Farmers and Ranchers

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Unlike the westerns of dime novels and Hollywood cowboys, novels about farming and ranching do not romanticize rural life. Rather, they focus on the challenges encountered by people who transformed the continent's grasslands into consumable commodities: domesticated animals that ate the region's rich grasses or crops that thrived in the plowed prairie soil.

Farming and ranching stories focus on the land. Although there are stories of farming set in all parts of the continent, many of the novels that take place between 1870 and 1920 are set on the prairies and plains that extend from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountain foothills. Conflicts center on the soil and climate that may or may not support the crops and animals needed to survive and also on the inevitable differences between husbands and wives and parents and children regarding the hard work farms and ranches demand.

Although their stories rarely overlap with the stories of white farming and ranching, there are Native American works that address the tribes' relationship with the land. For example, the autobiographical stories and legends published by the Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša (also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, 1876–1938) focus on the American Indian's relation to place, with the land being an integral part of the narrative. The same is true of The Soul of the Indian: An Interpretation (1911) by another Sioux writer, Charles Alexander Eastman (also known by his family's Sioux name, Ohiyesa; 1858–1939).

As Richard White points out in "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West (1991), the first surveyors who were sent out by the U.S. government to map the western territories identified resources and hazards that later arrivals would find valuable or troublesome. John Wesley Powell focused on grazing lands, and Ferdinand Hayden believed, as many did, that rain would follow the plow; that is, when settlers plowed the apparently arid plains and released the soil's moisture into the atmosphere, it would return as rain. These surveyors were trying to shape a particular kind of society, however hazily envisioned. White points out that although nature left alone tends toward diversity, the Texas ranchers who drove the first cattle to the northern railroads and the settlers who plowed the first squares of land for corn or wheat preferred uniformity in crops and animals so that they could be managed and marketed in a cash-based society.

The central conflicts in most literature about farming and ranching reflect the efforts White identifies. Unlike the Native Americans who used the land lightly and moved often, ranchers and farmers identified a particular place as their own. They plowed the land for crops and introduced nonnative grasses and animals that would provide marketable goods. While history provides the broad background of this process, recounting the important mileposts in the nation's past, literature focuses on more dramatic situations: the challenges that a family or a community faces when the inevitable crises and conflicts arise.


There were cattle on the southern plains, principally in Mexico and Texas, long before the nineteenth century, but it was not until after the Civil War that their numbers and the land needed to support them increased, and ranchers began to establish operations in the central plains. The heyday of the open range, the source of many of the stories about cowboys and ranching, extended from the late 1870s into the 1890s. The classic account of life on the trail is Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days (1903) by Andy Adams (1859–1935). Adams recalls an 1882 trail drive from the Mexican border to the Blackfoot Indian agency in Montana to deliver three thousand head of cattle. Published just a year after The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains by Owen Wister (1860–1938), which was the first romantic portrait of the western cowboy, Adams's account focuses on the grueling events of a cattle drive—stampedes, river crossings, boredom, and weather. Wister's Virginian became the model for the popular "cowboy" of movies, fashion, and parodies, but Adams's story remains one of the most vivid accounts of trail regimen.

Most of the novels about this period of the ranchers' ascendancy were written years later by men and women who remembered their own families' experiences or culled historical sources for a western adventure. Many of these works focus on the conflicts between ranchers, who depended on the cheap grass of the open, unregulated ranges to feed their cattle, and farmers, who were arriving, establishing homesteads, and erecting fences to protect their crops, thereby eliminating the open range. Mari Sandoz (1896–1966) wrote several accounts of the clashes between cattlemen and farmers in her home territory, the Sandhills of northwestern Nebraska. Old Jules, published in 1935, is her account of her childhood and, more particularly, of her father's pioneering efforts from 1884 until his death in 1928 to settle farmers in the region, often on unclaimed land that cattle raisers regarded as their range. The clash with the cattlemen is tragically apparent in the murder of Jules's brother, who was "killed because . . . he knew too much" (p. 320).

Sandoz's Slogum House is an intense, violent account of the conflicts between ranchers and settlers. It was published in 1937, but the story is set in the years before President Theodore Roosevelt declared an end to the open range. The ruthless Gulla Slogum, who is determined to control an entire county, is fictional, but events in the novel are based on clashes that Sandoz witnessed between ranchers and farmers in the Sandhills at the turn of the twentieth century. Gulla's reign of violence does not end until the federal government declares the end of the open range and a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures. Sandoz is known for her exhaustive research and her ability to tell a good story, a combination that leaves her works on a thin edge between history and literature.

Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow reveals its multiple purposes in the subtitle: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. Published in 1962, it is Stegner's story of the summer of 1914, when he was a boy on the border between Saskatchewan and Montana, where his father fruitlessly pursued wheat farming. His own recollections of childhood adventures are mixed in with his impressions of the town on a return visit years later. Stegner's memory of the "gun-toting frontier" (p. 4) is embodied in a cowpuncher named Buck Murphy. "Genesis" is a vivid account of the efforts of cowhands to save their herd in the midst of a horrendous blizzard during the winter of 1906–1907. Stegner's writing style makes Wolf Willow concurrently a prose poem, an adventure tale, and a memoir. It is one of the most compelling accounts of both the ranching and farming frontiers in American and Canadian literature.


The Homestead Act, passed in 1862, is the most important piece of legislation in the history of farming in the United States. In the years following the Civil War, the myth of the safety valve evolved. Newly arrived immigrants from Europe and Americans displaced by the Civil War were crowding into the eastern cities. These unsettled people needed a place to go, so pundits and newspaper editors turned the "Great American Desert," a term coined by the explorer Stephen Long regarding the Great Plains, into the "Garden of the World" and encouraged western settlement as a solution for urban social ills. As the Native Americans were subdued and the land opened to settlement, thousands of eager would-be farmers took up land across the central Plains.


Horrific blizzards in the late 1880s were referred to as "the Great Die-Ups," or "the Big Die-Ups," or simply "the Ruin." Wet summers and mild winters in the 1870s encouraged ranchers to expand their herds, and investors from the East and England paid wildly inflated prices for a part of the anticipated windfall. The 1880s brought dry summers, but ranchers, eager to make a profit, overstocked their ranges, and cattle went into the winter weakened. During the winter of 1885–1886, many ranchers lost their entire herds, and in the spring, Texas ranchers skinned an average of 250 head to the mile along thirty-five miles of a Panhandle drift fence. The stench of rotting cattle could make life outside unbearable. During the storms, farmers who had thought nothing of living miles from town found themselves running out of food and fuel. People caught on the open prairie drifted like the cattle and were frozen or buried in drifts. An estimated three hundred people died in storms during the winter of 1885–1886 (Sandoz, Cattlemen, p. 261).

Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), William Allen White (1868–1944), and Willa Cather (1873–1947) addressed these myths and realities of western settlement. In "Among the Corn Rows," included in Hamlin Garland's 1891 edition of Main-Travelled Roads: Six Mississippi Valley Stories, Rob is a strong young homesteader in the Dakota Territory who believes in the realization of a democratic utopia on the level plains. He returns to Wisconsin to find himself a bride and hastily proposes to Julia Peterson, a Norwegian farm girl who is little more than an unpaid hired hand on her parents' farm. He knows that, unlike the more socially acceptable American girls, she will be a willing worker. When he proposes, he tells her "you needn't do anything but cook f'r me, and after harvest we can git a good layout o' furniture" (p. 117). He reminds her that if she stays on her family's farm, "they'll jest keep y' plowin' corn and milkin' cows til the day of judgment" (p. 118).

Most stories of the farmers' struggles to transform the prairie into orderly farms are not so benign. Other stories in Garland's collection are grim accounts of hard work that wore out the women and made the men sullen and silent. "A Day's Pleasure" tells the story of one farm wife's rare trip to town, where she wanders aimlessly until a sympathetic young town wife invites her and her baby in for tea and a brief respite from her dull existence. Butler, a sharp landlord, takes advantage of his renter Haskins in another story, "Under the Lion's Paw." Butler raises his price for the farm Haskins has rented from him to include improvements Haskins has made, forcing his tenant to pay twice for his work in exchange for a mortgage and the privilege of "owning" a farm that will barely support his family.

Boy Life on the Prairie, published in 1899, is Garland's chronicle of his boyhood on an Iowa farm in the years after the Civil War. Told from a boy's point of view, Garland's sketches present an idyllic view of farm-work, but the boy's adventures and the farm's routines are carefully recorded. The autobiographical A Son of the Middle Border (1917) is Garland's more complete autobiography that covers the same period. Farming is only one element in this story, however, which also includes accounts of Garland's moves from Wisconsin to Iowa, family routines, rural communities, small towns, and his increasingly successful literary career.

