The Treeless Prairie
New Great American Desert
Steamships took settlers and mail to the West Coast, but did little to encourage immigration between the West Coast and the Mississippi River. To entice settlers into the Great Plains, Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1862. The promise of 160 acres of free land lured thousands of eager immigrants to the West. As Congress hoped, immigrants eager for a fresh start and land of their own poured across the overland trails after the Civil War.
Land available! Come and get it! This poster told Americans about their opportunity to claim land and farm it. How did a person get 160 acres of one's own? You had to be a U.S. citizen and 21 years of age. By paying a filing fee of $10 and residing on your new farm in the West for at least five years, the land would be yours.
The railroads engaged in active campaigns to attract settlers to the West's open spaces. Homesteaders came by the thousands, invading the cattleman's paradise of free land, grass and water. The cowboy's uncomplimentary name for these immigrants was "nesters." According to John M. Hendrix, as cited in Ramon F. Adams' Western Words, "Viewed from some ridge, the early nester's home, as he cleared his little patch of brush and stacked it in a circular form to protect his first feed patch from range cattle, looked like a gigantic bird's nest ... The name spread and stuck to every man that settled on the plains to till the soil."
By 1900, homesteaders had filed 600,000 claims for 80 million acres. Most pioneers moved to the Western Plain states such as Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. They hoped for prosperity, but knew the move was a gamble. The drylander was as much of a gambler as the prospector. As the saying went, "The government bets title to 160 acres against your filing fee that you'll starve before proving up - and the government usually wins." And the gamble proved to be a battle - against drought, searing high winds, cyclones, prairie fires, blizzards, grasshopper plagues and human as well as animal predators.
The homesteaders knew it would be tough, farming the land for the first time, living in unfamiliar territory, often isolated from other people for long periods. Men left family and community to try to win prosperity with their new land. Some settlers went with their families. They have left us stories about their isolation, with no schools or social gatherings, as people lived too far apart.
Despite hard times, some farmers succeeded and accumulated more acres. With the railroads creating more access to the East, and a rising demand for beef, ranches prospered too. Between 1860 and 1880, the number of head of cattle in the Plains states rose from 130,000 to 4.5 million!
Many homesteaders, on the treeless prairie, built themselves sod houses, for a new home, until the railroads brought in more lumber and house-building supplies. In places where a settler might have to drive sixty miles to see a single tree, homesteaders turned to the ground beneath their feet for shelter. The sod house, or "soddy," was one of the most common dwellings in the frontier west. The long, tough grasses of the plains had tight, intricate root systems, and the earth in which they were contained could be cut into flexible, yet strong, bricks. A sod dugout was a shelter built into the ground of a hillside.
In 1904 the Kinkaid Act increased the size of homesteads in western Nebraska to 640 acres. According to Marl Sandoz in Old Jules the first Kinkaiders said of the sand-hill country, "The cattlemen should be paid to live in it." Yet at Picnics and reunions to the tune of "Maryland, My Maryland," the Kinkaiders sang the praises of their benefactor, Moses P. Kinkaid, and of the garden they hoped to make out of the "new Great American Desert."
But despite the hardships and disappointments the settlers kept coming. At the opening of Oklahoma Territory at noon, April 22, 1889, covered wagons bore witty and plucky inscriptions reminiscent of Pike's Peak and other rushes. One boomer in particular is reported to have exhibited on his wagon sheet in bold letters the following saga of his successive migrations:
White-capped in lndiany,
Chintz-bugged in Illinoy,
Cicloned in Nebraska,
Prohibited in Kansas,
Oklahoma or bust!
The dominant images of homesteaders for many Americans at the beginning of the twenty-first century are the calamity-prone residents of Little House On The Prairie. Though the beloved series, which ran on NBC from 1974-84, and has never been out of syndication, was based on the "Little House" series of books by homesteader Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House On The Prairie largely ignores the realities of homestead life. Fans of the series will remember that in the TV version, the Ingallses were technically not even homesteaders (they purchased their farm). Though weather, poverty, disease, fire, and other assorted cataclysms certainly wreak havoc on the residents of Walnut Grove, the frontier backdrop usually serves as a stage on which the characters explore critical issues facing audiences in the 1970s: economic uncertainty, peer pressure, women's lib, racism, alcoholism, and drug addiction (to name a few).
