Lecture #19: Farms and Markets

Suggestions for Further Reading:

William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991).

Lloyd Lewis & Stanley Pargellis, Granger Country: A Pictorial Social History of The Burlington Railroad (1949).

Richard and Maisie Conrat, American Farm: A Photographic History (1977).

Paul Wallace Gates, History of Public Land Law Development (1968). (Despite its uninviting title, this is the great narrative overview of the history of the public lands of the United States through 1968, an extraordinary act of synthesis. It's available as a PDF download from Hathitrust.

NB: Place papers are due at the start of lecture next Monday, November 21. We expect consistency in the footnotes and bibliography, and for illustrations as well as textual sources. As you know, illustrations do not count toward your final page count.

I. Homestead and the Incongruous Land System

[Note that the title of this lecture is different from what appears on the syllabus. This is to reflect the continuity with last lecture: we'll talk more today about the settlement of public lands, linking that process to the processes of immigration that peopled those lands—and turned them into farms—in places like Wisconsin, Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.]

You'll recall that we talked last time about land sales as a vital source of revenue for the federal government in the 19th century, and as central to Thomas Jefferson's vision of an "Empire of Liberty." Recall that there were conflicts over who should be able to buy land in the public domain, how easy it should be to buy land in the public domain, and how much money it should cost to buy land in the public domain. This helps explain why, in the decades immediately following the American Revolution, large land speculation companies played such an active role in shaping Viriginia and other states with western land claims.

We can make several sweeping generalizations about change over time to the U.S. land system:

  • Over time, there were an increasing number of land sales happening in the U.S. West rather than the East. This meant that speculators would benefit.
  • Over time, there was a tendency for the price per acre to drop, as well as the unit size of land for sale to drop. This tended to benefit poorer people over wealthier individuals.
  • Most important, there was a recognition—and we'd associate this with Jacksonian populism in the 1830s and 1840s—that poorer poeple should be able to buy land. One culmination of this sentiment was the 1841 Preemption Act, which allowed squatters to secure land before that land went to auction. The law established that profits from your farming activity over, say, five years would go towards helping you pay down the cost of the land you were improving. This law was a sign of the liberalization of land laws helping poorer individuals gain access to the ability to purchase land.

Across the middle of the 19th century, in the continued battle for free homesteads, access to public land was blocked by eastern industrial interests worried about the effect of free homesteads on wages, and southern states worried about increased free settlement breaking with the one-free/one-slave state. It was the outbreak of the Civil War, along with the advent of railroads, that freed Congress to act. With the loss of Southern senators to Confederate secession, a Senate majority was free to pass more liberal land laws.

On 27 May 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. The act specificed that any adult male citizen or intended citizen could obtain a quarter section of land (160 acres, one quarter of a square mile) by registering, improving and living on it for 5 years. If quicker purchase was required, that individual could buy it for $1.25/acre at end of six months. Notice, the Homestead Act didn't mean that the land was free—there was still a large amount of capital required to buy the farming equipment, seeds, livestock, etc. required to improve the land.

On 1 Jan 1863, the first application for a plot of land under the 1862 Homestead Act was made, in southeastern Nebraska, by Daniel Freeman. The name of the applicant was, indeed, too good to be true – the event was actually a publicity stunt, and Freeman was furloughed from the Army. A special land office was set up, then immediately shut down, an example of the symbolic politics at work.

The Freeman Homestead—which you can visit as a National Monument of America today—was a classic example of land of the eastern plains: tallgrass prairie, wooded streamcourse, rich soil. It seemed perfect land for farming, and so the publicity of Freeman's claim began the largest land rush in US history. Thus land offices became centers for settlers and speculators alike. Long queues formed once families had found tracts on which they intended to settle or in which they intended to invest. A shoddy land office became a common sight in many western towns.

