The West: Farming in the Great West (Part 1): Taking "Things by the Smooth Handle"

Culture Watch

Mr. Miller has been a speaker with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Distinguished Lectureship Series since 1999.

"Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country."

Thus did William Jennings Bryan voice so well the sentiments of many delegates at the Democratic National Convention in 1896 with his"Cross of Gold" speech. Shades of Thomas Jefferson, who had argued about 1800 for the source of the Republic's strength and democratic ideals in the yeoman farmer. Though Jefferson's idealized agriculturist, a self-reliant (and self-sufficient)"democrat," was always more myth than reality, even in 1790, when 90 percent of the gainfully employed of the United States either labored on or, as was often, if not usually the fact, owned a farm, the belief of Jefferson, as echoed in a similar vein by Bryan,"The Great Commoner some 100 years later, did have more than a"kernel" of truth. For, without a sound foundation, resting, as it must in any society, upon agriculture, and to some extent up to the present in our own, upon what became known as the"family farm" (another ideal), grass would indeed have grown long since in the streets of American cities.


Even before the origin of the United States with the adoption of the Constitution as the supreme law of the land in 1789, the groundwork had been laid for the disposal of the new nation's public domain. To that one could add the vast wilderness (then at least) of Alaska by purchase from Russia in 1867, known for a long time, and very inappropriately too, as it turned out, as"Seward's Folly, after William H. Seward, the Secretary of State, who negotiated the deal. What were the multitudinous additions to the fledgling Republic's public domain in roughly 50 years? They were the Georgia cession in 1802; the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803; the acquisition of West Florida in 1811; East Florida in 1819; the Oregon" country" out of a northwestern boundary dispute with Great Britain in 1846; the Mexican cession of 1848, resulting from the Mexican War; followed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, also 1848, which brought 1.2 million more square miles of land, including the vast expanses of Texas, into the public domain--all of the above possessions"rounded out" by the Gadsden Purchase in the southwest in 1853.

The parceling out of all that land proceeded for the most part according to an orderly, and really a fairly efficient plan, beginning with the Land Ordinance of 1785, enacted under the government we once had under the Articles of Confederation. The law in question established the township (six-miles square, subdivided into 36 sections of 640 acres each) as the basic unit, not only for surveying, but then, once surveyed, for subsequent sale. From that day to this the pattern of 1785 has been followed with but few exceptions across the United States (and even Canada, so impressed with the workings of our system of rectangular surveys and land sales across a continent, adopted our system of land disposal, also almost without exception).

With one major qualification--westerners, and of equal importance, their representatives in Congress became increasingly vociferous in the demand that land be made available for sale in smaller and smaller tract sizes. That meant the abandonment within a few short years of the stipulation in the Land Ordinance of 1785 of a minimal allowable purchase of 640 acres (one section). And, even that had only been permitted under the terms of the act in half the townships surveyed (in this instance, the Seven Ranges of eastern Ohio). So, it followed by the Land Act of 1800, half-sections of 320 acres became available for purchase. Then, by the Land Act of 1804, it became possible to buy land the size of quarter-sections (160 acres). By the Land Act of 1817 some tracts (but not all), could be bought for the first time in 80-acre tracts. The Land Act of 1820 made this the minimum allowable tract size for all land sales. By the Land Act of 1834, the minimum tract-size purchase became 40 acres.

The climax for the whole process, that is making land available to as many would-be settlers as possible, came with the Homestead Law of 1862, by which Congress provided 160 acres free-of-charge to anyone who took up residence and, of course, worked the land for five years. Motivated by that law (yet, it should be pointed out, what many, if not most of the critics of the Homestead Act have ever failed to appreciate), the United States experienced its greatest period of land acquisition by actual settlers, not just speculators, west of the Mississippi River, in particular in the Great Plains region (before or since). This transpired from 1870 to 1900.

