The Effects of Industrialism on Farming and Ranching in the West

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The Effects of Industrialism on Farming and Ranching in the West

Industrialization took on a variety of forms throughout the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. While factories and cities developed early in the nineteenth century in the Northeast, rural life and farming remained the rule in most of the rest of the country. In the years after 1865, though, railroads began making their way across the nation, rapidly changing the nature of American farming and ranching in the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains, particularly the Old Northwest (the modern Midwest, including the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and the Great Plains (an area of grassland that stretches across the central part of North America eastward from the Rocky Mountains, from Canada in the north down to Texas in the south). New methods of transportation allowed more products to be grown, and new technology for farming and processing foods made it possible for farmers to grow more food. Unfortunately, it would be decades before the country's economic and political systems would adapt to the new capacity of its farms.

Railroads transform farming in the Old Northwest

Before the 1850s, the lack of transportation in all areas west of the Appalachian Mountains made it nearly impossible for farmers and ranchers to sell large quantities of their products. This is illustrated in an 1852 U.S. Senate report showing that a farmer using wagons on existing dirt roads to ship his crop to a market 330 miles away was likely to spend the entire value of his crop on the cost of transporting it. Transporting by railroad reduced the cost by an estimated 90 percent.

Words to Know

A legal process in which a borrower who does not make payments on a mortgage or loan is deprived of the mortgaged property.
grain elevators:
Huge storage bins built next to railroad tracks to hold grain until it is loaded into train cars.
A transfer of property by deed or writing.
Great Plains:
An area of grassland that stretches across the central part of North America eastward from the Rocky Mountains, from Canada in the north down to Texas in the south.
labor union:
An organization of workers formed to protect and further their mutual interests by bargaining as a group with their employers over wages, working conditions, and benefits.
A powerful and influential person in an industry.
Land set aside by the U.S. government for use by Native Americans.
Severely overcrowded urban areas characterized by the most extreme conditions of poverty, run-down housing, and crime.

Around the time of the study, two railroad lines, the Michigan Southern and the Michigan Central, first linked Chicago, the most important market for eastern goods, to New York City, the most important Atlantic shipping center. Chicago quickly became the center of the grain trade. Meanwhile, a spreading web of smaller railroad lines began to ship the produce of northern Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Iowa as well. These railroads formed a powerful transportation network with Chicago at its center. By 1850 Chicago was handling as much grain as Saint Louis, the major river port at the foot of the St. Louis River that had long been a shipping center. By 1854 more grain was moving along the Great Lakes than through the major port city of New Orleans.

By the early 1860s, grain flowed through the rising cities of the Midwest in railroad cars carrying 325 bushels each. The bushels were sorted and loaded onto steam-powered conveyor belts and borne up into grain elevators, huge storage bins built next to railroad tracks in which the grain was loaded into numbered bins. There it waited to be dropped through chutes into railroad cars and delivered to market.

The grain trade

In the earlier, pre-railroad economic system, the local storekeeper of a given region had been the farmers' key trading partner, receiving produce from them in exchange for food, seed, and manufactured goods such as clothing, farming tools, and medicines. Typically, little cash changed hands in these transactions. More often, the parties bartered (traded goods) or arranged for store credit. After the railroads expanded through the Midwest, a new set of business relations began to form. Farmers getting their crops to market began to deal with agents of the railroad companies at remote offices. Their business grew complicated, involving grain elevators, urban grain merchants, wholesalers and dealers, food processors, and manufacturers. In Chicago a new agency, the Board of Trade, became a central way to coordinate and oversee the buying and selling of grain in bulk. The board, called the Change (or Exchange), graded (evaluated) the grain and then sorted it by grade so that the grains of many farmers could be stored in common bins regardless of who originally sold or owned a given bushel.

The modern farming business transactions were certainly more efficient than the earlier system of bartering with the local store owner. Unfortunately, though farmers began to produce more crops for the market, most were not making more money because of lowering crop prices and high costs of services. Many farmers began to feel they had no control over the process.

