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Farming in the American West in the Early 1900s

Farming in the American West in the Early 1900s
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  • 0:02 Homestead Act
  • 1:14 Weather
  • 1:49 Supply & Demand
  • 2:19 Railroad
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

After the passage of the Homestead Act, many people traveled west to begin farming the land. Learn about the many obstacles the western farmer faced during the early 1900s.

Homestead Act

When we discuss the history of the American West, cowboys and cattle usually steal the show. Today we're going to take a different route. Rather than cattle drives and 10-gallon hats, let's take a look at the American farmer of the early 20th century.

For starters, any discussion on farming in the West needs to include the Homestead Act. Passed in 1862, this act gave 160 acres of unsettled land to anyone who lived on it and cultivated it for 5 years. Riding the wave of the Homestead Act, thousands upon thousands of people headed west in hopes of a new life. Many of them were farmers hoping to get their 160 acres.

Of course, 160 free acres was a wonderful opportunity. However, the cost of buying seed, tools, and building barns was more than some could handle. For this reason, some Western farmers were tenant farmers, people who farmed rented land from large land owners. Despite their excitement, however, farming in the West proved to be daunting and precarious.

Weather

For instance, the Western farmer found himself at the mercy of the weather. Unlike the East, which usually had predictable weather patterns, the Western sky turned black without warning. Wind, hailstorms, and tornadoes could wipe out an entire season of work in minutes. Adding to this, drought could destroy a season before the first seed sprouted. To combat this, Western farmers abandoned the water-craving crops of the East, plants like beans and corn, for more resilient crops like wheat.

Supply & Demand

Hardly being able to win for losing, Western farmers also had to wrestle with supply and demand. If the weather did afford them a good crop, they contended with overproduction. Of course, overproduction only served to lower the price of their goods. Unfortunately, it didn't lower the price of the tools they needed to harvest, the staples they needed to survive, or the price of the seed they needed for the next growing season. For the tenant farmer, it also didn't lower the rent.

Railroad

Adding to the perils of their lives, the railroad also fleeced the small farmers of the West. Lacking the purchasing power of the huge cattle ranchers or the large company farms, the small farmers often found themselves being charged more than their wealthier counterparts. In the same way that big box stores of today get better deals than small, family-run businesses, the independent farmers were forced to pay more to get their goods to Eastern markets.

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