Note that by no means were all of those using land offices entering under the Homestead. Many other means of acquiring land existed:

  • From 1847-1855, military bounty acts gave 36 million acres free land in warrants to veterans of the Mexican War and other wars. Most soldiers sold their land scrip, at substantial discount, and those speculative companies who bought this scrip could thus obtain land at much below the $1.25/acre standard.
  • Similarly, the 1862 Morrill Act (the same act forbidding polygamy) gave federal land to each state to set up agricultural colleges. Eastern states with no public land were given scrip which they promptly dumped on market, at large discount, also aiding speculators in amassing huge amounts of land.
  • Transcontinental Railroad: Another way you could accumulate land would have been to buy it from the railroad.
  • NE Homestead 1888
  • Thus not all of those who took advantage of public land sales were settlers. Even laws passed for the specific benefit of settlers often did not so operate. One law that did benefit settlers, but for the wrong reasons, was the 1873 Timber Culture Act, which offered additional 160 acres to any settler who planted 40 acres in trees. The decade of the 1870’s saw the first realization that agricultural practices east of the Mississippi River might not be appropriate in the more arid West. Many then believed that trees promoted rainfall – hence planting trees made land more fertile. The effect of the law was to allow larger farm units than had been seen previously, and a total of 10 million acres were transferred under this law. Larger units were very likely necessary on the dry plains.
  • On other hand, the Desert Land Act of 1877 gave 640 acres to anyone who made effort to irrigate the land. Ostensibly to benefit farmers, the law was actually lobbied for by cattlemen and speculators who, under the law, would pay 25 cents per acre, irrigate the land, and receive as much $1 per acre at end of 3 years. Cattlemen could acquire their ranges by dumping bucketfuls of water into furrows from time to time, swearing that the land had been irrigated.

The frenzy to acquire land produced some absurd habits: the building of temporary shacks for claim staking, or even a house on wheels to move between plots; toy houses measuring "twelve by fourteen" that were actually 12 inches by 14 inches rather than 12 feet by 14 feet; the sending of a son into the land office where he would stand on the number 21 and swear he was over 21, thus able to make a land claim. The point in all of this was that land law was easily subverted and land agents were often active in colluding. All these corrupt practices were winked at by western settlers and land offices.

Part of the reason to amass a huge holding of land via speculation was for profit; but part of the reason also derived from the changed scale reinstituted by the changed environment of the arid West. 160 acres had been logical unit for agriculture in the moist eastern part of the country. Past the line of 20” rainfall, however, this changed: either much larger land units with thousands of acres were necessary for grazing, or much smaller units of 40-80 acres for irrigation were needed, as in Utah.

So one conclusion is this: that the Public Domain Survey, the U.S. land system based on square mile grids, just didn’t make sense in an arid western context. One of the first to realize this was John Wesley Powell, who we've encountered before. In 1879, Powell published one of most prescient studies of the American West ever written, with the unlikely title A Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. In this important document, he argued that the US should abandon its grid system and earlier land policy and begin to allocate public lands functionally according to most appropriate use, given environmental constraints, particularly as land surveys moved out into the U.S. west. He argued that we need to think about lands ecologically as well as socially: dry grazing lands should be treated under one set of public policies, the irrigable lands should be treated under a different set of public policies. In his proposal, on dry grasslands, 9 or more individuals to be given homestead plots of 2560 acres (4 sq miles) for grazing. Conversely, in irrigable area along stream, 9 or more individuals should be given homestead plots of 80 acres each and organized into a continuous irrigation district.

Notice the emphasis on collective activity in Powell's report. This was because Powell had a model in mind: Mormon settlement in Utah, which seemed to him the wave of the future. But collective organization which seemed essential to him seemed too socialistic in Congress and the recommendations in Powell's reports were never put into effect—until the 1930s, when the Taylor Grazing Act began to shut down homesteading and begin to insert the federal government into the management of land.

So that's the backstory of the explosion of distribution of public lands in the 19th century. The effect of all the laws was to turn millions of acres of public land into private holdings. This followed a business cycle:

  • From 1607-1870, 407 million acres occupied, 189 million improved.
  • From 1870-1900, 430 million acres occupied, 225 million acres improved.

