The Homesteaders – Solutions to their Farming Problem
- 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 . Tools
- 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.
- 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. Dry Farming
- 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. His windmill had four wooden blades that pivoted and would self adjust according to wind speed. It had a tail which caused it to turn into the wind.
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- Better Crops and Methods 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, Mennonites from Russia started to move onto the Plains. They brought their crops such as Turkey Red Wheat with them. "Kansas will be to America what the country of the Black Sea . . . is now to Europe -- her wheat field." --Topeka Commonwealth, October 15, 1874 Mennonites, like the Amish and Hutterites, are a hard-working, God-fearing Christian community.
- Russian-German farmers helped turn Kansas into the nation's breadbasket. Unlike most other farmers new to Kansas, they were experienced at prairie-style agriculture. Mennonites often are credited with introducing Turkey red wheat to Kansas. This hardy winter variety flourished on the Plains.
- 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.
- 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. This well known photograph was staged by photographer Solomon D. Butcher to illustrate the tensions between farmers and ranchers created by the appearance of homesteads on the range. It is unlikely, however, that these pantomime desperadoes were likely to do much damage with their wooden wire cutters, a detail lost on many historians over the years who published this photograph as the real McCoy.
- Fire Prevention 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.
- 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. DDT was not developed as a pesticide until the 1930s Health risks led to it being banned in the 1970s
- Increasing Landholding Size 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
- You can’t beat the weather!
- Dust Storm on the Texas Plains, 1935
- 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.
- The Coming of the Railroad 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. 1830s Reaper 1850s Reaper-Mower 1930s Harvester- Thresher 1920s Tractor-Binder 1880s Harvester- Binder 1860s Self-Rake Reaper Hand-held Scythes
How did our grandparents lived almost 100 years?
What they ate, how they ‘fought’?What kind of teas they drank?
Homesteaders Living On The Plains
- Building a house - Problems 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.
- 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.
- Staying Healthy We homesteaders lived hard and tiring lives. With constant struggles to keep clean, warm and fed, the toll on our health was often great. In years of poor harvests our diet was poor.
- 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. Herbs like sage, milkweed and basil were used for a variety of ailments. Natural herbal medicine knowledge from Native Indians was combined with traditional remedies from Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Britain and wherever the settlers came from. “ To cure deafness – mix onion juice with ants' eggs and pour down the patient's ear-hole”
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- 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 experienced massive variations in temperature as part of their normal cycle. Winters were long with freezing temperatures and snow. The Difficult Climate
- 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.
- 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 trees on the Plains meant that wood was not available to them in enough quantities. 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.
- The Fuel Shortage Solution:
- 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.
- Indian Attacks
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. DIRT
- 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. At home in our house and a sod at that! ... It is not quite so convenient as a nice frame, but I would as soon live in it as the cabins I have lived in... It looks real well. -- Mattie Oblinger, May 19, 1873
- Interior of Elling Ohnstad Sod House, photographed in 1923, showing how settlers smoothed and whitewashed the interior walls of sod houses and fitted them for comfortable living.
- 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. WATER!
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- 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.
- 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
- Even today, the suicide rate for farmers is double the average rate.
- 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.
- “ Waiting for the right girls to come along”
- Getting together with other homesteaders was also very important for probably the most important reason of all!
- Where did the Homesteaders come from?
- 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. 1865
- 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 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.
- 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.
- The Plains offered the chance for persecuted religious groups to build new communities on the Plains. The Mennonites were an originally German sect that was suffering persecution in Russia during the 1870s. The Santa Fe Railroad sent Carl Schmidt to Russia in 1874. Schmidt convinced the Mennonites that America would offer them the freedom and safety that they could not get in Russia.
- So thousands of Mennonites moved to the Plains in the 1870s and 1880s in search of religious freedom. Other groups of German-Russians such as Hutterites and Amish also moved to the Plains in the 1870s seeking freedom. It was these settlers who brought the Turkey Red Wheat that grew so well on the Plains.
- 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.
- 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.
- Advertisement for the new township of Howell, Dakota Imagine the impact adverts like this would have on impoverished Europeans.....railroad companies and towns spent a lot of effort and money enticing immigrants to their new communities.
- 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. Benefits of the Railroads
- Other Help from the US Government The 1862 Homestead Act was the first act passed by the US Government to help the homesteaders to settle on the Great Plains. The US Government wanted settlers to move onto the Plains in huge numbers. However speculators were claiming vast areas of land and then trying to sell the land to potential homesteaders. The prices put settlers off going to the Plains. To avoid this the government stated that all American citizens were entitled to 160 acres of land on the Plains for a fee of just $10. They had to live on the land for five years , and then it was theirs permanently. The five year term was designed to stop the speculators from claiming the land. With the low cost of the land, the government hoped that homesteaders would have enough money to start farming on the Plains.
- The government decided to give the homesteaders more land in the Timber Culture Act of 1873 . This recognised that the 160 acres given under the Homestead Act was not enough. So the Timber Culture Act gave each homesteader another 160 acres of land for free. In return the homesteaders had to plant 40 acres of trees . This would eventually provide them with wood for fires and building. It would also reduce the problems of wind by acting as a wind break for the homesteaders. By giving the land for free the government recognised the poverty of most homesteaders.
- In 1877 the US Government passed the Desert Land Act to give the homesteaders access to more land. Under its terms homesteaders could claim a further 640 acres of marginal land that was unfit for immediate farming. The homesteader had to irrigate the land and after three years could buy it for the low price of $1 an acre. This act was not as important to homesteaders as the Homestead Act or the Timber Culture Act, as the land it offered was only available in certain places on the Plains. Also much of the land available under the act was bought by the big ranches, even though most failed to actually irrigate it as required. However for those homesteaders who could benefit from the Desert Land Act, they could claim up to 960 acres by 1877.
- During the 1860s and the 1870s the US Army fought a series of wars with the Plains Indian Tribes. US Army leaders such as General Sherman, Colonel Chivington and General Custer led the USA to victory. Sometimes the two sides fought in proper battles, but in others the US soldiers were accused of massacring innocent women and children. By the end of the 1880s the Plains Indians had been totally defeated and the US Army had moved them off their lands onto the reservations leaving the land free for the Homesteaders to settle and farm.
- The phrase ‘Manifest Destiny’ was first used to describe the spread of the USA across the West by journalist John L O’Sullivan in 1845. Although he was describing the flood of settlers to California and Oregon, the idea took hold and was applied to the homesteaders of the 1860s.
- The US Government wanted total control over the land of the USA, and so encouraged settlement of the Plains. The Acts it passed and the actions of the US Army in the Plains Wars all made it easier for the nation to fulfil its ‘Manifest Destiny’ of taking over the whole continent. The US Government encouraged the homesteaders to believe that their sacrifices on the Plains were part of the nation’s work towards its Manifest Destiny.
I’m looking at a book.
It’s the kind of book you’d pick up in an antique store, take home, and treasure — not just because of it’s yellowed pages and delicate binding, but because of it’s utterly fascinating content. It’s called THE LOST WAYS.