The student can"see" how the process played itself out by noting, as detailed below, the first year for the statutory opening of district land offices in the West. From those dates, it also becomes obvious that the settlement of the United States, except for the three states along the Pacific Coast (California, Oregon, and Washington), and keeping in mind too, most certainly, the"islands" of settlement, many of which finally became"ghost towns," occasioned, whether surviving or not as towns, by gold and silver deposits in the Rocky Mountains, was generally marked by an advance from East to West. What follows is a listing of the towns, along with each state, and the opening dates for each state's initial land office(s), given in parentheses: Little Rock and Batesville, Arkansas (1818); Franklin, St. Louis, and Jackson, Missouri (1818); Dubuque and Burlington, Iowa (1838); Stillwater, Minnesota (1847); Lecompton, Kansas (1854); Omaha City, Nebraska (1854); Santa Fe, New Mexico (1858); Vermillion, South Dakota (1861); Carson City, Nevada (1862); Golden City, Colorado (1863); Boise, Idaho (1866); Helena, Montana (1867); Prescott, Arizona (1868); Salt Lake City, Utah (1868); Pembina, North Dakota (1870); and Cheyenne, Wyoming (1870). To prove conclusively, how the dates for land-office openings in the West, given above, demonstrate the"jumping-over" of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains (except, as alluded to above, for gold and/or silver mining in the latter region) to the Pacific, notice the dates for the opening of the first land offices in the three west-coast states: California (1853); Oregon (1854); and Washington (1854).


For much of America's public domain though, especially for that portion of it east of the Mississippi, signs might well have been posted at intervals (let us say on the trunks of trees),"For White's Only, No Indians Need Apply." The reason being, many (really, let's face the facts squarely, most) Euroamericans, led by Jefferson (who may though have been well-intentioned), culminating, however, with President Andrew Jackson's policy (who had no liking for Native Americans whatsoever from the Creek Wars, if not before), called for the removal (if not of all, then practically all) Indians living east of the Mississippi to lands west of that river, primarily to the Oklahoma Territory (organized in 1820). Jackson's policy did proceed apace too with the transplantation (often forcible) of Native Americans to west of the Mississippi (such removals virtually completed by no later than 1840). Oftentimes, as with the Cherokees from North Carolina and South Carolina, not to mention the even more flagrant forced exodus from Georgia, they were escorted West by U. S. troops. And, oftentimes as well under severe hardships, compounded by many deaths along the way, as with the infamous"Trail of Tears," of those same Cherokees.

Little solace, at least for the most part, can be derived either from that whole sorrowful episode in American history, when one considers that the lands to which the Indians were to be removed (and, in fact, were so transferred), were thought to be"worthless" by most whites. For, the Oklahoma Territory, a portion of what became known, so far as much of the southern plains was concerned, as"The Great American Desert," was thought, in this instance, to be land for which Euroamericans would never find any use. Ironically, and especially with the prodigious deliveries of oil in Oklahoma after about 1907, such land, much to the discomfiture of many whites, came to be seen as quite valuable indeed. In fact, so much oil was produced from the holdings of the Osages there, they soon became the richest people per capita on earth!

Long before the heyday of oil discoveries in Oklahoma Territory, Euroamericans had become covetous though of lands in the area. For, by the late 1880s, most of the West had been aggrandized for railroad building, town site development, and, of course, for farms. The Homestead Act of 1862, for instance, had ushered in, as referred to above, the greatest"land rush" in American history. So, under pressure from would-be settlers the federal government opened up the Oklahoma Territory to whites. Some 2 million acres there, one spring day in 1889, became available for the taking. With what result? Exactly this--within 24 hours hundreds upon hundreds of Euroamericans had staked out claims to farms and had built two tent cities with 10,000 people in each. Three more"land rushes" followed in quick succession in Oklahoma Territory (1891, 1892, and 1893). The one in 1893 into the so-called Cherokee Outlet was the greatest"land-grab" of all with some 100,000 land-seekers competing for no more than 40,000 claims."In the melee, several people lost their lives; as night came on, men sat guarding their claims with rifles."

To that observation, made by Conrat and Conrat, The American Farm: A Photographic History (p. 67), it should be added, in fairness, those claimants, at least for the most part, were not just speculators, but truly disadvantaged people, like many, if not most of the Native Americans themselves (here pitted against one another) in the Oklahoma Territory at that time. The former then"were poor men--renters and small farmers--who yearned for the chance to begin life anew on the rich prairie soil of which they had heard such glowing accounts" (p. 67 of Conrat and Conrat).

It should be stressed at this point--Euroamericans of the post-Civil War era, unlike those of antebellum days, had come to view the Great Plains, and in the case of the southern portion of them, in this instance, as valuable after all. That had become the reality for two reasons: (1) Joseph F. Glidden, and Jacob Haish shortly thereafter, but both in the same year 1874, near and in DeKalb, Illinois, invented barb-wire, an innovative technology that would make fencing of the vast stretches of treeless lands on the Great Plains both cheap and practical; (2) the completion, or virtual completion, of many trunk lines, along with many more branch tracks, across the West, and, of course, then its prairies, after 1869, provided would-be farmers with ready accesses to huge potential markets for goods and produce on both coast lines--Atlantic and Pacific. No wonder then the Indians were to lose much more of their holdings to trans-Mississippi lands, especially after about 1870.