In his first collection of stories, The Real Issue, published in 1896, William Allen White includes two grim stories of newcomers who venture too far west onto the arid high plains. In "The Story of Aqua Pura" and "A Story of the Highlands," stubborn people, lured onto the plains by unusually wet years in the 1880s, hang on too long until they are too poor and too proud to admit defeat and return to points farther east. Willa Cather's story "El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional" (1901) is an account of land speculation and inevitable ruin. The story is manipulated to support a sentimental ending, but like White's stories, it reflects the blind enthusiasm of people who could be convinced on the slimmest evidence to settle far out on the high plains. The speculator's promises seem real in the wet years of the 1880s, but thousands abandon the failing community when the drought and nationwide economic depression of the 1890s collapses their dreams.

In addition to chronicling disputes between farmers and ranchers, Mari Sandoz's Old Jules presents the story of the homesteading era from the 1880s to the early twentieth century through her family's experiences on the high plains. The Swiss immigrant Jules is a stubborn, rough man who is determined to create a community of farmers. Sandoz does not gloss over the hardships created in part by her father's cruel indifference to his family and his habit of carrying on feuds with the area's ranchers and neighboring farmers. At the same time, Sandoz clearly admires her father's determination to settle on the land people who would be denied the American ideal of ownership and economic independence without his help. Jules also proves to be an astute judge of the land: his orchards were so successful that his farm became a horticulture experiment station for the University of Nebraska.

One of the most comprehensive accounts of the struggle to establish a homestead on the high plains is Sod and Stubble: Story of a Kansas Homestead (1936) by John Ise (1885–1960). The book recounts the experiences of Ise's parents, who were homesteaders near Downs, Kansas, in the 1870s and also addresses the author's childhood in western Kansas. Ise, an agricultural economist, tells the story of the efforts of Henry and Rosie to raise a large family (there were ten surviving children) on a small farm. Farming accidents, weather, neighborhood feuds, seasons of good crops and failures, Henry's declining health, and the always narrow gap between a successful year and failure result in an account that seems too dramatic until the reader realizes that this is a story based on very real experiences.

As Robert V. Hine and John Mack Faragher point out in The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), 49 percent of all homesteaders failed to "prove up" their claims. In the late nineteenth century, thousands returned to the East. Many who stayed became tenant farmers like Garland's Haskins rather than landowners. Stories of loss and failure are familiar plot patterns in literature about farming.

The apparently empty landscape of the level grasslands often becomes a metaphor for the psychological trauma that results from the isolation and lack of community experienced by farmers and especially by farmers' wives. In Giants in the Earth (1927) by O. E. Rölvaag (1876–1931), Per Hansa and a small community of fellow Norwegian immigrants stake their claims on the western edge of the Dakota Territory in the early years of settlement. The wide horizon empowers Per Hansa to imagine his own kingdom with red barns and a neat house surrounded by abundant land, but the same scene terrifies his wife Beret, who responds to the uninhabited space with such fear that she retreats into depression and occasional fits of madness. The couple's contrasting approaches and the tragedy that arises inevitably from Beret's fears and Per Hansa's confidence is one of the best accounts of the costs of immigration in American literature.

Willa Cather's novel O Pioneers! (1913) is an account of a successful farm managed by Alexandra Bergson, who shrewdly observes the land and adapts her own practices to take advantage of the rich soils and new agricultural practices. In Cather's words, the land "awakened" to her sense of its potential. In "Neighboring Fields," section two of the novel, Cather describes Alexandra's farm, a contrast to the "wild land" her father left his children on his death:

On either side of the road, for a mile before you reached the foot of the hill, stood tall Osage orange hedges, their glossy green marking off the yellow fields. South of the hill, in a low, sheltered swale, surrounded by a mulberry hedge, was the orchard, its fruit trees knee-deep in timothy grass. Any one thereabouts would have told you that this was one of the richest farms on the Divide, and that the farmer was a woman, Alexandra Bergson. (P. 80)

But even in Cather's story of success and abundance, there is a price to pay: Emil, Alexandra's favorite brother, is murdered by Frank Shabata, a jealous neighbor (and failed farmer), after Shabata finds his wife, Marie, with Emil in the orchard. In many stories of the farming frontier, the death of a parent, a spouse, or a child signifies the hard life and sacrifices demanded of the people who established America's farms.

