Modern history

Ranching and Farming Frontiers

Ranchers and farmers heading west also faced harsh realities. Cowboys worked long hours in tough but boring conditions on the open range. Farmers endured great hardships in trying to raise crops in an often inhospitable climate. Women played a critical role as pioneers, often setting out to acquire their own land or helping to run the family farm. Falling crop prices, however, led to soaring debt and forced many farmers into bankruptcy and off their land. Despite difficult physical and economic conditions, many of these women and men showed grit and determination not only in surviving but in improving their lives as well.

The Life of the Cowboy

There is no greater symbol of the frontier West than the cowboy. As portrayed in novels and film, the cowboy hero was the essence of manhood, an independent figure who fought for justice and defended the honor and virtue of women. Never the aggressor, he fought to protect law-abiding residents of frontier communities. Having helped tame some wild western town, the cowboy rode off into the sunset in search of new frontiers to challenge him.

This romantic image excited generations of American readers and later movie and television audiences. In reality, cowboys’ lives were much more mundane. Cowpunchers worked for paltry monthly wages, put in long days herding cattle, and spent part of the night guarding them on the open range. Their major task was to make the 1,500-mile Long Drive along the Chisholm Trail. Beginning in the late 1860s, cowboys moved cattle from ranches in Texas through Oklahoma to rail depots in Kansas towns such as Abilene and Dodge City; from there, cattle were shipped by train eastward to slaughterhouses in Chicago. Life along the trail was monotonous, and riders had to contend with bad weather, dangerous work, and disease.

Numbering around forty thousand and averaging twenty-four years of age, the cowboys who rode through the Great Plains from Texas to Kansas came from diverse backgrounds. The majority, about 66 percent, were white, predominantly southerners who had fought for the South during the Civil War. Most of the rest were divided evenly between Mexicans, who had first tended cattle during Spanish rule in the Southwest, and African Americans, some of whom were former slaves and others Union veterans of the Civil War.

Besides experiencing rugged life on the range, black and Mexican cowboys faced racial discrimination. Jim Perry, an African American who rode for the three-million- acre XIT Ranch in Texas for more than twenty years, complained: “If it weren’t for my damned old black face I’d have been boss of one of these divisions long ago.” Mexican vaqueros, or cowboys, earned one-third to one-half the wages of whites, whereas blacks were usually paid on a par with whites. Because the cattle kingdoms first flourished during Reconstruction, racial discrimination and segregation carried over into the Southwest. On one drive along the route to Kansas, a white boss insisted that a black cowboy eat and sleep separately from whites and shot at him when he refused to heed this order. Another white trail driver admitted that blacks “were usually called on to do the hardest work around the outfit.” Nevertheless, the close proximity in which cowboys worked and the need for cooperation to overcome the pitfalls of the Long Drive made it difficult to enforce rigid racial divisions on the open range.

Large ranchers benefited the most from the cowboys’ grueling work. Spaniards had originally imported cattle into the Southwest, and by the late nineteenth century some 5 million Texas longhorn steers grazed in the area. Cattle that could be purchased in Texas for $3 to $7 fetched a price of $30 to $40 in Kansas. The extension of railroads across the West opened up a quickly growing market for beef in the East. The development of refrigerated railroad cars guaranteed that slaughtered meat could reach eastern consumers without spoiling. With money to be made, the cattle industry rose to meet the demand. Fewer than 40 ranchers owned more than 20 million acres of land. One ranch in Texas spanned 200 miles and stocked 150,000 steers annually. Easterners and Europeans joined the boom and invested money in giant ranches. By the mid-1880s, approximately 7.5 million head of cattle roamed the western ranges, and large cattle ranchers became rich. Cattle ranching had become fully integrated into the national commercial economy.

Then the bubble burst. Ranchers who were already raising more cattle than the market could handle increasingly faced competition from cattle producers in Canada and Argentina. Prices spiraled downward. Another source of competition came from homesteaders who moved into the plains and fenced in their farms with barbed wire, thereby reducing the size of the open range. Yet the greatest disaster occurred from 1885 to 1887. Two frigid winters, together with a torrid summer drought, destroyed 90 percent of the cattle on the northern plains of the Dakotas, Montana, Colorado, and Wyoming. Under these conditions, outside capital to support ranching diminished, and many of the great cattle barons went into bankruptcy. This economic collapse consolidated the remaining cattle industry into even fewer hands. Some of those forced out of business turned to raising sheep, which require less water and grass than cattle to survive. The cowboy, never more than a hired hand, became a laborer for large corporations.

Farmers Head West

The federal government played a major role in opening up the Great Plains to the farmers who eventually clashed with cattlemen. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln had opposed the expansion of slavery in order to promote the virtues of free soil and free labor for white men and their families. During the Civil War, preoccupation with battlefield losses did not stop the Republican-controlled Congress from passing the Homestead Act. As an incentive for western migration, the act established procedures for distributing 160-acre lots to western settlers, on condition that they develop and farm their land. What most would-be settlers did not know, however, was that lots of 160 acres were not suitable to conditions on the Great Plains. As geologist John Wesley Powell would demonstrate, the intensive techniques needed to farm 160-acre plots simply would not work in the harsh, dry climate of the Great Plains.