Euroamerican settlement was a flood tide. The most telling image is that of a land rush, the series of openings of Indian lands in Oklahoma—what had previously been called "Indian Territory"—between 1889-93. The Railroads hurried to make connections between Kansas and Texas, lobbied for opening. Indians, who had been promised the land in perpetuity, were once again forced to cede large chunks of it.

On April 22, 1889, 100,000 would-be settlers lined up on territory’s border. Held back by officials until guns sounded at noon, thousands rushed into Oklahoma at break-neck speeds. Within hours, 1,920,000 acres had been claimed. By nightfall on April 22, Oklahoma City had a population of 10,000 and a few days later looked like a bustling large town. Lumber from Chicago and Lake Michigan forests as well as Arkansas yellow pine created this instant city on the plains.

The land rushes were symbols of astonishing land hunger, faith in economic growth, and rising price of real estate. To abstract this vivid tale a little bit, I'm going to show you a series of maps from Charles O. Paulin's Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States:

  • Here are maps of the US Public Lands by sale in the years 1850, 1870, 1890, and 1910. Notice how much of the nation's public land existed in the West. Now that's just sale.
  • Here's a map of Improved Land in 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900. Paralleling land purchase was of course its improvement.
  • Here's Wheat Production in 1859, 1889, 1919. In 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, Wisconsin was the largest wheat-producing states in the country. By 1890, with massive settlement on the eastern plains, the limits of areas suitable for agriculture was nearly reached and in some places surpassed. Wheat production moved to southern Illinois, central Kansas, and the Red River Valley in Minnesota.
  • Corn/Hog Belts, 1840, 1880, 1982: emergent in Iowa to southern Ohio 1880.
  • Wheat/Corn/Cotton Belts, 1860, 1890

The point is that, in these maps, we're beginning to see the regionalization of agricultural production in the U.S.: not all areas are producing the same crops at the same time.

So that's the big zoomed out perspective. Now lets zoom in a little bit and ask: what was it like to purchase a plot land? What was it like to farm it?

II. Promoting Settlement

Here's an Omaha City 1850s real estate office. This kind of settlement didn’t just happen on its own, of course. Many institutions were involved in promoting settlement:

  • A real estate agent was the private equivalent of a land office – speculators who had amassed the best lands at low prices, then sold the lands to settlers at much higher prices. Those looking for big bucks tried to project townsites, since value of lots in towns were much higher than farmlands. The only way to make a townsite a booming area was to make it a town hosting a railroad depot: so the politics of land location relative to railroad routes is a bit part of the story.
  • Frontier newspapers like the Black Hills Weekly Pioneer had subscribers who were living back east and trying to decide whether to invest in land in these new towns. So newspaper editors and printers played a key role in boosting new areas – encouraging settlement and investment through newspapers. Many early papers sold more subscriptions in East than in local area. Also – emigrants guides, promotional pamphlets.
  • Local boosters weren’t only group promoting settlement. Probably most important of all were the land grant railroads, which set up elaborate advertising programs to sell their holdings at $4-$6 per acre, to arrange credit terms, and to offer free transport of settlers goods. For our purposes, the railroads organized the migration: giving individuals guides and telling them where to buy land. Railroad companies even ran advertisements in England and all over NW Europe, spending millions to encourage immigration that they coordinated with eastern steamship companies.

In this way, thousands of European peasants came to set up farms in the U.S. West: Russians, Canadians, Irish, English, Norwegians, Swedish, Danish, Germans. We can see the impact of this migration in a variety of ways: Eastern Dakota travellers could more easily find someone who spoke Norwegian than English; 400 towns in Minnesota had Swedish names by 1890; and states eventually set up immigration boards to encourage this European settlement.

III. Local Landscapes of the Farm: Women’s Work, Men’s Work

The settlement of the West was not just done by immigrants — many Midwestern farm families came as well, pulling up stakes in Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and packing all crucial belongings into wagons, in which they head out to take advantage of the free land and richness of the plains.