Homesteaders in the Great Plains

In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act, which made vast areas of the Great Plains available to farmers. It granted to any adult citizen, or to anyone who declared the intention of becoming a citizen, a quarter section (160 acres) of the land owned by the federal government if the occupant agreed to settle and cultivate the land immediately. In order to receive title to the land, the homesteader had to farm it and live on it for five years.

Railroad companies joined the federal government in heavily promoting the settlement of the Great Plains. They sold off large chunks of the land grants (a transfer of property by deed or writing) they had received from the government to homesteaders at low prices, reasoning that settlement in the Plains would generate traffic and lead to a booming railroad business. The Northern Pacific railroad company, for example, had eight hundred agents in Europe to promote immigration. They found Scandinavians particularly open to the idea of moving to the Plains, largely because they wanted inexpensive land to farm. The railroad transported tens of thousands of Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns into the cool, dry northern plains of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The railroads lured people to settle in the difficult climate by giving a positive, though not always accurate, description of the region. Settlers who were promised good rains and fertile soil in Minnesota or the Dakotas arrived to find a stark, desert-like climate. Rain was usually very scarce in the plains and there were few natural rivers or streams. There were no trees and only a few hardy grasses grew naturally. The soil was so dry it resisted the farmers' wooden plows. American inventor John Deere (1804–1886) had produced a steel plow in 1837 that could cut deep, clean furrows through the tough sod, but few of the new settlers could afford one (see Chapter 3). After arriving on their homesteads, most settlers resorted to hiring teams of men with plows that could break the soil. Once broken, the soil could be more easily plowed in subsequent years, but in the beginning the average farmer was able to cultivate only about forty acres of his homestead. Most homesteaders led a difficult and often poor life on the Plains.

Extermination of the Buffalo

In the 1860s increasing numbers of white settlers ventured west. Industrial developments such as the expansion of railroads, as well as the discovery of gold and silver and the growing cattle ranching trade accounted for this migration to the region that had long been viewed as the "Great American Desert." At that time the Great Plains—a region of grassland that stretches across the central part of North America eastward from the Rocky Mountains, from Canada in the north down to Texas in the south—was the home of a large number of Indian nations and the center of the Plains Indian culture. (Plains Indians included tribes such as the Sioux, Arapaho, and Cheyenne.) The spread of U.S. industrialization to the West affected the Plains Indian culture in many ways, one of which was the extermination of the buffalo.

In the early nineteenth century, between 50 million and 70 million buffalo, more technically known as the North American bison, roamed the Great Plains. Buffalo were the mainstay of the Plains Indian economy, providing a variety of foods, hides for clothing and shelter, bladders for pouches, gall and blood for paints, bones for utensils, droppings for fuel and heat, and skulls for sacred ceremonies. In the early nineteenth century, white settlers, advancing military troops, and early railroad construction teams killed off buffalo in large numbers, and the population of buffalo on the Plains dropped sharply.

In the 1870s, buffalo robes came into fashion in the East, creating a large demand for buffalo hides. In 1871 a Pennsylvania tannery developed an industrial method to convert buffalo hides into inexpensive commercial leather for harnesses and machine belts. Hides were suddenly worth between $1 and $3 each, and this drew hunters from all over the country to the Plains. The Kansas Pacific and the Santa Fe Railroads, recognizing the profitable new market, carried the hides to eastern markets, and the herds began vanishing rapidly.

As the railroads expanded deeper into the Great Plains in the 1870s, buffalo herds created problems for them. The huge herds sometimes blocked train tracks, creating long delays. They also destroyed sections of tracks as they crossed them. The railroad companies hired hunters to keep the railways clear of buffalo. Some of the railroads that ran through the Great Plains offered hunting specials, allowing their passengers to shoot buffalo from inside the railroad cars. Since buffalo are slow to move away from trouble, the passengers shooting buffalo for sport from their trains managed to kill thousands. The sport became so popular that it increased railroad business, until the stench of rotting carcasses that lined the railroad tracks began to make passengers ill and the railroad companies were forced to stop the practice.

