American West - Farming on the Great Plains

Farming on the Great Plains - The Homesteaders

In the first half of the 19th century, different groups of people crossed the Great Plains to get somewhere else - the Rockies, California, Oregon. In the second half of the 19th century, tens of thousands of people began to settle on the Great Plains themselves. Many of these settlers came out to farm the country, these farmers were called homesteaders. They wanted to use the same land for farming, as the Plains Indians used for hunting.

There were many different factors which led to the homesteaders moving west, and they can be split into three main categories, 'push factors', 'pull factors' and 'enabling factors'.

Pull factors included:

  • The offer of free/cheap land - the US government, introduced a number of acts which offered homesteaders free or cheap land. For example, the 'Homestead Act' 1862 - each family had 160 acres of land free provided they lived and farmed on the land for five years. Or the 'Timber Culture Act' 1873 - a further 160 acres of land free provided they were planted with trees.
  • Advertising - Rail-road companies and different 'states' in the USA launched advertising campaigns encouraging people to move onto and farm the Plains.
  • Letters home - family members might well send a letter home, detailing their successes, which could lead/encourage more people to move onto the Plains.

Push factors included:

  • End of Civil War - once the civil war ended in 1865, there were large numbers of demobilised soldiers and freed slaves, suddenly jobless and looking for a fresh start, which they would find on the Plains.
  • Affairs in Europe - large numbers of Europeans travelled to America and onto the plains for a variety of reasons, for one, there was very little land left in Europe to be farmed, there were also high levels of poverty and unemployment, which urged them to move to a 'better life' in America.

Enabling factors included:

  • Traditional travel methods - the invention/development of wagons and riverboats physically enabled the Homesteaders to make the move onto the plains.
  • New rail-roads - once the rail-roads were built on the plains, they were very useful for the Homesteaders for a variety of reasons.
  • Clearance of Indians - the Indians were cleared or 'defeated' from the land which the homesteaders wanted to use.

On the 10th May 1869, the 'Golden Spike' ceremony took place at Promontory Point, Utah. Railway companies had been building the trans-continental rail-road from either end of the continent. This was where the two halves of the rail-roads met. The last spike to be…


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