Cather's novel My Ántonia (1918) focuses on the particular difficulties of immigrant settlers. The story is based on the lives of Bohemian farm families Cather knew growing up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, particularly the life of Annie Pavelka. Cather balances the hard work and social isolation against the later success and independence of Ántonia and the other "hired girls" who go from their families' farms into Black Hawk to do domestic work. Lena Lingard avoids marriage to become a successful San Francisco dressmaker and manager of the money Tiny Soderball makes in Alaska. Ántonia's life does not take her so far from Black Hawk. Years later, when the narrator, Jim Burden, visits Ántonia, her husband, and her gaggle of irrepressible children, he discovers that he is a part of her world, a player in Ántonia's stories of her childhood. Ántonia has become the quintessential farm wife, nurturing children and carefully tending her garden, with her fruit cellar visible proof of her farm's fecundity.

Cather focuses on the immigrant children who adapt more easily than their parents to America's opportunities and limitations. Ántonia and the other immigrant girls do not miss the old country as their mothers and Rölvaag's Beret do. They resent the toll of relentless hard work on their parents, and their lives are carefully planned escapes from their parents' limited situations. Like thousands of other immigrants, they retain the strengths they acquired in their first hard years, but they soon become a part of American life and culture on their own terms.

Other writers have left records of similar experiences. Oscar Micheaux (1884–1951), a pioneer in black film, wrote two novels about black farmers in South Dakota, The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913) and The Homesteader (1917). Although Micheaux uses different names in the novels, these are autobiographical stories that are interrelated. In the earlier novel, Oscar Devereaux saves enough money from his job as a Pullman porter to buy land in South Dakota. Like farmers before and after him, he works hard, overcomes setbacks, and increases the value of his farm.


In the first decades of the twentieth century, farming increasingly became a business. Experience with various farming practices and growing sophistication in dealing with markets gave the farmer some success. World War I brought a boom in wheat production, but after a relative period of prosperity in the 1920s, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression dealt a double blow to farmers and ranchers. Once again, out-migration left much of the land empty of people.

Stories written in the 1930s and in the decades since continue the story: despite improvements, farming and ranching remain dependent on the farmers' or ranchers' ability to survive inevitable economic downturns and destructive weather. At the turn of the twenty-first century, novels of farming and ranching were still being written. In history and literature, this cycle of failure and success is the story of America's farms and ranches.

See alsoFrontier; Labor; Main-Travelled Roads; Migration; My Ántonia; The Western


Primary Works

Adams, Andy. Log of a Cowboy. 1903. New York: MJF Books, 1997.

Cather, Willa. "El Dorado: A Kansas Recessional." In WillaCather's Collected Short Fiction, 1892–1912. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1965.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! 1913. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Eastman, Charles Alexander (Ohiyesa). The Soul of theIndian: An Interpretation. 1911. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1980.

Garland, Hamlin. Boy Life on the Prairie. 1899. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Garland, Hamlin. Main-Travelled Roads. 1891. New York: Signet, 1962.

Garland, Hamlin. A Son of the Middle Border. 1917. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Ise, John. Sod and Stubble. 1936. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996.

Micheaux, Oscar. The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer. 1913. New York: Washington Square Press, 2003.

Micheaux, Oscar. The Homesteader. 1917. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Rölvaag, O. E. Giants in the Earth. New York: Harper, 1927.

Sandoz, Mari. Cattlemen from the Rio Grande across the FarMarias. 1958. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.

Sandoz, Mari. Old Jules. 1935. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Sandoz, Mari. Slogum House. Boston: Little, Brown, 1937.

Stegner, Wallace. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and aMemory of the Last Plains Frontier. New York: Viking, 1962.

White, William Allen. The Real Issue. 1896. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. All references in the text are to the original 1896 edition.

Wister, Owen. The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains. 1902. New York: Pocket Books, 2002.

Secondary Works

Dary, David. Cowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries. New York: Knopf, 1981.

Hine, Robert V., and John Mack Faragher. The AmericanWest: A New Interpretive History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Quantic, Diane Dufva. The Nature of the Place: A Study ofGreat Plains Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. This study includes extensive discussions of most of the works in this article and a bibliography of primary and secondary works relevant to study of farming in particular.

Quantic, Diane D., and P. Jane Hafen, eds. A Great PlainsReader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. 1931. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

White, Richard. "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own":A History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.

Diane Dufva Quantic

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Farmers and Ranchers

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