The homesteaders

The homesteaders
Why and how they came to be
What does this picture tell you about life on
the Plains?
The USA when Homesteading started
The Great Plains
Look at the house above. It is made out of
lumps or sods of earth.
The family who proudly pose for this
photograph have built this home themselves
with hardly any building materials.
These people were known as the
homesteaders and their homes called sod
Many thousands of them moved west from
the 1850s onwards to begin new lives.
They came from the east and from Europe mainly England, Germany and Sweden, to
escape poverty and over-crowding and
sometimes to escape religious persecution.
Many more people went west after the US
Civil War ended in 1865.
. Thousands of freed
black slaves became homesteaders.
Ex civil war soldiers
Many civil war soldiers from both the
north and the south went out to the
plains to start a new life.
They became miners/ cowboys/ railroad
The building of the transcontinental
The US govt wanted a railroad that went from East
to West.
In the 1860s two companies starting building- one
from the East and one from the West.
They met in Utah.
Two main effects;
It was easier now for homesteaders to make it to
the Plains.
It was cheap to buy land and the railroad companies
sold off the land either side of the line at low
Land was cheap, travel was easy and plenty of
people looking for a new life.
Why did they go to the Plains?
Land in the far west - California and Oregon - was too
expensive by 1860 for most settlers. Farming on the Great
Plains was the only option.
The government encouraged this settling of the Plains 1862 Homestead Act - each family given 160 acres of land
as long as they farmed it for five years
1873 Timber Culture Act - a further 160 acres of land was
given as long as 40 acres was planted with trees
1877 Desert Land Act - 640 acres of very cheap land was
made available in areas with low rainfall
Railroad companies sold huge tracts of land along their
railway lines to homesteaders to encourage use of their
Europeans:Many wanted to escape poverty and
unemployment. Esp. England, Ireland, Scots and Russians.
Jews and other religious groups like the Amish wanted to
escape religious persecution.
Thousands of European immigrants settled in Iowa and the
Eastern Americans: (New York/ Boston etc.)
After the war wanted new opportunities after the Civil War
or they wanted farmland no longer available in the settled
Eastern states.
Southern States: after the Civil War black ex- slaves fled
racism. Mostly went to Kansas.
many southerners lost income and land.
Serious economic problems- if crops failed the people
Problems with living on the Plains
Dirt and disease: the houses were completely made of sod
bricks and clay, so pests were everywhere!.
It was difficult to keep clean, especially when water was in
shirt supply.
Illness was common amongst homesteaders, esp children.
Water shortages: in many places water was scarce. Couldn’t
keep themselves or clothes clean.
Extreme weather: hot in the summer and cold in the
summer. Little rain all year long. The Indians moved with the
seasons but the homesteaders were stuck there.
Fuel: there was no wood to burn for heating and cooking.
Instead homesteaders used buffolo or cow “Chips”- dried
Problems of farming on the Plains
Water shortages: could lead to a total failure of crops.
Lead to starvation and bankruptcy. The Mormons dug
irrigation ditches to get water but on the Great Plains there
was no rivers or lakes nearby. Wells were an option but
expensive and couldn’t always promise water.
Extreme weather: drought in summer and cold in winter.
This would kill or destroy crops.
Ploughing: the Plains had never been farmed before so it
needed ploughing first. The grass was dense with tangled
Protecting crops: there was no wood for fencing so nothing
protected the crops from wandering buffalo or straying
cattle. This also meant that boundaries couldn’t be fixed
and led to disputes.
Growing crops: the homesteaders planted the same crops
they had always grown but they were not suited to the
weather conditions on the Plains.
Natural hazards: Prairie fires could start easily in the dry
weather. They could destroy crops. Plagues of grasshoppers
at times also came and ate all the crops.
What were the problems and solutions of farming on
the Plains?
Ploughing and sowing - Very hard work,
the grassland was tough to break up and
cast iron ploughs regularly broke
New machinery - Industrial revolution in
the East made better farm machinery
such as John Deere's sodbuster
Lack of water - Irrigation was no use
due to the shortage of lakes and rivers.
Wells were also expensive to dig and no
guarantee of success
Dry farming - Farmers preserved
moisture in the soil by ploughing after
rain or snow, trapping in the water.
Wind pumps - Halliday's windmill could
keep going all day and night, pumping up
water from wells deep down, no matter
which way the wind blew.
Crops - Ordinary crops like maize (corn)
and spring wheat didn't grow well in the
harsh weather conditions
Turkey Red Wheat - Introduced by
Russian immigrants accidentally thrived
on the Plains as it was similar to the
Russian Steppes where they came from.
Fencing - Wood was scarce and
expensive so fences couldn't protect
crop fields from cattle or dodgy
Barbed wire - Invented by Joseph
Glidden in 1874 - this was a cheap and
effective solution for the homesteaders.
Exam style question
Use your own knowledge to explain why
people began farming the Plains in the
early 1860s in spite of the difficulties
they faced.
Exam style question
What part did new technology play in
the solving the problems of farming the
Plains? Explain your answer.
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