The whole period of wholesale dispossession reached the point of no return, it might be said, with the passage of the General Allotment (Severalty) Act of 1887, better know as the"Dawes Act," named after the Massachusetts Senator Henry L. Dawes, who sponsored the measure. The act apportioned much Indian land to native Americans in the West (and to a lesser extent in the East) from holdings from numerous reservations with the remainder of such lands considered as"surplus," which could be sold to non-Indians. But, after a passage of several years, the Indians were free to sell their allotted lands. What then were the results of the Dawes Act? Just this--from the sales of"surplus" lands, followed by the transactions in allotted holdings, lands held by Native Americans shrunk from 155 million acres in 1881 (admittedly, six years before enactment of the act under review) to less than 78 million in 1900. A few tribes, such as the Navajos in the West and the Senecas in the East, fortunately escaped the allotment"trap," but for those Indians who did not (and among them were included most of the Native Americans of the United States) the allotment process, which was mercifully ended by federal law in 1934, under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had though through the machinations, made possible, by way of the Dawes Act, along with its successive elaborations in other legislation, the eventual reduction of Indian land-holdings coast-to-coast by as much as 60 percent, including as well 66 percent of lands at first allotted to individuals. Certainly a sorry state of affairs, even a debacle, but not surprising, when one considers the"pressures" upon the land and its acquisition, occasioned by a burgeoning Euroamerican population, not only seeking livelihoods through farming, but also requiring more and more food for hungry mouths, especially in the growing cities of the late nineteenth century. Such"forces," if that be the right word, made"land pirates" of us all!

Note: To credit the subtitle of this article, let me quote from George Flower's History of the English Settlement in Edwards County, Founded in 1817 and 1818, by Morris Birkbeck and George Flower (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1968):

"It is very curious to see how differently the Eastern American, the Southerner, and the Englishman proceed in their way of farming, where they all begin with little or nothing. The Southerner, as I have before stated, goes into the woods, girdles a few trees, and raises some corn and pumpkins. . . . The Eastern man, or Yankee, as we call him, shows great dexterity and good management in all he does . . . and [this is] very noticeable when contrasted with the mode of labor of most of the Europeans. . . . The Englishman, unpractised in the ways of the country, does not take hold of things by the smooth handle" (pp. 187-88).

Of particular interest too, so far as George Flower and his compatriot from England, Morris Birkbeck, are concerned, they both sought out the small prairies of southern Illinois, which they had both heard and read about, in order to farm such land, unencumbered by trees. In so doing, they placed themselves in the vanguard of those few Americans, who saw the agricultural promise of prairie land in the early nineteenth century. For a fine examination of Flower and Birkbeck's farming of such land, see B. P. Birch's"The Environment and Settlement of the Prairie-Woodland Belt--A Case Study of Edwards County, Illinois," in Southampton Research Series in Geography, No. 6., ed. R. J. Small (Southampton: Southampton University, 1971), pp. 3-30.

Pertinent to this article, and of especial value to other researchers, are Marshall Harris, Origin of the Land Tenure System in the United States (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1953); Maisie Conrat and Richard Conrat, The American Farm: A Photographic History (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1997); John T. Schlebecker, Whereby We Thrive: A History of American Farming, 1607-1972 (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1975); and Paul W. Gates,"The Homestead Law in an Incongruous Land System," in The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, ed. Vernon Carstensen (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968), pp. 315-48. The book by Harris provides better than any other work, known to me at least, and to this very date, a thorough treatment of colonial land policies and legal practices, along with their bearing upon the disposal of the public domain under the U. S. Constitution and subsequent enabling legislation by the Congress. The article, cited by Gates, has become a classic, as well it should have, for that historian soon became the"dean" of public land law development history, a position he will ever hold (though now deceased). Finally, for my listing of the first land offices opened in the West, see the comprehensive compilation headed"Statutory Opening Dates of District Land Offices in Various States," compiled by the Bureau of Land Management, Department of the Interior, and given in edited volume, cited above, by Carstensen (pp. 499-504).

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