Thrill seekers, hide hunters, and the expanding railroad networks doomed the once massive herds. In 1865 the buffalo population had been an estimated fifteen million buffalo, but it had decreased to seven million by 1872. The herds on the central plains were exterminated by the early 1870s; they were eliminated from the southern plains later in the 1870s; and they vanished from the northern plains in the early 1880s. By the 1890s less than a thousand buffalo remained in scattered areas, mostly on private ranches.

To the Plains Indians the mass killings of buffalo herds was a tragic waste. The Indians had killed buffalo and used every part of their bodies to maintain their daily life, using the meat for food and the hides for clothing and shelter. Without the buffalo, they could not sustain their life on the Plains. Most agreed to move into government reservations (areas of land set aside by the government for Indian tribes), where they were promised food and land to farm.

Technology makes bigger crops and larger farms

Improvements in machinery did help the farmers who could afford them. John Deere was manufacturing more than ten thousand plows annually by the early 1860s, and the chilled-steel plow, introduced by James Oliver (1823–1908) in 1868, made breaking tough prairie soil a much easier task, cutting even furrows with little resistance because of its smooth hard face. Mechanical reapers were in widespread use by the 1860s. The first commercially successful reaper had been built in 1831 by inventor Cyrus McCormick (1809–1884). It was pulled by horse and sharply reduced the amount of manual labor required to harvest grain. It had a straight blade linked to a drive wheel. As the drive wheel turned, the blade moved back and forth in a sawing motion, cutting through the stalks of grain, which were held straight by rods. The cut grain stalks then fell onto a platform and were collected with a rake by a worker. The device increased average production from two or three acres a day to ten acres a day. By 1851 McCormick's Chicago factory was making over one thousand mechanical reapers a year, and most of them were being bought and used in the Midwest—one-fourth in northern Illinois alone. (For more information on McCormick's reaper, see Chapter 3.)

By the 1870s farmers had come to depend on mechanical reapers and increasingly sophisticated plows, mowers (machines to cut standing grasses and grains), and spreaders (machines to spread seeds or fertilizer). These innovations stimulated the grand-scale production of wheat. By 1880 wheat had become the chief crop of the Great Plains. Large farms developed, some as vast as twenty-five thousand acres. They used the latest machinery and most planted only wheat.

The cattle industry

The Spanish had introduced cattle ranching to North America in the eighteenth century. By the 1830s a large-scale cattle industry had developed in Texas. The Texans practiced open-range cattle ranching, in which cattle from many different ranches roamed free over vast, unfenced areas. The only way to tell which ranch a cow was from was by its brand, the ranch symbols burned into its hides. Cowboys rounded cattle up every year for slaughter, separating them by their brand. Huge ranches with millions of open-range cattle prospered in Texas until the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery) interrupted the cattle trade. After the war an estimated five million cattle roamed the Texas plains untended. At that time there was great demand for meat in the rapidly growing cities of the eastern United States, and new railroad lines were available to transport the meat to market. The huge herds of Texas were of little value in Texas, but they would be worth a great deal in the eastern United States.

Illinois livestock merchant Joseph G. McCoy (1837–1915) recognized the potential of a cattle-shipping business and worked out an arrangement among Texas cattlemen, the railroads, and the meatpackers. McCoy formulated a plan of driving the cattle to a shipping point from which they would be transported by train to a market. He chose Abilene, Kansas, on the northern end of the Kansas Pacific Railway, as his shipping point. The cattle would be driven north from Texas stockyards to Abilene, then shipped by railroad to the meatpackers in Chicago.

In the winter of 1867 McCoy sent agents to tell Texas cattlemen of his plan. They sent the first herds on a drive over the Chisholm Trail (the route between southern Texas and Abilene), and they arrived in Abilene in August 1867. By the end of the year, thirty-five thousand cattle had been driven to Abilene, and in 1868 the number rose to seventy-five thousand. In 1871 an estimated 700,000 cattle made the trip to Abilene. Mature animals were shipped eastward for slaughter and processing. Younger stock and breeding cattle were driven farther north and west into the grasslands of the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming to increase the size of the herds available for market. America began exporting large quantities of beef to Europe in the mid-1870s. By 1881 the annual beef export total reached 100 million pounds, with most of it going to England. It was the peak time for open-range cattle.

