Frontiers of Cotton and Grain

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Frontiers of Cotton and Grain


Clearing the Land. When Americans first moved west of the Appalachians, they found treesmile after mile of vast forests stretching all the way to the Great Plains. If they had been in North America long, they were used to felling trees; it was the first thing they did when they settled a new piece of western land. Farmers cleared an area for fields by cutting, burning, and girdling (cutting a large ring around a tree trunk so it would later die). Most farmers then planted corn, the staple crop of the first settlers because of its high yield. Like the Indians, pioneers fished and hunted and sometimes planted beans and squash. White settlers arrived with their livestock and preferred pigs because free-range swine required little labor and provided a wide variety of meat products.

Agricultural Improvements. After clearing and planting a field, pioneers built a log cabin and moved out of the hastily constructed lean-to that had served as their first house. The construction of wooden fences, often built in a zigzag pattern, followed. Subsistence was often the main goal of these early settlers, who possessed few ties to the outside market, but in the antebellum West a second surge of farmers further transformed the land by bringing down even more trees and plowing acre after acre. These new farmers were more likely to produce surplus for the market. The newly plowed fields could be planted with a variety of crops, though geography often determined what could be grown. Northerners planted wheat and corn while Southerners focused on corn and cotton.

Across the Appalachians. Americans crossed the Appalachians in large numbers after the War of 1812. By wagon, handcart, and flatboat they descended on the area of the Ohio River. Moving north out of Kentucky and Tennessee, they planted fields of corn in the southern parts of what would become Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Abraham Lincolns parents followed this route. More pioneers came out of the northeastern states and settled nearer to the Great Lakes. Here wheat emerged as the dominant commercial crop. After the American government forced the Indians westward in the 1830s, native-born whites, along with thousands of immigrants from Europe, especially Germans, moved into southern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Once there, they created a timber industry, harvesting the great forests of the region. After they cut the most desirable trees, the settlers turned their attention to farming. Iowa became a favorite destination in the 1840s; farmers there planted large fields of corn in its rich soil. The cultivation of wheat continued when Americans settled Oregon and California in the 1840s and 1850s. Only later did Americans plant wheat in the more arid Great Plains.

Reasons for Moving West. Motivations for moving west varied according to circumstance, but certain economic patterns prevailed. New Englanders faced a land shortage in the nineteenth century. With a rapidly growing population, even the marginal lands had been settled. After 1800 the quest for land sent New England sons and daughters westward. Land scarcity likewise pushed Southerners westward. As slave plantations became larger and more cost-efficient, smaller farmers became economically marginalized. Further, Southern cash crops, such as tobacco and cotton, habitually exhausted the soil, leaving less productive acreage throughout the South Atlantic states.

Cotton. More than any other crop, cotton came to dominate the South. Planters had been growing Sea Island (or long-staple) cotton on the islands off South Carolina since the late seventeenth century, but it failed to grow far from the coast. Another type, upland (or short-staple) cotton, could be raised in most areas of the South, but picking the seeds out of the fiber proved too labor-intensive to be profitable. When Eli Whitney invented a new machine that separated and discarded the seeds in 1793, his cotton gin spread swiftly. Upland cotton became enormously profitable. The expanding textile factories of Britain and New England spurred the demand for this precious cash crop.

The Cotton Frontier. Cotton farmers, who in their quest for good land had moved westward even before the yeoman farmer so famous in American lore, pushed the cotton frontier into the Gulf Plains and the lower Mississippi River valley after 1812. Though yeomen and their families were often the first cotton producers in some western areas, wealthier Southerners moved in with their slaves. Relying on slave labor, these planters soon controlled extensive cotton plantations. By the 1820s planters in the Gulf Plains region grew one-half of the cotton in the United States. By 1850 it produced three-fourths of the national supply.

Inequality in the South. The Cotton Kingdom made some Southerners rich, but the social costs were high. Americans in the Old South lived in a highly stratified society. The richest planters controlled around three-quarters of the regions wealth. Farther down the hierarchy were smaller planters who possessed between one and twenty slaves and then other farmers (who comprised 77 percent of the white population) who worked the poorer soils on their own. African American slaves labored on the cotton plantations and remained a substantial part of the population. By 1850 the lower South had 1.8 million black slaves and 2.1 million whites. During the period of westward expansion, both black and white Americans migrated to the cotton frontier.

A Troubled Business. Though cotton seemed at first an ideal crop in the West, year after year of planting steadily decreased the productivity of the soils. Still, most farmers, in a mad rush to make a profit as quickly as possible from the high price of cotton, put off an agricultural system that would have enabled them to maintain the fertility of their fields longer by employing a scheme of crop rotation. The South became stuck in an economic system detrimental to all but a few elites. Though some cotton farmers used bat guano and other fertilizers, one Southern editor calculated in 1858 that soil exhaustion had struck two-fifths of the land used for growing cotton. The practice of plowing in straight lines up and down slopes also invited soil erosion, further diminishing yields over time. Soil exhaustion became a motivation for finding more lands in the West. The long-term consequences of cotton farming often included poverty and a growing reliance on fertilizers. By 1860 the cotton frontier had pushed into Texas, and the Deep South had become a Cotton Kingdom that would face troubles in the years ahead.


Ray Allen Billington and Martin Ridge, Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier, fifth edition (New York: Macmillan, 1982);

Carolyn Merchant, ed., The Cotton South Before and After the Civil War, in Major Problems in American Environmental History (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1993), pp. 209246;

Elliot West, American Frontier, in The Oxford History of the American West, edited by Clyde Milner and others (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 115149.