Reality did not deter pioneers and adventurers. In fact, weather conditions in the region temporarily fooled them. The decade after 1878 witnessed an exceptional amount of rainfall west of the Mississippi. Though not precisely predictable, this cycle of abundance and drought had been going on for millennia. One settler, convinced that Providence was smiling on Americans, remarked about the sudden burst of rain: “The Lord knowed we needed more land an’ He’s gone and changed the climate.” In addition, innovation and technology bolstered dreams of success. Farmers planted heartier strains of wheat imported from Russia that survived the fluctuations of dry and wet and hot and cold weather. Machines produced by industrial laborers in northern factories to the east allowed farmers to plow tough land and harvest its yield. Steel-tipped plows, threshers, combines, and harvesters expanded production greatly, and windmills and pumping equipment provided sources of power and access to scarce water.

The people who accepted the challenge of carving out a new life were a diverse lot. The Great Plains attracted a large number of immigrants from Europe, some two million by 1900. Minnesota and the Dakotas welcomed communities of settlers from Sweden and Norway. Nebraska housed a considerable population of Germans, Swedes, Danes, and Czechs. About one-third of the people who migrated to the northern plains came directly from a foreign country. Many of the rest, both native-born and foreign-born, had lived in towns and villages along the Mississippi River before they decided to seek new opportunities farther west.

Railroads and land companies lured settlers to the plains with tales of the fabulous possibilities that awaited their arrival. The federal government had given railroads generous grants of public land on which to build their tracks as well as parcels surrounding the tracks that they could sell off to raise revenue for construction. Western railroads advertised in both the United States and Europe, proclaiming that migrants to the plains would find “the garden spot of the world.” The land “will grow anything that any other country will grow, and with less work,” the Rock Island Railroad announced, “because it rains here more than any other place, and at just the right time.”

Having lured prospective settlers with exaggerated claims, railroads offered bargain rates to transport them to their new homes. Families and friends often journeyed together and rented an entire car on the train, known as “the immigrant car,” in which they loaded their possessions, supplies, and even livestock. Often migrants came to the end of the rail line before reaching their destination. They completed the trip by wagon or stagecoach.

Commercial advertising alone did not account for the desire to journey westward. Settlers who had made the trip successfully wrote to relatives and neighbors back east and in the old country about the chance to start fresh. Linda Slaughter, the wife of an army doctor in the Dakotas, gushed: “The farms which have been opened in the vicinity of Bismarck have proven highly productive, the soil being kept moist by frequent rains. Vegetables of all kinds are grown with but little trouble.” Descriptions of abundance, combined with a spirit of adventure, inspired Lucy Goldthorpe to claim a homestead near Epping in the Dakota Territory. “Even if you hadn’t inherited a bit of restlessness and a pioneering spirit from your ancestors,” she asserted, “it would have been difficult to ward off the excitement of the boom which, like the atmosphere, involved every conversation.”

Those who took the chance shared a faith in the future and a willingness to work hard and endure misfortune. They found their optimism and spirits sorely tested. Despite the company of family members and friends, settlers faced a lonely existence on the vast expanse of the plains. Homesteads were spread out, and a feeling of isolation became a routine part of daily life.

With few trees around, early settlers constructed sod houses. These structures let in little light but a good deal of moisture, keeping them gloomy and damp. A Nebraskan who lived in this type of house jokingly remarked: “There was running water in our sod house. It ran through the roof.” Bugs, insects, and rodents, like the rain, often found their way inside to make living in such shelters even more uncomfortable.

Women Homesteaders in Nebraska The Chrisman sisters—Lizzie, Lutie, Jennie Ruth, and Hattie—are shown outside their sod house in 1886. They are among the thousands of homesteaders who moved west in the late nineteenth century and built homes from the only natural resource the Great Plains had in abundance: sod. AP Photo

If these dwellings were bleak, the climate posed even greater challenges. The plains did experience an unusual amount of rainfall in the late 1870s and early 1880s, but severe drought quickly followed. A plague of grasshoppers ravaged the northern plains in the late 1870s, destroying fruit trees and plants. Intense heat in the summer alternated with frigid temperatures in the winter. The Norwegian American writer O. E. Rolvaag, in Giants in the Earth (1927), his epic novel about Norwegian settlement in the Great Plains, described the extreme hardships that accompanied the fierce weather: “Blizzards from out of the northwest raged, swooped down and stirred up a greyish-white fury, impenetrable to human eyes. As soon as these monsters tired, storms from the northeast were sure to come, bringing more snow.”