The end of the open range

As they had done for generations in Texas, the herd drivers bringing the cattle up from Texas allowed their cattle to drift over the public domain ranges in western Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. They considered these lands free for anyone to use. During these years, however, the homesteaders were building their small farms on the range. They objected to having cattle herds driven through their land and towns, and conflicts arose between the cattlemen and the farmers. Due to the lack of trees in the region, farmers on the Great Plains did not have the necessary materials to erect wooden fences, and despite a few violent conflicts, many cattlemen continued to drive the herds through the Plains.

In 1874 American inventor Joseph Glidden (1813–1906) developed barbed wire, fencing consisting of steel wires twisted together to make sharp points resembling thorns. With the advent of barbed wire, farmers were able to fence in their acreage, and by 1890 barbed wire enclosed most private range holdings. The cattlemen found few routes open to their drives and gradually Texas cattlemen stopped sending cattle on drives.

Changes in cattle ranching resulted from other factors as well. The environment in the Great Plains is delicate and depends on its surface growth. The tremendous number of cattle crossing the Plains on the drives had resulted in overgrazing of the Plains grasses. By 1885 overgrazing by cattle was seriously damaging the plains by stripping off the surface growth. Grasses and other prairie vegetation were gone and did not come back.

Finally, in the unusually cold and stormy winter of 1886–87, snow and extreme cold wiped out entire cattle herds. The storms, conflicts with the locals, soil erosion, and the wide-spread use of fencing combined to bring the era of the open range to a close. Additionally, by that time railroads reached into formerly remote locations, eliminating the need for cattle drives. Most of the small cattle ranchers gave up and left the region and only very large, fenced-in cattle ranches remained.

Farmers unite: the Grange

The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry (usually called the Grange) was a fraternal society (a group of people organized for a common purpose) founded by agriculturist Oliver Hudson Kelley (1826–1913) in 1867. Its aim was to advance the political, economic, and social interests of the nation's farmers. Kelley, a clerk for the Bureau of Agriculture, had seen the problems faced by U.S. farmers. He resolved to set up an organization to assist farmers by bringing them together to discuss problems and to learn about new agricultural methods. Six of Kelley's associates joined him in forming the group, and the following year he traveled to his native Minnesota to set up the first local Grange (a local lodge providing social and educational facilities as a chapter of the national society). Letters were sent to interested farmers around the country, but response was slight. Before 1870 only a handful of local Granges were established, mostly in Minnesota and Iowa, and in 1871 only scattered chapters could be found in nine states.

In September 1873 a financial panic swept the nation. Banks failed and stock prices fell so severely that the New York Stock Exchange closed for ten days. Thousands of businesses collapsed. Prices on all goods fell dramatically and wages were reduced 10 percent or more. Widespread unemployment led to a reduction in buying power and thus a further fall in prices.

For farmers the financial panic of 1873 was disastrous. The growth in railroad transportation had stimulated an increase in agricultural production—corn yield had increased by 98 percent, wheat by 22 percent, and cotton by 172 percent. Overproduction, the flooding of the market with goods at a time when consumers were unable to afford them, led to a steep plunge in prices for farm products. Most farmers had borrowed money to plant their crops. With the drop in the value of their crops, they could not repay what they owed.

The panic of 1873 led to a sharp growth in the Grange memberships. While only 132 new Granges were established in 1871, 1,105 were formed in 1872; 8,400 in 1873; and 13,000 in 1874. Most of the Granges were located in the Midwest, but the organization extended into almost every state. Though chartered as social and educational organizations, local chapters of the Grange often became involved in business and politics. By pooling their money and buying supplies, machinery, and equipment in large quantities, the local and state Granges could often make direct deals with manufacturers, who cut prices for large orders. In fact, Montgomery Ward and Company in Chicago was founded with the express purpose of dealing with the Grangers (the members of the local Granges). Some local Granges established factories where farm machinery was produced, eliminating the need to purchase from Eastern industrialists whose large profits came from the high prices of their products.