Planning a cross-country move, even today, is no minor feat. With boxes to be packed, movers to be hired, travel arrangements to be made, relocating is always stressful. But the stresses faced by cross-country emigrants 130 years ago -- weeks (or months) of grueling travel, rough (or nonexistent) roads, and few amenities -- were monumental by modern standards. Homesteaders traveling in the 1880s had to abandon the majority of all their material possessions, bid farewell to family and friends who they would often never see again, and prepare supplies that would last not only for the long journey ahead, but for the first few months in their new home.
To enjoy such a trip ... a man must be able to endure heat like a Salamander, mud and water like a muskrat, dust like a toad, and labor like a jackass. He must learn to eat with his unwashed fingers, drink out of the same vessel as his mules, sleep on the ground when it rains, and share his blanket with vermin, and have patience with musketoes ... he must cease to think, except of where he may find grass and water and a good camping place. It is hardship without glory.
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their three-year exploration of the American West in 1806, President Thomas Jefferson estimated that it would take the people of the United States "a hundred generations" to settle the land West of the Mississippi. It seemed as though the United States would always have a frontier, an unsettled territory just beyond the grasp of "civilization." Yet, less than 90 years later, Americans were told that the frontier was closed, and that a chapter of history had come to an irrevocable end.
The "wild" West, the West of covered wagons, pioneers, cowboys, and Indians, faded into memory, myth, and legend. Due in part to the efforts of the homesteaders, who headed into untamed regions for 160 acres of "free" land they had often never seen, the seemingly endless North American continent had been conquered and tamed for all time. Or had it?
It seemed that the frontier had not yet been tamed. In 1918, the wet years ended. Homesteads which had yielded as much as thirty bushels of grain per acre suddenly yielded less than three. The twentieth-century homesteaders discovered the same hard lesson that their nineteenth-century counterparts had learned: Uncle Sam's "free" 160-acre plots were far too small to produce a profitable crop in the arid West. Yet, even as thousands of would-be homesteaders gave up their claims and high-tailed it, another version of the West was already taking shape. The backbreaking struggles of homesteaders and other pioneers were absorbed into the larger, romantic myth of the West. Americans would gloss over the grueling (and deadly) wagon trains, the drafty, bug-infested sod houses, the coffee spiked with pebbles and navy beans, the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo, and the genocide of the Indians. Homesteaders would become the supporting characters in a West where the stars were valiant cowboys, bloodthirsty Indians, gun-slinging desperados, and dastardly outlaws.
As early as the 1840s, this version of the West was forming in America's popular consciousness. From the "captivity narratives" in women's magazines to the sensationalized accounts of the Donner Party's disastrous journey to California, it seemed that America preferred a fictionalized version of the West to the real thing.
The desertion of towns in these former homestead lands is fast becoming a mathematical certainty. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the birth rate in states such as Nebraska and the Dakotas declined anywhere from 30 to 44 percent. A large swath of the nation's midsection -- encompassing Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas, and Kansas, a total of 16 percent of the continental United States -- has contributed barely one percent of the nation's total births in the last ten years. While many towns are still thriving, there is simply not a "next generation" to propel them into the mid-21st century. As Harlow A. Hyde writes in the Atlantic Monthly,
With fewer children, schools will be closed and consolidated. As the population drops, the Postal Service will close post offices. Government at all levels will close, as well as movie theaters and barber shops. Churches will be unable to support pastors. In many towns, the clinic or hospital will close, owing to a lack of patients and an inability to retain doctors. The effects of reduced economic input will ripple through the local economy. As the cutbacks continue, real estate value will plummet without doubt the decline in births will gradually drain the life out of the region without more children, the aging social fabric will fray and finally fall apart.
The low birth rate is not the only factor that is dooming many towns in the once-homesteaded lands. According to Rutgers University professors Frank J. and Deborah E. Popper,
The global economy has turned against [these towns]. They cannot hold their young people. They cannot attract manufacturing because they are too far from major markets, and offer too small or too unskilled a labor force. Nor can they lure those seeking to live in an Arcadian setting. The frequent harshness of the landscape, the climate, and economy has always meant the region chooses its own; now there will be no one left to choose. Much of the rural Plains will be virtually deserted.
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