future was on display in California, where huge fruit and vegetable farms, owned by large corporations, were worked by migrant workers from China, the Philippines, Japan, and Mexico who never themselves expected to own land.
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- Spring '08
- Economics, History, Capitalism, Civil War, Looking Backward, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, Federal government of the United States