During the 1870s the Grange claimed a national membership of more than eight hundred thousand. In Illinois, Wisconsin, and other states, Grangers lobbied successfully for state legislation regulating railroad freight and storage charges. These legislations were called the Granger Laws. Despite modest gains, by the end of the 1870s the Granges were in decline due to the mismanagement of their interests and the failure of many of their business initiatives.

The high costs of farming

In the years between 1870 and 1897 many farmers lost their farms, while others struggled to make ends meet. In that period, the prices of crops dropped steadily. Wheat fell from $106 per bushel to $63 per bushel; corn fell from $43 per bushel to $29 per bushel; and cotton fell from fifteen cents a pound to five cents a pound. At the same time the costs of operating a farm remained constant or increased. These costs included shipping rates, interest on loans, and the cost of machinery and other needed commodities. The main reason prices of crops continued to drop was that there was an oversupply of grains on the market, with too many farmers producing too much of the same crops.

Most farmers were not aware of how large the oversupply was. They blamed the railroad companies, the bankers, and the grain elevator operators for the high costs of farming and getting their product to market. Farmers especially despised the railroads, which charged far higher rates in the West than in the East. Railroad executives explained that it was more expensive to run their trains in the West, but the farmers saw the railroad owners getting very rich while they were barely making a living.

Most farmers had to borrow money to keep their farms going, and many were heavily in debt. They were frustrated with the bankers who charged them high interest rates on their loans and foreclosed when the crops failed to bring in enough money for the farmers to pay their debts. (Foreclosure is a legal process in which a bank or other lender takes ownership of a mortgaged property when a borrower fails to make payments on the loan.)

Finally, the railroads did not allow farmers to load their grains directly onto the railroads for shipment. Each train station had one grain elevator handled by an operator. Farmers were forced to sell their grains to the elevator operators or to pay them a handling fee. Some of the operators took advantage of the situation and cheated the farmers. With costs depleting the value of their crops, farmers often had nothing left to pay their debts and live on.

Urban Industry in the West

As the population of the West increased, dusty trading posts and modest towns became vibrant cities. The railroads and the resources of the West combined to create a network of busy urban centers across the region. Kansas City, Kansas, and Omaha, Nebraska, became major transportation centers for grain and cattle. Denver, Colorado, was a silver town and the administrative and financial center of the Rocky Mountains. Butte, Montana, prospered when copper was discovered nearby. Communities such as Leadville and Virginia City, Nevada, suddenly appeared when gold or silver was discovered nearby, growing rapidly from camps to prosperous towns, only to be abandoned when the mines were emptied.

The new cities of the West suffered from many of the same problems that gripped the older urban areas of the East. Workers and their families often lived in over-crowded, unsanitary slums, urban areas characterized by the most extreme conditions of poverty, run-down housing, and crime. When the economy weakened, jobs became scarce, and life became even harder. Many of those drawn by the lure of jobs were new immigrants from Europe or Asia. They were often treated poorly by the settlers who had been in the country only one generation longer, mainly due to prejudice and cultural differences, but also because some feared competition for work. Many industrial workers in the urban West, as in the East, generally worked very long hours for low pay, often in dangerous or unhealthy conditions. In the 1880s and 1890s, workers in such industries as railroads and mining began to form labor unions, organizations of workers that fought for safer working conditions and better wages.

The Farmers' Alliance

Farmers sought a new organization to help promote their interests after the failure of the Grange in the 1870s. Many joined the Farmers' Alliance, which consisted of a Northern Alliance and a Southern Alliance. The Northern Alliance was founded in Illinois in 1880. Soon other states in the Midwest, especially Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa, organized their own branches of the organization. By 1882 the Alliance claimed to have 100,000 members. As the 1880s drew to a close, the Southern Alliance had membership in every southern state, and the Northern Alliance had become a force to be reckoned with. Both national Alliances had adopted identical platforms. They called for government regulation or ownership of the railroads, monetary reform that would help farmers, and the abolition of the national banks. In 1890 numerous Alliance politicians were elected to office in states like Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, South Carolina, and Georgia. However, there were not enough of them to achieve all their objectives, and farmers continued to struggle with low prices and high costs.