Most who did move were families, who brought their skills and cultures to reproduce a Midwestern farm world in transformed circumstances of the arid West. Men, women and children worked together to make the farm unit work, but lived nevertheless to some extent in separate but intimately entangled worlds. Watching the creation of the farming frontier on the Plains is watching men’s and women’s world of work being reproduced.

Settlers from the Midwest had been accustomed to having enough wood to build themselves classic pioneer log cabins. But as one moved further west, on plains that too expensive in early years. So pieces of sod were carried from the prairie and stacked to create dark, damp sod houses, the classic plains homestead.

Inside and around that dwelling was the world of women’s work. One of the ways that the division of labor articulated itself in gendered terms, a longstanding cultural construction, wasthat women's labor needed to be infinitely interruptable in case of a child's suddenn needs. As a result, women did the cooking. On eastern plains, where some firewood could be found, summer cooking could be done with wood, outside where smoke wouldn’t fill house with choking odors. In winter, you just had to live with smoke until you could afford a stove. Women were also often responsible for cleaning: once lumber could be afforded, plank floor made sweeping easier, and were eventually used to construct a frame house. So again, think of the very microgeographies of male and female labor. Look at this interior geography and ask: what it's like to clean that space? Notice the size of the wood planks in some historic photographs — you can't find pine boards that wide today.

Salting meat, preserving fruit, churning butter: the labor of moving the harvest away from the time of harvest was a crucial function of cooking. Women were also often in charge of textiles: the spinning wheel and sewing machine (emergent in the last three decades of the nineteenth century) were also part of this microgeography. Women also were typically responsible for rendering soap, washing laundry, childrearing, childbearing, parenting, and sewing bedding. Think about the community represented in patchwork quilts. Teaching school, too, often fell to women.

Women’s work was crucial to subsistence: nurturing, shelter, but also part of a cash economy in a local sense because their work often contributed to a steady, regular income in small amounts (think: the collecting and sale of eggs). This income was often crucial during the slow non-harvest season.

The domain of men's work was often further out from the home, in the outside world: plowing, tending fields and crops. Some of the earliest crops were corn, simply planted in holes dug into sod. It was a very complicated geography of the farm that was undergoing a technological revolution in the same period that immigration was taking place.

IV. Farm-Making Innovations

A whole range of new techniques was necessary for settlement in the arid West, and these added to farm-making costs.

  • Grasshopper plow: This enabled wheat to be planted using a plow with a chilled iron or steel moldboard
  • Barbed wire fence: The classic worm fence of the East saved labor but wasted wood that the Plains couldn’t spare, and Plains farmers faced onslaught from thousands of open range cattle. The solution, a barbed wire fence, was patented by Joseph Glidden of DeKalb, IL in 1874, first practical machine-produced barbed wire. This brought with it a huge reduction in the total wood required, but added a burden of purchasing a manufactured product. By 1883, Glidden factory producing 600 miles of fencing every 10 hours. By end of century, Glidden one of the wealthiest men in the United States
  • Windmill: Water was also a major concern. Anyone not near a dependable stream had to dig a well for themselves, which was backbreaking work. In the dry plains, wells wouldn’t do – drawing water up from 100' or 120' down was too much effort to be practical. And farms were not the only institutions needing water — cattle, ranchers and railroads needed it too, and some kind of mechanical pump needed. The obvious solution was a windmill, but eastern designs borrowed from Europe were too delicate for Plains conditions. So a series of windmill companies sprung up on the eastern Plains.

Aridity nevertheless remained a serious problem, and by the 1870s farmers on the Plains regularly experiencing serious droughts. Other ecological problems were also substantial: tornadoes (first tornado ever photographed, 1884); grasshoppers (worst in 1874, Texas to the Dakotas, grasshoppers like a cloud blotting out sun); prairie fire.

