The Prairie Agricultural Economy
The Prairie Agricultural Economy
Sugar Creek, Illinois . After the War of 1812 many American farmers settled the region of grasslands and woods in central Illinois, especially along Sugar Creek. Most of these settlers came from Kentucky and other areas of the Upper South. (As so often happened in the expanding Southern economy, plantation slavery so restricted the opportunities of smaller farmers that many moved West and Northwest.) Some of the settlers on Sugar Creek quickly bought land, and others became squatters.
Moving onto the Prairie . Corn, hogs, and hunting formed the initial subsistence-based economy for those who lived on the Illinois prairie. Most families initially settled in the timberlands bordering creeks and rivers because they found open grassland daunting. Although farmers eventually discovered that the prairie possessed incredibly rich soil, early Illinois pioneers saw it otherwise. They believed that trees represented fertile soil and thought that land without trees was best suited for pasturage. Some did try to cultivate the grassland, but it was difficult to cut through the tough prairie sod until the 1830s, when a new plow made it possible to farm with more success. Only when farmers adopted the steel plow in the 1840s and 1850s could they cultivate large sections of prairie.
Economy of a Prairie Community . Early farmers on the Illinois prairie had little access to outside markets before 1840; they produced largely for themselves. Whatever they could not make themselves came from local stores where barter was common. They exchanged pork, whiskey, furs, butter, handspun clothing, and timber for iron products, gunpowder, salt, and coffee. The family served as the basic economic unit. A successful household depended on both men and women working together. Still, economic networks existed outside the home. Frequent sharing among kin and neighbors produced bonds of reciprocity. Early pioneers often borrowed from each other, and extensive ties of credit held farmers together. Exchanging labor and participating in community activities such as cabin raising made the many difficulties of early settlement easier. This mutual support allowed even the poor squatter a sufficient living.
A Maturing Economy . Communities on the Illinois prairie changed in the 1840s and 1850s. In the area of Sugar Creek, for instance, some local farmers, especially those with abundant land, pressed for better transportation routes, such as roads, so they would have better access to eastern markets. Full entrance into the larger economy became a fact in 1852 when the railroad reached the Sugar Creek community. Thereafter, residents sold grain and livestock to distant customers. Exchange, of course, went both ways; manufactured goods from the East became more familiar in prairie stores. Closer ties to the outside world encouraged farmers to transform even larger parcels of prairie; they fenced off and plowed up more and more of the land. Like most modern economic change, the growth of market-oriented agriculture benefited some people more than others.
Inequality on the Prairie . Tenancy increased as poorer families who could no longer be squatters farmed someone else’s land. In turn tenants gave a percentage of their crops to the landowner. Wage work also increased dramatically. Poorer men performed agricultural work for wages instead of developing their own farms. Similarly, wealthier cultivators gained a larger proportion of the region’s acreage. In the Sugar Creek area, for example, the richest 10 percent of the population possessed 25 percent of the land in 1838; the top tenth held 35 percent two decades later. Likewise, in 1838 the poorest 20 percent of the population controlled only 10 percent of the land, but in 1858 this same share of the population owned a mere 5 percent. The rich not only obtained more property; they also employed many of the new tools and farming techniques that made their land even more productive, creating an even greater surplus of crops. In less than a generation central Illinois went from subsistence agriculture to market-oriented farming.
Changing the Landscape . This economic transformation also altered the landscape. Early settlers tended to set up their farms in wooded areas along waterways. Although they might purchase the surrounding acreage, they laid out their homesteads more according to the natural formation of the land than the square lines drawn by federal surveyors. Moreover, many early pioneers used the adjacent grasslands as a common (shared) pasture where cattle and hogs grazed freely. As farmers became more intertwined in the market system, they changed their ways of using land; they fenced in pasturage to keep out the livestock of competitors. Property boundaries and roads eventually followed section lines, thereby imposing a grid on the land even though this new system of demarcating property ignored the natural topography. By 1860 the Midwestern landscape began to take its modern form: square fields, gridlike roads, and productive farms could be found across the prairie.
John Mack Faragher, Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).