Farm prices continued to fall steadily during the last decades of the century. By the late 1880s, low prices, drought, and crop failures combined to utterly ruin many farmers. Nearly half of all farms in western sections of Kansas and Nebraska were said to have failed—an estimated 100,000 farms altogether.

The People's Party

The economy of the West, like the economy of the nation as a whole, was increasingly dominated by large corporations in the late nineteenth century. Farmers became increasingly dependent on railroads to carry their products to market, and on banks and insurance companies for credit. With crop prices continuing to drop, they could not pay all of their expenses or make a decent living by farming. This led to great discontent. In 1890 representatives from communities across the West and South formed the People's Party, also called the Populists, a political party that combined the farming interests of the South and West with nationwide labor interests. With this force behind it, the Populists aimed to counter the interests of the rich and more politically powerful East. Although by no means confined to the West, the People's Party had its strongest roots in that region.

The platform of the Populists included many reforms that would be put into use in the nation twenty to thirty years later. The Populists demanded that government and economic power be taken out of the hands of a few powerful industrialists and returned to common, hard-working Americans. They called for public ownership of the railroads, an eight-hour workday, and a graduated income tax, which taxes people at low rates for low incomes and at gradually higher rates for higher incomes. They also demanded that the government issue new dollars backed by silver mined in the West. This, it was believed, would increase the money supply and lead to inflation (a rise in the amount of money in circulation in relation to a smaller amount of available goods and products, leading to a rise in prices). Inflation would benefit farmers and other debtors at the expense of the banks and insurance companies that made loans.

The Populist movement gained enough strength to elect numerous candidates to statewide and national offices, and by 1892 the Populists mounted a presidential campaign with General James B. Weaver (1833–1912) of Iowa as their candidate. Their platform called for the government to make an unlimited amount of silver coins and to issue paper money to stimulate inflation and raise crop prices. They also demanded government ownership of the railroads and telegraph system. Weaver won more than one million popular votes and claimed the majority vote in four states, a major accomplishment for a third-party candidate.

By 1896 poor economic times in the farmlands of the Midwest brought new strength to the Populist movement. The Populists and the Democrats both nominated thirty-six-year-old Nebraska lawyer William Jennings Bryan (1860–1925) for president. The Republican candidate was William McKinley (1843–1901). The Populists jumped on the Bryan bandwagon, calling for poor and struggling working Americans to vote for Bryan in order to overthrow the powerful and wealthy industrialists who, according to the Populists, controlled the economy and much of the government as well. The Republicans responded with warnings to American workers that anyone who voted for Bryan could be fired.

It was a very close race, but Bryan lost. His campaign was the last major effort of the farmers of the West and South against the Eastern industrialists. The goals of Populists did not disappear, however. Many of their proposed reforms, such as railroad regulation, the call to grant women the right to vote, and the conservation of public lands, were put into effect in the 1920s.

For More Information


Cashman, Sean Dennis. America in the Gilded Age: From the Death of Lincoln to the Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York and London: New York University Press, 1984.

Miller, Worth Robert. "Farmers and Third-Party Politics." In The Gilded Age: Essays on the Origins of Modern America. Edited by Charles W. Calhoun. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1996.

Smith, Page. The Rise of Industrial America: A People's History of the Post-Reconstruction Era. Vol. 6. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984.

Summers, Mark Wahlgren. The Gilded Age, or, the Hazard of New Functions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.

Web Sites

"Agrarian Distress and the Rise of Populism." Country Studies: U.S. Department of State. (accessed on June 30, 2005).

"Populism: The Political Crisis of the 1890s." Digital History: Our Online American History Textbook. (accessed on June 30, 2005).