Many farmers had to turn to government relief to get though worst. In spite of it all, farmers, men & women, stuck it out—though beware of stories of essential optimism that treat ecological problems as exceptional, when many of these farms had been pushed too far into areas where basical ecology couldn't support them. We still haven’t faced that lesson today.

V. Leaving Traces

We're going to take a look at a series of photographs trying to capture farming life on the Plains. The photographer of many of these images was a man named Solomon Butcher (1856-1927). An itinerant photographer in Nebraska, he left an extraordinary record though he died thinking himself a failure.

"Mrs. Hilton and her eldest daughter were adamant that they not be photographed in front of their sod house, because they wished to send copies of the picture to friends and relatives elsewhere and thought it embarrassing to be seen living in a house of dirt. But they did want to be seen with their new pump organ, so they made Mr. Hilton and the photographer drag the organ out of the house for the photographs, then drag it back in again."

Images shown in lecture included the following; you can sample Solomon Butcher's images at these links:



It's also worth doing a Google Image search for Solmon Butcher.

  • Husband, wife, infant, dog
  • Women in front of sod house
  • Sodbusting family with livestock, Nebraska, 1887
  • Family with windmill
  • Sodbusting family, Nebraska, 1886
  • Russian immigrants, North Dakota, 1894
  • Oklahoma black homesteaders
  • Ephraim Swain Finch farm 1880s
  • Old and new home addition
  • Exterior Bartholomew Sod Farm / Interior Bartholomew Sod Farm
  • NE farm and family, with photo of dead wife
  • Abandoned Homestead

Some didn’t make it at all, abandoning their work to the bank which held its mortgage. The human drama of these peoples’ lives was bound up in complete set of transformations in economic institutions of American agriculture, linking them ever more closely to money markets and capitalist world economy in which they sought to sell their produce.

VI. The Coming of the Machine

What I want to do in the closing minutes of this lecture is narrate two processes for you: grain going to market, and what happens to grain with the advent of urban areas like Chicago and the Twin Cities.

Here's a crucial theme to keep track of: the connection of production and consumption centered on major cities. Cities revolutionized capitalism and with it the American West. This is the argument you'll be encountering in the book Nature's Metropolis.

Let's start where we began last time: with farmers working fields. Farming until mid-century was largely conducted by hand with tools such as ones we saw. Inventors working on various devices for mechanizing agricultural process. Massive increases in farm production, especially a cash grain crop like wheat, created markets for farmer's products. Remember, technology is not an autonomous force – operates within human institutions and is shaped by them, as we’ll see.

We could look at mechanization in a whole range of farm processes, but one of the best known and most important changes was to reaping – the cultivating of grain in field – so we’ll let it stand for whole.

In 1831, Cyrus Hall McCormick of Virginia invented the first practical reaper, which he patented in 1834. McCormick found little market for his mechanized reaper until the 1840s, when farming emerged in large scale on the flat, stone-free prairies of Midwest. In 1847, McCormick established a factory in Chicago which soon became the largest producer of reaping machines in world. The devices were mass produced and supplied farms throughout Midwest.

McCormick lost his patent renewal in 1848, so he embarked on a series of innovations in order to maintain an edge over his competitors, which were numerous. The Reaper of the late 1840s was hand raked; but as time passed, there are new mechanical additions:

  • Self-raker (Obvious innovation was to create device which would do raking itself. Workers still had to go back through field and bundle grain stalks);
  • Marsh harvester (Marsh harvester of 1860s added platform on which person stood to perform binding.)
  • Old Reliable Wire Binder Obvious next step was to add device to do binding by machines. Wire initially used when first developed in 1870s, eventually replaced by twine in 1880s, still used. The result was enormous gains in labor efficiency. By the 1890s, it 61 hours to harvest an acre of wheat by hand and 3 hours by machine.
  • Best’s Traction engine

Remember, the mere invention of a machine is no guarantee that it will be practical. Geographic conditions, patterns of land ownership, market structure and demand, and the relative abundance of labor capital all shape use.