Women Homesteaders

The women of the family were responsible for making these houses more bearable. Mothers and daughters were in charge of household duties, cooking the meals, canning fruits and vegetables, and washing and ironing clothing. Despite the drudgery of this work, women contributed significantly to the economic well-being of the family by occasionally taking in boarders and selling milk, butter, and eggs.

In addition, a surprisingly large number of single women staked out homestead claims by themselves. Some were young, unmarried women seeking, like their male counterparts, economic opportunity. Others were widows attempting to take care of their children after their husband’s death. One such widow, Anne Furnberg, settled a homestead in the Dakota Territory in 1871. Born in Norway, she had lived with her husband and son in Minnesota. After her husband’s death, the thirty-four-year-old Furnberg moved with her son near Fargo and eventually settled on eighty acres of land. She farmed, raised chickens and a cow, and sold butter and eggs in town. The majority of women who settled in the Dakotas were between the ages of twenty-one and twenty- five, most had never been married, and a majority were native-born children of immigrant parents. A sample of nine counties in the Dakotas shows that more than 4,400 women became landowners. Nora Pfundheler, a single woman, explained her motivation: “Well I was 21 and had no prospects of doing anything. The land was there, so I took it.”

Once families settled in and towns began to develop, women, married and single, directed some of their energies to moral reform and extending democracy on the frontier. Because of loneliness and grueling work, some men turned to alcohol for relief. Law enforcement in newly established communities was often no match for the saloons that catered to a raucous and drunken crowd. In their roles as wives, mothers, and sisters, many women tried to remove the source of alcohol-induced violence that disrupted both family relationships and public decorum. In Kansas in the late 1870s, women flocked to the state’s Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, founded by Amanda M. Way. Although they did not yet have the vote, in 1880 these women vigorously campaigned for a constitutional amendment that banned the sale of liquor.

Temperance women also threw their weight behind the issue of women’s suffrage. In 1884 Kansas women established the statewide Equal Suffrage Association, which delivered to the state legislature a petition with seven thousand signatures in support of women’s suffrage. Their attempt failed, but in 1887 women won the right to vote and run for office in all Kansas municipal elections. By the end of the nineteenth century, fifteen women had held city offices throughout the state. Julia Robinson, who campaigned for women’s suffrage in Kansas, recalled the positive role that some men played: “My father had always said his family of girls had just as much right to help the government as if we were boys, and mother and he had always taught us to expect Woman Suffrage in our day.” Kansas did not grant equal voting rights in state and national elections until 1912, but women obtained full suffrage before then in many western states.

Farming on the Great Plains

Surviving loneliness, drudgery, and the weather still did not guarantee financial success for homesteaders. In fact, the economic realities of farming on the plains proved formidable. Despite the image of yeomen farmers—individuals engaged in subsistence farming with the aid of wives and children—most agriculture was geared to commercial transactions. Few farmers were independent or self-reliant. Farmers depended on barter and short-term credit. They borrowed from banks to purchase the additional land necessary to make agriculture economically feasible in the semiarid climate. They also needed loans to buy machinery to help increase production and to sustain their families while they waited for the harvest.

Instead of raising crops solely for their own use, farmers concentrated on the cash crops of corn and wheat. The price of these commodities depended on the impersonal economic forces of an international market that connected American farmers to growers and consumers throughout the world. When supply expanded and demand remained relatively stable during the 1880s and 1890s, prices fell. This deflation made it more difficult for farmers to pay back their loans, and banks moved to foreclose. Corn growers had a hedge against falling prices. By withholding some of their corn from market, they could feed it to their hogs, fatten them up, and sell them at higher prices. The reduction in the supply of corn caused prices to rise until it was worth selling corn again.

This “corn-hog cycle,” however, did not benefit wheat growers. When prices plummeted, they had little choice but to raise more wheat in the hope that increased volume would yield more income. Instead, the expansion in supply, coming as it did from so many farmers, merely depressed prices further, leaving wheat farmers with debts they could not repay. Under these circumstances, almost half of the homesteaders in the Great Plains picked up and moved either to another farm or to a nearby city. Large operators bought up the farms they left behind and ran them like big businesses. As had been the case in mining and ranching, western agriculture was increasingly commercialized and consolidated over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century.

The federal government unwittingly aided this process of commercialization and consolidation, to the benefit of large companies. The government sought to make bigger plots of land available in regions where small farming had proven impractical. The Desert Land Act (1877) offered 640 acres to settlers who would irrigate the land, but it brought small relief for farmers because the land was too dry. These properties soon fell out of the hands of homesteaders and into those of cattle ranchers. The Timber and Stone Act (1878) allowed homesteaders to buy 160 acres of forestland at $2.50 an acre. Lumber companies hired “dummy entrymen” to file claims and then quickly transferred the titles and added the parcels to their growing tracts of woodland.


• How did market forces contribute to the boom and bust of the cattle ranching industry?

• How did women homesteaders on the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century respond to frontier challenges?

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