VII. Marketing Machines

An increasing reliance on machines like the reaper created a direct linkage between farmers and urban factories like McCormick’s in Chicago. Firms manufacturing those machines as a result began to experiment with new advertising and marketing techniques designed to encourage farmers to invest in their products.

As for farmers growing wheat: how to get it to market?

One answer was downstream, down the Mississippi. In water transit cities like those supplying St. Louis, bagged wheat simply loaded onto boat and shipped to major markets like St. Louis or New Orleans, sold in individual lots according to quality.

Another answer was on the railroads. Notice: Chicago had more ways east than any other city in the Midwest, and had the lowest rates east of all the cities in the U.S. The revolution that happens in Chicago is that the grain comes out of those sacks and moves by rail. The railroad changed all of this, making possible entirely new grain handling techniques that revolutionized marketing practices.

The grain elevator, first developed in Buffalo, NY, came into its own on large scale in Chicago. By the early 1850s, Chicago was the greatest primary grain market in the world. No competition received half as much grain—which created the real problem of handling so much grain. On the surface, there was nothing remarkable about those Chicago grain elevators of the 1850s – they were big buildings consisting of tall vertical bins, endless conveyors carrying grain from railroad to the top of the building, separated grain into bins, and using gravity to deliver the grain to ships of railroad cars. Grain elevators had a capacity of millions of bushels and huge concentrations of grain.

But think of what this meant – up till now, grain had been sold in individual sacks and bought by lot. To make elevators work, grain from many farms had to be combined into a single bin, farmers given a receipt for equal quantity of grain from that bin – but not the same he had put in.

Grain varied in quality, so a grading system had to be developed to maintain quality control in bins. This grading system was officially created by the Chicago Board of Trade in 1857. The grading system meant that farmers and markets received receipts for given quantity of given quality of grain. By freeing grain from individual lots, it became a relatively homogeneous product, making it a much more easily traded commodity.

In particular, people could now make contracts to buy or deliver grain at specified times in the future, even though they possessed none at the time, and count on elevators to supply the necessary quantity on demand. By buying or selling when the price of grain lower or higher than original contract said made it possible to ear profits via speculation.

Chicago emerged as the grain hub, and meat market, and the lumber market of the entire world.

VIII. Milling Flour in Minneapolis (finished at start of logging lecture)

Recall that we ended here: the Chicago Board of Trade. Taking grain out of burlap sacks and putting it into massive grain elevators abstracted grain and allowed for the buying and selling of grain futures. So Chicago became a place that set world prices for wheat.

I'll give you a little tail to that story that doesn't appear as much in Nature's Metropolis, which you've read for section. Here is a graph of wheat that passed through Chicago, and a separate graph line for wheat passing through Milwaukee—in the 1850s the largest wheat milling city in the U.S.—and a separate line for the wheat passing through Duluth, Minnesota. Notice in the 1880s, Duluth surpassed Chicago as the leading mover of wheat. What's that story?

The Northern Pacific Railroad bankrupty opened up the land in the Red River Valley in Minnesota for cheap sale, particularly for bonanza farms. The size of these farms meant that landholders could invest in capital—agricultural technologies—that led to huge scales of farming, enormous wheat output, and changing agricultural practices: deep plowing (a style of plowing that would contribute to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s); and also new varieties of wheat. These bonanza farms hit a problem: soft red winter wheat characteristic of the Eastern U.S. died on the plains in the winter. So they began cultivating hard red winter wheat, introduced from Europe. But hard red winter wheat could not be milled in the same way as the soft winter wheat, because earlier milling technology would cause the wheat to go bad. This had the effect of making mills at the water-powered mills in Minnesota adopt a new technology: ceramic drums rather than milling stones. This new technology meant that mills could separate out parts of the wheat that one didn't want, for example the wheat germ that is nutritionally desirable but makes the wheat spoil more quickly. So Minneapolis became the leading flour milling center of the world and in the process introduced the world's first pure white flour, an innovation that would forever change global nutrition. The Washburn family (of General Mills fortune) and the Pillsbury family were behind this transformation.